Saturday, November 29, 2008


I have long felt-- strongly-- that, notwithstanding my firm and steady belief that my particular faith has both necessary and sufficient truth to lead me where I need to go, there is much, much to be learned from other people in other places. Look!

Islamic finance is catching on in London. (You know, following Sharia law: no interest, all parties share equally in risk, you aren't allowed to take on too much risk, you can't invest in something that isn't actually a thing-- evidently, this makes for a pretty stable fincancial sector. Check it out.)

Dunno what to take this at other than face value, but there is evidently a Russian Republic where Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam all coexist peacefully:

I particularly appreciated the comments by the pro-Prop-8 folks quoted in this:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Peculiarities of Provo

(Also, Salt Lake and BYU):

Before we begin, I have to direct you to my friend KE's posting about being from Provo, which expresses my own feelings about being from this city pretty exactly:

  1. It's really quite beautiful here. The mountain turns gorgeous colors in the spring, when it is green; in the winter, the few times when it is white; and in the fall, when becomes a gorgeous blanket of oranges and reds and yellows. In the mornings, especially winter mornings, the frosty whiteness of the world is breathtaking (along with the cold). And you can still see some stars here, and stars are beautiful no matter where you are.

  2. We have world-class dancing. Which is to say, we have the world's two top ballroom dance teams within about ten miles of each other (one at BYU, the other at UVU). Some people would say: not many people really care about ballroom dance, let alone team ballroom dance-- but I personally find it impressive. I have heard thirdhand that BYU goes to the dance championships in Blackpool, England (you know, the city featured in both the American and the Japanese Shall We Dance movies) every third year, and that the UVU team goes the years that BYU doesn't go because "we might as well not travel thousands of miles to have them beat us."

  3. We also have language. The department chair of my current department (Linguistics and English Language) told a story about how he was at Macey's (local, heavily-Mormon-supported grocery store) and there came an announcement over the PA system asking if anyone in the store spoke Russian. When he wandered by the service desk a few minutes later, there were two young men chatting away with an older couple-- in Russian. This same department chair, William Eggington, is very proud of himself for being the guy who came up with the idea for the "I speak (name of a language)" buttons that they used in the 2002 Winter Olympics. I could go on, this being one of my favorite subjects, but I will press forward with...

  4. We have Polynesians. Salt Lake City has the largest population of Maoris (natives of New Zeland) in the world outside of New Zeland itself, which is why when Whale Rider came out, our own SLC was one of the premier cities. What, you haven't seen Whale Rider? Go watch it. Now.

  5. Orem City Library
  6. More orchestras and choirs than you can shake a stick at
  7. I think that's enough, for now

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Three Billy Goat Gruff Marine Biologists

I told this story for the first time about a year ago, I think, as I was sitting in a grocery store parking lot with my nephew, waiting for my sister to come back to the car. I was pretty bored of the usual way of telling this, and he asked for the story to be underwater, so this is what I came up with.

Once upon a time, there were three billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologists who were studying the habitat of the coelecanth. (Do you know what a coelecanth is? It's a kind of fish that scientists used to think was extinct, but then they found out that there really were some still alive. The billy-goat-gruff marine biologists were studying this amazing fish.) Unfortunately, there was a giant clam who lived at the mouth of the canyon that the billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologists had to swim up, and this giant clam was very grumpy because his water was so polluted. (Have you heard of giant clams? They are very big-- a meter across-- longer than the arm of a grown man. And if they are grumpy, they can trap your foot and keep you under the water until you drown.)

So, as the littlest billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist went to swim past the grumpy giant clam, the clam said [in a burbly voice-- this is very important for this story to be told properly], "Who's trying to swim up my canyon?"

"'Tis I, little billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist."

"Well, I'm going to trap your foot."

"Oh no, please don't trap me, get my bigger brother, big billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist."

"Well, be on your way then."

And he went as fast as he could, in a swirl of bubbles.

Next along came big billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist. "Who's trying to swim up my canyon!?" asked the giant clam.

