Be Wary of the Next Great Thing

I tend to be skeptical about praising the Next Great Thing. Maybe that’s because I’m a fan of proven great things like public libraries, holding hands, and peace accords. Or maybe it’s because our house is falling apart.

It seems that back in the late 70’s when the house was built the U.S. began to notice something called an energy crisis. The price of gas had gone from 36 cents to 86 cents (yes, a gallon) in just a few years. Heating oil, natural gas, and electricity cost more. People realized their homes were leaking lots of nice warm air all winter long and suddenly everyone wanted insulation.  The newer the product the better.  Some advertisements practically guaranteed their insulation would seal homeowners in all winter with nothing but each other’s exhale for air. Every product was the Next Great Thing.

I can imagine what happened when the contractor slapped our house together. Surely he (statistically speaking it was a he) promoted the house as featuring the very newest extra thick rigid insulation. But construction workers performing the actual hands-on work didn’t have longer nails or an interest in compensating for that thickness.

Fast forward a few decades. After years of repairing foundation cracks, water damage, and worse we realize that our front and back porches are ready to fall off the house. That’s because in some areas, the beams holding up the porch rails, supports, and roof are only NAILED INTO THE INSULATION. Many nails never quite made it into the actual wood meant to connect porch to house. In fact, the Next Great Thing insulation was applied to the exterior of the house in such a way that it trapped rainwater and rotted the wood. That these porches held up many feet of snow and ice winter after winter is some kind of scientific marvel. That they remained attached to the house at all, another marvel.

So next time you flip past one of those home repair shows, all of which should be subtitled “Look What Money Can Do,” notice that they’re often designed around new products promoted as the Next Great Thing. (You’re basically watching a program-length advertisement.) Composite countertops made from dust epoxied together by hype. Lighting bouncing off reflectors that look like aluminum foil hats worn by the UFO-wary. Heated floorboards with inaccessible heating units. These products may be great. They may not. I think any hairspray host with a tool belt could convince awed homeowners that toilets constructed from celery trimmings are the Next Great Thing and they’d spend thousands on them. Happily.

Fortunately we discovered the porch problem in time. Added to the known blessings of public libraries, holding hands, and peace accords we now add the security that comes with newly sturdy porches.

Throwback post from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm

Summer Day at Huntington Beach

poem, Lake Erie shore

Summer Day at Huntington Beach

 

I tick with alarm clock worry.

My sister is afraid of nothing.

Not the dark or death or

Jay Preslan down the street

who pushes kids in front of cars.

 

Look at her run into the water

while I stand squinting.

She doesn’t pinch her nose

to dive under. Doesn’t pause

before splashing back

strange splashing kids. Doesn’t heed

the lifeguard’s megaphoned warning

to stay away from the ropes.

 

Lake Erie grabs at the shore,

slurps it greedily in foaming waves.

I picture monstrous goggly-eyed fish

lurking under the pier,

ships skudded in the depths,

lost sailors forever unburied.

I inhale the curved scent

of suntan lotion, clench my toes

in the sand, stand still. Far out,

bobbing in foil-bright waves,

my sister is another being entirely,

straining at the boundary ropes

trying to see all the way to Canada.

 

Originally published by Silver Birch Press.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending. 

Playground Insurrection, National Divisiveness

National divisiveness like a playground rebellion.

Image by taffmeister

I was a good elementary school student. I wrote neatly and did my work on time. Year after year, teachers seated me next to badly behaving students to be an insufferably good example (although one of them then and still today inspires me). I went to school with kids very much like myself — safe, nurtured, suburban kids who had every reason to believe “work hard and you can be anything” was true.  We were also, as schoolkids tend to be, crazily bored and itching to play.

One day, something erupted as recess ended. Although disenchanted with our oh-so-tedious blacktop playground, no one wanted to go back inside when the playground monitor’s whistle blew. Somehow an insurrection was stirring.

I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I’d been waiting in line for a turn on the swings with my equally bored friends. As we reluctantly gave up to go inside, we saw some kids closest to the building  milling around instead of lining up. More and more kids began to do the same thing. A strange muttering seemed to rise in the air with dangerously enticing energy. Just breathing made it spread. I worked my way slightly closer to the front to see the teacher, whose yelling could barely be heard, abruptly turn and go inside.

This was unheard of. We’d never been left alone on the playground, not ever. The strange energy around us gained force. It felt like power, the sort of power kids never get. Then the principal, Mr. Page, stepped out. He was new to our school and didn’t know our names. He issued a stern command. I couldn’t make it out. He tried again. I still didn’t hear him, but even to a rule-follower like me it didn’t matter. A sense of our own power had fermented into intoxication.

