• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

“Part of nature”

Zoologist, anthropologist, and author of The Naked Ape Desmond Morris salutes Charles Darwin as a “Hero for our age” in The Daily  Mail [emphasis mine]:

There is a strange object sitting on my desk as I write. It is a shiny sphere of fossilised, primeval slime. Known technically as stromatolites, this blue-green slime was the original ooze from which all life on this planet evolved.

This painfully slow process began about 3,000 million years ago and has led, ultimately, to us, the extraordinary human species.

Whenever my gaze happens to fall upon my lump of fossilised slime I experience a strange sensation, a deep respect, for I am looking at my most ancient ancestor.

Yours, too, unless you still believe in the tale of Adam and Eve and a talking serpent in the Garden of Eden.

In a few weeks, on February 12 to be exact, the scientific world will be celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man whose theory of the gradual evolution of living things has changed the way in which most of us see the world in which we live.

Thanks to him, we see ourselves as part of nature, instead of separate from it and superior to it. If it weren’t for him, we would not be concerned about the way we have, in our arrogant past, ravaged the small planet on which we live.

What kind of a man was Charles Darwin? To the naive mind he is sometimes pictured as a giant intellect of Victorian England, with his long, flowing white beard and his solemn expression, the product of a brilliantly studious education and intense academic application.

Well, no. In reality he was a mess, both physically and mentally, which makes his gigantic contribution to human understanding even more extraordinary.

Read the rest here.


“A true and precious stone”

I wasn’t going to go through this week’s New York Times “Books Update” newsletter which arrived yesterday by email, but I’m glad I reconsidered this morning, for there in my inbox was Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978).

Because Miss McGinley is the mind behind “The Year without a Santa Claus”, which was originally “How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas” and also several other Christmas titles and poems (one of which I used last year for Poetry Friday).  But it’s not because of her holiday writings that Phyllis McGinley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, makes the paper this week.  Rather, it’s because she was once, as Time Magazine called her, the poet laureate of suburbia (and also “the literary protagonist of the point of view that the keeper of the home is the most important woman in the world”); in 1950, she sang its praises in “Suburbia: Of Thee I Sing”.  In her New York Times essay, television critic Ginia Bellafante writes [links mine, as usual]:

McGinley is almost entirely forgotten today, and while her anonymity is attributable in part to the disappearance of light verse, it seems equally a function of our refusal to believe that anyone living on the manicured fringes of a major American city in the middle of the 20th century might have been genuinely pleased to be there. McGinley received her Pulitzer the same year that Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” the basis for Sam Mendes’s new movie, made its debut. To Yates, Connecticut wasn’t dull; it was tragic, the end of something. Since the ’60s, versions of the same idea have prevailed almost without interruption — in fiction, in film, on television, in the countless illustrations of grinning fathers presiding over barbecues, kitschy images in which we are meant to see portraits of mournful delusion. From Cheever to “American Beauty,” we have tended to read mythologies of suburban lament as if they were reportage.

McGinley loved Westchester in no small measure because it was so much easier than the place she came from. Born to a struggling land speculator and his pianist wife in 1903, she moved with her family from Oregon to Colorado, where she was put to work farming at a young age. When she was 12, her father died and the family moved again, to live with a widowed aunt in Utah. “We never had a home,” McGinley told Time in 1965, “and to have a home, after I got married, was just marvelous.” McGinley was not thrown into marriage by default. Having taken to musical theater at the University of Utah and won college poetry prizes, she came to New York in her 20s and found work writing commercial jingles and later teaching. Having married happily at 33, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her. McGinley’s life with her husband, Bill Hayden, was, her daughter Patsy Blake told me recently, “a sanguine, benign, adorable version of ‘Mad Men.’ ” The couple entertained avidly: the regular guest list included Bennett Cerf, the drama critic Walter Kerr and leading advertising executives of the day.

(One would be remiss not to mention that the genial dinners would also have included Bennett Cerf’s wife, Phyllis — Ginger Roger’s cousin, Dr. Seuss’s collaborator and ad agency colleague, and the mover behind Random House’s “Beginner Books” series for children — as well as her neighbor Walter’s wife, the playwright and humorist Jean Kerr, author of the very, very funny Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Snake Has All the Lines, Penny Candy, and How I Got to Be Perfect.  Oh, to have been a martini shaker on the wet bar…)

But what caught my eye in Ms. Bellafante’s essay was this:

“A liberal arts education is not a tool like a hoe . . . or an electric mixer,” McGinley wrote [in her volume of essays, Sixpence in Her Shoe], dismayed at a world she thought was conspiring to make women feel as though any acquired erudition would be wasted in a life of riffling through recipe cards. “It is a true and precious stone which can glow as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter.” She went on to dismiss the already benighted suggestion that Bryn Mawr was a threat to what ought to get done in a kitchen. “Surely the ability to enjoy Heine’s exquisite melancholy in the original German,” she wrote, “will not cripple a girl’s talent for making chocolate brownies.”