"'Tis I, big billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist."

"Well, I'm going to trap your foot."

"Oh no, please don't trap me, get my bigger brother, great-big-billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist."

"Well, be on your way then."

And he went as fast as he could, in a swirl of bubbles.

Next along came great-big-billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist. "Who's trying to swim up my canyon!?" asked the giant clam.

"'Tis I, great-big-billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist."

"Well, I'm going to trap your foot."

"Well, you just try it!"

And as great-big-billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist swam past, the giant clam did indeed trap his foot, but not really; great-big-billy-goat-gruff-marine-biologist had attached a rope to his foot, and once the clam had clamped down on it, he pulled, and the other two pushed from behind, and they moved the giant clam to a place where the water was much less polluted, and it became much less grumpy, and they swam up the canyon every day after that, and were able to learn many useful and interesting things about the coelecanth's habitat and were able to help coelecanths very much.

Author's note: I just looked it up, and found out that people USED to think that giant clams were dangerous, but now they realize that clams probably close so slowly that they aren't really dangerous. OK, so that's what it says on wikipedia, but as far as I know, no one has a reason to lie about this, so I'm believing it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How To Get Children To Go To Bed on Time

I am, if I do say so myself, very good at getting children to go bed on time and have been for some time now. Snub my chutzpah if you like, but for what it's worth, I'm recording what I know.

Overall goal: help children grow up into basically happy, physically and emotionally healthy human beings, who can deal well with problems.

Intermediate goal: help children get to bed in an ever-more-self-sufficient manner, without unduly straining the caregiver's relationship to them or facing bedtime meltdown on any kind of a regular basis.

