Archive for February 2009

Tower of Babel

February 20, 2009

If you follow the Catholic liturgical calendar, there is a three-year cycle of Bible readings for each day of the week.  If you go to Mass everyday or look through the readings at home, you will read through 99% of the Bible every three years.  This morning’s First Reading is Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel.

Every time I read this passage, I can’t help thinking of my former Judaic studies professor, Dr. Ron Veenker.  I don’t remember in which one of his classes we went over this story.  It could have been Old Testament, Judaic Studies, or the two semesters of Hebrew I audited.  I remember him making a very interesting linguistic point, though.

Verse 9 says, “That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world.”  Now, most of us would assume or were taught that Babel is a play on words for babble, or to talk nonsense.  Veenker pointed out that this pun only works in English.  It actually refers to the meaning of the original name of the place where the tower was built, which meant “gate of the gods” (see the footnote in the passage link).  Obviously, God would not like humans being so arrogant as to think they could build a gate to heaven and usurp him.  That is how the Jews interpreted the reasoning behind this story.

That’s just a little tidbit that has always stuck with me, along with a few Hebrew phrases and new view of what the word “feet” means in the Old Testament.  And of course, I believe Veenker.  After all, he is a member of the Society for Sexy Assyriologists on Facebook.

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Jump*Start

February 19, 2009

Back in December I came across a positive review for the Cd game JumpStart Artist, so I asked Santa to bring that for DD#1.  The game was just as good as the review said it was.  It is designed really well and offers multiple skill levels of play for multiple users.  Like many JumpStart games the child is expected to do a series of tasks in order to earn pieces towards a bigger project.  Both my six-year-old and three-year-old spent countless hours making computerized art projects, problem solving, and learning a little art appreciation.

One of the games included a long list of other JumpStart games on the CD jacket, so I decided to see which ones might be available through our local library.  The first one we borrowed was JumpStart First Grade Advanced.  From what I can tell, the games marked “Advanced” include two extra CDs in addition to the basic grade-level game.  DD#1 was disappointed by the Art CD that came with it, but she liked the Music one well enough.  She really loved the basic First Grade game, though.

Technically my oldest would be in Kindergarten this year, but I tend to look for items that are slightly more challenging than whatever level she is currently at.  At first there were certain parts that I thought that she just wouldn’t be able to do, like dividing words up by whether they were nouns, verbs, or adjectives.  We had only barely covered this concept while doing some Mad Libs.  But she became obsessed.  It took her three days with a total of about 15 hours to beat the entire CD.

I know some people will be horrified that I let her spend 5 hours a day playing on the computer.  But when they are so intent on learning, you really hate to make them stop.  By the second day she was telling me what a noun is and, and on the third day I saw her navigating between “less than” and “greater than” symbols, which we haven’t even covered yet.  My husband teased that now I don’t have to teach her anything; just let the computer game do all the work.

DD#1 was so excited that she wanted me to tell the whole world how great JumpStart games are, hence the inspiration for this post.  And at her insistence, I’ve put a hold on JumpStart Explorers, which is about history and geography.  I also requested JumpStart First Grade Math and a Reading Blasters game, which is made by the same company, in hopes that we’ll get one of the three in soon from the inter-libarary loan.  So, if you’re looking for quality educational computer software for your kids, consider this post to be a full-family recommendation for the JumpStart series.

Mal-Nourishing Traditions

February 16, 2009

Lately I’ve been reading Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  This is one of those books that you hear a lot about in homeschooling circles.  Like many of  those books, Nourishing Traditions thumbs its nose at the establishment.  This time it is the FDA and other medical “experts”, who are pretty much in the pocket of the processed food industry.

So here is what I have learned from every food-related book I have ever read:  For optimal physical and dental health and disease prevention you’re supposed to buy only organic meats, vegetables, and dairy.  But it is better to buy organic products from local farmers for better quality, as a stand against big agri-business, and for the betterment of the environment.  You should avoid as much processed food as possible, but especially those with MSG, high fructose corn syrup, nitrates, nitrites, and dyes.  You should also avoid white sugar, brown sugar, white flour, powdered milk, and baking powder.  A high percentage of your diet should include raw foods, and cooked foods should not be over-cooked.  Is that everything?  Oh, wait, did we discuss which types of fats you are and are not supposed to use?

