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Friday, November 7, 2014

Tips for Your Weekend Preposition-Dabbling

One of the most confusing things in new language acquisition is learning colloquial usages, and one of the hardest things about colloquial expressions is the use of prepositions.  Yeah, I know ya'll know what I'm talking about.

Let me break it down: some English examples could be, "You are from Boston," "Come to my house," and "I live in Eritrea."  Once upon a time, your average ten-year-old could parse these sentences and even identify the cases of the nouns, but, dear 21st-century readers, if you're not tracking, the prepositions here are from, to, in

If you want to translate these sentences literally, you are assuming that your target language expresses these ideas using direct equivalents of from, to, in, respectively.

Except, they often don't.

You'll find translations in language dictionaries telling you, as closely as possible, what prepositions correspond to our English ones.  The problem is, we associate a whole array of meanings with each of our prepositions, and the foreign counterpart may contain an overlapping but different assortment of usages.

Think of it like this: Sally and Jane each have a kit of art implements.  Sally's contains crayons, markers, and paints, while Jane's has crayons, colored pencils, and pastels.  In Sally's world, "implement" has three distinct meanings that only overlap with Jane's meanings 33% of the time.

You can think of all prepositions in all languages as little Venn diagrams: circles of content that overlap, each with several of another language's prepositions.  There's just no simple translating mechanism for that.

One solution is to painstakingly memorize all possible meanings of da or en.  Or, you could learn many expressions over time and eventually sort of absorb the various uses of the prepositions therein.  My solution speeds up this second approach.

I've found that the easiest way to learn prepositions is to mentally cache them ALL and avoid ever really translating them into English at all.  See, all prepositions are just descriptions of relationships.  If I am on a boulder, I could misspeak and say that I am under, in or between the boulder, and based on context or visual clues or logic you could mentally correct me.  Each of those words tells of some relationship, and without knowing any of those words you could still see or deduce the idea of on.

So when I read a foreign phrase, I translate it like this:  "John was [preposition] the house," or "I can see [preposition] the window."  I translate everything BUT the preposition, and leave it in its original form. This way I'm just seeing the context, not translating.

My [lay] reasoning is, an English translation brings with it a whole set of assumptions about which usages should be grouped together.  If I translate each usage, I have to mentally knock down and rearrange the boundaries of those categories as I go.  By NOT translating the prepositions, I can use context to slowly, organically create a NEW mental category for grouped relationships.

Easy peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Latin: a sine qua non of a real life?

With budgets and schedules and calendars everywhere stretched thin, it's common to hear people wonder whether there's really a point to all the nice-if-you-have-time endeavors.  Sammy just wants to get into film school and Sarah just wants to be famous (because that's a thing) and Josh just wants to play college ball.  And they all mostly want to make money to spend on the detritus of a superficial life, so they don't have time to waste on things they'll never use, like music theory and geography and...Latin.

The thing is, a lot of time the defenses I read for such subjects sound shallow even to me.  I think this is because even the defenders of the "nice but unprofitable" sometimes underrate these pursuits by buying into the fallacy that each is isolated, and that utility is the measure of worth.

The real question is: what is your goal?  Read on and you'll see that really, this isn't even about Latin.

                         &quot;<a href="" rel="nofollow">Apotheosis of George Washington</a>&quot; - painting in the dome of the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building - Wa...

But first, those weak arguments.  You've probably heard that Latin is behind more than half of English words.  And that medical and law fields use Latin terminology.  And that Latin helps with Romance language acquisition.  But if you don't plan to study English or law or medicine, you may think it doesn't apply to you.  And why tackle a really hard language like Latin as preparation for a comparatively easy language like Spanish?

If you can shrug off these arguments, it's because they aren't great ones.

Latin is an inflected language.  That means the function of the words in sentences are indicated by changing word endings.  In English, this is less noticeable, and our English classes are now taught in such a way as to prevent most students (even English and journalism students, in my experience) from really knowing anything about word function anyway.  But a ridiculous number of languages are inflected, so learning Latin doesn't just prepare you to learn Spanish or recognize legal jargon on TV dramas.  It creates the conceptual capacity for the construction of ideas, across languages.

