Feb 10 2010

What’s for Dinner

This week in our box we got: Nantes carrots, dinosaur kale, collard greens, two heads of lettuce (one butter, one red leaf), two leeks, a butternut squash (nooooooo), twelve kiwis, and two pounds of those beautiful red fingerling potatoes.

Tonight we’ll have baked potatoes and a salad (probably using the butter lettuce). Tomorrow, I’ll use the red potatoes, the leeks, and both the kale and the collards in another big pot of caldo verde (that recipe is really good). Tomorrow we’re also going in for the ultrasound, by the way, so I might have something exciting to post after that.

Friday night I’ll tackle the squash: I think I’ll try this recipe for Bulgur and Squash Kefteh from the New York Times. Sam won’t be thrilled, but there will probably be leftover soup that he can have instead if he wants.

Saturday is my day out with friends, and cook’s night off; Sunday is Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to make a shepherd’s pie at Sam’s request (it’ll be a potato-heavy week), and probably something chocolate for dessert.

I’ve got some anchovies in the fridge that I want to use up, so Monday I’ll make pissaladière, a kind of anchovy and garlic pizza. I know you’ll all want to come over and kiss us afterwards! If the other head of lettuce holds out till Monday, we’ll have a salad on the side too. And then Tuesday we’ll eat leftovers.

Feb 9 2010

State of the Robin

Robin’s once again crossed one of those invisible thresholds of growth: lately both Sam and I are prone to look at him, look again, and exclaim “When did he get so big?” He can climb in and out of the bathtub now on his own, although generally he’s wise enough to wait until one of us comes over to give him a hand. He doesn’t fall down so much when he runs: and I love to watch him run, I love the way he throws himself heedlessly forward and just barely manages to catch himself with every step. It’s a full-body expression of the enthusiasm with which he approaches the world.

He’s talking more too. This morning Marlis walked over him in the bed and he said “Uh-oh! Why why why meow?” Translation: “What’s that cat doing and why did she step on me?” (He can say “kitty” and “doggie,” but he prefers to refer to a cat as a meow and a dog as a woof-woof, I think because there’s less confusion between the words.) Anyway, so he’s now using three-word sentences, and it’s even possible to have extended conversations with him on a subject, although these conversations tend to veer randomly into left field. He’s also still very likely to form a sentence with a recognizable English word at the beginning and at the end, but a stream of baby babble in the middle. I wonder if that’s what we sound like to him?

He’s developed an interest in letters, fueled, I think, by his ClickStart games. When we’re walking around he’ll often stop to point at signs in shop windows, picking out the various letters: he does the same thing when Sam wears a tee-shirt with writing. Though he often gets confused between Y and V, or C and J, he’s pretty reliable about identifying most of them. If you ask him to find a letter on a keyboard, he’ll press the right one about 75% of the time. I’ve been impressed enough by this development to let him play the ClickStart more often: he loves it intensely and he’s clearly learning from it, and it gives me time in the mornings to drink coffee and update my blog.

The head-banging behavior that vexed us so much has dropped away almost entirely, discarded at pretty much the instant he figured out that throwing his sippy cup on the floor provokes a better reaction from us. (We have to clean up whatever liquid dribbles from its top, so we really don’t like this behavior—but there’s definitely some part of me that notes and approves of his increasingly sophisticated efforts to communicate frustration and anger.) Now if we do something that pisses him off, like picking up his toys, he’s very likely to run into the kitchen to grab his sippy cup just so that he can come back and throw it on the floor in front of us. This is annoying, but also hilarious.

His great pet peeve—people who say the same thing at the same time—remains in place, but he’s grown a bit more tolerant of accidental lapses. I’m even allowed to sing along to the music sometimes. (Sometimes not.)

He has a well-developed sense of the things that are his, and no sense at all of the things that belong to other people. For instance he’ll eat off our plates liberally, but he will scream and yell if I take anything from his plate, even if it’s a portion of food that’s gone untouched for hours. Similarly he’ll often grab books that we’re reading, but try and take anything in his grasp and he’ll respond with an immediate and full-throated howl.

