Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Brickfair!

Did you know we live not far from the biggest Lego festival in the whole country?!?  Okay, I’ve known for a little while, actually.  But this year, we finally managed to not be out of town so we could go and totally geek out with friends.

We saw awesome stuff like this, a freakishly accurate depiction of the Renaissance Fair:

 

And this:

And this, which looks like Anakin from one direction and Darth Vader from the other (!):

And there was a giant ball moving contraption, an entire scene from Ghostbusters, a Lego violin made to scale, and about a million other things.  As we left, BalletBoy said, “That really inspired me to build something cool out of Legos.”  No wonder!

The Dregs of Vacation

Ah.  Home.  We pulled in at the end of last week after two weeks on the road hopping through the south.  Some random vacation thoughts collected for you.  By the way, as I tried to find a way to upload the photos for this in a simpler way, WordPress published them without my wanting too.  Oops.  Sorry about that.

An early roadside stopover at a cave. I'm a sucker for a cave. It's impossible to take a good picture in them though.

Thursday, July 21, noonish
The kids start going at each other in the backseat as we wind around some really curvy roads, so I teach them how to play “Cow Count,” which was a staple from my rural childhood.  In the first twenty minutes, Mushroom counts forty-two cows and a white horse bonus.  BalletBoy counts one.  Then he passes a graveyard and his single cow dies.  “I’m not playing!” he announces.

Twenty minutes later, they are still half playing and add a new rule.  When they pass a church, two cows get married and have a baby cow to add to the count.  I’m greatly amused.

Friday, July 22, late afternoon
It is an ungodly 101 degrees at home, but it’s not even 80 in the mountains.  I feel joyfully old fashioned retreating to milder summer climes.

Sunday, July 24, lunch
Shrimp and grits, prime rib, three desserts.  I’m in heaven.

Monday, July 25, morning
BalletBoy, to the tubing guy: “But how do I steer?” The answer?  Not very well, apparently.  Also, why in the world did I forget to sunscreen my legs?

Tuesday, July 26, morning
Whee!  Sliding Rock!

Wednesday, July 27th, morning
Whee!  Another rock slide!

Just a tiny few of the books I kept lugging from one destination to the next.

afternoon
Sick kid on vacation sucks.  Thank goodness my father was nice about the sick destruction of his home.

evening
BalletBoy is so sick as I walk him to bed, he begins crying for his brother.  He doesn’t even want me anymore, he wants his twin, who worriedly obliges.  Really, Mushroom was so patient.

Thursday, July 28th, wee hours of the morning
I’m so freaked out, I turn to the Well-Trained Mind Forums for medical advice.  People oblige.  Thank you, people!  I probably should have taken the poor child to the hospital, but my father and his wife live in the middle of nowhere and my pediatrician said not to.  Is this really how I’m spending my summer trip?  I’ve seriously never seen this kid in so much pain.

morning
Hallelujah!  BalletBoy is in recovery!

afternoon
I still don’t understand why they made a movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  They just sullied the good name of Aang and company.  Hey, when does Legend of Korra come out?

The fish Mushroom caught. Being held by his fabulous Papa.

Saturday, July 30, morning
A morning that sums up the contradictions of the south.  First, I am floored by some really racist folk art painted on rocks being sold.  Second, we go to a restaurant run by a transplanted gay couple from Hollywood and I partake in some of the creamiest cheese grits I have ever had in my life.  Truly, great grits.

The classic "science museum" image. BalletBoy at Fernbank in Atlanta.
Blowing giant bubbles at Fernbank.

Monday, August 1, morning
My grandmother and I have a discussion about what constitutes expensive for an entire box filled with fresh tomatoes.  She’s not willing to go over $10.  Suffice it to say, coming from urban prices, I’ll go higher.  Then I announce I’m going to make savory pea cakes from a large part of the several pounds of pink eye peas I bought.  I’m shaking things up in the culinary world of small town Georgia.

