Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Being Wrong

How does understanding the nature of error help me parent my kids?  Let me count the ways . . .

Kathryn Schultz, the author who wrote On Being Wrong,  says she is "optimistic about error".  As I wrote in a different post (one about stereotypes and my kids), she explains that we often make mistakes for exactly the same reason that we're fantastically amazing at learning new things.   When we're young, we pick up on grammar and social conventions and such from amazingly few cues; that same quick-pick-up ability can occasionally lead us woefully astray.  

An eight-year-old N-son falls asleep on "Elmo",
his favorite stuffed animal.
Here's a cute example of this misplaced generalization:  when N-son was very young, he didn't watch much television at all; in particular, he hadn't seen Sesame Street.  Someone one day showed him an Elmo doll.  After that, N-son called every stuffed toy "Elmo", and his favorite stuffed panda, the one  that hasn't left his bedroom in 15 years, bears--no pun intended--the name "Elmo" to this day, even though it looks to our eyes nothing like the red, fuzzy Elmo who enjoys being tickled.

The book is far-ranging and philosophical.  Some other tidbits from the book that delighted me:
  • The word "error" comes from the same root as the Spanish word "ir", or "to go".  Erring is etymologically the same as wandering.  
  • Many people confessed to Schultz, as she was writing the book, that they had often been wrong.  But when she pressed them for a quick instance of a specific example, almost everyone blanked.  It's much easier for us to remember instances of being right than to remember the specifics mistakes we've made.  (Guilty! I am very good at forgetting my own mistakes, but I hang on like velcro to the times I correct other peoples' mistakes).  
  • Depressed people have a more accurate view of the world than happy people.   Delusion makes us happier and more productive.  (Think of Don Quixote, who was very happy until he turned sane, at which point he dissolved into a puddle of misery, poor guy).  Schultz argues that our goal shouldn't be to hold more accurate beliefs, but rather to hold more functional beliefs.
But for me, the most illuminating chapter, from my child-rearing perspective, was her chapter on Confabulation.

Confabulation -- making up stories, or making up fables -- is what happens when people don't know the answer to a question, so they make up an answer on the spot . . . and then believe it.  Schultz gives some rather amazing examples (a blind woman who confidently described a book her doctor was holding in his hand, even though of course she couldn't see anything and he was actually holding up a comb).  She also describes more mundane but closer-to-home examples (people who assertively choose one set of pantyhose as better than all the others in the sample, giving all sorts of reasons for their decisions, even though all the pantyhose were identical).

Why do we confabulate?  Because we search for answers; we are story tellers; we try to make sense of the world.  If the sense isn't there, we make it anyway.  We think that if someone asks us a question, we answer it by searching our brain, figuring out which of the many facts in our brain gives us the answer, and then either give the answer or admit we don't know.  But in fact, often the process is more like this: our brains first create a story from the odds and ends floating around in our head, and then we fact-check it.  Evaluating (and then possibly rejecting) the story is a second layer on top of the first, and it's a harder task than the act of creation . . . so sometimes we just skip that part.  

And this make-up-an-answer-and-then-believe-it scenario describes my sons so well.  When I ask them a question that they really want to give me an answer to, they just give me an answer.   Any answer. 
"Where are your glasses?"  "They're in my bedroom".   (Except they're not.  My son lost the glasses; he just didn't know it yet). 
"What happened to your retainers?  Why aren't you wearing them?"  "I gave them back to you, remember?" (said a half hour before he found them under the radiator in his bedroom).
It'd be easy to think of these as deliberate lies, but I think they are really just self-deceptions.  They slip out of the mouth too quickly for the child to have deliberately thought them up -- I know how hard it is for my boys to come up with an answer that they actually have to think over.  But, having said the answer out loud and hearing themselves say it, they begin to believe it.  

Do armadillos eat cheese?  This is a question Schultz asks by way of example.  We're suggestible people, and the mere fact of hearing (or reading) the words makes people more likely to believe that whatever those words said is possible.  My boys, answering my questions off the top of their heads, begin to believe their answers.  They've created their own reality by stating it out loud.

I've learned to back off of these questions quickly rather than to challenge the kids with more pestering.  I don't want to cement the answers in their brains or to begin an argument that will just be a He Said/She Said volley of words.  If my kids answer too quickly and glibly, I change tactics.  I go with their words ("The glasses are in your room?  Good!  Go get them and show them to me!") or I put an end to the conversation ("No; I didn't get your retainers.  I think you need to clean your room just to show me they're not there.")  I try to turn words into action.  

What kinds of things do my children (okay, and me, and for that matter probably you, too) make errors on?  We make errors about what we see, about what we remember, about what we understand, about our own abilities, and about how things happened.  That's a lot of areas to be wrong about!  More on that when we get to the Invisible Gorilla.

But to sum up:  the basic lesson that I got from this book (reinforced by the other two books in this series) is this:  if I doubt the answer that I'm hearing, I should stop asking questions and try something else.  An error gives us the chance to go wandering for the truth -- to be knights errant.  Quests are probably more successful than questions.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Three lies and the truth

One of the Get-To-Know-You games that students play at Orientation at my college is called "Three Truths and a Lie".  Each person in the gathering states four facts about him or herself, and the other people in the group have to guess as to which of the four statements is false.

Of course, when you're raising children or dealing with shifty co-workers, figuring out which statements they tell you are the truth and which statements are . . . well, warped versions of reality . . . that's not quite as much fun, and there's usually no big "reveal" to help you check whether you guessed right.

Partly because I'm really interested in pop-psychology, and partly because I happen to be raising one or more reality-challenged children, I've had the fun of reading a series of books about why people get things wrong, why it's so hard for people to know that they're wrong, and how to increase the likelihood that people will tell you the truth (as they know it).