I should say, though, that with other kids he’s a bit more well-mannered. He’ll often run up to kids in the park that have interesting toys, and try to reach for them: not violently, thank goodness—just tentatively and with a smile, in a kind of ‘oh that’s cool, can I see it?’ way. When other kids pick up his stuff he doesn’t usually get mad, but follows them around and watches carefully.

He’s getting better at initiating games with the other kids—mostly he just runs up to them and smiles, or offers them his ball, and often a kind of impromptu game of tag will result. The rules of Toddler Tag are a bit incoherent, but the main points are that all players assume that all other players are It, and mommies are always considered safe. Each player wants to be chased, so will try and get as close as possible to another player in order to catch their attention: of course, this is often perceived as chasing behavior, provoking the other toddler to run, shrieking with laughter, to their mommy. The game usually ends when the players get distracted and wander off.

I’ll try and take another picture of Robin soon. All that’s on my camera right now is this cityscape I snapped over the weekend:

Feb 7 2010

This Blog

So, with another baby on the way, I think I’m gonna have to change the title of the blog again.

And although this started as a pregnancy & parenting blog, it’s already expanded to cover more topics—cooking, writing, local history, etc. I’d like to post more about writing in the future, maybe start putting up book reviews and things like that. But there will still be pictures of the kids and recipes and so forth. So my question is…what should I call it? Anybody got a suggestion for a snappy blog name?

Feb 5 2010

Conversations with Toddlers

Yesterday Robin and I got caught out in the rain when we were at the park. Robin registered his displeasure as the raindrops hit his head:

Robin: Oh! Oh! Moooomeeeee!
Me: Sorry, buddy, I can’t turn off the rain.

A pause, then:

Robin (hopefully): Daddy?
Me: No, your daddy can’t turn the rain off either.

I thought that was pretty hilarious. If Mommy can’t do it, Daddy probably can!

Feb 5 2010


Waldorf. Let’s talk about Waldorf. See, there’s a lot that’s very appealing about these schools; and a lot that’s very off-putting.

PRO: They provide a calm and beautiful environment for children.

The aesthetics of Waldorf are one of the first things that draws prospective parents. Trust me, I realize exactly how much my class background is showing when I start to enthuse about the natural hand-crafted everythings; it doesn’t change the fact that this is exactly what I want for my kids. Waldorf educators believe that children’s toys should be very simple, so as to encourage imaginative play, but of the highest possible quality: so hand-made dolls; simple wooden play structures and bright-colored silks (real silk, natch, hand-dyed and hand-hemmed) that can be turned into anything from a stage curtain to a superhero cape to a princess skirt; genuine beeswax crayons and paints made from natural plant pigments; handcrafted wooden toys; and so forth. Everything is hand-made from natural materials. The food served to the children is organic and often grown on premises. Yadda yadda.

CON: They are weirdly proscriptive about how children are supposed to use the provided materials.

For instance, they remove the color black from the crayons provided to the younger kids (black is too harsh for their delicate spirits). They don’t allow the kids to paint houses and stick figures in their watercolors, but instead lead them through a series of abstract watercolor shapes that are supposed to represent the developing soul. Yes, you’re seeing a flash of the woo-woo behind the Waldorf.

PRO: They spend a lot of time outdoors, emphasizing our connection to the natural world and learning about the changing seasons.

This is a good article about Waldorf’s commitment to outdoor learning. There’s really no con to this aspect of Waldorf; I’m wholly in favor. There’s some woo-woo here too but it’s far enough backgrounded that I don’t care.

PRO:For young children, they don’t attempt to do academic drills, but rather immerse the children in an environment of storytelling, music, art, dance, and imaginative play. They are really serious about the arts.

Waldorf educators believe children should experience live performances rather than just recorded ones, and similarly, that teachers should tell stories rather than simply reading from books (the idea being that kids learn more about the fundamentals of language when they are engaged in the process of storytelling rather than hearing the same words recited over and over). These stories are often Grimm fairy tales—the originals. Can you fathom how rare it is to find teachers who are telling the original fairy tales, not the Disneyfied versions, to kids these days? I think that’s awesome.

The Waldorf dance program is called Eurythmy and it incorporates some stuff that’s sort of similar to yoga.

