Sunday, May 29, 2005

What tweens and grads can do (or not)

Things seen and heard this week, that add up to something:

1. An e-mail Mama Squirrel read, about a disappointing experience attending a high school graduation, mainly because the valedictory speeches were so poor. The writer explained that, besides the usual poor grammar, the speeches contained little of future plans, no thanks to teachers etc., and little besides "we had a good time in high school." The writer (who teaches in a cottage school) compared this to a similar occasion she attended (at the cottage school) where the eighth-grade grads made a better showing (and made much better speeches) than those twelfth-graders.

2. Mr. Fixit's high squirrel reunion this weekend, where he toured his old classrooms and saw displays of current student work. Even to Mr. Fixit's eyes, the English-class projects on display had style--comic book style--but a great lack of content. "They were like what we might have done for grade seven and eight projects," he said with some amazement. "In high school, we were expected to write essays. With lots of words."

3. The Squirrel parents watched a news special this week about "tweens." There was nothing really unexpected in it; it was largely about marketing and about how tweens spend their leisure time (mostly plugged in). The tweens interviewed seemed to have a great deal of the "we know more because we're younger" attitude. As the parents of an offspring of that age, Mama Squirrel and Mr. Fixit know that just being almost 13 does not mean that one has to watch graphic videos and choose one's clothes from tween magazines. Amazingly enough, there are realio trulio persons of that age who know enough not to bother with That Stuff, and the Squirrels are rather proud to be the parents of one such person, who does like to do her nails and fix her hair a different way each day, but who has never yet asked to put anything sharp and shiny through her face, and who actually seems to like being with the rest of her family, most of the time.

Conclusions after all this?

Mama Squirrel thinks we (collectively, that is, Our Culture) show teenagers and tweens a great deal of disrespect. And not in the way they think (making them leave their backpacks at the front of the dollar store, and telling them how they should behave). The disrespect is in giving them less to be responsible for than they deserve; giving them less to think about than they could actually deal with; and keeping them brainwashed and treating them as some kind of moronic consumers. Unfortunately, after being given so little for so long, that seems to be what most of them turn into.

There is a 19-year-old young woman in the Squirrels' city who has recently had to take on the job of caring for her younger siblings after the death of their father (there is no mother either). She has interrupted her own schooling to do this; she is handling this as a fairly recent arrival to this country and managing here in a language that is not her first one. Mama Squirrel thinks that maybe it is a good thing that this big sister was brought up with the values of another culture (from what she can tell from the news stories), because if all she had to go by was the training of typical North American teens, she might not have done nearly so well as she has. Or done it at all. Something to think about, there.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The mind of Crayons

[2008 update: Looks like Diana is being republished! Details here.] Crayons asked me tonight if I'd read her "Anna and her hippo horse." I was drawing a complete blank until I remembered...a few nights ago we had read Edward Ardizzone's Diana and her Rhinoceros. Yes, that was it! Unfortunately I cannot find even one image online of the cover or artwork of this slightly surreal but much-loved story. Other Ardizzone images are around, but Diana is unavailable. (The last edition seems to have been in 1993.) If you can find a copy, though, it's an instant winner with little girl squirrels just turned four, especially those who (like Diana) have a shed in their backyards that just might do to house a rhino. And those who (like the rhino) like hot buttered toast.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ponytails' Narration of Five Children and It

Hi, this is Ponytails. Have you ever read E. Nesbit before? The Five Children and It one. It's about this Sand Fairy who grants these four children wishes. The first wish was to be as beautiful as the day; but then their housemaid Martha didn't recognize them, so she kicked them out of the house. Then they wished that Martha and all the maids wouldn't notice anything that they did that would get them in trouble. And then they wished for a lot of money, but all the shopkeepers didn't know what the money was. The money was actually spade guineas. And the shopkeepers didn't know the coins. So there was this one man who gave pony rides to people, and they asked him to drop them off at the brook, and he did that. He knew what the money was.

