Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Reading year and 2012 goals

After a few months of neglect, I updated my 2011 Reading page.  In the beginning of the year, I was disgusted with my pathetic reading life and resolved to repair it.

I read  26 books last year.  Ten were read-alouds for our homeschooling, most of the rest were novels I read for pleasure.   I didn't count books I started but didn't finish. There are a lot of those!   26 books is better than zero books, it's true.  But it's not quite what I had in mind.

So, in a few hours it'll be a new year. The new year brings a new beginning.  I'm not making any commitments, but I'd like to continue to work on my reading life. 

This year I'm going to be reading the Bible all the way through.  I have tried to do this a few times but have only succeeded once.  I don't believe it is a necessary thing to do, but I want to do it this year.  I'm trying this plan found on Desiring God.

Besides reading aloud to my kids - in January we'll be doing The Iliad and some Greek plays together, among other things - I want to read one novel and one nonfiction book each month.  That will be 24 books just for my own pleasure and edification, better than the 16 I got in this year.

It's a start.  

How is your reading life going?

Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini

Earlier this year I started playing around on Goodreads. I wrote some comments on a book and then by internet magic moved then over here. And here it sat in draft form for a long, long time. I'm doing some housekeeping so thought I may as well publish it, finally!

Twice BornTwice Born by Margaret Mazzantini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of a marriage, of a war, of love.  But not a love story by any conventional definition of the term.  Gemma and Diego are a mismatched Italian couple who meet in Sarajevo and are drawn back to that city even as the siege is beginning.

The story moves fluidly through time:  the present as Gemma takes her son Pietro to Sarajevo to see the city of his birth, and the past as the full story unfolds.

Most than once I almost gave up on the book, as I sensed events unfolding that I didn't want to read. Have you ever felt that a character you liked was going to disappoint you? I didn't want to experience that, and I felt it was coming.  As is my usual practice when I feel like abandoning a book, I read the last few pages to see if I had figured out what was going to happen.  I hadn't, and had to go back and finish.

The characters, particularly Diego, are complex.  I am still trying to figure out how I feel about him. The scenes of war are heartbreaking.  The ending is satisfying but as with most good stories, I want to know more.

There are some other issues that I would love to talk about but would involve spoilers.  There is a lot to this book beyond the plot. If you can handle a story with some very dark moments and pictures of humanity, this is a worthwhile book.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It is still Christmas

Is Christmas over at your house?  Are you already done putting away all the seasonal decor, or are you itching to?  Going by the blogs I've been reading, most people are.  I am saddened by people saying "I can't wait to get the house back to normal" and "I'm so sick of that tree!"

But it is still Christmas for many of us.

If you celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday, not a religious one, of course it's over.  Santa's come and gone, the presents have been given, the parties are past.  Time to move on.  That makes sense, and I'm not complaining about you.  It's the Christians who are so anxious for Christmas to be over who are making me want to cry.

For those celebrating Christ's birth, the party should be just beginning. 

Of course Christmas is not a biblical holiday.  We are not commanded to celebrate it.  But traditionally, Christmas begins on December 25.  That is the first day!  It ends on January 6, the day traditionally celebrated as the day the Magi presented their gifts to the Christ child.

Advent is what ended on December 25. Advent is the time of preparation, of contemplation and readying ourselves for the celebration.   In many homes, traditionally, the tree was not even put up till December 24,  Christmas Eve. The children were surprised by it on Christmas morning.

Now, the tree goes up the day after Thanksgiving, or even before, and by Christmas it's all falling needles and in the way.  So it's out on the curb, or back in the attic, first thing on December 26.

Why is there such a long buildup to Christmas, and then it's over in a blink?  Thanks to a facebook friend, I had my revelation about this last night.

The retail calendar is dictating the Christmas season now..  The retail calendar says we have to start buying stuff for Christmas as early as possible. I think I started seeing serious Christmas stuff in stores in October this year.  People are frantic to get their houses decorated.  I heard someone say, "We're late getting our tree up!" on December 1.  That's not late.

But then, once Christmas Day comes, there's nothing left to buy.   The gifts have been given, the decorations are up, the cards have been sent (well, most of them).  The stores have to clear out the old stuff and bring in the new.  Target, I'm told, is full of Valentine's Day products, the next retail holiday.

