How the Trumpet is Helping Me Survive Winter

Feb 25, 2013

One evening a couple weeks ago, I was driving home and listening to the classical radio station. Amidst the chatter of my boys, my attention was captured by a piece I'd never heard before. The melody was haunting and melancholy. It was performed on a muted trumpet, which gave it more of a reed-like timbre, almost like an oboe. It sounded somewhat contemporary with a bit of a jazz edge.

"This is beautiful," I told the boys, and for just a moment, they stopped to listen, too.

As the piece drew to a close, I begged the boys not to talk for just one minute more. I knew I'd only have one chance to hear (and try to remember) the name of the piece and the composer or performer. And I knew I absolutely had to remember it so I could listen to it again. And then it came:

"We have just been listening to 'Oblivion' ["Oblivion" least it's in English] by Astor ---------------------. [Astor...isn't their a flower called an aster?] That was Tina ---------------------------- performing. Tina is from Norway, and her name is spelled T-I-N-E. [Unusual spelling. I can remember that. How kind of him to spell it.]

I pulled up to our house, hurried to unbuckle the boys, and then rushed inside, all the time repeating the key facts I knew: Oblivion. Astor. Tine. Oblivion. Astor. Tine.

It was enough. I typed "Oblivion Tine" into the search field, and a video immediately popped up. (Sometimes I love the internet.) 

The trumpet soloist's name is Tine Thing Helseth. (The composer's name is Ástor Piazzolla.) This piece was not originally written for the trumpet. I think it was an orchestral work first for maybe solo cello. Or possibly oboe. The other versions I heard were slower with less jazz.

I spent the rest of the evening listening to any other videos of Tine Thing Helseth I could find.  I hate to sound immediately disloyal to "Oblivion," but when I heard her play "In the Bleak Midwinter," I couldn't help but love it even more. I have always loved that song, and for some reason, probably because I am in the "bleak midwinter" right now, it spoke to my soul. Gorgeous.

And then, what do you think? Of course I checked out her most recent CD from the library.

To think that a month ago, I'd never even heard of Helseth, and now I can't stop talking about her. It makes me excited to see what other discoveries are just around the corner.

Learning All the Time by John Holt

Feb 22, 2013

At my last education group meeting, we discussed which education text we should read next. Since we had just finished A Thomas Jefferson Education, some wanted to read Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, which is also by Oliver DeMille and details the hands-on application of A Thomas Jefferson Education. Some wanted to leave DeMille for a time in favor of Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind. Still others thought we should read something by John Holt, the father of "unschooling."

I, personally, had no opinion. But I guess it's obvious from the title of this post (and the large picture to the left) that we went with John Holt.

Oh boy. Turns out that during the reading of this book, that "no opinion" I just mentioned turned into a mammoth-sized one.

But first, here is a very calm, unbiased, monotonous synopsis of the book: John Holt was an educator. He taught in the public school system for many years, all the time gathering research and evidence for how children learn while at the same time growing more and more dissatisfied with the way children were being forced to take in information in a cut-and-dry, conveyor-belt-type way. Holt left professional teaching and began speaking, mentoring, advising, and writing books on the natural way to educate children. Learning All the Time was published in 1989, four years after his death, and in many ways, it seems like he took thoughts and ideas from all of his other books and connected them together to create this one. In it, he discusses how children, from very young on up, are "natural learners." They are able to gather information and piece it together and explore and discover new ideas with little to no help from adults. Holt says that usually parents and teachers merely get in the way and hinder this natural process of learning.

I think it is only fair to be completely honest from the beginning: I did not like this book. I found much to agree with and implement, and I was enlightened by the parts I disagreed with, but I repeat: I did not like this book. John Holt's style was rude, mocking, bitter, and condescending, and I could not abide it.

When I read A Thomas Jefferson Education, I could appreciate Oliver DeMille's criticisms of the current model for public education. He wrote in a respectful, intelligent way and allowed that, while somewhat improbable, there was hope for change and improvement in the area of public education. John Holt, on the other hand, mercilessly bashed public schools (and teachers), and as I'm writing this, I'm racking my brain, trying to remember if he said one positive thing in that direction. I honestly don't recall any.

So when I say I did not like this book, I'm literally referring to the words on the printed page and the writing style and not to the overall ideas and principles.

For instance, John Holt often used a mocking tone when describing education methods in public schools. The first chapter was about reading and writing, which immediately had me on the defensive. Holt strongly discourages sitting down with your child and teaching them sounds and letter combinations, and you might remember that last year, I taught Aaron how to read down with him and teaching him sounds and letter combinations. But personal offense aside, it was the way he said things that really put me on edge. At one point, he quoted the rule, "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" and then followed that with, "Typical of the cutesy-wootsy way in which schools talk to young children." Later in the same paragraph he said that many  thoughtful and intelligent children might be confused by "this dumb sentence on the wall." I felt like many times, instead of making a well-founded argument, he just fell to mocking statements such as these.

In a similar vein, when he wasn't mocking the school system, he was sensationalizing it. That is the only word I can think of to describe his broad, overarching, and sometimes terrifying and ludicrous statements. For example, at one point he talked about how children often feel threatened in school: they are worried that if they "fail to accomplish [something], [they] stand a good risk of being shamed or even physically beaten" (my emphasis).To me, the only reason to bring up physical beatings is to sensationalize the corruption and wickedness of public education. It seems he was trying to appeal to that mother bear instinct: to think of a child being beaten because he didn't accomplish something immediately sends up a wave of anger and indignation. (I, on the other hand, merely laughed, read the passage aloud to Mike, and read the rest of the book with a wary eye for other similar statements.)

I also felt like he spent a great deal of the book contradicting himself. He was very adamant that children shouldn't be forced to learn and should be allowed to discover the world and draw their own conclusions at their own pace. He suggested having reading material freely available to children so that they could peruse it as they chose. His list of approved reading material included "the large-print edition of the New York Times," "road maps, ticket stubs, copies of letters, political posters, bills, various kinds of official forms, copies of bank statements, copies of instruction manuals from various machines, copies of contracts, warranties," and "classified-ad telephone books." This list strikes me as odd, not only because I can think of far more interesting things to read than bank statements and warranties, but also because on one side, Holt seems to be saying, "Let kids be kids," and on the other side, "Treat them as adults." I think kids do have a natural fascination with grown-up things (which I think, in part, was what Holt was trying to say), but at the same time, I didn't agree with the notion that we should fill their lives with adult problems, material, and situations.

Holt made a lot of definitive statements, and yet, most of his "evidence" was confined to personal anecdotes. For example, in his chapter about music, Holt declared that the idea, "if you don't start early [learning to play an instrument], it's too late" was "a piece of musical folklore." As proof, he cited his own experience with learning to play the cello at the age of 40. I am not disagreeing with his statement that adults have the ability to continue to learn new things (and even develop some real skill and talent); I am just hesitant to base all of my opinion and belief on the experience of one 40-year-old man. In the same chapter, he spent a fair amount of pages discussing the merits of the Suzuki method while at the same time acknowledging that his knowledge of the course was very limited, leading me to wonder why he decided to discuss it in some depth at all. I love it when authors include stories to support their theories or to show how something applies in real life. What I don't like is when the story or the something they've merely heard about forms the basis of their argument and the bulk of their evidence.