Someone behind me pushed. Someone next to me pushed. Soon everyone, at least near me, started to push. It might be argued that kids were pushing each other to line up as we’d surely been ordered to do. But oh, oh my oh my, it was heady. And yes, I pushed too. It felt ancient and tidal, this pushing, as if we were caught up in something larger than ourselves. I got a glimpse of Mr. Page backed up to the brick wall, kids in front pushed against him by kids in back. His expression was one of utter surprise.

I usually write about moments of aliveness in an entirely positive sense, but this was aliveness too. The playground insurrection lasted no more than a few minutes. Everyone ended up marching indoors in abject chagrin. Every single child was punished by no recess for at least a week.  I’ve forgotten if the revolt’s instigators were identified and got more serious punishments. What I remember is utterly abandoning myself to the sheer thrill of pushing. Stuck in routines, little control over what was expected of us, we may have been expressing  a  form of play that’s been called ilinx.

Sociologist Roger Caillois defined it as a category of games

“…based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”

Melissa Dahl explains in the New York Magazine that ilinx is a “French word for ‘the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction.'”  She likens it to the way cats seem drawn to knock things over. Ilinx can be the mild thrill of intentionally slapping an empty water bottle off your desk or the rapturous state brought on by whirling, as mystics do in the Sema ritual (inspired by the poet Rumi).

Our playground insurrection might also have been a taste of mob mentality. Psychologist Tamara Avant defines it this way.

“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”

Mob mentality doesn’t have to be a negative thing. People participate in it when they stand up and yell at a sporting event. It’s also found in peace rallies and sit-ins, and has quite a bit to do with what’s called wisdom of the crowd.

Whether ilinx or mob mentality, on that long-ago playground my fellow students and I were just tired of being told we had to stop playing. We didn’t hate our teachers. We didn’t hate art class or gym or each other. We just wanted to express our frustration. We were, for the moment, having fun with opposition.

This may not be the best analogy, but I’m coming to think that the nomination of a man completely unsuited to become president of the United States is evidence of something similar.  I’m not for a moment dismissing how dangerous a Trump presidency would be to the peaceful functioning of our still young, still not always morally upstanding democracy.  Nor am I dismissing the obvious frustration of his supporters. I’m simply saying we need to stop pushing each other. We’re got more in common than we think we do.

A University of Maryland study compared Republican and Democratic congressional districts. In ten separate polls, people were asked 388 questions on what are considered highly partisan topics including abortion, gun control, and taxation. No statistical differences were found between red and blue areas.

For example, the Democratic party staunchly opposes cuts to the safety net and the GOP staunchly opposes revenue increases. However, the study reports, “when respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts.”

There was also no polarization found in topics such as immigration, climate change, health care reform, marijuana laws, and globalized trade. In an article titled, “Hopelessly Divided? Think Again,”  Bill Moyers points out major areas of agreement found in the study.

  • Climate change. Americans’ concern about global warming is at an eight-year high, with a record 65 percent of us now blaming human activity for rising temperatures.
  • Gun control. Eighty-five percent of Americans — including large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats — favor closing gun-sale loopholes by enforcing background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
  • Our federal tax system. Six in 10 of us believe that upper-income Americans do not pay enough in taxes, while 82 percent are bothered — either “some” or “a lot” — that corporations are not paying their fair tax share.
  • The influence of big business. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that large corporations and a few rich people wield excessive and unfair power in this country. A whopping 71 percent of Americans across the political spectrum believe that the economy is rigged in favor of a few special interests.
  • Special interests’ influence in our political institutions. Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.

Yes there are real divides on pivotal issues but let’s not forget we are in this together. Enough with the pushing already.

 

 

 

Summer Food Fun for Kids

food fun for kids

1. Make a bowl of gross but edible worms. Or, if you’ve got a dehydrator, make far healthier Zuke Worms. You can also cook up fruit-juice based gummy snacks.

2. Play a match game with little ones. Simply hide equal portions of foods  (try blueberries, cucumbers, and cheese cubes) under small containers on a tray. This makes healthy snacks fun.

3. Encourage kids to throw eaten corn cobs in the grass at your next picnic. Legend in my family says it distracts the bugs. When it’s clean up time, whoever picks up the most cobs wins a coveted window seat on the way home. Surely you can come up with a similar cob-related perk. Added plus, everyone wants to wash their gooey hands before leaving.

4. Learn a bagel cutting technique that teaches a mathematical principle.

5. Let little kids “fish” for snacks. Give them carrot and celery sticks to dip in creamy peanut butter or sunbutter, then use the sticky butter end to “catch” goldfish crackers.

6. Keep fruits like bananas, mangoes, pineapple, strawberries, and peaches in separate containers in the freezer. On different days let each child take a turn concocting a smoothie for the family by blending his or her choice of fruit with juice and/or yogurt in the blender. Serve in tiny cups for taste testing.

