Month: January 2012

Comparative Winters

Last year we were in the midst of one of the wettest winters I’ve ever experienced in Utah. This year we are in the middle of one of the driest. The contrast is striking. I keep considering stealing one of the 50 degree days to sneak outside and do some spring garden preparatory work. Then I don’t because half a dozen projects are more pressing. Gardening can wait until we’re actually in springtime. To remind myself of what winter really ought to look like, I have this photo from last year.

I admire the lovely ice, while being simultaneously glad for the lack of windshield scraping and driveway shoveling. Yet even this dry winter is more wintry than those during my growing-up years in California. Here is a picture I took while visiting California in January of 2010.

And I think I’ll stop there. This picture is far lovelier than the brown lawn outside my window.

The Ferris Bueller Super Bowl Commercial Makes Me Both Happy and Sad

Honda shot an ad with Matthew Broderick which is a distillation of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If by any chance you haven’t seen it yet, click through and watch. I’ll wait.

Click here to go see the commercial

This ad makes me happy because it perfectly embodies the nostalgia of the film. I loved the film. I recently re-watched it with my kids and they loved it too. As an ad, it doesn’t work so well. I feel inspired to go watch the movie, not to buy a car. On the other hand, perhaps it works really well because here I am blogging about it and lots of people are sharing links to the commercial

However, I also come away from the commercial with a sadness. If the ad makes you happy and you want to stay happy with it, feel free to stop reading.

One of the most wonderful things about Ferris Bueller is that he thought big. Lots of high school seniors sluff school, but Ferris didn’t just go to the mall or stay home playing video games. He did a dozen things that wouldn’t even occur to most teenagers, a fine art museum, a fancy restaurant, dancing in a parade, etc. His horizons were broad, he reached for the sky, and he dragged his friends along with him. I’d expect an adult Ferris to figure out how to get two weeks off of work so that he could travel the world, draw street art in Paris, dance in Portugal, earn a million dollars and give it away to villagers in Africa. That one guy who did his silly little dance all over the world is doing exactly the sort of thing I’d expect Ferris to do. This car commercial shows me Matthew Broderick doing the adult equivalent of hanging out at the mall. Not only that, but Broderick is all alone. Where are his friends? Ferris didn’t just free up himself for a brilliant day, he gave one to others as well. It makes me sad to picture Ferris growing up to be so very ordinary.

I’m off to go see if Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is available for streaming.

Antelope Island: January

When I went to Antelope Island last October, I knew I had to go there again. I wanted to bring my daughters, who I knew would love the place as much as I did. The park is open year round and the brochures list things to look for by month. Today we packed ourselves into the car along with lots of warm clothes to go see how the animals fared in winter.

Kiki drove. She is trying to get the last few hours of driving practice which are required before she can test for her license. She loved driving across the causeway and around the island. She could drive at a leisurely pace which she found relaxing. There were some people on the island, but not many. Most people seek out indoor recreation midwinter. I was fascinated to see that the water on one side of the causeway was frozen in a solid sheet. The other side was liquid.

We began our visit by driving down to the south end of the island to the Fielding Garr Ranch. We were greeted there by a volunteer who gave us a quick orientation to the ranch buildings. They ranged from over 150 years old to a mere 30 years old. All the eras in between were represented in various machines, tools, and implements. These things were arrayed for us to look at and to touch. The whole place was completely hands-on. Gleek was in heaven. She particularly loved the blacksmithy.

Kiki got cold after awhile and returned to the car, but Gleek wanted to look at every inch of the small homestead and barn. My favorite place was the spring house. It was this little rock building half buried in the ground right over a spring. Food that needed to be kept cold would be wrapped and placed in the icy spring water. We were able to walk inside and look around. I particularly liked the view toward the door.

The one thing about Garr Ranch we all loved were the owls

One of the volunteers led us into a copse of trees and showed us where to look. There they were, glaring down at us for waking them up. Unfortunately my camera wanted to focus on the branches in front of the owls instead of them. The same guide pointed to some distant trees where Bald Eagles hang out, but we opted to take our frozen fingers back to the van.

