Guides or Not?

I'm trying to decide if we should keep Delphine in Sparks next year. (Sparks is the precursor to Brownies, for 5- to 6-year-olds.) Delphine has been in Sparks for the last year, and now the time has come to sign up for next year. But I have serious qualms.

Guides is supposed to be about empowering girls and allowing them to build confidence, and yet they're going about it all wrong. The organization decides what girls should be interested in (by making badges available), decides how they should go about exploring those interests (the bullet-point items you have to fulfill before getting a badge) and then rewards them for their interest. Rewarding kids for things is a proven demotivator. And worse, in Sparks the girls haven't even had a chance to express their own interests: the meetings are predetermined at the beginning of the year. The girls' interests don't even come into play! It's incredibly disappointing to see a great opportunity to excite and engage girls be squandered because the adults involved lack the knowledge or imagination to do things differently.

Of course it's a giant crapshoot how good your troop is going to be because the Guide organization doesn't provide all that much, well, guidance on how to plan and run meetings. You might get amazing leaders who do know how to motivate and engage kids, or your girls might be stuck with a group of unruly kids led by frustrated adults yelling at them to shut up and get on with the Pointless Craft of the Day.

And if that weren't annoying enough, you have to sign an idiotic release form every time the troop does anything out of the ordinary. If the organization is that risk-averse, how are they going to help my girls become fearless?

Finally it's expensive. The annual fee is $125, there's a $1 dues charge at every meeting, and twice a year we have to pay $96 for those lousy cookies (and then dispose of them as we see fit). Plus we had to buy a shirt and sash. I suppose compared to the $250 or so that we spend on most 12-week programs Guides isn't actually all the pricey, but they seem to keep leeching at us all year instead of just once up front.

On the plus side, Delphine really enjoys it. But then she really enjoys watching Backyardigans and eating gummy worms too.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Here is the how I throw thing out:

I recycle: plastic containers and glass (the plastic containers with their lids on but not the glass containers), tin cans, styrofoam, cardboard cans with their metal lids, plastic bags but only the ones from stores, and not the bags that milk bags come in which are completely identical but for some reason unacceptable. That's okay, I save them for cat litter. Also plastic bags must be recycled in bunches, not one by one. Further I save the bags without holes in them to contain regular garbage and compost, which means that I have three separate streams into which plastic bags can possibly go. Also recyclable are newspapers, magazines, and regular paper but not paper that the girls have glued random crap onto, nor stickers (too sticky, they gum up the recycling works).

Speaking of compost, that's the City of Toronto compost which accepts all the usual vegetable matter as well as any other food (except gum), paper plates and napkins (but not paper cups from coffee shops), diapers, kleenex and paper towels, tea bags, cat litter and dog poo but not cotton balls, q-tips, or hair and fingernail clippings. (Because that would be gross.)

Outside, there's yard waste, which is weeds and leaves and twigs and stuff but not grass clippings.

Then there's the stuff which isn't garbage yet, the clothes and toys and furniture and housewares we don't need. Some of that I'm saving for the school's fundraising garage sale, some of it goes into the Goodwill bag for when Andy does a Goodwill run, and some of the toys I'm saving for that mythical day when I sort out all their pieces and find their manuals and take them to the consignment store.

Finally, as a last resort, there's regular garbage: anything that doesn't fit into the above categories, mainly rejected plastic bags and other plastic packaging, and broken things.

I hate throwing things out because it's complicated. It's hard to believe that fifty years ago people just threw everything away in one container. How simple! Which is exactly why it's dangerous — it can't be that easy to get rid of things. You have to be mindful of whether your trash still has value, as a source of energy or materials, or to someone else in its current form. And when I'm feeling sorry for myself because it's so hard to throw something out I remind myself that I wouldn't have this problem if I didn't bring that thing into my house in the first place.

Apocalypse When?

In the last few weeks I have had no fewer than four conversations about the impending apocalypse. Not ironic conversations, either. (Well, one of them involved zombies, but the others were in earnest.) One of my friends has a plan for what to do if America annexes Canada. Another is trying to work out how to feed her family with what she can grow in her backyard.

