altCooked:  A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2013)

(This is a long post, with many excerpts from the book.  Consider it an appetizer.)

I almost always start writing reviews in my mind before finishing the book.  I'd planned to begin this one with, "I've never met a Michael Pollan book I didn't love.  Having made my way through the 468 pages, I can still say that with honesty, though honesty also compels me to admit the last quarter of the book was somewhat of a trial.

For all his interest in food, Pollan hadn't given cooking much thought.

Until, that is, I began trying to unpack a curious paradox I had noticed while watching television, which was simply this:  How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?  The less cooking we were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us.

I see this less as a paradox and more as a repeated pattern:  the less we commit to and invest of ourselves in the heart and meaning of something, the more we extravagantly value the form, and set others to doing it for us.  When the marriage itself was the raison d'être of a wedding, a reception created and overseen by "women of the church" was sufficient to honor the couple and the guests.  Now we have devalued the marriage vows and it's the reception, professionally catered, decorated, and orchestrated, into which the time, money, and attention are poured.  The less we make music ourselves, in our families and communities, the more we value the concert tickets, recordings, and iPods that bring the work of the professional musician into our lives.  How many sports fans, ever-ready to critique the missed basket, the dropped ball, the faulty kick, get any closer to a real game than driving their children to practice?

But I digress.  What Pollan did was to get serious about cooking for himself and his family.

[The decline of home cooking] is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world.  Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is.  Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed.  Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction.  And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances.  We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

It has been argued that it is more efficient to work an extra hour at the office, doing what we do well, and let restaurants do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization.  It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house.  I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking.  Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force.  And yet it is also debilitating.  It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Pollan divides his cooking adventures, cleverly and classically, into Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.  Fire is a dissertation into the earliest and most primitive cooking method:  meat over flame.  Along the way he explores the "cooking hypothesis," a recent theory that attempts to explain the development of Homo erectus, "the first primate to bear a stronger resemblance to humans than apes."

Anthropologists have long theorized that the advent of meat eating could account for the growth in the size of the primate brain, since the flesh of animals contains more energy than plant matter.  But ... the alimentary and digestive apparatus of Homo erectus is poorly adapted to a diet of raw meat, and even more poorly adapted to the raw plant foods that would still have been an important part of its diet, since a primate cannot live on meat alone.  The chewing and digestion of raw food of any kind requires a big gut and big strong jaws and teeth—all tools that our ancestors had lost right around the time they acquired their bigger brains.

The control of fire and discovery of cooking best explain both these developments. ... Appliying the heat of a fire to food transforms it in several ways—some of them chemical, others physical—but all with the same result:  making more energy available to the creatures that eat it. ... [C]ooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it. ... [Anthropologist Richard Wrangham] estimates that cooking our food gives our species an extra four hours a day.  (This happens to be roughly the same amount of time we now devote to watching television.)

By freeing us from the need to feed constantly, cooking ennobled us, putting us on the path to philosophy and music.  All those myths that trace the godlike powers of the human mind to a divine gift or theft of fire may contain a larger truth than we ever realized.

Yet having crossed this Rubicon, trading away a big gut for a big brain, we can't go back, as much as raw-food faddists would like to. ... By now, "humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass," Wrangham says.

Pollan discusses animal sacrifice, and why fire-cooked meat-eating grew up as a sacred act, hedged in by a multitude of rules and governed by a priestly class.  From there he moves naturally to the modern barbecue, which retains obvious vestiges of those ancient cultures.  I dare you (unless you happen to be a diehard vegetarian) to read this section of the book without your mouth watering.  For the record, "authentic barbecue" has nothing to do with what you do when you slap a steak on your gas grill.  It is pork, pork alone, and preferably the whole pig, cooked with as many rules as any ancient sacrifice.  It's a pity I didn't know anything about barbecue culture when my in-laws lived in South Carolina! (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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altMake the Bread, Buy the Butter:  What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch—Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese (Free Press, 2011)

In 2008, like many people, Jennifer Reese lost her job.  I don't know what that job was, but if it didn't involve writing, losing it was not a tragedy, but a blessing.  She's a wonderful writer:  clear, informative, and funny.  Definitely funny.

Faced with the opportunity to reconsider her life, Reese decided to focus on food, and the modern tension between do-it-yourself and buy-it-off-the-shelf:

Where is that sweet spot between buying and making?  What does the market do cheaper and better?  And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?  Could I answer this question once and for all?  I didn't want an answer rooted in ideology, or politics, or tradition, or received wisdom.  I wanted to see the question answered empirically, taking into account the competing demands—time and meaning, quality and conscience, budget and health—of everyday American family life.

And so, over the next months and years, I got some chickens, which I loved; and some ducks, which I loathed; and some turkeys, which we slaughtered.  I learned to make cheese and keep bees and worried that the neighbors were going to call Animal Control.  I cured bacon and salmon, canned ketchup, baked croissants, and made vanilla extract and graham crackers.  I planted tomatillos and potatoes and melons and squash.  My son, Owen, joined 4-H and practically moved into the yard, while my teenage daughter, Isabel, refused to step outside the back door at all, especially after the goats turned up.  My husband, Mark, rolled his eyes at all of it except the homemade yogurt.  That, he ate by the quart.  At the height—or maybe it was the depths—of my homemaking experiment, I had pickles lacto-fermenting on the counter and seven varieties of jam, ranging from banana-chocolate to plum, arrayed in the pantry, and absinthe and Taleggio cheese mellowing in the crawl space behind my closet.  I was overwhelmed and a bit of a mess, but I had my answers.