We did some sight seeing from the van and saw lots of buffalo. We even sighted a coyote out wandering by himself across the ice of a bay. Our next stop was the same beach that I photographed last fall.

In October silence was the first thing I noticed about the island. This time I had chatty company, but on the beach silence returned. We walked across frozen sheets of ice, noticing that salt water ice is springy-er than normal ice. It clumped in unexpected ways. Gleek liked to walk on sheets and use her toes to chase the air bubbles under the surface.

Once again the beach encouraged photography.

We spent a lot of time admiring the glass-smooth surface of the water, or looking out to the sand bar filled with seagulls.

On our way back to the van we took a side trip through the tall reeds. We were obviously not the first to do so. A trail of sorts wove through the clump. When I exited the beauty of the sun touched reeds against the blue sky caught my attention.

It is an interesting exercise in photographic lighting. I was able to completely change the effect of the reeds and sky by facing the setting sun instead of shooting away from it. This shot was taken simply by rotating from the one above.

When we left the island, it was understood that we need to come back. In the spring. When we can go on some of those hikes that we drove past because our fingers were still numb from the two trips out of the car that we’d already taken. I tucked some of the silence of the island into my heart. It’ll have to last until I can go back again.

Getting Older

“So does 39 feel any different than 38?” Howard asked the morning after my birthday.
I paused a moment, searching my mind for any reaction. “Not really.” I answered. The day itself passed with no particular fanfare other than Howard and I splurging on a nice dinner. I don’t feel any particular angst about getting older because I greatly value the experiences I have gained. That said, I do feel a growing awareness that I am probably near the best possible intersection of wisdom and energy. I know enough to make good plans and I still have the energy and time to carry them out. Later in my life I will have even more wisdom, but at some point energy is going to ebb. With luck this particular intersection will last me a decade or two. If I’m really lucky, it will last three. I still have time to accomplish many things. Yet I am beginning to be aware that I am near the point where I have less time ahead of me than I have behind. Howard says that the first 15-20 years don’t really count in this particular math. Those years are all about growing up and that this equation should measure adulthood. In that case, I have another decade before I cross the line into less-time-ahead land. Or it is possible that a medical diagnosis or accident will show me that I crossed that threshold some time in years past. All of it is merely a thought experiment. No matter how much time I do or do not have, my real task is to decide what I should do with today. If I fill my life with well-chosen todays, then my life will be good; no matter how long or short it may be.

Preparing for College

Kiki came home from school with four colorful brochures. They extolled the virtues of an art college with campuses in Georgia, Hong Kong, and France. Kiki flipped through the pages and rattled on about how good it would be for her to get out where she can really be grown up and how nice it would be to surround herself with other students who loved art the way she did. My response was to ask the question pounding in my brain.
“How much does this school cost?” The response, $30,000 per year, led us into a discussion about cost and benefit. Then into talking, once again, about advantages that are available to Kiki because of the quantity of working artists with whom we have business contacts. Then I looked over at Kiki. She was closed down, clutching the brochures to her chest. I remembered the light in her eyes when she’d first unfolded them. Howard and I back-tracked.
“Show me the page about the horses again.” I said. Kiki flipped open the brochure and described the things that the college representative had explained to her AP Art class. This time I listened.

Now is the time for Kiki to be excited about the possibilities for her future. She needs to picture dozens of paths for her life. There is no choosing to be done yet, just the growing process of possibility. All the years before this Kiki’s life has been dictated by others. Adults have guided her path, told her where to go and what to learn. The realization that she can choose for herself is both exhilarating and frightening. The very process of picturing herself in Georgia, or Hong Kong, or France changes the way she thinks about who she can be. Next year, after applications, acceptances, and rejections, will be plenty of time for us to talk about specifics and logistics. Then Kiki will be ready to begin narrowing down and weighing which path is most likely to take her to a destination that she wants.