We don't always keep our tree up till January 6, but we keep the other decorations up till then.  (This year the tree is going out today because of allergies.) I understand the need to get a tree out of the house and out of the way, the need for some return to normal routine.  We are still enjoying some free time (not as much, as people do have to go back to work), still making cookies, still having company over for some Christmas cheer.  Still singing Christmas songs. We aren't in fully holiday mode, but it's not completely over for us yet. 

Retail Christmas is over. It's time to start buying for Valentine's Day.

Real  Christmas is not over yet.  Keep it going.  Just a little longer.  And next year, think about maybe not starting so early.  Hold off a bit.  Then you might not be in such a hurry to get it all out.

Merry Christmas.  Today is just the third day!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santa Truthers

Over at NRO's The Home Front, they're talking about kids, parents, and Santa:

How Should Parents Deal with Santa "Truthers"?

You can see my comment about telling my kids the truth about Santa at a young age.  As I post this, I have another comment awaiting moderation there, in response to someone telling me and other truth-tellers to lighten up about Santa.

What do you think?  Is is lying to tell kids that Santa is real?   Does telling kids the truth about Santa ruin Christmas?  Is our cultural heritage in danger of disappearing if we treat Santa the same way we treat the Wizard of Oz and other great imaginary characters?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are you ready to Maximize your Mornings?

Last fall I dubiously signed up for a challenge.  I needed some routine in my life and Inspired to Action was providing a way to get it: Hello Mornings!   It's a challenge to get up early, get active, pray and read the Bible, and generally not be one of those people who hits the snooze button and gets up only when forced to.

I said dubiously.  I've tried challenges of various sorts before, and never really last with them.  I always find some reason to stop trying.  But, I got into an accountability group, printed some materials, and tried to learn how to be productive early in the a.m.

Now, the fall challenge is over and a new one is starting up in January.  I'm signing up again, somewhat less dubiously and more enthusiastically.

Does that mean I was successful in this challenge?   No, not really.

I mean, I did get up early many mornings.  OK, some.  I got some exercise (I walk the dog every morning, but sometimes it might be for only 5 minutes), read my Bible and prayed at least a couple of times a week, and tried to get a good start on the day... sometimes.  I had many excuses and even sometimes good reasons for not leaping out of bed before dawn and getting started.

But I also found some days when I couldn't find an excuse, and did get up and going.

Those were the best days!  

 I am not convinced that everyone's life is best suited to early rising by the mama.  I think families need to find their own rhythm and sometimes that means a later start and end to the day.  Wives and mothers need to figure out how their families work best.  Sleep is important and there is much competition for our time.

But for me, at this time of life, early is best.

It is so hard to get up early.  When my alarm goes off, I just want to curl up tighter and go back to sleep.  But when I force myself up and out, and start my day - wow.  Look out world!  I am getting something done.

So I'm excited to start a new challenge on January 15.   I'm hoping to do make it better than the last challenge, by getting up more consistently and just being more productive.  (I admit some early mornings I start clicking through blogs and reading news stories I'm not interested in, just because I don't feel like I can get started on my real day.) 

If you could use some  help getting started in the morning, being productive and getting things done, why not consider joining?  I'd say it's valuable even for those who don't want to get up early.  No matter what time your morning starts, you want to start the day strong and productive, right?  So, check it out and join in.  Maybe we'll end up in the same accountability group!

PS: Here is a free eBook you can download.  Even if you are not doing the challenge, you might find it helpful.

Inspired To Action Button

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A book to add to your family Christmas reading

Yesterday we pulled out our box of Christmas books and CDs.  We have a nice collection of Christmas picture books that we treasure.  But they are picture books, written for children, and my children really aren't anymore.

I'm sure Eleanor and I will read The Story of Holly and Ivy together, and everyone will look through the old favorites.  Maybe we'll find some that aren't so beloved anymore and give them away; at least I hope so, as we are always trying to reduce our number of books.

But, still, I wanted a Christmas book that would appeal to these older children.  And so I found  Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, a selection of Christmas writings, edited by Nancy Guthrie.

This is a nice little book with twenty-two short readings by authors such as Martin Luther, John Piper, Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon... and many more, obviously.  Some are excerpts from sermons, others come from books.  I've read about a quarter of them so far.  Some have resonated with me more than others. I don't think the book is perfect.  I've shared a few of them with my kids and we'll get to more in the days ahead, though surely not all of them. Not all will be interesting to them at their ages.  I can keep some to myself for a while. 

It's a nice addition to our Christmas book box.  