McGinley’s point, an eternally divisive one, was clear: a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions. McGinley was a Democrat and socially liberal — in 1968 Nelson Rockefeller appointed her to a bipartisan committee to study the abortion issue, and she came out resolutely on the side of choice. And yet she shared with Phyllis Schlafly the paradox of promoting traditionalism (in Schlafly’s case virulently) as she pursued a more digressive course for herself. It was McGinley’s salary, according to her daughter Patsy, that allowed Patsy and her sister to attend private school in Greenwich, Conn., and later Wellesley and Radcliffe. In “The Feminine Mystique,” Friedan chided McGinley, her Larchmont friend the playwright Jean Kerr and Shirley Jackson for betraying women, and themselves, by refusing to emphasize their sizable aspirations.

The Time interview mentioned above was part of the magazine’s June 1965 cover story on Miss McGinley, “The Telltale Hearth”, still available in the archives and including a bit more from Sixpence,

“A liberal arts education,” she writes in Sixpence, “is a true and precious stone which can glow just as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter. To what barbarian plane are we descending when we demand that it serve only the economy?”

I’ll leave the last words to Miss McGinley. First, some advice to writers which I read aloud in the kitchen today now that we’re in thank-you-note season,

“I’m sure there are many gifted women who could write, but don’t have the discipline. You have to make yourself do things that are cruelly difficult. The only difference between a man and a woman is that a woman puts her family first, but the actual discipline is a cruel thing.”

And lastly, this little ditty,

Stir the eggnog, lift the toddy.
Happy New Year, everybody!

Merry Christmas, eh?

The great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) offered this little Christmas tale in 1910:

Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmas
by Stephen Leacock

This Santa Claus business is played out. It’s a sneaking,
underhand method, and the sooner it’s exposed the better.

For a parent to get up under cover of the darkness of
night and palm off a ten-cent necktie on a boy who had
been expecting a ten-dollar watch, and then say that an
angel sent it to him, is low, undeniably low.

I had a good opportunity of observing how the thing worked
this Christmas, in the case of young Hoodoo McFiggin,
the son and heir of the McFiggins, at whose house I board.

Hoodoo McFiggin is a good boy — a religious boy. He had
been given to understand that Santa Claus would bring
nothing to his father and mother because grown-up people
don’t get presents from the angels. So he saved up all
his pocket-money and bought a box of cigars for his father
and a seventy-five-cent diamond brooch for his mother.
His own fortunes he left in the hands of the angels. But
he prayed. He prayed every night for weeks that Santa
Claus would bring him a pair of skates and a puppy-dog
and an air-gun and a bicycle and a Noah’s ark and a sleigh
and a drum —  about a hundred and fifty dollars’
worth of stuff.

I went into Hoodoo’s room quite early Christmas morning.
I had an idea that the scene would be interesting. I woke
him up and he sat up in bed, his eyes glistening with
radiant expectation, and began hauling things out of his

The first parcel was bulky; it was done up quite loosely
and had an odd look generally.

“Ha! ha!” Hoodoo cried gleefully, as he began undoing
it. “I’ll bet it’s the puppy-dog, all wrapped up in

And was it the puppy-dog? No, by no means. It was a pair
of nice, strong, number-four boots, laces and all,
labelled, “Hoodoo, from Santa Claus,” and underneath
Santa Claus had written, “95 net.”

The boy’s jaw fell with delight. “It’s boots,” he said,
and plunged in his hand again.

He began hauling away at another parcel with renewed hope
on his face.

This time the thing seemed like a little round box. Hoodoo
tore the paper off it with a feverish hand. He shook it;
something rattled inside.

“It’s a watch and chain! It’s a watch and chain!” he
shouted. Then he pulled the lid off.

And was it a watch and chain? No. It was a box of nice,
brand-new celluloid collars, a dozen of them all alike
and all his own size.

The boy was so pleased that you could see his face crack
up with pleasure.

He waited a few minutes until his intense joy subsided.
Then he tried again.

This time the packet was long and hard. It resisted the
touch and had a sort of funnel shape.

“It’s a toy pistol!” said the boy, trembling with
excitement. “Gee! I hope there are lots of caps with it!
I’ll fire some off now and wake up father.”

No, my poor child, you will not wake your father with
that. It is a useful thing, but it needs not caps and it
fires no bullets, and you cannot wake a sleeping man with
a tooth-brush. Yes, it was a tooth-brush — a regular
beauty, pure bone all through, and ticketed with a little
paper, “Hoodoo, from Santa Claus.”

Again the expression of intense joy passed over the boy’s
face, and the tears of gratitude started from his eyes.
He wiped them away with his tooth-brush and passed on.

The next packet was much larger and evidently contained
something soft and bulky. It had been too long to go into
the stocking and was tied outside.

“I wonder what this is,” Hoodoo mused, half afraid to
open it. Then his heart gave a great leap, and he forgot
all his other presents in the anticipation of this one.
“It’s the drum!” he gasped. “It’s the drum, all wrapped

Drum nothing! It was pants —  pair of the nicest little
short pants — yellowish-brown short pants — with dear little
stripes of colour running across both ways, and here
again Santa Claus had written, “Hoodoo, from Santa Claus,
one fort net.”

But there was something wrapped up in it. Oh, yes! There
was a pair of braces wrapped up in it, braces with a
little steel sliding thing so that you could slide your
pants up to your neck, if you wanted to.

The boy gave a dry sob of satisfaction. Then he took out
his last present. “It’s a book,” he said, as he unwrapped
it. “I wonder if it is fairy stories or adventures. Oh,
I hope it’s adventures! I’ll read it all morning.”