Turkeys?  Homemade bacon?  This was no simple save-money-by-making-my-child's-school-lunch project.  But the results make for marvellous reading.  It's a treasure trove of recipes, too, and I would be tempted to add a copy to my collection, if I weren't busy trying to get rid of a vast collection of cookbooks gathering dust on the shelves because when I need a recipe and it's not handy, I immediately turn to Chef Google.

The answer to the question that drove me to reading the book, Why not make the butter? is a simple matter of economy.  Making butter is easy, and the result delicious, but cream is expensive.  Store butter is good enough that the author can't justify the extra expense of homemade.  "Unless," she adds, "you have a cow."

Reese might have chosen a different title:  Make the Bun, Buy the Hot Dog.  What she went through to make hot dogs leaves me all the more glad that Oscar Mayer now has a nitrate/nitrite-free hot dog that is delicious.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is much more than a recipe book.  For each entry, you get a story (often funny), a recipe, a difficulty rating, a cost comparison, and a "make it or buy it" recommendation.  Sometimes the answer is "both."  There's nothing like homemade mayonnaise, for example, but "Hellmann's has its place."

Maybe my favorite quote:

"Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself," Michael Pollan writes in Food Rules. ... "Chances are good it won't be every day."

Oh Michael Pollan, you underestimate me.

Finally, a longish quote from the Afterward, which sums things up well:

It's empowering to know I can cure bacon, brew vanilla, age Camembert, extract honey from a hive, and behead a chicken, even if I have no desire to do at least one of those things ever again.  Even if, in the end, I spent more money than I saved.  (A few costly projects like the chickens and the bees ate up all the savings of from scratch cooking.)  Big food companies flatter us by telling us how busy we are and they simultaneously convince us that we are helpless.  I am moderately busy, but not all that helpless.  Neither are you.  Everything I did in the course of my scratch-cooking era—with the possible exceptions of eviscerating poultry and stuffing hot dogs—was very, very easy.  [She must have blocked out the experience of making croissants:  "unbelievable hassle," though she still recommends making them, unless you live near a good French bakery.]

But the more helpless we feel, the lower those food companies move the bar of our expectations, and the bar is now very low at your local supermarket.  Trust me.  I have eaten my way through mine.  It makes me quite furious when I think about the sicketating powdered hollandaise sauce, the extortionate price of the vanilla extracts, the pathetic bread, the soups sweetened with corn syrup, the abomination of Pillsbury "creamy vanilla" canned frosting that contains neither cream nor vanilla.  It upsets me that we pay as much for these foods as we do.

Almost everything is better when it's homemade.  While this may have started out as opinion (though I'm not sure it did), I would now state it confidently as fact.  Almost everything.  But not everything.  Which makes me inordinately happy.  Because I think it's reassuring that you can walk into a supermarket and buy a bag of potato chips and a tub of rice pudding that are better than anything you can make at home.  I wish there were more foods like that.  I really don't want to spend my life standing over a stove, muttering about the evils of ConAgra and trans fats.  It seems a tragic waste to shape one's life around doctrinaire rejection of industrial food.  Which means, I suppose, both insisting on high standards most of the time and then, sometimes, relaxing them.

Jennifer Reese has a blog, The Tipsy Baker.  I haven't read much yet, but I'm sure I'll find it clear, informative, and funny.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 8:10 am | Edit
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My husband likes to tell this story about one day when I was coming to pick him up from work:

He was in a hurry to get going, so instead of waiting at the office, where I was expecting him, he walked up the street to the main road, thus saving—or so he hoped—the time it would take me to drive down the street and turn around.

The plan backfired, however, because I, concentrating on the job at hand, didn't see him waving frantically on the sidewalk.  I drove to the usual place, and he had to walk back.

Thanks to our alma mater, I finally have a comeback for those embarrassing moments when the entire lunch table is thinking, "How dumb can this woman be?"

I didn't see him where I didn't expect him, not because I am stupid, but because I am highly intelligent!

Check it out:  a study at the University of Rochester has discovered a strong correlation between high intelligence and a significantly reduced ability to notice background motions.

The authors explain that in most scenarios, background movement is less important than small moving objects in the foreground, for example driving a car, walking down a hall or moving your eyes across the room.

As a person's IQ increases, so too does his or her ability to filter out distracting background motion and concentrate on the foreground.

In an initial study on 12 people, there was a 64% correlation between motion suppression and IQ scores. In this larger study on 53 people, a 71% correlation was found.

Ha!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 27, 2013 at 8:28 am | Edit
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This is another reason why I like the Episcopal Church.  Two weeks ago we honored and prayed for our mothers, but subtly; it was not a major part of the service.  Ditto for today and our veterans.  We briefly recognized them, and prayed for them, but the service itself was arrayed according to the church calendar, not the secular calendar:  the occasion was Trinity Sunday.

