Seven Quick Takes: Vote for My Kid Edition

— 1 —

Behold the Math Ninjas:


My son and his friends just submitted their entry for the Mathcounts Math Video Challenge. It’s a five-minute explanation of a probability problem that somehow blossomed into an adventure story of ninjas (filmed in the freezing rain at Houston’s Japanese Garden), pizza, sneaking past the librarian, and a last-minute double-cross. You can vote for them, if you’d like, once every 24 hours.

The top four video teams will go to the national competition in Orlando this Spring.

I’m working on a post about Mathcounts and homeschooling and all the things I learned this first year (by doing dumb things), but for now – well, I’m the Math Ninja’s Mother, and I approve this message. (We’d appreciate your votes, in other words.)

— 2 —

My older son loves to read history books and recently finished Lee and Grant, which my mom had passed along to him recently. Because I’m a history teacher by trade, I was able to converse with him for at least four minutes about what he’d read before fending off my own college-amnesia-based despair with a suggestion that he check out James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appamatox.”

I provided him with my faded copy of The Thurber Carnival, which my mom gave me when I was about his age. She doesn’t remember even giving me the book, and all I really remember of my first read-through was that I found it completely baffling as to why anyone would think this was worth reading. But later I came back to it and now it’s one of my favorite books.

It’s such a joy when your children are old enough that their jokes start to actually be funny and you can laugh together at things you’ve read or…watched on YouTube, fine. My daughter read parts of it, too, and we were all laughing at the fake pet advice columns and other hits from the compilation.

Then I thought about how maybe it wasn’t a great idea to give my impressionable children a book of stories like The Unicorn in the Garden and how I might be warping their ideas about love and marriage and framing one’s spouse, that kind of thing. Fortunately, a box full of saint biographies arrived this week from my mother, so that was probably a good complement to “resign yourself to the mundane and ridiculous” message I think the kids will take away from reading Thurber.

— 3 —

I was at our local Catholic bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and look who I saw!


 WordPress isn’t cooperating with my desire to rotate this photo, so it has the bonus appearance of the green book hovering angelically over the others, but the imporant thing is that my friends Jennifer Fitz and Jared Dees were both there, hanging out in the Catechist section. Congratulations to each of you! Jennifer has a lovely post up at New Evangelizers on how souls and gardens are both works  in progress.

— 4 —

Somewhere on a blog in the past two weeks, I read about the BBC series “Endeavour” on Netflix, and I highly recommend it. But I’m a sucker for anything involving British people in period clothing frowning about murder. This one ups the ante by also including opera music, so I feel like I’m classing up the joint when I watch it instead of my usual USA Network summer programming and other late-night viewing.

— 5 —

This comic from xkcd showing what time it is everywhere in the world at the moment you view the comic is amazing.

— 6 —

It’s about that time of year when I really feel in NEED of Lent, you know?

— 7 —

The latest thing I think is going to revolutionize my entire life is Anki, a thing that makes flashcards. I’ve almost figured out how to operate it, so surely I’m on the way to Better Homeschool Living Through Programmery. (Weirdly, the children were not as excited about this technology.) I read about it in this interview with recent Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu. The deal with Anki is that you tell it how well you know a particular fact presented to you via said flashcard, and then it shows you the flashcard again based on how well you claim to know the answer. You can read more about it here, including the sobering fact that:

The brain’s “use it or lose it” policy applies to everything we learn. If you spend an afternoon memorizing some science terms, and then don’t think about that material for two weeks, you’ll probably have forgotten most of it. In fact, studies show we forget about 75% of material learnt within a 48 hour period. This can seem pretty depressing when you need to learn a lot of information.

Or when you are pushing 40 and squinting back at your college years.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

So Much For Stickball Why I Changed My Mind About Kids' Sports

You hear a lot of crazy stories about kids’ sports. Parents who are living out their own dreams through their kids, elite leagues for the super-gifted-tee-ballers, grandmas arrested for noise violations at the soccer championships.

It’s not that I really bought into any of that, but I was decidedly ambivalent about my own children’s participation in organized sports. I figured if my kids asked to play sports, I’d let them, but I wasn’t going to force anyone to sign up.

They did martial arts for a few years, and then we moved again and I just wasn’t thrilled with starting up at a new studio again. So I signed them up for a homeschool P.E. class at the YMCA, let them spend time every day riding bikes and climbing trees, and figured they were good as far as physical activity. (I still think that.)

