Archive for June, 2014

In case you read via feed reader

June 30, 2014 @ 6:20 pm | Filed under: Bloggity

There’s a lot of good conversation happening in the comments of the Facebugged post. Many topics, not just Facebook: blog nostalgia; blog communities compared to FB and other kinds of community; the sacredness of some topics and the notion of ‘right spaces’ for discussing certain things; more. Join us if you like. If I could, I’d pour you a cup of tea.

Comments are off

Leaving the Garden

June 30, 2014 @ 9:49 am | Filed under: Books

 

entroots

I read The Secret Garden to Rilla recently. She loved it beyond reckoning, same as I did at her age—same as I do now. During fraught passages, she couldn’t keep still: had to roll around on the bed, wave her legs in the air, hug herself, squeal, stand up and jump. All that emotion had to manifest in movement. It was fascinating to witness the way the book literally moved her. It brought a whole new dimension to my understanding of that expression.

***

Often, after I’ve read a book aloud to my kids, they take it away and immediately reread it. I thought Rilla might want to do that with Secret Garden but she looked almost shocked by the suggestion.

“No!” she exclaimed. “After you read me a book, I kinda treat it as an artifact too fragile to be touched.”

Well. I’m going to have to think about that. She probably won’t feel that way forever, and I imagine there will come a day when she does curl up with this tome for a delicious, private reread. Maybe around age ten or eleven—she’s only eight, after all. It’s interesting to contemplate, though. Was the experience of this book so fully engaging, such a complete kinesthetic, aural, visual, imaginative absorption that it feels enough? Have you ever experienced a book that way—a first encounter so complete that you never wanted to go back again?

Facebugged

June 28, 2014 @ 11:52 am | Filed under: Social Media

I’ve made an uneasy peace with becoming a product sold to advertisers. Now it seems I’ve been a lab rat, too.

The AV Club reports:

Scientists at Facebook have published a paper showing that they manipulated the content seen by more than 600,000 users in an attempt to determine whether this would affect their emotional state. The paper, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” was published in The Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. It shows how Facebook data scientists tweaked the algorithm that determines which posts appear on users’ news feeds—specifically, researchers skewed the number of positive or negative terms seen by randomly selected users. Facebook then analyzed the future postings of those users over the course of a week to see if people responded with increased positivity or negativity of their own, thus answering the question of whether emotional states can be transmitted across a social network. Result: They can! Which is great news for Facebook data scientists hoping to prove a point about modern psychology. It’s less great for the people having their emotions secretly manipulated.

bubble

I uploaded this picture last night, intending to write my usual sort of daily-chronicle post. Then my eye wandered from the rainbows inscribed on the bubble to the blunt, browned ends of the grass and I got distracted by the ruthlessness with which we shear off the tender edges of nature. I wandered off to bed, musing, leaving the post unwritten. (Huck’s finger is much improved, was the gist.)

This morning, after reading the article quoted above (about a different kind of bubble, a ruthlessness altogether unsurprising but disgusting nonetheless), I came back here and found the photo waiting. And now I see that I’m in the picture too, there inside the bubble, taking a photo of the green world on the other side of the film. You could work up quite a metaphor there, obvious, clumsy, but apt: the insubstantial bubbles, the world outside, the illusions of people that aren’t the persons themselves.

But my frustrations aren’t philosophical (of course Facebook was always going to exploit us in every way possible) but practical. The reason a billion people have handed over their (our) data to Facebook is, at heart, a practical one: it’s the most efficient platform anyone has yet come up with for letting us keep in touch with a large number of friends and family at once. We failed at writing letters. Good phone conversations, while satisfying, take immense chunks of time. If you want to keep up with each other’s daily lives, the little things, you have to talk every couple of days (at the least) or else there’s too much ground to cover and you must out of necessity abridge.

Yahoogroups worked, for a while—you could engage in meaningful discourse or chummy banter with a good-sized group of people at once. But generally most of those relationships were new, were forged because of the group, by means of the group. I made some lifelong friends that way (hello, TAMs! hello, Karen!) but (I don’t like that ‘but’; it sounds like a devaluation of the friendships on its left, and that isn’t what I mean at all)—but—but my high-school friends didn’t form a Yahoogroup. My college friends didn’t. We kept to our phone calls, our occasional letters and visits. I read letters six times and treasured them, and didn’t write back, or did but didn’t stop for stamps.

After a while, most of the Yahoogroups I was part of morphed into discussion boards (more efficient, because they allowed for topic-sorting; less efficient, because they required administration and management) or faded into disuse. I think I’m still signed up to forty-odd lists. I get mail from three, and read one and a half. It’s years since I logged into a discussion board.