And finally, as long as we're counting anecdotal experiences as solid evidence, in my experience, I found many of his statements to be false. For example, going back to the chapter on reading, he said that the problem with teaching children specific sounds associated with letters is that only six or seven of the consonants can be said all by themselves. He claimed that you cannot say the sounds that "b" or "d" or "p" make. But if that is the case, I would like to know what it sounded like when he said the word "club" or "lid" or "mop." I loved the reading method I used to teach Aaron, and one of the things the authors really stressed was making the correct sound for each letter, but they did believe that an actual sound could be made for each one. As far as those tricky b's and d's are concerned, you were supposed to be careful not to attach a vowel to the end of it, like "buh" or "dih," but simply say it as you would at the end of the word. And any time it came at the beginning or in the middle of the word, you said it with the vowel that followed it, as in "baaaaa-d" because if you isolated it, even if you didn't attach an extra sound to it, it still disrupted the flow of the word. It was difficult for me to trust what Holt said when I found that some of his information was false.

All of this said, I did agree with the basic premise of the book, which was that children are amazing, natural learners and come equipped to figure things out by themselves. I agree that children will learn an idea more quickly and thoroughly when they are in control of it. I actually loved some of his suggestions (such as using a child's own misspelled words for a spelling list instead of a list of randomly selected words or teaching a child to count by moving the items from one pile to a new one, saying, "Now we have one, now we have two" instead of just pointing and counting). I think the fact that I agreed with so much of the book made the negative tone of the book that much harder to endure. The book had so much potential but was executed poorly.

Near the end of the book, Holt said something that made me realize why, even when I don't like a book, I love reading anything that makes me think or defend my ideas or make the difficult decision to make some changes. He said, "Many people, in order to protect the integrity of their rather simple mental model, in order to save themselves the pain of having to rethink things they thought they understood, react to any experiences that do not conform with what they think they already know, do not fit neatly into the already existing mental model, rejecting these experiences." I realize that some of my response to this book was probably because, as Holt said, I'm trying to save myself the pain of having to rethink things I though I already understood. But at the same time, I feel like I am trying to keep an open mind by reading books like this, writing about them, and discussing them. As I do this, my ideas evolve and change, and I discover what will be best for my family.

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

Feb 20, 2013

 On the first day of 2013, I posted a list of personal reading goals to be completed within the course of this year. One of those goals was to "finish a series I already started". Among my list of unfinished series was The Chronicles of Narnia. (I had only read the first three.) So many of you expressed indignation and shock and rage (okay, slight exaggeration--only mock rage) at this terrible "oversight" that I decided I couldn't let another year go by without finishing these books.

I think it's ironically funny that I haven't been forced to finish them yet. My entire family loves them--I mean, LOVES them. My dad read all of them out loud (but I guess I had better things to do?). In fact, he actually recorded himself, and my brothers listened to those cassette tapes over and over again. My dad and I actually did read Prince Caspian together, just the two of us, but I was bored for much of it. I started The Magician's Nephew when I was about eleven, couldn't get into it, and abandoned it. When I was first married, I belonged to a book club that was going to read all seven of the books in order of publication, and that is how/where I read the first three, but Mike and I graduated and moved before I could finish.

So maybe too much information? But I just thought you'd like to know that in spite of having not read all The Chronicles of Narnia, we do have an undeniable history together. Wouldn't you agree?

Just so we're clear from the get-go (and so that I can make this introduction longer than the rest of the post), here are the books I've actually read:
  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (in 2007)
  2. Prince Caspian (once as a little girl, and then again in 2007)
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (twice: once in 2007 and again in 2011--I have to admit, I really like that one)
  4. First two chapters (approximately) of The Magician's Nephew
  5. One overheard scene from The Silver Chair (from one of my dad's readalouds)
 To finish this goal, I will be reading The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician's Nephew, and The Last Battle, in that order, which is the order in which they were published.

Whew! And with that more than adequate introduction, I will now launch into my thoughts about The Silver Chair.

When the story begins, Eustace Scrubb (a cousin to the Pevensie children and one of the main characters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and Jill Pole are suffering at the hands of bullies at Experiment House (an unconventional boarding school). Eustace longs for his days in Narnia, and even though Jill has never heard of it, they both wish to be delivered from their current situation. They run with all their strength to escape the bullies and find themselves transported to Aslan's world. After an unfortunate accident, Jill finds herself alone with Aslan the lion. At first, she is horribly frightened and distrustful but then recognizes the good in him and listens to his instructions. He tells her that King Caspian's son, Prince Rillian has been lost for many years, and she and Eustace must find and free him. He gives her four "signs" that will help her in her journey and which she must remember and follow at all costs. Then he blows her to Narnia where she reunites with Eustace. Accompanied by a Marsh-Wiggle named Puddleglum, they set off on their quest.

For those who gently prodded me to finish this series, I have to thank you. I feel it's safe to say that for this book alone, the series is worth reading. It was so good.

First order of business: shout-out to Puddleglum. Seriously, this lanky, pessimistically optimistic, fiercely loyal Marsh-wiggle nabbed a spot on my list of Favorite Characters of All Time as soon as he said, "I shouldn't wonder..." I think it would be fairly easy to create a gloomy, cynical character or one that was bubbly and happy, but to be able to combine those two types into someone who is absolutely convincing is a mark of real talent. Puddlegum has so many good lines, but here is one of my favorite: "The bright side of it is...that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we're safe from being drowned in the river." Oh, and also, the fact that he heroically broke all of them out of the Green Lady's spell? Yeah, that helped secure his place on the Favorite Characters of All Time list, too.

There's no way I could write about this book without mentioning the symbolism at some point. It is laced throughout the entire story--some of it subtle, some of it not-so-subtle. But for me, the imagery was so beautiful and poignant, it will stay with me for probably forever.

My favorite scene, and probably the one that is most well-known, is after Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum have untied Prince Rillian, and the Lady of the Green Kirtle has found them and is trying to put all of them under her enchantment. She speaks in soft, cajoling tones and plays a lilting instrument. At first they defiantly insist that she let them leave and return to Narnia. She laughs at the mention of Narnia and softly croons that Narnia is only a dream, something they made up. They think she must be right; Narnia was just a dream. Then one of them mentions the sun (which, at that moment, they cannot see since they are miles underground). The Green Lady feigns ignorance and asks them to describe the sun. One of the children says it is like the lamp, only much bigger and brighter. Again, the green lady laughs and gently corrects them, "The lamp is the real thing. The sun is but a tale, a children's story."

If you are a Christian, as I am, you will see that this scene has immediate application to faith. There are so many things I believe in that are bigger, brighter, and more wonderful than my current knowledge recognizes. I can hold onto that which I can currently see and experience and say that since I don't know any better, then that's all there is. Or I can pay attention to what I feel and know in my mind and heart to be true and exclaim, like Puddleglum: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones...That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia." When my faith sees moments of doubt, as it frequently does, I continue to push forward in my belief because that is what feels right to me, that is what makes sense, and that is what I fervently hope is true.

