Thursday, June 30, 2016

My "&pf" method of getting things done

This has been a summer of many medium-sized projects.  I think I've knocked out about four referee reports, a bunch of gardening, a new syllabus for my fall calculus class, an improved fence-and-gate for Miser Dog's yard, and a few other projects that don't come to mind right away.  I'm still working my way slowly through writing a talk for this summer's MathFest, and starting next week I'll teach a mini summer course for high school students who might someday become first-generation college students.

In contrast to my mama-bear-sized projects, I'm getting to enjoy the amazingness of people around me who do remarkable feats.  My friend June off-handedly remarked, as we were getting ready for this morning's run, "I'm a little sore today because I rented a jack hammer yesterday."  (A jack hammer?  She's so impressive to me, June is!)   And that same day, my husband on a whim rode his bike 165 miles to New York City.  And then, when he got back today, he took off on his bike yet again to do grocery shopping because "I need 5 more miles to get over 200."   That's 200 miles in 2 days.  Yeah.

So, I'm not renting jackhammers to redo my own concrete window wells, and I'm not galavanting about between cities on my bike, but I am keeping on top of my email correspondence and staying ahead of the weeds in my garden.  And and that's okay; I'll get to be overwhelmed again once the semester starts up.

No, I'm enjoying the chance to spend each day with a mish-mash of activities, circling back again and again to the same projects, seeing them slowly come together and then eventually get crossed off the "needs to do" list.  And so my daily "to do" list has this weird symbol in it over and over again:


That weird symbol stands for "and plan forward".  As in,
  • "calc syllabus &pf"; 
  • "math mag & pf"; 
  • "Leitzel lecture &pf".  
Each time I see that "&pf" I know I've promised myself I'll spend a small amount of time -- ten minutes, a half-hour, maybe even an hour -- on that project today, but it's okay not to finish it yet.  Instead, when I've spent some time on the project, I make a note on a future day to spend more time on it, and then I get to check that to-do item off today's list.

The time management world loves to talk about "big rocks first":  you figure out the most important tasks---the "big rocks"---and do those determinedly, filling in around the edges with the less important pebbles and gravel.  Because, they say, putting in the big rocks first is the only way to fit all that hard material into the bucket of your day.

(As a side note, I have to say I'm totally tickled at how many of the images that come up in a google search involve putting rocks in canning jars).

But for me, my projects this summer aren't dead weight, they're organic ideas with many implications that I want to think about, return to, and that could consume the whole summer if I focused on them without making space for other parts of my life.  My projects are less like rocks and more like this bush that I trimmed.  Once I put the biggest branch (which itself had lots of branches) in the wheelbarrow, there was no space for anything else. I had to take the big branch out, fill the wheelbarrow with smaller twigs and leaves, and pile the big branch on top.
A bush branch sitting on top of the compost heap.
So I do the little things, and I add the big things in a bit at a time.  The advantage of coming back to the same thing over and over is especially helpful if the point of the project isn't just to get something behind you, but also to get something new in you, or more specifically, in your head.  I want the mathematical projects I'm working on this summer to stick with me, and I know that we learn things better when we space out that learning.  So I return again and again to the same paper, each time bringing another 24 hours, or another week, of perspective to the project.

J-son has been working in this fashion, over the course of months, on building a visible engine from a kit that my father bought him.  Back in March, he got stuck (probably because he put something together backwards).  I packed up the kit so that the sight of it wouldn't continue to frustrate him, and "planned forward" to June, when school let out and he'd have daylight time with his dad, who is a total gear head.  Once June came around, I asked them to spend just 20 minutes figuring out what went wrong and how to move forward.  Don't bother to finish it; just spend some time together.  The point is not to get it done; the point is to be doing it.

They actually ended up spending almost an hour together, making a lot of progress, and seemed to really enjoy it.  And they only stopped once my husband realized that the timing belt that came with the kit was the wrong size.  But because they'd gotten so much further than they'd planned, they weren't frustrated: they happily stopped (for now) and contacted the manufacturer for the correct part.  Once that part comes and they attach it to the model, they'll have fond memories of having worked together, and they'll get to spend yet more time together learning about something that they both find fascinating.

It's a good summer. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

A far shave, three years later

Three years ago, I bought myself a safety razor.  Now, a thousand days later, what do I think of this little aspect of my life?