Then you’re supposed to prepare it on wood cutting boards, in stainless steel, cast iron, or stoneware pots, pan, and dishes, with wooden or metal utensils.  You should throw away the microwave.  Your leftovers should only be stored in glass or metal-NO PLASTIC ALLOWED!!  Cleaners should be as natural as possible.

I like having the best information out there, and I agree that the “natural” diet is probably the best one out there.  But I must admit that reading these books is starting to make me a little depressed.  I might as well throw in the towel and accept that my children and I are going to die at a young age of cancer, heart disease, and intestinal viruses from eating affordable but poisonous foods.  Or we are going to starve to death because we can’t afford a whole new kitchen and all organic foods and I would also rather slit my wrists than slave in the kitchen making my own chutney from homemade raw milk whey that none of us would touch with a ten-foot pole in the first place.  And that does not even include all of the ethical and economic considerations tied up into food that play on my Catholic guilt.

I’ve cut 98% of the MSG out of our diet.  We don’t keep sodas in the house, so the kids maybe have one high fructose corn syrup drink a week.  (They aren’t addicted to ketchup the way I am, either.)  We don’t do Kool-Aid very often because of the dyes.  I’ve been mixing the white flour with wheat flour and wheat germ to make my baking flour slightly more healthy.  We switched to natural sea salt.  But I feel like I have hit the wall on healthy eating.

I think about how conditioned my palate has become to the taste of processed foods, I see the pattern being repeated with my own children, and I feel powerless to stop it.  How can I bring myself to cook things that taste awful to us?  Not to mention that I don’t really enjoy cooking to begin with.  It is just slightly above doing laundry on my list of chores.  (At least I can usually have the laundry done in two or three days and have the rest of the week off.)

And I’m starting to think that I may have some sort of eating disorder and maybe I would actually be happier and healthier if I had no clue about the best, natural nutrition.  When I am stressed and busy I don’t eat enough to cover all the calories I burn up.  And now when I do go to grab something I find myself thinking about how many nitrates those corn dogs have, so I just don’t eat anything because nothing else sounds good.

I’m just going to have to accept that I am not a “Whole Foods” kind of person.  Someday I would like to be able to afford organic fruits, vegetables, and meats, but until then, I’ll just need to navigate a course somewhere between all-natural foods and overly-processed ones.  Pray that I don’t go insane in the process.

Number Bond Trees

February 11, 2009

Our math curriculum of choice is Singapore Math.  My oldest daughter is currently a little less than halfway through level 1A.  One way Singapore math shows addition and subtraction relationships is using number bond trees.  This is a concept that my daughter has been struggling with a bit, so I wanted to give her some number bond worksheets for extra practice.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any that were free with no strings attached.  So with a little ingenuity, I whipped up my own on Excel.  Unlike the reading worksheets, it took a little more specialized work, so I can’t just put up the specifications for someone to duplicate at home.  If anyone would like me to send them the templates, just leave me a comment and I’ll try to send it as an attachment via e-mail.

Vocations

February 9, 2009

Why is it that everyone wants to pigeon-hole children into their future profession as soon as they begin to show an interest or aptitude in anything? “Oh, Susie drew a pretty picture. Maybe she’ll be a famous artist someday. Tommy likes fire trucks; maybe he’ll be a firefighter when he grows up.” I even caught myself doing it as my oldest daughter entered toddler hood.

Or people ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By the time she was four, my oldest was so tired of this question that she would answer, “I don’t want to be anything. I just want to live at home with Mommy and Daddy.” Even now, when someone hears of her aptitude in gymnastics they inevitably mention the Olympics. She quickly tells them that she has no interest in competitive gymnastics and she just does it to challenge herself and have fun.

I know that most people say these things as void fillers.  Over the past few years, though, I have trained myself not to make any “maybe you’ll be a …when you grow up” comments. I get annoyed when the thoughts even cross my mind. Not that children shouldn’t be aware that they will be expected to financially support themselves at some point, but they should get a minimum of 18 years to try on different hats and explore different interests before having to settle on just one or two. One of the myriad of reasons we choose to homeschool is that we did not want our children so caught up with the career of school that they had no time to figure out what career might make the rest of their life happy.

