To Do List

  • Wake up
  • Empty the bladder
  • Brush teeth
  • Make the bed
  • Feed the cats
  • Your son writes his grandmother
  • Write your lover
  • Insulin
  • The school bus
  • Breakfast
  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Dinner plans
  • That book under your skin
  • No, I already fed you cats
  • Write museum ask what was that poem
  • Laundry
  • She doesn’t want more college advice
  • Maybe she does
  • Why don’t factory towns in New England resemble coal towns in West Virginia?
  • Sweep
  • Pick up soccer kits and distribute: game’s tomorrow
  • Grocery store
  • What was on the list?
  • Do this first
  • No, the litter box needs changing
  • Sweep
  • What was that about lunch?
  • Laundry
  • Sweep
  • Vacuum
  • No homework today
  • Bon-bons
  • Idle chatter that’s how you learn about another’s day
  • Guests!
  • OK. You cats never give up, do you?
  • Dinner
  • Insulin
  • Will they want to read tonight?
  • Dishes
  • No, you can’t stay up: game’s tomorrow.
  • Bed
  • Wait: weren’t you supposed to work today?

Proud to be an American, Where What?

I overhead part of an odd conversation between No. 1 Son and No. 2 Son that came while they were preparing for bed after we’d watched The Gamers: Humans & Households.

No. 2 Son: Which would you rather be: American or Canadian?

No. 1 Son: Canadian.

No. 2 Son: Me too.

Ah, the corrupting influence of the Internet that causes such young souls to have a strongly positive opinion of Canada.

Though I must admit Lucy Maud Montgomery did convince me that Prince Edward Island would be a lovely place to live. And I did like the Montreal Expos (though not the Mets) because of Gary Carter (and the Reds because of Johnny Bench–apparently I wanted to be a catcher). (There was trouble in the household due to my divided loyalties.) And the Maple Leaf is an attractive flag.

But how can one cultivate the love of one’s country and its people when the actions of its, supposedly representative,  government in the world and at home are of such low character?

Apt

Courtesy of her grandfather on her mother’s side, No. 1 Daughter took the aptitude tests offered by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. We accompanied her to New York City this past weekend to discuss the results. I’ve not done any research in the area, but my opinion, having suffered other aptitude and personality tests, and the daily horoscope, is that they have some usefulness as descriptive tools, but little to offer in the way of prescription. Since they intend to sample her aptitudes every five years, I’m intrigued about what, if anything, this will show.

Imagine my total lack of surprise then when they confirmed what I already thought: she’s just like her father.

Or, as they put it, a diagnostic generalist.

She scored in the 70th percentile on the inductive reasoning test, and in the 99th percentile on the foresight and analytical reasoning tests. They group personalities by word association and call her “objective.” There are longer descriptions of each aptitude in their book.

We believe that those who [score high on Analytical Reasoning] are “born organizers” who tend to enjoy the process of shuffling concepts into place, classifying data, and creating systems.

A high score on our Inductive Reasoning test suggests that you have the ability to think diagnostically, rapidly evaluate situation or data, and quickly solve problems.

Scoring Objective on our Word Association test suggests that you would tend to prefer working with and through others to accomplish a variety of tasks. …[And] tend to be generalists who like to be involved with multiple aspects of a project, assignment, or team.

It was an annoyance when one of my sisters had everyone take the Enneagram a couple of decades ago, but I can understand the impulse: I wonder how the tests would describe the rest of my family. We do all insist that there’s a correct way to load the dishwasher.

Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

Observations on Compulsory Schooling

Walking back from the bus stop, No. 2 Son, who is only just 10, looked thoughtful. A few steps later, he remarked, “School is slavery.”

“It isn’t,” I replied.

“School is like slavery.”

“How so?”

“You are ripped away from your family.”

“But at the end of the school day you come home.”

“That’s true.”

He turned to his friends who were walking alongside: “School is like prison.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You are forced to go there and you cannot leave.”

My First Meaningful Project

Browsing through old photographs and found this one from 2000 of hope for the future.

showing No. 1 Daughter a bookstore

Her mother took the photograph. We were in Colonial Williamsburg, probably at Mermaid Books, because chief among the things I like are books, old brick, and boxwoods. No. 1 Daughter was three months old at the time. Some days it’s hard to believe that she’s almost done with secondary school. There is one semester left.

