Friday, September 30, 2011

Not Ten TV Shows I've Enjoyed

Because I really can't come up with ten, but thanks to Carrie at Reading to Know, I'm going to give it a whirl with the ones I can.

Truth is, I hate most television shows. I hate knowing ahead of time exactly what's going to happen next. And most TV shows run on predictability. There are shows I really tried to like--Numbers is one--because of the characters, but if I can walk in at any point, watch two minutes and tell you exactly how far along it is, whodunnit, and what's going to happen next, then I'm just not interested.

It's got to have plot, yes it does. I know there are only six plots in the world, but keep me guessing on which one it's going to be and how it's going to get there. And character development--not just characters I like, but characters I am curious about what they're going to turn into. And difficult moral questions. Not "good guys" and "bad guys" but real, honest people who might choose good and who might choose bad.

Or you can get me with a good laugh.

We don't watch much with the kids, but I'll try to include a ratings comment in case you wonder.

1. Lost

This is the one we just finished. And yes, it had it all. Plot that developed mind-blowing new complications in nearly every episode. Characters that you loved to hate and hated to love and couldn't wait to see how they might grow. "Bad" people getting second chances . . . and third chances . . . and "good" people finding out what was under the facade. I loved it.

Suitability for Small Hippos: It's about people's choices. Some of those are really bad ones. Some of those get shown a little more onscreen than probably should happen. It's also really, really scary at times. OK, most of the time.

2. Babylon 5

Another one with fascinating characters, unpredictable plot twists, and difficult moral questions. Plus, this one has exploding spacecraft! Like all sci-fi, it shows its age a little. (We've got intergalactic travel, but no cell phones?) But on the whole, very well thought-out. I also appreciate that it's one of those rare works of science fiction that doesn't treat religion as either irrelevant or malevolent, but still a significant factor in the life of sentients. The series as a whole seems to favor a kind of proactive pantheism, but even the occasional devout Christian gets respectful treatment. The first four seasons are awesome--the fifth one kind of got tacked on, and is comparatively lame, but by that point we were too hooked to stop.
Suitability for Small Hippos: The camera tends to pan out when necessary (except for some in the last season), but because of themes it would need some judicious editing for me to show it to young teens. Plus I don't think anyone younger would enjoy it.

3. Jeeves and Wooster

And now for something completely different . . . OK, so this has no character development and the moral questions come down to, "If Aunt Dahlia says you MUST pinch the cow creamer, then what else can you do?" But Wodehouse is Wodehouse, and if you don't find it hilarious then there is something seriously wrong with you and you should probably seek professional help. Immediately. And then watch it.
Suitability for Small Hippos: Well, we let OUR kids watch it. They haven't started drinking cocktails or pinching cow creamers yet. The Duchess did develop strong opinions on the proper clothing for gentlemen, though.

4. Neverwhere

It had me at the use of the Underground stations. Of course there should be Black Friars at Blackfriars! And an Earl's Court at Earl's Court! It kept me going with great characters, epic adventure, and subtle but deep examination of serious questions. It's only a miniseries, so maybe it doesn't count, and maybe if it does I should lump in all the adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and George Eliot I've enjoyed (and in that case, we WILL make it to ten and then some), but I think in this case the miniseries came before the book so I'll count it.
Suitability for Small Hippos: Very scary and some very creepy characters, but highly recommended for the strong of stomach.

5. Fawlty Towers

We've actually only watched this in little chunks on YouTube, but John Cleese is hilarious at any resolution.
Suitability for Small Hippos: As I recall, the only things there were to get wouldn't be gotten by anyone too young to get them.

6. Poirot

Does this count? I think there are movie-length ones and TV-length ones. OK, so there's complete predictability (Poirot WILL deduce who did it) and no character development (Hastings will always be lovable and dumb). However, at least one is always kept guessing as to who will prove to be the murderer and how Poirot will figure it out. I can't watch in large doses, but every once in a while I enjoy one.
Suitability for Small Hippos: Well, murder is kind of nasty and people usually do it for rather nasty reasons. However, that stuff takes place off screen. There have been a few which I would have preferred not to see for thematic reasons, although I suspect those tend to be the more recent ones. I would watch many of them with youngish teens.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Now *We* Are Six

I probably used the same title for the Duchess, but how else can you say it? There's just something about being six. Six year olds are, without a doubt, Big. And clever as clever.