We are all serious. We all believe that the world is going to change drastically in the next twenty to fifty years, and it's by no means clear that the changes will go smoothly. We face climate change, a crisis in the food distribution networks, a global pandemic, peak oil, economic collapse, and even (this one is new!) loss of electrical service due to a massive solar storm. There's a palpable sense among my peer group that we're living in a fantasy, that the life we live is too good to last. We've built an edifice so high, so fragile and so glorious that it is bound to come tumbling down.

Does anyone else feel this way? Is it just me and my weird friends? Admittedly we all tend to be overthinkers, we are all a little fringey and cynical and mistrustful of common knowledge and received wisdom. The mainstream media seems oblivious: articles in the Globe only occasionally mention climate change, apart from the articles on climate change off in the "Science" ghetto. There was fear of a flu pandemic a few years ago, but after it died down no-one mentioned the danger again until this latest outbreak of swine flu, despite the fact that the risk of a flu pandemic never actually changed. As for the food thing, no-one seems to be acting on the fact that our food production and distribution system is a house of cards, apart from a few urban foodies who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a share in a nearby farm. There doesn't seem to be a meaningful political response to any of these threats, perhaps because the time-frame is so vague, so unfittable into four-year terms.

Ever since the 9/11 / blackout / SARS conflagration of debacles the Government has been encouraging us to have an emergency preparedness kit containing enough food, water, flashlights, blankets and medical supplies to last 72 hours. That's a good start, but that's so not the scale of emergency I'm worrying about. I'm talking weeks or months or years of upheaval followed by an entirely new way of life.

So what am I doing? Well, mainly just worrying, and speculating. What's gonna happen if... the power goes out? How long before Toronto cuts down all its famous trees for heat and cooking? What if... Canada is deluged by climate refugees? How many people will we have to share our 2700 square foot of land with in order to live sustainably? What if... there's a flu epidemic? Will the grocery store shelves be empty? Should I buy more flour?

We've done all the major things we can afford to do. We live centrally so we don't need a car. Just by sheer luck we happen to live in the middle of one of the best patches of arable land in Canada, so provided they don't build McMansions all over it we should be well-placed for a mainly-local-food diet. We have a tiny house which is cheap to heat and stays pretty cool in summer. We're trying to grow our own vegetables. One day we'll get some solar panels so we aren't entirely dependent on the electrical grid.

But we're not that crazy! We're not stockpiling food, or medicine, or seeds, or guns. We're not going off the grid. We're not building a bunker. It's hard for me to discern what's too crazy. I was wondering if it would be worth learning how to salt-cure meat, in case the power goes off when we have a freezer full of beef. But then I'd have to stockpile a lot of salt, and that seems to be beyond the too-crazy mark. On the other hand I do intend to find out how to purify water so we can drink the water from the rain barrel if the taps dry out.

Sometimes I feel stupid, worrying about this stuff. Other people don't seem to. What if everything turns out fine? Won't I look silly then? But stupid doesn't begin to describe how I'll feel if something does happen and I'm not prepared, at least as prepared as I can be. In the meantime, life goes on; I shave my legs and get my hair cut and sing and take my children to school. I carry on. I bet you can't even tell I'm crazy.

What I Do

That last post got me thinking about what I do. Is this interesting to anyone else? I don't know.

At Home
  • cook
  • clean
  • laundry
  • read to and play with the girls
  • read
  • watch TV
  • write
  • play on the Internet: mainly read blogs, Twitter
  • sleep
  • garden
  • hang out with friends

Out and About

  • take girls to school and other activities
  • choir
  • run
  • grocery shopping and other errands
  • PTA meetings
  • book club meetings
  • visit friends

That's it, apart from occasional major chores like painting, and occasional events like weddings and parties. Seems like a pretty simple life, which is the way I like it. Otherwise I get confused.

Imbalance, Rebalance

Something's not quite right in my life; I'm out of balance. Fortunately — and I know this is rare — I know what's wrong and I have a pretty good idea how to fix it.