Which means, as it often does in Episcopal churches, that we got to sing St. Patrick's Breastplate.  :)

Our anthem was Holy, Holy, Holy set by Robert Clatterbuck to the good ol' Pachelbel Canon music (Hope Publishing Company, C5470).  Once again I couldn't find an appropriate YouTube video, so I'm falling back on the sheetmusicplus site, which is a very good rendition, actually.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Edit
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In a comment to my previous post on Getting Organized in the Google Era, I was asked for an example to explain my statement that I had a hard time relating to much of the book because the author's world—not so much his physical world as his world view, the basic assumptions as to the way life is and ought to be—was so different from mine.  I'd planned to answer with another comment, but ended up writing so much it deserves its own post.

How are our worlds different?  Here are a few examples that come to mind:

Music:  I'm not talking about different tastes in music, though that is surely a huge difference, looking at the playlist he includes.  That he includes a playlist in a book on organization strategies is more to the point.  He doesn't merely enjoy music, or make music—if he plays an instrument or sings it's not important enough for him to mention—but that he lives and breathes music.  Other people's music.  From what he says, I gather that he is "plugged in" to music all the time, and considers that the normal state of being.  I love music, albeit a different kind, but I love silence, too, and having music constantly pouring into my brain would drive me crazy.  I go crazy enough with all the music that goes on inside my brain without any external help.

The e-World:  Music is just a small example of how he seems constantly plugged into an electronic world.  IPod, iPhone, iPad, computers, GPS—these and other devices seem in his world to be not so much tools to work with as interfaces with what is “reality” to him.  As much as I think of myself as a computer person—much of my work is dependent on the computer, I enjoy technology, and spend much too much time interacting with electronic devices—his world is much, much more "wired" than mine.  I suspect my comment about spending too much time with electronic devices is something he wouldn’t comprehend.  Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I get from his book.

Ethics:  I don't mean he's unethical.  He seems to have a good sense of some sort of ethical framework, and his concern for his girlfriend in her fight with cancer shows that the relationship was no superficial one.  It was, indeed, "till death do us part" even though he never made the promise.  But no matter how close they were—and the same is true for his current girlfriend—relationships in the world he lives in seem to be not “two becoming one,” but two separate lives touching, albeit intimately, at the “now” point in time, content to go their separate ways when circumstances change sufficiently.   Children do not seem to be an important, expected part—or necessarily any part—of the equation.

There’s no clearer example of this radical difference than that he is so open about his living-together-unmarried situation.  People have been indulging in such activities forever, but mostly either bragging about them or trying to hide them.  In Merrill’s world, however, this is normal, common, expected behavior.  The kind you mention casually in a book, not expecting anyone to think twice about it, let alone be shocked.

Finally, there’s the clear expectation that in normal families, both parents have important, serious—i.e. paid—careers, and children spend their days in some combination of daycare and school.  People eat out a lot, and have plenty of disposable income to spend on restaurant meals, daycare, and electronic gadgets.

The upshot is that Getting Organized in the Google Era has given me a few new ideas, but the extreme disconnect between his life's framework and mine makes me disinclined to trust that his solutions are as generalizable as he hopes.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 3:37 am | Edit
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altGetting Organized in the Google Era:  How to Get Stuff Our of Your Head, Find It When You Need It, and Get It Done Right by Douglas C. Merrill and James A. Martin (Broadway Books 2010)

Did I really need to read another book on organization?  Maybe not, but a friend recommended this, and although much of it covers familiar ground, there are some useful points.

Douglas Merrill was formerly Chief Information Officer at Google.  With that and a Ph.D. in cognitive science, he has an unusual perspective on what he sees as a mismatch between life today and the kind of life our brains are organized to handle.  Whether it's all true or not I don't know, but it's interesting.

Part of what makes me doubtful of his analysis in places is that his world is so different from mine as to be barely comprehensible—if at all.  I feel some of the same disorientation I felt while reading Leaving Microsoft to Change the World:  certainly the age difference between the authors and me must account for some of the disconnect, but a large part, I believe, is that they come from the rarefied atmosphere of West Coast High Tech, and I do not.  It's a different world out there.  Thus some of Merrill's thoughts on how our brains don't fit the modern world fall flat because I don't fit the world he describes, either.

To help our brains out in a world they weren't designed for, Merrill has a number of suggestions, many of them excellent I'm sure.  For all his innovations, however, he often thinks inside his own box.  It is axiomatic, for example, that we all have smart phones.  Period.  And while he touches a matter dear to my own heart, the ill fit between the design of our educational system and the way children learn best, he sees it through the lens of an absolute need for school to function as a daycare facility.  Homeschooling isn't anywhere on his radar, not even to dismiss it as impractical.

Merrill also ramps up the volume on pull-quotes, which I already disliked in a book:  the book is replete with excerpts from songs that he likes—which might mean something to other fans of the same music, but which I quickly learned to ignore.

The second part of the book is both the most practical and the most interesting.  If it's a little biased towards Google products, that's understandable.  For example, Merrill loves Gmail, and uses it for far more than mail:  to-do lists, document storage, reminder messages, and as an organizer—taking advantage of Google's free storage and excellent search ability.

