Monday, January 31, 2011

Dear God

I know you use others around us to help us in our sanctification, but can you please stop using my mother in law? I think I’ve had enough. I’m pretty sure she feels the same way about me.

I know as a parent I’m supposed to model Godly behavior for my children, but can you tell the boys to look at their godparents for that more than they look to me? After all, their godfather is a priest, and their godmother – well, she’s a priest’s wife. They’re obviously much better at this stuff than I am.

Can’t you make me grow in patience a little faster? I have a lot going on and I could use some more patience, pronto.

Will self-deprecation do as a substitute for humility? I’m much better at the former than I am at the latter, you know.

Why do the Orthodox have to point out that gluttony is such a sin? Can I have a pass on that, since I was raised Protestant and they never talk about gluttony?

Friday, January 28, 2011

One = Eleven

Right as this post goes up, at 11:11pm tonight, One will officially be ELEVEN YEARS OLD. For once I'm not surprised or shocked, or really thinking about "where has all the time gone?" He's just so, eleven already, that it doesn't surprise me that I'm the mother of a boy who in four short months will shake the elementary school dust off his feet and take on the title "middle schooler", who needs braces, who has the glimmerings of a mustache, and who tells me things like "when I even think about talking to a girl I start blushing, even before I open my mouth."

He's growing up.

He's growing up, and it's so much fun to watch sometimes I can't believe it's real. As I was falling asleep the other night I had a picture in my head of One and his brother, and all I could think of was that it was as if two stars had fallen to earth and been placed in our care. They shine so bright, they work so hard, they dream so big. Right now One is at a place in his life where everything is possible; what he sees off in the distance - glimmering ahead in the future - is whatever he wants it to be. He knows he has challenges, but he doesn't see them as limitations. He know he has hard work ahead, but he's done hard work before, and he's ready to put everything he has into what's coming. In some ways he's at this perfect time in life, where he sees nothing ahead but dreams of how he wants things to be. He hasn't been knocked around by life, hasn't been stepped on, kicked aside, left behind by it yet. He's still so innocent: a treasure in someone his age, even in the over-protective modern coccoon in which we live.

Instead of terrifying me, his bright dreams of the future, his innocence, somehow convince me that he is right. That the dreams are there, shining out in the future just beyond where we can see. When I look ahead through his eyes, I believe it too.

Dear child who made me a mother on this day eleven years ago: Work hard, dream big and never quit. I know you can do it - whatever "it" is that life is leading us to. How do I know? I'm your mom, silly One, and I know you almost as well as you know yourself.

Happy Birthday, my sweet child.

What Boxers do Best

I think they've missed the sun more than we have.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quote for Thursday

"...abstaining from sinful actions and fear of suffering are not sufficient for spiritual life... only the guarding of the mind and purity of heart will free one's soul from sinful thoughts ... inner freedom can be obtained only through interior prayer and ... not through fear of the sufferings of hell or even the desire for the bliss of heaven. The holy Fathers consider even heroic deeds as the act of a hireling. They claim that the fear of suffering is the way of a slave and that desire for a reward is the way of a hireling. But God wants us to come to Him on a path of a son; motivated by love and zeal for His glory, we should conduct ourselves with honor and enjoy His saving presence in our hearts and souls."

-- from The Way of a Pilgrim

Sunday, January 23, 2011

More New Art

Two's Leaping Bull is not the only art piece we've been admiring over here at the GW home. Here are a few more - proof of why we love Glassell so very much.

One did his first still-life. It's acrylic, which makes me very glad, since the clothes he painted it in are still wearable.

One also did a wonderful diorama. He loves this kind of stuff, and picked his subject based partly on his love of drawing birds. The eagle in the diorama is actually separate and is hanging from the top of the box.

Two did his first "perspective" drawing - a study of the front of the main Glassell building. He also did a cityscape perspective piece that reminds me a little of the famous New Yorker cover.

They are learning new techniques, and best of all they're having fun doing it. Going to after-school class at Glassell remains one of their favorite things ever, and many other suggested activities have gone down in flames when they realize they couldn't fit the new thing AND Glassell in at the same time. I love their self-chosen loyalty to this activity, and am so proud of the work that they put into each new piece. It's so much fun watching wild, sword-fighting boys be passionate about art, and it makes me ask myself the exciting question again and again: who will they be when they're grown up?