A few months ago I got this laptop. It's a Toshiba Satellite with a Celeron (celery!) processor and 192 MB of RAM. It's running Windows XP and it's really, really slow. (I should probably switch to Ubuntu.) Nevertheless, it's a laptop, and that means I can fart around on the Internet while we watch TV, after the girls are in bed. That's good because it adds an extra couple of hours to my Internet day, giving me time to blog and Twitter. It's bad because somehow the combination of TV and Internet makes it very, very hard for me to get off my butt and go to bed at a reasonable hour, leaving me cranky and exhausted the next day. The other bad is that I don't write particularly well when I'm watching TV, and I don't watch TV particularly well when I'm writing. The TV I watch tends to reward attentive viewing, and half-watching it is worse than either watching it or not watching it at all.

Simple problem, simple fix: I'm going to stop using the laptop in the evenings, and instead watch TV properly, or read if it's one of Blake's shows. I'll go to bed at a decent hour, which will give me the energy to write in the afternoons. Currently my afternoons are spent either napping (on the really bad days) or reading, with a little light housekeeping if I absolutely have to. I'm not sure whether writing in the afternoon will deal too much of a blow to my reading time; I hope I will be able to get to bed by ten and read until eleven, and maybe read in the mornings sometimes too.

All this is temporary, of course: once Cordelia is in school everything will change again and I'll have to find a new balance.

April Books

Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert Bly (2008) is about... well, just guess what it's about. It was on the "new" cart at the library so I thought I would check it out. Maybe I can be a freelance writer! Here's how!

Robert Bly has written about a million books, almost all of which you undoubtedly haven't heard of, and he also writes magazine articles, marketing material, annual reports, brochures, junk email... pretty much anything you can make money at. He's not an "author" or a "novelist", he's a writer, and in this book he tells you how you can make a living as a writer too.

Obviously it's hard for me to say whether his advice is any good since I'm not a writer, nor have I ever read any other books on making a living as a writer. It seems pretty sensible - he offers practical advice on how to set up your office, how to market yourself, how to manage your writing business, how to find work - but then this guy makes most of his living writing "direct mail marketing" copy, ie, snake oil ads. Bly also makes lots of money through self-published ebooks, booklets, giving speeches, selling CDs of his speeches... basically regurgitating the same content in as many ways as possible to get more money out of it.

The book also contains sections on gettings cartoons, personal essays, and poems published.

Ironically, the book could have been better written, or perhaps better edited. There were a couple of times where he introduced the same concept twice within a page or two, as if he had rearranged some paragraphs and then not checked it closely enough. (This, I suppose, supports his contention that you don't have to be a good writer to make a living at it.) The section on the Internet was terribly dated; "If you think, as some people do, that there's any future in the Internet". (That's a paraphrase, I forgot to write down the exact quote.) This edition was a rework of the 1997 edition, and clearly he should have paid more attention to the Internet section.

I'm not sure whether this book convinced me that you can make good money writing, or whether it just showed that you can make money doing just about anything if you are willing to work hard enough at selling yourself, and repackaging your material in lots of different ways. The more I think about it the more it seems what made Bob Bly rich wasn't being a writer but being an entrepreneur, which is not to say that you can't make money writing, but Bly's path to riches isn't exactly the path I want to take.

One more thing - Bob Bly makes lots of money selling books about how to be a copywriter, and on further investigation there's a whole online cottage industry of ebooks, email newsletters, etc about writing. Doesn't that seem like a pyramid scheme? Bly sells a book about writing to 2000 people, those people write and sell 2000 books each - what happens when everyone who wants to be a writer has bought a book about it? Doesn't someone, at some point, have to write about something else?

Thomas Foster mentioned the novels of Reginald Hill a few times in How to Read Novels Like A Professor, so when I found Pictures of Perfection in a plastic bag at someone's curb, I picked it up. It says on the cover that it's a Dalziel/Pascoe mystery, but Dalziel and Pascoe are fairly minor players; the main investigator is a policeman (I can never remember people's rank) named Wield who is sent off to an odd little village in Yorkshire - odd not in the usual Yorkshire way - to discover the whereabouts of the missing village bobby. On the way to locating the missing policeman, Wield meets various peculiar village characters and has to sort out their relationships, their history, and their intentions.