Then came blogs. Those of us still doggedly blogging for personal reasons look back on 2005 and 2006 with nostalgia: we remember what it was like in those days, less than a decade ago, when we were for the first time opening our front doors and saying here’s my house, come in. We shared too much, made friends, celebrated art and nature, got in fights, copied one another or got furious about being copied—all the same things we’d done on AOL in 1995 and in email groups in 1999, only now with photos of our children. We formed new and very real friendships: real and strange, because we knew (know) so much about each other and have watched each other’s children grow up, and yet we live so far away some of us may never meet. When one of us goes silent for a while, the others worry. Sometimes I’ll think: if she dies, I might never know what happened.

That’s if she isn’t on Facebook. Because that’s what Facebook does better than blogging—connects wide groups of people and spreads news they wouldn’t necessarily publish on any other website—and Facebook is why only a fraction of my friends-who-blogged are blogging still. Facebook IS blogging. It’s everyone blogging at once on the same platform, a platform cleverly managed (manipulated) for purposes we all agree are greedy at best, and not guided by principles that put our best interests remotely near the top of the priority list.

I love Facebook. I hate Facebook. I have loved and hated it since the day I joined. Facebook gave me back friends I had lost: that’s the sum total of my reason for loving it, and it’s immense. All those other platforms brought me new friends. Facebook reunited me with old ones. I don’t need to dress it up in metaphors. I’d lost touch with some of the people I loved best, and Facebook gave them back to me. It gave me what blogging didn’t: daily contact with beloved cousins and old school friends. Every day, it gave (gives) me photos and anecdotes of their lives, their children, their pets, their loved ones, their work. How can I measure the value of that?

If all the people I loved were inclined to blog—to blog about their personal lives, no less—I wouldn’t need a platform like Facebook. Somehow, Facebook accomplished the miraculous feat of convincing all these old friends to blog as we were doing, with oversharing and our children’s faces and outrage and sorrow and delight. And commenting is easier there, it just IS: fast, efficient (it always comes back to efficiency), and rewarded by a heartening LIKE. And—significantly—more conversational. You can reply back and forth quickly, in real-time like chat. Don’t blog comments feel more formal somehow? They didn’t use to. I feel like we used to chitchat more in the combox, but maybe that’s nostalgia. It’s probably just the time delay. If I reply to your comment here, it’s probably a day after you wrote it, and who knows if you even see the reply.

It’s strange, actually, the way we feel safer about sharing our personal stories on Facebook. We know we’re the product there; the evidence is thrust before us every time we open the tab and see a sidebar ad for a book we looked at on a different website the day before. We rail about the way they keep resetting the news feed from ‘most recent’ to ‘top stories,’ we fume at each sneaky privacy-policy change, we wince each time another website wants us to log in via Facebook before we can leave a comment.

But we go back, because that’s where our friends are posting photos of their their babies, their travels, their graduations. Because it’s a mini college reunion every time one of us posts and all our classmates chime in, laughing over an old shared joke. Because we have history together, and we care about one another’s present-day lives. Because if something serious happens, you’re going to tell your Facebook friends before you put it on a blog.

To leave, or to make the decision never to go in the first place (for reasons I respect and with a resolve I may at times envy a little), is to cut yourself off from a certain flow of information. There’s plenty of nonsense and trivia on Facebook, as there is in all forms of human interaction, including some of the best phone calls I’ve ever had. But there’s a great deal of the Real, the Good, the True there too, and it’s that—not simply the dopamine hit, as many theorists would have us believe—that brings us back. It’s genuine curiosity. It’s, to be blunt, love. I love you and I want to know how you’re doing. If Facebook is where you’re showing me, how can I stay away?

I would pay for an ad-free social connection site with no data-mining and no gross user manipulation of the sort revealed in the newly published study described in the article above. (You can click through from the article to the study itself.) But—here’s what I know. I know it’s unlikely a critical mass of my friends and relatives would too. Facebook caught us because it was free, and because there was a numerical tipping point: so many of us are there now, you really are missing something if you aren’t. Which isn’t to say anyone should be there who doesn’t want to be: I wouldn’t presume. As I said, I respect and admire their reasons for staying away.

But I’m a practical person, and I know what I’ll miss out on if I leave. I’m 45 years old and I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love a great many people. As I said on Facebook this morning when I shared the link above—my last act before logging out for a breather—”But how will I get my YOU fix?”

Wednesday, I think?

