Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Continuation of Nach Yomi

I am almost done with Melachim, for which I was using Artscroll Rubin edition. I have been reading a perek a day, in English, and then reading through the commentary to that perek.

There were a few things I liked about that edition:
  • The translations and the commentary are fairy well-written.
  • Side bars contain helpful information, introducing each new king or event, so it is easy to follow the narrative. 
  • The haftorahs are marked on the side.
  • The text is clearly set.

Unfortunately, the Artscroll did not continue with the rest of Nach. There is a translation of pshat (literal text), but no commentary. The only options I encountered were Judaica Press edition and fully translated Rashi on . Having such slim pickings, I decided to get Judaica Press Isaiah and see how it goes.
One of the nice things about Artscroll is their clearly-set text. Judaica Press edition was copyrighted in 1983, and it shows, ad once is forced to squint at the text, especially the Hebrew commentaries. It looks like xeroxes of some older edition of Mikraot gedolot. I am not sure how the translation will be, whether it is literal or poetic, and whether modern or archaic English is used.

Which makes me wonder: is there no market for Nach to be translated and elucidated for detailed study in English? Or is it supposed to remain a closed book unless you are fluent in Biblical Hebrew and are at ease navigating through mounds of commentaries? Or is the baal teshuva market saturated with self-help and insirational books, so there is no place left for in-depth learning?

Much of Melachim is not a fun, inspirational read. This is a nation, split in two, declining, at times at the brink of civil war, in upheaval, and not living up to its potential. There are miracles and horrors, but, at the end, there will be exile. None of the miracles have the lasting effect, and neither do the horrors. People do whatever they see fit, from the kings, to the priests, to the commoners. The end result is exile. A sobering message indeed. Is this not an important lesson?

For now I will stick with Judaica Press and I hope that other publishers wake up and make the rest of the Nach accessible to the less educated. Rambam wrote in Arabic, to make his works available to the masses, so are we holier and more perceptive than Rambam?

Monday, January 28, 2013

test scores

Last night we went to the local dayschool's annual dinner. Really it was a dessert reception, long on alcohol, short on food (these things matter when you are pregnant!) and with a bunch of people milling around most of whom we barely know and who barely know us. Even though we are all for supporting the dayschool, we do not feel as a part of their community.

The principal got up to give a requisite speech. By now, the hour was late, we came on two cars, my husband was on call, and we were contemplating when is the opportune time to leave. So I was not paying that much attention, but what got my ears perked was the assurance that the school is pursuing the highest academic standards by rigorously testing the students and having them score high. Other items were mentioned, but this was the first and foremost. We immediately exchanged looks, and I whispered that I am so glad my kids' progress is not measured by rigorous testing.

My kids' progress is measured by their desire to add to their davening spontaneously, by their excitement in learning  something new, whether it is above or below grade level, by deep discussions that we find ourselves in, by the fact that on sick days they read Greek mythology and world history for fun, by the creative estimates in solving math problems. It is not measured by how well they have been trained to shade the correct bubbles.

When I think about the pressure put on kids to score well, coupled with them establishing their self-worth by the constant appraisal of others, when I think how the personality gets warped to please externally instead of internally, I cringe. When I think how the depth of learning get sacrificed to cover the breadth, because "everyone else is doing it", I wonder whether we teach our kids peer pressure at its worst.

My gut feeling that excessive testing is harmful is confirmed by this article, written by a seasoned highschool teacher, apologizing t his college colleagues for the quality of students who are just taught to hit the rubrics on the test instead of developing deep involvement with the subject matter. Then I think of how many kids are pressured to take AP classes, hand-selected by their parents, to boost their college entrance, which breeds more of this superficial thinking, and despondence at getting a B instead of an A.

No, my kids' progress is measured by what they make of themselves, with the help and guidance from without, as opposed to what others can shape them to be.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

bunk beds

We have a bunk bed for the boys. We had it since they were 2 and 4. Since we got it when they were so young, we were very firm about the oldest sleeping on the top and younger one on the bottom. For a few years that was all nice and good, but over the past year and a half things started to change. The younger one wanted to be on the top, the older one, on the bottom. That was easy to arrange. They would switch occasionally and then switch back. Most recently, things were not so smooth any more.

Both boys wanted to be on the bottom. There were many reasons offered, but the most recent one was that the older one liked thinking down there and the younger one wanted to make tents out of blankets. While this was developing, the younger one was on the top bunk, and the older one was not willing to budge.

