Monday, June 29, 2009

Austin self-portrait

This is a self-portrait Austin made yesterday. (I scanned it with a red background so that the white "frame" is visible.)

He's made self-portraits in school before, but this is the first one I saw where he sat down and examined a mirror and really went for details like his eyes and ears, lips and even filtrum (that dent between lips and nose). I was really impressed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Up is a Downer

Took the kids to see Up this afternoon.

It's beautiful,funny, scary but overall, I have to say, it's romantic and melancholy. I don't think I've ever been so sad at an animated film before.

And it's not just me.

Mari was scared of the house falling over a cliff and then she was scared of the pack of dogs that showed up, so we had already taken a little walk outside and she was sitting on my lap when Carl looked through Ellie's book of adventures.

He flipped through the pages and there were photos of his marriage and he sat there next to her empty chair.

Mari's body was wracked with sobs. What's wrong? I asked her. Are you sad?

This is a quiet part of the movie, so everyone in the theater (not that many, but all of them) heard her sob, "I'm thinking about when Mommy dies."

Of course, that broke my heart, too.

So there's Pixar's triumph: conveying in blobs of computer generated color the depth of a romance and the abyss of loss to a four year old.

(PS. Afterward, I asked Mari if she liked the movie and she did, even though it was sad. Something to be said about learning that stories don't have to be completely happy to be "good.")

Still have kids

Haven't mentioned the kids here in a while.

Funny thing, for the first time in years, Mari has become more annoying than Austin. I mean, Austin has always been great, but he's as temperamental, stubborn and opinionated as his father. Meanwhile, Mari's usually a sweetheart.

Lately, though, Austin has matured to an incredible degree. He's very polite, understands (a little bit) putting stuff away and keeping things neat, and he's helpful and considerate.

Nothing wrong with Mari, but she's still a four year old and has a tendency to whine when she's tired or grumpy.

When they're both in good moods, it's terrific to listen to them play together (I tend to get out of their way when they're getting along so well).

Oh, also Mari decided she didn't like the hair in her eyes so she gave herself a haircut today.

My love affair continues

I've mentioned before my love of my iPod Touch. Well I just updated to the new operating system and although there's been lots of news about new phone features (Voice Dialing), I am totally enamored by a few simple additions to iPod capability.

The first is better control of podcast listening. I was thinking about cutting down the number of podcasts I subscribe to, but now I can listen to them at twice the speed (or half to understand fast talkers). It's amazing how little it affects the sound a of person's voice -- it's faster but it's not like listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks. Also, the feature I've wanted forever is now included: rewind 30 seconds. Especially for long shows like This American Life, I find myself wanting to go back to listen to something I missed but a 60 minute "slider" is hard to manipulate with accuracy. (Hmm... just realized how obscure this is. Oh well, this is my current pre-occupation.)

A second great update came on the Remote feature. It's a lot easier now to choose speakers and control iTunes with this app.

Okay, enough gushing about my toys. I haven't gushed about my kids in a while.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Parents We Mean To Be

The Parents We Mean To Be by Richard Weissbourd

This book focuses on how we teach children to become moral beings, defined by the author as people who ask moral questions, see perspectives that are not their own, feel responsibility for others and maintain good relationships.

Weissbourd's prescription for how we teach children morality is two-fold: teach by example and exercising moderation in all of our parenting behaviors.

The best way to teach is by example, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has changed his behaviors in some ways upon becoming a parent. Some important points in the book are that we should recognize our children's moral development as fluid and not get fixated on "bad kids" or feel like the teenage years are the end point in that process. Similarly, we should acknowledge that our own moral development is a work in progress and occasionally give voice to that, explaining our choices, right or wrong and showing that we as parents can also experience growth.

As for moderation, I think this is one reason I like this book so much. Instead of veering in one direction or another -- touching is good, therefore never let go of your child! -- Weissbourd points out how various behaviors that seem positive -- praise, an emphasis on children's happiness and self-esteem -- can backfire if they are excessive. Children become egocentric and selfish if they think their own happiness is paramount and they become paralyzed with failure if they never encounter it until their twenties.

The chapter on sports was one of my favorites. On the one hand, there are crazy sports parents who live through their kids. On the other hand are parents who downplay competition and try not to care at all. Weissbourd points out that competition is fun in context and teaches kids that opposition is contextual (if their best friend is on the opposing team, for example). Of course, getting too caught up in the game is unhealthy for lots of reasons, too.

There is plenty of advice for parents, teachers, coaches and just adults in general on what they can do to help children grow up to be better people. (One I liked was to make a pact with other parents to be honest with each other so you have a warning that you're going overboard one way or another.)