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Does it Feel to be Gamed?

I still intend to write a post (soon, soon) about parenting and what I think the goal of the whole process should be - although I believe you can get to where you want to go by a number of different paths - but I'm no longer going to do it as a response to Amy Chua's WSJ piece or her book.

Why? Because we've been had, people. We've been dragged into the mommy wars yet again for the sole purpose of enriching some remarkably manipulative people, namely Amy Chua and her brood. Don't believe me? Just follow the timeline:
  • The WSJ story is released, in which some of the most incendiary parts of Chua's forthcoming book are picked out and put together to form a picture of the Evil Chinese Mommy, Conqueror of the Universe (queue Dark Side theme music from Star Wars).

  • People explode in protest, writing letters to the editor, blog and Twitter posts, notes on small scraps of paper, all about how wrong Chua is and how she's the Meanest. Mommy. Ever.

  • Chua herself appears on dozens of TV shows, giving self-depricating interviews in which her youthful, smiling self explains how wrong we all are about her, and how her book is just a memoir, an ode to how she "got it all wrong", and nothing but a simple story of how a mother grew up.

  • Chua's book, released at the same time as all this nonsense, becomes a bestseller.

  • Finally, Chua's daughter Sophia runs the story ball into the endzone, with her "exclusive" essay in the NY Post, in which she writes a "thank you mommy" letter to her wonderful Tiger Mom.
Did you know that this all started with the $800,000 advance Chua received from her publishers? The largest undeserved book advance? A few worse come to mind, but that is still pretty steep. And that advance is just the beginning of how much money the Chua family is sure to have made by making all of us dumb Gweilos run around like little idiots, wailing and gnashing our teeth in rage.

So no, I will not deign to respond to Ms. Chua's publicity stunt. I'm sorry I didn't see it for what it was much earlier, and I'm sorry that anyone has taken her seriously enough to give her the time of day. Instead, I will sit here having yet another example of a Kyle-esqe "what we've learned today" moment, shake my head sadly, and get on with the important things in life.

And if you want to read an excellent piece on the book itself (from someone who has actually read it), I suggest Lee Siegel's. HT: Ann Althouse, of course.

Image at the top is by Cynthia Greig and can be found here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Humble Pie

We've been back to normal Orthodox fasting rules for a few weeks now - or what is really the "new normal" for us, since we've only been doing this since November. The Advent Fast ended (you guessed it) on Christmas, and we had no fasting at all until just before Theophany (aka Epiphany). Now, every Wednesday and Friday until Lent, we eat as we do during a long fast: no meat, eggs, dairy, olive oil, or wine. On days we're not fasting, I almost long for it; I think "tomorrow, when it's a fast day, I won't even think about going out for a burger for lunch, because I won't be able to." And then the fast day comes and I'm the same person I was the day before: undisciplined, short on time, and wanting a cheeseburger. Today I hauled myself dutifully from the office to Chipotle for lunch: black bean burrito with rice, pico and guacamole. The. Same. Burrito I've eaten for what seem like years but is really only since Thanksgiving. I eyed the shredded cheese intently: surely God doesn't care if I eat cheese today? And no, I don't think God cares much about cheese in particular. But He does care about obedience and self-discipline, and so I grumbled past the cheese and went without.

Tonight I heated up some vegetarian pinto beans, cooked a big pot of brown rice, and cut up an avocado. Lunch, deconstructed. I told the boys they could have whatever else they wanted to eat - they could grate cheese and make tacos or quesedillas - whatever they wanted to do. Instead, they gleefully tucked into the same meal I felt grumpy about, gobbling up bean and rice tacos like hungry peasant children, not pausing to grate cheese or ask for anything more. Their joy at the table humbled me, and for once the humility was a flavorful sauce for the plain food.

I'm thankful for children who can have joy in simplicity, and for the lessons God sends through them and so many others as we start down this path as a part of His church. We are truly saved together and damned alone - and thank God for that, too.