Deux is fond of climbing on things--he just figured out how to use the laurel to climb over the neighbor's fence, although as far as I know he hasn't acted on that knowledge yet. He can build with Legos or train tracks for hours and hours and hours.

He has told me (though it was on a bad day) that he doesn't like to read, it's just that when he sees words he can't help it, but nonetheless one sees him enjoying a Tintin or Calvin and Hobbes book from time to time, or books about wild animals or knights. He can fold a load of towels all by himself, even the big ones, and he's working on learning to vacuum. He loves to watch the waves behind a boat.

The world inside his head is still going strong, and he has invented a language for it and is working on an alphabet. When there's a war going on inside his head, though, he likes to have it quiet on the outside; otherwise the good guys might lose.

Last Saturday he got to make a trip to the Lego store, pick out his own set (two pirate sets) and then come home and build all afternoon. Tonight we will be having a peanut butter cake and he will decorate it to look like a shield.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Real Play, Fake Play

Grownups must periodically rediscover that play is an Important Thing for children to do. This time around, it's being touted for its value in developing "executive function": the ability to plan, exercise self-control, negotiate, and persist. Which is, of course, absolutely correct. All young mammals play at exactly what they need as grown-ups. Young tigers play at pouncing on things, and young cows play at running into things. Young people play at managing small worlds of their own devising.

But the great danger is that as soon as grownups discover that something is important for children, they will ruin it by turning it into something children Have to Do. At which point, if you are under the age of 12, you instantly realize that it's not playing any more.

So I have very mixed feelings when I hear about something like these Tools of the Mind classrooms. Sure, it's better that children be given time to play than herded into one worksheet after another. But by the time you've sat down with a teacher, made an official plan for playing, then been required to stick to that plan for a designated period of time--well, that doesn't sound much like playing anymore. The children aren't the executives any more, they're only the middle managers.

And when I got to the bottom and read in the Q&A, "How much of our 7.5 hour kindergarten day should be devoted to playing?" and saw the answer, "Kindergarteners should play for at least 30 or 40 minutes a day," I gave up. Thirty or forty minutes? Out of 7.5 hours? Five year olds? Now I understand you need time for eating and resting and picking up and an ungodly lot of time for going potty, but still. Thirty or forty minutes of work on letters and numbers and the rest of the time spent playing would be a much better balance, and produce much better results both in literacy and general sanity.

Play is important for children because it's what children are wired to do. It's like real food: we can try to scientifically analyze the different parts and functions, but no one will ever come up with a pill that has the same effect on mind and body as eating a vine-ripe home-grown tomato. And we'll never come up with an activity for children that is as beneficial as real play. But it's only real play if the grownups can keep their grimy mitts off it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Day in the Life

I can't remember when I last did a post like this, but I feel like doing another, and since this is my blog, I will.

I won't blog Monday, though. Monday started at 3 a.m. with Dot stuck under the Duchess' bed and ended at 8:30 p.m. after the beans finally cooked enough to eat. With several intervening crises to liven up the middle.

No, let's stick with today, which wasn't amazing, but pretty good.

I got up sometime 6:30ish and went for a walk. I explored woods in backs of places I probably shouldn't have been and discovered another shortcut through parts of the neighborhood I didn't know were connected. And I managed to sneak out without waking any kids up, which is a major achievement for me.

When I got back, DOB got up and started getting ready for work, the kids got up and I doled out the M&Ms awarded for staying in bed the evening before. (Shameless, but it works.) And some leftover breakfast from the day before, so that Dash wouldn't dissolve completely before the rest of breakfast was ready. Then I fixed breakfast to go for DOB and breakfast to stay for the rest of us.

After breakfast we went through a random and harried process of getting clothes on, starting laundry, clearing the table (I hope at some point they will just *do* this without four minutes of lamentation over having to do it at all, followed by four minutes of lamentation because someone else cleared *their* dishes first) and doing the dishes.

We started school a little before nine. First we have singing time, which at times is randomly-leaping-around-the-kitchen time, but which is meant to cover a variety of memory work. Then I give the twins a lesson (consisting of air-writing "a" and "b" and then looking at pictures of birds--I'm not much on fancy preschool stuff) while the older two do free reading, except today Deux spent most of this time sulking that I never do fun things with just the big kids. He seems to have a bad case of preschool envy, a common complaint of first graders.