So Cyril, in another store, he bought some ginger beer. He had to use his own allowance, though. And the other kids, because it was so hot, they stuck out their tongues, and everybody said, "why are you doing that?" They tried to buy horses, but the horse guy didn't know if it was real money or not, or he thought probably that they stole the money. Something really gross...the shopkeepers tasted the money to see if it was chocolate! You'd probably get sick from tasting all those things. The horse man called the police, and they were taking them to the police station. And they ran into Martha and the baby (that was the fifth child), but Martha couldn't see the money that they were pulling out of their pockets, because of the wish that they did. She said, "you're on drugs." At dusk all their wishes would disappear, and now it was dusk. So when they got to the police station, the policeman said, "are you on drugs? There is no money on these kids."

The End, bye for now!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Barry Callaghan vs. Frye?

From The Globe and Mail Books section this weekend, a review** of Barry Callaghan's new book Raise You Five (a collection of his essays and reviews), which I have not yet read but would like to if only to get a better handle on this thing called "duende," of which Callaghan (according to the review) has lots but of which Northrop Frye had none.

The review (by Michael Keefer) also contains this paragraph:
Other high points of this collection include Callaghan's deliciously astute deflation of John Updike's pretensions, his affectionate and respectful 1965 interview with Margaret Laurence (published only after her death in 1987), and a finely contextualized analysis of the bilious resentments that underlie Stephen Leacock's sometimes unfunny comic prose. Add to these perceptive reviews of Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies and Donald Creighton, who together with Leacock embody exclusionary tendencies for which Callaghan has little patience; and the luminous account of Yehuda Amichai in Jerusalem with which the book concludes.
Is the phrase "exclusionary tendencies" a code meaning that MacLennan, Davies and Creighton represent the traditional, or dead-white-guys, school of history and literature?

This book's definitely going on Mama Squirrel's want-to-read list, if only to satisfy my curiosity about that and about why Northrop Frye didn't dance the flamenco as well as Barry Callaghan.

**2014 updated link.

Trendoids spend lots to scale back

Saturday’s National Post ran an article by Style At Home editor Yuki Hayashi called “Retro Chic is Child’s Play.” Subtitle: “Old-fashioned housewares, toys and clothing are the hot thing for mom and dad’s stylish newbie [baby].” The gist of it (with apologies because I can’t link to it) is that Bob the Builder wallpaper borders are passe in nurseries; chandeliers and refurbished dressers are in; plastic toys are out, “golden age” 1920's-style toys are in. But only if you have the money to buy them. (Mama Squirrel’s main feeling about this nursery-retro thing is that possibly the decorators haven’t actually lived with children very much; crib blankets made of antique chenille don’t sound like they’d survive more than one good upset stomach.)

Mama Squirrel knows she should be delighted to hear that companies like T.J. Whitney’s Traditional Toys are producing things like hardwood ABC blocks, and that stores like Toronto’s Kolkid are selling them (although as the store owner says in the article, “These aren’t Wal-Mart prices.”). As her friend the Deputy Headmistress at The Common Room has pointed out, there are many advantages to natural materials, simple toys, things carefully chosen and worthy of being passed down to future generations. Things that biodegrade, things that have educational value, things that are fun.

However, like anything else, the cost of this trendiness puts it out of the realm of most of us single-incomers, at least in its upscale incarnation. The Squirrel family does live near an educational/alternative toy store (although not as funky a place as the stores in Toronto). Some of the toys there are very good and affordable, others fall into the grandparents-only category. Handmade hardwood blocks would be nice if we had a couple of hundred extra dollars for them...ironically though, the squirrelings still play with a tubful of pine blocks that Grandpa Squirrel cut in his workshop about thirty years ago. (They make great beds and tables for the squirrelings’...ugh...collection of plastic troll dolls. Definitely not Retro Chic.) We do have some alphabet blocks, too, but they came from the dollar store and were bought because we needed to spell somebody's name on a birthday cake. How about the squirrelings’ much-used tubs of Duplo and Lego? Mama Squirrel knows quite well that those are not made of natural materials and that they would probably hurt the sensibilities of the trendoids (not to mention their feet if they stepped on a lost piece). But they do have a place in the Treehouse (usually all over the floor).