This year is also a learning process for Howard and I. We’re beginning to imagine a future in which our oldest is launched out into the world. Rather than just generally knowing that at some point college expenses will come, we’re beginning to view our financial picture to evaluate what is possible. We have to make careful decisions about the level of financial support we are able to extend, because whatever we do for Kiki will set a precedent for three children to follow. We need to choose something sustainable across four college educations, some of which will over lap each other. A friend has decided to sever all financial ties once her kids hit college. Other friends support their children all the way through. We don’t know what our balance needs to be, but we are beginning to picture possible choices.

All three of us are learning about the emotional processes involved with the launch into the college years. For one thing, we need to let Kiki dream as big and as far as she wants this year. A week after the brochures, Kiki returned to saying that perhaps she wants to go to the local college and live at home to save money. She is alternately thrilled by adventure and wants to stay comfortably close. Sometimes the impending application process makes her stressed, other times she is calm and confident.

We try to stay in “Calm and Confident” land as much as possible, but there is so much frantic urgency regarding college applications. School teachers, counselors, and other advisers all hand out lists. They give long lectures on what colleges look for. Students and parents end up with the impression that everything must be started right now and done exactly right. The truth is that anyone who and figure out how to pay for college education can have one. The high pressure is only necessary if the student hopes to enter a career for which an Ivy League college is required. Along Kiki’s educational path we’ve made decisions based on her current educational needs first and how it will look on a college application second. It is possible that will affect which colleges she is accepted to attend. I still think all the choices were the right ones.

We attended a scholar’s night which had sessions about standardized testing, college applications, financial aid, and a host of other post-high school possibilities. I noticed that the representative of one college pointed at the list of recommended classes and emphasized that they were not required for acceptance. He told us that GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and the quantity of AP classes had more effect than whether a student had two years of language classes. He said that the recommended list was simply there because it was this sort of a balanced academic curriculum that was most likely to help students be prepared for the sorts of work they would be expected to do in college. Yet if you talk to the average school counselor, they will get quite intense about the need to get every class on that recommended list. It is fascinating how the drive to give students every possible advantage creates stress where it need not exist.

It helps me see that the application process is actually a useful tool for students. If you are not accepted at a particular school, it is possible that you simply aren’t prepared for it anyway. It takes a certain sort of academic focus to thrive at Harvard, and it may be a kindness to keep out the ones who are not ready. I find this thought calming. If Kiki is accepted at a college, it is because the registrars believe that the education paths we have chosen have suited her to succeed at their school. We’ll continue to make our best choices at every step, because that is all we can do.

Our next college preparation step is almost upon us. Registration for her senior year will start in a week or so. We’ll have one last opportunity to choose classes which will be on her transcripts for college applications. We’re also beginning to look up college websites and request more information. Standardized testing looms as well. Each of these things is new, but none are worth the level of stress which is often attached. Yes they have an effect, but none is the make-or-break point for her entire future. As long as we can continue to see that, we’ll do fine. In the meantime, we’ll be flipping through more brochures and picturing what is possible.

Getting It Wrong

I always cringe just a little when the caller ID reads “Public School” in the middle of the day. No matter what the reason for the call, it means that my day is about to be rearranged. This particular call was no different.
“I’m trying to give Patch his reading test, but he is just sitting there not working. Can you come down?” My heart sank. It was one of many interactions with Patch’s teacher. She was trying her best to help my son. We’d attempted several strategies to help him engage more, participate more, and get his work done in school hours. Yet here we were, faced with a state mandated test. He’d passed it with flying colors in the fall. I knew he could pass it again, but not if he wouldn’t pick up his pencil.
“Yes I’ll come.” I answered and then rearranged my day. While I was at it, I also rearranged the following day. It was time for me to observe Patch in his classroom. We needed better solutions and, to figure out what they might be, I needed more information.