7. Cook something over a campfire or fire pit. Want to get beyond a hot dog on a stick? Try some old classics in the Scout’s Outdoor Cookbook or find recipes suited to your dietary needs, including vegetarian and gluten-free, in Another Fork in the Trail.

8. Don’t have the time or fire-safe place to cook outside? Just eat outside. Sit on the front steps or under a tree with your sandwich. Pack an impromptu picnic and take it to the park. Pack a snack in your bike bag and ride till you’re hungry. Food  eaten outdoors tastes a zillion times better than the same food eaten indoors.

9. Make pink pasta. Peel and dice a fresh beet or two. Cook until tender in a pan of water. Without draining the water, add a small handful of uncooked pasta (small pasta shapes work best), and cook until done. Your pasta should be light pink!  (If you think the presence of beets in the pasta will inspire an insurrection, you can strain out the beet pieces while reserving the cooking liquid, and then dump the hot liquid back in the pan and bring to a boil before adding the pasta. Be sure to eat those beets in front of kids with annoying “yum” noises. Kids love that.)

10. Show kids how to mix a quarter cup or so of juice concentrate (undiluted) into eight ounces of unsweetened seltzer water. Adjust to taste with more juice or seltzer. It has the same carbonation level as soda without sugar or food coloring. We call it burp juice in our house because quick gulps bring on burps.

11. Sing a veggie anthem. Better yet, make up lyrics about favorite foods to accompany a familiar tune. Whose says you can’t rhyme with “kimchi?”

12. Test out miracle berry, a fruit native to West Africa, that temporarily makes sour foods taste sweet. (Usually half a tablet is more than enough.) Let family members dissolve these tablets in their mouths, then discover that cream cheese tastes like cheesecake and biting into a lemon tastes like lemon sorbet.

13.  Make popsicles with hidden veggies lurking within.

14.  Let each child plant one “crop” in the garden (or porch planter) that’s his or hers to tend. It’s not too late to put in fast-growing plants like sugar snap peas, radishes, and lettuce. Let the kid farmer in charge be the one to check regularly for weeds, watering needs, and harvest times. For more ideas check out Gardening Projects for Kids and for those without yards or community garden plots, try Kids’ Container Gardening.

15. Make frozen yogurt dots. Spoon (or pipe from a plastic bag with a corner cut open) your favorite flavored yogurt in small dots on a baking sheet. Freeze for about an hour, then pop off the dots. Cold deliciousness.

16. It’s fun to chow down adorable meals like those shown in such books as Funny Food,  Fun Food For Fussy Little Eaters, and Funky Lunch. Remember, kids are more likely to do the eating if they have had a hand in the making. Use books like these as a starting point for inspiration. And don’t forget to make monster noises as you bite the nose off an clown-shaped sandwich.

17. Let them set up a lemonade stand. Or a watemelon-on-a-stick stand.

18. Make your own ice cream sandwiches. Just glob ice cream between homemade or purchased cookies, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill. Try different cookie and ice cream variations. Mix-ins work too, like bananas mashed into vanilla ice cream and stuck between two oatmeal cookies. You’ll have to do some immediate taste testing, part of the burden of innovation.

19. Make ridiculously cute miniature treats like “donuts” made from decorated Cheerios, mini “deep dish” pizzas using tortillas cut into circles, and “layer cake” made from stacked and slicked cookies. These ideas come from the book Tiny Treats.  See photos of some of the book’s recipes thanks to the Unconfidential Cook

20.  Plant and harvest crops within days by growing sprouts in a jar.

21. Freeze fancier ice cubes. Tuck mint leaves, fresh berries, lemon wedges, or cut up fruit bits in ice cubes trays. You can also freeze lemonade or juice. Hydration suddenly seems more flavorful.

22. Carve a watermelon shark or cat.

23. Set out an assortment of food for kids to make their own lunch-on-a-stick. Simple versions might be a cheese and cherry tomato kabob or a pineapple and grape kabob. (This is not a good project for young ones or kids likely to turn a skewer into a sword.)

24. Eat the occasional color-themed meal. An all green lunch might include a green smoothie, celery sticks, green pea pesto or green pea hummus rolled in spinach wraps, plus green grapes or honeydew. An all white lunch might be steamed cauliflower with lots of white cheddar or provolone melted over it, mashed potatoes, white milk, and banana chunks rolled in dried coconut. Make sure you let the kids help you plan and prepare!

