Friday, December 30, 2005


I didn't get to post this picture in October. Carrots from the garden are a treat. There are still some out there, under the melting snow. If I can't get them in the next week, I'll get them in the spring.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Christmas Ramble

Liz, Anna, and Shelagh.
All three of my girls awake and in the same room.

We had steady snow through the first two weeks of December. Now we're having an early January thaw. Shelagh came home from college three times in December, returning to Ann Arbor twice to take exams. She ended up with a 3.1 GPA, and took up residence on the couch in the living room, where she sleeps all day, kind of like the dog.

The dog got a cushy new bed for Christmas, so she's perched in the living room like the queen. The thaw has wakened the red squirrels, so every few hours we announce "Look, Rose, a squirrel!" and she tries to jump up and rush out to catch it. Rose is old, so there is usually enough stretching involved to give the squirrel time to get away. Anna made homemade dog biscuits and they are playing hide and seek with them.

This year Anna was as excited about giving presents as she was about getting them. She was quite happy with her school pictures and immediately made plans to give them as gifts, designing wrappers for them in MSPaint. She had a shopping budget of $22, which she spent at Target, taking two hours to make her choices. She also appreciated the gifts she received, particularly the remote controlled rat that she uses to tease the cat.

As I put Anna to bed last night, she told the that this was the "best Christmas of my life." For her parents, this was the leanest Christmas in a long time. We set a strict budget and tried to resist zombie shopping during the lead-up to Christmas. For Anna, at least, less presents left more time for other Christmas activities.

There was a lot of singing. The Children's Choir performed their usual concerts, but they also sang for the Christian Women's Tea, and with the Encore Society in Traverse City. When the Encore Society performance was reviewed in the Record-Eagle, the reviewer had this to say about the Children's Choir:

This is a group of singers whose purity of tone, maturity on stage and mastery of their material belies their young ages.

I like that quote. For me it is a reflection of what I like about Margaret Bell, our director. She has a keen sense of what is developmentally appropriate for kids and she spends a lot of time looking for music and arrangements that will let them shine. But, having done that, she expects them to shine -- to approach each rehearsal and performance with full attention, supporting each other with a workmanlike attitude.

I think kids know the difference, at a surprisingly young age, between a good performance and a mediocre one. Everyone is so afraid of damaging kids' self esteem that they routinely praise the mediocre, and even a bad performance gets that awful "Well, you did your best," comment. The choir respects Mrs. Bell because she tells them the truth, good or bad, and she is fierce in her determination that their performances will be top-notch.

Anna is lucky this year to also have a school music teacher who respects his students, but with a different slant. Every few years one of my kids has had to sing "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" in a school concert. They've always gotten laughs and they've always hated the whole ordeal. It is a dorky song, and even little kids resent the way the song highlights their dorkiness.

So it was a surprise when Jeremy raised his arms at the beginning of the song and the whole third grade instantly lost three inches of height. They had bent their knees, stuck out their stomachs, and stuck out their chins. Suddenly they were impersonating dorks, which meant that when the audience laughed, we were laughing at their assumed characters, not at the kids. At the end of the song, Jeremy gave a crisp wave of his hand and the whole class stood up straight again, with the best posture I've ever seen in an elementary school concert.

(For those of you who watched Fox News breathlessly reporting that Christmas Carols have been banned from school concerts in America's heartland, you can relax. Kids and audience sang "Silent Night", as we always have. I would still like to have a school Christmas concert that banned any mention of children lusting for presents.)

Christmas Eve was another night for music. Shelagh's voice, so clear and strong, still surprises me, even when she gets up from the couch at the last minute to sight-read with the church choir. Liz and Patti White sang "The Coventry Carol" as part of the prelude, and Anna sang with the children on "All is Well". Liz's classmate John Gleason shaved and changed out of his paintball clothes to open the service with "I Wonder As I Wander", a solo that he has struggled with during this Christmas season. John's grandfather closed the service singing "O Holy Night", with ease and competence. I knew then that John will grow as a singer, that he will sing for the rest of his life.

Anna made dog biscuits as presents for all of the dogs in her life. I will end my first full year of blogging with the recipe:
Dog Biscuits

1/4 cup hot water
8 boullion cubes
i Tablespoon baking yeast
1 1/2 cup tomato puree or tomato juice
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups wheat germ

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Mix the boullion cubes and hot water in a large bowl. Mix to dissolve the boullion cubes and then add the yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, 1 cup all purpose flour, and the wheat germ. Mix well. Stir in the remaining flours to make a stiff dough.

Let the dough rest another 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a floured board. Knead it a few minutes, or until the flour looks mixed in. Roll out half with a rolling pin and cut into shapes. You can use a cookie cutter or cut out shapes with a knife.

Use a spatula to put the shapes onto a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for about one hour. When they are all baked, put them back into the turned off oven to dry, for 4 hours or overnight.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Leelanau Roof Conditions

Last night at work I kept hearing conversations about roofs leaking due to ice dams from our early snowfall. We also had some high winds with blowing wet snow from the East. Very unusual.

I'm glad Richard did all of that snow removal before the icicles really started.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Electronics for Babies

Today's New York Times has an article about the growing trend of designing and marketing electronic toys for younger and younger children.

Quite frankly, this trend scares the crap out of me. The human brain is not something that we are born with, it is something that has to be developed. If you use a portion of your brain, it will grow new synapses to handle that sort of experience. If you deprive a kid of a particular sort of experience, their brain will never bother to develop the synapses that helps him be good at that sort of experience.

I'm not talking about little experiences. I'm talking about the big categories: language development, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills. We know that the greatest age for brain growth is before age three, when kids are practicing all of these things constantly. If you don't get these skills, especially language, by age 4, you have little chance of learning them later. Babies and toddlers should be learning the skills of navigating the 3 dimensional world, and driving their parents nuts doing it.

You simply can't learn those things by relating to the 2-D "screen world" of TVs and video interfaces. The content may be "educational" but the content is immaterial. What is going to happen to kids who can push buttons but can't read a person's body language or throw a rock to hit the broad side of a barn?

People admire my two great teenagers and ask me all the time how I raised such smart kids. My answer -- which they don't want to hear -- is "No TV." We kept our TV in the closet until the 1991 Gulf War and the kids amused themselves just fine. They played with marbles and Fisher Price people. They had cats who wore doll clothes and a dog who played hide and seek. They made bread with me and trained chickens for a "circus". They dug holes in the yard. Our house was messy, the yard was full of toys, and there was writing on the wall.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Leelanau Winter Weather So Far

The early winter has taken the absentee landowners by surprise. yesterday's Leland Report was filled with queries about whether the driveway needed plowing or the roof needed to be cleared of snow. This is a picture of Richard clearing the snow off our barn last Wednesday. The official snow total is over 70 inches, so far, but that was light powder over warm ground so in compressed quite a bit. Still, the snow that Richard cleared off the roof is more like what we usually see by the end of January.

The weather map looked just like this for about a week: a band of snow just hanging over Leelanau County. By last week when the snow let up here and the TV news was blabbing about the "Killler Snow Storm" that gave the Northeast a foot of snow, we all sat in the breakroom and said "So what?"

The map at left, of Lake Michigan surface temps as of 12/07 gives us the reason for all this snow. Our unusually warm summer has left us with unusually warm lake temps, which feed the lake-effect snow. The darkest green is about 46 degrees, the dark blue is low 30's. When the lake is mostly dark blue, our lake effect snows will cease and there will be only the occasional "system snow" to contend with. I'll be checking the NOAA site frequently.

Monday, December 12, 2005

4-H Chess

This is another "Table of Contents" page, my way to make Blogger work for my very scattered mind.

I have been a 4-H chess leader since Shelagh (now a freshman in college) was in 3rd grade. I started as a chess leader because I was needed, not because I was all that good at chess. Still, my background as a casino dealer gave me insight into how and why people play games and how to run fair games.

A post in February 2005 was intended as my "how-to" for chess leaders.

In March I posted a small piece about the progress that my K-3 group had made over the winter.