Time is of the essence. Meaning:
  1. Figure out what time you want/need to get the kids to go to bed. Start the process at least half an hour or an hour before bedtime, depending on how trenchant/ bratty/ afraid of the dark, etc., the children involved are. DO NOT PANIC. Whoever panics, looses, and you loose if the kids loose.
  2. Because you have left yourself lead time, you can give the kids (almost) as much time as they want to do what they need to. Half an hour for the three-year-old to change in to pajamas by himself? Sure. Fifteen minutes to finish the Uno game? I'm not worried. Forty-five minutes to find the red rubber elephant or other essential inanimate sleeping companion? I do not freak out. We aren't panicking here.
  3. At the same time, set reasonable time limits. It goes something like this: At the appointed hour, I announce to all interested parties that it is just about bedtime. I ask my questions (see below) and then set a timeline for each task to be accomplished: "OK, I'm going to set the microwave for ten minutes, and when it beeps, you need to have your pajamas on and have your toothbrush in your hand, ready to brush" or whatever. Because I have (of course) left myself a cushion of time, I do not set unreasonably short times for things to be accomplished, and therefore the children do not panic. Also, because I have left a cushion, when a child wants to negotiate for more time, I am happy to do so, and we are all OK.
Work with the children. Specifically:
  1. Either just before or just after you announce your cruelly arbitrary bedtime (remember, all bedtimes are cruel and arbitrary), ask some basic questions: "Is anybody hungry? Who needs a drink? Do you need help getting a drink/finding your toothbrush/ zipping up your pajamas? What do you guys usually do at bedtime?" (This last one is for babysitters and aunties/relatives who are not in residence; for those with more influence over the bedtime-going situation, you might be interested to know the answer to "What would you LIKE to usually do at bedtime?") Also, the perennial favorite: "Who needs a story?" If you ask the questions before bedtime and it turns out that a kid didn't realize that he or she was hungry, thirsty, etc., then do not accuse them of lying; just get the drink, small snack, etc. Realizing that you won't get to do something for about nine hours really can make you realize that you need to do that thing right away.
  2. Go with the flow according to the answers to the questions. I personally don't believe in sending children to bed hungry if I can possibly help it, because (beyond nutritional reasons, which involve a slightly different situation, one in which where you do this on a regular basis) hungry children are grumpy, uncooperative, and most of all don't go to sleep or stay asleep well. At the same time, I believe that children who refuse to eat reasonably nutritious and delicious food should not be coddled. My solution is plain food: bread or toast without butter; oatmeal or other hot cereal without excessive sugar; non-sugary cold cereal; crackers and cheese or peanut butter; an apple; and so on. Have the food fight over last night's dinner in the morning. Offer the proclaimedly hungry child three options (including tonight's uneaten dinner, if it's an issue), and if the child doesn't want any of them, assume that he or she is bluffing/stalling. Of course, you have to go with your gut on this one, as with all issues of believing another human being.
  3. Getting a drink: the only issue with this may be bed-wetting. One of my sisters tries very hard to remember to help her bed-wetting child get lots of water before dinner time, so that he isn't thirsty between then and bedtime. She reminds him of this plan as she is implementing it, because he doesn't really like wetting his bed either.
  4. Help should be offered cheerfully, and with kindness. The people who most obviously need help are often the ones who are too short to turn on the water for themselves or too uncoordinated (as yet) to do their own snaps, but keep an eye out for older children who disobey not from an underlying desire to stall or defy you, but because they aren't sure where to find something or how to do something. The process goes something like this: "I see that you haven't gotten your pajamas on like I asked you to. Do you need help?" The normal response to this is, "No!" to which the proper reply is, "OK, but if it isn't done in five minutes from now, I'm going to come help. Let's look. The clock says 8:25. When the clock says 8:30, if your pajamas aren't on, then I will come help. Do you understand?" The child says yes, not because they agree (they don't have a choice), but because they understand. When 8:30 rolls around, one of two things will be true: either the kid's pajamas will be on, or they won't. If they are, hooray! If they aren't, my personal suggestion is to go in and be as absolutely helpful and kind as possible. You say, "Do you know where they are?" If they don't, you ask where they usually are or where they might be. At this point you may get a panicky, whiny, sad story about how the kid looked in the drawer and Mom didn't put them there (you may choose to graciously pass over the assumption of Mom's servanthood and save it for a pointed moral story later on) and how the child CAN'T find them. What you do is stay calm. This is a chance to work with the internal monologue the child is developing for any difficult task. That monologue has gotten into a panic/can't do it mode because it has seen a seemingly unsurmountable difficulty. What you inject at this point, when the monologue is exposed, is hope, cheerfulness, and competence. "You can't find it? Well, let's look." And you do-- both of you. The both of you part is essential, because otherwise "help" becomes a euphemism for "I do it for you". To help find pajamas, look in the places the child's brain thinks up. If they can't find them even still, give them some possible acceptable alternatives (wear a tee- shirt, sleep in your underwear). To help a younger kid put pajamas on, hold the pajamas up or else point out how the kid can hold on to furniture to hold themselves up while they get into their own clothes. To help a little person turn on the water faucet, lift them up to the faucet and let them do the turning; if the faucet is too stiff, provide extra muscle power at the outside of their hand, if that is possible without hurting the little hand. At advanced stages of self-efficacy, you can just give an enthusiastic and sincere, "You can do it!" and the kid will figure it out for themselves.
