Thursday, August 28, 2008

The first chills of autumn come in summer

Life comes in stages, not all of them pleasant.

Ten to fifteen years ago everyone I knew was getting married. The year Natasha and I tied the knot, there were three other couples we were friends with who made it official.

The weddings were followed within a few years by a prolonged slew of babies. My brother Herb and his wife, Pam, had a son. Natasha and I followed less than a year later with Evangeline. Then Ward and his wife, Rhoda, had a daughter. All told there are five little Learnlings running around right now, though the youngest is 5.

Last year I noticed a number of my friends were separating and getting divorced. The marriages that were pledged to last the rest of their lives were coming crashing down around them, and one by one, they were deciding to leave.

And now, while it is still summer, I can feel the first chill of autumn as wind stirs in the leaves overhead.

I buried an aunt last year, followed by an uncle. We buried Natasha's mother this summer, taken by an early frost. Now I have another aunt in Georgia who has been given two to eight weeks to live.

And my own parents, who at 68 have had good innings, are no longer as young as they once were. They're both slowing down, and though they've been there my whole life, it's increasingly plain to see that they won't be there forever.

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and as the day ends, all slips into darkness. This too is meaningless.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

beautiful explanation of death

A terminally ill man had been visiting his pastor. As he was preparing to leave, he turned to his pastor and said, "Pastor, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side."

Very quietly, the pastor said, "I don't know."

"You don't know?" the man asked incredulously. "You're a Christian man, you're a preacher. Don't you know what is on the other side?"

The pastor had been holding the handle of the door to his study. From the other side of the door came a sound of scratching and whining, and as he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness.

Turning to his parishoner as the dog ran to the center of the room and stood by the nice new ottoman, the pastor said, "Did you notice my dog? He's never been in this room before. He didn't know what was inside. He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened, he sprang in without fear. I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing: I know my master is there, and that is enough."

And then he kicked the dog for piddling on the furniture.

May today there be peas within you,
And lettuce and watercress too.
May you trust God that you are exactly
Where you are meant to be,
Unless you're in Harrisburg, or
Just outside Augusta, Georgia,
In which case you're probably screwed.
I believe that friends are quiet angels
Who quietly bear us along when our wings
Have trouble remembering how to fly.

(So please don't drop me. It's a long way down.)

inconstant faith

My experience with evangelicals is that there is a game of Pretend afoot that the faith has been largely consistent from the time of Abraham down to the present.

Clearly there is some truth to this, but let's not kid ourselves. Our interpretation of Scripture, our concepts of morality and justice, and many of our doctrines have changed, sometimes drastically over the past two millennia. Not only do we like to believe that extrabiblical concepts like capitalism and democracy were important to ancient Jews and ancient Christians, but we also have changed our understanding the Bible itself.

Honest faith must also admit honest doubt, and honest doubts need to be acknowledged and explored. God is big enough to handle tough questions, and it's not as though he's surprised when we ask them. Refusing to voice them leaves us with unresolved questions and a lingering, festering suspicion that we've been sold a bill of goods.

Satan's one example. Popular Christian culture has a lot to say about the rebellion in heaven, the way the highest of all the angels led a rebellion that ended with a third of the angels cast into hell and becoming demons. This is a great story, and I love it as much as the nice guy, but it's not exactly in the Bible. It's older than John Milton and "Paradise Lost," but as far as I can tell, the story first gained traction a few centuries after the canon was complete.

The gospel presentation has changed too. These dates we share the gospel by describing how all have sinned against God, putting us under sentence of death because God is holy and cannot abide the presence of sin or sinful people. The good news is that Christ stepped in and took that punishment in our place, satisfying God's need for justice, so that we can be spared the pains of hell as long as we accept Jesus as our personal savior.

That's quite a bit different from the older doctrine of Christus Victor, and also differs quite significantly from the first recorded creed "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and with the mouth that you confess and are saved" (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

Unlike our modern gospel presentation, which requires personal confession of sin, there's nothing in that creed about confessing sin. It's all about confessing Jesus' sovereignty and resurrection. See the difference?

There's also the matter of sexual mores and morality. For centuries, the Christian concept of marriage looked radically different from our Western norm of getting married in church before having sex. In older times, couples would cohabitate and have children before getting their union blessed by the a priest, sometimes years later. The church in some parts of Christian Europe even recognized trial marriages that aren't that different from today's practice of premarital cohabitation.

Nowadays it's heterosexual married families ûber alles. The insistence on marriage-vows-first very well may be closer to what God desires, but I don't think we're kidding anyone but ourselves when we claim that the way we do things now in the West is how they've always been done or properly should be done always.

And so it is with hell. When Jesus talks about hell, he's describing the city dump outside Jerusalem. When we talk about hell with its picturesque and exquisitely grotesque torments for the dammed that go on day and night without stop, we're influenced by the Dante's hauntingly beautiful poetry in "The Divine Comedy."