A few nights ago I sat with the boys and listened to them compromise and negotiate. It was not going smoothly: 6 yo was offering solutions and 8 yo was shooting them down, while offering his own untenable ones. 6 yo wanted to work out a switching system; 8 yo wanted to grab as much lower bunk time as possible. He was trying to tie in playing Monopoly, which his brother does not like. He was willing to switch for one night and then to revert to status quo. After listening to these negotiations going nowhere, I ordered the younger one to take the bottom bunk. 8 yo protested that he does not want to be on top. I suggested floor in a sleeping bag. He took his sweet time setting up, and then demanded to be tucked in. I said that the tucking in time has passed. He called his brother stupid and earned himself a night in the basement. Our basement is finished, and has beds. It is removed from everyone else, and I figured that's what was called for.

It took him a long time to fall asleep down there. The next morning he expressed regret at his behavior last night. I said that he still needs to work out with his brother a solution to the dilemma. That night, right after I tucked the boys in, he popped out to announce that the solution has been found: they will hold elections! I grew quite sceptical at that.

This morning, the details were fleshed out: they will vote on who gets to sleep where every four days. These four days are modeled on every four years of the presidential election, but he said that he could not wait that long. Each kid cannot vote for himself, so they will vote for each other. They are allowed to hang signs, but no campaigning in each other's bed. Whoever gets the most votes gets to sleep on the bottom.

6 sat down this morning to make his campaign signs. One had a drawing of the bunk bed with him on the bottom bunk, another said : "Vote for 8 yo". Then he wondered aloud whether he can form a super PAC. I wondered how he would do that, and realized that he referred to negative campaigning. I said that we will not do that. Then I spent the whole day thinking about how this will play out.

Now, luckily for me, both my husband and my mother-in-law were here at dinnertime when 8 yo held the elections. The boys voted for each other, 3yo voted for one of the brothers, and we grown-ups split the votes evenly. 8 yo seemed perplexed; he clearly did not envision this outcome. Bottom line, they decided to flip some coins and 6 yo lost. He did crawl into a top bunk, but he was quite upset. 8 yo suggested that just like in presidency, one is limited to two terms on the bottom bunk. 6 yo said that he just wants to have schedule worked out.

I will wait and see what happens in three days. In the meanwhile, this spontaneous exercise in democracy showed that the boys internalized election lessons and could apply them to real life. What I think they did not realize was that this situation calls for a different solution than elections. If I see unfairness taking place, I will interfere, but it would be nice if they reach the solutions acceptable to all parties on their own.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

mothering the mother

If you have spent some time looking into natural childbirth or alternative birthing, this term will sound familiar. In case you haven't, the concept is simple: during labor, the woman is at her most vulnerable state, physically and emotionally. Chazal recognized this years ago, and recorded it in a famous mishna BaMe madlikin, recited on Friday night: for these three the woman perishes in childbirth: for not observing the separation of challah, lighting Shabbos candles and being careful with the laws of Niddah. In the more recent times, in our secular world we see labor as the time when woman is most likely to lose her resolve, submit to her environment, not be able to make rational decisions about her care, and generally feel stuck.

I used to read about how mothers in labor need mothering and cry about it. Having gone through labor three times already, I had a pretty good idea of what it is, but I also knew what was missing: a person with whom you have a connection, someone who will cheer you on, help you express your wishes, will not freak out and will not impose their will on you, but will support you. This is someone who has gone through a childbirth herself, so she knows what those moments when all hope and resolve seep out are like. In short, I was dreaming of having a doula.

I first read about doulas while being pregnant with my second. I actually tried hiring one, but I had a few thing working against me. My husband was in the middle of ob-gyn residency and thought I was off my rocker with my sudden turn towards natural childbirth ( my first was a classical cascade of interventions: broken water, meconium, continuous monitoring, epidural, punctured veins, a "little" episiotomy, topped off epidural which did not let me sit up and nurse). He was vary of this doula proposition and the first doula I interviewed spent the whole time butting head with him instead of talking to me. It also did not help that she was about my age, so she did not feel like the kind of person who would be mothering. The second person I spoke to was my new downstairs neighbor, trained as a doula. The hang-up was that she just newly married and yet childless, and that I went into labor just as  they were leaving for Pesach. So I birthed without a doula.

The third time around, I read more and more about doulas. I met people who did home birth, and their experiences sounded so much more in tune with what I wanted: familiar environment, supportive relatives, no pressure. However, I was quite depressed ( this was less than I year after my father passed away from a prolonged illness), and was in no shape to be proactive about getting the kind of care that I wanted. By that point, my husband had more experience with natural childbirth and doctors who did not interfere with mothers. The hospital was also much more in tune with my wishes, so I decided to rely on my improved circumstances and go at it alone, again.