A little before this scene, Prince Rillian is tied up, pleading and begging the children and Puddleglum to release him. They don't know he is Prince Rillian, and they are at a loss for what to do. They had already been told that to untie Prince Rillian could prove fatal. They had made a pact with each other that they would not untie him no matter what he said. But then he cried, in the name of Aslan, to be freed. That stops them cold. The fourth and final sign from Aslan was that someone would ask them to do something in his name and that they should do whatever it was. They try to reason their way out of it--surely Aslan could not have meant for them to listen to a lunatic, etc. But Puddleglum insists that they follow the sign.

And then comes this dialogue: "'Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?' said Scrub. 'I don't know about that,' said Puddleglum. 'See Aslan didn't tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he's up, I shouldn't wonder, but that doesn't let us off following the sign.'" I love this. Aslan is a metaphor for Jesus Christ, and this scene perfectly demonstrates that just because we follow what the Savior has asked us to do doesn't necessarily mean that all our problems will come to an immediate and abrupt end. We have to exercise faith that if we do as He commanded, then things will work out exactly as He wants them to and that, even if not immediately, this will be best for us in the end.

Finally, I really loved the scene between Aslan and Jill at the beginning of the book. Jill has found her way to a stream, and she is practically dying of thirst. Aslan is resting by the water. Jill does not know Aslan yet, and she is terrified of this great lion. Aslan tells her to come get a drink, but she is too afraid. She asks him to promise that he will not eat her if she comes closer. He says he will not make any such promise. Finally, she decides to risk it, and of course, Aslan does not harm her. As I have thought about my relationship with the Savior, I realize that many of my experiences have been similar to Jill's: I want a promise right then and there, but the Savior expects me to overcome my fears, exercise trust, and partake of the gift He is freely offering but which I must choose for myself.

I thought the ending to this story was very different from the other three books I've read so far. This was the first book where the children leave a problem behind (the bullies) and then return to it when their adventures in Narnia are over. What's more, this is the first book where someone from Narnia crosses over into their world for a short time. And because of the things they learned while in Narnia, they are able to overcome the challenges they left behind. I really liked the way this connected the two worlds and made each one important to the other.

I still have three books left in the series, but I'll be surprised if any of them can top this one for me. It wasn't just an interesting and exciting story but had real application to my life.

Virtual Book Club: Bartholomew and the Oobleck

Feb 18, 2013

Every month, the Virtual Book Club highlights a different children's author. Those who are participating read any number of books by the author and then come up with an activity that corresponds with at least one of the books. I first saw the Virtual Book Club mentioned several months ago on Teach Preschool, and I was instantly intrigued; it took two things I love (picture books and children's activities) and combined them. And by the end of the month, a wealth of ideas had been shared and saved for future reference. I saw so many activities that I would never have thought of myself. Of course, I was itching to participate but found the task a little daunting. I'm really good at copying what other people do--not so good at coming up with my own ideas (as you will soon see). This month, the Virtual Book Club is showcasing the books of the much-beloved Dr. Seuss. And finally, after months of  sitting on the sidelines, I'm excited to not only see all of the great ideas from others but contribute in a small way myself.

Now Dr. Seuss...I know many who love him and many who don't. I tend to be on the "mostly devoted fan" side. I say "mostly" because I don't love The Cat in the Hat, and since that is probably his most famous and popular work, I'd probably have to love it to be labeled an "always devoted fan." Still, there are many, many, many Dr. Seuss books that I do love. In fact,  the more books I read of his, the more I not only like them but can really see the wit and, dare I say, genius behind them.

Earlier this month, I checked out some Dr. Seuss books that we had not read yet (The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and If I Ran the Circus, among others), but it was Bartholomew and the Oobleck that really appealed to us (in spite of its unwieldy length).

Bartholomew Cubbins serves as King Derwin's page boy. (And fyi, we read The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins after we read this one, but apparently, it comes before.) When the story begins, King Derwin is ranting because he's tired of the same old snow, fog, sunshine, and rain falling down from the sky. He wants something different. And so, although Bartholomew warns against it, he calls in his magicians, and they promptly set to work conjuring up "Oobleck." The king has no idea what Oobleck is, but he is terribly excited about it nonetheless. Bartholomew, on the other hand, feels nothing but trepidation and dread, as well he should since the next day, green globs and blobs begin falling from the sky. The consequences are disastrous until Bartholomew tells the king what he must do, and the king follows through.

Of course, as I was reading this story to Aaron and Maxwell, the third thing I thought of (right after, This story doesn't rhyme! and Wow, this is one long book!) was, The boys would loooove to make their own Oobleck. And then, following close behind was my fourth thought, And probably everyone who reads this book thinks the same thing.

But I decided, original or not, that's what we were going to do. After all, Aaron and Max had never made Oobleck before, so it was original to them.

After searching the internet (and confirming my suspicions that a bazillion people had already labeled their gak, slime, or silly putty as Oobleck), I settled on three recipes I wanted to try. I figured it would not only be three times the fun (and mess) but also provide a little science experiment as we compared the different concoctions and decided which one was the most Oobleck-ish.

Oobleck #1: Borax and White Glue (recipe found at Six Sisters' Stuff)

1. Assemble your ingredients:
  • Two 4 oz. bottles of white Elmer's school glue
  • One teaspoon Borax
  • Water
  • Food coloring (I used the paste kind that you can buy in the cake decorating section of most craft or party stores)
2. Pour both bottles of glue into a large bowl. Let them drip for a minute.

3. Fill up both of the now-empty glue bottles with warm water, shake them up, and dump them in the bowl.

4. Add the food coloring. You don't need much. I added several globs with this batch, and it was too much.

5. Mix it up a little. I did very little mixing at this point, and after I added the borax (in the next step), I wished I'd done it a little more. So when I say "mix it up a little more," that's said in hindsight. Not too much, but a little.

6. For the borax, you want to add 1 tsp. of the stuff to half a cup of warm water. Mix it up until it's dissolved. (I had to heat my mixture up a little in the microwave before this happened.) Then slowly add it to the glue mixture.

7.Mix it up--first with a spoon, then with your hands. It's going to be really gooey and globby, and you'll probably think there's no way it's going to turn out and you must have done something wrong along the way. Have faith! This is where I stopped taking pictures because when you're in the throes of disaster, who thinks of grabbing a camera?

One of the things I didn't realize was how much water would not be absorbed into the glue. Finally I just pulled the whole mess out of the bowl and finished kneading it on the table. This is how much water was left in the bowl:

8. Play with it! This Oobleck has a great consistency. It felt just like Gak. It will stretch or break depending on what you do with it. Plus, it isn't sticky and doesn't dry out, so it isn't very messy at all.