I found this last night in The Principal's Page, the newsletter the boys' principal writes up for parents:

"If your child is fasting, please send a note to the teacher. Unless we are notified by parents that refusal of a meal is related to the religious observance, we will see that all children eat during the identified lunch period. Please help us be respectful of your child's religious observance by sending a note."

How much better is that than the Alabama governor's statements at his inaguration this week? Isn't it nice to know that there are some people in government (using that term loosely here, yes) who want to make it easier for people to freely exercise their religious beliefs?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rodeo Boy

Recently Two had a picture entered in the art contest at the Rodeo - over 400 elementary school pictures were chosen for the competition from our district alone, and the winning artwork will be displayed in Reliant Hall during the Rodeo, March 1st through the 20th. The results of the judging came back this past Friday, and while Two didn't win the whole she-bang, his work was chosen as one of the top ten in the competition. He is beside himself about his "rainbow ribbon", and loves that it is on display in the hall at school.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you - Leaping Bull:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Anniversary Present

Husband and my 15th wedding anniversary is coming up in 12 days, and last weekend we found the perfect present to give ourselves - a beautiful table for the back patio. We have this big yard, which the dogs love but we don't get to enjoy half as much as they do. Needless to say, we need a table which will, if nothing else, pull our lazy selves outdoors on nice days.

The table was delivered today, and even though it's greyer than Cleveland outside, I took pictures. Here it is:

Coincidentially, the store owners are neighbors of ours - something we didn't know until we bought the table and arranged for delivery. Somehow that makes it even more special.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Debating the Tiger Mom

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is getting a lot of press about her recently-released book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and her excerpt from that book that was published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. In her book she claims that children raised in a Chinese fashion are superior to their Western-raised counterparts, and sets out her reasons why she believes this is so.

Well, is it true? You be the judge. I've linked to Ms. Chua's article above, and writing on the other side of the fence so far are Katie Granju and Shannon Love. What do you think? What kind of parenting makes the most sense, produces the most successful children, and provides the most benefits for society at large? I have a few things to say myself on the subject, but I want to hear from my six lovely readers first. So jump in and let me know what's important. I'm waiting ...

HT: Instapundit. Where so many good things come from.

UPDATE: We were talking at dinner tonight about Amy Chua's parenting hypotheses, and One wanted the scoop. We explained to him the basics of how she raised her daughters, and he instantly shot back with the essence of Shannon Love's argument: children raised that way lack the ability to work as a team, could not truly understand other people and their motivations, and therefore were at a disadvantage functioning in society, because they had been deprived of learning how to make friends and work alongside them. Score one point for The Grass Widow Style of Parenting - whatever that is (if someone can explain it to me please raise your hand).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How to Destroy a District

The Houston Independent School District (HISD), the 7th largest school district in the country, has received the report prepared by the independent consultant it hired in the fall to analyze and make recommendations on changes to the HISD Magnet Schools program. The report, prepared by Magnet Schools of America, is a shock to many - including the Grass Widow household, who enjoy their fine arts magnet elementary school quite a lot, thank you very much. Here is a summary of the report's recommendations:

1. Stop testing for admission to all magnet programs. This might not be that bad for elementary schools, since testing of 4-5 year olds is not much a predictor of elementary school performance. But the study proposes not testing for any middle or high school programs, which truly will hurt the magnet program more than almost anything I can think of. The testing that the magnet schools currently use is a report that (1) combines a child's grades, Stanford and NNAT test scores, and a teacher recommendation, then (2) weighs those elements, and (3) gives the child a score on a scale of 100 points. Magnet schools currently establish a cut-off point for their program, then either rank children and accept them 1, 2, 3, etc, or throw all qualified students in a pot and pick with eyes closed. Without this testing element, the schools will not get the best qualified students for their programs, and the best qualified students will not be rewarded for their prior years of hard work with the opportunity to attend a magnet program. To me, one of the things that makes magnet programs work is the motivation that the children bring to the table. Empowered by the ability to choose a school, rewarded for their past successes, they can work toward more achievements in an environment filled with like-minded and motivated children. To me, this is one of the things that makes a magnet program in such a large district so special: it can pull kids from all around the city - kids who may be very different from one another in many ways, but who all have a common goal of high achievement.