We owe it to ourselves to do better than supporting a folk version of Christianity. It's essential to chase down the original meaning and intent of the Scriptures. Scrape away the barnacles and see what the hull of the ship is like underneath.

What does the Bible really say about hell, about heaven, about demons, about Jesus, and about even itself?

One quick example of how hell has been developed, away from the biblical teaching. Matthew 25 shows the exalted Son of Man judging the nations, and separating them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the goats, the wicked, he says, "Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."

The funny thing is, the audience to that particular speech was a group of people who clearly believed in him. They recognized the Lord when they saw him, and asked in bewilderment, "But did we not heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons in your name?" If the term Christian has any meaning in the context of that parable, this group was in like Flynn.

Or there's the servant -- not an enemy, but a servant -- whose talent of gold is taken away and given to another; the servant whose debt was forgiven and then was beaten and thrown into prison. I've never heard these understood as anything but metaphors for hell, and yet the people being thrown there are all servants of the king/master/lord, thereby marking them as people whom today we would identity as Christians. So who is hell for?

Quite often, the Bible does not say what we have been taught to think it does, and though the investigation often leaves me with more questions than answers, I find that I prefer the uncertainty of faith to the cold hard certainty of what I was once taught to settle for.

We've been playing this game of Let's Pretend for far too long. Isn't it time to rediscover for ourselves what the Bible really says, and let that shape our faith?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

hell just froze over

Despite my earlier kvetching, I have beaten the system at its own game once again.
The cutoff date for first grade in our school district is Oct. 15. In order to begin first grade, you had to have been born at least six years ago by Oct. 15. If you were later than that, you need to wait until next year before you can enroll. Rachel was born Oct. 30, too late for this year.

Well, despite being born two weeks too late to enter first grade this year, Rachel has been approved for first grade this year, owing to her course of education at home the past year. This comes despite the many assurances I have received over the years that no one ever gets an exception from a school district's cutoff date, not never, not no how.
Teachers and administrators alike at the charter school are amazed that I pulled it off.
That fluttering sound you hear is pigs flying.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

my neural synapses fuse

At the library today as I practiced language skills with the girls, I managed not only to be outdone by the girls but also to lose what meager skills I have in any language.

After we returned the books that were due today, Evangeline and I started practicing our Esperanto. It works like this: I read her a word, and she gives me the Esperanto equivelant. Then I use the word in a sentence, and she has to translate the sentence. If I ask her a question, she has to answer me in Esperanto. (This has all sorts of insidious purposes. Besides teaching her the language, I pass on subversive ideas, like Bonaj demandoj ne havas facilajn respondojn. "Good questions don't have easy answers.")

So we're on a roll, going back and forth, and then suddenly Rachel interjects a translation on her own. An accurate one.

I have given her virtually no instruction in Esperanto. She's drilled me on some of my vocabulary, and she's heard me make simple requests in Esperanto, but otherwise it's stuff she's overheard me explaining to her fratino or she's picked up from our impromptu conversations.

So my brain pops the clutch over that one. I wrestle it back into gear, and then suddenly Evangeline starts correcting my grammar. "You forgot to add the -N!" she wails. (It's true. I keep forgetting to add the -N for the accusative case.)

Then I realize that while I'm using words I've learned from the more advanced lessons that Evangeline hasn't reached, she is having no trouble following me. Demandi is an infinitive; theoretically, all Evangeline should know is the verb forms. In practice, she's already converted it into a noun, demando/n, and doing the same with other verbs.

I used to be ahead of her, mostly because I am the teacher, and so I need to understand it if I'm going to teach her. I now realize that my vocabulary is slightly larger, probably because I'm already bilingual and know a smattering of French and Spanish to boot, but she is rapidly eclipsing whatever advantage I have. Her brain is wired right now for language acquisition, while for me it's work.

So much work that my language center finally seized up and stopped working completely. We were having a little back-and-forth in Esperanto when I said, "Jodia estas los compleanos de your grandfather."

The girls looked at me like I made no sense. Which I didn't -- in four different languages. I had mashed them all together into one coherent statement that made sense only to me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

rolling my chronometer upward

Today, August 24, is my birthday. I am turning 38. I therefore am inviting everyone who reads this blog to join in celebrating this annual event in the manner that seems most appropriate.
Some suggestions:
  1. Go on a pub crawl in my honor.
  2. Visit the library and lose yourself in a dozen good books.
  3. Go see "The Dark Knight."
  4. Take up either suborbital skydiving, or parasailing in the upper Jovian atmosphere.
  5. Write a letter to George W, Bush, asking if there is any loose change under the White House sofa cushions that you can have.
  6. Rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
  7. Put on patriotic costume, and go out and fight crime.
  8. Make "Hussein" your middle name.
  9. Sit on a Whoopee Cushion during silent prayer at church.
  10. While out in public, turn to an unsuspecting member of the opposite sex and say, very loudly, "Motel room? Why do you want me to go to a motel room with you?"
Please note that Suggestion 10 also has a comical effect during silent prayer at church, but is likely to have you ejected from the service.