I had a lot of information already, of course. I’d been observing the teacher since September. I’d paid attention every time I was in the classroom. I watched Patch do his homework. I sat with him every time he brought home unfinished class work. Like Patch’s teacher, I’d watched him gradually freeze up and lose confidence. In the face of a question for which he did not know the answer, he would stop. I began to recognize that he was terrified of getting things wrong. He was also not asking questions if he was confused. Speaking up is hard for Patch, particularly when it will focus group attention on him. I think it ties back to his fear of getting things wrong.

I walked into Patch’s class. He sat alone at his desk. All his classmates were gathered on the floor for a group activity. Patch looked up at me with wet eyes. The teacher kindly and wisely moved all the rest of the class into the music room to practice for an upcoming performance. Patch and I had a private space. I had to begin with scolding. When a child reaches the point where a parent has to be called down, scolding is in order. Three sentences later, Patch slumped into a repentant heap on his desk. It was enough. He knew he’d made a poor choice, so I gave him the opportunity to make a right one.
“I have to be here and you have to take this test. For every minute that I have to sit here and you don’t work, we’ll have a consequence at home. If you keep working, you can avoid adding to your consequence.”

Patch picked up his pencil and the work began. I could not give him answers, but I could repeat the things I’d been saying at home for weeks. “If you don’t know the answer, skip it and move on. Come back to it later.” “Keep your pencil moving.” Patch did keep working. I watched him when the work was smooth. I saw his forehead crinkle when he was confused. But he kept working, right up until he finished and went back to the skipped questions.
“I don’t know how to answer this!” he pleaded. It was a question asking his opinion on a story character. I could tell the question was not looking for a specific answer, but was just checking to see if he had focused on the story enough to pull details from it.
I looked into Patch’s eyes and said “Then get it wrong. Write something about her pink elephant.”
Patch looked at me confused. “She doesn’t have an elephant.”
“Okay. Write something about her purple balloon. Or pick something that is actually in the story. Just read the question and write the first answer you think of. Don’t try to figure out if it is the best possible answer. Just get it wrong and move on.”
Patch looked at me for a long minute, then turned and began to write.

Get it wrong and move on.
Sometimes there is no perfect answer. Sometimes I am exactly like Patch in this. I plan ahead. I study all the angles. I fret about all the repercussions, trying to see how this small decision will fork into future possibilities. But sometimes the right answer is any answer. I need to get it wrong and move on. There is almost always a chance to fix it later.

Patch got his answer right. Once he stopped being so afraid of getting things wrong, he knew which words needed to be on the page. He finished that test in the allowed time. More important, he worked without stopping. We walked out of the school triumphant. Instead of continuing to wallow in misery I was able to praise his efforts.

The next day I observed his class at the invitation of his teacher. He had a pretty good day, possibly because I was there. Watching him reassured me that much of the time he was fairly happy at school. There were just these spots which were hard on both him and the teacher. By the end of the day my subconscious had absorbed enough information to toss out an idea. I shared it with the teacher and she agreed it sounded good.

I made a bingo card for Patch. The squares say things like “I raised my hand to give an answer” and “I worked during all of the assigned time.” When Patch does one of these tasks, he brings his bingo card to his teacher and she signs the square. The central square is the one that Patch is allowed to award to himself. It reads “I told myself ‘I can do this.'” Three in a row earns him a treat when he comes home. A black out of all nine squares earns him a big treat. The bingo card gives Patch small things he can be doing to stay engaged in class. He remains focused on the things he can do. It also gives the teacher several chances to interact positively and praise Patch throughout the day.

The day I was called in was last Wednesday. Today was Parent Teacher Conferences. Instead of having a concerned conversation about how to help him, the teacher and I were able to share smiles about how well things are going. This was our third attempt at helping Patch. Looks like we finally have the right answer. Either that, or Patch just solved the problem for himself. Doesn’t matter. “Get it wrong and move on” has brought us to a good place.