So I figure it's Book Report time; time to share a bit about what I've discovered and how those discoveries fit into rearing my kiddos. Get ready for Miser Mom's take on these three page-turners:  Spy the Lie, The Invisible Gorilla, and Being Wrong.  They're all about lies (or at least about mistakes and errors), and they all give me insight into the minds of myself and my kids.  Today I'll do a super-quick summary; over the course of the week, I'll blather on a bit more about the details.

Spy the Lie helped me -- in a major way -- work through how I talk with my children (particularly J-son) when I suspected he'd done something he shouldn't have: something he knew he shouldn't have done, and that he didn't want to tell me he had.  I found this book super helpful for these conversations;  I used the book to work past those instinctive cover-ups and toward a communication style where he'll confide in me, even when it's uncomfortable to do so.

Of course, when my kids distort reality, it's not always that they're deliberately lying.  Sometimes, it's just that they don't have a firm grasp on reality.  That's where the other two books come in.   Being Wrong helped me to finally get why my kids will happily tell me nonsense and then believe it themselves.  Also, why after they've been wrong over and over again, they never seem to remember that they'd made a mistake.  How the heck could that be?

And The Invisible Gorilla was just what I needed to hold up a mirror to myself, to enjoy the many ways in which I, myself, get reality all wrong. It's a book about illusions,  those versions of wrongness that somehow delight us rather than embarrass us -- even though the illusions the book describes can be embarrassing, and serious, and possibly even fatal.

Along the way, I'll make cheery noises about Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. This book isn't as useful for parents as it is for teachers (and possibly for learners), but it is a good book for those two groups, I think.    

And just a little side note; I'm not writing these posts about deceit and detection because of impending disaster.  In spite of our nervousness at the beginning of the summer, things are going swimmingly here.  My husband is doing lots of bike riding, which is what he wanted to do.  The boys seem to find lots of good things to do with their time (including Miser-Mom-School and chores, but other fun things as well), and I'm expecting that at some time this week I'll actually finally transition over from paperwork to mathematics.  Life is good in this neck o' the woods.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Storm window cherries

A few years ago, I bought a couple of fruit trees and planted them around my yard.  These trees have generally been a lovely treat . . . especially for the squirrels and insects in our neighborhood.  I haven't gotten to appreciate much--if any--of the fruit myself, except in the theoretical and aesthetic sense.   Still, I appreciate the general idea of having fruit trees around, even with no actual edible fruit.

So imagine my surprise when I went around the corner of my house this weekend and saw this:

Look a little closer . . .  see this?
. . . and this?

I decided to grab a canning jar to put the cherries in, but then decided, what the heck? why not just bring out the colander? And good thing I did, because I pretty much filled the entire colander up. Wow, what a surprise harvest!

Using a paperclip*, I pitted about half of the cherries in a half an hour.  N-son joined in the fun and showed me that he didn't even need any tools at all; he did a squeezing/squirting kind of motion to eject the pits from the cherries.  He was way more efficient than I was, and with me and my paperclip and N-son with his squirt-eject method, we finished the rest in 10 more happy minutes.   A bit of taste-testing made the shared time even sweeter.
* With many thanks to Brigitte for this suggestion!  
I like the paperclip method even more than the eraser-less-pencil method!

About a year or so ago, I loaned out my dehydrator to a former student.  I do like dehydrating food, but she needed a dehydrator and I was ready to share mine.   Why ready to share?  Well, I tend to get twitchy about (a) using electricity to (b) run an appliance that makes a blowing sound to remind me that it's on while it (c) simultaneously heats my house in the summer, so I have had a sort of conflicted relationship with that appliance.  But this past weekend, I just got the craving to dry the cherries for future granola batches.  I wasn't in the mood for a batch of canning (plus, we still have a few jars of cherries from last summer in our basement).

So I decided to make my own solar dehydrator.  Here's the design of my dehydrator, made in layers.

  • Bottom layer:  a garden table, to keep everything off the ground.  
  • Next, something black and flat.  (Day 1, I used a black garbage bag; after that I used baking pans that had turned black from years of use).
  • Next, a frame of pieces of wood -- two-by-fours work well for the four sides.
  • Then an old window screen, no longer needed, laid upon the wooden frame. I scrubbed the screen very well.
  • Another frame of wood, on top of the first one.
  • Put the cherries inside the upper frame of wood, on top of the screen, and top off  the entire shebang with an old storm window.
I didn't nail or glue anything; I just laid it on the table.  This dehydrator was not even remotely air sealed, which I figured was okay because a dehydrator needs some air flow.  It's just a pile o' stuff. Voila!

The cherries started out looking like this, round and red.  After an hour or so, I decided to slice them in half for better drying.

And how did it work?  After two days* in the sun, I had dried cherries!  

* Overnight, I brought the cherries in and stored them in the oven, 
mostly to keep them away from cool temperatures and also from potential bugs.

Whoop!  These will go great on my granola.  They look a lot like raisins, don't they?

Some advantages of drying food this way:  well, of course, it costs nothing and doesn't heat up my house the way canning or electric dehydrators do.  I am grateful for a sunny spot in my yard that stays sunny pretty much all of the day; that is a crucial free (to me) ingredient that I know not everyone has.

When the cherries were done, I just stacked back up the wood,the screen, and the storm window and stuck everything back in the garage for other projects.   (My very clean and de-cluttered garage, better yet!!)  So the second advantage is that I don't need to store a piece of specialized equipment.