No, Hoodoo, it was not precisely adventures. It was a
small family Bible. Hoodoo had now seen all his presents,
and he arose and dressed. But he still had the fun of
playing with his toys. That is always the chief delight
of Christmas morning.

First he played with his tooth-brush. He got a whole lot
of water and brushed all his teeth with it. This was

Then he played with his collars. He had no end of fun
with them, taking them all out one by one and swearing
at them, and then putting them back and swearing at the
whole lot together.

The next toy was his pants. He had immense fun there,
putting them on and taking them off again, and then trying
to guess which side was which by merely looking at them.

After that he took his book and read some adventures
called “Genesis” till breakfast-time.

Then he went downstairs and kissed his father and mother.
His father was smoking a cigar, and his mother had her
new brooch on. Hoodoo’s face was thoughtful, and a light
seemed to have broken in upon his mind. Indeed, I think
it altogether likely that next Christmas he will hang on
to his own money and take chances on what the angels

Comfort and joy

From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, “The First of the Three Spirits”:

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two ‘prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.

During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Dick were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Not that I’m planning to send out Christmas cards…

which I haven’t done for the past several years.  But if that was the plan, these would be the pictures:


(Laura, Daniel, and Davy aboard the four-masted Peking at South Street Seaport last month)


(Davy, Daniel, and Laura in the front yard with their new Christmas hats, January 2008)

With very Merry Christmas wishes from Farm School!

Don’t try this at home

Matt Apuzzo at the Associated Press tries to find out how the banks are spending their bailout moneyOur bailout money.  Try these answers at the bank the next time you need to borrow some money:

“We’re choosing not to disclose that,” said Kevin Heine, spokesman for Bank of New York Mellon, which received about $3 billion.


“We’re declining to [disclose that information]” (Thomas Kelly, speaking for JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion)


“I just would prefer if you wouldn’t say that we’re not going to discuss those details.” (A spokesman for New York Mellon Corp.)

Not for nothing is it called the Troubled Asset Relief Program.  That giant sucking sound you hear?  Down the toilet.  Which means you might want to turn up the Christmas carols and pass the rum balls…

Science resources and a bit of pre-holiday homework

From science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer, who writes at The Loom:

1) Year of Science 2009:

The Coalition On The Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), a grassroots network, is putting together a massive celebration of science stretching across all 12 months of the year. Museums, scientific societies, and other groups will be presenting lectures, science cafes, special blogs,  exhibits, and the occasional Banana Slug String Band concert. Every month will have a theme, from evolution (February, the month of Darwin’s birthday) to astronomy (July, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the summer Galileo first trained his telescope to the sky). And if you want to join the happening, COPUS wants to hear from you.

2) Homework time:

The National Academy of Sciences has a survey they’d like people to fill out to help them figure out what kinds of educational materials about science, engineering, and medicine they should publish in print and on the web.

I just took it, and can assure you it’s quick and painless. And along the way they pointed me to some pdf’s that look helpful.

Back to baking…

Repost: I triple-dog dare you

From December 1, 2006:

Just in time for Christmas, the cockles of my heart are warmed to learn that one of my favorite holiday movies has come to life:

Switch on your leg lamp and warm up the Ovaltine. The Christmas Story House and Museum will be ready for visitors starting Saturday.Imagine being inside Ralphie Parker’s 1940s home on Christmas Day. Stand on the staircase where Ralphie modeled his hated bunny suit. See the table where Ralphie’s dad wanted to display his tacky leg lamp. Gaze out a back window at the shed where Black Bart hid out. …

This past weekend saw the grand opening of The Christmas Story House. The house, used primarily for exterior shots in the 1983 filming, was renovated to look just like Ralphie’s home in the movie by owner Brian Jones, a lifelong Christmas Story fan.

At the museum gift shop, you can buy a chocolate BB rifle or a replica leg lamp from Red Rider Leg Lamps, started by Jones in 2003. And, I hope, Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Ho ho ho!

*  *  *

Interestingly, I had a comment on the post last month — while we were away — from the people at the tourist organziation, Positively Cleveland, about their “What I Want for Christmas” essay contest, which had a December 3 deadline.

There were two contests, one for those ages 16 and under and one for those 17 older.  Prizes for the junior set included, among other things, a $100 gift certificate to Pearl of the Orient, the official Chinese restaurant of A Christmas Story House and Museum; a four-pack of general admission tickets to A Christmas Story House and Museum; and
a four-pack of general admission tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  No BB guns, however, because you’d shoot your eye out.

Prizes for the oldsters were pretty much the same, except a full-size leg lamp was substituted for the restaurant gift certificate.

Any fan of A Christmas Story has probably stumbled over the latest curiosities, two new fan flicks: Road Trip for Ralphie and Shooting the Eye Out: The Untold Christmas Story.   Makes you wonder what Jean Shepherd might make of all this humbug.  Creeping meatballism, perhaps?

On the other hand, for pure unadulterated Shep, you can try the Jean Shepherd Netcast and The Brass Figlagee. Merry Christmas, fatheads!

Repost: Christmas on Huckleberry Mountain

I found the following a couple of years ago when I was looking for a review of the then-new live action movie of Charlotte’s Web.