On the days when I feel I haven’t done enough as a parent, I pretend a benign neglect is sometimes best. The next step is hers.

Envy

Looking at my résumé, I feel like I have to justify the decisions I’ve made. It’s not the curriculum vitae I thought I’d have. At each step along the way, each fork in the road I took made sense. Looking back, there’s some regret — and envy. Regret that I didn’t see opportunities, not of my decisions. Envy of those with different luck, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And envy of my children, who have a long road still ahead of them, full of possibility.

I, on the other hand, often feel hedged about by my past, such that I’m lost, and almost paralyzed by expectations.

Which way do I go?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Need-Blind

The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

In Living Memory

Number One Daughter got her first college acceptance today, from Wells College on the shore of beautiful Cayuga Lake. I need to get that FAFSA submitted. Some of its assumptions are annoying, but one is correct: She is heading to college directly from high school, at least for purposes of this form. However, Inside Higher Ed notes that almost half of college students are “non-traditional,” meaning that they don’t come along to college directly after high school and between the ages of 18 and 24. It almost makes one wonder if perhaps there’s some disconnect between what’s assumed to be normal and what is, or some lack of understanding of how traditions change over time — the traditional student may not be the normal student, nor even traditional.  We’ve been misled by the past fixed in our memory, pretending to be inflexible. But it makes sense that institutions which pride themselves on traditions might see everything from that perspective, though one might expect them to use a more accurate label, such as “young adult,” instead of “traditional.”

Today our families gather to be together and give thanks, on a holiday which is either a celebration of survival or of death, depending on whom one asks. Once a day of fasting and reflection, Thanksgiving has become almost a celebration of gluttony — though to my mind that’s tomorrow. Odd that until the coming of mass media, Thanksgiving was somber. But my experience of what other families do is entirely from stories told in the movies. Have I read a novel set at Thanksiving? Is there one?

some of the pies

What I recall is more recent than my childhood. Earlier both Thanksgiving and Christmas blend together: black walnuts, pumpkin pie, ham, green beans almondine, and congealed salad. I spent most of any party alone, reading. (Family holidays at my in-laws’ were a bit more explosive.) Today we had remembered receipts and conversations about family origins. Dad told the story of a young John Bell who ran away to western Virginia with his Cherokee wife instead of heading off on the Trail of Tears. It puts some context on the 23andMe results:

Traditions change with time. They aren’t fixed. Each iteration offers something new. But is it not a bit odd that gratitude for plenty becomes gorging to excess?

Our society appears to place great stock in buying, in consumption. They talk about it on the news a lot. The advertisements tell us there’s lots more to buy. But I’m not sure where the money to buy things comes from. (Actually, I am sure where it comes from, but it’s unevenly distributed.) Spend the time with your family. Buy nothing. Let the rich trickle down their purchases.

Impropriety

News of the world is daily maddening, full of pointless cruelty. We must take our moments of joy where we find them. My sons are in the bell choir at Trinity United Methodist Church. Before the service, the congregation sings hymns as randomly suggested by the congregants. Number Two Son had been looking through the hymnal and apparently found a song he liked: Angels We Have Heard on High. He confidently raised his tiny hand. “It’s too early for Christmas songs,” I whispered. He slowly lowered his hand, and we sang some other song.

After the song finished, the choirmaster asked for one more. One of the congregants had noticed the little hand, and pointed him out.

“Yes? What number?”

He spoke loudly and clearly, “Number 238.”

I couldn’t sing along very well overcome with emotion.

Missing

Like the rest of the postcards received by PostSecret, this one reveals an anonymous sentiment, one perhaps more common than not, and surprising.

My 8 year old son's pillow. So I can touch it and whisper goodnight to him. Divorce is HELL on Earth. (I'm the Dad.)

Why should that be?

It’s a simple image: A well-made bed, pillows neatly tucked; a typed caption describing the scene; a comment.

All normal, except the handwritten note: “I’m the Dad.”

Why does this surprise us?

