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.