"Why I'm a 4-H Volunteer" was written for our vounteer appreciation week.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I am the parent of three girls, born in 1986, 1988, and 1996. My parenting writing whips back and forth between teenager issues and elementary school issues. I do write a lot about being a parent, but not nearly as much as I think about it.

In February, in Mother Hen, I wrote about one of Shelagh's first solo road trips, and reminisced about teaching my girls to change a tire. A few days later, in Loose Ends, Shelagh is home, but Liz has put the car in a ditch.

In March, the beginning of our Odyssey of the Mind saga got me thinking about what our real responsibilities as parents are. In my first OM post I wrote about walking the line between protecting my kids and letting them experience consequences. More on OM continued on that theme, while bouncing off the publicity around Judith Warner's book Mommy Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. I ended March with a review of one of my favorite parenting books, The Good Enough Parent.

Parenting isn't just about the time you spend with your kids. It's also about the time you spend maintaining a world worth living in to pass on to your kids. Whacking Gophers is about how frustrating that chore was in 2005.

In June, Shelagh graduated. I allowed myself the luxury of reprinting her Valedictorian speech, her graduation picture, and some photos from the ceremony.

Developing some 15 year old photos sparked a discussion of sibling rivalry and some reflections on how parenting advice changes with the winds. Liz countered with her own account of growing up as a sib.

Fourth grader Anna gives me her perspective on the standardized testing craze in Anna and the MEAPS.

Holidays are covered in the Halloween post and Why Santa Doesn't Bring TV Toys.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Every once in a while the ads on this blog direct me to a site on the web that I am glad to find. The last post, Liz's piece about growing up with her sister, attracted an ad for a website written by the authors of one of my favorite parenting books How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.

Their advice remains fresh and practical. It reminds me of my mother's remark that "Kids always have a good reason for doing what they do, and it's the parents' job to figure out what that reason is."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Liz's Turn

The writing on the wall. Actually on a door in the living room. I think I always knew it wasn't Liz, but I didn't care since I planned to eventually finish stripping the door anyway.

Liz, a senior this year, is applying early decision to Northwestern University. I've been up to my eyeballs in completing the CSS for her, also in doing the lights for the Leelanau Children's Choir concerts this week. My posts about graphomotor development and sibling rivalry inspired her approach to the "contrast and compare" paper that was assigned in her Advanced English class. She compared her relationship with her older sister, then and now:

Sisterly “Love”

My sister Shelagh is 20 months and one grade older than me, which, as one might imagine, makes us extremely close in age. It is easy to assume that this proximity in age would result in a loving sisterly relationship full of sleepovers and secrets and inside jokes. Unfortunately, that assumption is far from the truth. Although Shelagh and I have a semi-sisterly relationships today, we have not always been this close. In fact, our relationship now is quite different from the relationship we had when we were younger.
When Shelagh and I were little, we fought a lot. To be more specific, we physically fought a lot—by this, I mean that the younger, more emotion-driven-me would often attack my sister. Most disagreements resulted in me biting Shelagh, or me hitting Shelagh, or me punching Shelagh in the gut. Shelagh likes to recall the time when I chucked my favorite doll at her head, which apparently was quite painful. One my of favorite childhood memories involve Shelagh getting mad at me about something small, like who would put away the dishes or something, and me, in a sudden fit of rage, winding back and punching her in the stomach with all my might. She hadn’t even been mean to me, had just calmly expressed her opinion, but apparently I wasn’t into hearing her opinion. Nowadays, however, Shelagh and I rarely fight, instead maintaining a peaceful harmony that would make world leaders jealous. In the extremely rare case that we do fight, it is of the verbal variety rather than violent.
Younger years in the Och household were often spent exploring new ways to get the other sibling into trouble with the parents. It started out innocently enough, with one sibling simply blaming the other for something they did, like a muddy footprint or a mess left on the floor. However, this constant struggle came to its climax when we were probably about 7 and 9, and Shelagh decided that it would be a brilliant idea to write “I am Liz” on the wall, because obviously that is something that I would be stupid enough to do. Let me assure you that Shelagh and I have always had very distinct handwriting, so it was pretty clear (to me, at least), that Shelagh had written the graffiti, and that I was, therefore, innocent. Nothing was ever said by the parents, so I assumed that they figured the same, until about a month ago when I mentioned the incident to my mom. As it turns out that she had thought that I had written it all along, thus making Shelagh the ultimate winner when it comes to sisterly wars. Today, Shelagh and I are more often than not found on the same side of arguments, and we rarely incriminate each other, even for things we really did do. Though this sisterly love makes our relationship much stronger, I doubt my parents appreciate the newly formed alliance.
Today, it is not uncommon for Shelagh and me to call up each other for advice, tips, or just to talk. Contrary to the belief of a very small group of people, we have not always had this closeness. In fact, when we were younger, we hardly ever talked, though I suspect this was due largely in part to the fact that I suffered a severe speech impediment. Due to this embarrassing handicap, I was known to refer to Shelagh as “Seester,” a nickname my dear sister hardly appreciated. Though I learned to pronounce most word by Kindergarten, it wasn’t until at least middle school that Shelagh and I actually began to talk about things that mattered, like shoes and makeup. Now, Shelagh is the first person I call up with good news, bad news, or problems, and we can talk for hours argument (and speech-impediment) free.
As the younger sister, I tend to take my sister’s advice and follow her. This is one part of our relationship that has remained constant throughout the years. When we were younger, this willingness to trust my sister would sometimes cause less-than-satisfying results, such as the time when I “bit the tree”. We were at my great-grandma’s house, and Shelagh had invented this game where we would swing sideways on a swing and attempt to bite leaves off the nearby tree. At first Shelagh wouldn’t let me play, instead taunting me as she bit leaf after leaf off the tree, but after about a half hour of whining, I finally wore her down. Thinking I knew exactly what to do, I swung sideways and…bit the trunk of the tree, losing my second tooth in a bloody mouthful of tree bark. Although I am not na├»ve enough to do everything Shelagh tells me to today, I still trust her and value her advice, which, luckily for me, has become much more practical since the tree incident.
So, as Shelagh and I have grown up, it is safe to say that our relationship has grown from the blame-driven and violent type to a calmer and friendlier connection. The days of incriminating each other with graffiti and maiming each other with poor advice have fast been replaced by grown-up and sisterly things such as “serious conversations” and “helping each other out”. To an outsider (or from the medical perspective), this may appear to be an improvement, but I remain unconvinced. Despite the fighting, the tricks, and the lack of understandable conversation, Shelagh and I had a pretty good time during our childhood years. Perhaps I’m crazy, or maybe it is true that “the grass is always greener”, but for me, life was so much more fun back when we were younger.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If you've checked out my short list of Blogs I'm Reading, you've seen Operation Eden.
Here's a direct link to his post about Habitat For Humanity's effort to build housing for Hancock County, Mississippi.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Working the Holiday

We were open Thanksgiving, with a winter storm watch and blizzard warnings. There was nobody in the joint, so we were pulled oof the tables and sent to the office, where I spent a few hours gluing used dice to chains of Christmas lights for our department's Christmas tree. (The dice are lucite and different colors, so when you drill them out and light them, they look quite cool.)

The picture was taken for our tree, where we have the faces of our staff on the faces of a deck of cards.

Driving home was sort of like plowing snow with one's car. The wind had stopped blowing, leaving only thick bands of lake effect snow. There weren't even any tracks to follow for the last mile. The slot attendant who lives two miles past me said it wasn't snowing at all once he got a mile past my house.

The day after Thanksgiving we were busy. Our new Christmas decorations looked nice. The surveillance department's tree had a "Santa is Watching You" theme. It featured hidden cameras that played to video monitors under the tree, but there were also hidden radios, so the staff on duty could listen in and respond to the conversations going on around the tree.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Michigan School Funding News

An editorial about the bill to reform the way school districts buy health insurance for their employees, Chance to Save on School Insurance is posted at M-Live. (I'm not sure if they are talking about Senate Bill 4947, which I talked about last week.)

The Detroit Free Press yesterday outlined some of the issues in the ongoing struggles to balance school districts' budgets.