Attention Must Be Paid

My work — the employment for which I’m paid, that is — is invisible. Nothing to see here; move along. Long ago, the company asked us to let undergraduates, prospective employees who were interested in the field, shadow us for a day so they could get a sense of the job. Instead of an internship, looking over my shoulder while I type. Had they seen Office Space? Do we really need to impress on the young how accurate Waiting for Godot is? At least Kafka has a giant cockroach.

Number Two Son is nine, about the age at which I began playing Dungeons & Dragons. He wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school today. After waking and breakfast, he asked me to read with him, but I was working. He read to himself a bit then puttered around with math and the slack line while waiting. Then at lunch we read The Lorax.

He asked questions a lot while he was puttering. I was inattentive at first, but wasn’t getting anything done. It took me a while to remember that he was there with me in real life, a real person; that today was special because he wasn’t normally at home during the week. Then I took the time and gave him my attention.

As we chatted at the lunch table after reading, I wondered what about my work could be interesting to him. Or, if not that, what about what I’m thinking about anything. When he asks, “what are you doing?” and I answer only, “work,” what does that say? I’m not writing video games: It’s not like he can see how moving a semi-colon changes a syntax error into a functioning for loop, or a comma changes meaning. And he’s not reading what I write, so my rants online about whatever don’t register — that may be a good thing. But how can I say he learned anything at his father’s knee if I don’t talk to him? My work is invisible; he can’t watch.

What if we tried talking to our children as if they are people and interesting, instead of waiting for them to leave home first?

What if we gave them the time of day?

Maybe tomorrow we can talk about how The Lorax is a tragedy not a comedy.

Publish, or Die Trying

My father is a Presbyterian minister, and has been for fifty years. Sometimes I hear rumors that he’s retired, but it’s a working retirement. His labor is a calling. Each week is a new sermon. I remember Saturdays reading on the couch in his study while he wrote, first long-hand and then on the Smith-Corona. I didn’t read the sermons; they were performance pieces, meant to be heard, not read. The churches recorded the sermons, so those who couldn’t come on Sunday could hear the Word of the Lord. I doubt any of those recordings still exist, though perhaps they do in a basement somewhere. Once he mentioned that some preachers didn’t write their own sermons: they bought them from a catalog. Publish yours, I said. Perhaps, he demurred, but not for preaching. Each has a place and a time.

I’ve been a reader since I learned how, and an aspiring writer. It might have something to do with being surrounded by words and books — and procrastination. You know the difference between an aspiring writer and a writer? A writer writes. I’ve written, but what I’ve written has been small works of little discipline: e-mails, pithy blog posts, the occasional technical documentation. None of these match my ideal of a writer. (Nor did writing copy for the inside of a book jacket, which is probably why I only lasted a day as an editorial intern.) I should stay away from Platonic ideals.

This next month is November; that is, NaNoWriMo. I’m not inclined to write a novel, but writing something each day is a start.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stanford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.

Great Scientists

A friend of mine posted a Carl Sagan quote that reminded me of something.

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.

A few years back we saw Fourth of July fireworks from the causeway across Lake Carmel. I think the Big Sister and the Little Sister were four and two, respectively. We had a conversation that went something like this.

Big Sister: Why don’t the sounds match the fireworks?

Me: Why do you think?

Big Sister: I think the light is faster than the sound.

That’s my girl!

Grandmother’s Bread

By way of my sister’s recipe box, comes this memory.

Scald all together and set aside to cool:

  • 2 c. milk
  • 2/3 c. shortening*
  • 5 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp salt

Add 2 cups water to above mixture.

  • 1 cake yeast**
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 13-14 c. flour (approx, depending on flour)

Crumble yeast into water to soften. Sift flour into large bowl; shape a hole in the middle and gradually add milk mixture and yeast, beating constantly to keep mixture smooth. Mix until a medium stiff dough is formed. Knead on a floured board until smooth. Place in a greased bowl and brush with melted shortening.

Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Punch down and let rise again, then shape into 3 or 4 loaves (depending on size of pans). Place in greased bread pans; let rise again until double in bulk on top of pan. Bake in hot oven (425) for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to moderately hot oven (375) and bake 25-30 minutes longer. Large loaves take a little longer. Remove from pans and brush crusts with butter. Put on a rack or cloth to cool.