Convenience and Hard Work

First thing this morning I tweeted “Today I will perform 12 acts of heroism ala Hercules. Only I’ll do it in a more modern and convenient way. #ModernQuests” I followed up that pronouncement with several feats.
First feat: de-ice my car and drive to staples to fetch a printer cartridge so that @howardtayler can print Schlock
Feat of strength: admitting that I need to find a clerk to help me lift the box of printer paper.
Feat of Wisdom: Stepping away from the internet to work on layout via shuffling pieces of paper around on a table.

When I began the listing, it was mostly a way to psyche myself into going outdoors in the cold. Then I enjoyed the humorous contrast between epic heroism and the simple things I was doing with my day. My amusement petered out and I stopped posting because I was getting actual work done. However I did find myself pondering modern societies’ fixation on convenience. We’d all be heroes if it was convenient. The surest way to adjust crowd behavior is to make the behaviors you want convenient and to make undesirable behaviors inconvenient. I see used to see this all the time on my college campus. Students made paths right across lawns despite all the signs. The only way the grounds keeper could prevent it was by planting bushes to adjust traffic.

I wonder what effects the predominant convenience culture has on our psychologies. What effect does it have on me. How often do I make poor food choices based on convenience rather than nutrition. Logically I know that hard work is the way to get the things I want, and yet I still find myself paddling around in pools of convenience. I guess I just have to do as the grounds keeper did and try to adjust my lift to encourage the behaviors I want.

A Month of Letters

Today Mary Robinette Kowal issued her Month of Letters challenge. I’ve had the good fortune to be one of Mary’s correspondents since last November and I have to say that her points about letter writing match up exactly with my experience. I was a prolific writer of letters in my teenage years and I find that I still enjoy it. I enjoy the feeling of paper and writing by hand. My thoughts slow down for letter writing and I ponder the shape of things. Sometimes I’ve been mid-letter and discovered an insight into the subject about which I’m writing. These insights are shaken loose because handwriting a letter breaks up my usual patterns of thoughts. So, I’m going to take Mary’s challenge to mail something every day (that the post is picked up) during February. I have to add a couple of personal caveats to the challenge.

1. I’m not allowed to count packages that I mail to customers. The point is to reach out in new ways, not to pretend I’ve accomplished a challenge by simply doing what I usually do.

2. I am allowed to abandon this challenge at any point if it becomes stressful. I’m trying to add slivers of happiness to my life, not give myself yet another huge project filled with stress.

I don’t know yet who I’ll mail things to, or what I’ll send. Something small. Possibly a letter. If you want to be on the list of people to whom (might) I send things, feel free to send me your mailing address via either my personal email address, or my business address (schlockmercenary at If you want to join the challenge and send something to me, I can be reached at:
Sandra Tayler
PO Box 385
Orem UT 84059

No matter how this challenge turns out, I expect it will be interesting.

The Bucket of Fish

I am glad to see Link developing interests which take him outdoors and away from his beloved video games. I am incredibly grateful to his scout leaders who aid him in developing those interests. However the particular bent of those interests resulted in Link coming home from today’s ice fishing trip with a dozen perch in a bucket. He held the bucket up proudly for me to examine. I looked at the fish in the bottom and then one of them twitched.
“They’re not dead.” I yelped.
“Yeah.” said Link. “Perch can live a long time out of the water.”
We placed his bucket of fish outside the back door and then listened while Link regaled us with his adventures. I love listening to Link talk when he is enthusiastic. His typically short sentences lengthen out and his eyes are bright. He’d had a great time and arrived home with a sense of accomplishment. The experience of fishing had been good for him. After he went downstairs to shower, I peeked out the window at the bucket of fish. One of them twitched again.