Next we do a writing lesson--today we focus on spelling words with "ing" for the big kids. The twins focus on making interesting marks all over their papers and then folding them up like accordions.

Then the Duchess reads some more of "Aladdin and his Magic Lamp" to me while Deux reads some of Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig to the twins. This goes well. Reading they like.

Next on the agenda is me reading aloud a chapter of the Burgess Bird Book, a book that tells the basic features and habits of many common birds in a story form. First, though, we have to settle whose crayons are whose, a process of several minutes. We manage to read and discuss the chapter to some extent, plus look at the bird and listen to its song online.

By now it is about ten, time to get ready to go on our nature walk. The Duchess herds everyone out to the car while I assemble one of my signature picnic lunches: unpeeled hardboiled eggs, a bag of chips, and carrot sticks. And the diaper bag, whose absence we sorely regretted on Tuesday, and any other day I decide we really are totally past all that.

We go to nature preserve in a wetlands, and I promptly get two mosquito bites. I dread the future as I have forgotten any kind of repellent, but those turn out to be the only ones of the whole trip. We meet up with some friends and everyone is eager to go explore. I brought the notebooks along for sketching, but no one is interested except Dash, who draws a rose hip you would recognize if you knew he was drawing rose hips. And the Duchess, who wants to record the important event of playing with friends. Mostly, though, we just wander on the trails and test the fuzz on cattails and caterpillars.

We get home about two in the afternoon and after some meandering about I sit down to read to the twins. They both want to pick a poem from A Child's Garden of Verses; they both want to pick a book. I suddenly realize I have had it. I tell them I'll read Dot's poem and Dash's book (Blueberries for Sal), and then I put them hastily to bed, Dot in our room listening to a Little House book on CD, Dash in the kids' room listening to Winnie the Pooh on CD. The big kids start an elaborate game involving a lot of paper dolls and magazine scraps. I do some stretches because my TMJ is acting up, surf on the computer for awhile, then write up our school activities in my notebook.

When I feel up to it, I let Deux have a turn playing Ninjatown on the Nintendo DS while Duchess reserves some books on her brand-new personal library card. I remember that this is supposed to be Clean The Bathroom day on the housekeeping schedule, and decide to do it because I did already take all the towels out to wash them, so it would be a pity to waste it. When Deux's turn is up, Duchess takes a turn and Deux and I sit down to read a story and do some advance play with the twins' next activity. I hope this helps with the preschool envy. Then they go back to playing and I continue on my fruitless quest to get an A on every single level of Ninjatown. And I reserve a bunch of library books for myself. Work has been slow for the past couple weeks, which is actually kind of nice to give me time to get into a good school routine. So I can just be lazy in the afternoons.

Somehow it gets to be awfully close to five o'clock. I put potatoes in the oven to cook and wake up Dash, who is in the just-about-done-with-naps stage where they fall asleep too late and wake up cranky as a bear. Dot is already up the instant her second CD is over--she never sleeps anymore. We take the garbage out to the road and get the mail. The kids fold the laundry--Deux instructs Dash in how to fold towels. I think the big kids have figured out that the faster they teach the twins to do housework, the more they can get out of. Suits me, as I hate teaching how to do housework.

I try to shoo everyone outside to play, but they mostly wander in and out, brandishing sticks. I make broccoli-cheese sauce for the potatoes and carrot salad. Duchess sets the table. I call DOB, but he has two projects to wind up, so we go ahead and eat without him, listening to some Mozart while we are at it.

Everyone wanders off and is playing quietly after supper. I meander around, doing dishes, putting bread in the machine for the morning, and sitting down at the computer. (Having a computer in the kitchen is a feature, not a bug--otherwise I tend to not sit down when I need to and wear myself out.)

Suddenly I realize that it's past bedtime and the quiet of earlier in the evening has departed. I try to get everyone to brush their teeth and settle down. Deux and Dash get into a fight over matchbox cars, and the Dot slams Deux's head with the bathroom door. Poor Deux is not having a very good day.