Aaron and Max were pleasantly surprised with how it felt (I think they were just as worried as I was when they saw the floating gunk in green liquid). They loved squishing it, molding it, shaping it, etc. After awhile, we decided to get the Little People out, so they could play in the Oobleck, too. This was super fun and made it seem even more like the Oobleck in the story since it covered up the people and their vehicles got stuck in it.

Before moving on to our next Oobleck experiment, I need to say a few things about borax. Borax is toxic, and so this Oobleck should not be given to any children who still put things in their mouths (hence, Bradley did not get a turn). I also warned Aaron and Max not to eat any of it. After they were done playing with it, I had them wash their hands, and I also washed all of their toys. Even though it uses a very small amount of borax, I would still play with it with caution.

Oobleck #2: Liquid Starch and Clear Glue Method
(recipe found at Tot Treasures)

Because I was a little worried about the borax, I decided to try a supposedly less toxic version.

1. Assemble your ingredients:
  • Two 5 oz. bottles of clear Elmer's school glue
  • 10 oz. of liquid starch (I found this at my local grocery store in the detergent aisle by the other starches.)
  • Food coloring
2. Pour both bottles of glue into a large bowl. Let them drip for a minute.

3. Slowly add the liquid starch.

4. Mix--first with a spoon, then with your hands (sound familiar?). With this version, it was very stringy and wouldn't hold together at all (hence, the lack of pictures, once again). This time I was SURE we'd had a failure, but I kept squeezing it and kneading it together. Finally, I just let it rest for a minute, and lo and behold!, it all congealed together and became something worth playing with. (With this one, I didn't have the extra liquid problem like I did with the borax. method. After I had mixed it for a good long while, I pulled it out of the bowl, and there was a little liquid left but not much. I read that it's not a good idea to pour liquid starch down the drain, so I just soaked up the rest with a paper towel.)

5.  Add the food coloring. The boys wanted something besides just green this time, so I divided up the Oobleck into three mounds, and we made green, orange and blue. (I added the food coloring somewhere between when it was still completely loose/watery/separated and firm/solid/flubbery. See picture below.)

5. Play with it. This was definitely different from the borax Oobleck. It wasn't as firm, it felt more wet, and after playing with it for awhile, you had to squish it back into a mound and let it sit for a minute before it was playable again.

One of the things you could do with this one that you couldn't do with the borax Oobleck was stretch it really, really thin, almost like a latex glove. 

Bradley did get to feel this one (closely supervised), and he absolutely loved it. He couldn't stop touching it and exclaiming over it. And of course, the Little People had to make an appearance with this stuff as well.

(My one complaint is that this one really seemed to dry out my hands. I definitely had my hands in it the most and the longest, so maybe that's why.)

Oobleck #3: Cornstarch and Water (recipe found at Science Bob's Blog)

When I was looking up Oobleck recipes, cornstarch and water seemed to be the official/unofficial Oobleck.

1. Assemble your ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup water
I let the boys play with just the cornstarch first because even when it is dry, it feels kind of silky.

2. Add the water slo-o-o-o-wly, mixing as you go. If it seems too dry, add more water. If it won't hold it's shape when picked up, add more cornstarch. If you've played with this stuff before, you know what it's supposed to be like: you should be able to roll it into a ball, but then if you stop rolling, it should immediately start melting back into a liquid. It's really crazy.

 3. Play with it. I'm not going to lie, this one was MESSY. It cleans up really easily, but I still didn't have any desire to pull out the Little People. 

Aaron and Maxwell thought it was fun, but Max had a little bit of trouble getting it to firm up under his fingers.


After playing with all three kinds of Ooblecks, here are some take away thoughts:
  • Aaron said he liked the first one best (the borax and glue version), but he and Max seemed to enjoy playing with all three of them.
  • I thought the second version (liquid starch and glue) seemed the most similar to what I pictured Oobleck being like in the book.
  • I actually thought the third version (cornstarch and water) was the least like Oobleck even if the internet says otherwise.
  • The first two Ooblecks can be saved in ziplock bags and played with again.
  • The third Oobleck, obviously, cannot be saved, or even if you found a way, why would you want to?
Now, go grab the book, along with a couple bottles of glue, and have some fun of your own!

I also shared this post at The Children's Bookshelf.

How We Spent Our Valentine's Day

Feb 15, 2013

One of Gretchen Rubin's goals in Happier at Home was to make even the little holidays special (or something like that--she probably had a much more clever way of saying it). The resolution was prompted by a morning visit to a friend's house,where she found the remnants of a holiday breakfast. She was so taken with the idea that she decided to implement it at her own house. And I was so taken with her idea that I decided to do it myself for Valentine's Day.

Of course, there is nothing unique about the idea of having a holiday breakfast. (I'm pretty sure that's what all the heart-shaped pancakes I saw pinned all over Pinterest were for.) But somehow, Gretchen's idea seemed so much simpler, probably because it was less about getting up at 4:00 in the morning to make pink cinnamon rolls and more about going to the dollar store to pick up a package of heart-shaped paper plates. All of a sudden I realized that it didn't matter if I served my kids cereal and toast for a holiday breakfast as long as it was packaged and presented in a special way. Even though I should have been able to figure this out on my own, I still felt so liberated. My kids are early risers (6:00, on the dot), and they are always starving when they wake up, so the thought of having to get up before them to make something extra special was exhausting to think about.  But just setting a special table could easily be done the night before. (I'm a little baffled that it has taken me two paragraphs to explain how to purchase cups and plates from the dollar store, but there it is.

In the end, I actually did make one of those recipes floating around Pinterest (Churro Waffles--they looked so good!), but I just mixed the batter up the night before, so all I had to do the next morning was mix the wet and dry ingredients and pour it into the waffle iron. And my boys were so excited with what was on the table, they definitely didn't mind waiting five minutes.

I snapped this picture before I went to bed the night before, and now, looking at it this afternoon, I'm realizing a red tablecloth would have made the whole thing look so much better. Oh well, the boys loved it anyway (they thought breakfast by candlelight was pretty awesome), and Mike actually gave me a big bouquet of flowers that he put between the candlesticks, so it looked better than what's pictured. (And why am I showing pictures and then sending up all these disclaimers and such? We loved it, it was simple, so it was everything I wanted.)

Anyway, you can see the boys got candy and books. Aaron got The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone. (We love all the fairy tales retold by Galdone, but the boys especially love this one because of the mean, nasty troll.) Max got The Wide-Mouthed Frog by Keith Faulkner. (There are many retellings of this story, but I love the simplicity of this pop- up version.) And Bradley got Peek-a-Moo by Marie Torres Cimarusti. (Which I almost didn't give him because I have such bad memories of a former storytime librarian who did different peek-a-boo books every week, including this one, and always said "Peek-a-boo!" in the same high, squeaky way. Luckily, I swallowed my prejudices because Bradley loves it).

These books offered a great excuse to bring down my stash of thrift store finds, which I was happy to do since I've been banned from buying anymore until there's room in the box again. (I wish you could flip through The Wide-Mouthed Frog; all of the pop-ups are in mint condition, and it only cost me $0.69!)

Mike gave me a little booklet of "Five Poems, in five styles, all about books." I thought, since this is a book blog, it would be appropriate to share a couple of them here.