Search, in fact, is what he sees—I believe rightly—as a sea change in our organizational lives.  Until recently, systems needed to be designed for retrieval.  You organized your data (physical or electronic) into folders in such a way that you could most easily find it again.  (And sometimes fought with your spouse over why your system was best and his/hers was impossible to figure out.)  Thanks to Google, searching is now so efficient that you might as well leave all your files in one big pile.  Indeed, that's what Merrill does with his e-mail:  He doesn't ascribe to the "empty inbox" theory, but keeps all his e-mails there, labelled and tagged with keywords; with Gmail he can choose to see only the items with a particular label or set of keywords, just as if they had been in their own folder.  And with Gmail's search he can find almost anything.  Of course, this doesn't work with physical files—but it almost does, as he sends himself emails detailing where physical documents can be found, thus putting that information into his Gmail system.  Obviously, Merrill doesn't have the same reservations I do about putting so much important personal information in the hands of Google.

  • Did you know that you don't have to have your own domain to take advantage of multiple e-mail addresses?  Simply include a + sign and another identifier between your e-mail ID and @gmail.com, e.g. myID+whitehouse@gmail.com if you want a special address to use when writing to the President.
  • I rarely use my Gmail account, but nonetheless this has inspired me to take better advantage of the tagging and filtering options in Thunderbird, my own e-mail program, and has given me some ideas for better organizing my Firefox bookmarks.  I'm not giving up the wonder and the glory of my empty inbox, however!

Google Search itself is much more powerful than most of us take advantage of.  Here are a few he mentions, some of which were new to me:

  • Use an ellipsis to specify a range of numbers, e.g. use "digital camera" $100...$300 to find digital cameras with a price between $100 and $300.
  • Using Google to search within a particular site is very often more productive than using that site's own search.  A Google search of organization site:salemsattic.com finds posts at both this blog and IrishOboe that mention organization.
  • Another useful search modifier is filetype, e.g. filetype:pdf will find Acrobat documents.
  • Here's a new one to me:  the tilde.  "paris hotels" ~affordable searches for sites containing "paris hotels" and synonyms of "affordable."
  • One of my favorites:  using Google for unit conversions, e.g. "100 USD in CHF" to find the value of $100 in Swiss francs, or "3 m in ft," to convert from meters to feet.
  • Weather Paris is all you need to get the current temperature in Paris.  Weather Emmen, however, will get the data for Emmen in the Netherlands.  Instead, you have to type weather Emmen Switzerland, and even then it will be inaccurate; it always is.
  • Time Emmen works just fine for either, however.  It's the same in both the Netherlands and Switzerland.
  • I type in Southwest Airlines 259 and immediately get flight information with departure and arrival times, and gate information.
  • I use Google Translate for longer blocks of text, but simply googling, "I love you" in German immediately retrieves, "Ich liebe dich."
  • Define ameliorate retrieves a dictionary definition, with pronunciation and synonyms.
  • Get movie show times and locations by searching for the name of the movie and your zip code.
  • It can be a bit awkward, but you can use Google as a calculator:  typing (cube root 27)**2 +1 not only gives the answer, 10, but pops up a handy calculator widget as well.
  • Here's my favorite new discovery:  I have bookmarks for FedEx, USPS, UPS, and other shippers to use when tracking packages, but I no longer use them.  I just type the tracking number into Google, and the relevant information pops right up.

And a few random quotes:

[A challenge with bookmarks is that] Web pages are sometimes ephemeral.  A page you bookmarked two months ago may no longer exist when you revisit it.  So if the information you find online is critical to keep ... I'd suggest you copy the Web page's content and paste it into an e-mail to yourself.  You might also copy and paste into the e-mail the Web page's address in case you want to go to that specific page later, assuming it still exists.  By the way, before you copy the content, it helps to click the "Format for printing" option many Web sites give you, as this usually eliminates ads and other stuff you don't want to copy.  Then send the message to yourself.  If you're using Gmail, you might also add a label to the message to help you find it later.

Our short-term memory can hold between only five and nine things at once.  With endless to-do items competing for our attention, plus the countless bits of information we gather all day, it's no wonder we're constantly forgetting things.  Shifting from one task to another complicates matters too, by knocking out what we had in our short-term memories.  That's one reason that our brains simply can't handle multitasking.

Adjusting your brain to new contexts is difficult to do.  Multiply the effort involved in each context shift by the dozen that you make over the course of a long day, and it's no wonder you struggle just deciding what to eat for dinner.

Lots of context switching during a day also adds stress.  If you're trying to focus on accomplishing a specific task, and you keep getting distracted, you'll get frustrated.  Once you reach frustration, it's just a short stroll to Stressville.  The more stressed you become, the harder it can be to focus.  Suddenly, you're reunited with your old friend, the downward spiral.

[T]hink now about the voluntary context shifts you make every day.  Maybe you're frequently popping out of PowerPoint and into eBay.  What's up with that?  Are you overwhelmed, intimidated, or just bored by the presentation you're working on?  Maybe something bigger is at work here. Have you always been easily distrated?  Could you be a closet procrastinator?  Whatever the reason, try to identify it and organize around it.