CON:Again, the woo-woo. Eurythmy isn’t just a performing art, it’s—like yoga—a spiritual exercise. I’m more or less okay with this, except I don’t like how the newage spiritual content is being disguised as pedagogy. They’re not up front about it at all.

PRO:Waldorf preschools and kindergartens create a delightful, magical environment for small children.

The teachers often tell stories about gnomes: little felt gnomes are common in Waldorf classrooms, and when they go on walks the children are encouraged to look for gnome-homes or evidence of gnomish passage. This is adorable.

CON:It’s very likely that the teacher actually believes the gnomes are real.

“Our lead kindergarten teacher is very upfront that she believes in gnomes,” responded [a Waldorf] parent. “Before their weekly walk in the forest, the kindergartens ask the gnomes (who, after all, live there) for permission to enter.”

“But do they really believe in gnomes?” persisted the first parent.

“Trust me, they believe it,” Diane Winters asserted. She’s a former Waldorf classroom aide in Philadelphia and now a vocal critic of Waldorf education because of her growing concerns with the schools’ philosophy.

“Do you believe in gnomes?” I asked Waldorf parent Leah Spilchen at an Ottawa Waldorf school open house last spring. “Yes, I do,” answered Spilchen unequivocally. “But I don’t believe that they would look like what we think of as gnomes because they are spirits, and we can’t see them.”

I received similar responses from the half-dozen other Waldorf supporters whom I queried on the topic. Ernst Von Bezold, who represents Waldorf schools on the board of directors for the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, believes gnomes are “nature’s spirits” and says he is open to believing that some people have seen them. He claims he has seen angels.

“Steiner [Rudolph Steiner is the founder of Waldorf] taught that if you didn’t make spiritual progression over successive lifetimes, you come back as a gnome,” explains Philadelphia’s Diana Winters.

Source: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/1213

PRO:These Waldorf people are so nice.

CON:These Waldorf people are crazy.

Here’s the thing: Waldorf educators believe in almost everything I do when it comes to early education. An emphasis on free play, art and storytelling, and outdoor time—check. Simple but high-quality classroom materials—check. Child-led learning—well, not so much, because they have a secret agenda.

Their agenda is Anthroposophy, Rudolph Steiner’s wacky religion. Anthroposophists believe that an evil entity called Ahriman is close to manifesting in the world (he can already influence it through television and other electronic devices). To fight Ahriman, humanity must be raised to its highest spiritual level—Anthroposophists believe that a person who is sufficiently spiritually developed can manifest psychic powers. As far as I can tell, Waldorf schools are kind of a secret training camp in this holy war, and their true purpose is to create psychic soldiers who will be able to fight Ahriman when the time comes.

Now, I frankly find this kind of awesome, but you can see how I’d be reluctant to hand a kid over to these people.

And the thing is, Waldorf educators will deny that anthroposophy forms a basis of the curriculum, but only because Steiner told them to say that.

[W]ith these things the outer form is of the utmost importance. Never call the verse a “prayer” but a “school opening verse.” Do see to it that people do not hear the expression “prayer” used by a teacher. This will go a long way towards overcoming the prejudice that this is an anthroposophical school.

We must worm our way through…[I]n order to do what we want to do, at least, it is necessary to talk with the people, not because we want to, but because we have to, and inwardly make fools of them.

Steiner, Rudolf (1920). Conferences with Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, 1919 to 1920, Volume One. Forest Row, East Sussex: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1986. Quotations sourced from waldorfcritics.org

So, okay. Waldorf is run by newage woo-woo types. Their intentions are good, and their methods are mostly good, but they actively seek to deceive parents about the occult basis of some of their pedagogy, which is double-plus ungood.

On the other hand, because they have a commitment to keeping this anthroposophy stuff secret, they also don’t foist it on the kids. All the kids know is that they’re supposed to make these shapes in the watercolor, or lift their arms in a certain way in the dance: they don’t have any idea that it’s because these exercises are supposed to unlock their latent psychic powers. Most Waldorf graduates come out of the school without any initiation into the occult basis of Steiner education, most go on to do well, and most look back fondly on their hippie-crunchy school experience. But some feel that they were harmed by the experience: “The effects of Waldorf’s educational program gradually accumulated in our heads and hearts. After I had been at the school only a few years, the notion of trying to see the world clearly had lost almost all meaning for me. Everything seemed to me symbolic rather than concrete—although what the symbols stood for was vague.”

