Friday, October 29, 2010

Four things For Friday

1. Have you ever listened to E.B. White read his books on CD? As you know, Kate DiCamillo and I agree that Charlotte's Web may be the finest book ever written for children. It's the first long chapter book I read with each of my children when they are around four and a half. The chapter entitled "Dr. Dorian" should be required reading tucked in to every newborn's bassinet. But to hear Mr. White read, ah, that's another thing altogether. To borrow his own phrasing, it's not often that you find someone is both a great writer and a good narrator. E.B. White is both.

(We were listening to him read The Trumpet of the Swan recently and it occurred to me that both books feature animals communicating with humans in writing -- Charlotte with her web, Louis with his slate. Yet very few of the humans find anything extraordinary in that ability; in fact, the general consensus in Charlotte's Web is that it couldn't possibly be the spider writing the words, but rather some supernatural gift of the pig causing the words to miraculously appear. Do you think Mr. White is saying something about how the general public values writing ability?)

2. I made my own deodorant using this simple recipe from Passionate Homemaking. It works better than anything I've bought, especially at the natural foods store, and has none of that scary aluminum stuff in it. Yeehaw.

3. The kids and I just read Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" over lunch. Don't you love that poem? That haunting feeling of never knowing "what if?" just speaks to me, although it sure is easier to trust God's sovereignty over our choices. These lines jumped out at me:

"Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back."

Here's a poem Caroline wrote this week. Unbiased me thinks it's brilliant. 

The Sparo Rim

i hav n wish

The Sparrow Rhyme

"I have no rhyme!"

4. Before or after every parent reads "Dr. Dorian," I also recommend watching this one-minute video entitled "The Years are Short." I can't say it better than this film. 

Have a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Our Geography Club

This year, we've banded together with a few other families from our church to learn some geography together.

At the beginning of the semester, we got together to brainstorm and find out from the kids which countries they were most interested in learning about. For this semester, we have England, China, Belize and France on the docket. I hosted England in September, since my girls had lobbied for that topic. And this week, we celebrated our tiny fraction of knowledge of that vast nation known as China.

Basically, we gather once a month for potluck of dishes from our spotlighted country (motto: If You Cook it, They Will Come.) Then each of the children, ages 13 to 4, gives some sort of presentation on a topic completely of their own choosing.

The first month, Ian covered Weapons of Medieval Warfare in England. This month, he covered Weapons of Medieval Warfare in China. I can't wait 'til we get to Belize!

The girls have both confessed to feeling nervous about presenting to the group, but they've both gotten up there and, armed with visual aids, given two-minute presentations. Short and aesthetically appealing -- could you ask for better?

(Caroline's wearing the chi pao her aunt lent her and carrying the fan her doting uncle brought her from China.)

Our hostess taught  the children some Chinese characters and let them practice with calligraphy brushes.

For the potluck, we made our own fortune cookies. Would you believe that a) I found out two minutes before leaving the house that fortune cookies were actually invented in New York City, and b) I watched a how-to video online made  by Paula Deen???

(Confucius say, fortune cookies not contain fried eggs or Krispy Kreme donuts.)

(Confucius also say, fortune cookies normally crispy and not look like pancakes ... but we're just going to let Confucius sit quietly by himself in the corner.)

We made up our own fortunes, ranging from "Your fortune is ... a Nerf Gun attack!!!!!" (Ian) to "Good things come to those who wait," (Eliza) to "You are beautiful" (Caroline) to "You will leave your dirty socks at the Diller home very soon" (me).

It's almost frightening, the way I can predict the future.

Either that, or I'm scarily good at learning from the past.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Boys 2 Men

A friend was over at our house yesterday with her three boys, who were tearing around the house with my boy, engaging in heated battle. In other words, Nerf Gun nirvana.

My friend and I talked about the Dilemma of the Modern Boy. Or perhaps, the Dilemma of the Parent of the Modern Boy. It can be summed up as follows: We want them to read great, enriching books. They want to play video games.

Are you with me on this?

This is a hot topic with nearly every parent-of-a-boy I know. Nothing gets the eyes rolling faster, the angst level in the conversation ramped up higher. And we all agree, we can restrict the video games and screen time until our hair stands on end, but the bottom line is, the more you make something a precious commodity, the more it becomes, well, precious. On the other hand, they clearly need limits. I know of what I speak.

My friend related a conversation she'd had with her middle son. She'd made the stump speech most of us have made at one point or another: "You know, J., a long time ago, people didn't have ANY electronics for entertainment, and they still managed to have lots of fun."