We are carnivores here at the Tayler house. I do not think it is a bad thing for all of us to confront the fact that eating meat means that an animal had to die for our dinner. Buying prepared meat from a grocery store disconnects us from that. The bucket of fish forced us to face it. Someone was going to have to gut those fish. Looking out the window at the fish, I admit that there was a strong temptation to “forget” about them until they needed to be trashed. However I ccouldn’t think of anything more disrespectful to life than to catch fish, let them die in a bucket, and then throw them out. If Link intended to pursue fishing, then he needed to understand all of the consequences of it. He needed to be willing to prepare and eat the fish he caught. If he was not, then he needed to not go fishing.

The trouble was that not one of us is experienced with gutting fish. They are slippery and injury is a real possibility if proper technique is not used. I couldn’t teach proper technique unless I knew what it was and practiced it enough times. I was going to have to gut some fish first before I could teach Link. There is a reason that my kids have never been fishing, despite the fact that they’ve all said they’d like to go. I’ve chosen to arrange my life so that gutting fish is not something I need to do. But the bucket of fish was already present, right outside the back door. Something had to be done. YouTube demonstrated for me. Howard sharpened a knife. He arranges his life to avoid fish gutting too. I was the one unwilling to waste the bucket of fish, so I was the one who got to wield the knife. The rest was me learning through practical experience. I had Link watch. Next time he’ll need to help.

All of the kids were a little bit fascinated by this process. They were interested in the fish and the ickiness of the guts. On some level I was too. There were also several levels on which I was disturbed by the entire thing. It was the same set of feelings I had years ago when we dissected frogs in Biology class. I worried that the process might prove traumatic to one of the kids. I fended off my own disturbance and their potential trauma by keeping up a running conversation about fish, biology, respecting life, and what on earth is that weird thing that just fell into the sink. Guts are very strange.

Cooking the fish was also new territory. We don’t cook fish often, particularly not small fresh water fish with tiny bones. The result was reasonably good, but picking out all the tiny bones was a fiddly process. Link liked eating the fish. This means he will not starve to death when his scout troop goes on a multi-day fishing campout this summer.

So I learned something new today. And then I showered a lot.

Things That Made Today Good

1. Teaching an art project to twenty five 3rd graders. It involved throwing scraps of colored paper on their desks, handing them scissors, and telling them “have at it!” As they cut and glued I would talk about negative space, color contrasting, and over lapping shapes to create textures. The variety of things they created was really cool. More heartwarming for me was the fact that they recognized me and obviously liked having me in class.

2. Going out to lunch with Howard. Despite the fact that I was fairly low-energy, Howard kept making cheerful conversation. Some of it had nothing to do with our shared business. Also the food was happy-making food.

3. Napping.

4. It is Friday. This means that the kids and I all ignore homework for the entire afternoon and evening. We replace it with movies, video games, and staying up later than usual.

5. Taking a sledge hammer and crowbar to the final vestiges of wall in my office. It is nice to have the project ready for the next phase. It was even nicer to get to wield the sledge and crowbar. There is something really satisfying in demolition. As a bonus, I got the work done and my wrist was fine. The painful twinges from a week ago did not return.

6. Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate and Caramel

7. The weather was sunny and warm.

8. Sitting in my front room next to a potted hyacinth in bloom.

9. Someone else did the massive pile of dishes.

10. My kids, just by existing. Somehow today they just made me glad every time I saw them.

11. Scriptures and hope. Read the first, felt the second. I still have a couple of things at the forefront of all my prayers. It is my job to keep them there, but I feel strongly that the things I’m petitioning for are on the way.

12. Howard. He makes me laugh.

13. My opera wallet and new business card case. I got them a few weeks ago, but they are pretty. Holding them in my hand and feeling the slight click as they shut makes me happy. It is a little like the feeling I had as a little girl when playing dress up. I’d try on the clothes and feel like I was grown up. Now I am grown up, but holding these slightly old-fashioned things still gives me that sense of pretending to be someone I aspire to be. The right props can really make a difference.

15. The fact that one of my LTUE panel topics is something I suggested last year. This means that one of the symposium planners liked the idea enough to remember it a whole year later and put it on the schedule.

16. The fact that I arrived at the end of the day with a list of happy things.