Ann Arbor Public School's Superintendent outlines his cost cutting concerns. Once again, they are running out of ways make cuts without adversely affecting education.

Across the country, schools are experimenting with selling the naming rights to buildings, athletic fields, or even whole schools. A quote from a spokeswoman from the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood:
We used to name public buildings for heroes, and we're not doing that anymore, we're naming them after the highest bidder. What kind of message is that sending to kids?

Finally, a rumor of a plan by Michigan House Republicans to boost school funding using a projected $55 million surplus in the school aid fund.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Winter's First Smack

These November days are short and dark.

Our first snow came suddenly. I went to work in a sweater and when I came out there was four inches of wet snow on everything. Through the next day it got colder and the wind picked up. By Thursday morning trees were breaking all over. This lilac was our kids' only climbing tree for years, but the storm took it down.

These four pines, at the south end of my garden, survived the storm but will come down by spring to make way for new power lines. They have been shading my garden out every late summer, so I hope my gardening will be better, even if the view is worse. Still I wonder why they can't bury the lines. If you look closely you can see the snow-laden branches lying over the wires.

Across French Road from us, a pole broke and was swinging back and forth hanging from the wire.

That line is the path of the new power line, so I'm hoping that the replacement pole they are setting in this picture turns out to be what the new line will look like. Those linemen worked their rear ends off last week, trying to get everyone's power back on. Some friends in Leland were without power for three days. I was afraid this truck would sink into the mud under the snow, but they got the job done and made it back to pavement.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

School Funding: Finally Some Action

I received an email today from Mike Kenney at TBA. He reports that there is finally some legislation afoot to fix one of the problems with public school funding in Michigan:
Last week the Senate and House leadership put the legislature on notice of their intention to address the Heath Care and Retirement crisis facing school districts across the State by introducing legislation to help school districts provide affordable benefits. The legislation will impact current employee health as well as future employee retirement benefits.

Currently the legislature is on Thanksgiving recess but there is a commitment from leadership to vote on this legislation when they return on the 29th. This legislation is on a fast track and therefore YOUR ACTION IS IMPERATIVE.

Legislation has been introduced in two parts (House and Senate). The Senate will be addressing the Health Care while the House will be focusing on Retirement reform. Here is what you should know:

The Senate has introduced Senate Bills 895-898, which would make it easier for school districts to enter into health insurance pools or to self-insure as an individual district. The legislation includes the following:

* Mandates the release of school district claims data to allow better informed decisions by the school employees and administration regarding the benefits that employees use.

* Creates a new state managed catastrophic claims insurance that will result in lower premium costs for districts because of the greater purchasing power in pooling.

* Allows competitive health care purchasing through coalitions or pools.

* Allows for the creation of proactive state of the art programs to improve member health

It appears now that the House will not introduce new legislation but rather substitute language into a vehicle bill (House Bill 4947). This proposed legislation will bring about much needed reform in our public school retirement system. This bill currently is sitting on the House floor and will include the following:

* A graded health insurance policy that would give retirees a health insurance subsidy based on the number of years worked. This will cut out a number of loop holes that are currently used.

* A change that would prevent retirees from receiving free health insurance for years purchased from the system until they hit their thirtieth year. This does not prevent early retirement, just the free health insurance for up to the five years of purchased time.

* Language that would prevent an individual from purchasing time until they have accumulated two full years of service credit. This would prevent the purchase of time at a rate that is not financially sound for the retirement system.

* Note: This bill may also include a defined contribution provision which does not have MASA support at this time. We will work through the legislative process to address this.

Our timeline for hearings, votes, and passage is the first two weeks of December. After the first of the year it will become increasingly difficult to get movement on this type of reform.

Both of these pieces of legislation include provisions that your Legislation Committee and Council support. Together, they represent two of our strongest Legislative priorities. Your Government Relations office and many MASA members have worked hard to get to this point, now we need an all-out effort from our membership to bring home results that will begin to provide the critical cost containment relief so badly needed while protecting access to quality health care benefits for the next generations of school employees and retirees.

Mike goes on to ask that supporters of Michigan's public schools contact their stste legislators in support of House Bill 4947 and Senate Bills 995, 896, 897 & 898.

He also added a page of FAQs:
Q: What is the proposal?
A: The proposal allows school districts to create regional pools to purchase health care for current employees. The proposal also requires the state to establish a statewide fund to cover catastrophic claims. Premiums would be lowered because better claims, cost and quality data availability, as well as enhanced collective bargaining power, allowing school districts to better negotiate and seek competitive prices.

Q: Will school employees be forced to accept inferior benefits?
A: No, school employees can keep their benefits and collectively bargain for health care benefits in the future.

Q: Are school employees losing their right to collectively bargain for health care?
A: No. School employees and administrators can still negotiate and will bargain with more collective strength through larger employee pools.

Q: If savings don’t come from cutting school employee’s benefits or raising co-pays, where do they come from?
A: Savings will come from:
• More efficient administration;
• Getting better deals by pooling employees in regional pools;
• Providing school districts and employees with information to negotiate fair premiums and identify high-quality providers;
• Competitive bidding for health care;
• Creating a statewide fund to pay for catastrophic care.

Q: Will schools be forced to pool together?
A: No, they can determine whether pooling would be beneficial. Most school districts would see cost savings from pooling.

Q: How much money can be saved and instead go towards student’s needs?
A: The American Federation of Teacher-Michigan estimates that it will save $573 million over the first three years.

Q: Through collective bargaining, Michigan teachers have at times traded salary increases for health care benefits. Why should they change?
A: Pooling creates cost savings that can increase benefits, allow the hiring of more teachers or the funding of programs that had been eliminated without cutting employee benefits or pay.

Q: Why is the Legislature attempting to change the school employee’s benefits?
A: This proposal was offered by the American Federation of Teachers – Michigan, and supported by school administrators and school boards. The Legislature is only trying to be responsive to the education community.

Q: How much does health care cost schools?
A: A district’s annual health care costs comprise 12-18 percent of costs, or approximately $1000 per pupil. The total cost is projected to be $2.3 billion this year. On average, school employees covered under individual school district plans will cost $12,149 in 2005, while state employees covered under the consolidated state employee plan will cost only $9,212.

Q: Will this be a statewide or regional pool?
A: Schools will be able to choose whether to join regional pools or have their own separate plan.

Q: Is this an attack on MESSA?
A: No. MESSA can continue to provide health insurance for school districts. This proposal merely gives schools districts more choices and generates cost savings so those dollars go towards educating children.

Q: When is the Legislature going to lower the cost of its own health care benefits?
A: The Senate has already done so and the House of Representatives is considering several options to lower health care costs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Gun Season

Today is the first day of "Gun Season", short for Firearm Deer Season. I don't know who the guy in the photo is, but I suspect the photo was taken in northern Michigan in the early 1930's.

I don't think he actually shot this deer, since there is a later picture of a lady with a gun and the same deer. Her face is blurred; she seems nervous. Perhaps she is uncomfortable standing next to the dead deer. I would be uncomfortable posing with a rifle aimed at my chin.

These photos are part of a collection of photos that Richard found while cleaning out Grampa Gord's garage. They were taken by Gene Lignian (left), who married Grampa's sister Eva. They are small 2" by 3" prints, mostly of Aunt Eva but many of other family. Some are dated 1931 or 1932.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Why Santa Doesn't Bring TV Toys

The Halloween Pumpkins are still on the back porch, but the ads on the breakroom TV last night were all about Christmas shopping.

Santa has never brought our kids any of the toys that are advertised on TV. When my kids talked about those toys, my response went something like this:

The toys you see on TV are not really good toys. In the commercials they look like fun toys, but those kids aren't really playing. Those kids are actors and they are just pretending to have fun. Sometimes they are really good actors so the toys look like they're amazing --but if you get those toys they don't do what the commercial made it look like they do. The plane doesn't really fly. The doll doesn't really eat. They break, or the batteries run down, or there are so many pieces that it takes longer to clean up than it does to play.

Santa only brings toys that are going to be fun for a long time. He doesn't like toys that break or get their pieces lost. He likes to bring toys that can be whatever you need to pretend. He likes sturdy toys, and books that are good enough to read over and over.