* shortening, known in some circles as lard and in others as Crisco.

** fresh yeast = compressed yeast = active fresh yeast = cake yeast = baker’s compressed yeast = wet yeast Equivalents: 2-ounce cake = 3 X 0.6-ounce cakes Notes: This form of yeast usually comes in 0.6-ounce or 2-ounce foil-wrapped cakes. It works faster and longer than active dry yeast, but it’s very perishable and loses potency a few weeks after it’s packed. It’s popular among commercial bakers, who can keep ahead of the expiration dates, but home bakers usually prefer dry yeast. To use, soften the cake in a liquid that’s 70° – 80° F. Store fresh yeast in the refrigerator, well wrapped, or in the freezer, where it will keep for up to four months. If you freeze it, defrost it for a day in the refrigerator before using. Substitutes: active dry yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each .6-ounce cake of compressed yeast) OR instant yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) OR bread machine yeast (Substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) [I’m still deciphering this paragraph.]

Grandmother’s Lemonade

The hot days of Summer call for a cool drink, shade, and a lazy breeze through the apple trees. If my taste memory serves, this is Grandmother’s Lemonade.

  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 c. lemon juice
  • 2 qt. minus 1 c. water

Cover the bottom of a half-gallon glass Tropicana Orange Juice bottle with sugar. Squeeze lemons until the sugar is covered and begins to melt. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add water and ice to fill the remainder, about two quarts.

Harvest Punch

We typically host Christmas Day dinner at our house, after my brother-in-law and his wife host the Feast of the Seven Fishes at his. Christmas Day is a more subdued affair, with fewer guests, and more flexibility in the menu. This year we had turkey, and this year I thought I’d serve a punch.

Finding a punch recipe was harder than I thought it would be. There are so many options, and so many of the options require liqueurs and other ingredients that I don’t yet have in my cabinet. Some I considered were Philadelphia Fish House Punch, Garrick Club Punch, Planter’s Punch, Chatham Artillery Punch, and those in this month’s issue of Imbibe Magazine. I settled on this Harvest Punch from Mutineer Magazine. The picture is pretty.

The spirits in the recipe are the fine products of Philadelphia Distilling: Bluecoat Gin and Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure. Unfortunately, none of the shops around sells Vieux Carré, and the absinthe varieties they do have seem to insist on using artificial food colorings. I should have decided earlier; I could have ordered by mail. Fortunately, a nearby shop does sell Bluecoat Gin.

As a result of the lack of absinthe I substituted Romana Sambuca. The punch lost, I’m sure, some complexity, but I wouldn’t know: I’ve not had absinthe. I also left out the cranberry bitters.

I’ve reduced this to serve the eight adults at our Christmas dinner, and still had a quart left over. This recipe can be prepared in the punch bowl or in a mixing bowl beforehand. I used a mixing bowl. I did find that the cranberry in the punch is quite strong, and mellows substantially if it rests overnight.

Harvest Punch

  • 375 ml Bluecoat Gin
  • 4 oz Romana Sambuca
  • 4 oz lemon juice
  • 8 oz cranberry juice
  • 20 oz apple cider
  • 6 toasted cardamom pods
  • 2 toasted star anise
  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 16 oz. sparkling water
  • 5 dashes Fee Brothers Cranberry bitters
  • 5 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Mint sprigs
  • Orange wheels
  • 6 oz. cranberries

Freeze a thin layer of water and cranberries in a bundt pan, filling about a quarter of the pan.

Toast the cardamom pods and star anise over a medium flame. While waiting for them to toast, squeeze the lemons. In a larger mixing bowl, mix the confectioner’s sugar with the lemon juice until dissolved. Add the gin and sambuca, mix until thoroughly combined with the lemon juice and sugar, then add the remaining ingredients, save the sparkling water and the garnish. Stir well.

At this point you may wish to sample the punch to see if needs adjustment. Bear in mind that the punch will be diluted later by sparkling water and ice. I increased the apple cider ration from 16 oz. to 20 oz. to cut the bitterness of the cranberries.

Combine with sparkling water over ice in a punch bowl. Garnish with cranberries, orange wheels, and mint.