His response was telling, "Yeah, but Mom, they had creeks to explore and Indians to watch out for and real guns to shoot!"

Here's what we concluded: Boys today have the same drive they've had wired into them for thousands of years. They need excitement. They need that feeling of being in a groove, preferably lubricated with adrenalin. They need the joy of achievement. In the words of Daniel Pink, they're seeking purpose, flow, and mastery. (Girls seek that too -- maybe just differently. Generalizing here.)

And what do video games provide them with? Purpose, flow, and mastery. Structured, reliable, unemotional feedback. The opportunity to defeat enemies and obstacles, and to conquer their previous skill level. There's some adrenalin in there. There's the bonding with, and recognition from, peers.

Last year Ian and read aloud the wonderful book Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers. We both recognized how Ralph, the main character who literally comes of age in the course of the book on the Colorado frontier, had his deepest needs met by learning the art of ranching and contributing to his family's living, riding herd with the cowboys and earning his dad's respect. This kid was not bored. As a ten year old, he worked long days all summer minding the neighbor's cattle -- alone. His family needed the money. He needed to learn what it would mean to be a man. (See also, Secondhand Lions.) 

My friend and I realized how hard it is to provide our boys with this kind of experience today. We live in neighborhoods with yards. Labor that contributes meaningfully to the family's welfare and gives them a sense of purpose, flow, mastery is scarce.

So we do our best -- giving them chores (cleaning toilets isn't stacking firewood, but it's a whole lot better than nothing), taking them to Scouts, sending them to camp or whatever we can. We do our best -- working from a whole new script we're writing together, hoping that boys can still be boys, trusting God for the men they will become.

(Some photos courtesy of Stefani)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

iPod, iPhone, iWhatever Users ... Your Advice Please.

Help me, Obi-Wan.

So a week or so we refinanced our house (rock-bottom rates, student loans to pay off, yadda yadda) and due to a small resulting windfall, the Diller Academy of Higher Learning acquired one of these:

Yeah. An  iPad

I'm not someone who likes to parade my possessions, and I'm not certainly NOT someone who tends to have the latest and greatest technothingamabob, but we had our reasons for why this particular purchase made sense for our family. 

Just yesterday, we listened to Pandora while doing chores, looked up weevils in Wikipedia, played games to practice multiplication and addition facts (Ian and Eliza), listened to a message from the Book of Isaiah while doing dishes (me), played with "paper" dolls (Caroline), read a Chekhov short story (me), caught a 5-minute NPR news summary, played several rounds of Scramble (Ian and two friends), etc. Today we worked on learning states and capitals, among other things.

But now I'm asking you. If you have an iGadget of any kind, what are your (or your kids') favorite apps? Obviously I'm biased in favor of the educational ones, but the mind is open. 

My kids' favorite apps: (free or cheap)
- Paper Town Friends
- Cut the Rope
- Mad Math
- Scramble
- Cupcakes! 
- Some phonics game (ABC Lite, I think)

So, what are we missing???

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Tale of Butterflies

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved beautiful things.

She longed to have a monarch butterfly of her very own, although her mother explained to her that such a pet would not live in captivity.

She asked her mother to please, please, please, help her plant some milkweed so that monarch caterpillars would come, eat, hibernate, and metamorphose. Her mother took her that very day to the local  nursery where they selected one milkweed plant for the front garden.

Six months later, they caught daily glimpses of a monarch or two, making its fall home before heading south to Mexico. They also saw a couple butterflies that looked like monarchs ... but a little bit different.

They consulted their beloved Stokes Butterfly Book and found that they had both a Monarch and a Queen, the two members of the milkweed butterfly family.

Her mother also discovered, in the resources section of the Stokes book, a volume written by one Dave Winter and his wife. Many many years ago, the mother's father had taken the family to visit the home of Dave Winter, his colleague in pediatrics, who had an enormous collection of butterflies.

In fact, according to the Resources section, there is a Lepidopterists Society based in the mother's hometown.

Very little else of scientific renown is based in the mother's hometown.

The little girl and her mother will make a pilgrimage there at their earliest convenience.

The End.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Multitude Monday

holy experience

This is a great day to start this new gratitude endeavor ... because it wasn't a great day. Know what I mean? The kind of day when it takes some firmness of will to breathe out the words, "Thank You for ..."

Here goes. 

I'm thankful today for these gifts:

1. The beautiful outdoors -- the sound of the windchimes and the rustling leaves, the sunshine, the invitation to play outside and build bowers under branches. 