The people that make TV toys have to spend so much money to make those commercials that they don't have enough money left to make really good toys; that's why Santa won't put those toys in his sleigh.

I said these things over and over again until they became family lore. And as I watched how my kids played, I saw over and over again that a few good toys are much better than piles and piles of crappy ones, or pieces of crappy ones.

I happened upon Shelagh and Liz one day with a pile of marbles in the rocking chair, and a group of Fisher-Price people standing in a semi-circle around the back of the chair. I was attracted to the sounds of their play: One marble would fall, then there would be some ooohs and aaaaahs and maybe a comment: "Look! a green one!"

When I asked what was going on, they said "Fireworks!" The Fisher Price people were watching a fireworks show, and the kids were rolling marbles off the back of the chair to make it happen. The marbles and the Fisher Price people were recast in various roles for years, while other toys fell by the wayside.

I wrote down the "Santa Spiel" a few years ago after a parents' discussion at the Leelanau Children's Center. I was really worried about the number of parents who thought that their children would feel deprived if they didn't get everything on their Christmas list. Even when I pointed out that many toys are just worthless junk, and some (video games) make kids boring, parents felt pressured to come up with this stuff. This is how I always explained the situation to my kids.)

These are a few places that I like to look for cool, lasting toys and books:
American Science and Surplus
Chinaberry Books
Hearthsong Toys

And here in Leelanau:
Enerdyne (Shelagh's summer job)
Misfit Toys Suttons Bay's new toy store


Well, maybe that's not quite the right term, but what-the-hey! My blog post Anna and the Meaps was included in this week's Carnival of Education at The Education Wonk.

Their lead in:
When it comes to testing, it's always great to hear a parent's perspective. Over at French Road Connections, Susan has written a must-read post about testing, teaching, and learning.
It's nice to be read.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Chicken Pages

I write about my home flock, and poultry in general, from time to time:

Bread and Chickens was one of my first entries, explaining the economy of keeping a small flock for eggs and supplementing their diet with table scraps.

Artificial Intelligence and Chickens was a comment about my own adventure in inserting Google Adsense ads into my blog. The ads that were generated led me on an exploration of poultry related sites.

About My Flock is, well, about my flock.

Real Intelligence in Chickens reports on a major reassessment in the science of birds' brains.

The Chicken Farmer Reviews HONK! Can you believe it? The school musical featured my teenagers impersonating poultry!

New Chicken Questions is a spring piece, answering the questions that crop up once the chicks that were hatched at school go home to someone's house. I also wonder of it is possible to influence a flocks behavior with better nutrition.

Harry Houdini, Girlie Rooster. He sure is a pretty boy.

Avian Flu and the Home Flock is my attempt to make sense of conflicting news and science reports as of November 2005. I tried again in Avian Flu Hits Europe and Avian Flu and Intellectual Property. I'll keep trying.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Avian Flu and the Home Flock

Q: We keep a small flock of chickens. Should we get rid of them?

A: No.

Keeping chickens is a sort of window to the wider world. The everyday chores of caring for poultry is something that humans have been doing in similar fashion for most of recorded time. It is also something that is done, with little variation, almost everywhere that people live.

It was hard to stop thinking about those first bird flu reports from Asia. I saw fleeting images of beautiful birds on the evening news as they told of killing all poultry in whole provinces. At first I wondered how many interesting breeds of chickens were going extinct.

Then I worried about the households that owned those birds. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that one-quarter of the world's poor keep livestock and that livestock is often the "only means of asset accumulation and risk diversification that can prevent a slide into abject poverty by rural poor in marginal areas." Poultry is traditionally the livestock of choice for women because the animals are smaller and more manageable, and they don't require a long trek to pasture. If culling chickens was impoverishing households, these were likely to be the households headed by women. It was particularly hard to imagine impoverishing more women in Thailand, which has an active prostitution industry, and where AIDS is already entrenched. I wondered if culling chickens to prevent a potential bird flu epidemic was really preferable to leaving women and children with no economic alternatives except the sex trade and the very real AIDS epidemic.

For a while, watching the avian flu news was like watching two raindrops make their way down a windowpane. The virus would eventually make its way to my neighborhood, but would it be spread by humans or birds? When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, the chicken farmer in me started to relax. It seemed inevitable that all of those people crowded into refugee camps would be the opportunity the virus needed to start spreading through the human population.

But it didn't happen that way. Now the nightly news tells us that the virus has been found in Turkey, then Romania, then London. The matter-of-fact explanation is that the virus is spread by the migration of "wild birds".

Bird lovers are, naturally, alarmed by this talk, especially when authorities start proposing to kill wild birds and drain wetlands. Seattle Audubon published a nice page on the implications for bird watchers and policy-makers. They note that songbirds are not known carriers of the virus and that keeping feeders in one's backyard is not a health risk. (Birds can spread other diseases to each other at backyard feeders, so it is a good idea to disinfect them periodically with bleach.)

Living the Scientific Life lays the blame for SE Asia's poultry epidemic on farming methods, not wild bird:
Bird flu is typically carried in the intestines of wild birds. These avian carriers often remain healthy but shed the virus in their feces, especially when they are under stress, thus transmitting it to other birds and also becoming ill themselves. In 1997, this bird flu virus roared onto the epidemiological scene by decimating poultry markets in Hong Kong and stunning health officials around the world by killing six people in that city. However, after extensive testing, scientists realized that this supposedly new virus had actually been identified decades earlier: It is a variant of the H5N1 virus that was first isolated in 1961 from terns in South Africa.

It is not known how this particular virus managed to disperse away from South Africa, but scientists suspect that it sequestered itself inside the intestines of migratory wild birds and hitchhiked around the world, as is typical for flu viruses. But this virus did not pose an international health problem until it reached eastern Asia, where huge concentrations of domestic poultry are found. Thus, combined with the effects of widespread poverty, particularly with its resulting overcrowding, poor hygiene and inadequate nutrition, H5N1 found itself in the ideal environment to enhance its lethality and transmissibility while also being presented with numerous opportunities to jump the species barrier into humans and other animal species.
I'm frustrated by the lack of hard science in the news reports about bird flu. (You can't understand viral diseases without understanding evolution, and if we're afraid to evolutionvoultion in school, what do you think is going to happen to our understanding of diseases like influenza and West Nile virus and AIDS?) The news reports repeat the same "facts" over and over again without asking the qualifying questions that might help us make sense of the situation. The avian flu situation is a dramatic picture of how science works; data is gathered, theories are posed, the next round of data either supports or disproves the current theories. The news media wants to make this all into a neatly packaged cause-effect-cure scenario, when no such scenario exists.

A population addicted to CSI-style dramas might just appreciate the science thriller of avian flu research, except that the tools and funds that real scientists have at their disposal grossly inferior to the glamorous world of TV crime labs. A January 2005 article in Nature, Vietnam's War on Flu, details the opportunity for studying human exposure to the virus in the countryside of Vietnam:

Vietnam's economy may be growing rapidly, but the vast majority of its people are still small-scale farmers who share their living space with chickens and ducks. "The hinterland of Vietnam is, for all practical purposes, one huge free-roaming farm," says Anton Rychener, who heads the Hanoi office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This, experts agree, provides the ideal breeding ground for deadly strains of flu, which are likely to emerge when viruses pass between different species of livestock and people, and exchange genetic material in the process.

Yet, the few epidemiologists working in Vietnam complained that the rest of the world is interested, not in doing public health research in Vietnam, but in collecting samples and then high-tailing it back to their first-world labs. Many people have been exposed to avian flu in Vietnam, but only a small percentage appear to have gotten sick. It would be very interesting to check both populations (human and poultry) for avian flu antibodies in an attempt to answer some very basic questions: Are only a few poultry infected, or have most poultry been exposed? Are birds that are kept in less stressful conditions more likely to resist infection? Are people simply not getting infected or are they having very mild symptoms? If they aren't getting infected, why not? Is the virus just not good at infecting humans, or have the humans gotten an immunity from somewhere?