*  *  *

While at the website, I happened to notice on the sidebar a link to a special Holiday Posting of Lois Lenski’s memories, entitled “Christmas at Huckleberry Mountain Library“, published by The Horn Book in 1946, the year Miss Lenski won the Newbery for Strawberry Girl:

Huckleberry mountain library — the only rural library in Henderson County, North Carolina — is open for two hours every other Sunday afternoon to the mountain children, and was to be open on December 23. Packages of books from three of my publishers arrived on the 22nd, just in time for library day.The library is a small log building, with a rock chimney at one end, sitting at the foot of the mountain, shaded by long-leafed pines. There had been three deep snows — more than this locality experiences in an entire winter — so the low-hung branches of the pine trees and the roof were white and glowing in the bright winter sun.

The children always come early, the young librarian, an educated mountain girl, said. The hours are from two to four, but often they are there by one-thirty. She has to open the door as soon as she gets there and keep it open, even at the risk of being very cold because the open door is a sign of welcome. If the children see the door closed, they may turn around and go home!

Through the weekdays, the building is unheated. So we went over early, to put up some greens and a little Christmas tree, and to get a fire started. Some young pine trees had been cleared out of the woods near by, and these Stephen chopped up. We had brought some dry wood, kindling and newspapers with us. The fireplace was filled with snow, and the chimney was very cold, so in spite of all our efforts, we never did get what you would call “a roaring fire” or any noticeable amount of heat in the room. …

The children looked so pretty as they came down the road across the snow. They were all dressed in their best — their coats and caps and mittens of bright colors — and had their hair neatly combed. They did not look ragged or tousled as they usually do at home. I was struck by the beauty and sweetness of their faces. Their natural shyness and quietness make their sweetness all the more appealing. There is a large proportion of redheads among them, evidence of a strong Scotch strain. They are apt to be small for their age. A boy, who looked to me to be about six, told me he was ten and in the fifth grade. Their clothes were pretty but not warm. The girls had thin cotton dresses on under their light summer-weight coats. Some (especially a group who had come all the way down the mountain) came in shaking and shivering, and their bare legs were blue with the cold.

Read the rest of Lois Lenski’s holiday account here. A warm holiday thank you to the folks at The Horn Book for rekindling and sharing the memories.

General Christmas unblogginess

Apologies for the lack of posts.  I’m just not feeling very bloggy of late.  We’ve jumped into our family Christmas celebrations and preparations, since the weather (we were up to -20 C for a few days, but this morning was -30 C again.  Brrr…) made us think of staying indoors and baking and decorating and making soup and hiding behind closed doors with rustly papers and snipping sounds and making tunnels and factories and graineries out of Kleenex boxes and tin cans to add to the train set.  The kids also dug out the Running Press Hanukkah Candle kit — which I bought on deep discount a few years ago at Winners — the other day and set to making enough candles for all eight days.  They are beautiful — colorful and glittery.

I gave myself an early Christmas present.  My aged Apple monitor (if I recall correctly, Apple calls them displays) starting acting up for the second time in several months, celebrating the holidays by turning various shades of blue, green, and purple, interrupted by horizontal hiccups.  Very festive but rather worrying.  When I looked at Apple displays (cinema displays, no less) earlier in the year, I had a heart attack at the prices and was relieved to know that having a Mac Mini didn’t mean I was committed to an Apple monitor.  So I looked at the Dell website and was delighted to find something for much, much less.  So I know have a 19″ flat screen monitor, the first one that is wider than it is deep. I don’t know what to do with all the space.  And once again I’m delighted for the modern conveniences that make it possible to shop without setting foot in stores.

Today we made some more cookies.  I dug out my December 1995 issue of Gourmet magazine (hurray for Gail Zwiegenthal), and we made two variations of the butter cookies from Leslie Pendleton Glover’s article, the Jelly Bowl cookies with our homemade golden plum jam, and the very, very tasty Raspberry Hazelnut Triangles, which are indeed like “bite-size Linzer-tortes”.  For the first time, I used my grandmother’s old rolling pin, one of the things I brought back from our NYC trip, and I taught Davy how to toast hazelnuts in the oven and then rub the skins off, the way my grandmother once taught me.

If anything, the blogging will become more sporadic from hereon in.  Sunday we go into the woods for the tree, and Christmas Eve is our big celebration with the extended family.  What I will try to do is post some fun links below, and as I can in the next while post some holiday repeats…

Fun links:

Via the papercraft blog Paper Forest, striped paper ball ornaments (there’s a video tutorial at another nifty blog) and also a sweet Holiday Paper Village that would be just thing to make after Christmas.

Cassi at Bella Dia has a round up of all the free printable gift tags she’s collected over the years.  Cassi also has the perfect gift for the person who has everything.

The first of the holiday repeats, from December 2005, my first blogging Christmas: Christmas in the Country, Part 1 and Christmas in the Country, Part 2, a lovely essay by Justin Isherwood

Happy Christmas

from CD and Colin Purrington‘s Axis of Evo project,


Colin also has a Charles Darwin Christmas tree ornament to download as a PDF and print on cardstock, and you can find more on his Axis of Evo project here.

(Via Michael Barton at The Dispersal of Darwin)

Holiday wishes

Via bookseller Alison Morris’s blog, ShelfTalker:

Not only can you send free e-cards for the holidays, designed by children’s authors and illustrators Janell Cannon, Eric Carle, Ian Falconer, David Kirk, Ida Pearle, Lauren Stringer, and Debra Frasier (and Bob the Builder, too), but for each card you send E! Networks will make a contribution to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

PS I saw the following festive sign in the Wellesley Booksmith’s Christmas window display on the website:


Words to remember this holiday season, especially now, as the temperature in our little corner of the world has dipped to -33 C, with a supposed windchill of -49. We’re hunkering down, in between looking after all of the animals — cattle, chickens (who are still laying!), dog and cats — making sure they have warm places to sleep and extra calories.