2. Enforced rest time this past weekend. A yellow jacket stung me during my Saturday morning run, and the pain became excruciating, lasting all day. I had to stay home from a wedding, which meant I didn't get to dress up and dance with my date (the Professor, who went alone). And I love weddings. But the kids went on their prearranged playdate, and after swallowing my disappointment, I decided to embrace the unexpected quiet time. To read, to watch a Jane Austen movie my sister brought me, to dine alone on the patio. All while icing my hand (and sending whiny texts to my brother, an anesthesiologist-in-training). Sorry, not quite at the point of  being thankful for a bee sting. 

3. A neighbor who thoughtfully dropped off a box of hand-me-down craft books for my girls. For them, this is sustenance to their souls. (Dr. Dobson, I see, has a book out now called Bringing Up Girls: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Women. Would you like to know my practical advice for raising girls? I can sum it up in two sentences: 1. Validate their feelings. 2. Do tons of crafts. Do some together, and let them craft on their own by providing plenty of inexpensive supplies. There you go. That'll be $Free Ninety Five, please.) 

4. Pumpkin-scented candles that put the "homey" in "home."

5. Thrift-store bargains. Hello, GapKids jean skirt for $3.50! Hello, boys size 10 cargo pants in perfect condition for $4.00! So glad to have met you!

6. A God who keeps telling me, when I moan, "I'm not the right person for this," where "this" means "homeschooling and parenting a child with learning differences" ... "no, but I AM -- and I'm making you the right person for this."

7. Peanut butter chocolate-chip cookies, gluten-free and fresh out of the oven. 

8. Project Life by Becky Higgins. Yes, I'm weeks behind on my journal cards, but no matter -- I love seeing the chronicle of our ordinary life unfolding, and my kids already love reviewing it. Hooray for that. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Four things For Friday

1. From my neighbor and friend, who's also a pediatrician: A recent study from Sweden suggests kids with attentional difficulties may focus better in the presence of white noise. Now that's counterintuitive.  Do we need a fish tank? Or should we study at the food court at the mall?

2. We spent the morning with Stefani and her three delightful boys at the Austin Nature and Science Center. Somehow, that giant Dino Digging pit never loses its charm. Even better, the ANSC has a trading counter, staffed by a naturalist, where kids can bring the treasures they find in the wild or posters they've made and earn points, which they use to "purchase" other folks' treasures. Caroline brought in two large chunks of calcite, thanks to some help from her big brother. Never one to let a windfall burn a hole in her pocket, she promptly spent her points on ten vertebrae. The naturalist also gave the kids a mini lesson about the Mexican plums they found on the ground. Love this place.

3. We just finished listening to Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's prequel to Peter Pan, on CD. It's an absolutely riproaring yarn narrated by a fabulous voice actor, Jim Dale. Find it at the library. We were all on the edge of our seats. And our booster seats.

4. The Texas Book Festival, Laura Bush's baby, is this weekend, and for once we're actually in town for it. We may go. I haven't decided. How can I turn down a giant book festival? If you know me, you know I feel festive about books. On the other hand, I'm not feeling jazzed about any of the authors in particular, and lately our weekends have been soooo busy, almost crazily so. Plus, I told Ian that if he finished the entire Guardians of Ga'hoole series before the movie left the theaters, I'd take him on a date to see it. This is a huge treat. The movie will probably disappoint after the books, but we all have to learn that tough life lesson sooner or later.

Have a wonderful autumn weekend!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Are You Busy?

Friends, I've been reading a wonderful book that has me by the heartstrings.

I don't often post about spiritual reading on this blog, mostly because my small audience is pretty diverse. Some folks aren't interested in Christian ministry, not even a smidge. Other folks only like books of a certain flavor -- understood. But still, this is my blog and I need to be true to what's speaking to and through me now.

Having A Mary Heart in a Martha WorldRight after Caroline's accident, a kind and generous friend from our homeschool co-op gave me a bag of books. I finally started reading Having A Mary Heart in a Martha World and realized that the author, Joanna Weaver, understands where I live. Where many of us live. Are you busy? Anxious? Crowded with responsibilities? Easily distracted? Rushed or perfunctory in your time with God?

The title alludes to the famous sisters from Bethany Jesus befriended during His time on earth. One was a do-er, laden with responsibility. (Aren't we all?) She was rockin' that to-do list. One was able to somehow lay those burdens aside and sit at His feet to listen and just BE with Him.