25. Make ice cream in a bag.

26. Try muffin tin meals. This worked wonders for my four kids when they were small. Each child got a six-cup muffin tin. I filled the six openings with different offerings in small amounts. The compartments kept each food item from the sin of touching another food, and the concept was novel enough that my kids were more willing to try something new. Back then, I thought I’d made up the muffin-tin meal concept, but it turns out lots of moms do the same thing. Well, not quite the same; they’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays for all sorts of ideas

27. Go to a pick-your-own place. Right now berries are in season, soon apples will be ready to pick. Here’s how to find a pick-your-own farm in the U.S.

28. Shrink food to a scale that lets kids feel larger. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set, you probably have the right sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a custard cup or ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for milk or juice. Baby forks and spoons are perfect miniature utensils. Smaller dish size automatically scales down portion size, meaning kids will actually have room for second helpings. Encourage them to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.

29. Let kids cook with their friends. If your kids are small, set up a “cooking class” for your children and a few pals in your own kitchen. If your kids are teens, let them sign up together for a class at a cooking school to learn pastry techniques or the secrets of French cuisine. Encourage kids of any age to start a regular cooking club. It’s a great way for them to socialize while learning useful skills. They can create menus and shopping lists, then cook the dishes they’ve chosen. Let them build on their interests. They may want to devote one session to making foods mentioned in a favorite movie and the next session to making bento-box lunches. Or set up a cooking competition like “Top Chef” for kids or families, except with less pressure and a lot more fun.

30. Have a watermelon speed spitting contest. “Outside, I said outside!”

fun food ideas for kids

 

Piper, Pipe That Song Again

We were put to bed early. My mother, the registered nurse, believed strongly in things like scrubbing away germs and getting a good night’s sleep. Sometimes we could still hear neighborhood children playing outside while we lay in bed with our baths taken, teeth brushed, and prayers said.

Downstairs my mother watched detective shows and my father graded papers in another room with the stereo turned low. I could hear strains of his music mixed with her TV sirens through the floorboards.

I was never what is called a good sleeper. I would lie awake for hours telling myself stories. Sometimes, halfway asleep, I could hear impossibly faraway music and watch scenes unfold like a life retelling itself. I wondered where they came from, these distracting snippets that almost seemed like distant memories. Some were so strong I could feel them in my body. In fact, as a young child I was sure I could “remember” having died and for years could only fall asleep curled defensively to protect my ribs and throat.

Music brought the strongest sense of recollection. My mother says the first time I heard the distinctive sound of bagpipes I was a preschooler. “You put your arms up like one of those highland dancers,” she says, “and you danced your little heart out.”

I didn’t encounter bagpipe music again until I was about eight years old. Hearing the strains of those grand pipes in a parade made feel as if I could almost recall dancing in a majestic hall with the stirring of pride that no danger could stifle. The music seemed to speak to my cells all the way to the marrow. It kept on speaking as the pipers marched by and the music faded away.

Since I had been warned about my overactive imagination I didn’t mention those half-remembered scenes. But I did pester my mother about bagpipes.

“It’s funny you are so interested in that music,” she said. “We don’t have any Scottish blood in our family.”

An apparent coincidence? The fact that our last name happened to be Piper. My mother said she thought the name had been changed from a German surname, Pfeiffer, many generations back.

* * *

As an adult I have no idea where those so-called memories came from. Most likely I was creating stories that seemed real to me. There are, however, other explanations. Morphic resonance, archetypal images, echoes of past lives.

Another intriguing possibility is genetic or ancestral memory. Because, as it turns out my maiden name, Piper, is Scottish after all. Recently our history was traced, and we know now that my father’s family tree is rooted securely in the soil of Scotland. Not a German branch to be found. In fact, we are related to legendary bagpipers as well as to some oddly-named royalty including Malcolm the Big-Headed.

These days I am surrounded by bagpipe music. My two teenage sons are in a pipe band, the Red Hackle Pipes and Drums, under the direction of Sandy Hain, a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch. I drive the boys and their buddies in the band to practices, parades, and highland competitions; my car overflowing with an odd mix of testosterone, exuberant conversation, and hairy knees jutting out from kilts.

Every week when I pull into the lot for bagpipe practice I see bumper stickers and window decals proudly proclaiming the drivers’ pride in calling him or herself by my family name: Piper. Even on the coldest evenings the sound pours through the brick walls. And every single time I feel the music in my cells, all the way to the marrow.

And yes, I still hear it in my dreams.

Angus MacKay of Clam MacKay artist unknown

Angus MacKay of Clan MacKay
(artist unknown)

 

Throwback post. This piece was originally published in Bewildering Stories. 

Smartphone Use: Out Beyond Judgement

balancing real life with smartphones

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

~Rumi

I said I didn’t want a microwave. It was against my whole foods ethos. Now it’s in regular use in my house. I said I didn’t want email. It was against my communicate-directly-with-people principles. I now can’t imagine living without it. I said I wasn’t a social media sort of person. Yup, I’m addicted.