Second, Latin is a beautiful language.  Russian is inflected, so you could learn about word endings through its study, but its literal translation into English resembles cave-man speak.  Latin, on the other hand, gives us all the powerful, punchy stuff that we want to put on coins and flags and ironic t-shirts.

When you study (study, not survey) a thing that achieves beauty painstakingly, you learn to appreciate beauty, and to identify the source of powerful expression.  Eventually you may learn to produce such expression yourself.  We are no longer a society that stares at the stars and spends time contemplating...anything.  We are a society that stares at phone screens and taps impatient feet at downtime.  So now more than ever, to sit and delve into layers of complexity is to train your mind in the skill of wondering, to rediscover awe.


Lastly, Latin is really, really difficult.  And doing difficult things builds character.  Beware the tendency to assign value based on future remuneration.  This is where that question comes into play.  When you start to portion out your hours and days and years and dollars, you betray your underlying goals.  If you have time for only those activities and investments that feed directly into your career,  your title, your bucket-list, your sense of accomplishment, then your goals are as small as you, and your rewards will be too.

But your humanity is bigger and more corporate than your personal goals.  And difficult things done in a pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness separate humans from production-bots.

You don't have to study Latin, and neither do your kids.  But find a way to cultivate a hunger for benefits that aren't quantifiable.  What doesn't affect your paygrade might still make you better.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What This School Thing Looks Like

I get a lot of questions (and ask a lot of questions of others) as to what it LOOKS like to pack in a school day at home.  Along with all those other bits of life.  It can be a daunting prospect just to get your mind around what a schedule could be.

It can look like anything.  First things first.   It can look like anything

But here's what it has morphed into for us.

In Second grade, Songbird does some variation of these elements:

Daily, we read.  I read novels aloud, fulfilling my lifelong desire to speak in accents. The girls also read alone, silently and aloud.  We even have "book naps" where we all get a break from each other and activity.  We also do some map-drawing and review of old memory work each day.  This takes just minutes.

Nearly every day, we do a math lesson and a timed test of arithmetic facts, and write out a spelling list (in our house, both English and Italian.)

Other subjects get visited several times a week, but not on a tight schedule.  We may loosely alternate science (right now it's a study of origins), English language (we're on linking verbs and poetry), and penmanship.  Any other content is brought in with library books to flesh out whatever we're studying for memory work.  This semester it's early American history and anatomy and physiology.

Extra stuff we squeeze in around the edges includes sports, piano, cooking, and chores (like laundry, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning bathrooms).

Practically speaking, how does that happen?  The only subjects I have to be actively involved in are math, science, and English, so in the mornings I have Songbird knock out a few of the solo tasks, say, draw a map, review old physics facts, and do a timed test, before we hop off to errands or the tennis courts.  Then after lunch, during naptime, I can give more time to whichever major subjects we're studying that day.  We usually only do about an hour to 90 minutes of dedicated work to get this done.  We have a giant checklist of all these work categories and we try to do a bunch every day.  It's that simple. 

We tend to do music and sports at twilight because everyone's awake and it's not ridiculously hot.  This IS the desert.

For Gale Force, who is in Pre-K this year, it looks like this:

The possible things we might include on any given day are reading aloud with me, "reading" alone in her nap, buzzing through a stack of phonogram cards, counting to 100, reviewing memory work, reading and copying a short list of rhyming family words (cat-sat-fat-hat), and playing sports (or, sadly, studying Philly teams academically since we can't always see them in action.)  She probably does only about 15 minutes of dedicated work each day, and I often let her pick what she does.

So....that's how we do that.  :-)

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Hollow Mountaintop

As a state-hopping military spouse, I get to visit a lot of churches.  I’ve seen a lot of variety and a lot of great innovating and a lot of deep tradition.  But I also find that a startling percentage of churches seem oblivious, if not actually hostile, to substance in the musical portion of their worship.

Since the “Shine, Jesus, Shine” heyday of church band cool, we’ve had this odd dichotomy of “contemporary” vs. “traditional” styles, obfuscating the purpose of corporate worship, church growth, and unity beneath a desperate need to follow fleeting trends and look superficially relevant.