  5. Once the kid figures out the manner in which you offer help, you will be surprised at how often he or she will say yes, when you first ask if they need help. Of course, if you are mean or upset as you give help, they will probably keep saying "no" and start hustling when you ask if they want help. You may find this to be a more desirable result. I like my way better, because I feel that it helps children develop in a way that I want them to: they start to recognize when they are panicking because they need help or feel like they need help, and they start to recognize how they can calm down and get things done anyway.
Incentives (and you're saying: I KNEW it would come down to this!)
  1. Say "thank you" to whoever is even slightly doing what you ask. Don't get manipulative, but these two words are an extremely, extremely powerful combination in our language, and it pays not to forget this.
  2. Ask the children to do "magic tricks". I learned about "magic tricks" from a book called Arthur the Anteater by Marc Brown, which I bought from the Provo Public Library's used book sale. I wish that I could tell you if he is related to the Arthur who is on PBS kids, but I have no idea. Anyway, what you do is this: you ask children (our household is currently doing this a lot with our under 8s, but I would be interested in testing an older limit) if they would like to do a magic trick. They enthusiastically say yes. You explain that you will close your eyes, and when you open them you want to see if, by magic, they have changed in to their pajamas. Or picked up the train set. Or put their dishes in the dishwasher. Or whatever. It gets tiring to have your eyes closed a lot (our little ones think up their own magic tricks all the time, and after spending more than half of one dinner close-eyed, I had to put my foot down) but it is sure worth it to get a little bit of independence going in the younger set. An alternative to closing your eyes, especially with the pajamas, is to just leave the room. The advantage to this is, of course, that you can do other stuff while you are waiting for the magic to happen.
  3. Don't forget about songs. THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO BE ELABORATE. Play a CD if you want to. Or, sing songs you learned as a child (as long as you are fine with them having passed on to the next generation). My dad would always play classical music records for us, and I deeply believe that this affected, for the better, my later ability to play and learn music.
  4. I haven't ever forgotten about stories, but don't you forget either. For variety's sake, check stories out from the library; or, twist a well-known one. My dad once told me The Three Bears where the bears had a record player; I, myself, have put a couple of fairy tales under the water (the three bears lived in a sub, and goldilocks was a random scuba diver). You can also add sound effects (knocking, popping, chewing, ding-dong for a doorbell). Also, children love to hear stories about themselves and people they know, especially about relatives when those relatives were younger. My older sister often bases made-up stories on events that have happened during the day in combination with other common fantasy-story elements ("So, Taran and Morrow were going to visit their Auntie Cornelia, when they met a troll...).
  5. Appropriate physical contact is very, very important for growing children. I admire my parents to no end for the fact that, when they married, they consciously chose to do two things differently than their parents had: 1) they would tell their children on a regular basis that they loved them, and 2) they would hug their children on a regular basis. This does not mean that my grandparents were horrible; to the contrary, it means that they raised children who were healthy enough to recognize even better ways to do things than the last generation had. So, of course, give your children hugs during the day to say hello, goodbye, good job, and I hope you feel better; but also consider piling everyone on to a couch, rocking chair, beanbag, bed, or whatever, to get some physical contact as you read or tell stories or do your end-of-day talk. This is very relaxing, as I can attest. Occassionally as I snuggle with my neeflings at the end of the day, I get so sleepy that I can barely finish the story. Ok, once or twice I haven't finished the story.
  6. I've never done this one, but I've read about it and want to try it: the end-of-day talk. How was your day? What went well? Would you change anything? It's just a chance to connect to each other in a relaxed environment.
Maybe this one was obvious, but just in case: remember to make sure that their physical needs are met.
  1. I've addressed hunger above.
  2. Exercise is something I personally need in order to sleep well. So do children. This one can't really be dealt with right at bedtime, but if you are finding that getting to sleep is a consistent problem, you might try to find some way to incorporate more exercise into the daily routine (this is assuming you have control over it). If you have two hours lead time before bedtime and recognize that this might be a problem, start running games or other possible physical activity right at the two-hour-before mark, and then start winding down about half an hour later. Experiment to see what works for your little ones (this is true of all of this, I guess).
  3. If they are so tired that they are running around the house like energizer bunnies (if you haven't experienced this yet, just wait...) then catch them and try to keep them at least still (though not yet calm) while you play music, tell stories, or do whatever it is that is going to best calm them, which thing varies by child.
  4. You know this and I know this, but I'm going to remind us: babies cry when their diapers need changing, when they have gas bubbles in their tummies, when they are hungry, when their siblings have whacked them, when they just plain want to be held, and for other completely inexplicable reasons. Check the checkable things before giving up.
I have no where else to put this, but it is extremely useful: babies imitate what they see faces doing. Close your eyes if the baby you are walking/rocking can see you. Close them slowly and sleepily. Not long ago, my sister was holding her infant daughter so that the baby was facing me, and something woke the baby up, and she looked at me. I slowly and sleepily closed my eyes once, twice, and then left them closed for a count of ten. When I looked again, she was asleep again. My sister and I looked at each other and both grinned, because we both know this trick.