June 25, 2014 @ 7:29 pm | Filed under: Family Adventures

ivycache

Huck has an infected finger. I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say they’re gory, and I’ve added a new and entirely unwanted skill (pus drainage) to my maternal repertoire. We spent much of yesterday at the doctor, he’s now on antibiotics, and, proving there’s lemonade to be made even from a festering lemon, the two of us got to sit cuddled up until midnight watching Minecraft videos together. If I’m a little punchy today, you’ll understand.

Did manage to squeeze in some fun yesterday before the unfortunate appendage went from alarming to horrific: a bit of geocaching with the younger three at a lovely park we don’t visit often. At least, the first cache was at the park; the second one was at the dead end of a neighborhood street a couple of blocks away, a somewhat grimier location than expected. To Huck’s disgruntlement I wouldn’t let him touch anything, which means Rilla got the fun of the cache grab. WB doesn’t care who makes the find as long as he gets his turn at holding the phone/compass.

Today was piano and repaired hearing-aid fetching (happy is its owner, who can hear again) and finger-soaking and general collapsing, and nary a book did we read. But if you need to know how to lure zombies into an iron golem trap, Huck and I are your man.

Online Foreign Language Resources #2: italki

June 24, 2014 @ 8:44 pm | Filed under: Foreign Languages, Fun Learning Stuff

See #1 in this series: Memrise.

italki1

Last night I had a trial lesson at italki.com with a German teacher who currently lives and works in Taiwan. At the appointed hour he rang me on Skype and we had a delightful half-hour chat. We started with video but the connection was wonky so we switched to audio only, and that worked fine. Something I especially appreciated was that whenever I struggled with a word or phrase, Stephan corrected me and typed the correction in the chat window so I could see it as well as hear it. Afterward, the chat log provided a nice transcript of the things I’d learned.

language optionsSince this was a first lesson, it was largely conversational. Stephan spoke to me in German from the beginning (when I set up the lesson I’d had to fill out a form describing my current level), asking lots of questions and encouraging me to plunge in and answer as best I could. I loved it. He also sent links to a couple of resources—a German children’s book, the first half of which I read and translated with his help, and, when I mentioned that I often confuse which prepositions go with which verbs, a pdf with some preposition exercises.

Italki lets you choose between “professional instruction,” where the tutor will probably have you work through a textbook with homework, and “informal tutoring,” which is more the conversational kind of session I had with Stephan, practicing and improving my skills through dialogue. The latter is the less expensive option, but both kinds of lessons are pretty reasonable—downright cheap in some cases, depending on the language you’re studying and the exchange rates involved. Payment is all handled through italki; you purchase italki credits (ITC) at the rate of 1 dollar per 10 ITC, plus a small processing fee based on your payment method. When you book a session, italki holds your credits, and after you mark the session completed, they pay the instructor. If the session doesn’t happen for some reason, you get your credits back. Most lessons seem to be in the neighborhood of $10-15 per session.

The selection of language is fairly staggering. Basically, anywhere there’s Skype, there are italki tutors eager to take you on as a student. Most instructors have made short videos to introduce themselves. I love this one from Modabo in Spain. 🙂 Many instructors indicate on their profiles whether they have experience teaching children, if you’re looking for a tutor for younger kids. For teens, pretty much any instructor is a possibility.

Many instructors offer trial sessions like the one I had at a special rate. Italki allows new users to sign up for three of these trials, so you have a chance to try out the interface (and the teacher) without spending very much.

The website also encourages connections among users; you can find language partners to practice with or do swaps—say, you help me with German and I’ll help you with English. After all, actually speaking a language—jumping in, trying to form sentences, making lots of mistakes and having someone correct you—is the best way to move toward fluency. Users are also encouraged to write notebook entries in their target languages, inviting native speakers to offer corrections and advice. There’s a handy markup system to use in editing others’ entries. All very friendly and low-pressure.

So far, in my limited experience (two weeks browsing the site and last night’s wonderful lesson), I give italki high marks. Rose is drooling over the language list. We’re thinking some italki Spanish lessons might be a very good option for her. Like me, she’s been using Memrise to build vocabulary in her target language(s), and she studies Spanish grammar in a print textbook. But there’s nothing, nothing, like speaking with a native speaker. I’ve been stuck at a sort of low-intermediate level in German for a very long time. As in: decades. It was exhilarating last night to discover how much I really can say and comprehend. I understood almost everything Stephan said, and when I didn’t, he repeated the phrase, typed it out for me, and told me the English. It’s a very organic way to learn. I would love to take more lessons with him, the informal tutoring kind. I see Sign Language is offered as well, which is a very exciting possibility.