One of the researchers in the Nature article noted that most of the people who died from avian flu were young. He wondered if the elders had acquired immunity from some previous wave of poultry flu. I read accounts of the Spanish flu epidemic that my grandparents lived through, and once again, it was the young people in the prime of life that seemed most susceptible. The theory is that the disease killed by overactivating the immune system, thus people with the most healthy immune systems were the most vulnerable. Yet, the similarities between the two situations are interesting. Humpoultry pountry have been living in close contact for so long (yes, evolving together) that it is inevitable that the two species would occasionally swap viruses. Will it turn out that contact with poultry results in a immunity (or even a partial immunity)against the next wave of flu virus?

In the last few days, President Bush has announced a new avian flu initiative. The epidemiologists at Effect Measure are glad to see avian flu getting attention and funding, but they note that the US has been systematically dismantling our public health infrastructure since the Reagan administration. The worry that, even if we can catch up from years of failing to fund basic research, we may lack the networks that will be needed to distribute vaccine or flu drugs, or even to effectively monitor the progress of an epidemic. In the end, any funding of public health initiatives is an improvement over the "less government is always better" philosophy.


So what does this mean to those of us who keep backyard poultry? The CDC's one-syllable answer, top of this page, to the only reporter who thought to ask the question, seems comical at best. Most of the information on poultry disease is aimed at farms with large indoor flocks. I found little information appropriate to a home flock situation; APHIS Tips on Biosecurity came as close as anything. They advocate housing birds away from foot traffic, quarantining new birds, disinfecting food and water equipment.

I will never be able to keep my chickens away from all contact with wild birds, but it seems that the wild birds I really have to worry about are ducks, geese, wild turkeys, and seagulls. It makes sense to dedicate a pair of boots for working around the chickens, and then avoid wearing that footwear to the piers, beaches, or golf courses where there is likely to be wild bird poop. My dirt floor barn, although it is great for keeping birds warm in winter and protected from predators, cannot be thoroughly disinfected. I may keep a much smaller flock next summer and house them in a structure that can either be cleaned or burned. I anticipate that at some point we will no longer be able to ship live poultry though the mail, so I am thinking about how to get along with that nasty rooster of mine, and how to encourage my hens to brood eggs next spring. I am culling hens this fall, keeping a handful of Partridge Rocks and Black Australorps as they have always been sturdy and healthy breeds. I need to make my whole setup leaner and more flexible, so I can change my methods as the situation unfolds.

The situation will unfold, as real science does, as a series of observations, guesses, experiments, and then more observations and guesses. All backyard poultry farmers are hands-on scientists, watching our birds, trying new methods, discarding what flops and refining what works, but always observing. We need to extend that home-grown pragmatism and demand that our tax dollars be spent on real science, where the theories spring from the observations, instead of visa versa.

Cornell Ornithology

The image at the top of the page is from The Red Jungle Fowl, posted by HS Wong of Kuala Lumpur. The Red Jungle Fowl (gallus gallus) is the original chicken, from which all domestic chicken breeds are descended.

The next avian flu post

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Halloween Post

This is Anna's pumpkin, a cat-o-lantern carved from the "Chat Noir" poster that Shelagh left behind when she went to school. Anna drew the design and I carved it for her. The photography looks a little odd because I didn't drag the tripod out, but I like it. It's a nice opening for the Halloween Report:

It was a beautiful night, about 50 degrees and still. Anna was dressed as an "Adorable Witch", a store bought costume that seemed to answer her need to be a not-very-ugly, not-very-scary witch. (Her first choice was to be a teenager, but I told her to pick something else, as we certainly had enough of those around already.) She came home from the school dressup party with a monstous amount of makeup on. I snapped this picture to show her how silly she looked, but seeing the picture only made her love the makeup more.

I was reminded of how, before I had teenagers, I used to think that middle school kids had stopped putting energy into dressing up for Halloween and were only out for candy. When I actually had kids that age, I found that they put enormous amounts of energy into their costumes. But their energy was spent on making sure that they wouldn't look silly, or uncool, or draw undue attention to themselves -- kind of the opposite of what the rest of the world thinks of Halloween. In the end, when Shelagh and Liz were middleschoolers, every girl tried to look like Britney and ended up looking slutty. I'm not sure what the boys were trying to do, but they ended up looking like muggers.

This year Liz and her friends went trick-or treating, even though they are seniors, with their friends in Suttons Bay. Liz was a fireman, Mary was a ninja, and Ellen was a gorilla. They no longer worry about looking foolish or transforming themselves into whatever their psyches need; they just grab whatever costume is available and go.

I had dressed as the chessboard's Black Queen for Friday's Halloween concert and Saturday's Halloween party at the casino. After 10 hours being the Queen on her feet I was ready to go trick or treating as Mom.

There were plenty of other participating adults. Some came to the door in costume, some walked the streets with their kids. We went to Lake Leelanau first. It was quiet there, with groups of people making their way through the unraked leaves. Richard and I move in different circles, but between the two of us we know almost everyone. I would say hi to one group of people, and he would turn out to be best buddies with the next guy.

Later we met up with some of Anna's friend in Leland. She was much happier to be trick-or-treating with friends, but Richard and I kept stopping to talk with people and falling behind. I accepted a beer from one house and then walked with it concealed in my coat, stopping to sip in the dark spots between streetlights. Some streets were lit up with lots of people hosting trick or treaters. Some were nearly dark, with only a house or two. Down one dark cul-de-sac was a lone house with a long sidewalk lined with juniper bushes. As the kids walked up to the house, people hidden in the bushes grabbed at their feet. When we left the house, in the dark, it took some time to notice the black-clad figure pacing to steps behind us, eavesdropping. As soon as we saw it, the person took off and faded into the dark.

Richard had been giving me a running commentary on the recent construction in the village, who had built what and which places he had worked on. On a whim, we walked up to Telgard's, a house he had worked on a few years ago, but had never seen finished. They were happy to give an impromtu house tour. It was built around the same time as ours, but is a large "town home" as opposed to our smaller and more utilitarian farm house. They didn't just remodel, they restored it as much as possible and it looks nice.

This image (courtesy of the Leland Report) shows the last stop of the night's trick or treating venture. Lori has hosted a Halloween party every year since Shelagh and Liz were toddlers. Some years it is the warming-up stop, where we can thaw out our fingers in front of her fire. We ate sloppy joes and cookies while the kids compared candy bags.

On the way to Lori's we passed the "All Saints Party" at the Old Art Building. A few years ago the Art Building hung Halloween decorations including a witch from a tree out by Main Street. The Lutherans lodged a protest, saying that this was promoting evil. This year they rented the building and hosted an alternative to trick-or-treating. Many kids just double dipped, first trick-or-treating then attending the party. As we walked by, it looked too well lit. The rented blow-up trampoline full of balls looked sad and boring, compared to the wonder of wandering the night and seeing dark shapes that turned out to be friends.

There were a few kids who didn't attend the school Halloween concert, either, because their parents think that Halloween is the work of the devil. I liked the article in Christianity Today, Hallowing Halloween. The author promotes Halloween as a time to mock the devil:

The one thing Satan cannot bear is to be a source of laughter. His pride is undermined by his own knowledge that his infernal rebellion against God is in reality an absurd farce. Hating laughter, he demands to be taken seriously. Indeed, I would say that those Christians who spend the night of October 31 filled with concern over what evils might be (and sometimes are) taking place are doing the very thing Lucifer wants them to do. By giving him this respect, such believers are giving his authority credence.
My kids have always loved trick-or-treating because, as Liz said: "You get to walk around in the dark with Dad." I didn't see any evil, or even any mischief, except for myself and my hidden beer bottle. It is easy, this time of year, to forsake the outdoors and cozy up with the TV, where there is plenty of stuff to scare you.

Monday, October 31, 2005

More Outhouse Mischief

Every Thursday is Senior's Day at the casino, so I tend to see the same faces every week. They even take the same seats and tell the same jokes. Like the one about the newlyweds who didn't know the difference between vaseline and window putty. (Their windows fell out.)