This time around, when I started reading my natural childbirth psyching-up material and came to the passages about douals, I decided to be proactive. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted a doula. I wish some of my close friends could be there; I am sure that I could get just that kind of support from them. However, since this is not happening, I am simply hiring a friend.

Am I expecting that everything will be honky-dory just because now I have a doula? No, but I feel that I am maximizing my chances. I am also making my wishes to be heard. It is a big deal, especially when it goes against your upbringing: you are not really feeling that, you cannot possibly feel that, and you will be fine whichever way things are. Well, I will play a hand in how things turn out.
Stepping back, I need to apply this a bit more to the rest of my life. With kids at home, it is very easy for everyone else's needs to take precedence: first the kids, then my husband when he comes home, then whoever expects their phone calls answered, and then, somewhere at the bottom of the pile, me. I seem to never get to me, or have any energy left. What if I reshuffle things a bit, putting myself first here and there? A very unmotherly concept, I know. I am not so sure how it will work: babysitters? gym membership? quiet time? but I will be thinking about it, because not putting my needs first will just earn me unhappiness and a breakdown.
So I am looking forward to being mothered, both in childbirth and beyond.

Monday, January 14, 2013

on nail biting

I have a confession: I am a life-long nail biter. I spent my whole life biting my nails. It seems that my parents spent their whole life trying to get me to stop. There were rewards: if your nails are a certain length, you will get nail polish. There were "cures": salt and pepper and pulling hands away. There was shame: how do you imagine it looks from the side? Are you still going to bite your nails when you grow up? (I do). It is embarrassing. The trump card, used by my grandmother, was a recall of some kind of TV satire (which I never saw), where there is an applicant to a culinary school biting his nails, and, apparently, that was very unappealing. At some point, she would just shout that at me: culinary school, and that was supposed to have a magical effect.

None of those things worked. I felt bad, and tried hard, but I still bit my nails. And I still do.

Nowadays most people know that nail biting is a bad habit, but it does not come out of a vacuum. Usually it is done for a few reasons:

  • boredom
  • sensory issue: nails are too long or too short, or catch on things
  • anxiety
  • nervousness
Nail biting is not done to spite anyone, so one cannot be shamed out of it. However, once the underlying issue is addressed, nail biting should decrease.

I try to clip my kids' nails once a week. A few years back I noticed that 6 yo had no nails to clip: he bit them all off. I was a bit taken aback, is he going to grow up like me? Am I going to make this into a power struggle? And am I bound to fail?

I thought about it. I very rarely saw him biting his nails in my presence, and whenever I did, I did not make a big deal about it. I asked him whether he liked his nails short. He is really bothered by hangnails, but he usually gets them on his feet, not his hands, so sensory issue was probably not it. Mulling it over some more, I decided that it might be a form of release for him of some anxiety. My strategy became to not draw any attention to the nails, and, once I sit him down to clip them, just notice whether there is any nails to clip, even if it is just a tiny sliver.

This went on for probably two years. Over this course, I noticed that there are more nails left, but some weeks there was nothing. 

Both boys have been clamoring to clip their own nails. I decided that turning seven is the arbitrary age at which one can manage to do a semi-decent job without major injury. 8 yo has been doing it, however imperfectly. In the past few months, 6 yo started looking forward to this, too. He asked to have a turn with the clippers. He also wanted to know how he can prepare to clip. I told him that handwriting, cutting with scissors and building with tiny legos all help.

Lo and behold, in the past week, his nails were all unbitten. I will celebrate this small success. Is it due to me feigning total disinterest or to his desire to have nails to clip? I do not know, and I do not know whether it will last. What I can celebrate is that he will not be scarred by his nailbitng.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

how safe is too safe?

We got a trampoline. Being responsible parents, we looked into trampolines before getting one, spoke to other parents, looked at our kids and decided that one person should go on at a time. The kids were excited to put it up. But it sits there, mostly unused. When we have company, the kids look onto the backyard and go: ooh, a trampoline! Then we say, one child at a time! Then they go out there, and, just a short while later, nobody is jumping.

We had safety in mind when we decided on that rule. The funny thing is, I remember jumping for quite a bit longer in high school on one of those pre-net, springs poking out, trampolines. The reason I lasted that long is because I was jumping with a friend. We talked and we jumped. We did not worry about being safe, but we had camaraderie. It is boring to jump alone. It is boring to wait your turn. So the safe trampoline sits unused.