The main ingredient that seems to be missing in all this trendiness, is the creativity and fun of doing and making these things yourself. (Oh back to The Waltons? No, really. Besides, this is where ANYBODY can do this just as well as the Trendoids, even if the toy budget is miniscule.) Two of the squirrel girls have handmade rag dolls that their Grandma Squirrel made them (with dresses to match some of their own). The Apprentice has made model “cub cars” with Mr. Fixit (one of them won a championship race a few years ago). The squirrelings have made Barbie dresses, things for their dollhouse, and put together battery-powered gizmos like a flashing headband. (Mr. Fixit can always make those books of science experiments work.) Ponytails has knitted herself a hairband and is busy right now learning to boondoggle (see her post below).

Our young squirrels are not short on toys. They have classic books and things to use their imaginations with (even if they're plastic). They have homemade things we've improvised (or they have, which is even better). They also have a Dora the Explorer backpack, a beeping plastic cash register, an assortment of Barbies, and the aforementioned plastic trolls. The squirrel philosophy is that it is better to have things that you like, that get used, and that mean something, than to worry about how they fit the decor.

And in Mama Squirrel’s final opinion, it is more fun to crochet a puppet yourself than to buy it in a funky store on Queen Street West.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Hi! It's Ponytails again. On the 17th of May, a man was making a shed for us. He went home at dinnertime. Next day, the man came back with a girl and built the rest of the shed.

I can boondoggle. Can you? I boondoggled a zipper pull. My sister taught me. She made a zipper pull too. It was going to be a bracelet but it was too small.

This is me.

It IS About School...sort of

A Response to Laura D. Bush

There’s an article online that's been reprinted here and there, called “It’s Not About School,” by Laura D. Bush. Since I first read it, a couple of points from the article have been bothering me and, at the risk of seeming rude or maybe out of date (the article is five years old) I would like to address them.

Overall, I think Mrs. Bush does have something important to say: that the “heart of homeschooling is in the home we build for our children.” As someone who started homeschooling with Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake fresh in my mind, I agree very much with that point! And I would like very much to think that any family that reads together, that talks about important things (including how those things fit into God’s world) around the dinner table, and that learns to wonder and find out about what that big bug is or how things work, is going to be a learning family no matter what curriculum is chosen; maybe even no matter what school the children attend. I notice, for instance, that theologian Francis Schaeffer’s children (including Susan) and grandchildren were not exclusively homeschooled, although some Christians insist that homeschooling is the only Scriptural choice parents can make.

However, I have to take exception to her criticism that much talk of “books and lesson plans, classical homeschooling and unit studies....obscures the heart of homeschooling” and becomes just an enjoyable hobby of “playing school.” When Mr. Fixit reads the Wheels section of the paper and posts to a station wagon e-group, I don’t call it “playing car”; he enjoys cars, but he’s also taking care of our transportation needs. I enjoy talking about homeschooling and childrens’ books, but I’m also taking care of my family’s school needs. I am the one trying to read between the lines in product reviews, going to workshops, and joining online math groups. I don’t plan everything we do from scratch, but I am responsible for choosing which plan we will follow, which books we will study, and figuring out our longterm academic goals.

If I didn’t do those things and told my children that because the heart of homeschooling is a loving home, I’m not going to spend any extra time working out what we’ll study next school year, they would (rightly) look at me as if I had two heads. Homeschooling is no more just a hobby for them than it is for me; it is how they spend a good part of their days; it means, to some extent, their futures; and it is important that they understand how seriously I do take that responsibility.