Last Thursday I mentioned the previous week's outhouse story and Don let me know that he had his own outhouse prank to tell about. It seems that he was on the high school basketball team at St Mary's and the coach would always give some other guys and him a ride home after practice.

One Halloween Coach said "Boys, I've got a job for you to do." They drove up to Northport, where the barber still had the last remaining outhouse in the village. They intended to knock the outhouse over, but when they got there someone else had beat them to it. So they lifted the outhouse and carried it to the front of the barber's shop. The storefront had large display windows that slanted back to make a sheltered entryway. They placed the outhouse in the entryway completely blocking the front door, with the door of the outhouse seeming to replace the door of the barbershop. There was a "City Service" sign hung above the gas station across the street; one of the guys shinnyed up the pole and took the sign to hang it on the outhouse.

Finally they found a chamber pot to fit inside the hole of the outhouse and some ring bologna to put inside of the chamberpot. They left the door of the outhouse ajar, so anyone walking by could check out their "street art."

Don doesn't seem like a very old guy, and he was chuckling about that trick as if it just happened last week. One of the non-locals didn't seem to believe the story and asked him when it happened. Don reckoned it was about 1951, and recalled how the village had been trying to make the barber get rid of his outhouse for years. He thought maybe that Halloween prank finally did it.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Outhouse Mischief

I was relieving the Three Card Poker dealer a few nights ago. The table was filled with locals. The players at first and third base had grown up together many years ago; everyone else was younger. The talk was rambling, about nothing, really, until someone mentioned the old question, "Who was buried in Grant's Tomb?"

First base had been unusually quiet up to now, just drinking his beer. "Joe Miller!" he blurted out.

The young people were startled. "Joe Miller was buried in Grant's Tomb?"

But third base was started up. "Joe Miller? I thought you said Hugh Miller. Joe Miller was mean."

"Yeah, he was mean." The younger people can't figure out how this conversation started, let alone where it might be going.

"Mean Joe Miller used to poison all the dogs. I'll tell you how mean he was. He used to live across the street from OJ's family. He poisoned their dog, and then he hung a big sign on his front fence, right where they could see it from their front window:

The reason I lie,
beneath this pillar,
Is I was poisoned
By Old Man Miller"

"I remember that. Boy, he was mean"

"Well, he might have had reason to be mean. The neighborhood kids did tease him without end. Every Halloween they would go out and knock over his outhouse."

"Hell, we all did that"

"One Halloween at dusk, OJ's boys saw him sneaking into his outhouse with a shotgun. Well, that was pretty serious, compared to tipping over an outhouse. He could have killed somebody. One of them quietly snuck up, tripped the latch from the outside, and locked him in there. Then they all got together and ever-so-gently lifted that outhouse and moved it four feet back. What used to be under the outhouse was now just in front of the door, and Miller was hollering and pounding for someone to let him out."

"One of the boys ran up, tripped the latch, and then ran like hell. Mean Joe Miller came running out, then down, shotgun and all.

A relief dealers stays at a table for 15 or 20 minutes, then moves on. I would have liked to have listened to their stories all night. When I left, they were discussing outhouse construction, the nicest outhouses they had owned, and even how they had sold disused outhouses to antique hunters.

The image at the top is from a resume posted online. It is, of course a modern outhouse, and the guys in the picture are just moving it to a new location. There are many images online of old, leaning outhouses, but not many that illustrate the workmanship and care that typically went into this important household feature.

When you tip over a modern port-a-john, it makes a real mess. A well-built outhouse could just be set up again, as they were built to be relocated frequently. I suspect the humor came from seeing your neighbor running out in the early morning to relieve himself, and finding the facilities unavailable.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Anna and the MEAPS

This month public school students in grades 3-8 are taking MEAP tests. While I was cooking dinner last Friday, Anna sat in the kitchen and launched into a 10 minute monologue about how to take a MEAP test.

"You have to fill in the bubbles right. The test is in one book and the answers are in another book. You have to fill in the right page of the answer book. And the right part. If you start to fill in the wrong page, don't erase it. Just go over and start filling in answers again on the right page. Then when you're done you can go and erase the other part. Really erase it. You only get 50 minutes. I mean an hour, almost, 50 minutes."

"You have to fill the whole bubble in and you can't make any marks outside of the bubble or you'll be marked wrong. If I accidentally make a mark outside of the bubble, I erase the whole bubble and start over again. Or sometimes I rub the eraser around the whole bubble to get the ones that got out. If there's even just one mark outside the bubble they mark it wrong, even if you knew the right answer. I don't know why they're like that. I know they like neatness, but...." She trails off and starts in again: "It's marked by a machine. They think the machine is real smart. But I don't know."

It was all about the bubbles. She never mentioned any content, or even what subject she was being tested on, but she knew how to fill in bubbles.

A few years ago we got rid of the voting machines with the levers and the funny half-curtain that opens "cha-chunk" when you're done and pull the big red handle over. Now adults fill in bubbles to vote, but we get to put each answer on the same page right next to its question. Our answers are read by the machine right there at the fire hall, and if it can't read a ballot we get to take it back and fix it or even get a new one and start over.

If you hang around on election day for very long, you'll see people of all ages who have trouble with the mechanics of filling in bubbles. Small wonder. Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrician who studies learning, describes the task of putting pencil to paper as a coordination of a series of skill:
When a student writes and forms letters, he makes use of his graphomotor abilities. These special writing skills involve the coordination and control of the muscles at the end of his fingers. Some muscles are used to make a pencil move up and down, others to make the pencil move left and right, others to move it in a circular motion, etc. Since writing letters requires a combination of these movements, different muscles are used to form different letters. Not surprisingly, when students write, some have trouble getting their muscles to move in the correct way. The student’s first steps in forming letters involve identifying the letter to be written, using memory to recall what that letter should look like, and making and holding a mental picture of the letter. The student then "sends" signals from her brain to the finger muscles required to move the pencil and to form the desired letter. Finally, the student forms the letter in the right place on the paper.... Writing requires students to remember several things simultaneously (forming letters and words, using correct grammar and punctuation, recalling the ideas they want to write, etc.). If a student has a hard time retrieving any of this information from long or short-term memory, the entire writing process will be more difficult.
Filling in bubbles is, of course, somewhat easier than writing, but still requires most of these skills.

While Richard and I were watching baseball last week, there was a play that involved picking up a grounder and making a split second decision to throw to first instead of trying to pick off the leading runner at third. As the announcers dissected the play, Richard said "You know what's wrong with these announcers"

"They talk too much?"

"They forget that at this level, it's all automatic. They're not thinking 'Can I make that throw? Should I try it?' They've done this so many times, its automatic." I can tell that he is thinking about Anna's Peewee baseball team, which he has helped coach for the last few years.

The team is a testament to the fact that learning is not linear. They have played together since T-ball, enthusiastically whacking the ball and trotting off towards third base. Last summer things finally seemed to be coming together for the kids. The were watching the ball, getting it under control, completing the throw to first base. Johnny as pitcher and Christian on first base were a particularly good combination.

Then one night Johnny was playing third with one man on second. Left field threw him the ball and he tagged the base, but the runner was called safe! Eating ice cream after the game, Richard explained that if it was not a force play, it was necessary to tag the runner before he reached the base. Johnny understood the concept and all seemed fine, but the next game and the game after that were awful. You could see the kids pick up the ball and then freeze, thinking about where to throw. Kids covering bases were looking to see where the runners were and then failing to catch the ball. The game was suddenly more complicated than just throwing to first or second.

Anyone looking for "Adequate Yearly Progress" with our team would have been quite
disappointed in those games. It's not the fault of the kids or the parents or the coaches. It's no fault at all, that's just what learning is like. Baseball, like anything else worth learning, is a game of many levels. You are going to have times when you don't seem to be learning anything. You are going to have times when trying to move to the next level makes you worse, instead of better, as you try make another part of the job "automatic". The kids that press on past the frustrating spots are the ones who are learning how to learn, who are going to succeed, no matter the subject.

Coaching through these periods is particularly frustrating. It is interesting to see my husband also moving to the next level, trying to figure out how to be a better coach. It supports my premise that people who volunteer with kids end up learning as much, or more, than the kids. The folks behind those MEAP tests should try a season or two of coaching PeeWee.