In some circles, where vamping on a four-chord pattern brings congregants to tears, we stodgy advocates of lyrical depth are told, “you just don’t GET it.”  It’s a feelings thing.  You have to just feeeeeel the vibe, gauge the audience, let the spirit move.

It’s not that we don’t get the soul-shaking power of music.  God made music to do that.  It’s just that when the soul-shaking comes from the music itself, from repeating a chorus in an endless crescendo, well, we can get exactly that experience from Coldplay, or Chopin, or Native American drum circles. 
That’s a good thing.  God made music to resonate in our hearts, and to that extent, I think you can even worship through Coldplay or Chopin or drum cadences.  (Particularly when Coldplay offers better written stuff than most current worship tunes.)  You can praise God your own way.

But not corporately.  What moves you on your commute doesn’t have to be what you sing in church.  It probably shouldn’t be.

I would go so far as to say that the separation of contemporary and traditional services, and with it of young from old in the pews—the allowing of young people to sway to a hollow electric emotional wave instead of teaching their hearts AND minds to worship in harmony—is a large factor in the mass exodus of teens and college kids from the church.

Eventually kids realize that the musical high isn’t at all unique to “worship” music, and when that’s the bulk of what worship ever offered, they just don’t need church anymore.

Why do we sing corporately?  What’s the point?  We all have different musical tastes, so what is the practical point of getting people from all generations and backgrounds together and forcing them to sing one style of music?  Maybe, as a body, we should reach our highest state of transcendent worship not because a major lift tells us to, or because the guitarist in tight jeans jumped the octave, but because the music causes us to meditate together on earth-shattering truth.

A lot of songs that churches sing (but that should really stay on the radio) start with “I.”  Some of that is ok.  But if most of your songs are about you (I call this the “I want a hug from Jesus” genre), you are probably not getting to earth-shattering truth.

Here are some examples of how to go from insipid to insightful.

Why chant, “You are the reason we’re here!” without ever stipulating what that reason is?  Why say nothing when you could “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and blood flow mingled down.” That’s the reason, right?  Let’s just sing that.

Why say, “Show us your glory” when you could say “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not at him…One little Word shall fell him,” and actually see the glory?

What brings God more honor: to say, even passionately, “I want to worship you,” or to recount his attributes back to him and actually worship?

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Worship has a purpose, and it isn’t to make church cool.  It’s part of a systematic maturing and unifying of its members.  If you need to go bona fide hipster and reset hymns in your own particular idiom, do that.  Sometimes.  But if your congregants are hostile to tradition and substance, your problem isn’t with your cool-factor, it’s with your teaching.

When congregants look past the fleeting trends of what they like to listen to at home, and recite words that generations of Christians have sung before them, they unite not only blue haired lady to long-haired teen, but also harried moderns to the historical church body.  They learn to reach a substantive worship state based on genuine awe at the greatness of our God, the shocking condescension of his Son, and the incomprehensible gift of our salvation. 

Please.  You’re killing me, Smalls.  For all our sakes, let’s sing real things.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Snapshot

I am having the kind of day that I just have to try and put into words because when people ask about homeschooling, we so often skip to the logistical ("How do you choose a math curriculum?") and miss, or can't articulate, the less quantifiable stuff that makes up homeschooling.

Here's what's happened between 8 and 10 am.

After breakfast (it was a cereal kind of a day), the girls finished a 300 piece Pooh puzzle left out from last night.  Then Gale Force wanted me to quizz her on President flashcards because she's four and trivia is her bread and butter.

Meanwhile, Songbird, nightgown-clad, sat playing with a silver candy dish full of chalk, and eventually realized that it was sending sparkly reflections up to the ceiling.  This made her curious, so she began experimenting with the dish, and then with other objects to see what things were reflective.  Since she was so absorbed, I asked occasional questions like "Can you figure out the angle and control the reflection to write and draw on the ceiling?"  and "If the light is bouncing off the shiny things, where is it going with the soft things like the rug?"