First, the free verse:

A Book

                                                                    A book
                                                                    Not shaped like a heart 
                                                                                                I start

                                                                    Then look
                                                                    Not just a heart I find
                                                                                            A mind

And also, the limerick (because it's so true and makes me laugh every time):

Enough Books

Surrounded by books to be read:
In baskets, on chairs and the bed.
I hope she's not drowned
By the stacks on the ground
Piling up 'til they're over her head.

Earlier in the month, I thought Aaron was just going to want to make all the valentines for his friends himself. He was quite obsessed with cutting out hearts and writing I Love You for a couple of days. He probably made five or six that he mailed to family members, but after that, it was something of a battle to get him to do anything.  I decided it wasn't worth the fight. Instead, I picked up these little hopping frogs, stuck them in a small treat bag and stapled them closed with the words: Knowing you makes me want to LEAP for joy! So easy, and all he had to do was sign his name.

At noon, the boys and I went to a little Valentine's party given by a friend. And that night, Mike and I went to our good friends' house for dinner. We didn't have to fight the Valentine's Day crowds, Kathy made a to-die-for Peanut Butter Cheesecake that looked like it had come straight from The Cheesecake Factory, and we got to celebrate James' 30th birthday. A fun, and even a little bit romantic, day all around.

KidPages: Three Elephant & Piggie Books

Feb 13, 2013

Try as I might, I have not been able to get into Valentine books this year. I've seen lots of cute lists with many books we have not read, but somehow I can't bring myself to put them on hold at the library. I don't know if it's me or if I think the boys won't like them or if they just look too similar to other Valentine books we've read in the past. I shouldn't try to dissect it. It is what it is, and maybe I'll be all excited to read a bunch of red and pink books next year.

But I couldn't let the holiday go by without giving it a bookish nod in some way. And so, in honor of the day of love, and because I've been meaning to write about these books for a long time, here are three of our very favorite books about two of our very favorite friends: Elephant and Piggie.

I've alluded several times to how much we love Elephant and Piggie in this house. It's not a tidbit of information I try to keep hidden. In fact, when I went to my education group meeting last month, the host asked us to bring favorite family read-alouds, and so of course, I brought a couple Elephant & Piggie books to share. Some of the moms had never heard of them, a couple of them had, and one mom in particular acknowledged them in a disdainful way (or maybe I just inaccurately read the disdain because I'm overly sensitive when it comes to books I love). At any rate, no matter how scornfully you look at me, I will not be swayed in my love for Elephant and Piggie.

Before launching into specifics about each book, let me give a brief run-down of the series for any who might be unfamiliar with them. (You're forgiven if you don't have kids, but if you do have kids, then shame on you! Get to your library right away!)

Elephant and Piggie are best friends. Elephant's name is Gerald, and Piggie's name is Piggie. Each book's story is told through a series of word bubbles--a conversational exchange between the two friends (with an occasional appearance from another character). The books explore all kinds of subjects: trying new things, developing talents, sharing, being kind, and being creative. But mostly they are just about two friends who love to do things together.

The illustrations are incredibly simple. Usually it is just Gerald and/or Piggie on a blank white page. But their expressions are as varied as snowflakes in the sky. In fact, much of the story is told by their expressions without any help from the text at all. Because of this, even young children can look at the book and figure out what is going on. There are a host of emotions that are conveyed on their faces and by their actions. I'm amazed with how much I feel every time I read one of these books (and I've noticed both myself and my kids unconsciously mimicking their faces).

1. We are in a Book!, Mo Willems
I had read (and liked) a couple of Elephant & Piggie books before I read this one for the first time. But this was the book that turned me into something of an obsessive fan. Before then, the books were cute and funny, but this one was GENIUS--and hilarious to boot. It made me understand Mo Willems' humor, and consequently, after that, the ones that were only a little bit funny before were really funny when I read them again.

When the story begins, Gerald and Piggie are sitting back to back, just shooting the breeze. All of a sudden, Gerald realizes something. "Piggie!" he says, "I think someone is looking at us." Sure enough, Piggie discovers Gerald is right, and it's not just anyone, but a reader. Suddenly, Piggie thinks of a great idea: since the reader is reading their word bubbles, they can make the reader say anything they want. Piggie tries it out with the word, "Banana," and of course, the "reader" says it, and it is seriously the funniest word ever. No one, I mean no one, can read that section of the book without cracking up. But then, the fun and games come to an abrupt halt when Piggie inadvertently mentions that the book will end. Gerald launches into a full-blown panic attack until Piggie comes up with a great idea.

I brought this book to Colorado with me over Christmas, and it was read by virtually every member of my family (and remember, I have a BIG family). Pretty soon, they were selling the book to each other. After my (26-year-old) brother read it, he forced his wife to read it, too. And I don't think I've ever heard my dad laugh so much at a picture book. He was chuckling at every page. Aaron and Max were only too happy to oblige and listen to it over and over again. Somehow, Mo Willems has found the perfect combination of short, witty text, simple, detailed illustrations, and timeless humor to make these books equally appealing to both adult and child. It is a rare talent.

There's also a surprise little twist at the beginning (yes, beginning). If you go back to the first page, you'll notice Piggie giving a wink and saying "thank you." I didn't even pay attention to this until I'd read it at least a dozen times. In fact, I think it was Mike who finally pointed it out to me. At the end of the story, Piggie makes a request of the reader, and the wink and the "thank you" are her acknowledgement that the reader followed through. This cyclical spin on the book makes it even more delightful.

2. Should I Share My Icecream?, Mo Willems
I actually heard this book for the first time while sitting in on a little nursery lesson at church. The kids were captivated, but so were all the adults (including me!). It was actually kind of amusing to hear the other adults laughing and gasping and awww-ing. There you go again, Mo Willems, making adults AND kids love your books. What an underhanded marketing ploy.

The story opens with Gerald buying a delicious ice cream cone for himself on a hot summer day. He is just about ready to take a bite when he has a sudden thought: "Piggie loves ice cream, too. Piggie is my best friend. Should I share my ice cream with her?" The rest of the book is Gerald's inner turmoil as he debates the pros and cons of sharing his ice cream. He agonizes for so long he doesn't even notice his ice cream is melting until it is too late. The whole thing is gone without him or Piggie even taking a lick. And then! Something wonderful happens...

If you have children in the 0-3 range, I don't need to tell you that there are a lot of books about sharing out there. You'd think this was a difficult concept for two-year-olds to grasp or something. And while I have nothing against teaching this important life skill, I will say that I find a lot of these books . . . mushy . . . preachy . . .  even boring sometimes. But this book, THIS book, is not like any of THOSE books. I mean it. And it teaches the heart of sharing better than any other book I know. It is funny, a little heartbreaking, but ultimately shows that the best reason to share is because it will help your friend feel happy--and then you'll feel happy, too.

3. Let's Go For a Drive!, Mo Willems
This is the latest Elephant & Piggie book. It came out in October, I believe, and nabbed a Geisel Honor last month.