I also had this dream that my children would enjoy a childhood like my own, which consisted of roaming the neighborhood, building forts, playing board games on top of neighbors’ roofs. (Well, maybe not that last part.) But I visualized a suburban utopia in which every afternoon a Sesame-Street-esque rainbow of children would meet up at the field for a pickup game of stickball or Calvinball or what-have-you. Making up their own rules, figuring out what was fair, running around constantly and perhaps an enterprising youth setting up a lemonade wagon. I maybe listened to a little too much “Free to be You and Me” as a child.

One of the primary reasons we homeschool is my feeling that kids’ lives today are far too overscheduled. There’s very little space to read, dig up the back yard, rummage through parents’ art supplies, and other formative experiences I look back on from my own upbringing.

My parents were pretty hands-off. In response to an achievement of some sort, my mom used to say “I’m so proud of you, although I’m not sure what I had to do with it” and she was exactly wrong, because it was the fact that I grew up among my parents’ books and conversations that let me flourish in school and remain eager to learn. I was also eager to win ALL THE THINGS, which is a topic for another post, but mainly, I had my afternoons and weekends free to do whatever crazy thing I dreamed up.

Here is the thing, reader: nobody lives like that anymore. Nobody. Not even in the stickball capital of the country:

“Sure, stickball,’’ he said, one hand rubbing the back of his neck, a sure Letterman-like shot to the blind side about to be delivered. “Yeah, you’d maybe go to, oh . . . 1958, I guess?’’

Ouch. Not only embarrassing, but correct. Like Joltin’ Joe, stickball here has left and gone away.

The City That Never Sleeps, it turns out, is just like the USA everywhere else in that kids rarely play outside anymore. Sure, they play, if it’s an organized league with parents in control of scheduling and transporting and rule making and, of course, paying. We have no shortage of parents forking over big bucks to get their kids in games, in private instruction, on travel teams to chase the next $5 plastic trophy.

But for reasons we all know, few of our kids are either compelled or equipped to dash out the door after school or during the summer to play pickup anything.

If you have a social butterfly for a child, who makes friends in thirty seconds, it’s no big deal. But if you have a child who is anxious about meeting other kids, and a perfectionist about everything, ever, well – that child is not going to scour the neighborhood to put together a kickball game. And even if he did, he wouldn’t find anyone home. (cue MUSIC OF RIDICULOUS HYPERBOLE AND DOOM) Because everyone, everywhere, is at Activities.

We decided we could either do exhaustive research and calendaring to find the other hippie-dippie-free-range people in a 3-mile radius and coordinate play dates and manage expectations, or we could…take a second look at Activities. Maybe, just maybe, we (and by we, I mean me) were being big fat babies about the whole thing and didn’t actually know a thing about kids’ sports.

The 11-year-old was not excited. It was no coincidence that he’d never expressed an interest in trying a sport, because why would you try something if you don’t know if you’re going to be excellent at it?

Good Lord, what a way to look at life. We need to nip that in the BUD. Enter Little League.

Here’s the thing: if you wait until your child is 11, many of the other kids will have been playing since they were 4 or 5. That’s just how it is. And it’s going to be harder for your 11-year-old to jump in and try out for the team, and you will want to cry in sympathy, but he’ll live. And he’ll get better. We are not all-stars by any means, but we had a great time this season.

And so that is how I found myself, a week ago, standing in a torrential downpour at the end of the pool, with one hand on a stopwatch and the other holding down the canopy. Whooping it up when my daughter made it across the pool doing the butterfly without being disqualified, celebrating that my son shaved a couple of seconds off his freestyle time, and generally thinking, “this is all pretty fun, even though it would appear to be insane.”

Good parenting involves helping each of your children to discover his unique gifts and learn to use them well, but I’m starting to think an even more important skill is the willingness to try something you may be terrible at and have a sense of humor about it. It took me a long time to mature to the point that I would attempt something outside my comfort zone and not really give a rat’s rear about how good I would be at it. And I would argue that this ability has actually contributed more to my overall happiness than the various things I’ve always been good at. I’d love to know if that’s been true for you, too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to register both the boys for Fall Ball.

Feeling a little less share-y

I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately that start with “where are you, you seem really busy” and that makes me feel bad, but it’s also true. Like, right now, I feel a little guilty about posting anything, because I have people waiting on me to finish up stuff. And those people might notice I just spent 14 minutes writing this maudlin blog post.

Still, I’m vaguely committed to Jennifer’s Epic Seven Days of Blogging Challenge so I figure I should post something.