I'm not sure if filling in bubbles teaches perseverance. I'm pretty sure it's not the best way to teach anything important. I keep wondering why adults who are voting get to fill in bubbles next to the questions, while third and fourth graders have to fill in bubbles in an unwieldy answer book. A few years ago we could have said that we do it this way because voters are deciding important public policy and third graders are just being tested. Now we are using the results of these ridiculous prove-nothing tests to decide public policy, to fund or close entire schools.

The first day of MEAPs Anna had laryngitis and I started to tell her to go back to bed for a few hours. Liz reminded me that it was MEAPs, so I sent her on her way with the tongue in cheek admonishment to "Make money for your school." She is a trooper, playing every inning to the end, regardless of the score.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Really old photos

I am still developing rolls of film that have been sitting around. This one is at least 15 years old.

This was our first summer in Michigan, after we moved here from Hawaii. Richard is reading to Shelagh and Liz, except we called her Lizzy back then.

Here they are on the front sidewalk of my folks' condo in Leland. Now Liz is taller than Shelagh, but she used to definitely be the younger sister.

Liz was often mad at me because (she thought) I had decided to let Shelagh be born first. She so wanted to be the bigger sister. I would find Liz walking around muttering under her breath: "I hate my sister. I hate my sister..." I worried that those words would become her mantra, so I used to grab her and hold her and rock her and say "Your momma loves you dearly and she always will. Your momma loves you dearly and she always will....", trying to give her a new mantra.

Now Shelagh and Liz are very close, getting on each others' nerves only occasionally.

Reading the news over the last few days, I have found out that I raised those two all wrong. I knew at the time that they were born too close together (19 months) so they were doomed to suffer from crippling sibling rivalry. When I went in for prenatal visits with Liz, the doctors and nurses told me every visit that 3 years between children was optimal, and asked me if I had ever heard about birth control.

I never bought them pacifiers (just one more thing to lose) and they often slept in our bed with us, usually with a head nestled under Dad's armpit for warmth. Now it turns out that sleeping with your parents is dangerous, and not buying a pacifier for your baby promotes SIDS. I'm unconvinced. It seems like pacifiers are always falling on the ground (or worse), getting lost, and just generally getting a lot more attention than they deserve.

But wait! There's More! I was supposed to have those kids toilet trained before they could walk!. It's an interesting idea, right up until they quote the mom who calls early toilet training "a gift in our relationship." I can't quite figure out what that means, but it sounds like something you would say if you were trying to present yourself (subtly, of course) as the best mother in the room.

I can't remember how or when any of my kids were toilet trained. (I vaguely remember when they learned to read, but even that was not a race. What makes a good life is not whether you could read when you were five, but wheteher you still love to read when you're 40.) I remember ignoring all kinds of unsolicited advice when my kids were young. I fear if I was raising babies now, I wouldn't be nearly as polite.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Farmers: The Last Grown Ups?

This is from Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter. (I don't think he's related to the Plamondons of Lake Leelanau, but he could be. He's from Oregon.)

The Last Grown Ups

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought home to me the degree to which farmers are treated differently from other people.

You see it every day. Farming is dangerous, but you don't need a license. Everyone assumes that you can make your own decisions. I can go down to the feed store and buy hypodermic needles and an eight-ounce bottle of pennicillin anytime. At the pharmacy, I'd be considered to be a mere citizen and likely to hurt myself, so I'd need a note from a grown-up (in the form of a doctor's prescription).

A few years ago, when the Tillamook River flooded any number of dairy farms, the news was mostly about the risk to livestock, not to farmers. Afterwards, no one warned the farmers to stay away because they might come into contact with feces or agricultural chemicals!

The assumption was, "They're farmers. They can cope." No matter what the devastation, the reporters were confident that the farmers would roll up their sleeves and rebuild. The concern was all over the dairy cattle who were cut off from rescue by the floodwaters.

Of course, no sane person would assume differently with New Orleans. The mouth of the Mississippi River is one of the most important commercial locations in the world, with the entire produce of the American Midwest needing to be taken off barges and put on ships. Having a city at the mouth of the Mississipp is not optional! And there are plenty of determined people in New Orleans; farmers have no monopoly on toughness. Far from it! Yet with Katrina, the news always seemed to assume that the people in New Orleans were helpless and stupid, and needed to be kept from their own homes until everything was made nice and safe by the grown-ups from the government.

(No doubt a lot of this was fake; just bad reporting by city-slicker journalists and knee-jerk answers of "We're a lot more comfortable if we drag things out forever" from government officials who were not, in fact, in charge.)

I was surprised (but pleased) that the mayor of New Orleans reopened the city. He, at least, recognized that there's a difference between an evacuee and a prisoner, and that the citizens would mutiny and reopen the city on their if he didn't get a move on.

It's not that New Orleans is necessarily safe right now, it's just that grown-ups are allowed to take risks if they want to, and it's nobody's business but theirs. A lot of people seem to have forgotten this.

You get a lot less of this nonsense on the farm, but since our legislators are mostly city slickers, it's creeping up on us. It's been a long time since you could buy dynamite through the mail from Sears!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Religion vs.God

Last night I read an LA Time article The Dark Side of Faith looked at a correlation between how the populartiy of religion and the incidence of homicide, STDs, teen sex, and chld mortality.
He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

This morning I read an article in the NY Times
Middle-Class Family Life in Iraq Withers Amid the Chaos of War. This could almost be a case study of the religious-inspired violence described in the first article, except that the violence in question is of a more public variety.

I might have titled the first article "The Dark Side of Religion" instead of "The Dark Side of Faith". I think of faith as quiet and private, and religion and a public "me, too" or "us against them" sort of thing.

The third thing I'm contemplating today is the Intelligent Design debate. Frankly, I don't get it. How does it help God to bend logic in a high school science class? This sort of stuff is only neccesary if you think of God as sort of a mechanic, operating under the rules that humans (of the 19th century) can perceive; God running around cutting off one lineage, promoting another, through floods and famines, like a kid playing sandbox.

When I worked in Waikiki, the was a guy who walked the street everyday wearing a cape and a leopard-skin jockstrap, reading from a Bible at the top of his voice while passersby ignored him. I often wondered why he was taking those beautiful words and making them so ugly. God needs this? I wonder now about those Intelligent Design proponents. If God made the world, didn't he make the mathematics and time that make evolution work? My God is big, as big as I can think about and then bigger still.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Why I'm a 4-H Volunteer

This is National 4-H week, when we traditionally recognize our volunteers. People typically assume that I volunteer because I'm such a generous person. My actual reasons are much more self-serving. I am a person who is easily bored, who is nosey enough to want to know everyone in my community, not just those who are like myself. I hunger to meet smart people, and I want to be privy to the latest research. I don't have a lot of time, so I want my time as a volunteer to be respected. I want to be respected, as more than just a mom who deals cards.

4-H is uniformly supportive of its volunteers. 4-H volunteers can offer as much or as little time as they want. We are provided with the latest research on children’s issues. The 4-H office helps with the big things (like liability insurance) and the little things (like notifying club members when I was too sick to hold a meeting, or even to talk on the phone.)

4-H volunteers are respected members of the community. Our 4-H Extension agent simply will not allow her volunteers to be anything less, or to be treated as anything less. She is available to listen to problems, offer solutions, or to discuss issues directly with parents. I am free to offer the benefits of Chess Club to all interested kids, not just the well-behaved ones.

4-H doesn't waste my time with the last decade's agenda; 4-H is continually seeking to ask and answer the question: What Do Kids Need Now?

We challenge ourselves to identify and fill in the gaps. It may be on an individual basis; I will bring in art supplies for a second grader who needs to draw to get over the stress of a challenging chess game.

County-wide, we ask the same question, creating a program of swimming instruction or writing grants to fund quality child care for low-income families.

No other organization has the latitude and mission to ask and answer this critical question.