Basically, I'm a fan.

There are downsides to using this little razor, I admit.  The main ones are

  • armpits.  It's hard to get into that cup-shaped area without nicking myself.  I admit I adjust mainly by not shaving my armpits close during the winter, and by being extra careful or switching to another razor for that area during the summer.  
  • traveling.  I can't take this Very Dangerous Object in my carry-on luggage, so I use a disposable razor when I'm on the road (or in the air).
But aside from that, this little baby has been smooth sailing (or smooth shaving). Just as with my former plastic-transformer-style razors, I use soap or maybe a bit of coconut oil instead of shaving cream, and I seem to be able to get a good close shave on my legs and chin.  It's easy to use, and easy to change blades when I need to (I'm tossing all my old blades in that paper coffee cup instead of into the regular trash can, for safety considerations).  I probably change blades slightly more often than I used to change disposable razors (or multi-cartridge heads), mostly because I didn't mind letting my old multi-blade razors get dull to the point of almost getting rusty, and I don't do rusty with the safety razor.

(In fact, because I'm so not-picky about the plastic razors, when I need a "new" travel shave-kit, I mostly just snag a razor that one of my kids or my husband is mostly done with, and give it a bit of extra life before it heads dump-ward).

Cost-wise, I'm so far ahead it's hard to calculate.  Three years ago, the metal razor together with 25 blades cost me about $13.  Since then, I recently bought an additional box of 100 blades for something like $10, and I figure that box will last me many more years.  

And trash?  Well, someday, I'll have a paper-cup-worth of razor blades to recycle at a scrap metal dealer.  And every once in a while, when I switch blades, I have a paper wrapper (smaller than a gum wrapper) that comes wrapped around the new blade.  But I have no plastic packaging or even plastic razors that I'm tossing (aside from a very occasional travel razor); that makes me happy.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Random reuse and recycling

During their last week of school, my sons had a field trip to our local solid waste management facilities, and they were given a packet of brochures and other small goodies all packaged up in this:
Yes, it's a small plastic bag they don't need (so much for reducing and reusing), and the waste management place doesn't accept this kind of plastic for recycling.  Erghh.  Talk about mixed messages!

And then I offered to help a former student who's running the "Zero Waste Center" at our city's summer celebration.  They had a slightly different definition of "zero" than I do, but I was glad to help.  (Different as in, the first two other volunteers I met had a styrofoam cup (with straw) and a plastic cup (with straw) in their hands. Dude! They didn't even bring canning jars to get their servings of Rita's Ice!  My husband says it just goes to show that I'm so much more weird-extreme than other people, even when I'm with people who claim to hate waste.)
My small contribution was to suggest the organizers hang paper plates and waxed cardboard cups on the outside of the "Compost" container, to let people know what that container was for.  Totally my good deed for the weekend.

At home, I looked out my windows and saw, to my surprise, a pair of Turkey Vultures.  They were huge.  Their red heads were stunning.  And they were recycling a dead squirrel into live birds. Highly effective recycling, I might add.

I tried to get closer, but they got all hoity-toity; they picked up their squirrel and strutted away from me.  We found this first; you don't get to crash the party and take our dessert!

And earlier this week, we went with several dozen members of our church to help at GAiN.   We packed clothes to send to refugees -- did you know there are now more refugees world-wide than at any time since World War II?  We also packed blankets and seeds.  (Um, but not together, because those would be some itchy blankets!)   J-son managed to find some highly sociable teenagers to work with.  N-son, as usual, gravitated to the adults, who worked with him on baling the clothes and also on operating the manual forklift.  Mad skillz, there.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

J-son's Resolution

So, what's been going on with J-son?

I've hinted a few times that things had been rocky earlier this year, and occasionally scary bad, and that they've turned around. This is a description of the turning around. It's kind of long, but the distance he's come is so remarkable I want to share it.

I don't want to share what he did that made things rocky, because that's his story.  But I can share the effect that those things had on family and on him.  For one thing, he alienated both of his nearby sisters.  For several years now, K-daughter had been (justifiably) suspicious of his every move and angry at him for what he'd done to her.  I-daughter, last November, confided in me that "I know I'll probably forgive him someday, but I don't want to be in the same room with him for a while, and he is NEVER allowed to set foot in my house again."  And I completely understood.