A few years ago I was still holding out against smartphones. They were and still are expensive to use. I explained to my kids that back when their dad and I got married our phone bill was $18 a month. That did nothing but provide more evidence of my dinosaur-ness.  Eventually I capitulated and got a smart phone. (I was assured my phone cost nothing  with our teen/young adult kids pitching in for the cost of their phones.) Of course once I got sucked into the smartphone world I was unable to go back. And I don’t want to go back.

It’s heartening to see how pivotal mobile phones are in the developing world. Globally, almost 95 percent of households have access to a cell phone and it’s projected that 15 percent of families in Africa and the Middle East will soon have smartphones. They’re used for banking, business, texting, taking pictures, social networking, accessing information, and much more  —- connecting and improving lives.

Smartphones are also advancing social justice because we’re able to document abuses of power. The Exxon/Mobil pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Arkansas spilling over 200, 000 gallons of tar sands crude oil (while media access was limited) would have been largely unknown if not shared by residents. Circumstances around the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philandro Castile, and too many others at the hands of police would have been largely unknown other than by their official reports.  Because we can share what we’re seeing,  people the media usually ignores are able to more fully tell their own truths

But I haven’t adjusted to how smartphones affect person-to-person interactions. I belong to several groups which meet regularly. There’s always one person, sometimes more than one,  who spends a large part of our meeting time looking at his/her phone.

I understand, really, In the years since I’ve had a smart phone I’ve been entangled in all sorts of this-message-could-be-important moments. A family member in the hospital, a publication going to press, a kid with car trouble. So I check. Of course I check. Sometimes I put the phone on my lap for a quick glimpse at messages as if I’m not staring at my crotch, Sometimes I just fess up that I have to look, at least when I’m with friends. But here’s the thing. My sense of urgency rarely, if ever, matches the number of times I’ve prioritized my phone.

One study shows the mere presence of a smartphone impairs our sense of connection to the people right next to us. There’s something about the phone itself, ready to shudder with a text or update, that diverts our attention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more and more distracted simply because there are so many more options for distraction. In an essay titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”    Nicholas Carr writes that being online has retrained his mind to  “…take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

For kids raised in the digital age, this may happen early on. A preliminary study suggests that when parents of one-year-olds get distracted (typically by their phones) while playing with their babies, their babies have shorter attention spans. Babies with the shortest attention span were those whose parents were disengaged or distracted. (There’s a happy medium though, because babies with parents who were overly intrusive and directive in play also had a lower attention span. Sort of like the porridge that’s not too hot or cold, it’s the parents letting the baby take the lead who foster greater attentiveness.)

This is a problem because most of us, parents included, spend a lot of time looking at screens. One study watched parents interacting with young children at fast food restaurants. Researchers observed a total of 55 caregivers who were eating with one or more children. Forty used a mobile device at some point. Most got out their phones right away. Some used it intermittently, some stayed on for most of the meal. The study also found that parents on their smartphones are more likely to react harshly to children. (How preoccupied were the parents?  None of them even noticed they were being watched by the study’s observers.)

Too much of this can disrupt connection, shut down conversation, and diminish attunement between parent and child. That’s not to say parents should spend every moment gazing in adoration at their kids, but it’s through engaged face-to-face connection with the primary people in their lives that kids learn to pick up on social cues, develop self-regulation, read other people’s emotions, build vocabulary, share ideas, and much more. And let’s not forget, children with a close sense of connection grow up feeling they are worthy.

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, was so troubled by what she saw in her clinical practice that she decided to  interview 1,000 kids between the ages of four and 18 to gauge their reactions to parents’ mobile phone use. Again and again she heard kids talk about their feelings with the same words: “sad, mad, angry, and lonely.”  Kids know full well that people looking at their phones are not really with us.

It helps to remember that the choices we make over and over actually rewire our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer a different course. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a smile across the room, a kiss, a hug—zing goes the dopamine reward.  That’s also true of a tweet—zing. A text—zing. Zing zing zing thanks to Instagram, channel flipping, online games. The previous hit of dopamine increases the need for another one. Pretty soon we’re addicted to the dopamine rush, driving our brains into an ever deeper rut. I try to remind myself of this when tempted to pull out my phone to use up a few minutes while waiting in line, instead rewiring my mind to look around me and live in the moment exactly where I am.

Our phones are here to stay.  They put us in touch with people important to us and to ideas that capture us. They’re so new to the human experience that we’re just beginning to learn how to balance them with the lives we want to live. It doesn’t help to label our use as good or bad. It helps to step out into the field beyond, sharing what works for us.

How do you find that balance?