Here are the two things that have touched me the most from my recent reading, both presented using very apt word pictures:

1. When we go beyond what He asks of us and accept burdens that He has not laid upon us, we end up stressed, overloaded and resentful, working FOR Him but not in oneness with Him. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

2. Life presents us with many dishes that are like empty calories, superficially filling our needs when what we're really craving is time with Him. "If you're having a little trouble feeling close to God -- or even wanting to draw close -- you might want to consider what activities you are using to fill the empty places of your life. What's taking the edge off your hunger for Him?"

Personally, I know that often during the day, at home with the children, I'm tempted to dash into the other room to check my email or Facebook. Why? Probably for a sense of connection with other people over five feet tall. But lately as I try to curb that habit and just focus on being present with the kids and whatever I'm doing, I've been asking HIM to fill that need for connection.

Something to muse over, no?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Monday!

My littlest gal is sportin' some fancy new footwear.

Mothers of girls, please tell me I'm not simply the victim of a psychiatric illness. Exhibit A: I love buying  clothes for my girls. With great difficulty, I restrain myself -- and buy most items secondhand. Exhibit B: I hate buying them shoes. Summer shoes are fine; we do very little that can't be accomplished in a pair of cute flip flops or tennis shoes. But fall/winter footwear? This eats my lunch. Kicks my hiney. Because unlike boys, girls cannot simply have a single pair of high-quality shoes that covers 95% of their life situations. And I feel like having at least one pair of shoes that offers arch support and decent longevity PLUS cuteness in is important. (And yes, I'm aware that having this dilemma in the first place is a luxury denied to millions of mothers worldwide.)

So we breezed into the local shoe store intent on finding a pretty yet practical shoe for the fall, one that would go with dresses and jeans if they would ever consent to wear them, and Caroline sees this pair on the shelf. Instantly, that pair is THE PAIR OF CHOICE. No other pair even received more than a passing glance. She assured me that yes, she would wear these with everything and yes, she would tie them herself with no complaints. Apparently, these are to shoes what Truman is to boys. End of story.

I envy her that decisiveness. Her sister is more like me, the decision ever eluding her, the possibility of some other, better, choice out there constantly plaguing her. "Whatever you think, Mom," she told me after we ran our eyeballs over every single pair in the store and proceeded to leave, unsatisfied.

They're like that with their newest project, too. Caroline was bound and determined to learn to knit, and her God-bless-the-man-for-his-abiding-patience daddy finally sat down and taught her. Five days later, she had this:

Notice the quantity. Notice the expanding rows of stitches. Notice the holes -- but remember she's four.

Eliza, not to be outdone, asked for a lesson. Her work now looks like this:

One works slowly and carefully. One's fast and loose. The yin and the yang. They complement one another to perfection.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Best Little Chore Chart in Texas

{All right -- on our street, perhaps.}

Do you like?

It took me months -- YEARS -- to make a reliable chore system, but when I did, I couldn't resist some aesthetic flair.

Here's how it works. We  have a bunch of cards, each with a daily chore written on it. I also have some chores that only need to be done twice a week (changing the hand towels, e.g.) that have a double border on them, and some once-a-weekers that have a single border on them. Like helping Mom clean out the van or dusting the living room. It works out to about 10-12 chores per day.

After breakfast, we divvy up the duties. The kids rotate through first, second, and third choice -- Monday Caroline gets first pick, Tuesday Eliza gets it, etc. Guess who always gets last pick? (Can you even call it a "pick" if that person, who happens to be the tallest and theoretically most mature, just gets whatever's left? The orphan chores, so to speak?)

Everyone picks three. When you're done with the chore, you take the card out of your pocket and stick it in the "Done" pocket.

If you feel uninspired, Helpful Mom has thoughtfully put motivational words on the chore chart to fire you up about contributing cheerfully to the family. It works every time!

Uh-huh. Yeah. That's exactly how it is.

 At least it's kind of pretty!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How to Kill a Mockingbird

This is what happens when you get a bunch of award-winning popcorn-selling Cub Scouts together for a Caveman Dinner at the park. They use no utensils, spaghetti & meatballs are served along with jello, pudding, and whipped cream, and an all-out food fight quickly ensues. It's pure, unadulterated mayhem. 

That's Ian with his pal Sawyer, by the way. And normally I don't share other kids' full names in cyberspace, but I simply have to tell you that Sawyer has a baby sister named ... Scout Evangeline Stone. How cool is that?! Scout Stone. I can see her name in lights one day.