'the gameplayers of zan'

It took about 400 pages, but I finally am hooked on "The Gameplayers of Zan."

This is the second of M.C. Foster's books about the ler, the artificially evolved new humans of "Warriors of the New Dawn." I've been reading it a book club I've started among friends, and it has been nothing but awful. There is some interesting world-building behind this book, but the author's attempts at building at atmosphere of suspense and mystery fall woefully short.

If you have never heard of the ler, they are a new race of humans created by attempts to push human evolution artificially. The new humans have two thumbs and one finger on each hand, and supposedly are faster, deadlier and more intelligent than traditional humans.

The book is supposed to be something of suspense. Regular humans are suspicious of the ler, and the suspicion centers around zan, a game that supposedly is a big deal in ler society. Except we're never given the impression that is. The book instead follows an investiation by one ler into the death of another, and it's a tedious investigation that involves a lot of walking, discussion and a number of flashbacks that say nothing.

Foster needed to work on his pacing (and his dialogue) a bit more. Only two -- two! -- scenes piqued my interest for the entire first 400 hundred pages, and they weren't enough on their own to keep me going. I would have quit if it hadn't been for the book club and sheer stubborness.

I'm on Page 406 right now; the human agencies have just figured out what the game is about, and they are about to take action to take over the ler reservation. It's a lousy place to stop, but it's 1:12 a.m., and I need to.

I haven't read prose this turgid since I was a newspaper editor. The book finally has my interest now that the nature of the game has been revealed, but it comes far too late in the book to justify the commitment. I will never read the other ler books.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 22, 2008

stinking bueraucrats

I'm the process of trying to get Rachel properly into first grade at school.

She misses the cutoff date in our district by two weeks, so ordinarily she would be starting kindergarten in a few weeks. Ordinarily, except I homeschooled her for kindergarten, and basically got her to the level where academically she's ready to start second grade.

I did this with Evangeline three years ago, explained everything nicely to the superintendent's office, and got a letter from them essentially saying, "Hey, no problem. We'll put her in our system as a first-grader." I gave that to the charter school, and bang! zoom! she was in. No problem, right?

Not this year. This year I sent a letter and got a phone call from the superintendent saying he needed more information about the course of study we used before he could approve such an exception. So I wrote him a detailed letter explaining what material I used to teach Rachel to read, how I taught her to tell time and count change, what math books I used, and made up a checklist showing her levels of progress and achievement for kindergarten throughout the year. I e-mailed it to him as requested, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Today I took a printout of the e-mail and its attachments to his office and gave them to his secretary. She was really nice; we chatted a bit, and it turns out she knows my name, and has seen the letter herself. She stamped the correspondence as received, and added a Post It note saying that I needed a response from him. (As I myself had indicated in each letter I have sent him.)

School starts in two weeks and I can't get a letter from this guy saying that Rachel is OK for first grade. Fortunately I've talked with the education directors at the charter school so they know that Rachel already is at or past a first-grade level in her subjects, so she can be educated accordingly. (At least we hope. I have fears that they won't know what to do with her, either. That was a problem Evangeline had three years ago.)

So what accounts for the foot-dragging this time around at the superintendent's office? Two things. For starters, relations between the charter school and the local district have soured somewhat over funding issues. Secondly, I'm beginning my third year on the charter school board of trustees. My name goes out on all the school's official correspondence, so the superintendent knows who I am, and he knows I'm not just a parent in the crowd.

I hope he surprises me and gives me that letter, but I have a sneaking suspicion he's going to drag his feet into the school year if he can.

recycled crafts

We've already used broken plates and pottery to decorate our mailbox post. The girls even made our house number from pieces of broken plate. We'll be decorating a planter that way some time soon. (It's simple: You take broken coffee mugs or plates, and affix them to the post or other surface with the same adhesive you use for doing a ceramic surface on your sink. They sell the adhesive at home improvement stores, even the big, ugly, useless ones.)

I'm nearly finished with a rag rug made entirely from old pants of mine that had become indecent. (You stich 2-inch-wide strips together into three long strands, and then you braid them together to make a rope, then use carpet thread to stitch it together.)

My mother has taken a bunch of old T-shirts of mine that have outlived their usefulness as T-shirts, and is in the process of making them into a quilt. The quilt, when it is finished, will be something that we can use for years to come to keep ourselves warm.

These are all things we can do fairly cheaply, getting extra use out of things that once we would have thrown into the garbage. In every case mentioned so far, we're getting years of extra use out of the original items by changing what we use them for. If we do a good enough job at them, these can even be gifts with a personal touch for friends and relatives.

