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June 26, 2015

I have been doing some light genealogical research using the online newspaper archives of Long Island, where both my mom’s and dad’s families lived. The newspapers have been a real treasure trove of information – obituaries, news stories about births and deaths and etc.

But it really struck me, searching through the hits for the names I was looking for, how often these people hosted friends or were hosted, for weekend visits, dinners, card parties, cocktails, etc. I mean, on the one hand it struck me as funny that these were reported in the newspaper at all. “Mrs. and Mrs. So & So took their new car to Hoboken for the weekend to visit their daughter.” But, more than that – so much visiting and socializing! It seems like they spent more time building relationships and actual social networks than people today tend to. I think that’s such a loss.

And when I have traveled to the Republic of Georgia, it’s been routine to be entertained in somebody’s home, and if not in their home, in some other casual way and place. And it’s so great. They are among my favorite memories of those trips.

I would, accordingly, love to do more entertaining – it fits in really well with what I think my values are.

But every time I think seriously about having people over, I get completely stuck. Do I have to feed people a meal? We don’t really cook or enjoy food preparation so that’s always somewhat of a dealbreaker. If I ask for people to let me know if they are coming, probably I won’t get any responses (reference, reference, reference). This is a major reason we stopped having an annual party we used to do. Every year, fewer people would bother to let us know if they planned to join or not, which made our already-stressful food-planning even more stressful. Eventually it was not worth the stress. Plus, of course, now that many of our friends have kids who keep certain hours that are sort of at odds with the socializing hours of other friends who do not have small children, it’s hard to imagine a time of day or day of week that even makes any sense to invite people over. Especially if we don’t want to have to feed people, and an uncertain number of people at that.

So I get stuck about the food and the timing issues. And I also get stuck on these:
* We don’t have a “play basement” or play room – there is nowhere at our house to send all the small people to, so that the different age groups can enjoy the company of their peers without clashing with the other group.
* Our house: is it clean enough? It never is. And, being an old house, in certain weather, it smells like old. Will people judge me by my house smell?
* So, we could just suggest a meetup somewhere else, but then, the food? the children? The heat or rain or cold or whatever?

And after all those sticking points, I always, always conclude I can’t figure it out, and we do no entertaining.

Just me?

Paging Erskine Bowles.

June 3, 2015

Me: Hey, I made arrangements for us to go see one of the presidential hopefuls next weekend.  Lilah, what issues are you going to be listening for him to talk about?  What are your concerns this election cycle?

Lilah: Um, things about education.  Because that affects me directly.

Me: Like what?

Lilah: … Playground safety. [She gives a lengthy discourse on why this is important.]

Me:  Okay, good thought.  Dad, what about you, what issues are you concerned about?

Greg: Expenditures on entitlement programs.

Lilah: What are entitlement programs?

Me: Programs where the government gives you money or benefits if you meet certain criteria.  Like, one of them is a program where the government gives money to retired people.

Lilah: How much money!

Me: It depends on how old they are when they retire, and how much money they earned when they were working.  Because, everybody with a job has to pay some of their earnings into this program, and then the government gives it to retired people, since they don’t have jobs anymore.

Lilah: Huh.

Me: Any ideas on why dad might be concerned about this?

Lilah: Well, if, like, there are more old people than young people, I think the government might run out of money.

Me: Huh!

Greg: Where did you hear about that?

Lilah: Nowhere, I just thought of it.  It’s kind of … obvious.  It’s just a math problem.

Camping at Dolliver Memorial State Park

June 2, 2015

Our second trip of the 2015 camping season was to Dolliver Memorial State Park, a short drive from home and yet we’d never been there before (perhaps because Ledges State Park, where we inaugurated the camping season a couple of weeks ago, is an even shorter drive from home and so is an obvious choice when one wants to get one’s State Park on).  But what a great park Dolliver is!  Something for everyone.

The campground is a little tight, but nobody was rowdy or irritating so that was no problem.  The girls didn’t love that the climber at this park is not right in the middle of the campground, which they loved at Ledges and last summer when we camped at Saylorville Lake because we just let them run over to the climber “unsupervised” since it was just across the lawn.  But it was easy enough to take a few climber breaks during the trip so that they didn’t miss that too much.

Saturday morning there was a kids activity with the county naturalist, who brought paper, stamp pads, and rubber molds of different animal tracks.  An excellent start to the day, because thanks to the rainy weather that preceded our camping trip, the trails sported many tracks for us to watch for.  She also encouraged us to check out the enormous glacial erratic at the group-camping site at the south end of the park, which we may not have gone to otherwise.

Glacial erratic. Also pirate ship, deserted island, and king-sized bed.

