Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bad Housekeeping Seal of Approval

Good mothers teach their children to pick up after themselves right from the first. If a child can get out toys, they can certainly put them away. All you need is a place for everything and everything in its place. I once had a lady very seriously lecture me on these principles, back when I was pregnant with the twins, while she was doing the dishes because I could not move without vomiting. Since I also couldn't really speak without vomiting, I didn't try to point out the obvious flaws in her plan.

Anyway, we got a little behind. A lot behind. The place kept moving and the everything kept changing. (Who are these people who can actually design enough places to contain what their kids have? Do their kids not create an entire new fleet of paper airplanes, the frontispiece of three unwritten novels, and seven maps of paradise for miniature plastic horses every time they have twenty minutes of free time? Then there are those who say, "Oh, I can't think in a mess; it really stresses me out, that's why I keep things cleaned up all the time." Well, I also can't think in a mess. That's why it's still there.)

But I've always figured that the least I could do is not make us feel bad about the mess. After all, it's not the ducklings' fault that they don't have proper places to put stuff and I haven't taught them to pick up every day. And it's not my fault that I operate at a preschool level in sorting ability or have moved eight times and lost everything all over again. So when--about once a quarter--it comes time to actually face up to the mess, at least we pitch into it with a right good will. They actually get excited. No doubt we will uncover some lost treasures. There'll be open space for a day or two to get things out in.

I let them pick things up for as long as they stay interested. Then, when they drift away, I start salvaging anything that we will desperately miss. (Library books and clothes, mostly.) I throw away anything I am reasonably sure they won't scream if they find out. I put away anything really obvious that they missed. This process has already taken most of the day and we probably have slighted lunch and I am getting very crabby.

And then--here is my Bad Housekeeping Secret--I get a big box. Or two. Or three. An extra laundry basket sometimes, but the holes are a problem. And I just scoop up everything that's left, put it in the box, and shove it down in the basement (or, now, the garage). No, I do not sort it into Things to Keep and Things to Give Away and Things to Put Away Somewhere Else, because at this point in the project if I try to start sorting I will have to be committed as a danger to myself and others.

For several years I have been telling myself that I will get to these boxes and sort them out afterwards, in a calmer moment, if I can only wrap up the cleaning project and vacuum today. We do filch stuff out of them from time to time--large items of dress-up tend to stick out and every once in a dreadful while a library book misses the initial scrutiny. If I pull a few larger items (firemen hats take up a lot of space) out I can usually consolidate the boxes and keep them in manageable numbers. But they begin to accumulate. I think we're close on to a dozen now.

Some might argue that this proves that these items are of no importance and we could get rid of them. They would be wrong. I know there are all kinds of things in these boxes that *are* of importance and we very much want, like the glass gems we use for tracking life in Magic: The Gathering and also teaching math, and all the pieces of all the puzzles, and three of the Clue murder weapons, and spare golf balls which are essential if you don't have time to get to the chiropractor, and enough writing implements to prevent us from ever needing to buy school supplies again. When we moved this spring I finally found one of these boxes from a previous move and there . . . THERE! . . . was the favorite purple coat I had been hunting for every winter since we moved in, hoping to find it for one of the twins. Unfortunately it was a 3T, so it was no longer any good. But had I found it sooner, it would have been, you see.

But retrieving these items would mean sorting them out from the twenty mixed decks of old playing cards, the plastic ball mazes and pencils that don't sharpen from Oriental Trading Company, and the other toddler snow boot that I finally gave up and threw away the mate to, and I keep waiting for that calm and relaxed day to come on which I feel up to such a herculean task.

I didn't really mean to tackle cleaning the kid zone this week. (One of the many wonderful things about this house is the kid zone is large enough that I can herd the mess upstairs and the living room stays fairly neat.) I was only skirting around the idea and getting ideas. The trouble is, we run on ideas. And so as soon as I had posed the question to the ducklings, "What could we do to make your rooms better?" they were all on fire to get started. And I'm not one to waste energy. So this week we put up shelves and moved dressers and drew lines and sorted through the fall clothes. And when we started running out of steam, I started filling up boxes again.

Over time, with children getting older, the mess has gotten better. I really do think our latest reorganization is going to help. And if it doesn't, I'm sure I can find a way to stack the boxes more carefully so the pile doesn't come over.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Somehow it just seemed like time to re-read all the Jane Austen novels. (We also tried watching the more recent Pride and Prejudice, but mercifully couldn't finish it before it had to go back to the library. That was a painful experience.)