Reginald Hill writes for an intelligent reader - this book is rich with references to literature and music. He has a knack for describing things in a way which makes you pay attention. Here he is saying someone has a good memory:

Wield's brain, which his CID chief, Andy Dalziel, opinied should be picked in strong ale and and sold to IBM after the sergeant's death, had been punching up references to Enscombe.

And here he says the same character is hairy:

Wield barked the sound which his friends recognized as his way of expressing amusement - though others often took it as a sign that the interrupted lycanthropic process suggested by his face was about to be resumed.

This is not writing for a lazy reader.

I very much enjoyed this book; I liked the characters, I liked the relationships, I liked the mystery.

Delphine's Meal Plan

Delphine has gotten to be pretty picky at the dinner table, and after one too many "I hate this!"es, Blake and I decided to let Delphine pick every dinner this week. Blake walked her through picking things that are on sale, and he also advised her on the standard protein-vegetable-starch distribution of a meal.

So this is what we're having this week. Try and guess which words Delphine wrote and which were Blake's (Blake likes Random Capitalization and Punctuation):

  • Mashed Potatoes & Hot Dogs AND (charred) ESPARAGIS
  • Pizza with Pepperoni & Tomato
  • Chicken Sandwiches & cut up apples & Corn on the cob.
  • Burritos (Beans, tomato, cooked carrots, cheese)

Should be a tasty week.

April Books

Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature by Mark West (1997) is a collection of interviews with children's book authors, publishers and librarians on the subject of censorship. My local library had a display of books on censorship, and the title of this seemed in keeping with my parenting philosophy, so I picked it up. I'm pretty naive about censorship because I don't really see the point of it, so I don't think about it much. This book was a pointed reminder of how some people dislike some ideas so much they don't even want them to be mentioned. Back in the seventies and eighties censorship was largely about sex, but these days (well, when the book was written) more people complain about anti-authoritarian themes, books where the kids best the adults, books where kids question the rules, and even books where kids are portrayed as unhappy.

Judy Blume got more mentions, if I recall correctly, than any other author. I'm not surprised by that, but I am saddened; Judy Blume was a staple of my childhood. I never got The Sex Talk from my mother, but it was fine because between Judy Blume and the other books I read I pretty much knew what to do and what not to do when the time came.

A more subtle issue is that of self-censorship by authors and publishers. Honestly, what's the use of writing something if it's just going to be taken out, or result in your book not being bought by libraries? One of the solutions, and a flawed one to be sure, is to market your teen book as an adult book, which I was surprised to find actually happens. Apparently Judy Blume's first adult book, wasn't.

This is a valuable compendium of perspectives, with lots of history and context. It would be nice to read an updated version of this book - there are lots of references to the Reagan administration in the book, and I would love to know how the Bush and Obama administrations affected censorship of kids' books.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. (2006). Carol Dweck is a social psychologist who specialises in motivation, personality and development. Her mindset theory is hot in democratic parenting circles, and it deals a death blow to the idea that you have to constantly praise your children for any and all achievements. I was very glad to hear this behaviour has been discredited because I hate hearing parents constantly chirp, "good sharing!", "good swinging!", "good falling down!". (Unfortunately, most people don't seem to have heard that praising sucks, but I'm trying to spread the word.) As you might guess, Alfie Kohn refers to Dweck's work in his Punished by Rewards, so I thought I might as well read this book to get the full story straight from the horse's mouth.

Dweck's argument is that everyone walks around with one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset wherein you believe that everyone is born with a fixed set of talents and abilities which will remain constant for life, and the growth mindset wherein you believe that those talents you are born with are just the beginning; everything you do can be improved by study and practice. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that you are what you are, and so your main motivation is to prove that what you are is fabulous. If you have a growth mindset you believe that you can always get better, so you don't have to prove anything, you just have to figure out what needs work and get on with it. Or not: it's your life!

The book discusses how mindset applies in business, in sports, in romance, and in parenting. It's nicely written for a non-scientific audience, leavened by plenty of anecdotes, some of which are about Carol Dweck's own journey from fixed mindset to growth mindset. The book also offered some concrete advice on how to change your own mindset, and how to help your children grow up with a growth mindset.