The fact of the matter is that most people don’t really choose their jobs or have careers. Most people walk through life unaware of their choices or too paralyzed by fear to make a choice, and as John Lennon observed “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. This was the fate to which I resigned myself when I graduated from college with a degree in Religious Studies. (Whether the purpose of college is for career preparation or personal growth is a debate for another post.) So, I guess that when faced with this stark realization about their own lives people can’t help but have more hope for the children around them.

A few months ago, though, my whole view on this topic took a new twist. I was watching EWTN’s “Life on the Rock”. I can’t remember the name of the guest, but she was a Catholic Christian singer who made a documentary exploring Christian lifestyles: married, single, and religious. She commented that we shouldn’t be asking our children what they want to be when they grow up; we should ask them what God is calling them to be.

I know it sounds completely cheesy and hokey, especially for people who are lukewarm in their religious beliefs, but I think it makes so much sense. I think it really helps someone put the focus outside of his or her own desires  and beyond the opinions and pressures, no matter how well-intentioned, of the people around them. What is God calling you to be? How is He asking you to serve him and others? Is where you think you want to be really where you are supposed to be?

The concept of a vocation, “an occupation for which a person is suited, trained, or qualified” (Wikipedia), was not completely new to me. Growing up Catholic, it was often used to describe one’s calling from God to become a priest or a nun.  This idea of teaching my children to think and pray about their life’s vocation came back to me again once my family started attending Mass regularly. Every week we say a special prayer for vocations at our Church. While the prayer is mostly focused on the hope that more men will realize that they are being called to the priesthood, there’s a part that acknowledges that all of us have a vocation, . I think this prayer really made me and my husband aware that we were living our vocations. He teaches sociology at a community college, and I’m a stay-at-home homeschooling mom.

When my husband and I met ten years ago neither of us had any idea where we were meant to be. Both of us graduated college and we still didn’t know what we wanted to be when we grew up. We both stumbled along like blind-folded people. And we happened to stumble right into our vocations.

So, how do we know that these are truly our vocations? Maybe we are just deluding ourselves into accepting where we just happened to end up. There are a few reasons I believe the former rather than the latter. First of all, even though, his mentors wanted him to get his doctorate and shoot for a more prestigious position at a four-year university, he knew that his passion was for reaching out to students and not doing research and that a community college would be a better fit. I’ve written before how I felt from an early age that I should be a teacher despite the well-meaning people who felt I was wasting my potential and my instinctive concerns with the teacher credentialing process. So we have both overcome a certain amount of adversity to get here. We didn’t just settle for the path of least resistance.

Secondly, I have always had a strong belief in divine providence. Not that I ever believed that God manipulated us like puppets on a string. But before I even graduated high school I noticed that certain options that I thought were behind me kept popping back up, like God was trying to nudge me in the right direction. I know it sounds kind of crazy.  For now, it’s enough to say that everything in our lives seemed to be leading us to our current careers. Looking back we can trace the paths that were opened to us and our own choices about which paths to follow.

Third, my husband is a damned good teacher. He does a really good job of helping his students look at the world, their classmates, and themselves with new insight, understanding, and compassion. And I hope that as a natural extension of parenting, I am able to do the same through homeschooling our children.

The fourth reason fell into place about a month ago at Mass. Our parish received a visit from Father Burke Masters, a vocational director for the Diocese of Joliet. In his homily, Father Burke recounted his journey from an un-churched child of nominally Protestant parents to becoming a Catholic and then a priest, after a short stint in the minor leagues. He talked about presiding over the marriage of his best friend to the girl he had left behind for the seminary and in doing so realizing that when we go down the path God is calling us to follow we find peace and joy. Not that there aren’t bad days from time to time, but overall there is peace and joy. My husband and I both find peace and joy in our respective careers.

Don’t we all want lives of peace and joy for our children, whether we are religious or not? So, just I can’t help thinking that asking children to choose what they “want” to be when they grow up is counter-productive.