I saw a quote where Austen described Emma as a character nobody but herself would much like. I have to concur--I *don't* like Emma much. She's an insufferable snobbish busybody. In consequence I haven't read Emma nearly as many times as some of the others.

However, reading with more attention this time, I found much to enjoy in the novel, and although I still don't much like Emma, I think she might (after the book is over) grow into a person I could like. Most of Austen's novels turn on some disparity between perception and reality, but Emma's misperceptions are so willful that the novel broadly hints to the attentive reader exactly what is going on the whole time. So instead of reading it *with* Emma, you can instead read it to laugh at her.

I have come to the conclusion that Emma's mother must have found her health overtaxed by pregnancy and childbirth and gone into a gradual decline that began almost with her marriage (she died when Emma was four). Mr. Woodhouse, too self-centered to fully notice or comprehend what was going on, still felt vaguely responsible. That seems the only reasonable explanation for the intensity of his aversion to marriage as an institution.

When I was single it seemed to be assumed among my family and acquaintance that I would need to marry someone much older and wiser to counterbalance my apparent flightiness. (I am very glad I did not; it would not have suited me at all. I hate to feel at a disadvantage in information or experience, and I never respond well to being told what to do.) One friend suggested that I should marry a Mr. Knightley. After rereading Emma and paying more attention to the character of her brother-in-law, an attorney, devoted to his family but with a certain degree of moodiness and mild aversion to unnecessary social gatherings, I have concluded that she was simply mistaken about which Mr. Knightley would suit.

Emma offers a unique opportunity in Austen's novels to contemplate swapping the main romances. Nobody could seriously imagine Lizzie with Bingley or Darcy with Jane, but most of the middle part of Emma has us contemplating a Fairfax/Knightley and Woodhouse/Churchill pairing. It is plain that the first would be far too stodgy and the latter far too frivolous. Clearly this is a case where opposites attracting is a good thing.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Coming up Dry

This was a busy week, what with DOB going to the Seattle doctor on Wednesday (which means me driving to Seattle in morning traffic, always a terrifying prospect for all concerned). We didn't get anything particularly earth-shattering out of that visit, except for genetic testing confirming that DOB does have the disease he's had his whole life, but it's just the garden variety and no particular reason for it to cause any other weird symptoms.

The afternoon before this trip, I dumped DOB's water bottle out in the sink and turned the tap on to refill it. Nothing came out. I tried all the other faucets. Nothing. I talked to all the neighbors, and found out all about their alternative water sources, which should come in handy if the power goes out. However, it was clear that the trouble was with our system.

Failing that, I called His Majesty and Toolboy. His Majesty seems to be in the process of handing off the mantle of He Who Knows How Things Should Be Fixed to Toolboy, but he brought over several buckets and bottles of water. Toolboy and Rocketboy showed up (with more water) and began doing mysterious things in the well house.

After several hours, Toolboy emerged with the verdict that though most of the above-ground component had needed to be and had been replaced, nothing was happening still and it was time to call the well drillers. Except it was 8 p.m., so it wasn't time to call them.

Really, it was just as well it happened this week, because we were gone most of the day for the doctor's and the ducklings were already slated to spend the night at Their Majesties, so B5 (who recently moved in) was the only one who had to face the whole day without water. We called the well drillers, but couldn't get anyone until the following day. Faced with the prospect of at least four extra buckets of water to haul to the upstairs toilet, not to mention trying to fix breakfast for the ravening hordes while helping DOB look presentable for court, I begged and Their Majesties kindly conceded to keep the ducklings an extra night.

So by the time the ducklings returned in the morning, the big truck was here and the well was being cleaned out of nasty sludginess and the pump replaced. It was still nearly noon before the water came back on, and the one remaining above-ground component that Toolboy didn't already replace will have to be replaced within two months. And it turns out that one of the 1,567 things to be done immediately upon moving in that we forgot to do was add the well rider to the home warranty policy. Still, at least the well is shallow so it cost much less than it might have.

And, for the first time since moving in, we have actual water pressure: showers rather than dribbles, and the ability to run two appliances and flush all at the same time. So, all's well that ends well.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Let's Vary Piracy

This past weekend we took the kids to see their first live Gilbert and Sullivan performance, The Pirates of Penzance, at the same theater where they attend the summer drama workshop. (Indeed, two of the more youthful pirates were familiar faces from past workshops.) This was a pretty safe bet as far as kid enjoyment was concerned, being as there were enough girls in fancy dresses to satisfy the girls and enough sword fights to satisfy the boys. And we were not disappointed, except that we probably should have brought more snacks.