I think understanding the two mindsets is important to anyone who wants to understand their own mind and motivation, and reading this book is probably the best and most direct way to learn about them. You could probably safely skip the chapters on business or sports or parenting if they don't apply to you.

new day revolution by Sam Davidson and Stephen Moseley (2007) is a book about how easy it is to make the world better, written, I assume, to convince those who might otherwise not bother to lift a finger to help out. And lifting a finger is about as much as this book asks: it proposes such strenuous tasks as "call someone you haven't spoken to lately", "learn your barista's name", or "watch a documentary instead of a blockbuster". They have a laudatory profile of a woman who gave up the use of her car... for one whole day. This book sets the bar so low that I'm fairly sure that anyone who would be interested in it would already have done the calibre of world-improvement activities they suggest. If you need the advice in this book, you wouldn't bother to pick it up.

Also there was a spelling mistake on the second page. Pff.

My old/new bike.

The new Fixie.

I did something new today. A while ago, I had bought a 10-speed Bianchi for $30 at a garage sale, with the intention of converting it into a fixed-gear/single-speed bike to tootle around on. Well, today, I took it down to Bikechain, and talked to Steve, who sent me on a merry goose chase picking up various parts. Once I had gotten a new wheel, tire, and tube and biked back to Biekchain, Steve and I put it on the bike, checked the alignment of the cogs and chain, and then I had to head out to buy a new rear cog, and a lock wheel…

Sadly, my bike didn’t have a functional rear wheel anymore, so I had to walk down to Urbane Cyclist to buy the cog and lock. I ended up with a 52:19 ratio, which is harder to start on than the gear ratio I use to start, but isn’t too bad, and doesn’t go as fast as the gear ratio I use to go fast, but again isn’t too bad. Given those two things, I figure it’s pretty close to perfect for my style and level of riding. When I got the cog and lock ring back to Me and my Fixie. Bikechain, we put them on the new rear wheel, hooked everything up, ran into the obligatory problems, fixed them, and finally I was good to go, so I did! The first trip I took was a fairly short one, from U of T over to the Dark Horse Cafe at Queen and Spadina.

The second trip was from Queen and Spadina back home, which was a little longer. I learned a few things from that trip, but let me start off with something I didn’t learn. I had test-ridden a fixed gear bike before, so I had already been almost bumped off by trying to coast, and this time around I was expecting it. So, now on to the things I did learn.

  • Stopping is hard. It’s not that I can’t stop. I’ve got both brakes and pedals. The problem is stopping with one of the pedals in a decent position to start from when I want to start. The other problem is that I really want to coast when I come to the end of a stop, and that totally doesn’t work.

My favourite feature.

  • I can carry it! (As you can see over on the right there.) My commuter bike is a good ride, and very solid, but damn is it ever heavy, especially after I loaded it up with accessories like a rear rack, and panniers, and water bottles. The fixie is simple, clean, and light enough to carry all over the place.

  • The fixie is slower than my commuter bike. Not just slower for the obvious reason (because I don’t have a higher gear to switch to), but it’s also slower for me to start, because I don’t have a lower gear to switch to. It’s really kind of strange, since one of the things I seem to be really good at is starting really quickly from a dead stop. Well, that used to be one of the things I was really good at. On the fixie, not so much.

  • Even though it’s slower I found that the fixie was a far smoother ride. Thinking about it a little more, perhaps because it’s slower. Since it takes me so much longer to stop and start, I found myself slowing down earlier to try and conserve as much momentum as I could.

  • All in all, I think that the new bike is going to be really good for me. It’ll slow me down, and calm me down, which are two things that I think I could use. I can also feel how it’s changing the way I ride, making it more smooth, controlled, and thoughtful; keeping my legs moving to give me more exercise and stop them from seizing up; teaching me how to lift my butt off the seat to go over speed bumps while continuing to pedal.

It’s fun. A lot of fun. I’m glad I finally got the conversion done, and I’m really looking forward to riding it.