To be fair to Mrs. Bush, I don’t think that her purpose in writing was to discourage anyone from comparing curriculum or enjoying “shop talk.” (Even the Proverbs 31 woman considered a field before she bought it.) However, she does tend to wander into the rather romantic ideal that a supportive, literate household will automatically produce educated children. She states that “no child in a home with books and magazines and the welcoming lap of a reading adult will fail to learn to read”; actually, I know at least one child in exactly such a household who has had great difficulty with reading. “No child in a healthy home will fail to learn all the arithmetic he or she needs to succeed as an adult.” Unschoolers may agree with that idea, but for most children (including mine), regular math work is necessary in addition to all the “teachable moments” and real-life learning we’ve made use of. (Cutting pies into fractions goes only so far.) “Homes full of love for one another, love of learning, interest in and concern for the world will almost surely produce well-educated young people, regardless of the methods or materials we choose to use in our homeschool.” Sewing a dress or cooking a meal using wrong methods and poor materials will result in failure, regardless of the good intentions of the sewer or cook; why should the teaching of children be viewed differently?

It’s true that God’s people can have widely varying needs in education, and some families may find they need to supplement their very full “real life” with only small amounts of “school.” Others will need to spend much more time and energy providing learning opportunities for their children. My concern is that, while we can agree with the “heart of homeschooling” philosophy and don’t put prideful over-emphasis on academic achivement, we risk creating a reverse tendency to sneer at method and structure, as if they are somehow less than spiritual. (I think that reflects the same spiritual tension that causes some people to view savings accounts and insurance as prudent, and others to say they show lack of faith in God’s provision.) The “love of learning” Mrs. Bush describes does not happen, for most of us, without at least some deliberate plan and purpose.

More Frye on Poetry

The best quote I've found this week in Frye's The Bush Garden (my favourite book right now) is from his 1943 essay "Canada and its Poetry," a review of A.J.M. Smith's Book of Canadian Poetry.

"Every Canadian has some feeling of sparseness when he compares, for example, Canada's fifth largest city, which I believe is Hamilton, with the fifth largest across the line, which I believe is Los Angeles. And the same is true of poetry. Every issue of the New Yorker or New Republic, to say nothing of the magazines which really go in for poetry, contains at least one poem which is technically on a level with five-sixths of Mr. Smith's book. With so luxuriant a greenhouse next door, why bother to climb mountains to look for the odd bit of edelweiss? The only answer is, I suppose, that in what Canadian poems have tried to do there is an interest for Canadian readers much deeper than what the achievement in itself justifies."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ponytail's things to say

Hi, this is Ponytails. I know some Charlotte Mason. Beatrix Potter and Charlotte Mason lived in the same place and they were around at the same time. Mama Squirrel and me are reading "The Princess and Curdie" and we only have two chapters left. There's a weird creature in the book called Ballbody. He's shaped like a round ball with eyes, nose, and mouth. And there's a green emerald. It's in Curdie's mom and dad's fireplace. And if it's shiny and sparkly green colour, then Curdie's okay. Because he's on a journey that Curdie's friend Irene the princess' Great-Grandmother sent him there for a mission. He's going . . . South, I think? It's either south or west. Or is it east? I think it's south. And if the emerald's uncoloured, then Curdie's in trouble and danger. And it did happen in the story that he did get in danger and in trouble. And his dad went and looked for Curdie's friend Irene the princess' Great-Grandmother. But she wasn't there. So he started going in the way that Curdie was going. And that's all I know about all that. And Curdie has a special touch and he can feel people's hands with his and see if they're turning into animals. Bye for now.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Intelligent Design and Poetry

Mama Squirrel was very impressed with this post on the Wittingshire blog (also linked from the webring at the bottom of this page). [2012 update: this blog is no longer available.]

The Witts write,

But beautifully wrought things like seagulls and sonnets don't merely bubble up from the cosmic flux; they arise from the effort of an intellect. Does the subconscious play a role for the skilled human poet? Of course. But as the biographies of the great poets attest, there is also discipline behind great art--both the discipline of regular work, of studying and practicing technique, and the discipline of form.

In other words, why should anyone waste time actually learning how poetry works or studying the elements of drawing? Isn't art just EXPRESSING yourself? Even in grade school Mama Squirrel found the command to take the jars of tempera and just PAINT SOMETHING a little oppressive...too much freedom, no form. Equally so the idea that writing one's name down the side of the paper and then adding suitable adjectives for each letter would create some kind of deathless poetry. (S: spry. Q: quick. U: U get the idea.)