Soon she could explain to Gale Force what was happening, and they asked if they could paint plastic box lids to see whether paint changed the reflective qualities.  Um, yes.  And then since the watercolors were out, I let them copy from a book on Andrew Wyeth onto cards to send to all their great-grandparents.  (Although Gale Force looked at a picture of a farmhouse and field and then painted a river with an octopus that doesn't bite, and David with his slingshot and some bullets.)

Education is less about knowing facts (although at some point today we will sit down and do timed addition tests and drill some Latin) and more about finding truth and beauty in life.  Sometimes kids need time to sit idly on the floor with a candy dish until their little minds seize naturally on something solid and knowable and exciting.  And always they need to experience the integration of things, not in a Pocohontas pan-spiritual way, but in moments where the history of American art and the sounding out of words and the valuing of our elders are all instilled in part of a game.

And really, I'm still on my first cup of coffee and we haven't even done any "school" yet.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Good Idea, 21st Century

This toy caught my eye while I was buying pureed prunes in the baby aisle.  I can't think of a lot of things to say about it except that I hope the clever scientists in Eddie Bauer's labs are busily testing protective covers to help our babies play with our concert violins and fencing foils and knife blocks, too.  That would be terrific.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Job, Our Job

How to say this without offending everyone…

If you were among the millions who read this post by Glennon Doyle Melton on Momastery blog and then turned jubilant cartwheels, then don’t hate me if I was more depressed by the article than inspired.

It’s about a teacher who has a quiet, effective method of identifying which children are bullying, being bullied, or at risk.  It’s wonderful stuff, actually.  This teacher, like many fantastic teachers, quietly and consistently cares and changes lives.  Kudos.

Here’s what Glennon says about it, though:

Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is. We agreed that subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom. We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a large community – and we discussed our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are Kind and Brave above all.

The thing about that is, it’s kind of backwards.

The thing about that is, the instilling of Kindness and Bravery, the shaping of little hearts and the raising up of community members, that’s called parenting.

The most important things to be learned in classrooms are, well, math and reading.

I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t be partnering with and supporting parents, too. I had some incredible, influential teachers myself, and as a parent I know that it really does take a village.  But the bullying, the at-risk kids slipping between the cracks, these are the results of abdicating parental roles and asking large institutions to raise and cultivate our children.  To choose and instill values alongside the academics.  We’re asking teachers to stem the tide of dysfunction in fundamentally flawed 20th Century Schooling AND Parenting.

So if, as Glennon claims, teachers like this are “the best and ONLY hope we’ve got for a better world,” (emphasis original), then whose fault is that?


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

When Health Food Kills

"Such a tiresome illness is health, preserved by so much dieting." -Charles de Montesquieu

When you live in SoCal, this happens a lot: 
You are invited to a potluck where none of the guests has actual dietary restrictions.  Yet, one after another, people unwrap dishes and announce with pride, “AND its vegan AND gluten-free!”

In an average group, this fact is irrelevant at best, and at worst a hint at the dish’s mediocrity.  Unless you are serving a vegan with a gluten allergy, there is no reason to wear this like a badge of honor.

But this is SoCal.

And an Italian girl in SoCal craves the company of someone, anyone, who enjoys all that food was intended to be.  A symphony of flavors, a balm for a weary soul, a forger of filial bonds, a spark to kindle ancient memories, a foretaste of eternal glory.  Last and least, very least, a fuel for the human machine.

No one ever lingered for hours of laughter, songs and stories over portioned plates of kale and quinoa.

Biblically, food is used in rich, varied and sometimes emblematic ways.  And churches still enjoy the trusty potluck.  But often, I think that nutrition is also a subtle idol.  I hear moms sigh with relief that, no matter what else happened that day, at least they sneaked pureed dandelions into those muffins.  And while I get it, I like to cook fresh from my garden and I’m proud that there’s no veggie my kids won’t devour, I just think….maybe it’s a little much.  Maybe it shouldn’t be the primary gauge of our success and worth as parents or well-rounded people.  Maybe it shouldn’t be the way you headline your dish.