And lastly, compared to freezing or canning, dried cherries take up very little space.  Here you see the previously-full colander, together with three-and-a-half cups of dried cherries, stored in air-tight canning jars for long-term safekeeping.  These dried cherries are tiny compared to their former selves, but they really pack a punch!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

What I did with the clothes you donated

This past week, we've taken a break from home-bound chores and schoolwork.  J-son has spent the week with his former foster mom; N-son and I have been volunteering with his church youth group at a giant place called GAiN.   GAiN is a relief organization with a giant warehouse about 8 miles from our home.  What goes on at this warehouse? People pack up food, prepare seed packs, sew things, and pack clothes and blankets.

The sewing was sort of fascinating to me.  Here's one group of sewers making reusable menstrual pads.  This kind of activity is so right up my alley.  We got to hear all sorts of warm-hearted testimonials about how giving these to girls allows them to remain in school, how women who got these danced and clapped because they wouldn't have to sit all by themselves on a pail one week each month.  Good stuff.

There were other large groups of people sewing quilts to send to refugees, both for refugees in camps and for those resettled.

Okay, but that's not what *I* was doing.  I was working on sorting donated clothes to send overseas.  This was personally incredibly fascinating to me. I'd heard about how many, many clothes Americans discard, but I hadn't gotten to see redistribution myself.   If you're curious, too, here's what I got to see.

When we say "lots of clothes" . . . well, this is what "lots" looks like in the warehouse. There are rows and rows of these "Gaylord boxes" -- triple thick corrugated cardboard boxes, about four feet tall.  Each one is full of unsorted clothes or blankets.  

To sort the clothes and get them ready for packing, a forklift would bring four or five of these over to the prep area. How do you get the clothes out of these giant boxes?   You throw several small and enthusiastic children into the Gaylords!

The view of kids in Gaylords from my Quality Control table.
Those baskets of clothes are getting ready to come to me for the first sort.
These kids were totally aDORable, and they had a fantastic time. For them, it was sort of like being in a ball pit or a trampoline park, because they took off their shoes and went playing in these boxes. In addition to throwing piles of clothes into laundry baskets for easy carrying, the kids did a lot of treasure hunting. "Look what I found!" They had infectious energy. (And when their energy flagged, we'd pull them out, send them to work somewhere else, and toss a new kid into the Gaylord).

From there, the baskets of clothes went down a series of tables:  quality control, sorting, pre-folding, and packing.  In the photo below, you can see the unsorted clothes in the Gaylords on the right.  The Gaylords on the left are "special cases" of clothing, and the tables where we sorted and prepare clothes are in the middle, hard to see because they're covered with clothes, too.

My job (with about a half-dozen other people) was "quality control".  I'd pull out some clothes for special treatment:  costumes, new clothes with tags still on them, non-clothes that had somehow made it into the clothes piles.  Those went into the Gaylords that you see in the left above, headed for (??  not sure, but probably somewhere appropriate, I hope).   I also pulled out clothes that were unsuitable for sending overseas for other reasons: any image of an American flag, or camouflage, or nasty stuff (skulls, obscenities).  Those clothes (which could make their wearers targets for attack in other countries) went into another Gaylord, I'm guessing for domestic use.

And then I checked the remaining clothing for quality.  Any missing buttons at all, and the entire garment went into the rag bin.  Zipper doesn't work?  Rag.  Any tears or tatters, including "fashionable" tatters, rag again.  (In a refugee camp, tattered clothing isn't a sign of wealth or fashion).  I checked for stains, especially under armpits and on white clothes -- rags again.

I know that when I've given clothes away, I've occasionally had the mindset of "well, someone could fix this", or "well, even though it's not perfect, surely there's someone out there who would appreciate having something to wear."  The people who trained me kept pointing at the rows and rows of giant Gaylords full of clothes:  shipping is expensive, and nobody wants to pay to send damaged clothes overseas when there are so, so, so many boxes full of nice clothes to send.

I asked some of the teenagers working at the Quality table with me what this experience made them think about their own clothes: does this make them want more clothes?  Or fewer clothes?  They all were wide-eyed at the incredible excess, and said it made them want to have fewer clothes.   We were at the anti-Mall.

The rags weren't destined for trash, by the way:  they were still going to a marginally useful future.  They'd be torn up and turned into rags, sold (one person told me) for 10¢/ton.   If you care that your donated clothes will actually be useful, it's probably worth cleaning them and fixing buttons, but if that's impossible, the clothes are still probably worth donating rather than putting in landfills.  Bea of the Zero Waste Home recommends that if you have damaged clothing you want to give away, to clearly mark it as "rags".  I don't know if that actually works, but I think from now on, I'm going to try.

What happened after Quality Control?  My fellow QC'ers and I passed the clothes along to the next table--the sorting table--where the next round of volunteers sorted clothes into adult sized, child sized, winter ("Siberian winter", we were told, not "chilly African evening winter"), and a few other categories.  They passed clothes along to either the appropriate Gaylord or to the "adult" or "children" table.

The next table of volunteers "pre-folded" each piece of clothing once lengthwise, smoothing it out.  The last table was the skilled workers; they finished folding and packing the clothes into wooden boxes about the size of a hay bale.  This folding and packing was done very carefully so as to fill the box as completely as possible.  Because from there these hay-bale-shaped boxes went . . .

. . . to the baler.  Below there's a fuzzy picture of N-son working a manual fork-lift with pallets and boxes.  He, too, loved his job.  The balers would dump the packed clothes out of the wooden boxes into the baler machine, which would tie the clothes into a bale with just two plastic strips holding it all together.  This bale was wrapped in plastic sheeting for protection, labeled with contents, and stacked.  The minimal amount of packaging helps to keep shipping costs down.