Here's a new one I want to try tomorrow: Making patterns and shapes from old crayons. The girls have plenty of these from trips to restaurants, where they routinely give children cheap crayons that break as soon as they're used for more than 30 seconds. I also seem to remember that you can make crayons into candles.

And I have a ton of old socks that I can't use. They have holes, they're stretched out, and they lost their mates, but mostly they have holes in the heels. So, here's an idea I have for those: another quilt, a patchwork that I make myself by sewing the socks together as I go. I don't know if that would be thick enough, or if I'd need bunting or whatever it's called, but as long as the socks are clean, it's not a bad idea. And again, it adds years of life to the material. Or I can get the girls to make sock puppets. Either way, it reduces our waste, makes something useful from something that has lost its usefulness, and it teachs the girl actual skills, unlike most of what passes for crafts these days. ("Let's glue stuff together and color with markers!" Bleah.)

Bit by bit, I want to cut into the trash we produce. A private school I visited Wednesday, one with LEEDS platinum certification, has set the goal of eliminating all trash within three years. Everything on site will be recycled, composted, or reused in some way so that it doesn't end up moldering in a landfill. That's an impressive goal, and one I want to emulate here at the house.

We already recycle plenty, and we compost a great deal too, but I really like the idea of finding crafty ways to turn trash into something that we can use and appreciate for years to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

mike and me

Several years ago, my friend Mike told me that he was transgendered.

At the time, I recall, it made little impression on me. He's a good friend of mine, and I knew he was a good person, and that was what mattered. I didn't know much about gender dysphoria, only the old cliche erroneously attached to homosexuals, about "being a woman in a man's body." We had some lengthy discussions pertaining about gender and identity, and life moved on. He was determined to remain a man for the sake of their three children, and that appeared to be that.

Of course, where identity is concerned, that is never that. When a person is required to be something other than what they are, the strain of the pretense builds over time and takes its toll in one area or another. Depression and withdrawal ensued, demanding their pound of flesh from his marriage and every other relationship he had.

And so, some months ago, Mike decided it was time to begin transitioning. He started taking antiandrogens, a prescription drug that suppresses male hormones, and something broke that had survived fifteen years of a sometimes tumultuous marriage. Earlier this year, Mike and his wife, Lynn, formally separated. He moved into an apartment of his own, started taking female hormones, and began going out increasingly as Shelly.

It's been rough. While she has found several transgendered friends in the city where she lives, Shelly has had to face the bigotry of people who see her as a predator or a pervert. Her own parents recently cut her out of the will without even having the courage or the decency to tell him in person that they were doing so.

Her father had the indecency to heap abuse on her when she decloseted herself to them about four months ago, calling her a despicable parent who was abandoning her kids, when the truth is that she's probably more involved now -- still as a father -- than when she lived in the house with them.

The sickening irony here is that her father has been emotionally distant, verbally abusive, adulterous and a drunk most of Shelly's life -- and yet he has the audacity to lecture Shelly on how she's a bad parent.

And, despicably, a minister told Shelly's mom that they were right to disown her, that it was what God would want them to do. I don't get that. I really don't. Where does Jesus advocate or model any such moralistic stance with anyone? The gospels present Jesus as someone who stands by people, no matter what. Prostitutes, adulterers, thieves and lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable and welcome in his presence.

And so, even as people ask me how I can do it, I'm standing by Shelly, because she's been my friend for years. I can't imagine not sticking by her. I've been genuinely upset by some of the stuff that other people have done in reaction to this decision to transition, but all the same ... I feel rather left adrift at sea by this whole thing.

It's odd in some ways that it's rattled me this much. I've had other friends, both men and women, tell me that they're gay, and it didn't even make me blink. In some cases, we've become better friends afterward.

I've known Mike [Shelly] is transgendered for years, and yet this turn of events has left me unsteady, uncertain and, in a sense, staggering. I intend to stand by her, because we've known each other for so long and have always been close, but it's a challenge all the same.

As much as I'm supportive of her, I just don't "get" it, probably because I've never felt that I was anything but a guy. It's a mystery to me how she can feel that she's actually a woman in a man's body and that these exterior changes are changing anything.

Yet there's no denying that she's happier, and more alive than I've seen her for years. I'm glad she's got friends, and I'm glad she's found a support network, and I'm glad that I can continue to be a friend for her. I'm glad she's willing to take the risk on me that I won't be a royal bastard and dump her too, to escape having to deal with my own confusion over her gender identity.

In the end, after all, my confusion is my problem and not hers, and given that she's paying such a heavy price for her own situation, it would be unfair and unreasonable to demand that she pay mine as well.