Also, although I do believe that modern Waldorf schools, especially those in liberal cities like San Francisco, have mostly rid themselves of this baggage, Rudolph Steiner was very racist and there’s a lot of racism coded into anthroposophy.

All in all, I would consider Waldorf for preschool and maybe kindergarten, but no farther than that. I would ask a lot of questions of the teachers in the specific school I was considering. I would keep a very close eye on what kinds of things were going on the classroom. Waldorf schools do a lot of things right, and they actually seem to work pretty well—in terms of producing happy and successful adults, at least. Their success in producing psychic warriors seems minimal.

Feb 4 2010

More on Preschool

I should have mentioned that there are a few preschool to grade school options I find extremely tempting. For instance, the schools that offer language immersion programs in Spanish or in Mandarin. These are appealing because they take advantage of children’s amazing facility with language acquisition—an ability that drops off some time before puberty—and because they offer something I just can’t replicate at home. I’m quite confident in my ability to tutor Robin in early academics, and pretty confident that we can round out his social experiences through sports, art/music classes, and other kinds of group activities; but I can’t give him fluency in a second language. Even enrolling him in supplemental language classes wouldn’t begin to approach the benefits of immersion learning.

Unfortunately these language immersion schools are highly competitive, and getting Robin into one of them would require running the parental rat-race that I’m so keen to avoid. They’re also not cheap. San Francisco does have public elementary schools with immersion programs (Starr King is one), so if we’re still in the city when Robin’s ready for grade school we might try our chance in the lottery for a place at one of those. If we’re in Oakland, I’ll have to do some research to determine if there’s anything similar there.

The other preschool option I find tempting is the half-day, two day a week program at the San Francisco Waldorf School. (Oakland has a Waldorf school too.) Oh, but Waldorf—my conflicted take on Waldorf is going to require its own post.

Feb 4 2010

Cognitive Science and Early Education

So I’ve been meaning to post more about early education: it’s a keen interest of mine, since I’m still planning to homeschool Robin at least for the early years. I read most of what I can come across on the subject, but I haven’t written much about it since I’m arriving at my understanding in a scattershot fashion.

It doesn’t help that the science of early education is, as far as I can tell, in a very rudimentary state. There’s little consensus about even the most basic educational strategies. For example, some educators advocate early, intensively focused academic work, while others advocate introducing these subjects only to older children who will grasp them quickly. In America, the social consensus seems to mostly be swinging towards the first position: when it comes to school, more is better, and it can’t start too early.

The trend toward early testing and academic programs is typified by preschools that require IQ tests for entry: some in children as young as two years old. This world is probably craziest in New York—here’s an excellent article describing the lengths to which New York parents are going to groom their children for kindergarten admission tests—but San Francisco is not far behind. And the insanity does not begin with kindergarten. In the Bay Area, the elite preschools (oh yes, there are elite preschools) have waiting lists so long parents are signing up when their children are in utero. I have seen threads on local parenting forums debating which hospital parents should choose in order to maximize their chances of getting into these competitive preschools—which are, of course, so competitive only because they are “feeder schools” for the more exclusive private schools.

Anyway, most of the early-testing-and-rigorous-academics crowd call on Science to justify their programs. Testing is scientific (never mind the debate over IQ, and the question of whether administering constant tests to children has a negative affect on their educational outcomes). You even get annoying articles like this one, which uses the terms “neuroscience” and “cognitive science” liberally, even though the actual neuroscience in the piece is pretty much limited to a little sidebar graphic of the brain. Instead what the article is really about is the suggestion that kids who study math early—wait for it—improve in math. But this is in comparison to children in low-performing schools whose “classes devote mere minutes a day to math instruction or no time at all.” There’s no discussion of how the children who are put through abstract math drills in the early grades end up comparing to, say, children in a Montessori program whose introduction to mathematical concepts comes through directed, sensorial play, and who are encouraged to proceed at their own paces.

In the article we are also told that “schools in about a dozen states have begun to use a program intended to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class”: but we are not told the specifics of this program or any evidence that it may be effective. But, you know—it’s Science!