DOB arrives home, very hungry and tired. We have prayer and then put everyone to bed, which doesn't go so well because all the children have gone through tired to hyper and all the adults have gotten to tired and stayed there. Nonetheless, it happens. Duchess, Deux and Dash settle down in the kids' room listening to The Book of Three (which I sincerely hope is not too scary for them--if they have nightmares about undead warriors it's all my fault--but they've never been prone to nightmares, not since Deux was a toddler and told me one morning, "An alligator came into my room last night, but I ate it.") Dot goes down on her mattress in our room and listens to By the Shores of Silver Lake. (After she falls asleep and all the cds are over we'll drag her back in with the other kids.)

DOB sits down to eat and read files. I sit down to write this. Pretty soon we should go to bed. Maybe we'll play a card game first. We'll definitely have dessert first. We finished the final season of Lost last week and haven't felt like watching anything since.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Organizer

I just put the scheduled last load of laundry in the dryer, made sure the planned chili beans were turned on to cook for supper, and reserved the library books for us to pick up next week for the following week of school. In a few minutes I'll set us all onto our list of afternoon chores.

I'm not sure I can handle this level of organization.

For most of the past, my approach to domestic duties has been:
1. Is there food to eat?
2. Is there anything clean to wear, should need arise?
3. Then go to bed, finally!

Over the last couple of years that stage has gradually faded, but with drastic life changes happening every six weeks or so, I've stayed entirely on the defensive. However, I now find myself with a house to run, children old enough to hire, and a lack of any dramatic life-changing events for over a month! It is time to try being organized.

I don't like reading about other people's organizational ideas. I find this advice usually written by two kinds of people:

1. People who are so naturally organized that they have absolutely nothing to say to those of more random inclinations. I remember reading one book prattling about the need for customizing your plan to suit you, "After all, some people think dusting needs to be done every day while others think once a week is sufficient." Um, yes. Or perhaps, once a year, right before putting up the Christmas decorations.

2. People who are somewhat random, but who have forgotten that the main reason they are so much more organized than they were ten years ago is that their children are ten years older than they were ten years ago. The laziest teenager has nothing on the mess-generating capacity of a toddler trying to be helpful.

Thus, people will assure you that if you just do a little bit every day, things will never get out of hand. This may be true for some people. It is not true if you have two three-year-olds. It's definitely not true if you have a tendency to say, "Oh sure, why not?" to children's ideas of what to do and only later realize that you have just officially endorsed the plan to paper the entire house with catalog cut-outs. A house with small children goes from neat to out-of-hand in three minutes flat.

And the trouble is, if I'm following a real housekeeping schedule and *trying*, I actually get annoyed by this. If I'm just waltzing along and cleaning when I feel like it, I don't really care that I never quite get all the way to neat. If I mop for an occasion, then the floor is mopped for that occasion and we can all stay out of the mud puddles until the occasion is over and then mud away. If I mop because it's Mopping Day, then I suddenly turn into a neat freak who wants to duct-tape the children to the ceiling where they won't touch anything.

Which is another reason why I don't follow other people's organizing advice. At least if I make up my own housekeeping schedule, I can have all the fun of designing a schedule. Planning is something I'm good at. Making beautiful charts. Lining everything up. It's innocent fun, and so what if I never follow it? Whereas if I followed someone else's plan, I'd miss out on the only fun part and move straight to feeling guilty.

There really is only one thing that's holding me to a schedule thus far, and that is that it's easier and more fair to get children to help if there's a definite plan for them versus Mother suffering from sporadic bouts of wailing and guilt-tripping, interspersed by letting them run wild.

After considering the different schools of thought on Children and Work and Money, we decided to come up with our own system that would make things as complicated as possible. So they have a baseline allowance that they get just for existing, and they also have jobs (mostly pertaining to meals) that they have to do if they want to continue to exist. Then they have jobs they can do for hire, if they want to make enough money to actually do anything with, things that add to the niceties of life like folded clothes and clean floors. But to keep these jobs available to be done, I have to make sure the prerequisites are in place--that there actually is clean laundry to fold in manageable quantities, and that we can locate precisely where we last left the floor. Which means sticking to the schedule.

Some are born organized, some achieve organization, and some have organization thrust upon them. When the children leave home, I'm going to sweep the floors when I *feel* like sweeping the floor, and not before!