For those who are not already Gilbert and Sullivan fans, the thing about them is they combine beautiful music with total absurdity. Imagine a Victorian Monty Python with soundtrack by Handel.

Watching this always prompts us to fantasize about performing in one ourselves someday. DOB has always wanted to portray the Modern Major General, a dream that cannot even be dampened by being in a wheelchair as it would be, if anything, even better done like that:

However, this time it has occurred to him that the real barrier to portraying the Modern Major General is that he is NOT a tenor. What's more, he's never been one. So he is now amending his dream to doing a rather stiff Police Sergeant in braces, if everyone else can do the flopping about:

If I'm going to pick a dream role, and if it is going to be rationally limited by age and vocal range (and not by the fact that my voice would be best appreciated in the chorus), I would have to go outside of Pirates, though. Ruth is not too bad, especially not once she gives up trying to charm young men and pursues piracy consulting instead, but she's a rather pathetic figure. Really all of Gilbert and Sullivan's middle-aged contraltos are more or less pathetic, generally being wracked with unrequited passion and aging body-image issues. But at least the Fairy Queen from Iolanthe is on good terms with herself (she sees nothing wrong with stoutness, in moderation) and her celibacy is not because she chases young men who spurn her, but because she's true to her own code (which she later manages to amend). And in a very silly world, Private Willis is one of the more sensible characters to become enamored with.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dead Letter Office

Eight years ago, as an excited parent of a toddler, I carefully researched and purchased some magnetic letters that would be the absolute best resource for teaching phonics. The right size, the right shape, the right letter frequency, the right color combinations.

That child hated phonics and reading lessons and taught herself to read by memorizing story books. The next one loved phonics and taught himself to read off cereal boxes and flyers before I got around to giving him any reading lessons. (And then lost all interest and devoted himself to game design.) The magnetic letters got used to make roads and free-form sculptures on the fridge.

But the twins have arrived at school age still needing a little nudge to start reading. (Due largely, I suspect, to having no motivation thanks to always having older siblings handy to read to them.) At last, I thought, I shall put these magnets to their intended use. I had a carefully-prepared word building lesson ready to go for the first day of school.

Instead of a reading lesson, we had a ten-minute meltdown over the ravages done to the game laid out on the fridge front. Apparently it wasn't phonics materials I bought, it was the foundation for an entire game world.

I'm printing out letters on cardstock.

Also inadequate in my first grade plans: too many stories about farm animals and butterflies, not enough big cats, thus inadvertently but inexcusably favoring the twin who likes farm animals over the twin who likes ferocious predators. I have accordingly moved the fable of the Lion and the Mouse and Kipling's "How the Leopard Got His Spots" up in the schedule.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Inspiring Bloggers

Wendy of Zoom Times has nominated me for the Very Inspiring Blogger award. Thank you!

So I'm supposed to come up with seven things about me you might not know. Hmm. 

1. Despite being of Scandinavian descent and spending 5/6 of my life in the Seattle region, I hate coffee. Don't like the smell. Don't like the taste. (OK, actually I've never tasted straight coffee, but once or twice I've had a taste of mocha-flavored things and they are nasty.) Since I also hate all carbonated beverages and pretty much any sweetened beverages, I made it all the way through law school and graduated with honors without the influence of caffeine.
2. I did get a caffeine IV once, though. It was supposed to be a treatment for a spinal headache after Deux was born. It didn't help the headache, but it sure did keep me awake all night, something I didn't exactly appreciate what with having a newborn and all.
3. I suffered from chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia/or something like that through most of my teen years (13-15 and 18-20). The first time I spent a lot of time reading, got very bored with novels, and got sucked into books about government, economics and law. This led to me deciding to enter law school, which is what I was doing when the second round hit, so I already had plenty to read. 
4. However, I pretty much quit doing any other kind of school at 13, so I call myself a junior high dropout. Fortunately I had, thanks to His Majesty's encouragement, already gotten through most of high school math. I do wish I'd done more science, but it's never too late to learn and I at least enjoy reading about it now.
5. Even though I am very thankful to have been fairly healthy (allowing for pregnancies) for the past fifteen years, I do still get bouts of insomnia. However, they don't worry me anymore. It's just a great chance to lie awake and compose blog posts.
6. Also when I was a teenager, I used to cook breakfast every morning for my grandmother (His Majesty's mother), when she lived in a trailer on our farm. She had the same four or five menus she rotated through in the same way every single morning for several years. I still got it wrong every time. Fortunately she was patient. Now I do the same thing to DOB. He is patient because he knows what's good for him.
7. Whenever I have a list of seven things to complete, I always run out of ideas before I get to number seven. But maybe you knew that.