As always, I'd love to know about other good Christmas books for teens. 

Christmas baking and candy-making

Last night we made our list of must-have Christmas-time treats.  I am not sure we'll get to baking all these items; I may opt to buy some instead.  We need something for a potluck lunch that's coming up, a few gift items, a New Year's Eve afternoon open house, and some just for us. 

In no particular order:

* Sugar Cookies. The rolled, cutout kind.  I avoided making these for years, but when Eleanor turned 10, we had to start.  This year I bought her a set of snowflake cookie cutters and some edible glitter.  We've learned the best way to handle sugar cookie dough (roll on parchment paper, freeze, cut, move parchment to baking sheet) so we have lovely shapes instead of the blobs my sister and I used to come up with.

* Cranberry Bliss (You Idiot) Bars. The name of this recipe is actually Cranberry Ecstasy Bars, and I found it in the Oregonian several years ago.  The "you idiot" part is in honor of the counter person at a Portland-area Starbucks who rudely corrected my husband when he had the misfortune to order a "cranberry bar."  The "you idiot" was not spoken but clearly implied.  So, we found the recipe and have never bought a cranberry whatever bar in Starbuck's since! 

* Chocolate-Orange Hazelnut Bark.  It will make you moan in delight.

* English toffee.  Recipes abound.  Just use real butter and good chocolate. This is not the place to go bargain.

* Peppermint bark.  Two of our family can't eat peppermint, so I'm not sure about this one.  I may turn Eleanor loose to do it herself, or .... we may buy that big tub at Costco. 

* Fudge.  I have a few requests from people to make fudge.  I think I've made it before, but I don't have a special recipe. Yet.

* Sponge candy.  This is also known as seafoam and I hope I can find my mother's old recipe.  It's an exciting candy to make - once the sugar/corn syrup mixture becomes very hot, baking soda is quickly stirred in.  I can tell you it's very  hot because one year my sister and I made it and part of the plastic spatula melted right into the candy.  Didn't affect the taste. 

* Anise candy.  This is another sentimental favorite.  It's just hard candy flavored with anise extract.  I could take it or leave it; but my sentimental girlie put it on the list.

* Biscotti.  We just like biscotti and rarely make it, so now it's formally on the list.

* Gingerbread men:  Eleanor would prefer to do a full-on gingerbread house, but... maybe this will be her project.

This doesn't seem like very much, does it?  We will probably make some other things before the season is out. We do love to bake around here.  But these are our must-haves. 

What are yours?

Friday, December 09, 2011

More about Christmas Gift Shopping

I thought I was finished talking about Christmas gift shopping but a conversation last night prompted me to say more.  I couldn't bring myself to say this in person to near-strangers, but:

If your children are nagging you for gifts, want too much stuff, want every popular (highly-advertised) toy or electronic item around right now, and are generally driving you crazy over gifts... you are not training them properly.


I have many child-training failures in my life so far.  My kids don't clean their rooms, don't naturally help me out in the kitchen, and are completely incapable of putting their shoes away.

But they have never nagged, pleaded, cajoled or threatened over gifts.

This must be because when they were little, we never allowed them to get hung up on popular toys.  We limited their exposure to advertising and didn't buy anything related to TV shows or movies.  We bought them great toys - they still refuse to give up many of their childhood toys: Playmobil figures,  Legos, baby dolls.  We didn't buy toys that don't do anything, but toys that were fun and useful.  The Simple Homemaker has a list of toys she likes; we had many of those ourselves.

We also never asked our kids for Christmas lists.  They didn't write letters to Santa and we didn't ask them directly what they wanted.  We knew what kinds of things they liked when they were small, so it was easy.  Now, as they are getting older - believe me, they have ways of making their desires known.  But they understand that most likely, they won't get everything they would like.  One of my kids is dying for an iPhone, but he knows he won't be seeing that on Christmas morning.  He knows he might see that when he can pay for his monthly data plan.  So, when it's not there, he won't be disappointed.  I know both kids will like what we do give them, because we know our kids and we know the things they enjoy.

It is natural for kids to want stuff, and in particular to want stuff they see other people with.  They can learn that they can't have everything.

But they can't learn it unless we parents teach it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Taking time to breathe

The original title of this post was "It's the Holiday (Complaining) Season."  I have been reading way too many blog posts and Facebook statuses complaining about the holidays. You know the rants:  My kids want too much stuff, I eat too many treats and gain weight, Christmas is too commercialized, I have all these obligation gifts to buy...