Robin is getting close to the age when other children will be starting preschool (most start admitting kids when they’re 2 and 9 months). I don’t want him to miss out by staying home, but I remain skeptical of the long-term benefits of early academic drilling. I think I’ve mentioned before that kids in Sweden don’t start primary school until age 7 (though younger children are guaranteed a place in public daycare), and even then the first year is devoted to socialization and play. The Swedes seem to turn out fine.

And call me paranoid, but I’ve come to believe that a lot of the emphasis on early education, universal pre-school, longer school years, and extra homework after school hours is a veiled attempt to get children—especially poorer children, and especially poorer non-white children—out of their parents’ hands as early as possible and for as long as possible, because the home environment is now assumed to be destructive. The research on preschool, for instance, indicates that it is far more beneficial for low-income children than for children from high-income homes. But at the same time, kids who spend a lot of time in schools and day care have a higher rate of behavioral problems than kids who get more family time.

I don’t doubt that kids who focus on academics early learn something from their study. I doubt whether those benefits persist over time, in comparison to children who come to the subject later but possibly better-equipped to handle the material. I doubt whether subjecting toddlers to a battery of tests is a good way to encourage enthusiastic learners and independent thinkers. And the only thing I’m sure of is that, for all the shouting about Science!, there really hasn’t been enough of it when it comes to early education.

Feb 2 2010

Writer Blather (or, What Else I’ve Been Up To)

So, I recently completed one of my long-held goals—to finish a novel-length project. Actually as originally phrased the goal was “to use my time off work to write a novel,” but, surprise, it turns out that childcare, cooking, and housekeeping do not actually constitute “time off work.” Anyhoo! A couple years later than planned, I actually did manage to finish my first novel.

I pushed it on everybody I could reach, and when a few of them actually read the thing, I used their comments to do a second draft. Now I’ve fixed everything that’s easily fixable, and I’m left with structural weaknesses that I don’t know how to fix—the main one being that, okay, I had this idea where I wanted to show the heroine kind of gradually pulling aside the veil of mundane life to reveal this fantastic world lurking just beneath the surface. It sounds cool when I put it like that, but another way of putting it is “the action is slow to start.”

The first big fight scene is on page 61, which may well be too late for a story that ends up as a swashbuckling tale of adventure. I’ve tried to put in enough conflict, foreshadowing, and Intimations of Weirdness to keep the reader hooked through the early chapters, but I just don’t know if it’s enough. The problem is that what’s going on in place of the sword-fights during those first 61 pages is stuff that needs to happen anyway: important characters being introduced, my heroine’s personality being established, and a rhythm of mundane life getting set up so that it can be blown to bits on page 61. Also, during the rest of the book the heroine is forced to balance the requirements of her ordinary life (making the rent, getting along in the office) with her extracurricular duties as Magickal-Mystical Guardian of the City, and I think this provides a source of extra tension and humor. So I just don’t know how to compress the first 61 pages.

Maybe I should tell you what the book is about? Here’s the pitch:

Viveka Janssen isn’t a dragonslayer. She’s a practical Midwestern girl brought to San Francisco by the prospect of an entry-level PR job, and her greatest ambitions involve finding an apartment and making a good impression at work. But Viv’s sensible nature will be shaken when she comes into possession of the legendary sword Excalibur, and must suddenly learn a new role as the modern-day Lady of the Lake. As she peels back the layers that separate her ordinary life from the world of fairy tales, she finds herself thrust into a shadow war between human civilization and the forces of wild magic.

Soon, as Viv struggles to understand the powers of the sword, the plans of her enemies, and the intricacies of office politics, she also finds herself romantically involved with a crusading reporter…who may himself be more than he seems. And come Monday morning, Viv still has to make it to work on time.

If anybody who I haven’t already importuned to critique the thing would be willing to take a look at it and give me feedback, just let me know. (Also, anyone who has a first draft but would like the second, let me know that too.) I’m especially eager to get feedback about whether or not the opening chapters are boring, and any suggestions for ratcheting up the tension.

In the meantime, I’m doing exactly what I probably shouldn’t: throwing my hands in the air and calling it done because I just don’t know how to work on it any more. Instead, I’m tossing it at agents and seeing if any part of it will stick.