How ... can you get a panoramic view of yourself and of which limitations are real and which aren't?  You could look back at other projects you've completed recently....  Where did you succeed?  Where could you have done a better job? ... If you examine how you performed two or more projects, you may find patterns that offer insights into where you tend to trip yourself up.

Also, pay particular attention to what scares, stresses, frustrates, and angers you.  If you're like me, you experience those emotions when you're being squeezed by one or more constraints.  The more intensely you feel those emtions, the bigger the constraint may be.

Finally, here's Merrill's summary of his organizational principles.  The two I've highlighted are the ones I think most distinguish Getting Organized in the Google Era from the many other books in the field.

  1. Organize your life to minimize brain strain.
  2. Get stuff out of your head as quickly as possible.
  3. Multitasking can actually make you less efficient.
  4. Use stories to remember.
  5. Just because something’s always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should be.
  6. Knowledge is not power. The sharing of knowledge is power.
  7. Organize around actual constraints, not assumed ones.
  8. Be completely honest (but never judgmental) with yourself.
  9. Know when to ignore your constraints.
  10. Know exactly where you’re going (and how you’ll get there) before you start the engine.
  11. Be flexible about the outcome of your goals.
  12. Don’t organize your information; search for it.
  13. Only keep in your head what truly needs to be there.
  14. Break big chunks into small ones.
  15. Dedicate time each week to reviewing key information.
  16. There’s no such thing as a perfect system of organization.
  17. Whenever possible, use the tools you already know.
  18. Add relevant keywords to your digital information so you can easily find it later.
  19. Take notes to help you shift contexts later.
  20. Group tasks with similar contexts together.
  21. Integrate work with life instead of trying to balance the two.
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 24, 2013 at 6:46 am | Edit
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altLife of Fred:  Apples (and a whole lot more) by Stanley Schmidt (Polka Dot Publishing, 2012)

Grandparents like to buy presents for their grandchildren.

Grandparents especially like to buy books as presents for their grandchildren.

Grandparents love to give books about subjects that their grandchildren love.

Now it gets complicated:  What books do you give a grandson whose number one passion is numbers?

(video link)

So you ask, and you search, and you discover ... the many volumes of Life of Fred.  The story of little Fred Gauss, the five-year-old math professor at KITTENS University in Kansas, twists and turns through mathematics from basic addition through fractions, algebra, calculus, and more—along with an incredible assortment of other facts about science, history, behavior, and almost anything else Stanley F. Schmidt's somewhat quirky mind can think of.  It's not intended for preschoolers, but it's a story with a lot of math in it, so there's hope.  What's more, it's a story about a small child who thinks about numbers a lot—and children like to see themselves in a book.

So far I've read the first two Elementary books (Apples and Butterflies), all three Intermediate books (Kidneys, Liver, and Mineshaft), and also Fractions, the first of the fifth-grade books.  (Elementary and Intermediate takes the student through fourth grade, if you follow the suggested timetable.  Not that we trouble ourselves with things like that.)  I confess that I did not stop and do the math, but skipped the problems for the sake of getting through all six books in a day and a half.  If you really want to learn the math, you must do the problems and not just read the stories.  (It isn't that much work:  one of the features of LoF is its avoidance of drill-and-kill.)  If I ever get LoF:  Statistics, I'll be sure to work all the problems, because I never did understand statistics, despite getting a B in my college course.

I'll say this:  I like math, and I was a math major in college, but never until now have I read a math textbook at any level that I would be happy to re-read.  Which is good, because that's the way preschoolers like their books.

There are only two things that get on my nerves a bit about LoF:  (1) Schmidt makes no attempt to keep his opinions about life out of the books.  There's nothing either unusual or wrong about this; all stories and many textbooks have the same feature.  But some parents are bound to disagree in places, and should be prepared to discuss the issues.  Which would be a good idea, anyway.  For example, some parents have objected to Dogs (volume 4 of the Elementary series) because of the implication that some dogs die at the end of the story.  (2) Despite Schmidt's insistence on good grammar and use of language in the books, e.g. pointing out that "alot" and "alright" are not acceptable words, I've noted more than one occurence of "different than" instead of "different from," "associate to" instead of "associate with," and the use of "their" as a singular pronoun.  I know he's a math teacher, not an English teacher, but he could use an editor.  It's an opportunity to diverge into your own grammar lessons—but it's yet another reason to make sure you know what it is your child is learning.

What will a three-year-old think of Fred?  Will he enjoy the math story?  Will he learn anything from it?  Will our other grandchildren, who are old enough to do the problems woven into Fred's adventures, learn the math as well as the author advertises?  They already have a great math curriculum, but mathematics, like history, deserves to be learned from several angles.

Time will tell.  All can say at this point is that I certainly hope our grandchildren find Life of Fred to be valuable, because then I'll be able to read the rest of the stories myself.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Edit
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Today we celebrated Pentecost.  Here in the U.S. we do not have the wonderful Swiss custom of a Whit Monday holiday, but we did get to sing great music in church.

Any day that begins with Hail Thee, Festival Day, one of the greatest hymns in the Episcopal Hymnal—equally good for Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost—is definitely off to the right start.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Edit
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I took the Front Porch Republic out of my news feed, not because what they had to say was bad, but because it was too good.  I was spending 'way too much time reading, and composing comments in my head—whether or not those comments ever made it into print.  But then they started sending me their weekly updates....