I just wish there were a chart for these waters I find myself sailing with her. I wish the sun were out, and that these uncertain clouds weren't darkening the sky. I wish I knew where we were going, and I hope the ship is seaworthy enough to get us there.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tom Green and I were separated at birth

Everybody has a doppleganger from whom separation at birth is the only possible explanation for the close resemblance.

Tom Green is mine.

I know virtually nothing about Tom Green. This is his picture. A Google search on the picture indicates that he is a comedian from Canada who two years ago launched a call-in live talk show from his living room that was broadcast on ManiaTV, which I have never heard of.

A close friend of mine who sent me the picture and noted Green's uncanny resemblance to me, had claimed that Green was a preacher.

If that's the case, he has an unusual ministry. Among other things, he's sucked milk directly from the udder of a cow and made a pornographic painting on his parents' car. Reportedly he also was married to actress Drew Barrymore for less than two years.

I'm not sure which of us should be more disturbed by the resemblance.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Trading old books for new on PaperBackSwap

Join me in sticking it to corporate America. Join, and take a stand against consumerism.

The web site, which boasts hordes of bibliophilic members, is based on the decidedly sensible philosophy that if you're not going to read the book collecting dust on your shelf, chances are good that someone else will. The site provides a virtual clearinghouse for these books, giving avid readers a chance to pass old books along to new homes, keeping them out of the trash and in circulation.

It's also useful for saving money. Since joining about three weeks ago, I've found new homes for four of my old books, worth in aggregate about $40 bought new at a bookstore, or about $20 at a typical used bookstore. The new owners haven't had to pay a cent. (These books probably got snatched up so quickly because they're out of print, and have a strong appeal to a small demographic group.)

It works like this. You join the site, and agree to give away books you no longer read. The books can't be advance review copies, and they have to be free of water damage and in readable condition, and must have their covers.

Once you list the books, any other member can request a book of yours, which you then ship at no expense to them. That might seem like a downside initially, but the flipside is also true. You don't have to pay a cent for books sent to you, either.

Just by joining the site and posting an initial 10 books, you get credit for two free orders. Each time you ship a book to another member, you get another credit. Thus, just for joining and having four books that other people wanted, I now have six credits toward books that I want.

Alas, no one right now is offering any of the graphic novels by Alan Moore or Walt Simonson that I've been looking for. On the other hand, today I ordered a "Charlie Bone" book for Evangeline, and a Magic Tree House Merlin mission for Rachel. The site probably will come in handy for locating book club selections also.

So I ask everyone who reads my blog: Join the site and put its power to use.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

the floor is sanded

That floor downstairs has been sanded, and that about sums up the main event of yesterday.

We are in the process of minor renovations in our house. Evangeline has allergies, and we have carpet in the house, a carpet that holds all manner of odors like it holds dust, which is to say very well. In the downstairs carpet we still can smell Sandy, our dog who passed away years ago. We can smell bits of food dropped or spilled on the floor, we can smell accidents by dog and child alike, and we can smell who knows what else.

The carpet is now gone from the living room, from the downstairs hallway and from the study. Gone also is the linoleum we found under the carpet. What remains is the hardwood floor once hidden beneath the linoleum, along with the cement that fills the part of the floor where the wall was removed, and other similar surprises.

So today, while Natasha went to rent an orbital sander from the home improvement store, Rachel and I emptied the downstairs coat closet of coats and games. With those we filled two of the last remaining free spaces in the rest of the house: her bed and the fourth kitchen chair. It is now possible to walk across the kitchen, but not to use anything in it, and it also is possible to sleep upstairs in two of the three beds. But that's about it.

We prepared for the sanding by blocking off every route sawdust could take out of the living room, except for the front door and window. Those we left open. Sheets we hung over the kitchen doorway and across the stairwell, and  after that, I put in my earplugs, donned a breathing mask, and shooed the children outside so I could get to work.

Running the sander was a new experience for me, and an interesting one. I started a little after 3 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m., pausing only to eat dinner, sweep up the sawdust, and to change the grade of sandpaper to something finer than I had been using before. (We used 36, 40 and 120 for a progressively smooth coat.)

The finish on the wood took a while to get off, but the hardest piece of all was clearing up the stains where water or other aqueous substances had been spilled on the floor back when it was becarpeted.

There were a couple spots in the middle of the floor where the dog used to lie all the time. I ran the sander over these so long that it seemed like it surely must wear a hole in the floor so that it would fall through, and into the basement.

Not all the blemishes are completely gone. You can still see where the linoleum ended, and there are a few places where vistages of the water marks remain. We assume that a medium-color stain at least will make it harder to see those.

Other remaining tasks include renting an edger to finish sanding around the edge of the room, hall and closet, where the orbital sander couldn't reach. Then we have, what, a week until we put things back into the living room?

This must be why people have their hardwood floors done before they move into a house.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

a good craft

Now here's a craft Rachel has made that we'll be using for years to come. It's a new pencil holder for the house.