"An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetrical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway." [says the anarchist Gregory] "So it is," said Mr. Syme...."Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria [Station], and lo! it is Victoria....You say contemptuously that when has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam." -- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Most Families Today

Yesterday Mama Squirrel and Mr. Fixit went to an open house at a nearby nest. The real estate agent pointed out the small breakfast bar in the kitchen/dining area, and said that he thought it could be made even longer, because, you know, in most families these days that’s where the kids eat, and the table is just for “formal meals.”

Today a financial-advice show came on the radio during lunch time, and again Mama Squirrel heard the phrase, “most families today.” As in, most families today need a second income. Most families today have a mini-van or an SUV. Most families today have a mini-van or an SUV with a backseat filled with fast-food wrappers. Most families today don’t eat dinner together. Mama Squirrel was so annoyed that she clicked off the radio without waiting to find out which “most families today” cliche was up for discussion. She paced around the kitchen with her furry tail bristling indignantly (as the squirrelings calmly ate their hot dogs), muttering, “Most families today! I’m so sick of hearing that! And how come whatever most families are doing, isn’t what we want to do?”

So she decided to open this up to friends of the Treehouse. You are invited to post your favourite examples, overused and otherwise, of “most families today.” Virtual Canadian Smarties to the most interesting.

P.S. Mama Squirrel asked Ponytails to finish the sentence "Most families today..." Ponytails answered "homeschool."


Last week I went to an art gallery opening with my Grandpa. Most of the people were dressed up very fancily. They had evening dresses and suits (but not tuxedos) on. I got to meet the mayor!

The gallery was a large room with stairs going up to a platform, and there were a few small rooms at the back-- kitchen, framing, etc. There were three artists that had work displayed, not counting a couple of glass dishes made by someone that I can't remember.

Dina Shubin does art of very skinny ladies in pretty dresses, sometimes with veils, sometimes alone, at a table, with flowers, instruments. I really liked it.

Peter Panov's work is slightly abstract, with figures overlapping, and oddly shaped faces. You have to look at it twice.

Horst Guilhauman does very real-looking paintings. For some reason one expects paintings to be of pretty things--seeing one of a mechanic does something in your head.

One of the paintings was priced at $25,000 cdn.! All of them were very expensive, and most very large. Very large.

At the end we all went outside and the mayor cut the ribbon along with the lady whose gallery it is. I really enjoyed my visit.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Jemima Puddleduck

Over at The Common Room, The Deputy Headmistress has written a series of three excellent articles talking about how children can be influenced through moral and immoral examples in literature. The DHM was talking, specifically, about books for older children and up, such as Andersen's fairy tales and Jane Austen's novels.

However, Mama Squirrel feels that such influence can begin (as she is sure it does in the Common Room household) at a much earlier age. As a specific example, the youngest squirrelling, Crayons, has recently been asking for Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddleduck. Over and over again. For anyone not familiar with this story, it involves a duck looking for a secret place to lay eggs (where nobody will take them from her). She runs into a friendly fox who offers her a cozy nest in his back shed. Jemima naively goes back to visit him every afternoon, until she is intercepted by a collie dog who blows the whistle on the fox and prevents her becoming that night's dinner.

It occurs to Mama Squirrel that any child raised on that story (and Red Riding Hood would serve a similar purpose) would be in little danger of being lured by a real-world predator later on. A recent sad example of this in the Squirrel family's town involved some runaway teenagers (skinheads) flopping in an abandoned gets complicated, but the story as one of the Squirrels heard it was that one of said teenagers had to be bailed out of jail by her mother, and came home covered with fleas. Is a skinhead boyfriend to be compared to the sandy-whiskered gentleman? Maybe. In any case, Mama Squirrel's point is only that important life lessons can be taught very early on, and as the DHM says, both by good and bad examples. Better to learn from someone else's stupidity (Jemima's eggs get eaten up and she is escorted home in tears) than from your own.