In this installment, Gerald has a great idea: He and Piggie should go for a drive. Of course, Piggie is game. They are both so excited until Gerald emphatically tells Piggie that they must have a plan! They need a map! Fortunately, Piggie has a map. Gerald continues to think of things they might need, and Piggie generously supplies every request until . . . Gerald asks for the biggest and most important need of all.

So yes, there is a surprise twist to the ending; two surprise twists, actually. The first, when all their hopes and dreams are dashed; and then second, when they make do with what they have. Surprise endings are one of the things Mo Willems does best. And the surprises are always so funny.

I think this book really showcases the differences in Gerald's and Piggie's personalities: Gerald is a worrier. He has a lot of anxiety. He is very much a Type A type of elephant. Piggie is the opposite: carefree, go-with-the-flow, look-on-the-bright-side. The really amazing thing is that these personalities are conveyed with only a few words and a few simple drawings.

So if you're like me and wanting to celebrate Valentine's Day without a book that actually says, "Valentine's Day" on the cover, then check out these three books: they'll warm your heart, make you laugh, and show you just how important and special it is to have a friend who always has your back.

Are there any other Elephant & Piggie fans out there? We should be friends. :-)

I shared this post with The Children's Bookshelf.

Aaron's Preschool: Snowmen at Work

Feb 12, 2013

The first time I heard Snowmen at Work, I knew it would be the perfect lead-in to a preschool lesson all about various occupations and careers. So even though it is not a Five in a Row book (which is the curriculum we're using for Aaron's little preschool), when it was my turn to teach last week, I pulled together a group of activities that went together with this fun and educational book.

The book features a vast array of occupations, all demonstrated by snowmen: snow removal crews, dentist, mechanic, grocer, pet store owner, baker, teacher, magician, firefighter, librarian, pizza delivery guy, factory worker, big rig driver, and president of the United States.You can tell this list runs the gamut of possibilities. I chose to focus on five: artist, pet store owner (and veterinarian), baker, grocer, and teacher.

After saying the pledge of allegiance, singing a song about the days of the week, and reading the story, we talked about being an artist. Although artist is not specifically mentioned in the book, it seemed like a fairly natural occupation to talk about since the illustrations in this book are amazing, the result of the artist's talent and hard work.

So to learn more about artists, we all became artists.  A couple months ago, I saw this darling snowman art project, and ever since, I have been wanting to do it with my kids. This was the perfect time.

Ahead of time, I lightly outlined snowmen on blue circles of paper. The idea was that the kids would fill in the outline with little painted dots using a Q-tip as a paint brush.

Of course several of them didn't do that. Creative expression, right? Aaron didn't like the dots, so he used the Q-tip as an actual brush to fill in everything. Another little boy chose to focus on one small area in the middle of the snowman and mix all the colors together. Some of them did try the dot method, but in the end, I was surprised by how different each one turned out.

Next came the career of pet store owner.

I love it when imaginative play can intersect with learning, so I decided to set up a pretend pet store. I can't even tell you how fun this was to put together. I felt like I was seven again.

I made a sign to go on the door. The "closed" part could flip around to say "open," and you'd be surprised with how much the kids loved closing up shop for the day and then reopening it.

I had various animals in cages waiting to be "purchased": puppy, frog, fish, parrot, and a gigantic duck. (Missy, if you are reading this, I hope you appreciate Mr. Duck's preschool debut!)

Before I took them downstairs to the pet store, we had a little lesson about money. We learned what pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters look like and how much each one is worth. Then I gave each of them a few of each coin so they could "buy" themselves a pet.

We talked about what responsibilities a pet store owner might have (cleaning the animals, feeding them, running the cash register--we obviously didn't dive into the business aspect of owning a store). We also talked about why a veterinarian is important and what his/her responsibilities might be. Then the children decided who wanted to be the pet store owner and who wanted to be the veterinarian and who were going to be the customers.

At first, I guided their play just a little bit, but after most of them had had a turn purchasing something, I went upstairs to set out the snack while they continued to trade roles and play. This was probably the highlight of the morning. When Aaron was going to bed that night, he asked me not to take down the pet store. And I said, "Don't worry. I'll keep it up until you get tired of it" to which he responded, "I don't think that will ever happen."

Then I called them up for a snack where we learned about being a baker.

We didn't actually bake anything, but I had them assemble these snowmen from bread, cheese, pretzels, raisins, carrots, strips of lunch meat, and cottage cheese. I found the idea for this at Kitchen Fun With My Three Sons.

We talked about how part of being a baker (or cook) (or chef) is doing fun and imaginative things with food.

Again, I was delighted (and amused) to see the kids' personalities come through. This one was done by one of the little girls, and it matched the original pretty closely:

And this one was done by a little boy:

I'm pretty sure he was not trying to create a snowman. Maybe a fortress with guns?

At any rate, after their creations were made, they loved devouring them.

Next, we talked about the occupation of grocer.

I wanted to teach the kids a little bit about heavy and light objects. A grocery store is full of all different kinds of food, each with its own weight. Sometimes customers will weigh their produce; any packaged items are labeled with their weight; and when you check out, the cashier weighs the fruits and vegetables. So see? A lot of weighing goes on in the grocery store.

I had Mike construct a little scale for me out of a couple of dowels, string and plastic cups. 

The idea was that you'd put the object that needed weighing in one of the cups and then fill up the other side with pony beads until the two cups were once again even. The beads were our unit of measure, so the pink fish pictured above weighed 8 beads.

I chose six small items to be weighed: a foam fish, a penny, a marble, a monster, a bouncy ball, and a train. Mike used his artistic talent and drew up a chart which I then made copies of. (If you can't already tell, Mike is a good one to have around. He gets roped into many of my planning sessions.)

I handed out a chart to each child, and we looked at the first item. The kids all made a guess as to how much that item weighed. Then we started dropping in the pony beads and counting. 

Then they wrote in the actual number and compared their guess with the correct answer.

This was a fun activity, but if I did it again, I'd probably do it differently. First of all, I didn't realize it at the time, but it was kind of an advanced concept, especially for the children in the group who haven't turned four. So I would have given them fewer items to weigh, and I also would have made sure that whatever I used to balance the item didn't exceed twenty. For example, you can see that the bouncy ball actually weighed 72 pony beads. That was just too high of a number for the kids to really think of by themselves. When we got up to weighing the train, I did switch over to using pennies, but I think I should have done that sooner.

The last occupation we focused on was that of a teacher. We talked about how when you're in school, you get to learn,among other things, how to read and write. 

At the beginning of the morning when I was reading the story to the children, one of the girls noticed that the text in the story rhymed. So before I introduced this activity, I reminded them about the rhyming words they heard in the story and told them that knowing how to rhyme helps us learn how to read.

Before getting into the game, I went around the room and said, "Who's name rhymes with Lemmy?" And the kids shouted, "Emmy!" I did this with each child, most of the time using completely made up words to rhyme with their names, and I think it really helped them hear what it sounds like when a word rhymes.

For the game, I laminated simple words: hat, mat, cat, etc. (I was more than a little excited to use my brand new laminator that I got for Christmas. It was so awesome to be able to do this at 10:00 at night and not have to make a special trip to the copy shop).