2. Eliminate almost half the magnet schools and pull their funding. The report admits that our own elementary school is of the highest quality, full of motivated and intelligent teachers, administrators and students, and possesses a high quality of fine arts education. It states the same about several other nearby magnets that it also recommends be eliminated. These schools are all rated "exemplary" by the TEA, and several of them have been and/or are currently on the TBEC's list of the best schools in the state. But they shouldn't be magnet schools, even though they are some of the best programs in the district. The stated reason is that they are at capacity (perhaps because they are so good?), but it is not suggested that they are failing at their mission as magnet schools because of the crowds.

3. Force each magnet school to mirror the district-wide demographics. HISD is currently 8% white, 92% non-white. Some of the magnet schools - in particular most of the ones that are to be eliminated - are currently not racially normed to the district as a whole. For example, our elementary is approximately 33% asian, 33% white, and 33% black or hispanic. We also have over 40 birth countries represented by the student body (no, not the parents - the students themselves. seriously). But because we are only 66% non-white, and because of the neighborhood demographics we will never reach 92% non-white, the report recommends eliminating our school from the program. It doesn't state this as the reason to eliminate us (see #2 above) but if the goal of the magnet program is racial norming, you can't make it when schools like ours are counted. Even though our school may be the most diverse in terms of ethnicity, life experience, cultural background - you name it - in the entire district, it doesn't meet the narrow definition that Magnet Schools of America has given the word "diversity". For all the schools that remain in the program and who are not at 92%, the report recommends requiring them to decrease their white population by 2% per year or face losing their magnet status as well.

4. Remove magnet funding from the Vanguard program. HISD Vanguard schools are magnet schools that focus on academics rather than have a specialized subject like fine arts. They are some of the most sought-after schools in the district, and many have a very high rank within the city and even state-wide. Quite frankly, they need the magnet designation because they need the funding it provides. Taking it away may make sense on paper, since they don't "specialize" the way a traditional magnet program does, but they shouldn't be punished for their good results by losing badly-needed money.

The report is long, and full of other recommendations that change the nature of some of the schools who would be allowed to stay magnet programs. But in summary, the long and short of it is this: Magnet Schools of America is committed first to the goal of "desegregation, equity, excellence, and the expansion and improvement of magnet schools." [emphasis added] When HISD hired them to perform this study, the outcome should have been known before their consultants set foot on a single campus. I am not going to suggest here (or indeed anywhere) that desegregation is not a good goal for a school district that has discriminated against its students. But I will state quite clearly that I do not believe desegregation is or should be the goal of a good magnet program (which is what HISD currently has). The goal of HISD's magnet program should be to improve the quality of education throughout the district, and to provide students with good schools from which to choose from to educate them not only in the basics but also in the specialized subjects that interest them most. It should provide public school choice to students who work hard, get good grades and test scores, and who want a good education as a ticket to a better future. With the right recommendations and leadership HISD's program can do all of this, but this report does not provide a roadmap for doing so. Instead, this report merely suggests that a minority student in a poorly performing magnet school will be better off it the district takes the magnet program away from a non-minority student in an exemplary magnet school. In fact, neither student in that scenario benefits, and in the end both will likely suffer as HISD looks less like the success it is currently and more like the failed urban school districts in other large cities around the US.

I sincerely hope that the HISD administrators, teachers, and board will see this report for what it really is: a ticket to the destruction of a district that in the past has deliberately avoided many of the mistakes of other large city districts. Every student in HISD deserves better than the plans this report has for them. Every. Single. One.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Armed to the Teeth and Glad of It

Ann Althouse links to this story in the NY Post, about NYC sanitation workers who "accidentally" dumped snow on a Jewish cemetary, breaking its fence and knocking over headstones. In the same story, it describes other City workers who towed people's cars to different locations (not to an impound lot, mind you, just to another street) and then dumped so much snow on them the cars were crushed. The City has agreed to give these people complaint forms to fill out: a good form can solve a multitude of problems, I'm told.

Here's my theory on why this kind of thing happens in the kind of place NYC has become: the citizens of NYC are unarmed. Yup, it's that simple. Gun ownership is a fundamental right in the Bill of Rights, not to protect citizens from each other, but primarily to protect them from the government itself. When you run a city full of unarmed people, you, as the government, can do as you please. And the people have to take their complaint forms, fill them in quietly, and live with it.