From the shelves of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

store to our shelves:

Inside the Museum: A Children’s Guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Joy Richardson (Harry N. Abrams, 1993).  Chapters, with color pictures, include Behind the Scenes, The Collections, Egyptian Art, Ancient Near Eastern Art, Asian Art, Islamic Art, Greek and Roman Art, Medieval Art, Medieval Art/The Cloisters (which we have to, have to, have to get to soon), Arms and Armor, and so on, through all the other permanent exhibitions, including the Costume Institute which drat it is closed at the moment.   Very good if you’re planning a trip there with children.  I had looked for a copy at Chapters.ca and Amazon.ca before we left but came up empty-handed.  According to the back cover, Richardson is also the author of Inside the British Museum and Looking at Pictures: An Introduction to Art for Young People, both apparently out of print.

How to Talk to Children about Art by Françoise Barbe-Gall, translated by Phoebe Dunn (Chicago Review Press, 2005); originally published in French as Comment parler d’art aux enfants.  Includes pages color-coded by age (5-7 year-olds in red; 8-10 year-olds in yellow; 11-13 year-olds in blue), and the book is divided into three main sections: the introductory “A good start”, the explanatory “It’s OK not to know”, and the main “How to look at a picture” with good quality color reproductions.

A head-start on the Lincoln Bicentennial

When Honest Abe quits twirling at the thought of Rotten Rod, here’s something to please him —  Edward Rothstein’s review in today’s New York Times of the new National Portrait Gallery exhibit, One Life: The Mask of Lincoln,  a “modest” and “understated highlight of Lincoln’s coming bicentennial year”.

Mr. Rothstein’s review is also notable for the Lincolniana bibliography he includes, since, as he writes, “I have fallen under the spell of Lincoln, which means that for every book read, there are several lifetimes’ worth of books to follow.”  There is also a sidebar of Lincolniana resources mentioned in the review, complied by Anne Mancuso.

Poking around at the NPG website, I found this link to an audio tour of the exhibit.  The NPG suggests that you can listen on your cell phone while at the exhibition, or download the audio to your MP3 player before you visit. It occurs to me that those of us unable to make the trip might listen to the tour while baking Christmas cookies.

Poetry Friday: Lights and trees and snow

Hard to believe we’ve been back for little over a week. The kids had a full 4H weekend, the older two at a public speaking workshop on Saturday (to help prepare for the big public speaking event in February) and all three at a volleyball tournament all day Sunday. Davy, who’s one year too young for 4H, was nevertheless needed and appointed a rover to fill spots on various teams.

Last Saturday night we went to a surprise birthday party for a dear family friend; I was especially pleased with the kids, especially the boys, who knew the expectations without reminding (Daniel wore his dress shoes) and were also able to carry on reasonable conversations with complete strangers, about school work, the recent trip, and looking forward to Christmas.

Monday we had our first Christmas party, Tuesday junior curling, and Wednesday, in addition to music lessons all afternoon the kids sang, read, and recited as the entertainment for a local women’s group Christmas breakfast. Laura recited Eleanor Farjeon’s In the Week When Christmas Comes from one of our favorite Christmas books, the delightful Random House Pictureback anthology, Diane Goode’s Christmas Magic: Poems and Carols, published in 1992 and out of print but worth tracking down, especially because Diane Goode is the Diane Goode who did such a marvelous job illustrating When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. And, at the last minute, Davy decided to read A Christmas ABC by Florence Johnson, from the also out-of-print Christmas Stories and Poems, illustrated by Lisa McCue (Troll Associates).

Yesterday we got to stay home, at least until after dinner (theater rehearsal), and since it was a fairly balmy -1C/30 F, the kids and I hung the Christmas lights. The temperature is supposed to start heading downward today, with a projected high of -30C tomorrow. So it was yesterday or never for the lights. Today I’m going to lay another layer of straw mulch over the strawberry bed. The recent snow, besides looking very Christmassy, is a welcome layer of insulation, but I think some more straw wouldn’t hurt.

*  *  *

If we had stayed in NYC for another few days, we would have been able to catch the crush that is the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. We no longer have a tree lighting in town; the powers that be decided that trees aren’t very exciting, but lighted figures of athletes (a figure skater, downhill and cross country skiiers, hockey player, etc.) were. But there’s nothing like a good tree lighting to get you in the holiday spirit.

We were there to see, just as the Macy’s Parade ended, the multitudes of tree stands sprouting like mushrooms on sidewalks. On Amsterdam and 77th Street, the enterprising young Quebecers (almost all of the tree sellers are hardy types from La Belle Province) were selling not just trees but ornaments, Santa suits, and anything else you could use for the holiday. On Broadway and 87th Street, they had the Duane Reade awning decorated with lights. And on the east side of Broadway and 98th, you can buy anything from a 12′ tree for your prewar apartment to a little Charlie Brown tree, a 5″ branchlet stuck in a sliced-off piece of trunk. They also had very cute reindeer also made from scraps. The kids, who have never thought of attaching a price to a tree, were astounded to see $85 price tags on trees we’d walk past in the woods.