Mushroom playing the "Plus And Minus" game from the book Less Than Nothing Is Really Something on my grandmother's counter. See those tomatoes? I canned them!

Wednesday, August 3, dusk
After having been in the car all day, listened to two whole audio books, read a whole book on his own and decoded some secret codes, BalletBoy suddenly announces he would like to do some math.  He rummages around, finds his Math Mammoth book and promptly does two pages.  “What are you doing?” Mushroom asks.  “Math!” BalletBoy says.  “Why?” Mushroom asks, baffled.  “For fun!” BalletBoy says brightly.  “Leave him alone,” I say.  “He’s doing recreational maths.”

A final roadside stopover at the Greenville Children's Museum, where the kids make a sound pinball machine. This is so perfect. Ever since going to the Pinball Museum, they've been obsessed with pinball.

Friday, August 5, afternoon
The kids wonder where in the world we will fit the food we just bought at Costco in the car packed full of all our stuff.  We pile bags of random vegetables on top of our laundry.

4:00 exactly
We roll back in at the house.  When I try to tell the kids to grab some of the groceries or bags before running off they reason with me.  “But, Mama, I need to see Daddy right now!” Mushroom says.  Oh, all right.  I guess that’s okay then.

Did I Mention We’re on Vacation?

An almost Wordless Wednesday for you – only slightly delayed.

I wish I had some pictures of some of the more exciting moments so far, but many of them, such as our trip down Sliding Rock or our trip tubing down the French Broad, have been way too wet for cameras.

Usually before I head out of town, I bank up a few posts.  That totally didn’t happen this time though.  Oops.  Maybe I’ll get something off later.  Or maybe not.  Ah, summer.

My Playground Obsession Reaches a New High…

If you live in the DC area, then I thought I’d tell you that my playground obsession reached a new level of nuts.  I started a new blog with the goal of slowly (maybe one a week or every other week) reviewing all the worthwhile playgrounds in the area – Clemyjontri, Cabin John, and the other big spots, as well as the local favorites around town like Turtle Park and Guy Mason Park.  Yes, I know, I’m a little nuts.  I just have all these visions of playground design and how it frankly sucks.  So I’m venting to the internet.  That’s what it’s there for.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can check it out here.  All brand spanking new.  Now to go out and publicize it somehow.  The world of local blogs is a new one to me.

Dear Library,

Dear Library,

We’ve had a rocky relationship over the years.  When I was little, you stocked my mother up with Paul Goble and Billy and Blaze for me.  Then you loaned me plenty of Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss.  You let me read about Ramona and allowed me to explore Welsh mythology.  I wandered away from you for awhile.  Your offerings didn’t really keep up with my academic interests, but then I discovered your collegiate incarnations and your databases that let me find articles about fantastical elements in Jane Eyre and run around the foreign language section with my friends looking up words in obscure languages.  When I actually got to college, I discovered your archives, your rolling stacks, your timed lights, and your half forgotten cataloging systems.  You helped me rediscover children’s books with a copy of The Twenty-One Balloons.

Amazon and Barnes and Nobles on every corner came along and I admit it, I forgot about you for a little while.  But now we’re back together and I hope we don’t break up for a long time.  Without you, I literally could not afford to homeschool my kids.  Sure, you provide them with cheap Secrets of Droon novels and Cynthia Rylant readers.  If I had to, I could get those at the store or even on a Kindle.  You save me money on my own young adult novel reading habit and let me sample books left and right.  But most importantly, you have books for children, many of which are out of print and most of which do not have electronic editions yet (if they will ever).  You let us read out of print books like Cranberry Thanksgiving and Anno’s Math Games.  You let me find the Young Math Books, the MathStart books, the Boston Children’s Museum Activity Books, the Janice VanCleave science books, the Let’s Read and Find Out books.  You led me to Builders of the Old World and let the kids hear biographies by Demi and Diane Stanley.  You have copies of new books for the kids like Dragonrider and old books like Finn Family Moomintroll.  You loan us audiobooks for long trips.  Without you, we would have to make book choices or go broke.  There would be no shelves bringing all these books together in one place for us to browse and discover.