My husband had such a hard time dealing with the fallout of J-son's behavior that he (thank goodness) started going to therapy, signing up both boys as well. He had many discussions with me about what would happen next year, when J-son turns 18 and becomes legally an adult: will we move him out of our house? (Because J-son repeated kindergarten way-back-when, when he turns 18 he'll still have 16 more months until high school graduation).  In fact, these conversations put a bit of a stress on our generally solid marriage: at one point, I remember telling my husband that if I were forced to choose between parenting J-son until graduation and staying with my husband, I wasn't sure which I'd pick, but it'd probably be J-son.  I think it's no surprise that it was this particular winter that I wound up twice in the hospital for suspected heart attacks that turned out to be "only" heartburn; it's been a fairly intense time.

It's not that I'm particularly pollyanna-ish about this kid.  My husband affectionately calls me the "Iron Maiden" because I tend to hold the kids to higher standards than any other parents he knows.  When I thought I couldn't do more, I've "given up" on other children: I was the one who called the police to come take C-son away when he spiraled out of control; I was the one who decided to leave X-son in Haiti and help support him there rather than bring him to the U.S.  When J-son was spiraling into the awfulness we associate with what our family still calls "The Horrible Week",  I was the one who confiscated his bedroom furniture so he'd have no hiding places, who did daily inspections of his room for contraband, who put an alarm on his door so I'd know of nocturnal wanderings, who signed him up for more drugs and for therapy.

But through it all, I do think that his troubles are something that J-son can be parented out of.  He's not mean; he's not defiant --- in fact, most of the people we know outside the house go out of their way to rave about what a great kid he is.  He's fantastic with small children.  He's funny.  He's really good with his hands and has the potential to do really well in the trades (we're thinking welding).  But he's had huge problems with impulse control.  Everything I know about developmental psych -- and everything I see in J-son himself -- tells me he's got a good chance of growing out of this, if he's got the right kind of help.  So I want to see him all the way through high school and into a technical school, and I also want to help him get beyond the stupid, hurtful things he's been doing.

Things came to a head on Christmas night.  J-son came into our room, all bubbly and happy to talk.  During the conversation, he complained that his job as a ride operator at the amusement park was boring.  It was a minor complaint, but the compounded effect of all the built-up stress caused my husband to blow his top:  How could this kid, who we'd done so much for, be so ungrateful about having a job?

Later that night, my guy vented for a half-hour to me.  I don't even LIKE this kid anymore.  I can't wait until he leaves the house. I know he's supposed to be my son, but I can't stand him.  I tried pointing out that J-son was trying desperately to earn his father's approval and affection; the complaining about work was what he thought grown-ups did.  I told my husband that J-son and I had had lots of talks about my husband; J-son had no idea what it was that my husband wanted him to do.  That's NUTS, my husband said.  I asked him, Well then, name one thing he could do or say that would show you he's actually trying.  My husband stared at me for about 15 seconds.  See? I said, if it's not obvious to you, think how much harder it is for him.  Finally, my husband said, Gratitude.  He could say 'thank you' for ANYTHING he has. So, we'd made some progress.

Except that when I left the bedroom, I discovered that J-son was sitting on the stairs near our bedroom, sobbing.  He'd heard every word.  He'd heard all the   I don't even LIKE this kid anymore.  I can't wait until he leaves the house. I know he's supposed to be my son, but I can't stand him.  And of course, J-son was devastated.

That was an awful night, but it was a huge turning point.  I did a bunch of  . . . well, not shuttle-diplomacy, but shuttle-therapy.  Upstairs to J-son's room, to sit with him and let him sob.  Downstairs to our own bedroom, to talk with my husband.  Finally, for the first time, I got them both in the same room talking to each other.  My husband got to vent some more, but this time in front of J-son.  You think you're so great, that you don't ever ask for help.  And when you get caught, you feel bad, but it's all about yourself.  You feel shame, but not guilt.  If you felt guilty, you'd care about other people and not just making yourself feel better.  And so on.  J-son listened and agreed.  Me, I was sitting there thinking, "What the heck do I do now?"  Not wanting the conversation to end there, I had J-son repeat back what he thought he'd heard his dad say.  He did.  I asked my husband, "Did J-son hear you correctly?"  My guy said yes, and added some more.  I asked J-son, "Do you agree you need to ask for help?"  J-son said yes, and that he wanted to ask us for help.