It tickles me when Sawyer explains her name as, "You know, like in How to Kill a Mockingbird." There's something about that "how" that just cracks me up. Like it's an instruction manual (Step One: Load Pellet Gun, etc.) rather than a Great American Novel.

When we discussed this at dinner last night, I explained to the children that To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about a black man being unjustly accused of a crime, and that they would read it some day. The Professor noted that he read it when he was twelve.

At which point Martha StewartCaroline's face lit up with an idea. "Hey!" she told her Daddy, "For your next birthday, the theme could be To Kill a Mockingbird!"

I think Harper Lee just rolled over in her grave. Birthday Express, start your engines.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Family Versus Wild

We done went campin' over the weekend. A helicopter dropped our entire family by parachute into the untamed mesquite forests of central Texas where we had to forage for food and then bushwhack our way back to civilization using nothing but a pair of drinking straws and a Swiss Army Knife.

It was awesome.

OK, part of that was true. The part about camping. We did indeed camp for one night at the lovely Canyon of the Eagles, where we saw no actual eagles, but did see a coyote, a couple armadillos, turkey vultures, a Texas Spiny Lizard, hawks, etc.

A few single friends from our home meeting joined us, and were nice enough to do the grocery shopping, so you better believe we had camping junk food galore.

Also, the Dixons (yes, the same Dixons we nearly always wander with; our families seem to come in a handy travel-size two-pack) came along. This is how that happened. On Saturday morning at 11:00, we called them and said, "Hey, we know you're probably busy and need more notice, but any chance you want to come camping with us this afternoon?" "Sure," they said.

Then they proceeded to get to the campground, ninety minutes away, HALF AN HOUR BEFORE US. Fully packed. Whereas we got there and had sweet little marital conversations like this:

"Dear, did you bring a sponge?"

"Light of my life,  how about the camping lantern?"
"Um. The camping lantern?"

Clearly, if you have the opportunity to venture into the wilderness with the Diller family as your source of survival, you might want to pursue other options. Like running very fast in the opposite direction.

(Yes, we may have been stumbling around in the dark, but at least we had a cool Bumbler-Identification Sign, inspired by an article in Family Fun that was written by the amazing Nicole Blum.) 

Highlights: Gazing at the swarms of stars out there and getting to see Jupiter through telescopes provided by the Austin Astronomical Society. Singing around the campfire. Eating Tin Turtles. Watching the kids climb trees and hunt for grasshoppers.

Lowlights: Having a headache. Realizing that here we were in beautiful natural surroundings and -- perhaps because we were only there for one night and camping involves so much labor -- it was still hard for me to just sit still and not think about what we were going to do next and whether everyone was having a good time. And wondering how many nights it would take of being away from it all to get my brain to truly slow down and release every shred of its neuroses.

Maybe just catching oneself in that kind of thought pattern is half the battle. Making the conscious decision to just focus on right now, on the grandeur around us, instead of worrying over the past or trying to plan the details of an unpromised future. This song floated through my head:
"Lord, save me from the past; 
And save me from the future. 
Yesterday is over;
 Tomorrow may not be ..."

Maybe that's why we all need a little time, untethered, in the great outdoors.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Salute to Fall

Dear October:

Why yes, you certainly may cut in on my long, slow dance with Summer. I had grown tired of its company about three songs ago and your face, the promise of your delightful presence, are most welcome indeed.


So, here in Texas, we celebrate when the mercury falls consistently below ninety. I know fall technically means apple-picking, clear, crisp days, light sweaters, and crunching through haphazard piles of golden leaves, but some of us just have to make do.

Some of us just decide to out-and-out REBEL against the fact that we're still being devoured by mosquitoes and wearing T-shirts, and we decorate for fall anyway.

Here's my To-Do list for October, my most favoritest month of the year:

1. Take the children to pick out pumpkins, probably at our usual picking spot.

2. Learn to make a great deep-dish apple pie.

3. Pull out our favorite fall-themed picture books, like The Biggest Leaf Pile and Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf and How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World.

4. Hang up our leaf garlands and other fall decor.

5. Go camping, before the nights get cold.

6. Finally, finally, finally, re-paint our kitchen. Harvest gold-themed wallpaper, we bid you adieu.

7. Bob for apples.

8. Have the neighbors over for dinner (or maybe dessert -- see #2)).

9. Throw a Book Character costume party for my kids and their friends, since we don't do the Halloweeny thang.

10. Get outside in the sunshine as much as possible and enjoy being alive.