A brief selection of favorites from Diane Goode’s Christmas Magic: Poems and Carols:

by John Updike (from A Child’s Calendar, originally illustrated by Nancy Burkert)

First snow! The flakes,
So few, so light,
Remake the world
In solid white.

All bundled up,
We feel as if
We were fat penguins,
Warm and stiff.

Downtown, the stores
Half split their sides,
And Mother brings home
Things she hides.

Old carols peal.
The dusk is dense.
There is a mood
Of sweet suspense.

The shepherds wait,
The kings, the tree —
All wait for something
Yet to be,

Some miracle.
And then it’s here,
Wrapped up in hope —
Another year!

Before Christmas
by Anne Blackwell Payne (1887-1969)

Young trees of the forest,
By scores and by dozens,
Have come to the city
Like small country cousins.

On squares and on corners
They lend to each street
A strange kind of fragrance
That’s spicy and sweet.

So give them a welcome,
Be glad we are blessed
For even a season
With such sturdy guests.

* * * *

Elaine Magliaro has today’s Poetry Friday round-up at Wild Rose Reader. Thanks, Elaine, and Merry Christmas!

Why I hate book clubs

and just about anything else by committee:

“Fighting over books”

Trip report, part II

The day after Davy’s birthday (Tuesday, November 25), the kids asked to go to the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks from the hotel and just across the street from my first independent NYC apartment.  I figured a weekday would be better than a mobbed weekend, so off we went, with a packed lunch in a Zabar’s shopping bag.  We set off in sogginess.

Having been to the museum on our last trip four years and having seen “Night at the Museum” (I overcame my Stiller/Meara/Stiller antipathy this one time, for the sake of the kids) just before our departure, the kids had an even grander time.  And a surprise bonus, when we were done with the last floor and what what we thought was the very last fossil hall on the fourth floor, we discovered tucked away in a quiet gallery a majestic display of John James Audubon’s mammal illustrations.  Highly recommended by Laura —  her favorite exhibit — and me.  Davy, on the other hand, was thrilled to see the big blue whale, since last time four years ago he had been asleep in the stroller.

By the way, if you go to the American Museum of Natural History, remember that it has only suggested admission fees; you are free to pay whatever you like.  The coat check has a small fee, but definitely worth it so you don’t have to schlep your coats and bags around.  Around 1 pm, when we figured the school groups had thinned out in the basement’s school lunchrooms, we retrieved our bag and sat at a nice big table with our sandwiches and apples. I don’t think enough families know about this option, since we saw only one other non-school group there; and it’s so much cheaper, and faster (so you can back to the exhibits), to avoid the museum’s café fare.

While the museum wasn’t as crowded as it could have been, one thing that prevented us from seeing exhibits properly was the abundance of adults wielding digital cameras and cell phone cameras taking pictures of each other in front of displays.  Curiously, they never seemed to actually look at the exhibits; they’d just shoot and go, rapidly replaced by another set of shooters-and-goers.  Perhaps they go home and look at the pictures in uncrowded privacy?  But it certainly makes life difficult for those of us, especially shorter younger children, who want to get past the taller posing and camera-wielding adults to see the exhibitions in situ.

At the end of the day, we walked over to my parents’ apartment for more of Grandmama’s famous lasagna, which the boys had specifically requested.

Next day we headed to midtown south on the subway to my parents office, a historical picture library, to have a look around and to have lunch before heading to the matinee peformance of “The 39 Steps”.   For lunch, my father treated to us to a table full of very, very good hamburgers at Primehouse New York (you can read a much more thorough, serious review here); while waiting, Tom and the kids enjoyed a tour of the “Himalayan Salt Room”, where some of the beef is aged.

The play, with only four actors, one of whom is Sam Robards, was terrific and all the better for the kids having seen the movie version of Alfred Hitchock’s “The 39 Steps”; there are two, the more easily obtained one with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (1935) and the very enjoyable but rather harder to find 1959 remake with Kenneth More.  And for any junior actors and behind-the-scenes types, the Broadway production is a revelation of just how much can be accomplished with a limited cast and set and unlimited imagination and creativity.  Another highlight for me, while waiting for the curtain to go up, was sitting one row behind an entire wired family of three generations: everyone from Grandma to Mom to granddaughters was engaged not in reading the Playbill but in pushing buttons, on a Blackberry (the first time I’d seen one in real life), cell phones, digital cameras, and a Kindle (my first sighting of one of those, too, and even after the curtain went up, one of the girls spent her time reading her Kindle by the light of her cell phone).  It’s definitely quieter and less wired on the farm.