 

Reading Has To Do With Play

games to build reading skills

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.  – Victor Hugo

Reading readiness and reading advancement has little or nothing to do with educational toys, apps, or enrichment programs. It has much more to do with what kids naturally like to do: move their bodies, enjoy stories, take part in conversation, and play freely.

Why?

Movement helps children develop sufficient brain-body maturation so they can successful decode abstract symbols into meaning.  This includes complex neurological pathways as well as sufficient kinesthetic awareness and proprioceptive sense.  (Find out what movements are essential in “Reading Readiness Has To Do With the Body.”)

Reading aloud every day, starting in babyhood, helps children associate reading with closeness and pleasure.  Even a board book builds vocabulary, demonstrates left to right sequencing, and promotes comprehension. We can fold reading time into daily rituals like story time before naps and again after dinner. We can also show how much we value reading by letting kids see us reading our own books and magazines.

As kids get older it’s important to avoid offering rewards for reading or make reading a precondition for privileges. That’s because rewards, even for something kids already enjoy, significantly diminishes their own intrinsic motivation. Telling kids “20 minutes of reading before you can play games on the tablet”casts reading as an obligation, leading kids to devalue reading  while enhancing the appeal of digital entertainment. (No wonder “eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream” makes broccoli the enemy and ice cream even more tempting.)

Stories stretch the mind and imagination. They help us, at any age, develop empathy and give us a larger context for our own lives.  That’s not limited to the page. There’s extraordinary power in telling family stories. When we share tales of our doubts, misdeeds, and triumphs we’re not only building family cohesiveness, we’re also (according to science) helping kids grow up with greater confidence and self-control.

Daily conversations, including all those questions kids ask,  helps them advance in reasoning and social skills while bringing us closer to each other.  Let’s admit, a great deal of parent and child interaction isn’t true conversation so much as directives, complaints, and reminders (because, well, life) so it helps to create openings for conversation. Hold a space for kids to talk about what’s on their minds —- this often seems to happen on a walk, a drive, or at bedtime —- good times to avoid earbuds and screens.  Make a practice of showing you’re listening by using eye contact and avoiding interruption. Talk about big issues and dilemmas in your lives, in your community, and in the news. Big topics have a way of stretching young minds.

Free play is an essential part of childhood. It also helps kids develop the skills necessary for reading well. It may look like fun, but in ways deeper and more vital than we can imagine play is a process of learning. We don’t have to engineer their play. Play is, and always has been, a universal language. Give kids as much time for free play as possible. But when you want to play along, here are a few ideas.

 

Word Play

games to improve reading

  • Tell simple jokes (sorry, this includes Knock Knock jokes), attempt tongue twisters, call each other made-up names, say goodbye in rhymes like “Out of the door dinosaur!” and “See you later excavator!
  • Play Cherries & Pits to get conversations started. Very simply, each person takes turns telling the best things (Cherries) about their day and the worst things (Pits) about their day.
  • Tell round robin stories. One person starts a story with a character and setting (“The elf woke up to find a large bird staring at him.”). The next person adds a few sentences before passing it along to the next person. This works well with as little as two people and nearly always becomes amusingly improbable.
  • Turn socks into puppets for impromptu plays. Puppeteers can hide behind a couch or sheet-covered table to perform, although socks in my house tend to talk on their way to the laundry.
  • Make story stones  (pictures on stones or tiles) and grab a few to prompt a story idea. Other stones can be added as the story goes on.
  • Ask off-the-wall questions. “Would you rather be a monkey or a lion?” “What would it be like if people had wings?” “If we could go on an adventure together what would we do?”
  • Write messages to each other. Scratch a few words in the sand, leave a message in magnetic letters, designate a place (under each other’s bed pillows, perhaps) where secret notes can be left, share a question and answer journal (taking turns asking and answering any and all questions), and leave little love letters for kids to find.
  • Sing songs with familiar tunes and invented lyrics. Those tend to be somewhat scatological in my family, a favorite faux opera here has to do with encouraging dogs to go out and get their elimination duties over with….