After the stamping activity we went for our first hike, looking for a Native American petroglyph of a bison.  We maybe came in from the wrong side, because we hiked some really hilly and rocky terrain without finding it, then opted not to take a trail that looked like it dropped off precipitously.  But in the meantime the kids were excited to discover all kinds of interesting fungi.

Mycena leaiana?
We never know what all these things are but I try to figure it out afterwards using my amazing Googling skills. I think this is Mycena leaiana.

Walking back towards the campsite along the road, we flagged down a passing DNR truck and they pointed us towards the very easy way to the bison carving, on the flat terminus of the trail we hadn’t taken.  Bonus, a cute little waterfall.


Bison petroglyph

Later that afternoon we did a different hike that took us past three Native American ceremonial mounds, though I guess two of them require a trained eye to recognize. The third one was pretty obvious, though. Another treat right by the path was that we saw two baby deer, which Lilah and Celia thought was amazing and a total highlight of the whole trip. We saw another baby the next day (plus another with its mama in a cornfield outside the park when we drove into town to have lunch).

Native American ceremonial mound

Celia and baby deer no. 3

Sunday there was time for one more hike, which was marked with interpretive signs about the geology and flora of the park – we learned about “copperas beds” and “goat prairies” which were new concepts for all of us. Plus, more fungus, the fourth baby deer, and a lot of jack-in-the-pulpits just past their prime but still fun to hunt for. And pretty flowers.


Lilah for President

January 14, 2015

Last night my bedtime routine with Lilah started a couple minutes late because I’d answered the phone and agreed to a short survey about my thoughts on the 2016 presidential election. Afterwards:

Me: Sorry. That was somebody calling to get my opinions about the 2016 presidential election.
Lilah: But it just turned 2015!
Me: Yeah, people like to plan early if they are thinking about running for president.
Lilah: I should run for president.
Me: But maybe not in 2016.
Lilah: I could run for president of the book club.
Me: Hey, that’s a good idea. Is there a book club?
Lilah: Yes – me and Annie.
Me: Oh, okay. So, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing book clubs today?
Lilah: Um, what does pressing mean?
Me: It’s like, what’s putting the most pressure on the book club – the most important or urgent thing that needs to be taken care of.
Lilah: Okay. It’s this: not enough people are joining book clubs.
Me: And to what do you attribute this lack of membership?
Lilah: I think it’s all the electronic devices we have today. Boys especially, they like the electronic devices a lot more than reading books.
Me: So what are your plans for addressing this issue?
Lilah: We should find books that look like games and have things that boys like. Like, books about robots or space or cars.
Me: I would vote for you.

(Does president of the book club need a serious face like the United Statesers?)

Speaking of electronic devices, in Lilah’s class last week they earned a class reward, and voted to give themselves a day where they could bring their devices to school and play with them during free time. This was mildly stressful in our household because we are pretty limited on portable electronic devices. I ended up letting Lilah take my Kindle Fire, on which I have a locked down kids portal that manages what apps they can access and makes sure they don’t buy anything. It’s occasionally a little glitchy, though, so I didn’t feel great about giving it to her; I worried if it glitched she would have a meltdown. Also I just didn’t like the pressure this Electronic Device Day was putting on me. Not everybody has electronic devices that can be sent to school with their seven year old! (To be fair to the teacher, the announcement email also said there’d be computer time for students who didn’t bring a device of their own. But Lilah felt very strongly she didn’t want to be the fabled Only One Who didn’t bring in an electronic device.)

At the end of the day when I picked her up from aftercare I asked her how it went, and she said she’d played with it for a while and then the home screen blanked. But it was okay because one of the other kids let her use their device. “I made this with it,” she said, and handed me a little booklet of stapled together pages with a bunch of typed text. “Chantal brought a typewriter.” (Lilah later complained to me that she and Chantal are the only people in the class, perhaps the only people in THE WORLD without their own device like an iPad mini or a Nintendo DS, or at least an old iPhone).

Typewriter! I love it. Bless you, Chantal’s Mom. I will fist bump you about this the next time I see you.

Books for budding engineer-girls

November 17, 2014

In our house, we have a little girl who loves to know how things work – she likes to take things apart, push buttons, twist knobs, and understand what does what. Right now, for instance, she is obsessed with internal combustion engines. We may have checked out every age-appropriate book on engines at our local library … which is a smallish number of books considering she is 3 years old.

I don’t know that she will be interested in engineering as a career, but she might, and of course I would be happy to encourage such a thing. So in addition to her technical reading material, we have also found over time, some good story books with little girl engineering-types at our local library:


Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty. Via

First, who can say no to a children’s book with engineering paper on the cover?  I would like to find this red/pink combination for my own stash.  This story is a nice lesson about sticking with it – not every invention is amazing, and not every amazing invention is a success on its first iteration.  I really appreciate the wise aunt who points out to young Rosie that whether or not you are successful depends strongly on the metrics you use – so think about how you want to define success before you decide if you’re a failure.  A good lesson in engineering and in life.