Here's a good article on immigration.  Normally I don't read about the topic, because it's so inflammatory; too many people, as they say, are enjoying the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.  This one is different, as are most FPR articles, whether I agree with them or not.  For one thing, he lambasts both the Republicans and the Democrats.  ("[A]s with nearly everything in establishment Republicanism, even when they are sincere they are still lying"; for the Democratic skewer, see below.)  For another, he acknowledges three points that I've long thought critical to the debate:

  1. Immigration in sufficient numbers inevitably and irrevocably transforms a culture; if we try to ignore or deny this and don't take steps to defend and preserve that which is good about our specific culture, it will be overrun just as surely as imperialism destroyed the native cultures of its colonies.
  2. We are repeatedly told that we need more immigrants because there are not enough Americans who are willing/qualified to do the jobs.  Whether it's a factory owner crying that he'd go out of business without illegal immigrants (shades of pre-Civil War Southern plantation owners' insistence on the necessity of slavery), or companies pushing for more H1-B visas because they can't find enough Americans to do their high-tech jobs (meaning, qualified Americans are asking for higher salaries than Indians and Moldovans)—the bottom line is not that Americans can't or won't do the jobs, but that we value low prices more than fair wages.
  3. We feel a need for large numbers of immigrants because our own birth rate is too low.  This reproductive minimalism is both an expression of our lack of appreciation for our own culture, and a great factor in its demise.*

I wonder if it is even possible to debate immigration honestly.  The Democratic party has bet big that the continued use of contraception among white Americans and the admission of peoples from the Latin south will, in the long term, tilt demography permanently in favor of its version of the welfare state, and, consequently, its sustained power.  Moreover, the turning away of Americans from marriage and the having of children suggests a lack of investment in, an apathy regarding, the future character of their country.  It is no more surprising that Americans should be resigned regarding the future of their culture than it is that Americans should desire immigrants to labor for the welfare state in lieu of the children who could have been. These trends are a tacit vote of assent to the Democratic strategy vastly more significant that any election-day tally. Further, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be capable of giving voice to a genuine love of country: one that does not base itself on being a jingoistic bully abroad, but rather on a reverent care to preserve and cultivate what we have, here, now, at home.

 


*I commend our children for their valiant countercultural efforts, aka grandchildren. Switzerland also needs help in this regard.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Edit
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Our choir anthem for May 5 was My Father's World (Gregg Sewell, Tribune Music, 10/2985K).  I can't find a performance on YouTube, but there's a version available at sheetmusicplus (jazzier than the way we sang it).

Here's last Sunday's Cradle Me, Lord (Poorman, Alfred, BSC00283).  Just a reminder:  this isn't our choir singing; I make these posts as a kind of audio and video diary to help me remember what we've sung, and I'm grateful to those who have provided YouTube versions, because there's nothing like hearing the anthem, even if it isn't exactly the way we sang it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 8:26 am | Edit
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The Romeikes have lost the latest round in their fight to keep from being sent back to Germany, where homeschooling is considered a sufficient reason to take custody of children away from their parents.  The ruling is being appealed.

On the bright side, the court did rule that "parents do have a right to direct the education and upbringing of their children."  However, they also said,

“Congress might have written the immigration laws to grant a safe haven to people living elsewhere in the world who face government strictures the United States Constitution prohibits,” the court ruled. “But it did not.”

[Attorney Michael] Farris said he finds great irony that the Obama administration is releasing thousands of illegal aliens—yet wants to send a family seeking political asylum back to Germany.

“Eleven million people are going to be allowed to stay freely—but this one family is going to be shipped back to Germany to be persecuted,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Actually, it makes plenty of sense—if you consider only political expediency.  Immigration "reform" that supports an economy fueled by slave labor is considered a politically savvy move, while offending an important ally—Germany—is not.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 7:10 am | Edit
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I'm having a mid-life crisis.1

Theoretically that's good news, as apparently I'll be living past 120.  But it's still unnerving.  I'm haunted by the feeling that everything is all wrong.  We are not where we're supposed to be, and I know of no way to fix the problem.  To put it bluntly, we are too far away from our children and grandchildren.

That conclusion did not come easily.  I grew up with a good dose of American individualism and training in the idea that the most important family unit comprised father, mother, and children.  My father came from the state of Washington, my mother from Florida; they met in upstate New York, whither they had flown (figuratively speaking) without a backward glance, so far as I know, after graduating from their respective colleges.  Their siblings spread out as well, landing in California and the Midwest.  Our closest relatives were a five-hour drive away.  Cousins?  I had fourteen of them, but we were nearly strangers:  travel was much more difficult in the mid-20th century than it is now, despite not having to deal with the Transportation Security Administration.  Nor did I miss them much, I have to admit:  I had my parents, my three siblings, and a multitude of neighborhood friends, all quite enough for an introvert like me.  Or so I thought, not knowing any better.

