Monthly Archives: October 2021

Mornings can be fun

As frequently happens when I’m looking for a book in this house, I come across several others that catch my attention; either they’re titles I’d forgotten, early childhood readers that this brood has outgrown, or volumes that might appeal to their current reading preferences. Recently I was curating a mini-unit “theme offering” to leave out for the kids consisting of books focusing on the motif of “the unlikely garden” as a stepping-stone segment in our examination of the topic of civilization. The intention of this group of books was to investigate the idea of cultivation, what it really means and entails as a practice, and how it’s an important component of the creation and maintenance of civilization. In the journey from bookshelf to bookshelf, my sights landed upon the spine of a book I vaguely remembered as having belonged to my mother. It’s called Manners Can Be Fun by Munro Leaf, the man most famous for having written The Story of Ferdinand (incidentally, I discovered that Ferdinand, too, was a sacrificial lamb on the pyre of censorship; it had been banned in Spain and burned as pacifist propaganda in Nazi Germany, and any book that was burned in Nazi Germany is pretty much a book I want in my house).

I discovered that Mr. Leaf also wrote a book called How to Behave and Why, which obviously piqued my interest enough to read some reviews on Amazon, the most entertaining of which probably was submitted by someone named Suzan G from the United States, who wrote on March 23, 2017, “I sent it to the President. Will see if there are tweets” and accompanied this succinct bit of her own social commentary with a five-star rating. Anyway, I flipped through Manners Can Be Fun to find approximately what I’d expect from a children’s book from 1958 about manners, but a few pages felt as relevant today as ever. Here they are, in case people in your home could use these reminders as much as my group does:

So if your child was in tears this morning like mine was, crying, “Why do I have the worst family ever?” because you asked him what he’d like for breakfast, remember: it’s because he likes you the most.

Fantasy with a side of social commentary

I finished reading a middle-grade book recently, which was a delightful departure from most of the material I’ve cycled through this past year (unfortunately, that amount wasn’t much). The book was a gift to my kids from my mom, but even though they aren’t interested quite yet, I was, and it turned out to be great fun to travel to the island of Skuldark–and far beyond–with a protagonist named Gertie Milk (she thinks). It’s a story lodged soundly in an otherworldly setting, and I’d forgotten how refreshing it can be to explore a storyscape in a thoroughly imaginary environment. Reading can provide a haven of escape, but when the pages are populated by fantastical creatures and concepts, the added dimension of invention provides another degree of separation between the reader and his or her present reality. Practicing that willing suspension of disbelief can feel almost therapeutic, particularly when the rest of our waking hours are spent in the troubling, uncertain, difficult, unfortunate, and very real climate of the current day. So there I was, romping through space and time in this deliberately fictional world, when I came upon a paragraph bridging page 136 and 137 that rang jarringly applicable to current events.

It’s right after Gertie has come across something that her companion identifies as a “knowledge license”, or, more informally, a “brain card”. When she asks what its purpose was, he answers, “After the Information War, it was decided that you could only share information if it was factual, or based on firsthand experience–this was to stop opinions and feelings being passed off as facts, which caused chaos, especially in the medical field. Anyone posting false or misleading information would lose their brain card and be limited to ‘live speech’ for two years.” I paused to reread that paragraph a few times and consider this idea. What if this were a real-life mandate, as if it could even be enforced? What if anyone who subjected others to subjective material as if it were objective would lose their freedom to communicate or broadcast in any modality or format other than their very own speaking voice for two entire years?

I had to check the book’s publication date then, curious about what was happening in the world when the author was having this idea, thinking that if it had been published within the past year or so that this was surely an oblique nod to the turmoil resulting from trust issues involving science and government during the pandemic. But no…the copyright was issued in 2017, which does make sense on the heels of the 2016 election. But the notion still felt prophetic when applied to the these past many months, particularly for people so young as to still be ineligible for a vaccine, for the parents of those people, and for people exposed routinely to the harm and hardships dealt by the virus. I’m talking about about those lionhearted luminaries working in pediatrics and those venerable souls logging hours during emergency room shifts, among so many others.

The epigraph in this book is “Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back…” –Tears for Fears. I pulled up the lyrics for this song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” from 1985, only to find that they, too, seemed eerily prescient. Upon a bit more research, I learned that this song was banned from being broadcast by the BBC five years later for the duration of the Gulf War based on the presumption of its bearing anti-war undertones. How strange and unsettling it was, I thought, that the imaginary concept of revoking one’s “knowledge license”, which essentially severely limits the breadth and scope of his audience for a set amount of time, seems like an impossibility, and yet we live in a world where such censorship as banning books and songs is a very real thing?

As you can see, my journey with Gertie Milk took an abrupt detour out of her surrealistic dreamland of a story and hit hard on the ground of the equally bizarre human condition. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll tuck my nose back into the sequel of her adventure, full of inventions like Johnny the Guard Worm, Slug Lamps, the Time Cat, and Robot Rabbit Boy, because no matter what intrigue lies within those pages, it might make just as much sense as reality.

Artificial intelligence

On nights when it’s my turn to read to the kids, we’ve been enjoying a short installment of the Mini Mysteries series published by the American Girl dynasty followed by a segment of a chapter book. I’ve read Glim the Glorious, Melisande, The Enchanted Forest, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, and a few Chinese fairy tales from a book I loved as a child. Recently we discovered The Wild Robot, and we all fell in love with Roz, the story’s protagonist.