I know you’re under siege these days.  I know some of the people who have Kindles and computers with high speed internet don’t seem to understand how important you are to the people who can’t afford them.  I know that every city seems to be cutting its budget and you’re first on the chopping block.  I know I get annoyed at how you house the homeless downtown, but I appreciate seeing people sitting with a book or a magazine, out of the heat, cold or rain.

So I’m holding you in the light right now.  I’m hoping you survive and even thrive.  I’m hoping you find a way to keep those old books so they don’t disappear yet also adapt to the coming world without paper and ink books.  I’m hoping your librarians keep helping people and your beautiful buildings still stand.

Sincerely,

A Book Lover

BalletBoy getting a prize for his book review at the library!

 

Maze Me

I’m slowly trying to get back to writing more regularly.  You know, in a format other than this blog.  I’ve been writing, but so sporadically.  First up, a boy chapter book project that I wrote awhile back but never got around to revising.  So I’m starting that painstaking process.

And, because there’s a maze tie in, I am randomly sharing mazes with you all.

First up, there’s some great printable mazes out there for kids and adults alike.  A simple set can be found at Print Activities.  There are other good little puzzles there too, and the mazes include number mazes for skip counting and number recognition, which we found really useful in kindergarten.  An even better source is Krazy Dad’s maze collection, which includes some really elegant mazes and some astoundingly difficult ones too.  Looking at that collection will make you wonder why anyone would ever spend money on a book of mazes.  Finally, Mazoons has printable cartoony handmade mazes that are pretty cool.

For online mazes, the simplest option is at Mazes to Print, where the “create you own” maze is actually a maze you just do on the computer.  For simple games, you can try Maze Frenzy, which has simple maze based flash games where you try to carefully move a little ball through a moving maze.  This is an old fashioned little maze game where you guide a robot through a maze that you can’t see, gathering needed items which younger kids might enjoy.

 

Of course, you all know me.  I’m a book person.  For just straight up doing mazes, you can’t beat printing them off the internet, but many maze books have excellent illustrations that make them worth a look.  And there are also some books about mazes that aren’t for using your pencils.  Two maze books I just love are Mazes Around the World by Mary Lankford, which is a nonfiction picture book about mazes.  It includes information about corn mazes, the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and meditation labyrinths, among other topics.  Another one is the wordless fiction picture book The Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman.  Lehman’s work is all wonderful, but this one is my favorite.  A boy discovers a maze inside a maze inside a maze which he must complete.  The illustrations are cartoonish and bright but somehow manage to feel like they have more depth than they might initially seem.  It’s for younger picture book readers, but I still like it as a grown up.

Dear Curriculum Writers, Don’t Use Comic Sans!

The other day, a homeschool curriculum I had vaguely considered was mentioned on a forum I read.  I felt compelled to point out that the entire curriculum was in comic sans.  Do you know what comic sans is?  It’s a font.  An unattractive, massively overused, completely unserious font that is loathed by most graphic designers.  Over the next couple of days, I thought about it and realized that it’s not just one or two curricula.  A surprising number of independently produced curricula use comic sans.  Numerous times over the last year or so I have had the experience of looking at a set of curriculum samples and realizing that the book I was considering was in comic sans and feeling a sense of turn off and disappointment.  I don’t assume that just because a press is small or independent that the quality of their writing, research, methodology or suggested educational activities are inferior.  On the other hand, the quality of their graphic design seems to be.  I wouldn’t want to base my buying choices on the font, but when I’m looking around, deciding what to use, I will freely admit it.  When I see comic sans, my first reaction is to close the samples window and move on.

The following curricula all use comic sans either as their primary font or heavily in their design scheme.  I’m sure there are others as well, but these happen to be ones where I noticed it over the last few months when I looked at their curriculum samples.

  • Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop
  • R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey
  • The Lab of Mr. Q
  • Progressive Phonics
  • Noeo
  • Writing Tales
  • Nancy Larson Science

I’m not trying to be cruel or petty.  Font choice and design is actually important to me.  I know my little blog isn’t the prettiest with its “I am completely free” limitations, and I freely admit that I’m no expert, but I do notice and appreciate good design.  Most of the programs listed above are respected programs which I heard good things about (they may not be the programs for us, but I clicked over to look at each one of them at some point because someone said they liked it).  Design isn’t just judging a book by its cover.  It can influence how we think and feel as well as ease of use.  It conveys a certain mood and attitude.  Let me tell you, the mood of comic sans isn’t really the mood I want for our homeschool.

So, if by some off chance any aspiring curriculum writers happen to be reading my blog, don’t use comic sans.  Please.  If you think its appropriate, maybe use one of these fonts instead.

A Ring of Endless Light

I first read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle around age eleven or twelve.  At the time, I was completely besotted with L’Engle’s works.  Actually, I probably still am, but not on the same obsessed level.  In an era before the internet, I tracked down every one of L’Engle’s books, even almost unknown titles, and purchased them one by one by ordering them through my local bookstore.  The characters she created were people I related to.  The questions she raised were ones that I wanted to think about.

On the first go around, I don’t think I thought much more about this book than any of the others.  Madeleine L’Engle had certain characters she returned to over and over in her books.  This one deals with Vicky Austin and her family when they go to stay with her dying grandfather one summer on the small Massachusetts island where he lives.  Vicky is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, shown so well by her middle child status.  She unexpectedly becomes the object of affection for three very different young men, one of whom is interning for the summer studying dolphins.  On the first go around, somehow the poetry (Vicky reads and writes a lot of poetry), the romances and the dolphins took center stage for me.

But then I reread it at some point, perhaps a year or two later, at age thirteen or fourteen, and the whole thing just hit me smack in the face.  This was a book about death.  Death runs through the story on every level.  The opening scene is a funeral.  Each of the young men has suffered a loss – of a friend, a father and a mother respectively – and is in the midst of dealing with it in a different way.  Vicky must face her grandfather’s impending death from cancer and must help with his care giving.  She sees death at the hospital when runs errands.  She even sees death among the dolphins and the birds.  I remember very distinctly reading the whole book through in one sitting and just weeping over the story.

Many years later, I was living alone in China when, through sad coincidence, both of my grandfathers became ill and passed away within a short period of time.  I went to Hong Kong for a weekend and visited one of the used bookshops packed with musty old editions brought from the U.S. and the U.K.  There, at the top of a shelf, was a first edition of A Ring of Endless Light.  I pulled it down and just holding it I teared up.  I bought the book and reread it, feeling like it had found me when I really needed someone to talk to about death when I had no one nearby.  It felt like this book had taught me things when I was young that I needed to return to as an adult to understand.

L’Engle was a Christian writer, solidly in the tradition of C.S. Lewis or George MacDonald.  She used her books to explore ideas about God and morality.  I’ve written just a little about my own religious beliefs here before (I was raised as a very liberal Baptist, but we currently attend a Unitarian Universalist church) but L’Engle’s very literary-leaning Episcopalianism has always been right up my alley spiritually.  She’s never heavy handed or judgmental so I think those who don’t share her beliefs can still find a lot to enjoy in her works.  In many ways, I would say she is one of the forces that most shaped my religious beliefs.

Our family lost someone last week, someone much loved and cherished.  For the boys, I had picture books about death, like Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gifts.  However, as I looked on the shelf for something to bring for myself to read on the trip, somehow my hand reached for that first edition I found in Hong Kong years ago, as if it might still have yet another level of revelation for me, or maybe just so I could take comfort in the poetry of a familiar tale.