I have some pictures from our June beach trip that I really love and I thought about posting them, because of course my children are bursts of freckled joy, but then I think – I dunno. I dunno about all this sharing.

The kids are getting a little older and it feels more like an invasion of their privacy to be telling the Internet about the funny things they’ve said or the things weighing on my heart. I remember I always hated hearing my mom tell stories about me to her friends. She never got the details right, I thought, or painted me in the most flattering light.

I now realize that telling stories about your children is a genetic condition that presents itself in adulthood upon bearing said children, and you are powerless to avoid it. Still, when my daughter gives me a bit of side-eye as I spin another story about her, I think: maybe I shouldn’t be doing that so much.

Or maybe that’s just what moms do, I don’t know. (I’m pretty sure my mom had me sized up pretty accurately, in hindsight, and still does.)

I’ve mostly quit Facebook, as well, for many of the same reasons that Rachel touches on in her recent post. I tried deleting my account entirely, but of course that broke some stuff I’d done for clients (long, boring, technical story and yes, I tried that, and yeah, I need to try that other thing). So now I just check in every couple of weeks, sprinkle a round of “likes,” feel bad about losing touch with people, get irritated by a conversation, and get on my merry way.

Having said ALL of that, I do have things I’ve been pondering and it does seem to help me figure out what I actually think when I blog about them. Very much rethinking our approach to homeschooling and wanting to write more candidly about the challenges involved in this way of educating my children.

I mean, every way of educating a child has advantages and disadvantages. Homeschooling is no different. So that will probably be some of this week’s posting discussion. Thinking a lot about children and competition – athletic, academic, artistic, who-gives-the-loudest-zerberts-ic. And socialization, and – well, more to come. I hope. (Spoiler alert: if you are one of those homeschool proponents with a speech at the ready about how ridiculous it is to worry about socialization and a list of all the ways in which your children are better at socializing because of homeschooling, perhaps you should find a different place to set up your soapbox.)

I also had a vision from on high that I should never again announce I am launching a series or a linkup or a regular weekly feature because I will always. forget. to follow through.

Anyway, thanks for reading, n’stuff. I’m outta here, but hope to be back tomorrow with something more useful to say.


Seven Quick Takes: Wonderful Internet Things

Very excited to link up to Grace’s 7QT this week, and not just because she’s hip to the new trend of showing the LAST post in the linkup FIRST. I didn’t intend to be the absolute last one through the door, but now that it’s Sunday night and I’m just recovering from a post-parish-festival nap, I am counting the minutes left before the linkup ENDS. For ALL ETERNITY.

7 quick takes

By the way, as a precinct chair for Procrastinators International, I have to say that I think the last-post-first setup benefits everyone—everyone—because there’s always something fresh and new at the top of the list for readers to check out. See? It’s not just about enabling the latecomers.

Shoot shoot shoot. 19 minutes left and my computer is acting stubborn. I just spent three minutes waiting for it to finish typing “latecomers.”

Here are seven great things I found on the Internet this week:

1. Hagia Sophia Cat. Apparently, there’s a kitty cat who lives in the Hagia Sophia. I’m not embedding any of the photos because there’s no TIME people! I’m on a deadline! And it looks like most of the photographers who submitted photos reserved their rights. But I really liked this one in particular. Fun times.

2. The new Dappled Things issue is up, because I define “Candlemas” as “más candles have to be burned before I will find time to put up the content for Dappled Things on the website.” Bad joke. (14 minutes! The pressure!) Anyway, it includes a terrific interview with one of my favorite writers, Ron Hansen.

I’m particularly drawn to outlaws and outsiders, to characters who don’t fit into the general milieu or who have chosen lives that seem outrageous or strange. Hence, historical figures like Jesse James and Hitler’s niece, or a group of nuns, a mentally disturbed artist in Mexico, a couple who execute a murder in order to get rid of the nuisance of a husband. Each is “out there” in some way.

Enjoy the whole interview, conducted by my dear friend and Korrektiv Kompatriot Joseph O’ Brien.

3. Another fun tumblr, this one about a barista who creates works of art using only coffee, steamed milk, and various other acoutrements of cofeemaking. Barista Art, featuring the works of Mike Breach, International Barista of the Stars!