The first half of the book is truly brilliant. If I didn’t know it was written by Peter Brown, I’d guess that Isaac Asimov and Rudyard Kipling had collaborated to produce this middle-grade volume (Asimov would have been a teenager during Kipling’s final years, so this theory could hold up). Following Roz on her journey of learning as she’s introduced to her new world is delightful, and the discussions it prompts are fascinating (aside from the countless ones we’ve had in which Liam reminds me that my robot voice is a far cry from his teacher’s, who apparently has had professional training in Robot as a Second Language, a course of study that, until now, I’d thought was only an elective). I started to feel a personal connection with our robot around page 67 when, having witnessed an opossum playing dead to avoid being eaten by a badger, Roz has a minor epiphany expressed by the sentence “Performing could be a survival strategy!”. The opossum gives Roz her first acting lesson, explaining, “You can start by imagining the character you’d like to be. How do they move and speak? What are their hopes and fears? How do others react to them? Only when you truly understand a character can you become that character…” Go on, opossum, I thought. Roz and I are listening.

My connection with Roz deepened during Chapter 28 when she encounters Loudwing, an old goose who makes her realize that she is the unlikely adoptive mother to an orphaned gosling, the death of whose parents was precipitated by an accident that Roz had unwittingly caused. The old goose gives her some unsolicited parenting advice that, unlike almost all unsolicited parenting advice, both she and I really appreciated: “Well, you’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive.” This is the page that follows:

Even before I met Roz and Loudwing, I knew I wasn’t alone in the feeling that parenting requires quite the theatrical effort. Am I feeling patient? No. Am I acting patient? As best I can. Do I want to play this same game for the hundredth time? Certainly not. Am I acting like I’m having a grand old time? I’m trying. Do I enjoy personalizing dinner preparation just enough so that everyone will eat something even if it doesn’t taste like marshmallows? I really don’t. Am I acting like it’s my job? You bet I am!

My advice for other parents (only when solicited, under normal circumstances) is to try a method I adopted when my kids were much younger: when things get challenging, pretend that you’re being filmed. Pretend that whatever scenario in which you’re ensconced is being recorded and broadcast live on the big screen to a room filled with all of the people you respect most in the world. They are watching how you are going to handle this. Act like you’d want them to see you act. Put on the patience. Wear the forbearance. Summon the semblance of composure even if you privately feel like losing your cool completely. When your kids test you to the point that you feel at odds, act even.

No mother has a complete playbook in her pocket. We all have tools and coping mechanisms, and we all learn from outside sources (each other, science, specialists, news and media) to assemble our own assortment of mental and emotional equipment that will help us as we walk (and trudge through, traipse across, stagger down) these paths, some well tread and some we need to forge anew. Roz, my first robot friend, can attest to that. And she’s given me a new catch phrase that I’ve been conjuring during some tough parenting moments recently, a statement she makes to her hungry hatchling on page 82 that runs through my brain in the best robot voice I can manage: “I am trying to act like a good mother.” Same here, Roz. Same here.

Hey, Biscotti and Twice-Baked Potatoes, there’s a new kid in town

Every year I tell myself, after I boil way too many eggs in preparation for Easter dyeing, that I’ll cut back next time. And then spring rolls back around and I think, “Maybe this is the year they’ll get really into it, so I’ll just cook up a cool dozen to be safe,” and by this I mean a dozen cartons. So after we dyed about twenty eggs and sent home three dozen with our pod family, we were left with a superfluous amount of cheap, white, hardboiled eggs. Part of me saw this coming, and that part thought: egg salad! Eggs in lunch boxes! Surely there are lots of things we can do with the leftovers!

As it turns out, there really aren’t that many ways to eat hardboiled eggs unless you have a household full of adventuresome palates. Since that isn’t the case in my home, I racked my brain to think of how to utilize them in such as way as to result in consumption prior to decomposition. I know, such a romantic culinary incentive! I also happened to have about half of a quart of liquid egg whites that was approaching its “best by” date, so I concocted a wild idea: what if I mashed up a bunch of the boiled eggs, added the liquid whites and some milk and cheese and salt and pepper, and baked it up into a quiche?

Well, it worked. Next time I’d add some bacon or ham to variegate the texture, and some caramelized onion and spinach would be welcome additions as well. Here I give you:

Double-Cookery Quiche

(serves 8-12)

12 hardboiled eggs, mashed with fork
1 pint liquid egg whites (or ~six whole eggs, beaten)
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup shredded cheese (a mixture of cheddar and swiss would work well)
2 prepared pie shells (or make your own if that’s how you do things)
salt & pepper
Optional additions: small onion, slivered and caramelized in butter, sautéed or fresh spinach, crumbled cooked bacon, ham, or other cured meat cut into small pieces, or any number of other options!

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line two pie plates with the crusts. Combine all ingredients and divide the mixture evenly between the two pie dishes. Bake for about twenty minutes or until top is dry and just beginning to think about browning. Allow to cool for a few minutes (it’s good cold, too, though I prefer it warm but not piping hot). Serve with sliced tomatoes, a bowl of soup (gazpacho, anyone?), or a salad. Perfect for a summer picnic!