What an experience this was!  We were surrounded:  surrounded by things, surrounded by hundreds of volunteers, and constantly being reminded that somewhere outside the walls of this warehouse we were in a world with almost 20 million refugees.    So much, and yet not enough.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things to love Thursday: An old leash on life

It doesn't cost much, but oh, what joy it brings.  A leash!  A leash!

Plus, whenever I walk the dog, I think of this wonderful verse from the Muppets Movie:
Rowlf:Ah, but what could be better than a saucy Irish setter
When puppy love comes on strong?
Or a collie that's classy, a laddie needs a lassie,
A lover and wife gives you a new leash on life. 
Kermit: (spoken): Uh, Rowlf, was that a new 'leash' on life?
Rowlf: (spoken): Oh yeah...sorry about that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Talkin' Trash again

Here's a view from my curbside earlier this week:  two medium-trash cans (one for here, and one so beat up that it's "to go"), plus a side helping of four recycling bins.

It's a pretty typical picture on trash day, for most people.  But (and now here I'm going to do my little braggy thing) this is the trash result of a major (as in HUGE, top-to-bottom) clean-up of our garage.

And (more braggy stuff) we hadn't put out any trash cans at all since May.

And (even more brag-erations) is that what you see here are our fifth and sixth trash cans for the year so far -- to date, we've put out only six trash cans in the year 2015.  Yes, even with five people in the house, we're averaging about one trash can per month this year!  I'm feeling a little bit like we're really starting to get this low-trash lifestyle down right.


Where did the rest of the stuff in the garage go, then?  A lot of our cleaned-out material was stuff we're trying to get into the hands of people who can use it.   I've been using the garage as a place to store all of our "to donate" items.  When we finally got around to cleaning this out, we took a car-full of Arts and Crafts items to a non-profit on the other side of town -- it's a thrift store for craft stuff only.  I love this place; its mere existence finally convinced me that I can store my "I-might-be-able-to-use-this-someday" kinds of items "in the cloud" instead of in my own closets.  I gave away fabric paints, glass paints, fake fur, scrap books . . . all knowing full well I can go find similar items again for cheap, should I ever decide I need them.

We've been saving up books to donate to our local library book sale.  Those filled the trunk on a second car trip, while the clothes and other household items bound for Salvation Army hitched a ride by filling up the entire back seat.  

I sorted through all sorts of scrap wood, including some leftover from the Elephant-Mother-Chair.  I kept only the wood I could imagine using in the near future (garden renovation projects are planned for October), and I bagged/boxed the rest up as scraps for K-daughter, who just received a fire-pit from some friends and who wants to burn something it.

Plastic bags. How the heck do we get so many plastic bags, especially in my trash-phobic household?!? I took a fully-loaded bike trailer worth of those to the grocery store to recycle.  Sheesh.  Seriously, how do these bags keep reappearing at my home?

There is a still a pile of use-able but not donate-able items (roof shingles, plastic gardening pots, sleds, and other miscellany) in one corner of the garage.  I'll bring out this entire pile for display at the next neighborhood yard sale, which will be coming up in about a month and which attracts hordes and hordes of people.  I will probably sell most of this for $0.00.   I love free boxes!  

A milk crate and a cardboard box of hazardous household waste (motor oil, a can of oven cleaner, burnt out cfl lightbulbs -- some of it from cleaning out my dad's house and my ex-husband's house) will go to our local hazardous waste place later this week.   Or maybe I'll put some of it in the free pile instead -- might as well put it to use, right?  

There are a few hardware items I'll eventually take to our Habitat Restore, but I don't have enough stuff to make a trip worthwhile yet.  

Sweeping out the garage, I did my best to put the dirt-dirt (as opposed to styrofoam-dirt or plastic-dirt) in the compost instead of in the trash cans

Aannnnd . . . that leaves one recycling bin full of plastic bottles, three recycling bins with paper and cardboard, and two trash cans with a bunch of who-knows-what kinds of damaged goods and discarded packaging materials.



Monday, June 15, 2015

Early summer days, cleaning house

One week into the boys' summer vacation, and life is surprisingly good.  I say "surprisingly" because  two or three weeks ago, one of the boys (I won't say which) had the kind of melt-down-headed-for-bad-trouble that caused our family to go into a nervous spin; that was what caused me to write my "Viktor Frankl Summer plans" post.  

Almost like a miracle of sorts, that son rebounded.  As in, not merely grudgingly avoiding trouble, but as in carefully finding new friends, checking in with parents more than he has to, generally trying to be the Most Trustworthy Kid Ever.

And so my first week home with the boys, even though it has kept me away from math, has been filled with a variety of sunny events, both literally and figuratively. In so many ways, we're getting rid of bad stuff in favor of new.

We've repotted the aloe that I've been meaning to repot for, I dunno, a year or two, and then started gifting them to friends who need aloes (whether the friends need them or not).

While N-son was off at a squash camp, J-son did lots of yard work, including the usual weeding and mulching, but also offering (because using a saw = fun) to take out this bush that I hate.   More space for edible plants in the garden now!

My own fun projects included dismantling old wooden radiator cover/cabinets that had cluttered up the basement for seventeen years.  

Of course, there was lots, lots more, including some serious garage cleaning.  The school year always acts like a dam to my home projects, piling them up behind that wall of busyness.  The summer releases the spigot and these projects spurt out and get taken care of so so quickly that it's hard to keep track of them.

At night, as the sun goes down, there's time to read those books I have stacked up by the side of my bed.

And of course, even though the dog isn't a long-delayed removal/improvement project, it's good to continue to cuddle up with someone we love.