4. Also in this issue of Dappled Things, poetry by our own (“our own” meaning “the Internet’s own”) Sally Thomas:

I was never a believer

In resolutions. What's resolve 
	But another word for wish? 
Ask the fisherman's wife

	How far she got on wishes. 
Would I resolve, say, to let
	A third child choose

Itself? What can I 
	Say I wish for? Just now
My two already-wished-for

	Children, resolved into flesh,
Gallop down the hall,
	Speaking in whinnies. 

I wrench the door open 
	And shout, Inside feet! 
What are inside feet? 

	They'd be justified in asking. 
We have the same feet
	Wherever we go. Instead

They say, Okay. They wait
	for the door to close. Gallop
gallop, neigh neigh. Does control

	End at conception? Or
Only our belief in it?


That excerpt is a chunk out of the middle of the poem, which I probably wasn’t supposed to do, but I have NINE MINUTES LEFT and I’m making bad choices. Go read Sally’s whole poem “Cambridge, January 2001” and drink deeply of its imagery. (Yeah! That’s good! Keep typing, keep typing…)

5. Food on the Table appWe are trying to pass for normal around here and meal plan like proper grown-ups. This is week three of our using the Food on the Table website and app, and I am really enjoying it. I wrote our menu on the refrigerator like a real mom and everything. Now, did we stick to the menu? No. But did we end up having cereal after Little League practice yet again? No. Because we had options.


Oh, I know – I’ll show you the mourning dove who has taken up residence on our patio fan.

It’s weird how I generally think birds are disgusting poop-generators but have tremendous affection for this beautiful little mother.

Mourning dove nests above ceiling fan

7. NOOOOOOOO. ONE MINUTE LEFT. And I was just about to hint at an exciting new linkup that lies on the horizon, shrouded in the mists of procrastination, waiting for you and all the other heroes who have ever attempted to actually complete a project they saw on Pinterest…Pinisher

Ah, well…guess I’ll go not hit up Grace on Twitter and insinuate that I would appreciate her re-opening the linkup list for three minutes more, because that would be wrong, and I’m a professional. I have standards.

What Benedict Is Teaching Me Now

Pope Francis has communicated his humility so effectively to the world through the simplest of gestures – calling to cancel a dentist appointment, choosing a guest room over the papal apartment, washing the feet of prisoners. I’m reminded, in an odd way, of Flannery O’Connor:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

For O’Connor, this meant using the grotesque to show the workings of grace despite our twisted humanity. For Francis, it means taking actions that have huge symbolic value for a worldwide audience. And I don’t think he’s doing these things for show —not at all—but I think he understands how they come across to the general public.

Here is how I would react to these events, were I the Pope Emeritus:

  • Google self
  • Google successor
  • Google “pope benedict francis humility” and 20 variations on the theme
  • Search Twitter for successor’s name
  • Email ten trusted friends asking them to subtly remind the public that I, too, did many humble things, like, oh, RESIGN THE PAPACY. Suggest hashtag, memes.
  • Hiss “sorrysorrysorrysorrysorry” at God for my vicious pride, right before checking Facebook one more time and rolling eyes at how successor is heralded by everyone. It’s like they forgot all about me.

And this is why I should never be pope. Among other reasons.

Sometimes I think the main reason I don’t make time to find a spiritual director is that I don’t want anyone to call me out on my BS rationalizations of all behavior, including a malignant concern about other people’s opinions of me.

Image of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict via abcnews.comMeanwhile, Benedict has retreated from the scene, without having left Francis a USB drive of “helpful things that might be useful, you know, to save you some time, just things that worked for me, you can use it if you want to, just whatever, let me know if you have any questions.” He isn’t starting a blog in retirement to muse obliquely about his legacy, or partnering with a foundation to put his stamp upon a favored cause. He’s ushering his successor into the chair that was once his own and declining photo ops in favor of remaining “hidden from the world“.

I’ve been so pained by the various comments contrasting the styles of these two men, suggesting that “finally” we have a leader who loves the poor, who rejects the trappings, etc. And I think it’s not only because I have such a deep affection for Pope Emeritus Benedict and hate to see him misunderstood so grievously. It’s because I truly believe he doesn’t mind these things one bit. If he has regrets about reforms that were not completed, it’s not because he wanted the credit – it’s due to his love of the Church.

It’s rather terrifying to me to consider that the various grand plans I have for success in all areas of life—even, someday, the fitness journey—might never come to be. I’m great at redoubling my efforts when something doesn’t go as planned, but it’s because I generally believe it’s all going to come together eventually and be amazing, whatever “it” may be. Surely that’s the trajectory my life will take.