The agent search is a weird thing. It’s possible to submit to editors directly, without an agent, but editors prefer working with agents because they act as gatekeepers (weeding out most of the worst drek) and often as a first-pass editor. Also, agents do a lot for writers besides just submitting the work and handling the contract details, and they almost always pay for themselves. I’d like an agent if I could get one.

The funny thing about submitting to agents is that they almost never want to see what you’ve written—at least, not right away. What they want to see is a one-page query letter describing what you’ve written. (My query is built around the pitch I excerpted above.) I guess most would-be writers are just so bad that it’s obvious from a few paragraphs? Anyway, if the agents like a query, they’ll ask for what’s called a “partial”—the first 30 to 50 pages. If they like the partial, they’ll ask for the full. Then they may or may not offer to represent you.

So, my dithering over the first 61 pages really ought to be dithering over the first 30 to 50, because that’s the range of a “partial.” This is why so many contemporary fantasy novels open with a fight scene or a dead body; you have 30 pages to hook your agent. Which is, to be honest, perfectly fair, because frankly you only have one page to hook your reader.

I do have conflict in my opening pages. It’s just not sword-fighting conflict. It’s the conflict of a young woman navigating a new city, trying to find an apartment and not be late for her first day of work. Oh and meanwhile this crazy lady hands her a big sword and tells her she’s supposed to be the Lady of the Lake. I like that set-up, but I recognize that pulling it off is going to require some extremely engaging writing, and I just can’t tell whether or not mine is doing the job.

In the past couple weeks I’ve submitted queries to fifteen agents. Four of them have sent back form rejections (“Thank you for thinking of us, but we do not feel that this project is right for us at this time”). Three of them have asked for partials, and the rest I haven’t heard back from yet. These are actually pretty great statistics. I found a couple of agents that keep stats on the queries they receive: one got 327 queries in a week, and requested partials for 4; the other got 208 queries in a week, and requested partials for 1. So I’m definitely beating those odds.

What worries me is that, of the four who sent form rejections, three of them had asked to see the first 5-10 pages along with the query letter. The other one, and the three who requested partials, had asked to see the query only. So I’m afraid it’s entirely possible that my query letter is strong but my opening pages are weak.

Still, getting those requests for partials has been kind of thrilling. Getting a request for a full would be extremely thrilling, but I’m not holding my breath: most agents ask for 4 to 6 weeks to review submitted material. So, I have a lot of time to obsess over those first 61 pages.

And, oh god, the house deal: it’s still dragging on but I can’t bear to talk about it. So there’s that.

Feb 1 2010

Birthing Traditions of the Maya

So, I recently stumbled across a scholarly article: “Pathways of Decision Making Among Yucatan Traditional Birth Attendants,” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health July-August 2004. The authors are Barbara A. Anderson, E.N. Anderson, Tracy Franklin and Aurora Dzib-Xihum de Cen. Anyway, I thought it sounded awesome so I got the article.

It is pretty interesting. It centers around interviews with six Mayan-speaking parteras serving rural villages in the Yucatan. It talks about what their role is in childbirth and how they respond to various complications: herbal baths and a traditional form of massage called sobada are, along with prayer, common responses. (Interestingly enough, soaking tubs and massage are two of the most commonly recommended strategies for managing labor among Bay Area moms and doulas as well.)

My favorite passage from the article is this one:

The parteras favored adolescent motherhood. “Men don’t want old women. By age 20, her body will not open up,” said Lucia. They placed strong emphasis on nutrition during pregnancy. “The mother must eat even if she vomits. Otherwise, the baby is born skinny,” explained Alicia. They all agreed that the husband must provide foods that the pregnant woman craves or else he would be responsible if the baby died. There was good consistency in the identification of the most important foods to consume during pregnancy: chicken, eggs mixed with orange juice, squash, and chocolate.

Although I’m well past twenty, I agree heartily with that bit about the husband being responsible for running to the corner store at 10:30 to get chocolate ice cream. It’s ancient wisdom of the Maya, you can’t argue with that. Also, I was inspired by this piece to eat another bowl of the leftover squash soup that’s sitting in the fridge, so, go me.