Ahhhhhh, summer!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Carrying Cute

I've been reading Katherine Schultz's "Being Wrong"; I'm really enjoying it. A point she makes repeatedly is that one of the main mechanisms that causes us to blunder into mistakes, inductive reasoning,  is the same mechanism that helps us to learn things quickly.  Inductive reasoning allows us, for example, to distinguish "dogs" as a breed through seeing diverse examples like Chihuahuas, Golden retrievers, and Scooby Doo.  But inductive reasoning also teaches us to generalize a bit too much -- for example, to think that computer science is a man's career.  She encourages us to appreciate the former while learning from the latter.

This weekend, in that vein of appreciating inductive generalizations, I have been enjoying the power of stereotypes.  I know I have to be careful about how I say this, because falling back on stereotypes can be pernicious in so many ways.

Pernicious indeed.  My family has spent a bunch of time in recent years talking about adapting our behavior in response to stereotype.  As my sons grow from adorable little boys into powerful and tall teenagers, public impression of them has understandably changed.  We've had lots of discussions about what it means to walk around downtown.  When my six-year-old ran and wrestled and yelled, he was cute.  But when my teenage boys do the same thing, it worries on-lookers, especially when the teenage boys are black and the on-lookers are white and elderly. [And yes, I know that sentence contains more than its share of pernicious stereotypes.]   Even after lots of family conversations about Trayvon Martin and Ferguson and Baltimore, I have had to caution J-son that scooping snow off of cars we're walking by (so that he can make snowballs) might look to other people like an act vandalism (as though he were keying cars). I have had well-intentioned passers-by worry for my safety, thinking my boys were attacking me when they raced me to our car and yanked on the door handles to get in. All this is just to say that walking around town, especially after dark, is a different experience now for my family.

When my fair-skinned daughters were teenagers, of course nobody worried that the girls were going to attack them (or me). Sometimes, when the girls carried their infant brother, people would give them nasty glances, assuming they were unwed mothers. Mostly, the girls found this amusing -- especially my youngest, who has blonde hair, blue-eyes, and alabaster skin, and who is only seven years older than her mahogany-colored baby brother.

And this leads us to this weekend.  My granddaughter, Baby A, is with us Friday through Sunday.  The boys have delightedly taken on the role of uncles: tickling her, making faces,  explaining to me that the baby was crying because I was feeding her wrong, so they'd do it right.  They are amazing with the kid.

When the boys walked with a friend named JJ to the convenience store, I asked if they wanted to take a baby along, and they jumped at the chance.

And all of a sudden, walking the streets became a whole new experience again.  Because Baby A is adorable.  She's so obviously not the biological child of these boys, so there's no chance of mistaking the boys as unwed teenage fathers.  And did I mention she's adorable?

With Baby A in their arms, my boys had the unusual experience of strangers approaching them (not retreating, and not even merely ignoring them).   And people approached with a smile.  And they said encouraging things:  "oh, what a lovely baby!  She's so beautiful!".  And they beamed at the boys.

Who would be nervous about walking alongside this trio?
N-son told me that the boys had made jokes along the way to the store:  "If the police stop us, we're going to have to tell them that JJ is the father".  JJ is, in their minds, white.  But he's "white" in a swarthy, Mediterranean way, with beautiful olive skin and a bushy black head of hair.  Baby A is clearly not his kid.

Still, the fictional father story wasn't even remotely necessary.  My boys were surprised by the kindness of strangers.  Heck, we ourselves were delighted by the many ways this grouping breaks from the pictures we carry in our own heads, too:  That it's girls who like playing with babies.  That clumps of teenager boys are trouble-makers.  That race plays itself out the way we read in the newspapers, instead of the way it plays out in our living room.

I loved having my white teenage daughters help me care for my black infant son.  But I think I'm even more intellectually delighted by watching my black teenage sons care for my white infant granddaughter, precisely because of all the stereotypes I know that I carry around in my own head.   It's such a treat to be able to hold both images -- one, the image of my own implicit biases, and the other, the reality of my family -- to hold these in front of me and revel in the dissonance this creates.

Not to mention, they're so darned cute.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A summer scholar hour

While my husband is off "playing army", I put my boys to work.  Many kinds of work.  We have indoor chores, we have outdoor chores, and we have academic chores.   In fact, I might be the only person I know who home schools my kids during the summer only.

But these boys, oh these boys.  Learning is so very hard for them that if I didn't drill them, any summer learning loss would become doubly dangerous.  And from my end, summer is generally the only time I have to teach them material the way that *I* think it ought to be taught.  Last summer, we had a "Financial Curriculum Summer camp", but timing conflicts this year kept me from repeating that glorious camp. (Sigh).  So instead, this summer we have a daily hour or two of scholarly work, broken into three pieces:
  • Current events.  As I read the paper each morning, I choose an interesting article or two, and I write up a series of questions about it; I have the boys read the article(s) and answer the questions.  I want my boys to work with close reading of text, and also to make inferences about how the subject connects to their lives.  Then we discuss the article together and re-read the relevant parts to support our answers.  Dang, but my boys have trouble reading an article and answering questions about it!  Still, this is a low-effort activity from my own end; I like it as a way of holding my sons accountable for reading and for understanding something of the world around them.
  • Quiet reading for half an hour.  ahhhh, peace and quiet.  There's nothing quite as lovely as sitting together in the living room, all of us curled up with our books, dog snoozing between us, and hearing J-son break into giggles over what he just read.  Very pleasant.  
  • Math Problems.   This, although it is hard going for the boys, I love most of all.  I mean, obviously.   Darn poor kids have a mathematician as a mom!