Did my mother miss having her parents close by, especially when her children came along?  I don't know; if she ever talked about it, I don't remember.  I know my father thought she was better off 1000 miles away:  his mother-in-law had inherited a forceful personality from her own mother, who was quite a name in the business, political, educational, and social life of her adopted city.  My grandmother was a terrific person and a great cook, and I loved our biennial visits to her home.2  Still, there's no doubt she was a Force To Be Reckoned With, and my mother's personality probably blossomed more freely at a distance.

I had no choice, since my own mother had died by the time we had children.  My siblings were far away and much younger than I was.  (They still are.  Every year, they get older—but I seem to be outdistancing them.)  So childrearing was pretty much a solitary pursuit, as far as family went, anyway.  It didn't seem so onerous at the time:  most of my friends were separated from their families, too, so it seemed normal. Thanks to cheaper, modern transportation and deliberate effort, at least the kids knew their cousins better than I did mine.

It worked out.  The human family is remarkably resilient, and our extended family has managed to remain as close as any I know, and much closer than many.  It wasn't until I became a grandmother that I realized just how wrong the situation still was.

Children, after all, are supposed to become independent, to take wing, to create their own homes and families.  It hurt abominably (and still does) when our children were in pain or in need and we could not reach out to them, could not even give them reassuring hugs, but I learned to be thankful that they had friends—and later husbands—who could lend a hand and who would notice if they didn't show up when expected.  Sure, I envied my friends whose children went to college nearby, and who could attend their recitals, watch their games, and invite them home for an occasional dinner.  But it never felt quite as wrong as being so far from our grandchildren.

Unlike most animals, the human species lives long past the time of fertility.  Some have theorized that this "grandmother effect" had an evolutionary benefit, because the help of the grandparents increased the survival rate of the grandchildren.  In modern, Western society surviving may not be an issue, but thriving still is.  Grandparents can enrich the lives of their grandchildren not only directly, but also second-hand, by taking some of the 24/7/365 pressure off the parents.  Calmer parents are more creative, as well as more patient with their children.  This can't be done when you live a thousand miles apart, however.  Even fifty miles is pushing it, though my [insert much-needed term for "offspring's in-laws" here] frequently and heroically make the hour-each-way drive to spend half a day with their grandkids.

It is not "helicopter parenting" to want to help out for a day when your daughter is sick:  to feed the kids and take them to the playground so Mommy can nap.  I survived without that help, but how much better it would have been for the children to bake cookies with Grandma than to watch TV—the last resort of a mom who can't concentrate on anything other than not throwing up.

Even in the healthy times, children benefit from regular interactions with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  It's important for children to see the many sides of their own family:  how they are alike, how they differ.  What better way to learn to eat different foods than to spend the night with your cousins and be served something other than your favorite cereal for breakfast?  Making cookies with Grandma, knitting with Aunt Susan, birdwatching with Uncle Don ... mom and dad alone cannot provide the variety of learning experiences available through the wider family.  And how much better is it to have a crowd supporting you at your recital, or cheering from the sidelines for your soccer game?

When I was a young mother, I worried about the influence on our kids of family members with values that weren't completely aligned with ours.  That was a mistake.  Well, perhaps the concern wasn't entirely mistaken, but with experience I learned that (1) the differences were infinitesimal compared with the value, experience, and attitude differences they would encounter with their friends and their friends' families; and (2) such differences in those we love—or at the very least are obligated by the family bond not to merely ignore and avoid—provide an invaluable platform for teaching our children the essential life skill of getting along with—indeed, loving, respecting and learning from—those with whom we disagree, all without compromising our own standards.

It might be argued that with today's smaller families mothers don't need the help they once did.  It might be so argued—but I don't know of a single young mother who would agree!  And in any case, the scarcity of siblings makes the need for cousins all the more acute.  I will defend vigorously the "nuclear family" as an ideal—in the sense of children growing up with their own father and mother who are married in a lifelong commitment—in contrast with the many workable and sometimes necessary but inferior substitutes that abound today.  Too often, however, the term is used in another sense:  to mean "father/mother/two kids."  This I find far from ideal:  what we want is a clan.

Certainly there are ways to foster the clan feeling even when living far apart.  I'm thankful for modern transportation and communication:   for superhighways, jet planes, swift mail delivery, e-mail, and Skype.  I'm grateful for siblings and children who make the sacrifices and take the time to encourage extended family interaction.   Nonetheless, real physical presence, when it happens, still has somewhat of a "weekend dad" feeling:  very intense and somewhat indulgent interactions, rather than the calmer experiences of ordinary life.

Deprived of nearby extended family, we make do.  The human race is good at making do.  We find substitute "grandparents" and surrogate "grandchildren" in our own communities, and our children become more than ever dependent on their age-group friends.  It is good to have alternatives; friends and neighbors have their own place in our lives, and it's an important one.  But it's not the same as family.  Expecting them to fill that niche can stress those relationships unnecessarily.  Granted, in this fallen world there are unfortunate exceptions, but as a rule family implies a much higher level of emotional, psychological, physical, and financial commitment than can be expected of non-family relationships.  Churches try to fill the role, even calling themselves a "church family"—but Jesus himself stated that giving to God was no excuse for neglecting your own family (Matthew 15:5-6; see also 1 Timothy 5:8).