Now I'm supposed to nominate some other bloggers, and I can't nominate Wendy since she nominated me, even though I find her science classes and her children's invented holidays highly inspiring.
Also, I can't nominate Ordo Amoris, which was one of my favorite inspiring blogs ever and just recently went offline. :-(
So here are a few others, by no means comprehensive.
Dewey's Treehouse: Education, cheap menus, and imaginary squirrels. 
Afterthoughts: School plans, great linkage, and goats. (OK, confession, I have zero interest in goats. Maybe if they were imaginary.)
Semicolon: If I ever need to know what's good among what's new at the library, especially in the children's and YA section, Semicolon is the place to go.
And while we're on the topic of bloggers who inspire me to read more (like I need that), Diary of an Autodidact has just indexed all of his book reviews, and Carrie at Reading to Know has finally gotten hooked on  Harry Potter.
The Jones Home: Which inspires me to spend more time at creeks and laugh.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Courtship and Dating: Where Next?

I've written before about the problems I've seen with courtship, but I'm deliberately refraining from making any pronouncements about what would be better. My children are too young and I am too married for it to be immediately relevant or even give me grounds for immediate observation. One thing I confess is that, like many people backing away from courtship, I still felt that "casual dating" was a rather dubious proposition.

This article has me rethinking that feeling: Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed. It's probably worth clicking over to read (though not the comments, unless you're in bed with the flu), but to summarize he points out that the problem with courtship was there was no mechanism provided for single people to get to know each other *without* the pressure of an exclusive relationship, which naturally leads to heavy emotional and often physical involvement.

Courtship was a reaction to the dating culture of the 80s, at which point it had become routine for even young teenagers to date with the goal of forming serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationships as quickly as possible, maintain for several months or years, break up, then reattach to someone new. The courtship proponents were quite right that this is not a particularly healthy thing to promote--better practice for serial monogamy than permanent monogamy. So they rejected it--but they neglected to put something in its place. They just raised the stakes on the long-term, exclusive relationships by naming them courtship and putting the pressure on to move to marriage as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the dating scene was scaring off nearly everybody. Even when I was a young single, I noticed that hardly anybody I knew "dated," whether they were into courtship or not. People just hung out together. Because I mostly knew church people, it was apparently limited mostly to hanging out, but people in wilder circles had a similar phenomenon, only with hooking up added on the side. Either way, the formal emotional commitment that we had come to associate with dating was way too scary. Apparently, this phenomenon continues and dating is something of a lost art down to the present. 

Umstadd suggests we might do better to look a little farther back, to how dating was practiced by our grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents for today's teenagers). He calls it Traditional Dating. I think of Norman Rockwell:

The idea was, that there was expected to be a time period of dating in which young people were expected to go out with a number of people, not forming a serious attachment with any of them, but simply getting to know a number of different potential partners in a number of different settings. Dating was different from "going steady," which was a state that was expected to wait until the people were close to marriageable age and probably headed that direction.

He then goes on to offer some advice for singles, but since my interest in this topic is less immediate, I'm more interested in stepping back to some broader social questions. The challenge is, one person cannot single-handedly form a social convention. So it is worthwhile for people not currently in need of a partner to stop and think about what social institutions are beneficial and worthy of promotion.

I am analyzing from the Christian/traditionalist/romantic assumption that a reasonably amicable, permanent, monogamous relationship is the best and healthiest means for the expression of adult sexuality and upbringing of the next generation, and that it is in the best interest of society to smooth the path of its rising members into entering into such a relationship if they so desire. I'm not going to delve into the why of this assumption because this post is already far too long and I've barely gotten started.

The question for now is, How? Arranged marriages is one option--and some courtship advocates come very close or even openly advocate this--but no matter what you can cite for the success of such marriages in other cultures, the fact is that they have not been practiced in *this* culture for centuries, and we have not the slightest idea how to go about it. Ripping up a custom from one culture and stuffing it wholesale into another culture without all the related customs and support is like trying to transplant a cactus in the rainforest. It's not going to take.