Then I read Permission to Breathe over at Inspired to Action and was, well, inspired by that more positive approach.

I do see a lot of frantic people, unhappy with life during the holidays. I used to get frantic too, trying to create the perfect Christmas for my family and friends.  I am still learning how to stop doing some of the unnecessary shopping, cooking, and fretting.  There is a lot to say on this topic so I'm going to focus on one area of stress for now:  gifts!

I used to hate shopping for gifts.  So much of my gift-shopping seemed to be about obligation and reciprocation rather than love.  So, I changed my focus.  It was hard, but I stopped worrying so much about obligation and reciprocation gifts.

Gifts are supposed to be given out of love or at least friendship, not obligation.  We shouldn't give a gift because someone bought one for us. Christmas advice to keep a stash of wrapped presents around to give people who show up with a gift is misguided and just sets up more gift-buying obligation.  The proper response to an unexpected gift is to say "thank you," not to run to the closet for an impersonal gift that could be for anyone.  It makes life easier for me not to try to anticipate who might bring a gift over and try to buy, and then not lose, something for them, just in case.

If I want to take a hostess gift to someone, I stick with consumables: wine, chocolate, a vase of flowers (not a bouquet that the hostess has to deal with immediately), or a little potted plant she can put on a table and then throw out at the end of the season (or when I go home, if she is so inclined).  Every grocery store seems to have some seasonal arrangements in baskets or little pots; they can be inexpensive and just show the person that you were thinking of them on the way over to their party.  Or maybe even beforehand! 

Of course there are some people we need to give a little something to: the piano teacher, boss, secretary... I keep those gifts simple and don't go crazy trying to figure out the perfect thing.   My hostess gift list usually suffices.  But sometimes it can be more personal:  the church secretary likes to cook, so we're getting her a small collection of spices.  Sometimes we just get gift cards, which many people disdain as too impersonal but you can personalize it by the store.  Crafty friends would most likely love some mad money at the local Michael's or Hobby Lobby, right?  I like gift cards for Wawa, a regional convenience store chain with great sandwiches and a coffee bar to die for. I give them to the mail carrier and to my kids, because everyone has to to go Wawa sometime.

Homemade gifts are wonderful, but I've found that if I don't start in August, my plans won't come to fruition and I'll be frantic around Thanksgiving.  This year I made the conscious decision not to make any gifts, except (possibly) some fudge for a family member who loves the stuff.   I felt guilty for maybe about a minute, and then it was over.  No pressure to knit or sew or do any of the crafts I enjoy except when I'm on deadline!  Maybe another year...

I won't get into shopping for the children now.  That is a huge area of Christmas angst for parents, and it should not be. 

What gift-giving strategies do you employ to keep your stress level down?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Homeschooling is a long-term proposition

The schoolhouse is still in business; we are still homeschooling and my head is still full of things to write about.  But we are still sidetracked by sickness - one child's mysterious symptoms that have been stumping us since August, and now a round of Bad Colds. 

It's tiresome but apparently not life-threatening so I should keep my complaining mouth shut.

This morning, as I contemplate another day that we will not produce anything for the homeschool portfolio, I am also reminded that homeschooling is a long-term proposition.  We are going through an unproductive season right now.  We are reading (together and separately) and slowly going through the math books (oh, very slowly!), and watching some recorded lectures.  I am confident (well, trying to be) that someday we'll see the fruit of this time, when there is a lot of input but little to no output of learning.

If Pennsylvania law did not require the portfolio of work samples, I could really enjoy this time of caring for my children, allowing rest and recovery.    My girl is making lots of beautiful Christmas cards, my boy is reading up a storm.  Both kids "won" NaNoWriMo two days ago, and continue to work on their stories.  (Yes, there will be an excerpt in the portfolio.) 

Kids' school years go by in the blink of an eye, and we don't want to waste time.  I have only a few years left with them and they still have a lot to learn before they head off to their adult lives.  But we don't want to be frantic.  We can allow for rest.  We have to find the balance between our family's particular needs and our legal requirements as homeschoolers.  It's not necessarily easy.  But we have to remember that homeschooling isn't about a particular year's production.  It's about an entire childhood and beyond.

My friend Susan wrote about her family's sabbatical homeschool year. I have read this over many times and it's time again, during our unplanned sabbatical.  You might find it useful and inspiring too.