After a stop but no purchases at the overly crowded M&M store, which Grandpapa had told the kids about, we headed back to the hotel to change and head out to see if we could watch the Macy’s balloons being blown up. When I used to live on West 77th Street for a few years in the early nineties, the street the night before the parade was busy but not a madhouse.  Now that Macy’s has, in recent years, decided to turn the event into an EVENT, funnelling crowds from 81st Street to 77th along Columbsu Avenue, the area is indeed a madhhouse.  Here was our view from the corner of 77th and Columbus,


The next morning we were up and on our way early to the parade, after breakfast and the kids’ discovery of their chocolate turkeys (a tradition when I was growing up, but try finding chocolate turkeys in Alberta in October). Until the night before, I’d still been thinking we might be able to find space on Central Park West, despite the fact that in recent years Macy’s has filled the east side of the street with bleachers for employees with tickets. But then just before lights out I read in Time Out magazine that viewing is pretty good inside the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle; with the benefit that kids who are too big to ride on shoulders any more but still too short to see over taller people blocking the way could see well from on high. We did try to make our way toward Central Park West around 64th Street (well away from subway stops at 72nd Street and 66th Street, where the mass of the disgorged just start heading east), but couldn’t get anywhere near the curb. So on we continued to TWC. Inside, we rode the up escalator to the second floor, where lots of viewers had already staked out space. We found an area with a good fairly unobstructed view, not too far from the bathrooms (an unexpected bonus), and settled in. In the end, we could see well, though I missed the parade sounds. But I’d asked my father to tape the parade on TV, so the kids were able to hear everything they missed, and see the Rockettes etc. in front of Macy’s, later on.

The view from inside the Time Warner Center; it took me a while to realize that the stars were changing colors and my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me,



After the parade, we headed the two miles up Broadway to my parents’ apartment, stopping off along the way to pick up green beans, a (Canadian!) rutabaga, sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts. The turkey arrived, after some adventures, from Zabars; the holiday staff first mistakenly sent the bird to my father’s billing address (the office, closed for the day). A replacement bird was then sped rapidly to the apartment, where we decorated it with frills.

We planned to spend Black Friday avoiding the shops, and Davy was eager for his promised skating in Central Park, so off we went to Wollman Rink, on what turned out to be the warmest and sunniest day of our stay,



Tom and the kids near center ice,


Davy, at center, streaking around the rink,


Holiday discount for Farm School readers

I thought I’d better move up and out Kathy Ceceri’s kind offer from the comments in yesterday’s Butterfly post, for any Farm School reader wishing to take her up on it:

As a special holiday thanks, I’d like to offer Farm School fans $5 off my book Around the World Crafts. Go to https://www.createspace.com/3349559 and type in the discount code A6HDVH92.

Kathy’s new book, Around the World Crafts: Great Activities for Kids who Like History, Math, Art, Science and More!, strikes me as a great holiday gift or a wonderful way to begin your studies again in the New Year.  By the way, Kathy writes the “Hands-on Learning” column for Home Education Magazine.

Many thanks for the generous offer, Kathy.

Polar bears, Prime Ministers, and basic math

Rick Mercer is a Canadian satirist, and one of our smartest public figures; think Jon Stewart in a parka.  Today on his blog and in the national newspaper The Globe & Mail, he has an an opinion piece, “It’s Not the Economy, Stupid”, from which:

Not long after Stephen Harper took office as Canada’s 28th Prime Minister an infant polar bear was born in a Berlin Zoo. Known as Knut, this cub was summarily rejected by his mother and so was nursed by human beings. Now two years later animal psychologists admit that he has become so addicted to human laughter and applause that the instant those things disappear he becomes desolate and cries for attention. This has lead to irrational behaviour never seen before in a polar bear. Experts fear that without constant applause Knut the polar bear could simply lose the will to live.

Enter Stephen Harper.

During our current crisis, Conservative staffers are being ordered to stand outside 24 Sussex Drive starting at 6:15 in the morning. Their job is to stand there in dark, in temperatures well below zero. Their instructions are to applaud, wave and sing Oh Canada loudly as Stephen Harper’s motorcade pulls out of the gates and drives him to work. Harper, by all accounts, actually believes that the young people are there on their own accord and represent a ground swell of love and support for his actions. It’s easier this way. Nobody wants to suffer at the hands of the inconsolable bear.

Enter Stephane Dion.

Stephane Dion is a humiliated and beaten man. Nothing prepared him for the thrashing he took in the last election, and the subsequent rejection by his own party just made matters worse [it continues today, courtesy of former Liberal deputy Prime Minister John Manley]. The applause and cheering stopped for this man a long time ago. Given the chance to exact revenge he will seize it at any cost.

And so is it any surprise that these damaged men are the architects of a crisis in Canada the likes of which we have never seen?

With leaders like this we shouldn’t be blamed for asking why bother.

But I do know this. If this parliament was a dog it would be brought out behind the shed and shot. Rabid dogs aren’t reformed, given second chances or trusted ever again.

At first this little crisis of ours in Ottawa was nothing but good old fashioned fun. For political junkies it was simply blood sport and made for great entertainment.

It began of course with the economic statement, a colossal misstep for Prime Minister Harper. The nastiness and partisanship caught everyone off guard – including the Conservative cabinet that once again were kept in the dark. Sane cabinet ministers were forced to grin and bear it as the leader revealed a strategy that not only highlighted the very worst elements of his personality, but reinforced the nagging cliché that this Conservative party cares more about inflicting pain on those they dislike then offering support for anyone in need.

For most casual observers it seemed like a game of hardball Stephen Harper would easily win. The opposition under Stephane Dion is, without a doubt, the weakest official opposition that Canada has ever seen. The leader is on his way out, the party is broke, and discipline is non-existent.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the vote in the House of Commons.

Stephane Dion may lack the basic skills needed by all political leaders but he seems to have a grasp on basic math, something Stephen Harper, the economist, seems to have lost.