Friday, November 14, 2008

German Apple Pancakes

I've promised this to numerous and sundry people at various times. I pray that my memory (especially of ingredient amounts) is up to the task of making this a decent replication of the way I actually cook this dish.

This recipe is different from the one in my cookbook, so I'm not sure whether I should change the name to show that it's not really authentic, or if I should keep it, because it is substantially the same recipe and I want to show influences. I've settled on the latter strategy, because I think that it rests on the more relevant fact. Besides which, it's really difficult for me to come up with (good) recipe names.

  • an apple. If you want to make a small pancake or you are short on time, use half an apple. My personal most recent favorite is to use Galas (which the grocery store says are bad for cooking with, and I don't know how to respond to that), but I think that anything you want to use will be fine. Red delicious will probably mush up on you, but if you are fine with that, I'm certainly fine with that.
  • allspice (or other sweet spices, if you don't have allspice): 1/2 teaspoon? It has been a really long time since I measured this for this recipe.
  • a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar (I never measure this-- it's just a guess, based on what I think I remember from the recipe and what I usually do)
  • butter and/or oil (a couple of tablespoons, between the two of them)
  • one egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • about a tablespoon of flour. Maybe less. I've forgotten the flour before and it has been OK, but it really doesn't taste the same.
Chop and core the apple. I sometimes peel them but usually don't. The peel adds a texture that I like. Start frying the apple in preheated cast-iron skillet. You can use butter at this stage if you want, but I like oil because it is healthier, it is cheaper, and it doesn't burn as easily-- meaning that you get a bigger chance of turning out a pretty good pancake. (This, by the way, is the step where I somehow deviated from the cookbook. In the cookbook that I got this recipe from, you add the apples after you have added the batter. Having made them in the adulterated way, I will never go back, but in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I'd let you know where I deviate from authenticity.)

Add the allspice at some point. It really isn't so picky about the allspice, since the allspice doesn't have to brown or anything.

The apples do need to brown, for maximum yumminess. As an interruption to your sitting on your hands to make yourself be patient while they do so, crack the egg in to a reasonably sized bowl (like a cereal bowl), add a tablespoon of water, beat it with a wire whisk if you have one, with a fork if you don't, and then add the salt and flour and beat them until you've gotten as many lumps out as you figure you're going to get. I sometimes remember to start this process before I chop up the apple, but if I take long enough on browning the apple, it turns out OK anyway. Even when the egg has flour lumps it turns out pretty yummy, so don't fret.

Once the apples have browned as much as you have the patience to let them (my record was something like twenty minutes, but usually I'm in more of a hurry than that), add the butter and brown sugar. I do like butter better than oil at this point, because it interacts in a totally delicious way with the brown sugar in a way that oil does not.

The recipe gets kind of finicky at this point. What you want is for the brown sugar to melt in with the butter and start to turn to something like caramel, but you have to factor in the cooking time for the egg, which gets added in for the final bit of caramelization. You also have to not burn the sugar. Some people like the taste of burned sugar, but I do not. If you are nervous about this, then just dump the egg mixture in about a minute after you have added the brown sugar and butter, and you will come out with a totally delicious pancake, even though it is not at the extreme edges of deliciousness to which this recipe can be pushed. If you are not nervous, then trust your gut, make the recipe a few times (keeping careful notes), and email me the results so that I can tell people with precision how to do this part.

Add the egg mixture to the skillet. Turn on the broiler at the same time so that it can preheat, and make sure that the oven rack is on the top shelf. Moving it after the broiler has preheated involves putting your delicate hand very close to a 500 degree element, which is not my favorite thing to do, especially since I don't usually have the glove kind of hot pad available.