    I especially love giving  the boys problems that require a mix of arithmetic, words, geometry, and strategy.   For example:  How many triangles can you make from these numbers: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9?   We reframed the "triangle inequality" as the "T. Rex inequality", deciding that the long edge of the triangle was like the body of the T. Rex, and the shorter sides were like the arms; they have to be long enough to reach the mouth.  That's not quite correct science, but it's a great analogy for working the problem.  (By the way, there are nine triangles.  Can you find them all?  How do you organize them, or do you organize them at all?  Good questions for kids and their parents to play with).
In fact, I like working math problems with my boys so much that I made up a series of worksheets for the boys to play with.  Here's the first worksheet in a trifecta of three; this little trifecta explores "Triangular Numbers".  (To see a picture of why 153 is the 17th Triangular Number, click here).  

On Day 2 of the trifecta, the boys used the birthday candle version of the question -- eventually, and with lots of false starts -- to figure out a way to add up the first one hundred natural numbers, that is, to create a shortcut for summing 1 + 2 + . . . + 100.  They're not quite Gauss yet, but I like giving them a chance to play with these famous problems and making the math their own.


Per a reader request, I've put a pdf with the first 5 pages of math problems here.  More will follow eventually . . . .

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How my dad spoils my sons

This is a photo of my dad, a mild-mannered gentleman pushing 80 years old.  

He's been cleaning out his home of 45 years, a project that has taken him well over a year now.   He thinks he's finally close to being done.   With school out for the boys and with our family needing a couple of projects to keep ourselves occupied, my sons and I went down earlier this week to help their Grandpa out.

And helping Grandpa is fabulous.  Because Grandpa is no ordinary 80-year-old guy; he's a Tool Guy, and helping him means getting to use his tools. 

Here's N-son, using the circular saw to take apart an old fiberglass fish pond (actually, we'd used it for turtles instead of fish). 

Note:   N-son (the one who had the stroke in utero so has trouble with the right side of his body).   Circular Saw.  Plugged in.  Even me, who grew up around these beasts, I made sure I knew where the tourniquet supplies were, but Grandpa just shrugged, and N-son was delighted.

Both boys asked me, "Mom, did this make you nervous?".  Me?  Ha-ha-ha.  Not telling.

Grandpa sent J-son up ladders to fix the gutter.  (My dad told me helpfully, "I told him not to fall off").

And J-son obeyed orders, not falling off, but working on the gutters high up in the air.

J-son is a kid who loves tools, but he hates heights.  And yet he was in his element; the gutters are fixed.

There were some ordinary pleasures.  That is, almost every kid gets to have fun cleaning things with a hose.  And yes, playing with water is a treat.

But using Grandpa's Power Washer, well, that's totally cool.  N-son started this project, and then jealous J-son took over.

We did more mundane tasks, too, like emptying out a tool shed or two.  But the equipment part of the visit was the part that creates the memories.  The boys had a blast.  Every kid should be spoiled with power tools every once in a while, right?

And we came back with all our fingers and toes.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dog food cans.

Just as I was getting ready to put a graceful end to this whole Canning Jar Fetish theme and move along, people, THIS happened.  My boys and I spent the day helping my dad clean out his old home, and he loaded us down with stuff for our home, including 6 cans of dog food.

Miser Dog seldom gets canned dog food, so we're mixing in half-a-can at a time with his dry dog food, spacing the pleasure out.  And when you have a half-full can of dog food that you're saving for later, how do you cover it up so that it doesn't stink up the refrigerator?

Out of canning jar habit, I reached for a large lid and ring.  And behold.

Oh, this is too funny.  The lid/ring combo is a perfect fit.

(This must mean that if you buy one of those snap-on-lids to go on top of pet food containers, it fits on canning jars, too?  I don't know if it would work in that direction.)

Hardly earth shaking -- but just too funny a coincidence for me to not share!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Paper, Plastic, Squirrels, and the F-21 washer constipation

Here's a little story about newspaper, plastic bags, dead squirrels, and constipated washing machines.  And the story has a happy ending (except for the squirrel).

The backdrop to this story is that I've worked hard to convince my local paper carrier to bring my newspaper "naked", meaning with no plastic bag.  This is harder than it seems; first, I made a newspaper box to keep the paper dry and clean, but even so, every time we switch carriers I have to call up and re-request no bag.  

Still now, mostly, I get naked newspapers.  Well, the papers do come wearing rubber bands, but I can live with those.

People have pointed out to me that plastic newspaper bags are great for picking up dog poop -- and this is true.  (More on that later).  But I do believe plastic bags are evil, and so I'd like to point out that it is also possible (although perhaps a bit more icky) to pick up disgusting things with the newspaper itself.  For example, we recently proved by example a person can pick up dead squirrels with newspapers.

It just so happens that Saturday morning we discovered a dead squirrel lying in my garden, looking for all the world like he was just taking a nap there. Weird.  (Lewis Thomas in Lives of a Cell remarks on how seldom we see death -- we'll see animals that get hit by cars or killed by our cats, but we don't often see animals that die of natural causes. Somehow, they seem to find private places to die. So seeing a dead squirrel curled up by my tomatoes was really an odd occurrence).

N-son christened the squirrel "Jimmy".  We used newspaper (the obituary section, naturally) to pick Jimmy the Dead Squirrel up, make him a little newspaper coffin, and bury him in a leaf pile

Poor Jimmy.

Jimmy's final resting place.  
But even despite my best "please-no-plastic" efforts, we do get lots of plastic bags in the Miser Mom household, and the boys do stuff these bags in their pockets when they walk the dog.  The boys do not always take the bags back OUT of their pockets.  And hence, the bags recently have ended up here . . .

. . . in the washing machine.  Sigh.

More specifically, said bags ended up lodged in the washing machine filter, causing an error light to flash "F-21!!!" at us, with all other lights blinking stridently at us to let us know that the washing machine was VERY unhappy.  Constipated washing machines are not cheerful appliances.