I wish crafts at the library were half this interesting and useful. Most crafts there, or in other programs, are unimaginative things like "Glue stuff to this cheap piece of plastic and add some wire ties. Now you have a butterfly to leave lying around the floor until it's been stepped on so many times that your father finally throws it away, except you see it in the wastebasket two days later and throw a fit."

Doing the craft was a snap. I took clothespins apart, showed Rachel how to glue them onto an empty Morton salt canister, and then watched her do it.

This wasn't a very complicated craft -- as noted, it involves dismantling clothespins and gluing them to a Morton salt canister -- but this is something no one is throwing out. Tomorrow morning, when the glue is all dried, Rachel is going to load our pens and pencils into it, and we'll have a nice, convenient place to keep them all, instead of leaving them lying on the countertop. My brother made one of these more than 30 years ago, and my parents still have it on the island cupboard in their kitchen.

When did crayons and glue become the way to do crafts anyway? Wouldn't it be better if kids either made things that actually were useful, or at least learned the beginnings of a skill (such as braiding or knitting) that one day could lead them to produce useful things?

Show me the advantage in following the directions in a kit of self-adhesive precut shapes to make a cheap snowman that'll fall apart by Christmas. 'Cause I can't see one.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

mi difektas mian cerbon

Mi nomiĝas Davidon. Mi lernas Esperanton.

Miaj gepatroj havas tri filojn: Brianon, Herberton, Wardon kaj min. Mi estas la tria. Mia plej maljuna frato estas Briano. Li studis Latinon du jarojn. Wardo kaj mi studis hispanan du jarojn sed ni ne parolas ĝin. Herberto studis francon unu jaro kaj hispana unu jaro. Miaj fratoj parolas lingvon Anglan nur. Mi parolas la Creolon Francan de Haïtio ĉar mi loĝis en Haïtio du jaroj. (Mi estis instruisto de lingvon Anglan, kaj misiisto.)

Mi studias Esperanton kelkaj semajno, kaj mi kredas, ke mi ne malbone skribas (parolas) sed mi ne bone skribas (parolas). (Havu pacienco.)

Mi havis kvar hundojn. La unua nomiĝas Foncion. La dua estis Ajakso; mi havis lin kiam mi loĝis en Haïtio. La kvara hundo kiu mi havas estis Sandy. Ŝi mortis en 2005. (Mi kredas.) Mia tria hundo estis Hamleto.

Mia edzino kaj mi havas du filinojn, Evangelinon kaj Raĉelon. Mia edzino ne lernas esperanton, sed mi kaj niaj fratinoj bone lernas. Ni parolas Esperanton en nia domo, kaj en la librejo. Ni parolos en la lernejo.

Mi vespere promenas kun miaj filinoj.

Mi faras picon. Evangelino amegas mian picon. Raĉelo ametas lin, sed ŝi manĝas ĝin.

Mi skribis tiu, kaj mi studas esperanton kvin semajno!?

¡Hay caramba! Mi pli bone skribas esperanton pli Creolon Francan.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

esperanto for fantasists

One of the things I like about learning Esperanto is that the rapid progress you make encourages you to keep going, even when the only other person in your area who speaks the language is your 8-year-old.

Because it's a designed language, rather than one that grew organically, Esperanto has extremely regular grammatical rules. Verb conjugations, for example. It doesn't matter if the subject is first person or third, singular or plural, the verb ending is always the same. Thus it's mi estas, vi estas, ŝi estas and so on; compare that to English, where the same phrase is rendered I am, you are, she is.

Similarly, nouns always end in O, infinitives always end in I, adjectives always end in A, and adverbs always end in E. A little monkeying makes it possible to turn the same root into four different parts of speech: sano (health), sani (to be healthy), sana (healthy) and sane (healthily). So I can say Mi sanas or Mi estas sana, and thus I have two ways of saying "I am healthy," depending on the preferences of my native tongue and the strictures of the medium I'm using to write or speak.

It takes some getting used to. Saying "I make bread morningly" (Mi matene faras panon) doesn't come quite as naturally as saying "I make bread in the morning" (Mi faras panon en la mateno), but I have to give the language credit for flexibility. Especially since I'm assured that any root can be turned into any part of speech, which would indicate that I can say Ŝia onklo nokte panas, but I really have no idea what it would mean to say "Her uncle breads nightly."

Ah well. I'm having fun, which is a good thing to say about any hobby, and as is borne out by the following:

1. La vampiroj manĝis la bluajn kukojn.
The vampires ate the blue cakes.

2. Ŝi renkontis la marvirinon kiu faras sekan panon.
She met the mermaid who makes dry bread.