Anyway, since most of the children can't read, I also laminated a corresponding picture to go with each word. Then I (I mean, Mike, who was helping me) glued both the word and the picture to a craft stick.

I took four jars and attached one of the words from each word family to the front of each jar.

To play, I handed each child one stick. Then they came up one at the time, and I would say something like, "Your word is 'ran.'" Some of them would know right away where their word went. Others needed a little clue, so I would say, "Do you think 'ran' sounds more like 'tan'  or 'took'?" After they'd all had a chance to place their sticks, I passed out a new one to each person and we played again. I got the idea for this game at No Time For Flashcards (one of my very favorite preschool websites).

This was such a fun lesson to put together. I love finding and thinking of ways to make learning fun.

P.S. And a special shout-out to my sister-in-law, Kirsten, who came to my house for the morning and helped with crowd control and also watched Bradley.

I shared this post at The Children's Bookshelf, the Kid Lit Blog Hop, and the Kid's Co-op. 

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

Feb 9, 2013

December was a hard month for me to stay caught up with book reviews (okay, it was a hard month for me to stay caught up with anything), and so I consequently got very behind. But when January came, I vowed to myself that I would just stay current with the books I was then reading, and I would catch up with the ones that I missed as I had time. So that is why, two months later, I'm finally writing about Dinner: A Love Story.

Fifteen years ago (that would be in 1998), Jenny Rosenstrach  began keeping a daily log of what she and her family ate for dinner. (Think of it as the recently  popular line-a-day journals but with food.) At first she did it, in part, so that the meal would last beyond the thirty minutes it took to consume it. The notebook made it possible for her to have a permanent, tangible reminder of what they ate and the memories that went with it. But as the years went by, it also became a record and reminder of family trends, special events, and happy memories. The longer she kept it, the more she realized how invaluable it is to carve out time every night for a sit-down family dinner.

I did not read this book because I needed convincing that family dinner is a good thing. Growing up, it was a rare night when all ten (yes, ten!) of us weren't gathered around the table, and that time together led to some of the best one-minute talks, funniest jokes, and most interesting conversations you ever did hear. But while I didn't need convincing, my resolve maybe needed a little boost. Right now with three young boys, mealtimes have become more of a time to clean up spills, make convincing arguments for why broccoli is tasty, and wipe messy faces than for holding enlightened conversation (though we do try). And incidentally, even Rosenstrach, with all her evidence, says that family dinner may be more enjoyable if you feed the under 3 crowd before the rest of the family. I won't say I haven't been tempted.

The thing I really loved about this book is that it was a perfectly blend between memoir and cookbook.  I actually read the entire thing straight through, including all the recipes. I felt like the recipes really became a part of the plot, and they needed to be read and, forgive the pun, savored along with the other stories. She would usually group three or four recipes together--recipes that had to do with whatever she was just talking about, be it kid-friendly dinners, easy dishes for entertaining, or lip-smacking barbecue.

The recipes were written in a laid-back, easy going way: add "a handful" of this or "a few glugs" of that. Also, she was so realistic--it's obvious that she's a mom and that she gets what it's like to have screaming/wailing children at 5:30pm. For example, for her pizza sauce recipe, she gives the instructions: "Simmer for 30 minutes, but 20 minutes is fine, too, if the kids are losing it." Yes, she knows what it's like.

Since finishing this book, I have not started a food journal (surprising, I know, since I'm passionate about journaling). I guess I just feel like we eat so simply that it wouldn't provide any interesting glimpses into our lives, unless of course, "boring" is the new "interesting." And yet, I'm sure there have been trends in our eating--like when we ate about a million fresh pineapples when I was trying to induce labor with Aaron or when we made fruit smoothies practically every evening. I'm sure Rosenstrach benefited from her daily log while writing this book because she was able to make such statements as, "...between January 1997 and October 1999, I don't think [Andy] ever passed up a recipe that called for cilantro." The food journal helped her remember the "cilantro stage." Also, have you noticed how sometimes you'll make a recipe almost weekly, and then one day, you'll just forget about it entirely? Tracking dinners would make sure some of your favorite dishes didn't accidentally fall out of use.

Not related to food per se but on a more personal note, when Rosenstrach talked about being the "Wednesday Wife" because she got to stay home on that day and do all of the domestic things she was longing to do, I was struck by the balance every woman has to strike between what she wants/needs and what her family wants/needs. For her, even though a part of her wanted to be with her daughters during the day, she also craved the satisfaction that having a job outside the home brought her. Interestingly enough though, eventually she did decide to work from home (which, among other things, is when she started her website). In many situations, I think it is possible to get what you want; the hard part is deciding what you really want.

For all that I really liked about this book, there was one thing that annoyed me more and more the farther in I got, and it was all her references to how much she loved her daily gin and tonic. As just one example: When they were on vacation, her husband, Andy, liked to plan everything out to the minute, including, " six o'clock I need to be right there on that deck drinking my gin and tonic." And Rosenstrach followed with, "Now there was a deadline I could get excited about!" Now multiply that example times 20, and you'll get what I mean.

And while I'm nit-picking, I guess I'll also mention the photographs. I usually love photographs in books, and I loved most of them in this one, but there were a couple that were extremely awkward (one where's she standing by a grill staring and smiling at nothing and another that was a closeup of her hands while she's chopping vegetables). I'm sure selecting photos for a book like this is a heavily debated process, so I'd like to know the reasons for why some of the awkward ones made the cut. (Or were they only awkward to me?)

And now, the question I'm sure you've all been asking: Have you tried any of the recipes? Although, if you know me very well, then the question you should really be asking is, Has Mike tried any of the recipes? Regardless of which one you asked, the answer is yes, and they've all been successes.

This recipe for black bean burritos is my favorite so far. When I took my first bite, it literally stopped me cold and all I could say was, Wow. I had no idea onions could taste like that.
Black Bean Burritos

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
1 garlic clove, minced
3 green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained
Kernels from 1 ear fresh corn or 1/2 cup frozen
6 8-inch tortillas
2 large handfuls grated cheddar cheese
Handful finely chopped cilantro
Toppings: sour cream, salsa, lime wedges

Quick-pickle your onions: Bring vinegar, sugar, 2 cups of water, and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the onion and simmer, uncovered, about 3 minutes. Drain.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, green onions, cumin, jalapeno pepper, and salt and pepper and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Stir in the beans, mashing them with a fork. Add another 1/3 cup water and cook, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Toss in corn and remove from the heat.

Spread the bean filling across the middle of each tortilla, leaving some space at both ends.

Sprinkle each tortilla with cheese, your now quick-pickled onions, and a little cilantro. Fold the ends of the tortillas over the filling, enclosing filling tightly. Heat more oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 burritos at a time, seam side down, and fry until lightly browned on the underside, about 2 minutes. Turn over and fry until golden, another 2 minutes. Repeat with remaining burritos and serve with desired toppings.

You definitely could get this book and use it just like a cookbook, but I'd highly discourage that. You'd miss out on so much of what makes this book so interesting.