So that leaves us with some variation of what Western cultures have long practiced--people choose their own mates, with more or less guidance from the rest of society on how, when, and whom. I notice that the time period of casual interactions has good precedents. No, it doesn't always look like the Norman Rockwell trip to the soda fountain. It might look like a social round of balls, dinners, etc. Or, at a simpler level, church socials, singing schools, and riding out together. But somehow, someway, the precedent seems strong that when people must choose their own partners, there is benefit in making a time and a place for meeting a number of different potential partners, and getting to know them on a casual basis before making a selection.

Some people will cite examples of how two people miraculously met each other in totally unexpected ways, after totally failing through normal means, as proof that such ordinary means are unnecessary or inadequate. However, as put in the film Operation: Danger, "There is a difference between recognizing miracles and depending on them." (You probably haven't seen Operation: Danger, which was a private production done by a friend from law school, and so you are missing out here.) Whatever may come about in exceptionable circumstances does not mean we should fail to promote easier circumstances for the ordinary course of events.

In reality, most of those of us who practiced courtship--especially those who practiced it more or less successfully--did have such a time. We went with what was currently acceptable and flew under the anti-dating radar--we had friends. We chatted (a lot!) online. We hung out in groups. This had some advantages. Friendship is an admirable basis for marriage. Talking is one good way to get to know each other.

It had some disadvantages, too, though. One obvious one is that, in courtship circles, it was always somewhat suspect. It wasn't supposed to lead to anything more. You were supposed to be totally disinterested, always, and if you were rather shy or if your parents were rather strict you didn't even have the option of friendship. So while it served as the necessary prelude to deeper relationships, it could do so only as long as everyone successfully pretended that it wouldn't. This was hardly a healthy situation. Even among groups that are not philosophically anti-dating, there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to whether friendship might be an acceptable prelude to romance or an absolute bar to it, and as to how or when one signals the transition. As another law school friend put it, "People are friends. Then they are confused. Then they are engaged."

I see another disadvantage to the "friendship" paradigm, and this one applies across the board: friendship is, by its nature, an open-ended, loose-formed relationship of mutual and spontaneous convenience. One doesn't *ask* someone to become a friend. It just happens. Nor does one demand exclusivity from one's friends (unless one is an obnoxious, jealous person). Nor does one have the obligation to persevere with a friend when things become difficult, or rearrange your life to preserve the friendship in its original form. I have many dear friends whom I communicate with once or twice a year.

But all these things are necessary to build a stable, monogamous sexual relationship. At some point you *do* have to make a deliberate choice. It *is* exclusive. One must rearrange one's life, and persevere in the face of difficulties. Friendship is a fine basis in one sense, and a grossly inadequate one in another. And I have to wonder if this is not a factor in the increasing delay of marriage and fear of commitment--the diminished opportunity to practice these things during the preliminary stages.

Because it seems that other getting-to-know-you settings *did* contain practice in these things. As Henry Tilney pointed out (yes, I'm still on an Austen kick), the country dance was a miniature of the marriage customs: The man had the right to ask, the woman to refuse, they both had to remain exclusive for the dance, do their best to accommodate their partner, and not act like they wished to be elsewhere.

And in another setting, the casual date of the early twentieth century provided a miniature of that era's customs: still the man has the right to ask, still the woman to refuse, there was still an expectation of loyalty for the duration of the event (as my mother would put it, you must "dance with the one who brung you"), and, reflecting the changing economic realities, the date was expected to cost money and the man was expected to provide all of it.

In other words, you had some practice, not in having a long-term intense emotional connection to another person which you then break off and try elsewhere, but in making choices, facing the possibility of rejection, focusing your attention deliberately for a season, all in a setting that openly acknowledged that finding a life partner was a worthy and deliberate goal without pressing you into a choice too soon.

This certainly does not eliminate the possibility of heartbreak, bad choices, or never finding a mate (human relationships will never come with a money-back guarantee)--but it does seem like it does what human society *can* do to help the next generation on. And I do think grownup society has such an obligation, rather than leaving the next generation to figure out sexuality from scratch, any more than we would expect them to figure out medicine from scratch. Roles and scripts can be too confining if taken too far, but if you start with nothing you spend all your time negotiating and not enough having fun.

But we can't import another generation's practices wholesale any more than we can import another culture's. Still, we can learn from what has been done and do our best to find parallels today. Perhaps in reflection of today's consumer but egalitarian culture, costs and the obligation of asking must be more evenly split. Friendships are all very well, but there needs to be a recognition and, yes, encouragement of the other dynamic. And some practice in deliberately asking, choosing, showing loyalty, in a way that does not insist on premature long-term attachments.