3. Mi kredas ke mia filo kaptis malsanan lupviron per sukero kaj lakto
I think that my son caught an unhealthy werewolf with sugar and milk.
[Hm. Could I say that as "Mi kredas kiu mia filo sukere kaj lakte kaptis malsanan lupviron"?—ed.]

4. Vampiroj ne amas lupvirojn ĉar ili trinkis la brunan limonadon.
Vampires don't like werewolves because they drank the brown lemonade.

5. Dudek fantomoj ne vidis la butikon.
Twenty ghosts didn't see the store.

These are, of course, essential sentences in any language. The one I haven't figured out yet how to ask is, "Where is the bathroom?" Fortunately, here in my own house, my family can understand the question in English in the unlikely event that I need help.

Adventures with black gunk. Who puts carpet over linoleum anyway?

We decided a few weeks ago to rip up the carpet in our living room and make do with the hardwood floor that lay beneath it.

I'll spare everyone the sordid accounts of how it took us two weeks just to clear out the living room, and the tale (amusing though it must be) of how we chose the colors to paint the walls. I'll even forbear to tell how Natasha and I each on separate occasions managed to hurt our backs so that we took turns being unable to walk for a few days without pained expressions.

Let me instead just say that under the rug in the hallway, we found linoleum.

Our reactions were only slightly mixed. We sang Bert and Ernie's "La La La" song because Bert is reminded in the song of linoleum when he thinks about the letter L -- that's how our minds work, I guess -- but mostly we were annoyed. Who in their right mind glues linoleum directly to a hardwood floor?

Pulling the linoleum up was relatively easy. The glue and a layer of black gunk were different, though. Removing that was how I hurt my back. (Natasha had hurt hers ripping out the carpet.)

The good folks at Home Depot (motto: "No project so simple we can't make it expensive!") sell a chemical that's great at removing adhesives like this. The chief downside, besides the $20 price tag for a quart, is that it comes with warnings like "May cause death or serious injury" in 17 different languages.

The advisories include notices like "Do not allow liquid to touch your skin" and "Do not breathe fumes" and "Looking at liquid may damage your retinas." And I'm supposed to put this stuff down, when? Maybe while the kids are running around the house during the day?

So while my back recovered and I learned to put my shorts on without bending either arm or leg, I pondered how best to remove black gunk without threatening my family or myself with permanent disfigurement. A visiting friend remarked offhand "There must be an organic cleaner," and it suddenly hit me. Vinegar.


Spray the black gunk with water. Let it soak, then scrape it up. (And why is it that a stucco trowel is useless with stucco but makes a fantastic scraper, while the scraper is only good for removing nails?) Once the gunk is gone, lightly spoon vinegar onto the floor, brush it around, and then wipe off the glue.

Easy, effortless and no one has to suffer the sort of injury that would have made them a shoo-in for the Jerry Springer Show. No one's eyebrows had to suffer permanent retina damage. The worst side effect is that the hallway smelled like apples for a few hours.

I even got to return the 20-dollar can of cleaner.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Remembering the glory days of 'Calvin and Hobbes'

My girls made a discovery recently, and dang if it wasn't a big one.

It wasn't my Star Wars figures, complete with their weapons, still inside my carrying case at my parents'. Nor was it my wife's Looney Tunes puzzle. When I was packing everything into boxes so we could paint the living room, they discovered my old "Calvin and Hobbes" collections. It was as if they had been digging for buried treasure in the back yard one summer afternoon, and actually found it.

The girls already had read "Something Under the Bed is Drooling" and "Revenge of the Babysat," but these other collections had been on a bookshelf in the living room for so long I completely had forgotten they were even there. There were four of them, including "The Days are Just Packed" and "Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat." The girls love them, and will sit there for an hour or more at a time, reading them.

I can't say I blame them. "Calvin and Hobbes" was consistently high-quality in a way only a few strips ever manage to be. It combines the high-humor quotient of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" or the more contemporary "Pearls Before Swine," with the same level of subtle and thought-provoking commentary that you might find in "Bloom County," although Watterson's topics were more timeless and less topical than those Berkeley Breathed dealt with.

A lot of the appeal the strip held for me was that Calvin is a real kid. He wasn't artificially wholesome and sweet like the kids in "The Family Circus," and he wasn't as gentle-hearted as good old Charlie Brown. Calvin was a rapscallion, plain and simple, the sort of thing Dennis Mitchell could have been with a little more octane in his fuel; but he also had moments of great tenderness, remorse and vivid imagination.

Re-reading these forgotten collections is like catching up with an old friend after 20 years and laughing ourselves silly over hijinks from college. In the course of these collections, Calvin "turns into a bug," travels through time, and can't do his homework because "My parents forgot to pay the gravity bill."

There are the fantasies he acts out, all bizarre and immediately accessible to anyone who ever was a small child or at least knows someone who was, times when he disappears into an imaginary persona like Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, or Tracer Bullet. The fantasties are familiar to anyone who has ever been a kid, as are the reasons for his escape. He's bored, or he's faced with some other challenge typical of first-graders.