Violet the Pilot, by Steve Breen. Via

I love that Violet builds and flies her own planes, and that she sacrifices her dream of winning a flying competition when she stops to save a troop of scouts from drowning.  Also, the illustrations are charming.  BUT.  It irked me a great deal that the book begins by pointing out that Violet is weird for not liking dolls, and that she has no friends.  Pointless and discouraging stereotyping: unwelcome!  Parents, your girls (or boys!) can enjoy developing their engineering skills without risking complete social ostracism, and they can like or not like dolls and they are not weird either way.



The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires. Via

There’s something weird about this book, maybe that the protagonist seems kind of grouchy. I don’t know. I didn’t love it, personally. But I can recognize a good message of resilience: don’t give up when a project doesn’t turn out exactly as you expected.



Sally Jean, the Bicycle Queen, by Cari Best. Via

This is a sweet story about a girl who loves her bicycle, but outgrows it. She scavenges parts to build her next bicycle, and then gives her old bike to a younger child. I love the spirit of DIY plus giving to others. Everybody wins!



Astronaut Handbook, by Meghan McCarthy. Via

Not a storybook really, and the astronauts in this cute book have a semi-realistic gender breakdown because there are more boys than girls, but still – a cute girl in a ponytail shows how you can be an astronaut and scientist at the same time. And who wouldn’t want to do that??

To the moon!

June 2, 2014

Lilah recently joined a local 4-H club (the little kids are members of an option called “Clover Kids”). The group she joined has more of a science and technology emphasis, and so our lack of animal husbandry activity is no issue. At the first meeting she went to, they melted down Styrofoam in acetone and put it into molds to make little 4-H coins. It was pretty cool to watch the different types of polystyrene dissolve. It was also a little inspirational to watch a few of the older kids giving presentations, which is how they kick off the meetings. One was a high school student presenting on his experimentation with various camera settings, one was another high school student who wrote a program for his mom that was basically a “today in your family history” calendar app, and the last one was a 9-year-old boy who presented on the history of the periodic table of the elements.

Yesterday’s meeting had a presentation on particle accelerators, and then the kids all made and tested soda bottle rockets. Well, the kids made them. The testing was overseen by the engineer-dad who runs the group with his wife. Some of the kids were keen to pull the pin themselves, to launch the rocket, but Lilah handed her bottle to the dad and ran away as fast as possible.

Lilah ducks while another rocket is being launched

Readying Lilah’s rocket

Launching Lilah’s rocket

For the record, it went over the house and bounced off a car parked on the street. I’m hopeful that the car belonged to one of the other 4-H families.

Good (and bad) books I read this year.

December 30, 2013

Thanks to my Goodreads account, I have a nice record of the 27 books I read in 2013 (not including the one I am reading right now, which may be a five-star on next year’s list). Below is a list of the ones I liked a lot. No amazing books this year (nothing close to last year’s two 5-star reads The Sisters Brothers and Island Beneath the Sea) but some very good ones!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – I was late to the party on this one, but the book indeed lived up to my expectations. Part cautionary tale about medical ethics, part social commentary on race and poverty, both stories are interesting.

The Art of Fielding – I listened to this on audiobook after having read a lot of downers. This story is lighter, but the characters are well developed and interesting.

Waterborne – Perhaps because I am into hydrology and engineering, I bought right in to the setting of this book, and the lure of being a dam-builder and the treachery of the water.

The Age of Miracles – I guess this is young adult fiction, but I would have been very depressed to read this as a young adult, because even though the tone of the book is hopeful, the story itself is totally not.

The Tiger’s Wife – I am sure this was a good book, because I am pretty stingy with my stars. However, clearly this is not the sort of book that sticks with me for a long time, because I only remember it slightly.

The Sandcastle Girls – This book, on the other hand, has really stuck with me. The title makes it sound sort of whimsical, but it absolutely is not. It’s a story witnessing to the Armenian genocide of 1915, which is a tragedy I knew next to nothing about before reading this book.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – The narrator’s voice in this book really grabbed me.

And then there are a bunch of books I felt like I was supposed to have liked, but didn’t:

Straight Man – Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors, and I grew up a stone’s throw from the town upon which the setting of this book is not-very-loosely based, and it’s about life as a faculty member. So, should have been right up my alley. But wasn’t.

Gone Girl – Okay, an inventive storyline. But, not a single likeable person in the book except maybe a female detective that the author kept pointing out was homely.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Didn’t like. But I thought maybe I was missing something, so I read the sequel and disliked it even more.

The Invisible Bridge – Just too long for the content, and characters too flat.


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