I know the problem; what I don't know is what can possibly be done about it.  Wendel Berry has written a lot about the importance of place (even more so than of family, based on the little I've read), and the folks at the Front Porch Republic are always talking about the importance of localized community.  But even if our children choose to live near one set of grandparents (and few do), most often that leaves the other set—and most cousins—out in the cold.  Even if we try to keep families together through the extremity of marrying our children off to other children in the nearby community—nearly impossible if they go to college, or to war, or on almost any other adventure—we're likely to end up small-minded, inbred (in the intellectual sense as well), parochial, and stale.

So we make do with substitutes.  But it's still not right.  It's like formula instead of breast milk; giving birth at a hospital instead of at home; turning our children over to others for the better part of the day instead of teaching them ourselves; homogenized, pasteurized milk from an agribusiness dairy versus a glass of raw milk from a local, pasture-raised cow; children (and adults!) who spend all day indoors instead of out in the fresh air and sunshine, learning nature's lessons and enjoying her bounty.  We're glad to have the alternatives available:  each is good in its proper place.  But no matter how important these may be, they are still only substitutes for the real, best thing, and it's wrong to pretend otherwise.

I'm grateful to all those who are standing in our stead for our children and grandchildren when we cannot, and for the many ways we can still serve them and connect with them without a physical presence.  I'm thankful beyond words for the means to travel to our far-flung family, and for a husband who understands how important it is to nourish these relationships.  I also realize that the problem is logically insoluble:  even if we wanted to leave everything here behind and move close to some of our grandchildren, we'd still be 3700 miles away from the others.3

So it's not so much a mid-life crisis I'm having, as a muddle.  My high calling and career, that which my heart yearns for and longs to throw itself into, I cannot do except limpingly.  That which I believe is so important for the health of our nation's children is that from which our society is fleeing with alarming determination.

So what to do?  Promote the extended family—the clan—when given the opportunity, do what we can with the means that we have to cultivate relationships, and daily put one foot in front of the other on the path as we see it, trusting that whenever God calls us to a task, he will provide the necessary means.

And take refuge in poetry.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

—John Milton, On His Blindness

 


1Well, I suppose "crisis" is too strong a word, given that I began this post in 2011, and am still plugging along.  Mother's Day seemed like a reasonable occasion to revive it.

2What wasn't to like for a kid?  My grandparents lived in a lovely old house two blocks from the World's Most Famous Beach and its awesome Broadwalk!  (Yes, Google, that's spelled correctly, even though you tried to change it to "boardwalk."  These days people do call it a boardwalk, but it was definitely "broad" when I enjoyed it.)  The house is now an attorney's office.  Sad, but at least it still stands; many from that era do not.

3Years ago, when people asked if we would consider moving away from Florida, I would reply that I might be tempted, once the kids settled down, to move halfway between them.  But it turns out that living on a houseboat in the middle of the North Atlantic won't solve the problem.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 5:57 am | Edit
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It's been over a week since the jury summons notices went out for George Zimmerman's trial, and neither of us has received one, so I'm guessing we're safe.  As interesting as it might have been to be part of such a high-profile trial, I'm happy to pass on this one.  Don't count on seeing Grandma interviewed by the media any time soon.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 7:34 am | Edit
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Recognizing the approach of Mother's Day, I honor my own with this story.  When it comes to sunshine and health, it turns out Mommy really did know best.

According to my mother, children needed "plenty of fresh air and sunshine" to grow up healthy.  Fresh air is still allowed, I guess, but sunshine has been anathema for years.  Faced with increasing cases of modern-day rickets, doctors are reluctantly allowing small amounts of sun exposure free of sunscreen, hats, and long sleeves, "but 15 minutes a day is enough!"

Until now.

In a study after my own heart, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found evidence indicating that my mother's advice was right—and not just for kids:  sunshine may be necessary for good health.  Quite apart from its role in vitamin D production, ultraviolet light interacts with the skin to produce nitric oxide (NO), which reduces blood pressure.

Dr Richard Weller, Senior Lecturer in Dermatology at the University of Edinburgh, said: "We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer. The work we have done provides a mechanism that might account for this, and also explains why dietary vitamin D supplements alone will not be able to compensate for lack of sunlight.

"We now plan to look at the relative risks of heart disease and skin cancer in people who have received different amounts of sun exposure. If this confirms that sunlight reduces the death rate from all causes, we will need to reconsider our advice on sun exposure."

Here's a TED talk by Dr. Weller on the same subject.

Thanks, Mom, for sending me outside to play!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 10, 2013 at 8:00 am | Edit
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Speculoos à Tartiner, in its American incarnation as Biscoff Spread, is now available at many stores here and around the country.  Trader Joe's even has its own version, which I will be able to sample and compare because we are finally getting our own Trader Joe's!  You can even buy Speculoos in tiny Hillsborough, New Hampshire—which also needs a Trader Joe's, but we'll take one step at a time.

The exploding popularity of this heavenly spread was featured in the Orlando Sentinel yesterday.  I don't know what goes into the decisions involving placement of articles and advertisements on the page, but surely this could be no coincidence:

alt

On the bright side, all this publicity may dampen the TSA's suspicious attitude, although there is now less reason to transport it in my luggage.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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