11. An icy rain

For an icy rain that clings sluggish to twigs, railings, fences, windshields, the undersides of cheap patio furniture. Chilled to dribbling stalactites, unwilling to commit to a freeze but unable to run away. Winter, who not so long ago was fierce, full of energy, even playful — was it only last month? — has become a petulant child up past bedtime and too tired to sleep, throwing one after another diminishing tantrum. Flinging sleet into resentful faces. Mashing shoots of grass into resentful puddles. Frosting over flower petals like candy on a cake, then wandering off as they melt, and wilt. Spattering crystals that glimmer in the gray light, crying out from the mud, demanding attention. The pines refuse this time to participate: keep their needles uniced, and politely turn away. His parents watch embarrassed from the window, themselves too weary for discipline and knowing it to be futile. Go to sleep, kid! But there is no helping it. He will just have to wear himself out.

4. The crocus

For the crocus, baptized by mud, rising quiet through the dark earth and into the light, green shoots in the winter’s first waning, unnoticed for the shivering. Blooming now as the frost gives way in Lenten purple and Easter white. And gold: You did not know they blossomed in gold. Are there more colors? you asked. I said that if there are I have not seen them, but I would not presume to limit the palettes of God and horticulture. I would not presume to define the crocus.

In defense of false expectations

Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”

But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized. Continue reading “In defense of false expectations”

Ordinary miracles

Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.

We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.

“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”

I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car. Continue reading “Ordinary miracles”

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: Continue reading “Area man still not eating his veggies”

Bluets, adverbs, and education

Originally published in Front Porch Republic.

On a gorgeous April Wednesday I am filling in as substitute homeschool teacher. We do arithmetic; we do a language lesson about adverbs and Emily Dickinson. Then—did I mention the day is gorgeous? that the air through the window is crisp and fills the lungs with hope and delight? that the cardinals are courting round the bay tree and a wren is chirping from the buckthorn? that the sky is blue, the dandelions gold, the violets… er, violet? All this is so, and the substitute teacher, less inspired by whatever lies in the plan book before him than by the season swiftly unfolding outside the window, calls an audible.

“Let’s go for a hike,” I say. Continue reading “Bluets, adverbs, and education”

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again. Continue reading “Beet greens”

Let it snow. No, really

Saturday we had significant snowfall for the first time in four years: only an inch and a half, but enough that I no longer need fear that the Monkey will begin to think the stuff a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and supply-side economics. In a normal winter we get a little snow — seven-plus inches is the annual mean — but it hasn’t snowed as much as an inch since 2004. Having grown up with doorknob-high drifts and blanket forts on snow days and twice-layered jeans that soaked through sledding and left crimson cold burns on my thighs, I’ve had to lower my standards for “significant snowfall” these latter barren years. Now I get excited by flakes no bigger than my dog’s dandruff, and my daughter, having no standards at all, makes do with whatever she finds: the five inch-high snowperson adorning our porch rail attests to the determination of a child who can read chapter books about polar bears but has never set foot in snow deeper than the tread on her boots:

baby snowpeople

Sad, but one has to make do with what one has. I filled the bird feeders, gave the ducks fresh straw, checked to make sure I still owned a snow shovel, and settled in to enjoy the show. Even the basset hounds, who had never seen snow either, loved it — a clean slate for scents, I suppose — although if we get a real snow one day, I am going to have to knit poor Everett a jock strap.