The Fruit of the Poet’s Tree

June 23, 2014 @ 6:50 pm | Filed under: Poetry

What with getting sick the week before last and zooming back and forth to appointments last week, I never found time to write about something I absolutely must chronicle. I mean, it was only one of the finest surprises of my entire life. As I’ve mentioned, I taught a six-week  poetry workshop to a group of our homeschooling friends. These were the same kids as my Journey North group; I had so much fun doing Mystery Class with them that my friend Erica (who generously hosts our meetings at her house and is a far better planner than I am) and I put our heads together and decided to start a Literature Club for this enthusiastic bunch of kids.

Our age range was wide: from a ten-year-old or two up to a number of teens, including one 18-year-old who arrived home from college midway through the session and asked, to my delight, if she could drop in. (Not Jane: her school gets out late and she missed the whole thing.)

Over the course of the six weeks, we discussed rhyme scheme and meter, many kinds of meter, and several kinds of figurative language. We had examples from lots of poets but each week (except the last) I chose one poet for close readings—someone wonderful whose work had example of the meter and/or tropes we were encountering that week. Yeats (you know I had to start with him), Frost, Hughes (Langston, not Ted), Dickinson, Blake.

We had ourselves a fantastic time. Most of our meetings ended with my giving the kid a few starter lines in a particular meter and having them form groups and finish up the poem. This was their favorite part of the class, and the group readings provided much merriment.

For our last session, I wrote a poem incorporating all their names, sorted by meter—a stanza each for our iambs, dactyls, and trochees (written in the appropriate meter), with some lines full of spondees for the single-syllable names. It ends with an appeal for an anapest: we had none in the group.

I was pretty excited about my little surprise, and they seemed to get a big kick out of it. But then they revealed they had a surprise for me: they’d all written poems to thank me for the class. They read them out loud and I was crying before the first poem was finished. These kids, they blew me away.

I sailed away with my good friends three,
Up and out to the Poet’s Tree,
There I wrote poems about sharks and dogs,
And giants galore who got smacked with fat logs
But we couldn’t have done all of this without you,
Yes Mrs. Peterson you’ve made that fact true.

—”The Poet’s Tree” by Peter H., age ten

(Peterson’s my married name, as I think most of you know.)

Couldn’t you just melt? Best thank-you gift I’ve ever been given, these poems. All the kids presented me with copies to keep, which I will forever.

Alliteration, synecdoche, and onomatopoeia,
Learned a ton,
Love you lots,
Until next time—see ya!

lines from “My dear Melissa Peterson” by Olivia L., age 13

photo (35)

summer: day 5

June 20, 2014 @ 4:26 pm | Filed under: Family

beanreads

And here we are at Friday in this unusually busy week. Soon most of us will head out to a party to celebrate the finalization of a friend’s adoption—a most joyful occasion indeed. Things we did today: the trio recited their poems (“I didn’t like this yesterday but now I do,” said Huck during the brief pause for air between his, oh, I’d say fourth and fifth voluntary recitations of “The Rain”); they learned a smidge of Latin; we had our read-aloud and quiet reading times. I actually read during QRT today instead of dozing off.

It’s going to be fun, this summertime focus on the younger set, after the rich and productive (and long) high tide I had with my teens. And of course the teens themselves are enjoying the more ambling pace of their low tide. Jane’s internship is going to keep me on the road more than we’d anticipated, but it’s turning out to be a nice time for quiet conversation for the two of us and whichever of her siblings has come along for the ride. (One sibling at a time is the key.)

I’ve enjoyed keeping this log this week. As our summer days find their rhythm, I won’t have as much detail to chronicle—different books, different pieces of music, some outings. But as is our way, the overall shape of the days will be much the same. The sturdiness of our daily rhythm, enlivened by the endless variety of the books and songs and games that fill up the hours, is what makes that very liveliness possible. It’s like a tried and true recipe that you change up with different seasonings and spontaneous substitutions. A good salad, maybe, or a sandwich.

I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Forster and Eliot this week, which is silly, but sometimes I had one book handy and sometimes the other. Forster’s prose makes me ache in the best possible way. I find I’m returning to him more and more often lately, sometimes just opening to the middle of Room or Howards End and reading wherever I happen to land. And yet this is my first time reading Passage! I’m transfixed, as usual.

“She was looking through a nick in the cactus edge at the distant Marabar Hills, which had crept near, as was their custom at sunset; if the sunset had lasted long enough, they would have reached the town, but it was swift, being tropical.”