The last time our machine was constipated (which was in April, so really not very long ago -- sheesh), I was 10 feet deep in paperwork.  My husband called the appliance repair folks, who cheerfully came over to do their enema thing.  They also charged us $111.

But can I say, a clogged washing machine filter is REALLY easy to clean?  I mean, really really easy.  The hardest part is knowing whether it's actually possible for an untrained person to do it, and the easiest way to find out that the answer is YES is to do an internet search for the error code.  Here's the fix, in three easy steps.

1.  Take off the front panel.  It helps to have the right kind of hexagon socket wrench (those generally cost a lot less than $111, by the way).  Our panel has just one screw holding it on.  (Did I mention this is easy?)

2.  When you remove that front panel, theres's a white tube with a knob.  Unscrew that knob, and then stand back . . .

. . . because the washing machine feels blessed relief!  If you don't  have a drain in the floor like I do, you'll want a bucket or two.

3.  When the water is done gushing out, fish out the pens, the coins, and -- yes -- the plastic bags.  Then reassemble.

The fix took me 20 minutes, and that time included looking things up on the internet, searching for the right socket wrench, waiting for the water on the floor to go down the drain so I could reassemble everything without getting soaked, and basically the entire repair.  It's funny to see other people on the internet marveling at how quick and easy this is, too.   My favorite site was fixya.com, where people gleefully shared what they'd found in their clogged filters.  The list includes
  • an ink pen, a green scrubby and several coins 
  • I found $1.37 worth of change and a pair of thong underwear (not mine)! 
  • Two Dimes a peace of 1*2 Plastic in line and a babby sock and STAPLES YES STAPLES 
  • a pair of baby socks, hand full of pony tail holders and a pocket full of change! 
  • 2 pairs of kids socks, a pocket full of change and some bra wires.
  • I found a bunch of change 300 dollars and ton of lint. Make sure to take your money out of your pocket! 
I think I'm the only one with newspaper bags, and I only snagged 15¢ --- but then again, we've only been collecting money there since April.  And the $111 that I didn't spend on appliance repair?  I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it, but I'm definitely not leaving it in my pocket.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Goals and plans and summer and kids

Summer has arrived, and that means it's time for  . . . spreadsheets!!!

(Doesn't everyone start off the summer with a family meeting involving lists, calendars, and giant piles o' self-generated paperwork?)

Around the Miser Mom household, the kiddos have come to expect this sort of insane level of organization.  My own mom used to start us off each weekend with lists: my dad would make a fantastic Saturday brunch, and while we were eating, my mom would draw up the list of weekend chores, filling up a sheet (or two) of 8.5x11" paper in her elegant handwriting.  Over the course of the next two days, we'd all chip in, crossing items off the list as we finished them.  The list was awful/wonderful.  It was awful because it was full of chores.  It was wonderful because it was all there; you knew exactly what to do next, and you could see how close you were to being done.  After my mom died and my sisters and I reconvened to help Dad plan the memorial service, the first thing my sister did was draw up a list of household tasks that would get the place ready for the post-service reception.  We all gladly fell to working together, just like old times.

Although I don't start each weekend with a chore list, there are ways I've done my Mom one better.  My own summer spreadsheet has four or five categories (home tasks, once only; home tasks, repeated; garden; scholarly tasks; exercise).  I keep both an electronic version that I update year-to-year, and then I print out a specific year's version to share with the kids.

Late last night I pulled out the lists and the calendars and sat the boys down to map out the summer.   When I say "late last night", I mean 8 p.m. -- my brain starts to fry about 9 p.m., so this was my last mentally serviceable hour.  I chose this time so that I could bribe/threaten the boys into listening:  I cheerfully told them that if we couldn't finish planning before my brain fried, I'd just wake them up early to continue the discussion.

By the way, I have to say that this version of the bribe/threat has been my Hands-Down-Most-Successful summer parenting trick.  Ever.  The boys stay up way later than I do (theoretically, until 10:30, but actually, who knows???).  Do they make noise at night? They used to, but if they wake me up at night, I wake them up in the morning.  No more noise now. Do they leave a mess in the kitchen and living room?  They used to, but now if I wake up to a mess, I wake them up to clean it up, and so nowadays I arise to a tidy home.    Ergo, the bribe/threat of continuing the planning discussion in the morning was all that I needed to ensure we'd finish our planning session last night.

I was glad to see that, after several years of this ritual, the boys have come to appreciate the awful/wonderful dichotomy of lists.  I pulled out my spreadsheet and they grabbed for it, curious (in a semi-morbid way) about what was in store for them.  J-son asked about tasks I hadn't included on the list that he wanted to include, so I added those.  In the same way, we went through the summer calendar of trips and volunteer weeks and sports camps, noting when the boys would have open spaces for hanging with friends. N-son did a happy dance about his squash and tennis weeks.   J-son confidently pointed out weeks where he was sure his dad would take him boxing.  Afterwards, we put together a cooking plan and a grocery list.  By 9:00 p.m., just as my brain was beginning to mushify, J-son helped me prepare our latest box of CSA vegetables, and by 9:30 I was in bed.  The boys switched to quiet mode.

It's 8 a.m.; I've been up for two hours and the boys are still asleep.  Lovely.  Hello, summer!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Viktor Frankl summer plan

Summer is supposed to be a time of fun, relaxation, and merriment.  It doesn't seem like the time to invoke the name of Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust Survivor and author of the influential book, Man's Search for Meaning.

And yet.

And yet, here in the Miser Mom household, summer is not always the carefree and joyous time that it is for other families.  The upcoming summer doesn't threaten to be as overwhelmingly oppressive as the summer we took care of a troubled teenager (C-son), who turned our days and nights upside down and eventually left our home under police escort.  But even so, both of our boys have a heck of a lot more energy and a heck of a lot less impulse control than our daughters ever did.  Caring for them during the summer takes a lot of pre-planning, and it takes a lot of hands-on time.