We just visited a safety house with a few other homeschoolers. The firefighter talked about different hazards, how to crawl out safely, stop, drop and roll, etc. Most of it made perfect sense. But there were a few things which made me wonder. One of them was to never use candles or to switch to a flameless kind. I light candles every Friday night. I keep them on the mantle. I do not let kids horse around them or to throw things. But to ban candles outright? My daughter is looking forward to the day that she will light her own. The boys take turns lighting the havdalah candle. The highlight of Chanukah is candlelighting. The highlight of our canyon trip was making the fire in the fireplace and building the grilling fire outdoors. Are we removing some joy from our kids' lives by making it so safe?

Another issue brought up was that small kids do not belong in the kitchen.lest the accidents happen. Yes, we do not want any burns or fires, but if the kids are not accustomed to being in the kitchen when they are younger and are eager to help, what will draw them back later? I was not taught how to cook because I was told not to mess with the stove. What happened was that I ended up with dirty dish duty, and I hated it! I still do, and I love my dishwasher, but more than that, I love that my kids unload it now. I would not put a tiny kid to stir a pot on the stove, but, within limits, kids can and should be in the kitchen. My daughter loves to help, and knows to stay far away when I am opening the stove. The boys like to put things in the microwave and toaster oven, with supervision.

When I asked the boys afterwards what was the most exciting part of the safety house, they unanimously said: the fire drill! There was darkness and Hollywood smoke and blaring alarms and they got to crawl on all fours and escape through the window down a swaying ladder all 6 feet up the air and place a call to 911. It was danger, albeit a staged one, that got them excited.

There is a recycling facility behind the farmer's market. We drop off our recycling there into huge dumpsters. The kids like to help: they get to carry crates to the appropriate dumpster, sort plastic, throw in glass bottles.  The cardboard compactor is on the other end of the parking lot. The highlight of the trip? Boys love to ride in the trunk with the cardboard boxes across the lot. The ride's length is a whopping 20 feet, and I am going slowly and everybody is totally safe. But there is this sense of buckling the rules and coolness and excitement. The rest of the time, the kids are paranoid about buckling up and sitting in carseats. But once in a while, for a brief time, it feels good to do something slightly dangerous.

I read how the playgrounds are nowadays so safe, that kids are either bored or invent their own, unsafe uses, like climbing on top of the structures to play. A few years ago, I was told of a girl who jumped from the roof of her garage onto the driveway and broke both of her legs. She was in fifth grade or so. I asked, why did she do it? The other kids said that she must have been dumb. Now I think that she wanted just a bit of adventure in her life.

Leonard Sax talks about manly "rites of passage" that are missing from our kids' and especially boys' lives. Those adrenaline rushes get replaced by TV and video games. Instead of kids experiencing a slightly difficult and dangerous situation, they simulate it.

These rites of passage can be simple: stay home alone while the parent runs an errand, climb a tree, play outside unsupervised, ride a bike down a hill that looks scary, sleep outdoors, feed your family for a day, build something with real hammer and nails, talk to a stranger in shul or a supermarket ( gasp!) while the parent is watching.

And the trampoline? I think we will modify to two kids at a time.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


We're on vacation this week.

My oldest wanted to know whether he can still do projects while on vacation; the answer is YES.

Sunday: a visit to a museum and exhibit on Chengis Khan.

Monday: mommy's day off. I went to Target and got to think in addition to shopping and then painted pottery. I came home to a worksheet on yurt building. We have a dome climber and a piece of tarp, and 8 yo wanted to figure out whether we have enough tarp to cover the dome. This involved circumference and surface area calculations (done with the help of my husband).

Tuesday: lazed around, did not leave house. Organized some shelves. 6 yo made a colt out of corks and toothpicks.

Wednesday: 6 yo had arctic day camp run by another homeschooler. The other two kids accompanied me to Farmer's Market. I came home with dinosaur kale, brussels sprouts and gingerbread kefir, all of which were not on my shopping list, but were put in cart by 8 yo who wants to eat them. During lunch, he was inventing a perpetum mobile involving a windmill connected to a leaf blower. He wants to generate energy. I softly let him down with "you can't win" and "you can't break even". He suggested using lots of oil for lubrication and running it in space to reduce air drag.

2 yo counted apple slices in English and in Hebrew, then hid them behind her back, Count van Count style, and recounted again.

I think I am the only one on vacation.

I think that unschooling will work very well for us.

My husband says that vacation is a chance to do all the things that you normally do not get around to doing. It seems that my kids get around to most about everything on a daily basis, so they do not need a vacation from thinking, activities and projects.

And for the past three days, 8 yo repeatedly told me: "Today is a good day!"