So if your “desserts” all start with a base of blended garbanzo beans, or if, before eating, you stop to consider What Would Cro-Magnons Do, or if you take in most of your calories all together in one big vitamixed tumbler, then just remember.  It isn’t only the glutton whose relationship with food is unhealthy. 

Everything, even nutrition, in moderation.

A quote from Frances Mayes on Italian meals among friends and family:

“At the call ‘A tavola!,’ to the table, you flush with pleasure; you are coming into a celebratory ambience.  Something wonderful is about to happen.  Food is natural, eaten with gusto.  It must affect your digestion if you think the first quality of pasta is that it’s fattening.  If the word “sin” is attached to dessert.  I’ve never heard of a dish referred to as “your protein” or “a carb,” and there’s no dreary talk at all about glutens, portion control, fat content, or calories.  Eating in Italy made me aware of how tortured the relationship to food is in my country.  After a long Tuscan dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine, but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival.  Dinner invigorates the spirit as it nourishes the body.”

Can your juice cleanse do that?

Friday, January 31, 2014

Old Essays

I found this essay, which I used when I applied to grad school long, long ago.  I guess I feared Self-Destruction By Ignorance long before I drank Classical Kool-Aid.


            Democracy, often characterized by the freedom and equality it offers, is the best we can do with what we are given.  John Locke's Second Treatise, on which much democratic theory leans, emphasizes man's natural state of liberty and reciprocity.  The value of these elements is felt universally, perhaps especially by those who withhold them, for their lack enables such oppressors.  Only where ideas freely find both expression and criticism, can they be properly evaluated and progress be made.  Among governmental systems, Democracy offers man the most freedoms: freedom from oppression, freedom of thought and expression, freedom to earn and possess, but additionally, through checks and representation, freedom from his own tragically flawed nature.

            The human condition is the first challenge to democracy.  A man ultimately looks out for himself.  Locke writes that "good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided."  I suggest that it is more often the fear of punishment that checks our actions than an innate desire to flee evil; will not even the most upstanding driver accelerate a bit if he believes there is no officer around to notice?  The fact that section 6 of Locke's treatise declares that "no one ought to harm another,"  and that he must differentiate so firmly between liberty and license, attests to man's propensity towards the latter.  In the end, democracy preserves itself  by granting freedom in measure, and checking the human impulses that would otherwise destroy it.

            Knowledge, however, not freedom, is man's stealthiest weapon.  Democracy's second limitation lies in its dependence on the informed reasoning of its constituents, for it is not synonymous with freedom; a body of voters may conceivably offer up its governance to a dictator or religious zealot.  The nature of democracy is only to allow the people to continually tweak their own society through consensus and representation, and without education and the ability to reason, democracy can be the undoing of a people.  Democracy combats foolishness in the same manner that it addresses human evil; it depends on systems of balances and on sheer numbers to sift out the bad.

            There is nothing exceptional in a man's concern for his own interests.  The foresight to design a system that best secures those interests for all men over time is a rarity.  The founders of Democracy could not have believed in a perfect system, because they did not believe in the perfect human nature that such a system requires.  Though checks and balances are no certain cure for man's flaws, the brilliance of democracy is that it acknowledges the depth of depravity and ignorance, and systematically disarms them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Salted Cod Philosophy

“What you see, you know,” wrote Frances Mayes in Every Day in Tuscany.

What you see, you know.  Well, empirically.

You could as well say, “What you see, you interpret.”  Or, “What you think you see, you insist upon.”

My Songbird has gotten into the habit of correcting me when she thinks I have misspoken.  (Bad habits in children develop, it seems, instantaneously and then must be dug up, their snaking roots elusive, over months, years, and lifetimes.) 

“Brush your teeth and make sure you gather your blankies before you go up.”

“You mean blankies.”

“That’s what I said.”

“You said blankets.”

“I will smack you with a baccala.”

I win ten out of ten of these daily disagreements because I am The Mother.  But even as Songbird’s self-control improves and she learns to keep a placid countenance, I know she knows what she heard.  And I know I know what I said.

One of us is wrong.

Both of us know what we heard, what we see, what we know.

And that’s the trouble with empiricism.