 

Games

reading games

  • Play impromptu memory games. For example, take turns tapping out a beat, seeing if the next person can repeat it. Or try imitating movements in sequence (first person jumps, the other person jumps and adds clapping, first person jumps and claps and adds a turkey gobble, and so on).  Or take turns memorizing a sequence of unrelated words to repeat back in two minutes or ten minutes or the next day. Be prepared to lose to your kids!
  • Play hand-motion games like Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Cee Cee My Playmate.  Show kids jump rope rhymes. (You might check out Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes by Joanna Cole.) And don’t forget  hopscotch rhymes.  Research shows these simple games help kids become  better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills.
  • Encourage classic games like checkers, mancala, and chess. Games of all kinds typically help kids understand sequencing, grouping, and memory. No need to choose specifically educational games.
  • Make your own board games along with your child.
  • Set aside one evening a week as a family board game night or set up a kids’ game club with friends. (There are even great games for kids three and under like Roll & Play, First Orchard, and Feed the Woozle.)
  • Waiting in line with kids? Find objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet together, from avocados to zeros. Or play the classic Going on a Picnic game. Start by saying, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark (or any “A” word). The next person continues with “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark and a basketball (or any word starting with a B) and so on. The last person to remember and repeat the list is the winner.
  • Encourage active games. Consult Great Games! 175 Games & Activities for Families, Groups, & Children! by Matthew Toone and Mom´s Handy Book of Backyard Games by Pete Cava.
  • Use the dictionary (print copy!) to play surprisingly addictive word games like Blackbird.

Map Play

games to help readers

  • Encourage kids to draw maps of places they know well (your kitchen, your house, your street) and maps of imaginary places (alien planets, mythic kingdoms, ninja training camps).  Draw a map of where you’ve hidden packed lunches for them to discover or the bedtime chapter book you’ll read.
  • Encourage children to set up obstacle courses. Indoors this may include three somersaults through the hall, chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, and a bunk bed ladder to climb. Outdoors the course can be more ambitious.
  • Enjoy regular treasure hunts. First hide a prize or two. Then place clues through the house or yard. These can be simple words or sentences, symbols, or pictures. Each clue leads to the next. The prize doesn’t have to be a toy or candy (it could be a note saying “we’re going to the park!”) the fun is in the hunting. Encourage children to set up their up treasure hunts too.
  • Letterboxing combines walking, navigation, and solving riddles. Clues help seekers find “letterboxes” hidden outdoors. Seekers mark their logbooks with a rubber stamp found in this box, mark a logbook in the box with their own personal stamp, then leave the box for the next seeker. For more information and links to regional clues, check with organizations such as Letterboxing North America  or Atlas Quest. Or use the guidebook, It’s a Treasure Hunt! Geocaching & Letterboxing.
  • Try orienteering. This sport combines navigation, map reading, and decision-making. Participants walk, run, bike, or ski using a map and compass to choose the best route on or off the trail. Consult Orienteering Made Simple And Gps Technology: An Instructional Handbook by Nancy Kelly.
  • Take turns playing Line Zombie. Draw a line on paper with a pencil or on the ground with chalk, using arrows to indicate direction. The other person must follow the line either by tracing on the paper with marker or walking on the chalk line. Zombie noises optional.

 

Portions of this post adapted from Free Range Learning.

Failure Too

 

Failure Too, a poem

Failure Too

 

Failure is more than shame’s

hot tar and feathers.

 

It’s cancer cells

destroyed daily

in the body’s

relentless furnace.

 

The unseen mugger

turning away

as a friend’s greeting

crosses the street, bright

streamers through the dark.

 

The beads of a broken necklace

rolling in his mother’s

dresser drawer, evidence

of that long gone afternoon

he scooped blue stones and dust

from the floorboards,

weeping till she soothed

with words softer

than her disappointment.

 

Finding them the week she died

he’s glad the necklace broke,

carries those stones

in his pocket to this day,

as ruins remind

us of splendor

in civilizations that spawned us.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Mom Egg Review.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending. 

Remind Me To Enunciate

speak clearly lest you be misunderstood

I don’t normally chat about my movie preferences without being asked, but recently a neighbor walked over with our Netflix envelope in hand.  It had mistaken arrived in his mailbox. I thanked him cheerfully, saying we still get DVDs mailed because my husband and I watch a lot of foreign films that are otherwise unavailable.

That innocuous sentence instantly wrought some sort of reaction. He turned his head ever so slightly to the right, his eyes looking up as if confused. I’m pretty sure his nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath. Then the charming older gentleman said carefully, “I didn’t know those were available on Netflix.”

Something was indefinably weird about our conversation but I had no idea what it might be. I assured him, in a far more cheery voice than usual, that we’re particularly fond of films from France, Denmark, and Sweden.

There was a long pause. I’d uttered two sentences about our fondness for foreign films and he was reacting as if I’d revealed a highly personal secret.  He looked at the plain red envelope and said nothing. His discomfort must have been downright contagious because I tossed in one more sentence, hoping to find some closure to the topic so I could say goodbye and retreat. I said, “Some people really hate subtitles but it’s totally worth it.”

Understanding broke out on his face like a rash. A red rash. He said, “Oh, foreign films.”

Then my face turned red. I speak with what we in upper Ohio consider to be no accent at all and it didn’t occur to me that he’d misunderstood. But he had. He thought I’d said my husband and I watch a lot of porn films.