Once the egg is mostly not runny any more, take it off the heat and put it in the broiler for one minute. Or maybe two. You want the egg to be done and the top to be brown. (Darn it, I'm going to have to go home and make up a batch to check the time on this, among other things.) When you take it out, salt it (if you want-- I always need to), and enjoy. I usually take mine out of the skillet in quarters or halves.

You can double this recipe in an eight-inch skillet with relative impunity (the cooking time will of course be longer), but for more than that I'd definitely do batches.

If for whatever reason you don't have a working broiler, then put a lid on the pan as soon as you add the egg, and be sure that your heat is low enough that you won't burn the sugar (which is all on the bottom of the pan, right next to the heat source) while the egg is cooking. It will take longer to cook, but it will be-- almost-- as yummy.

If you have a tilty stove-top, such that most of your egg slides to one side of the pan and sits there, refusing to cook, in a salmonella-inviting mass, as the film on the other side becomes crispy and starts curling, then swirl the egg around now and again while it is cooking. This probably seems obvious to some of my readers, but it took me a while to figure out.

Pizza Adventures

Last night, I went with my older sister and her five young children to get pizza. Because we are a frugal family, and because the only working car available to us at the moment has only five seat belts, we took the bus. Two women, five children (four walkers and a babe-in-arms), a stroller, two backpacks, and, on the way home, six pizzas.

A friend once told me that an adventure is when you don't know how something is going to turn out. This expedition fell in to that category.

First, there was a misunderstanding about the bus route, and I (being the more experienced bus rider among us) only figured it out just in time to get us off the bus at the right stop. I was happy that I had come.

Then we walked and we walked and we walked and we walked and we walked until we came to Blackjack Pizza, where the children had coupons from the library's Summer Reading Program to get individual pizzas as long as their mother purchased something else, too. (I was very thankful that the pizza place wasn't too busy, because that meant that our general largeness and craziness didn't throw them off too much.)

The fun thing about this pizza place is that they make their pizzas fresh, meaning that they take the dough and roll it out and sometimes toss it to make it bigger before they put the toppings on it and put it in the oven to bake. Whoever designed that kitchen so that you can see them making and then baking (in a conveyor-belt oven) pizzas is a GENIUS.

We were a very appreciative audience. Whenever one of the employees started throwing the dough around, we would gasp in wonder, and I would hold the three-year-old up, and the older two children would stand up on their chairs to watch. We finally pushed three of the four chairs over to the counter for better viewing, because the counter was more than four feet tall. I commented to my sister than when I was little, I would only have ever seen something like this on TV, never live. I felt pleased that these neeflings are getting a more--er--rounded cultural experience than I did, growing up.

The pizza guys enjoyed the attention. I wouldn't have known this for sure, but after all of the pizzas were in the oven (ours plus some others from phone orders), two of the guys started throwing pizza bases over and over again, to the sound of our amazed ooohing and aaahing, throwing them until they became larger than any pizza I had seen them make yet, and finally they became so large and so thin that the middles broke up, and then they smooshed them together and threw them over against the wall, where they (the pizza bases) splatted neatly in to the garbage can.

We sang as we walked back to the bus stop. My sister and I were the only ones singing, but it was very beautiful because our voices go so well together, and we sang harmony. The children walked an exceptionally long "balance-beam"-- you know, the curb, which in this case was dividing a very not busy parking lot from the sidewalk we were on.

At the bus stop, we saw a man waiting for the bus (by now it was late enough that missing a bus would be a big deal), and he assured us that even though the schedule said it should have been gone by then, it hadn't, because he had been there on time. Hooray! We ended up riding on the same bus to the Wilk, where we waited for the next bus together. As we waited, my sister haded the children their pizzas and let them start eating them, and I started on mine. I offered the man a slice of my pizza (he looked kind of hungry). He accepted. My sister offered him a slice of hers, too, and he again accepted. She noticed a lady sitting on a bench facing the other way who looked like she might want some, and offered her some, and she accepted too. It was a regular bus-stop pizza party.