In Defense of High Fructose Corn Syrup

February 6, 2009

Has anyone else seen the commercials trying to boost the image of high fructose corn syrup?  A man and woman are picnicking in the park when she hands him a pop sickle which he refuses to take because of the high fructose corn syrup.  “Silly man, ” she says, “One little popsickle isn’t going to hurt you.  High fructose corn syrup in moderation isn’t bad.”  It’s Adam and Even all over again.

It is true that high fructose corn syrup, like most things, are perfectly fine in moderation.  Of course, the chances that popsickle would have been the only HFCS he would have consumed that day are slim.  That stuff is in everything from soda pop to ketchup.  It is comprised of completely empty calories, but it tastes so good.  Some could even argue that it has addictive properties.

The Corn Refiners Association or whoever is making those commercials must really feel threatened.  Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma is really popular, and about a third of the book discusses how most of the North American diet comes from cheap corn in various forms as it is processed into high fructose corn syrup, various preservatives, and fed to most of the animals that we eat.  He also examines the links between corn  and our dependency on fossil fuels to process it and transport it.  Then there are the health issues involved with eating so much processed corn product.  There is also the economic and environmental havoc that was been caused when the government decided to encourage the excess growing of corn.

After reading Pollan’s book, it makes me wonder how much the  “Got Milk?” and “Beef:  It’s what’s for dinner”  lobbies have contributed to the pro-high fructose corn syrup campaign since the livelihood of industrial meat processing and dairy is just as dependent on corn processing.  So consider this a more fleshed out endorsement of the book than I gave on my reading list for January.  Those crappy commercials drove me to it.

January 2009 Reading List

February 2, 2009

I have tried in the past to keep a link to whatever book I was currently reading.  Sometimes, though, I went through books so fast they never made it onto the blog.  Inspired by a few different sources, I decided to keep track of what books I read each month in a post instead.  So here’s the list of books I read in January:

  1. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux:  After coming across the film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical around Christmas, I decided to check out the orginal book.  Doing so made me realize how much better the film captures the true maze-like setting of the opera house more than any stage production could.  I also finally figured out why Madame Giry instructs Raoul to keep his hand at the level of his eye, which has nothing to do with the Phantom’s disfigurement.
  2. The Millennium Falcon by James Luceno:  I read pretty much every Star Wars sequel book (following the events in Return of the Jedi).  This one’s a segue-way novel between the “Legacy of the Force” series and upcoming “Fate of the Jedi” series.
  3. Airhead by Meg Cabot:  I love books by Meg Cabot, who also wrote The Princess Diaries series. Her books are like M&M’s; they have very little nutritional value but are bite-sized, tasty, and addictive.  This is the first of a new series of young adult books that mix fashion with sci-fi.
  4. Nicola and Viscount by Meg Cabot:  A historical young adult novel in the tradition of Jane Austen.  It really reminded me a lot of the Pride & Prejudice sequels by Elizabeth Aston.
  5. Dragonsdawn and The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall by Anne McCaffrey:  I only re-read my favorite parts in between trips to the library, so I’ll only count it as one book.
  6. Children’s Drawings as Measures of Intellectual Maturity by Dale B. Harris:  This is a rather dry scientifically clinical book, and it’s also fairly old.  Not as interesting as I thought it would be.  I basically skimmed about 60 pages before I gave up on it.
  7. The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren:  So good that is got a post of its own.
  8. Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan:  Right up there with Fast Food Nation and Deconstructing the Twinkie for understanding what we are putting in our bodies as well as the scientific, social, economic, environmental, nutritional, and ethical considerations of its manufacture.
  9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows:  I found this delightful work of fiction reminiscent of the movie 84 Charing Cross Road, which I just realized is based on a book.
  10. Multiple Blessings by Jon & Kate Gosselin and Beth Carson:  I already knew a lot of the chronological facts of the book from watching their show Jon & Kate Plus 8.  However, this book delves into how their faith in God has helped them through everything and how God has used everything that has happened to deepen their faith in him.  The book also acts as a sort of apology for people out there who constantly criticize Kate.  There were points that left me a little misty-eyed.