Then there are the people who populate his world. They think they live in the same world as him, but the truth is that they exist only when he wants them to, and only on his terms. There are mom and dad, who have no names or identities beyond their relationship to him; there's the babysitter who doesn't understand him despite being the one person who intimidates him; and there is Miss Wormwood, an archetypal spinster of a first-grade teacher.

On Calvin's own level are Moe, the school bully; Susie Derkins, the girl next door who Calvin can't bear to admit liking; and of course Hobbes, Calvin's best friend, comrade-in-arms, and possibly just a stuffed tiger through whom Calvin channels feelings and thoughts he doesn't understand entirely.

Bill Watterson, who created "Calvin and Hobbes," stopped making new strips some years ago, after wrapping the strip up with one of his great sledding comics. That strip had Calvin and Hobbes ride off into a clear wintry day to see what's out there, much like "The House and Pooh Corner" closed out with Christopher Robin talking to Pooh about having to grow up.

Since "Calvin and Hobbes" ended, it seems like the comics section of the newspaper has grown duller and duller each year. Comic strips continue long past the point that they should have stopped, like "Doonesbury"; they retread the same three worn-out jokes, like "Garfield"; or they settle for being cute and clever instead of brilliant and funny.

There are a few strips worth reading, like "Pearls Before Swine" and "Foxtrot," but by and large, the comics section is something read out of habit rather than for actual amusement value these days. "Calvin and Hobbes" shows how high the medium can reach, when it's done by artists who really care about what they're doing.

Thanks for the laughs, Bill. And thanks for sharing them with my kids.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

The archaeological dig in my house

I never realized what an exciting world archaeology could be until this past month, when we started a dig in our living room.

The dig was a pretty straightforward affair. With the girls attending day camp at one of the theaters downtown, Natasha and I realized that we had two weeks before us in which we could empty out the room and give its walls a long-overdue fresh coat of paint. We could get rid of the ugly carpet, and possibly sand and buff the hardwood floor beneath it. Best of all, we could do it ourselves and save hundreds of dollars!

The walls are painted and the carpet has been removed, but what has been most interesing about this experience is the layers of history we have delicately unearthed on the first floor of the house, and then ruthlessly ripped up and destroyed, like amateur Indiana Joneses toppling ancient relics and statues of Anubis in the Well of Souls.

Our house is going on at least 170 years old, so we knew there were bound to be some surprises. The kitchen and master bath -- and doesn't every house want to have the master bath located right off the kitchen? -- were added in the 1960s, and plenty of other things have been added in the course of the house's history. Electric wiring, for starters, or the roof we put on a few years ago when we also added the new gutters, or the first insulation ever added to the house, just last spring.

Ah, but those are new changes to the house. It is one thing to see your own life's work, but it is another to behold the work of ages past and to let it pass through your fingers. Working on an old house is to be like Belloq, who opened the Ark of the Covenant and stirred the dust of the stone tablets Moses once laid there. You risk being destroyed by the supreme revelation that will pass through your unworthy soul.

It might have been a crystal skull beneath the carpet. It might have been the Holy Grail. But, lo! it is linoleum, a long red sheet of it, glued directly to the hardwood floor by a homeowner of ages past, and on it lay the dirt and the dust of a thousand soles that have passed that way. And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains fair?

It is no wonder that a previous homeowner some 15 years covered the floor with carpet. That red linoleum was about as ugly to look at as the color known as "institutional green," and removing it has left a long black swath of a substance formerly known as glue and a papery substance that may have been part of the linoleum.

Removing that requires an evening with a cleaning agent that is so toxic you're not supposed to touch it, or even to breathe its fumes. I suspect that merely looking at will cause blindness.

On the other hand, we have found that soaking the Gunk from Beneath the Linoleum in water making it easier to remove, and that rubbing what residue remains, with vinegar, also works. So we're trying that, though it means our hallway smells of apples.

The most interesting discovery, though, is the walls -- specifically, how they have changed over the past 170 years. There is a section of baseboard along the back wall of the living room that does not touch the floor. This, we believe, is where a doorway once stood that joined our living room, once a dining room, with our study, once the kitchen. Someone some time ago decided to close the wall up and create two completely separate rooms.

However, due to the Principle of Wall Conservation, in which a house must have the same linear footage of walls when you sell it as when you bought it, this person also removed a section of wall from another part of the living room.

Unlike the new wall that separates living room from study, this one appears to have been part of a load-bearing wall. Nothing has sagged unduly, but there is a place in an otherwise decent hardwood floor where 2-by-4's appear, covered in cement.

Ah, the wonders this old house can tell to those who study its secrets. I just wish that if I have to be Indiana Jones, that I would get the fedora and bullwhip too.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.