I say this because, having lived for so long in the the largest heavily armed city in the nation, I can't even imagine what would happen if the City of Houston abused the rights of its residents in this way. I watched Houston clean up after Hurricane Ike, and by and large the City helped people - they didn't make things worse. Yes, a lot of the work cleaning up was done by residents, and much was done by the power companies as they worked to get the powerlines back up. But the City did its job, to the point that we had regular trash pick up the Tuesday after the storm.

When people ask me why I left New York* 18 years ago, it's stories like this that I point to. I refuse to live in a place where the government has completely forgotten that it is the servant of the people - not the other way around. In Texas, the government still remembers that, and perhaps it does so because it knows it's outgunned a thousand to one by its own citizens. And if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.

*Full Disclosure: I lived 22 years in rural NY State, not in the City. But truly, the same problems exist on a state level in NY, where all politicians have long forgotten who should really be in charge. I took my BA, ran south 10 days after graduation and have never looked back. There's a reason for that ...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lessons from the Advent Fast

This Christmas season was our family’s first experience with the Advent Fast of the Orthodox Church. We officially became Orthodox the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and started the Fast that night. For the next month we went without dairy, eggs and meat, and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we also went without fish and olive oil. I walked into Orthodoxy knowing this was what we would do, but I have to admit I didn’t like it very much. My still partly-Protestant brain wanted to protest: I didn’t understand why the Fast was necessary, and I refused to hear any real answers to that question very clearly.

So I grumbled my way into this, as I do into many new things. And, not so surprisingly, I almost enjoyed it and most certainly learned and grew through it. Imagine that: 2000 years of Christianity knew better than I. I know, it happens so rarely that you’re shocked. So was I.

What did I learn? What did I see that I refused to open my eyes to before? Well, more than I think I know right now. But at least thus far, I know from this experience that gluttony is a sin that shows up in every part of my life – not just food (and it is there in spades, by the way). Even though I was able to control my gluttony by participating in the Fast, I didn’t stop to think about how much money I spent to do so, or how much I was spending to celebrate Christmas. I have a long way to go on that one.

The Fast not only showed me this, but it also helped me understand how much we eat controls what else we do. While I wasn’t able to stop myself from spending, I was almost constantly conscious of my attitude toward the Fast and how I was treating others around me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t complain (I did) nor does it mean that I treated everyone as I should have (I didn’t). But I did make an effort to not let the Fast be my excuse for my bad behavior, and with that I tried to not let the complimentary excuses of tiredness and overwork be the reason I was such a witch. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But my awareness increased, and that needed to happen.

Finally, I learned that in my desire to rebel against the Fast, I was trying to do to God what I do to everyone in my life who loves me: push Him away. I wanted to disobey, because then I would know He didn’t really love me (and sometimes to me, that makes sense). But He does love me, and He showed me what my disobedience meant, and for that I am the most grateful. An important barrier came down in that little bit of self-awareness, and I have now one less excuse with which to fool myself when I don’t want to obey, when I don’t want to hear His voice.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Day

We watched some Stooges:

We ate some Mexican food:

And we acted a little bit like the Stooges ourselves:

A good time was had by all.

Behold the Power of the Pig

Usually, my nightmares come in the early morning, just before wake-up. The monsters of childhood are gone, since I know what real monsters look like now. Instead, friends die, Husband tells me he's never loved me, my children were never born: I am alone. Last night was especially bad: an old friend was here in Houston for cancer treatment and my mother in law knew and didn't tell me (logic plays no part in dreams, does it?), the children didn't exist, and I was hiding a lost puppy that everyone wanted to kill when Husband cruelly gave me away and laughed while the dog was hauled from my arms. I was angry with him, angry with the mother in law, crying and miserable. And then, slowly, my dreams began to change. There was no one there but my Husband, and we weren't fighting anymore. He smiled at me, I smiled at him, the nightmare melted away, and I began to wake, eager to start the day. Why did it all change? Because downstairs in real life Husband had begun to cook bacon, and as the smell wafted upstairs it. changed. everything.

Remember: you can never go wrong with bacon.

Happy New Year, y'all.