And even with pre-planning and hands-on time, the boys can spiral into really rotten behaviors.  The swirl of stealing and other bad behavior that J-son got into two years ago during that time we still call The Horrible Week-- that swirl of behavior started in August 2013 when he was getting bored and looking for something to do.  The Something-To-Do he stumbled upon was Not Good Activities.  With time and energy and effort and drugs and locks and persistence we managed to drag him away from these, but the lure of Not Good Activities occasionally still beckons to him.

Compounding the boy-care problem is that my husband and I are each facing transitions of our own.  Me, I'm still climbing up out of a boggy cave of insanely mucky and intensive committee work, and I'm turning my face toward the glory of a sabbatical shining down upon me.  My husband, he's facing a retirement that officially begins June 30, a date we expected, but that is not entirely of his own choosing.  The transition to retirement has its own psychological challenges, and my husband is currently battling some of those particular dragons.

So the approach of summer creates a kind of an existential crisis for my family, particularly for the guys.   My husband wonders, will he throw away his last few bike-racing-years guarding hooligans?  My sons wonder if they will ever have money, or the ability to drive, or the kind of social lives they imagine that their friends have, or control over their own lives.  Even me, I wonder if I will finally have a chance to do math anytime soon, or whether I will have to wait until school begins to re-kick-start my research.   So we're not exactly saying, "Woo-hoo!  Beach, here we come!"  Instead, we prepare almost as though for hurricanes.   In spite of all my best attempts at bubbly-ness, the past few weeks of anticipating the end of school have been dreary and dreadful for my guys.

Enter Viktor Frankl.

Frankl wrote that the will to continue through rocky times (like camps, either concentration or tennis) follows from having a greater purpose in life.  To buoy up my guys, I've been interviewing them about what it is they want to get out of the summer.  I will be rounding this out by asking my daughters the same thing.  I've been taking Frankl's advice a step further, sharing the answers around the family, having us pledge to try to support one another in our goals.
  • My husband wants to race bikes.  He wants to train to the point of exhaustion, to throw himself into competition and camaraderie.  He also wants to learn Russian and to write a book and to go to coffee shops with friends.
  • J-son wants to get a job, to learn to box, to go to the library, to play Lacrosse, and to hang with his friends.
  • N-son wants to play with J-son, he wants to join a drum line, and he wants to ride his bike.
  • Our recent addition, Y, new to our city, wants to do local-county things: yard sale, go to Farmer's Markets, pick peaches. She also wants to prepare for her InterVarsity ministry.
  • I want to repair broken things around the house, and garden, and do some friggin' math.
I observe that nobody wants to clean the house or make dinner.  Notice that? So we'll all share in these chores.

Just knowing this, just naming our various aspirations out loud, it helps.  My husband and J-son were both surprised (in a good way) at each other's lists.  We are, perhaps, not quite as apprehensive and maybe even a bit excited about working on projects we all like.  We've worked with J-son on applying for jobs.  We've made a bit of time for my husband to ride his bike unto exhaustion.  The boys have planned meals they will cook.

The summer for us officially kicks off on Friday morning, when the boys wake up to their first day of of school-less-ness and my husband heads to army camp for two weeks.  I'll do my usual stint of solo parenting as the boys transition away from a daily institutional schedule into a self-determined calendar, and after that we'll figure out how to navigate the wide open, scary spaces of free time.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Breaking up is good to do

From the ongoing bedtime story called If You Give a MiserMom a Canning Jar . . . comes this one obvious chapter on the use of canning jars: you can use them to hold food.

Like, of course.

You can even use canning jars to hold food that you didn't even bother to can.

Still a no brainer, I know.  But it's one of the most common ways I'm using jars nowadays.

There's a purpose beyond busy-work for transferring food that comes in bags, boxes, and bins into these jars. I don't put my food into jars just because everything is prettier that way than when it's heaped up in bags and boxes (although I do think jars of dry beans have a certain aesthetic quality to them).
Pretty beans?

The reason I use canning jars is not so that I can store the food; it's so I can retrieve it.

I buy most of my dry goods in bulk. If I tried to store it all in the kitchen, my shelves would be so full I could never find anything.  So I store most of my food in the pantry in the basement, and I keep just enough upstairs that I can see it and use it.  If I need more, I just go "shopping" in the basement. I could store all of that food in large bins, but I use small jars instead:  I'm a lot more likely to grab a pint of dry beans off the shelf than wrestle with some giant bag or bin.  That means I'm more likely to use the food I already have.

For my hungry family, a pint jar of dry beans happens to be just about the right amount to toss straight into a pot of water to soak overnight: no measuring cups involved.  For the same ease-of-use reason, I've divvied up what was left from a bag of rye flour into pint-sized canning jars.  Before I put it into jars, the bag sat curled up in a drawer staring at me balefully and taunting me, for months.   Bags of rye flour are just messy beasts to use, aren't they?.  But once the rye was corralled and pre-measured within easy grab-n-go jars, it was a cinch to use the flour up the next few times I made bread.

The grab-n-go is why I put our leftover Swiss Chard salad in a quart-sized canning jar one night.  The next morning, it went straight into my lunch bag along with a small jar of cashews.  By lunch time, all was history.

It's why, when I make pots of soup, we don't put the leftovers into the fridge until we've transferred everything to jars.  (Canning jars don't leak, and once you remove the lids and rings, canning jars can go straight into the microwave).

What you're looking at above is lunch-lunch-lunch-snack-lunch.  No prep time, just yum.

If you give a Miser Mom a Canning Jar, she can take it anywhere.