The moral of the story? Enunciate!

(If you’re feeling kind enough to ease my embarrassment, please share a tale about a misunderstanding you’ve reacted to or caused…)

We Could All Use a Good Laugh

 

laughter is the cure, global understanding

“Sound of Laughter” by Hersley

We’re primed to practice the generative power of laughter from our earliest years. As babies interact with their mothers, their laughter quadruples from three months of age to their first birthday. Interestingly, mothers laugh nearly twice as often in these interactions. By a baby’s second year, they laugh nearly as long and often as their mothers do, meaning the more mom laughs the more her child laughs!

Some scientists believe laughter was a precursor to language itself.  As neuroscientist  Jaak Panksepp explains,

“Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our ‘ha-ha-has’ and verbal repartee.”

Throughout life, from childhood on, most of our laughter comes from social interactions.   Studies tell us we laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than we do when we’re alone. Since laughter does so many good things for us, body and soul, it motivates us to spend time with the very people who make us happy. What a lovely feedback loop — instigating, reacting to, and inspiring more laughter  —- bonding us to each other through delight.

Smiles are contagious.

Kindness is contagious too.

So is laughter.

Laughter can even become an epidemic.  In 1962, three girls started giggling in  Kashasha, a small town in what’s now Tanzania. It spread to 95 students in their school, lasting for hours. Within two weeks, similar laugh attacks infected kids in the nearby towns of Nshamba and Bukoba. It continued to spread, closing 14 schools before quarantines were enacted. It took 18 months before the epidemic slowed.

(In rare cases, you can laugh yourself to death.)

I am serious about all sorts of issues and will discuss them with you to death (a worse death, I’m sure, than death by laughter).  But I’m also an unrepentant guffaw-er. I’m pretty sure this is a genetic condition, my very polite mother was also prone to fits of hilarity.  Like her, I am capable of laughing normally, but sometimes I end up shrieking and cackling.  Controlling such laughter is just about impossible. Once, as a teenager, I was swimming across a small lake with my friend Kathy. As we swam, we started laughing about how funny the other person looked swimming. Weakened by glee, we got to the point where we could only dog paddle in place. Seeing the other person dog paddling, wide-mouthed with laughter, made us laugh all the more. Soon we were barely able to keep our heads above water. After gulping too many mouthfuls of water, we finally staunched our laughter until we somehow managed to get ourselves onto dry land. There we lay exhausted, aware we’d nearly drowned, laughing again.

I mostly laugh about my own awkwardness (plenty of material there) like falling , eating a mouthful of dirt, and accidentally snorting in a stranger’s face.  Snorting, by the way, got me laughing crazily the other day. For some reason Olivia was snorting with joy as Sam tossed her on the couch and for some reason that snorting set me off. I was trying to video this, but you can barely hear her snorts over my ridiculous shrieks.

Laughter’s contagious nature is more evidence that we humans are connected across all so-called boundaries. I’m writing about laughter today because my family has had a tough time lately and so has our country and so has our world. So I’ll leave you with these timely words by dear soul and wise sage, Bernie DeKoven. who writes in a post titled “Play, Laughter, Health, and Happiness,”

Playing and laughing together, especially when we play and laugh in public, for no reason, is a profound, and, oddly enough, political act.

Political, because when we play or dance or just laugh in public, people think there’s something wrong with us. It’s rude, they think. Childish. A disturbance of the peace.

Normally, they’d be right. Except now. Now, the peace has been deeply disturbed – everywhere, globally. And what those grown-ups are doing, playing, dancing, laughing in public is not an act of childish discourtesy, but a political act – a declaration of freedom, a demonstration that we are not terrorized, that terror has not won.

A Frisbee, in the hands of people in business dress in a public park, is a weapon against fear. A basketball dribbled along a downtown sidewalk, is a guided missile aimed at the heart of war. Playing with a yo-yo, a top, a kite, a loop of yarn in a game of cats’ cradle, all and each a victory against intimidation. Playing openly, in places of business, in places where we gather to eat or travel or wait, is a gift of hope, an invitation to sanity in a time when we are on the brink of global madness.

Yes, I admit, I am a professional advocate of public frolic. I am a teacher in the art of fun. I hawk my playful wares every time I get a chance, with every audience I can gather, war or peace.

But this is a unique moment in our evolution. America is no longer bounded by its boundaries. We are tied into a network of terror that crosses national divisions…

And I believe that we have far more powerful weapons than any military solution can offer us. And I believe that those weapons can be found in any neighborhood playground or toy store.

Like for play, laughter is also a political act, a declaration that fear and terrorism have not won. Incontrovertible evidence that there is hope.

May laughter’s gifts lift us all, together.