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Feb 6, 2013

I think I've made it pretty clear how much I loved The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. But in case you've somehow missed it, here it is plain and obvious: I love that book. It was one of my favorite books of 2012, I think about some aspect of it almost daily (not kidding), and I feel like it really did empower me to be ME. So it should come as no surprise that I absolutely had to read Happier at Home, a sequel of sorts that came out last September. Of course I did. The alternative (that would be not reading it) wasn't even considered.

And if it was possible, I was even more excited starting this one than when I started The Happiness Project. Partly because I knew what a treat I was in for, but also because her focus with this project was being happier at home, which, since I'm a stay-at-home mom, is where I spend the majority of my day.

Gretchen's first project lasted a full year and went from January through December. This one followed the school year and began in September and ended in May. She followed the same format as the first project, where she selected a theme, or focus, for each month (marriage, parenthood, neighborhood, etc.) and then outlined specific goals ("give gold stars," "underreact to a problem," "be a tourist without leaving home," etc.).

I think one reason I love these books so much is that I feel a certain kinship with Gretchen (which is why I can't seem to refer to her by just her last name). Maybe if we met in real life, we would find we wouldn't have anything in common, but more likely, I suspect we'd have a lot in common, but I'd just be so far her inferior that I wouldn't be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with her. At any rate, this book probably would not resonate so deeply with me except that her goals and interests and fears and weaknesses so closely match mine that reading about them is far more interesting to me than it would be if I were reading about someone who decided to increase their happiness by traveling extensively or getting a makeover or planning elaborate parties.

I'm not going to go through and list all the ways I think Gretchen and I are similar--that would not only be boring but also look extremely pretentious. But I will just mention one because it surprised me and also made me feel not so...weird. In October, Gretchen's focus is "marriage," and one of the ways she decides to improve her marriage is by taking driving lessons (so she can share this responsibility with her husband). Although she knows how to drive (and in the past, drove daily in such big cities as Kansas City and Washington D.C.), ever since moving to New York City, she has let her husband handle all of the driving. Not only is she a little anxious and scared to drive, she just doesn't like it. Oh, how I can relate! I have never liked driving and basically only got my license when I was 18 so I'd have some form of ID before going to college. I got away without driving for several years, but after having Aaron, I knew I had to do something about my fear; Mike couldn't chauffeur me around to every playdate, doctor's appointment, and shopping venture. I forced myself to get in the car, and now, several years later, driving doesn't scare me half to death (although I still don't like underground parking or freeway interchanges), but, like Gretchen, I still don't like it. In the book, she comes to accept that driving will never be something she loves, and I don't think I'll ever love it either, but I've definitely come to a point that I'm okay with it. (Yes, I did just compare New York City driving to Salt Lake City driving, but give me a break.)

As I mentioned in my first review, for all the ways I feel my personality is similar to Gretchen Rubin's, we differ in one (pretty important) way: Where she is not religious really at all, my religion is a very important part of my life and, indeed, how I define myself. In fact, who I am is so completely entwined with my relationship with my Heavenly Father that I don't know who I even would be if I took away that part of my life. So if anything is lacking from this book for me, it is the spiritual side of it (which is why I loved reading about Melanie's happiness project because it's everything Gretchen's project is but with the spiritual dimension added).

I wanted to mention just a few of Gretchen's goals that really impacted me personally:

"Make the positive argument" was one of Gretchen's goals in October when she decided to focus on her marriage. She noticed that so often when she got annoyed with her husband, it triggered other annoyances. I've noticed this in my own life as well. Sometimes I think, "Mike forgot to take out the trash," and that leads to, "He also didn't pick up his clothes in the bathroom," and that is invariably followed by, "He left the bed unmade, too, even though he was the last one up." Gretchen says that people can usually take either side of an argument and make a good case for it and that flipping our point of view can do wonders to fix the problem. So for example, if I'm thinking, "Mike is not a helpful person because of this, this, and this," I can just as easily say, "Mike is a helpful person because of that, that, and that." This is something so small and simple, but you wouldn't believe the way it instantly changes the way I feel about someone or something.

In January, Gretchen's focus was time, and one of her goals was to "suffer for fifteen minutes," which basically boiled down to forcing herself to spend fifteen minutes a day on something she had been putting off and didn't want to do. I always feel so much happier when I get rid of those little nagging tasks, but I like the idea of only spending fifteen minutes a day on it because then I'm not worried I'm going to be toiling away for hours on something that's not fun.

I loved her idea in March (focus: family) to "follow a threshold ritual," which means that anytime she comes home, she thinks this thought: "How happy I am, how grateful I am, to be home." I really like the idea of building happiness in your life just by implementing little rituals that force you to remember what you're grateful for. It reminds me of my grandma who told me that anytime I saw beautiful clouds, I should think of her, and to this day, even though she died more than ten years ago, whenever I see beautiful, fluffy white clouds, I can instantly see her face and hear her voice.

I have to say I chuckled about her goal to perform "nonrandom acts of kindness." She said that while random acts of kindness bring happiness to the giver, the emotion they usually arouse in the receiver is one of suspicion. I totally agree! And I also think that even when I don't react suspiciously to a random gift, I'm usually happier when I know who it actually was who was thinking about me.

Some reviews have mentioned that this book was too similar to The Happiness Project. I agree that even though the goals are different, a lot of the information is the same (the references to her commandments, Secrets of Adulthood, and Splendid Truths, as well as some of her research and frustrations with her own shortcomings). However, this repetition didn't bother me a bit. In fact, I was very grateful she did repeat as much as she did. I had been debating rereading The Happiness Project but instead I got to read a new book that still had all of the ideas I loved and wanted to be reminded of plus some new things to hold my attention.

As much as I have loved Gretchen's books, I have to admit, I haven't loved her website. I've looked at it a few times, but honestly, it doesn't feel like it's written by the same person. The ideas are all the same, but I don't feel the same passion or originality underneath. I can't explain it, and the only reason I'm bringing it up here is just in case any of you have looked at her website and decided based on that, that you probably wouldn't like the book. I just don't think you can compare the two.

Even though I have gushed about her work several times, I do realize that her books aren't for everyone, particularly I think they might not be helpful if you've been through an especially tragic trial, like losing a loved one or dealing with a life-threatening illness. I could be wrong, but it seems like in such a case, some of her goals and commentary might just seem a little superficial and naive. I hope I'm not dissuading you from reading it--I just wanted to add that caveat and also say that you won't hurt my feelings if you don't love it because I can totally see how someone might not.

And now, just when you thought I might not ever be quiet, guess what? I'm almost done. Towards the end of the book, Gretchen makes this statement, and I think it captures one of the reasons why I am so inspired by her happiness projects: "I do best what comes naturally. When I pursue a goal that's right for me, my progress comes quickly and easily; when I pursue a goal that's wrong for me, my progress feels blocked. Now I try not to fight that sense of paralysis, but rather see it as a helpful clue to self-knowledge." Lately I've been more willing to embrace the real me and also strive for the me I want to become.
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