When we boarded the bus home, Quarto (the three-year-old) boarded the bus with us and then calmly walked to the back of the bus, where there were other people but none that he knew, and sat down almost out of view of his mother and I, who were at the front. We only noticed this as we were hopping off after the very short ride home, and counting noses. The bus driver thought that it was so funny that he had to tell my sister a story (as she was standing on the street, having exited the bus with all of her offspring in tow) about how once his own child had been playing in the (locked) back yard, and had climbed over the fence to the neighbors' yard, played on the neighbors' motorcycle, taken the key, climbed back over the fence, and lost the key-- all unbeknownst to his parents. They found out that the child had left the yard when the neighbors questioned them. They found the key when the snow melted, the next spring.

Cool Stuff my sister has been doing

I am number two in a family with five girls and a boy at the end. Number three has been doing various cool things, which I wanted to report on.

I must mention that this sister is the person I would, hands down, vote most likely to receive an honorary PhD in ornithology.

Specializing in Penguins.

On her (relatively) recent family trip to California, they went to both Disneyland and Sea World. She was in seventh heaven listening to the penguin show, even though she has learned so much about penguins on her own that the only new thing she learned was that a penguin body was called a "fusiform". At the end of the presentation, they asked a "quiz" question, and whoever in the audience who got it right would receive the privilege of going to the back and getting to actually meet the penguins and their keepers. The question they happened to ask was, "What is the name of a penguin body?"

Her mind went blank.

[Wait.... wait....]

Her husband's hand shot up in the air! He remembered right away! And they let the whole family go back to see them. (She has worried in the past that her children are sort of being brainwashed into liking penguins, just because she likes them so much, but I pointed out that there are worse things than being brainwashed into liking penguins.) Her husband didn't even do any petting; he just took pictures of my sister and the kids having the time of their lives with real, live penguins.

On the way home from California, they accomplished a feat which she had never thought possible with her eight- and five- year old children. They got through all of Jacob 5 in one day of family scripture study. This is how it happened: they had scriptures in digital-audio format, and the kids were strapped in their car seats. They were a captive audience. (Not recommended for an every-day sort of activity, but what else are you really going to do when you're crossing Death Valley?)

About a week after they got home, she was talking to me and telling me these stories, and she mentioned that she had changed her car's oil filter. Because they have switched to synthetic oil, it's the filter that needs to be changed more often than the oil itself, and she proudly told me about how she did it all by herself in only five hours, including procrastination time, and that was with her five-year-old watching. He may not have thought it was all impressive, but she felt like a pretty cool mom, and I agreed. I think that the ramps you drive up to get the car off the ground may have a lot to do with the coolness factor, but just doing anything to maintain or fix a car is pretty cool to start with.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I guess I like Halloween after all

Reasons to like Halloween, despite the reasons not to:

1. Its celebration fosters actual creativity in yer average American. While I will admit that shopping (such as for Christmas) has its own level of creativity, there is nothing like Halloween for actually getting people involved in the nitty-gritty of creating. I refer here to both pumpkin-carving and costume creation. My sister's children nearly mutinied on the Monday night before Halloween when Family Night ran out of time before the kids actually got to carve (said sister was saved by her homeschooling group, which had sent a link to a virtual pumpkin-carving site). Also, I still remember how my parents rallied and came together in a remarkable way on Halloween morning of my Junior year of High School, to help me make a "forties woman" costume. My dad hand-sewed a veil on to a hat that I already owned. My mom pointed out that nylons back then had seams, and offered suggestions on how to get the effect, as well as offering the use of her aunt's genuine 1940's suede coat. Both at the time and since, I have felt a sense of almost unreal wonder about the uniting power of getting to do something creative together. Plus, (at least if you are as disorganized as my family, meaning that the holiday is always upon you before you realize it) Halloween is short enough and low-stakes enough that there is no time for the petty rivalries and huge fights which so often develop over larger/longer collaborative creative projects.