Dion crunched the numbers and quickly realized that if his party, along with the other two parties in the house, opposed Harper the government would fall – in theory Dion could even become Prime Minister.

The only problem with that scenario was that no Liberal leader would ever consider such a gambit because it would mean getting in bed with both separatist and socialist forces in the House of Commons.

The difference this time around is that those forces didn’t spend the last two years destroying this Liberal leader’s personal reputation. That was Stephen Harper’s doing. A coalition could ruin Stephen Harper and that’s the only motivation Stephane Dion needs.

This is personal.

Stephen Harper loves being the Prime Minister of Canada. Under Harper the motorcades have gotten longer, the office more presidential, the trappings more grand. The idea that within a week he could be standing in line at the airport with regular Canadians, photo ID at the ready, attempting to board an Air Canada jazz flight to Moncton so he can explain to party faithful why he now travels in a Jiffy Taxi gnaws at his very being.

Knut the polar bear could not survive such a humiliation and nor can Stephen Harper. So Stephen Harper tore up his economic update; he blinked and backtracked – behaviour not before seen in this political animal. …

Read the rest here.  And you can have fun watching Rick here.  Because at this p0int, we can laugh or we can cry.  We certainly don’t seem to be able to explain to “outraged” Canadians here in the conservative Prairie Provinces — many of whom didn’t even bother to vote in October — that Stephen Harper arranged all of this, not the Liberals, NDP, or Bloc Quebecois.

Trip report, part I

“We are not giving you the advice to start smiling at everyone you meet in New York. That would be dangerous.”
Researcher James H. Fowler in yesterday’s New York Times

* * * * *

We had a marvelous, wonderful holiday visit with my parents.  The highlights were American Thanksgiving and Davy’s eighth birthday, both with all the trimmings.

The trip trimmings included a variety of entertainments (opening night at the New York City Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, at Lincoln Center; “The 39 Steps” with Sam Robards, very clever and eminently suitable for children; and Cirque de Soleil’s “Wintuk”, which had Davy at the edge of his seat all night) and sights/sites.  We made it to the New-York Historical Society (where the Grant-Lee Civil War exhibit didn’t quite make up for the dearth of Audubon bird prints), the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum.  And South Street Seaport, Battery Park, Little Italy (where Davy discovered a leftover $20 bill in an ATM), and Chinatown. Also Santa Claus at Macy’s, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (viewed from the height and relative comfort of the Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle), Davy’s birthday celebration of visits to FAO Schwartz and the Times Square branch of Toys R Us, as well as Brooks Brothers for big boy ties.  Rockefeller Center and the tree.  For Laura, pilgrimages to the American Girl temple and the Tiny Dollhouse shop on East 78th.  Skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park on what turned out to be the warmest, sunniest, calmest day.  The kids watched candy being made at Papabubble in Little Italy, and ate cannoli.  We came home with our bags full of Zabar’s blend coffee, a couple of Zabar’s coffee mugs ($1 each!), escargot dishes and escargot shells for our family fixation, chestnuts.  And then there were the six small duffle bags each packed with 50 pounds of publishers’ checking copies of children’s books (many library press books, but also dozens of back issues of Cobblestone, Calliope, and Kids Discover magazines, a puzzle, and some CDs) from my parents’ office, a historical picture library.

The view from our hotel room window, Fairway Market on Broadway between 74th and 75th, and its rooftop,


The view on the street, near our hotel on the Upper West Side,


We stayed at The Beacon, which isn’t cheap but definitely reasonable by NYC standards, especially since the room had a kitchenette, which we put to good use with staples and the occasional treats from Zabar’s, H & H Bagels, and Fairway right across the street.

The first morning, we walked up Broadway to my parents’ apartment, stopping along the way for provisions for our first lunch together — bagels at H&H, French ham and pepperoni from Zabar’s, pickled herring in cream sauce and proper fruit leather from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop.

We had a quick dinner of dim sum that evening with my father and family friends at Shun Lee Cafe near Lincoln Center, then hopped on the subway to see Cirque de Soleil’s “Wintuk”.  Highlights on the way home included Daniel’s first Norway rat sighting and my first dead tree Sunday New York Times in four years.

Sunday morning, we set off for the Historical Society a few blocks away. We arrived a bit early at the Historical Society, so Tom and the boys decided to investigate the VIP seating for the parade later on in the week,


Davy’s birthday began with a quick trip to Zabar’s to pick out a cake (there it is on the lower right, the Chocolate Lover’s cake, with the hand coming to put in a box),


On the way home with the cake, Davy and I watched city workers decorating the trees on the traffic island in the middle of Broadway,


The kids in front of big Christmas lights on Sixth Avenue, on the way from Times Square to Central Park,


Davy and Daniel with a lifesize Lego Batman at FAO Schwartz,


At least they didn’t make me wear a jacket that says “TOURIST”,


After the toy stores, Davy had planned for us to meet my father at Wollman Rink for ice skating in the park. But somehow, despite all my planning and printed out pages, I overlooked the fact that on Mondays and Tuesdays for some inexplicable reason the rink closes at 2:30 in the afternoon. We arrived at 2:20. Great big silent tears fell, and fortunately I remembered that the carousel was nearby, and promised that we’d go skating in a few days.

The birthday boy enjoying his dinner of spareribs at Shun Lee West,



The Chocolate Lover and his cake at the hotel room,


To be continued…