Working as a 4-H volunteer has kept me sane when my paying job seemed bent on driving me crazy. As the mother of three girls, I love how 4-H keeps me in touch with the energetic and entertaining world of boys. 4-H volunteers are among the most interesting nd forward thinking people around. The fact that the program is open to all kids means that I meet a lot of people that would otherwise pass me by.

Monday, September 19, 2005

More Adults

This guy couldn't be president because he really wanted to be president? Because he really went to Vietnam? Because he windsurfed?
Americans can and will help compensate for government's incompetence with millions of acts of individual enterprise and charity, as Katrina has shown. But that's not enough. We must ask tough questions: Will this generosity and compassion last in the absence of strong leadership? Will this Administration only ask for sacrifice in a time of crisis? Has dishonesty in politics degraded our national character to the point that we feel our dues have been paid as citizens with a one-time donation to the Red Cross?

Today, let's you and I acknowledge what's really going on in this country. The truth is that this week, as a result of Katrina, many children languishing in shelters are getting vaccinations for the first time. Thousands of adults are seeing a doctor after going without a check-up for years. Illnesses lingering long before Katrina will be treated by a healthcare system that just weeks ago was indifferent, and will soon be indifferent again.

For the rest of the year this nation silently tolerates the injustice of 11 million children and over 30 million adults in desperate need of healthcare. We tolerate a chasm of race and class some would rather pretend does not exist. And ironically, right in the middle of this crisis the Administration quietly admitted that since they took office, six million of our fellow citizens have fallen into poverty. That's over five times the evacuated population of New Orleans. Their plight is no less tragic - no less worthy of our compassion and attention. We must demand something simple and humane: healthcare for all those in need - in all years at all times.

I worked the hurricane relief trailer yesterday and today dropped off eggs, vegetables, and dog food at a sick co-worker's because I know he's out of sick pay. No lights, no fanfare, just doing what needs to be done. Hurricane relief was all about eye contact; say hi to everyone you know and see if they stop and chat and maybe donate, or if they just say hi and keep walking. My favorite were the people who stopped on their way into the store, asked what was needed, and then bought it. I never demanded much, maybe an extra box of cereal or some Tylenol or diapers. It all adds up.

Oddly enough, people kept thanking me. For what? I sat outside of the grocery store on a beautiful September day and packed boxes while chatting with people. I felt guilty at spending a pleasant afternoon while others are struggling to put their lives back together.

The relief effort has gotten much press, in Detroit Free Press and the Leelanau Enterprise. The concept is simple, based on a reaction to news reportsof the New Orleans diaspora. Two people who owned trailers saw the potential for providing immediate help by simply parking their trailers next to the local groceries , collecting donated food and supplies, and then driving south to where people were hungry. The plan was simplified somewhat when International Aid of Spring Lake, Michigan agreed to take our county's donations into their very efficient system. Our donated food was in the mouths of hungry people in Mississippi a mere 36 hours after the trailers left the county. When the need was most urgent, trailers were filled as fast ans they could return. In three weeks we have sent out about 40 tons of supplies.

Yesterday was the last day, for now, as it seems that more traditional ways of feeding people have finally kicked in. I saw my trailer of yesterday at Van's garage today; the driver was filling up with gas. They will take this last run directly to Louisiana, where they will meet up with the Veterans For Peace group working in Covington. God speed.

Mortal Jive, the poet dreamer, describes a similar relief road trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Adult Situations

I'm back in the amen corner today; I can't write anything more appropriate than what I've just read.

Remember when Bush won the first time? He beat Al Gore, about whom people complained that he was too stiff, too boring. Lately I've been looking at the mess we're in and thinking that we need someone who knows how to get things done, no fanfare, just an honest day's work. "Fifty years old, and I'm still screwing nuts on bolts," was how poet Gary Snyder put it, the business of being a grownup. Whenever I see "adult situations" in a movie review, I think "Oh, they must be worrying about how to pay the bills," because that's what adults do.

Here is a link to an adult situation: Al Gore discusses Katrina and the challenge of global climate change.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Katrina Theories

I am listing the various attempts to find a higher purpose for Hurricane Katrina.

God's judgement for gay marriage, Israel's Gaza pullout, etc.

Russian Weather Engineering (the proof is in the cloud photos)

New Orleans was a Sin-Filled City This one has (already) an entry in Urban Legends.

Revenge of the Fetus (once again, it's in the clouds)

And a first hand account from our friend Doug, the FEMA worker now deployed to Mississippi, who tells us that folks on the street think that the government broke the levees on purpose to get rid of poor black people.

This is a classic case of the law of karma, or what the Torah warns of environmental disaster unless we create a just society. Oddly enough, while the fundamentalist Christians have been telling us that God works in "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" fashion, here we have a rabbi reminding us of Christ's warning that "Whatever you neglected to do unto one of these least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!"

Friday, September 09, 2005

Hurricane Blogs

I have been reading a lot of news lately, trying to make sense of things. I also read my casino dealer bulletin board, where we have people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast trading stories and information. Here are a few blogs from people in the disaster area:

The Otter Side is written by a physician from Georgia with military background, currently in New Orleans, trying to help people. He writes:
Looked at almost all Cops in precinct. Several had chemical burns on feet. They say "The Water" so you can hear the capital letters. "Black, green, and stinks like hell." Several were obviously worried about catching something. Wouldn't ask about it unless private.

Met a local MD. What a cowboy! He commandeered a white hearse from a funeral home, put red crosses on hood, doors, and liftgate with house paint from Home Depot.. "Riding forth to stave off death and disease!" Wouldn't shake hands "because of the epidemic." I asked what had gone epidemic. "I don't know yet, but it's coming soon." A character straight out of M*A*S*H.

Spirits are better--a shipment of ground beef & chicken breasts arrived from ATL. Big, big cop pulled out major-league smoker they use at Mardi Gras. Everyone was eating burgers and looked less careworn. Their #1 request? One night's sleep.

I can see now the significance of Jesus's washing feet. Foot care is a very profound way to show caring. It says "I care enough to touch these moist, stinky things for your benefit."

Eye of the Storm is a day to day blog written by a couple of journalists wandering the Biloxi-Gulfport area with camers. Josh writes an open letter to Michael Moore:
My name is Josh Norman. I am a reporter with the SunHerald of Biloxi, Mississippi. Last Sunday and Monday, I was in Biloxi when the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over my head as a category 4.It was terrifying.Immediately after the storm, I went out and reported on the disaster. I met families destroyed, saw neighborhoods reduced to their concrete foundations, smelled death and dispair and heard the disbelief roll off of everyone's toungue. Disaster, perhaps, is therefore not strong enough of a word.What will be a disaster is a divided and bickering nation.I appreciate your work, Mr. Moore. I understand your viewpoint.I have voted democrat across the board since I started voting ten years ago. I could very easily be described as a liberal too...I was in the Peace Corps for Christ's sake.But I do not feel that now is the time to berate Bush. Now is not the time to bring him down a peg. He may be pathetic, he may be barely able to actually help, but any help he can get down this way is desperately needed. By causing him to divert energies to defend his frequently spotty record people who attack him are diverting his energies away from here.And, I feel like you and others who attack him are diverting your energies away from here too.This disaster is about people. It's about the mother who came home from work and found her baby and husband had drowned in her living room. It's about the casino janitor who came home and found his daughter's baby photos missing - his house had been reduced to a slab - much the same way Hurricane Camille had done to his baby photos.It's about the firemen who had to swim out of their fire station, had their homes leveled, and are still working 20-hour days, 7 days a week.We need help here. Now. Listening to the political bashing, frankly, makes me concerned. I know Bush did wrong. I know there was a major fuck up. Now is not the time for finding of what that fuck up was.Have you spent as much time helping the people of South Mississippi and Louisiana get clothing, medicine, food and water as you have figuring out what Bush did wrong?-Josh

Leelanau County still labors to provide hurricane relief. Amazingly, when a trailer goes out full of food and supplies, that food is in people's mouths within 36 hours. They have stopped asking for clothing because food is the number one need. People, still, are hungry, waiting for what we send. You can find up to date information on the Leelanau/Grand Traverse County Hurricane Relief Effort website.