And the stormy clouds parted just a little.  My husband said, That's the first I ever heard you say that. Maybe there's hope.


The week after that, my husband went to New York with N-son.  J-son stayed behind and we worked together on apologizing and asking for forgiveness.   J-son put heart and soul into that task. He decided to ask for my help putting a poster on his wall -- like Martin Luther, he wanted to nail his resolutions up where he could see them and remember what his dad had said.

This kid.  As I told my husband, J-son has many mothers:  his birth mom, his foster mom, and me, and he gets to see all of us with varying frequencies.  But he has only one dad.  And oddly enough, he takes after my husband in so many ways, both for good and ill.  They both care about clothes and style; they both are athletic; they both lose things like cell phones and glasses; they both are people-pleasers.  At least half of J-son's impulsive  habits that drive his dad crazy are ones that his dad does that drive me crazy.  J-son loves being told that he's just like his dad.  For all the work I do with this kid, it's the love and respect of my husband that J-son wants the most.

By getting his boxing license and working hard through three different fights, J-son chose the perfect medium for connecting with his dad.  Persistence, toughness, bravery: these are qualities my husband has strived for in his own life, and so the two of them have a lot to talk about.  Things are going so well, in fact, that sometimes N-son gets jealous now, and I have to remind my husband to shower a little attention on his other son, too.

But beyond boxing, the work on humility and forgiveness seems to be taking root.  Both K-daughter and I-daughter have told me that they're impressed by how much J-son has changed.  It's good to see those wounds healing.  When I sit down to dinner with the family that's here in my home city -- with the five children who have five different last names and who come from five different sets of birth parents -- I feel again how incredibly wonderful it is that we've managed to build one family out of such distinct pieces.  It's a miracle at mealtime.

As for my own work with J-son:  all along, I've tried to stress honesty above all else.  It doesn't matter what you do, if you tell me the truth I can try to help you.  But you HAVE to tell me the truth.  I've read several books on lying so I could get into his head, and I've read Spy the Lie over and over again --- I can't recommend it enough.  That book changed our family dynamics for the better in so many ways.   For example, if my husband thinks J-son might be stretching the truth, he drops the subject immediately (don't let J-son dig himself further into a trench) and hands him over to me if a follow-up conversation is needed.  So much better than responding with exasperation!

For me, that emerging honesty is where I see the biggest change happening.  It's not so much that J-son doesn't do impulsive things anymore -- he still does, but they don't seem to be of the same magnitude or harm as his earlier mistakes.  But more importantly, he's much more willing to admit to me what he's done.  He takes responsibility for making a mistake and for making restitution.  He accepts suggestions for avoiding stupid mistakes in the future.  That's such a huge difference; combining that kind of integrity with his already strong likability gives me such hope for his future.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The vegetables are taking over

We're throwing ourselves this week into helping out at GAiN, boxing up gazillions of clothes to send overseas.  (I did this last summer, too, and I wrote about the process of sorting them all).  It's a bit overwhelming.

Speaking of overwhelming, the vegetables from my CSA are taking over my life again.  It's a nice problem to have.

We have a kohlrabi greens centerpiece on the table.
These greens won't fit in the fridge right now, because it's already full of other green food.

And four sliced zucchini are sitting out on the counter, again because of lack of fridge space.

When we get home from GAiN today, we'll have a big hunger and a lot of good food to chow down on.  Yay, summer!

Monday, June 20, 2016

My embarrassing ancestor

I sort of wish she'd been a pirate or a thief.  But my great-great-grandmother was worse than that.

great-great-grandpa and
great-great grandma
I've been organizing and collecting our family photos this year, trying to scan and label all the photos I've been given over the years, add stories and identification, and then digitize everything so that many people can have copies of it all.  Along the way, I stumbled into the story of my great-great-grandmother, who was apparently famous enough to make it into the New York Times and into several history books.

I'm going to withhold her name here, not to protect her, but because I don't want to give away my own name.  All the references to her in books and newspapers were by the very proper usage Mrs. [John Smith], never by her first name.  In fact, I don't know if historians knew her given name, and there seem to be no photos of her outside of the ones I have.  So I might be contacting scholars with offers of photographs.

Why was my great^2 grandma so much worse than a pirate?  She was an anti-suffragette.  And not just "an" anti-suffragette: she played a major role in delaying the women's right to vote.