I find I’m wanting to creep verrrry slowly through Middlemarch this time, taking time to sit with an episode or even just a paragraph and breathe it in, savor its subtleties. For all Eliot is sweeping in scope (800 pages, a whole village-worth of fully realized characters), her magic is in the microcosm. This bit about Sir James, just after he finds out Dorothea is engaged to Casaubon and, after riding hard for a bit, decides to swing by her uncle’s house as previously planned—

He really did not like it: giving up Dorothea was very painful to him; but there was something in the resolve to make this visit forthwith and conquer all show of feeling, which was a sort of file-biting and counter-irritant.”

That there’s a whole lot of character to reveal in a single sentence.

summer: day 4

June 19, 2014 @ 5:00 pm | Filed under: Family

spicy hummus, yum

Early morning dentist appointment (a long-awaited day for Jane) and then later, midday, Beanie’s Piano Guild audition. She did very well. In between, there was a really delicious snack time accompanied by Beethoven’s 6th (what can I say, I’m a Pastoral kind of girl and always have been). And then a new thing with the younger set—another OLD habit I’m dusting off for the younger set. We read boatloads of poems this year but didn’t do much memorizing, and what’s nicer than a brain crammed with poetry? Huck (with Beanie as coach) worked on Stevenson’s little “Rain” poem; Rilla grabbed “Bed in Summer”; Wonderboy tackled a funny verse about lizards. We’ll keep practicing these next week.

Rose and I made some highly delicious salsa. I found huge bunches of cilantro on sale for twenty cents at the farmer’s market earlier this week—TWENTY CENTS, can you imagine?—so fresh salsa was a must. Very high on my list of things I’m grateful for is that I didn’t get the taste buds that interpret cilantro as soap. I love it so.

Me to Rose: Be careful not to touch your eyes after chopping jalapeno.

Me two minutes later: YEEEEEAAAAAAGGGGHHHH MY EYYYYYYYYE!

Today’s readaloud time began with a Huck request: Mr. Bear’s New Baby by Debi Gliori. All that baby wants is to snuggle; it takes them forever to figure it out. And then another chapter of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. We always have to run to the kitchen for a bite of chocolate afterward. Except today only the kids did the running. We’d been reading in my bedroom and it was mighty cool and comfy there. See also: early morning dentist appointment.

***

This is what Huck does while I’m working.

***

I’m working on that Duolingo post I promised. And I got a free session at italki.com, so I’ll be trying out a German lesson via Skype next week. (Eek!) Will report on that afterward.

***

Next week I’ll probably stop counting off the days of summer in my post titles. Probably.

summer: day 3

June 18, 2014 @ 4:03 pm | Filed under: Books, Family, Photos

pianogirl

I’m sitting here wondering if anyone turned off the soaker hose in the tomato garden. I’d like to call it the “vegetable garden” but all I’ve managed this year (so far) is tomatoes. Lots of ’em, though: orange grape (which sounds oxymoronic but is delicious) and roma.

This morning during my blissful half hour of reading in bed, I decided I wanted to go back to Middlemarch—remember I started it (a beloved reread) months ago? And then got sidetracked? I opened it on my phone and found I had to go back fifty pages or so because I just had to read this one bit, no and that one, oh and that scene where…and eventually decided I wanted to read a hard copy instead; I’m wanting the tactile experience for this one—though you’d think an 800-page behemoth like Middlemarch is the exact kind of tome for which the Kindle was invented. Well, the only resolution I made this year was to indulge my reading whims, so mammoth codex it shall be.

I’d looked for my battered paperback copy back when the urge first struck and came up emptyhanded. We’ve been doing a lot of book purging (sob) to make space, and faded, ancient, cheap paperback copies of classics have been on the kiss-goodbye list (gulp). The reasoning here being that these are books we can read for free on our e-readers. I mean, certain treasured volumes full of margin notes are forever-keepers, but I’m talking some of these ratty, coverless copies that were decades old when we picked them up at used bookstores in the first place. When I couldn’t find Middlemarch I figured ruefully that it must have gone out in the Goodwill box.

So I stopped at the library on the way to piano, the big lovely fairly new main branch in our town. It wasn’t open yet. Later, WB and I walked back over, and I was surprised to discover they didn’t have a copy on the shelf. Must be the surge of renewed popularity thanks to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (which I’ve been in the queue for for ages). Amusingly, the only available copy in our system today is on the shelf at my local branch—the tiny little box of a building we swing by on Saturdays. I meant to drop by on the way home from piano, but I gave a ride to a friend’s daughter and wound up chatting in her front yard until lunchtime.

After lunch, I read a chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the trio and then we had our little bit of quiet reading time. Huck wanted Up Cat to go along with Up Dog. It was in his room, on the board-book shelf. Right next to Middlemarch.

Who knew?

photo (34)

Thick as a board, I guess?