Having been a not-the-world’s-worst-but-needs-lotsa-improvement teacher, I understand that sometimes you’re just there to plant the seeds that others will care for, but damn if it isn’t difficult to keep walking and trust that it’s all—every bit of it—outside my control.

And so here I am, learning once more from my trusted professor.

Why Church Web Design Matters Visualize a Comic-Sans-Free Vatican website

Yesterday on Facebook, there  were a few friendly conversations bemoaning the design of the Vatican website. It’s a perennial punch line – particularly the Parchment background that dates from the last century. This came up in conversation because someone went to quite a lot of trouble to put together a beautiful album about Pope Emeritus (sob!) Benedict XVI. It’s a 62-page album of photos from his papacy, and each one has a quotation from one of his speeches or writings, with a link to the full text. It is a very moving tribute to his service as our spiritual leader.

You can get to the album easily – just type “” into your browser, and…

Oh, sorry – that link doesn’t work:

Screenshot of Google Chrome

So, make sure you type in, because nobody’s had time to set up the redirect for the plain http:// version, and you’ll see the album here.

It is obvious that someone put a lot of work into assembling the photos and selecting the quotations. There’s potential for this to start some provocative discussions in which people reexamine the media narrative of “Pope Rottweiler the Staunch”. Like this quotation, included in the album:

Benedict XVI album quotewhich links, via that little blue arrow, to Benedict XVI’s Mass of Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome.

The what now? He was Bishop of Rome? When was that? What’s this thing with the Chair?

Many Catholics already know that pope = Bishop of Rome, but most people probably do not. Here’s a perfect opportunity not only to show people what Benedict actually thought about the papacy, but to explain some basic “Catholic-ese.”

Instead, we have this album, which is not immediately clear as to how one turns the pages – I thought you could type a page number into the box at the bottom and didn’t realize there was a way to “flip” pages until it was pointed out to me by Brandon Vogt, Social Media Guru. Okay, so that doesn’t speak well of me as a web designer, but: still.

Benedict XVI album screenshot

I felt vaguely bad for criticizing the album, because – again – obviously someone put a lot of thought into compiling it. But here’s the thing: Now it’s on Mashable. And not because it’s amazing, but because it’s mockable.

“Vatican Celebrates Pope Benedict XVI With Comic Sans Photo Album”

Shared 2,400 times in the last six hours. (The Mashable article, not the Vatican album).

I understand that some would say “this is just another example of how the media twists everything that comes out of the Vatican.” But this is so easily avoidable.

For many people, the Church’s Internet presence is the only public face they will encounter – a face that, as Benedict himself stated, in reference to the scandals –  “has so often been disfigured by man.” Why are we putting up further roadblocks in the way of people who are looking for more information about our faith?

The Church has been a patron of the arts—devoted to the belief that beauty itself points to truth—for centuries. Design is kind of our thing. Yet over and over, when it comes to web design, the Church says “oh, what we’ve been doing has worked fine so far.” These visual cues reinforce the image of Church as outdated and irrelevant.

Making our message accessible means utilizing at least basic principles of web design. For example, this album should use “alt” tags to indicate what links or images are about, so a disabled user who accesses the site via a screen reader can hear what the content is instead of the word “image” or “link.” The design itself should draw the user into the experience, to want to learn more. It should…not look basically the same as it did in 1998.

We need to understand that something like this is just serving it up on a platter for those who are looking for ways to snark on the Church. It’s one thing to say “we will not compromise who we are to suit the ways of the world” and another to say “what we’re doing worked ten years ago, so let’s keep doing it exactly the same.”

Related – Matthew Warner on “What the Church Should Be Known for Online”. Oh, and look who said all of this more charitably: Benedict XVI in his Message for World Communications Day:

The ability to employ the new languages is required, not just to keep up with the times, but precisely in order to enable the infinite richness of the Gospel to find forms of expression capable of reaching the minds and hearts of all. In the digital environment the written word is often accompanied by images and sounds. Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination and the affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love. Besides, we know that Christian tradition has always been rich in signs and symbols: I think for example of the Cross, icons, images of the Virgin Mary, Christmas cribs, stained-glass windows and pictures in our churches. A significant part of mankind’s artistic heritage has been created by artists and musicians who sought to express the truths of the faith.

Also related: I am so excited about the work that the contributors to have been doing. We are up to 50 questions answered so far, with lots more to come. Thanks to all of those who are working to make this a great resource for students, teachers, journalists, and anyone looking for basic information about Catholicism.