The most compelling reading in the book came from the anecdotes that begin each chapter, from parents, coaches, and especially from children themselves (who see through all sorts of hypocrisy and "parenting techniques"). The explanations of academic studies are fine and lend weight to the arguments presented. Although, I have to repeat myself and say that the most compelling part of the argument was that it was not extreme in any way, but rather thoughtful and reflective.

Well worth reading.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book ethics

Today's Ethicist column is about a woman who got a library book autographed by "her favorite author" on an airplane and then replaced the library book with a new copy of the title.

Here's my problem with the dilemma: Her favorite author and she got it out of the library? Look, I probably have seven books out from the library right now (for myself, not for the kids). However, if any of the dozen authors I consider a "favorite" publishes a new book, I buy it. Partly because I will want to keep it, but also so the author actually earns some of my money.

There's nothing unethical about using the library, but if you really want to support an artist (of any sort), give them sales figures and, frankly, money.

A little disappointed that Randy Cohen didn't address that.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Great Brain books

The Great Brain Is Back (Great Brain #8) The Great Brain Is Back by John Dennis Fitzgerald

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
This review is for the entire Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. The series is comprised of eight books, the first seven of which were published from 1967 to 1976 and the last one was published posthumously in 1995 from notes left by the author. There is also a great Publisher's Note that I will discuss toward the end of this review.

Overall, I would say that the first two books are the best by far and the first five are worth reading as a set. The last three books are like return visits to a favorite village but are hardly great novels. The first two books, The Great Brain and More Adventures of the Great Brain, read like one high quality novel, telling the story of Tom D. Fitzgerald, aka the Great Brain, from the point of view of John D. Fitzgerald. The stories take place in the town of Adenville, Utah in 1896. The Great Brain is acknowledged as clever by everyone but, as J.D. points out, his money-loving heart directs that brain into developing schemes to bankrupt the other kids and fill Tom's coffers. A lot of the fun of these first two books is the narrative conflict between the hero worshipping John and the tricks his brother plays on him and his friends.

The next three books develop the idea logically. Me and My Little Brain is the story of John trying to be like the Great Brain. Tom has gone away to boarding school and the Fitzgeralds adopt an orphan named Frankie. John doesn't have Tom's talent for scheming and is constantly caught and punished but he does have a good heart, and courage, and manages to save Frankie from an outlaw and earn a reward.

The Great Brain at the Academy tells the story of what Tom was doing at his Catholic boarding school -- tricking other kids there and sneaking around the Monsignors who ran the place.

In The Great Brain Reforms, the series comes to a logical conclusion. Partly because of Frankie's perspective, and in large part because he's just older and wiser, John recognizes that Tom is a bit of a jerk. He's constantly tricking other kids into losing bets to win their baseball gloves or other Christmas gifts when Tom has more than enough money just to buy those items from himself. It's also clear that the Fitzgeralds are more prosperous than many other in Adenville. John finally organizes the kids of the town and they put Tom on trial. His sentence is to be shunned by all the kids but the sentence is suspended if he agrees to reform.

The last three books of the series tell more stories of town, but now that J.D. is no longer naive, the stories just seem like trickster tales without any narrative irony or moral weight.

The last book has a publisher's note that explains some of the observations I've made here. Apparently The Great Brain originated as the second sequel to Papa Married a Mormon, Fitzgerald's best-selling novel for adults. In that book, he explains why John D's father came to Utah -- to fulfill his mother's dying wish that he keep an eye on a wayward brother who was a brawling saloon keeper. That book explains the presence of Aunt Bertha, tells stories of Brownie the dog, and tells of the adoption of an orphan boy, but unlike Frankie, this boy is orphaned when his father drinks himself to death. John's brother Tom refers to himself as The Great Brain but all of his schemes go awry. All is set in the familiar Adenville, as well as Silverlode, the mining camp that is described as a ghost town in the Great Brain books.

By the time Fitzgerald finished writing the third book in his series for adults, two things had changed. The adult market no longer found a place for family stories and his editor had moved to a different publishing house. Fitzgerald's agent sent the book to the editor, E.L. Doctorow, at the new publishing house where the manuscript was read by the editor of children's books. She loved the book, asked that it be cut in half and the adult themes be excised and The Great Brain was born.

This may explain why the first two books of the series seem of the same high quality and almost to be the same novel. (Papa runs to almost 300 pages whereas the Great Brain books are usually just over 100.) The publisher's note also mentions that "I had a constant struggle with him not to let Tom reform." It seems clear to me that Fitzgerald would have been happy with the morally and narratively satisfying conclusion of book 5's trial.

All in all, I've enjoyed re-reading these books (and reading Papa and TGB is Back for the first time). I've also looked over Fitzgerald's co-written Structuring Your Novel. He had some pretty solid rules there. The Great Brain books, 1-5 constitute a great epic story for children or adults. And for those who can't get enough (like me), there's three more helpings of Adenville lore.

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