Here is what one book notes about her.
Edited by Mrs. [John Smith], chairman of the executive committee of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, The Anti-Suffragist's mission was to present arguments against woman suffrage and to provide a forum for the views of women who did not seek suffrage---a group of women that, according to the magazine, were in the majority. For nearly four years The Anti-Suffragist provided its readers with gratified reports upon woman-suffrage defeats in various states. It also supplied carefully selected examples of instances in which enfranchised women in western states had, from the magazine's perspective, failed to use their votes to better society. 
 A book by Kathleen Endres states that she had high political visibility:
  . . .  [S]he had organized the Albany Association Against Woman Suffrage in 1892.  She had gained national recognition by addressing both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1896, neither of which added a plank endorsing woman suffrage to its platform.
A New York Times article in 1907 quoted her extensively, show-casing that her views were mired in racism.
Mrs. [John Smith] of Albany, herself a taxpayer, but nevertheless a pillar in the anti-suffrage society, was one of the speakers at a hearing before the Cities Committee of the Senate. In a calm  and dispassionate manner peculiarly her own Mrs. [Smith] had piled fact upon fact to back up  her contention that to give the ballot to women would add immensely to the already perplexing problem of getting political questions intelligently solved at the polls.
"What!'' exclaimed Senator Raines, who had introduced the bill. ``You don't mean to tell us that women who have shown themselves capable of sifting this question as thoroughly as, for instance, your address here shows that you have, could not be trusted to exercise their suffrage intelligently?'' 
"No,'' Mrs. [Smith] replied. "On the contrary, I believe that probably all the women in this room, whether they be in favor of woman suffrage or opposed to it, would vote intelligently. But what about the 8,000,000  negro women of the South who would be given the ballot if this proposition should be carried to its logical conclusion? And what about the 60,000 unfortunate women in New York City alone? Could they be equally trusted to exercise that power conscientiously and with intelligence?"

It's hard to know how this woman would react to her great-great-granddaughter, who not only votes, but who also adopted "negro children" to be her descendants.  Indeed, her grandson (my grandfather), born the year after her New York Times article appeared, would become a lifetime member of the NAACP.

My great^2-grandmother died in 1923, three years after the nineteenth amendment was ratified.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I have no idea whether she voted in any elections during her final years.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The underwater dinner

Back by popular demand (in particular, K-daughter's insistence that this dinner is "traditional"), last night we hosted our traditional annual Underwater Dinner.

The weather cooperated all-too-perfectly, giving us torrential downpours all day long.  

Indeed, here's me as a shark, swimming through the waters of our living room:

We made some changes from last year's menu.  Last year, the menu included fish sticks, but this year I couldn't bring myself to purchase processed-food-wrapped in trash, so we had tilapia and shrimp. And it was really easy to ask our local fish market to put the food in our glass containers instead of in paper/plastic.

Of course, we weren't entirely health-conscious.  We also got trash-free Swedish Fish (caught fresh this morning???)

And pasta shells and goldfish crackers, both in recyclable cardboard containers.  That together with teriyaki collard greens disguised as seaweed rounded out the meal.

The other change from last year was how I used the Swedish Fish.  Last year, I had the brilliant idea to submerge the Swedish fish in individual glasses of blue jello, like fish in an aquarium.  Totally adorable, except (a) my family doesn't really like jello, and (b) the fish started dissolving in the jello, getting a icky texture.  So this year, we opted for a school-of-fish cake.  (I used paste-food coloring to dye the icing).

This little half-cake was the perfect size for us, and worked great as K-daughter's birthday cake!
She's 24 . . . like the candles?
Who all showed up at the dinner? (J-son is off at a boxing match, and my husband was at a fathers' group). So in addition to our host daughter Y and N-son (somehow I didn't get pictures of them), we had Ursula the Sea Witch . . .

Love those tentacles!

. . . and a lifeguard with a little swimmer (Ursula is holding a lobster that was Baby-A's costume last year).

Good thing the lifeguard was there!  Because she could protect everyone from dangerous sharks!

Afterward dinner was over, we had a great time listening to the Beach Boys; Baby A and I danced a lot.   Baby A found a book on my shelf and started "reading" it to her mother.  You can see that Baby A totally takes after me.
"Your Money or Your Life".  Never too early to start thinking about personal finance!