2. Halloween is, at least in my neck of the woods, still a great chance to unite neighborhoods and catch up on old friends. I met at least five neighbors whom I had not known before this last Halloween, as I was trick-or-treating with my neeflings, and exchanged happy greetings with several others. I have noticed that many cultures seem to have some sort of tradition centered around children going around and asking for candy, money, or other treats. Since giving people things, and being given things, tends to increase our feelings of kindness and love towards both the recipient and the giver, I feel that anything which encourages the practice of giving stuff to any one who asks-- even on one day a year, even tooth-rotting, meltdown-inducing sweets-- is itself worth encouraging. On the visiting-friends front, I pointed out to my sister that just as in some churches, the less-active tend to show up on Christmas and Easter, we sometimes see certain of our friends on Halloween and Christmas, because we visit for candy and caroling. She pointed out that these are the two occasions in our society when you can legitimately show up unannounced.

3. Ok, ok, but what about the fact that this holiday is CENTERED around darkness, scariness, is a pagan tradition to boot?

On the pagan tradition thing: it doesn't bother me about Christmas, and it doesn't bother me about Halloween. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, as far as my family is concerned, but I just felt the need to say it.

I have been thinking about the darkness and scariness thing. I hate, hate, hate, absolutely anything to do with deliberately attracting actual powers of evil. But. I like the movie of A Series of Unfortunate events. A lot. I enjoyed watching The Corpse Bride. It appears that I don't mind dark things-- just scary ones. I'm trying to think of how to express this.

This I believe: we have to both mourn and rejoice, all the time. I've been to so many funerals in the last year that when I got an insight in to how sacrament is like a funeral, I was immediately able to become much more reverent and respectful during that meeting. You can't spend your entire life mourning, but I think that if you can cry for the dead, no matter why-- because they were children; because they were the same age and had the same health problems as one of your loved ones, and it seemed so random that they went and not your person; because you love and have loved the widow, or widower, or parents, or children-- if you can cry for any of these reasons, you should. It shows respect. It shows that you have a clue about what is going on. If you are unable to mourn, you somehow show yourself to be a certain amount of soulless (which we all are at one time or another).

And at the same time, you have to rejoice, often, because there are so many things to grieve over that we would literally go crazy if we focused on them all the time. I learned that from The Secret Life of Bees. I learned that hoping, even rejoicing, in the good things, is a moral requirement from watching/listening to General Conference, among other official LDS sources. I do believe in the resurrection. I believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected, and I believe that each human being who has ever walked the planet will be resurrected, that their limbs will come together again and their faces, hands, legs, feet, hairs, and every single thing needed to make a physically perfect human will be in place, just as all these things came together for the first time on this planet on the resurrection morning of Jesus Christ. When I look at a dead body, I am reminded, at the same time that I feel the sadness, that the resurrection is real. I cannot not believe that. I can't find it in me to disbelieve, and I can't really explain why that is other than that the Spirit of the Lord has told my mind and my heart that it is true.

Getting back to the movies: some movies seem to deny the existence of the dark side of life, the sad side. In a lot of American movies, especially, there is no pain which is not quickly ameliorated in the lives of our practically-perfect heroes and heroines. I don't need to rehash this; other people have said it better elsewhere. The point is, when a movie refuses to acknowledge that bad things happen and that good people take time to grieve over them, that movie disenfranchizes the grief of anyone who feels like they fit in that mold. Grief which is still present but unacknowledged becomes a weird, bad thing, difficult to dig out and difficult to even identify after a certain point. Let's not go there.

On the other end of the spectrum are movies (e.g. every single Arabic-language movie I have ever seen) which dwell only on darkness, death, and destruction, which as I mentioned earlier is also, literally, crazy-making.

I feel that the path to sanity lies in the path of serious hope. Like is found, to a certain degree at least, in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Nasty, horrid things happen to the children in this story. Things so bad they're funny happen, which is art imitating life. And yet, the children maintain that which so many others have lost (or never had) in so many "better" circumstances-- unity as a family, kindness, joy in creativity, the ability to look at problems as just problems to be solved and not as everlasting despair generators (so why even try), the ability to tell the truth in the face of danger for telling it. That is what I want. That is the kind of family I want.

And that's why I like (at least some parts of) Halloween.