So many words, so little time....

Monday, February 28, 2005

Stepping up onto the Parenting Soapbox again...

One of my neighbors got a report home from school about her nine-year-old son. He wasn't reading enough. She didn't know what to do and since she knew all my kids read she asked me how to make him read. I kind of cringed at her phrasing. I asked her what she meant, and she showed me that he was some stupid number of books behind on this class contest-thingy. Don't get me started about that. But I do have some advice that seems to have done the trick at my house.

Don't wait. Get right at this as soon as possible. In know we all are supposed to read to our kids every night and a lot of us do, but many people aren't as religious about it as they can be. They don't really notice the issue until the child is in school. If you wait that long to start following the rest of this advice, you're going to have a whole lot harder time.

Read to them. Can't say it enough. Until they can do it for themselves you are the only connection they have with the worlds stacked on their bookshelves. And you don't have to stop, either. My kids still like to have me read stories to them and they have driver's licenses. No, not every night, but it still happens.

Biggest thing is to DO IT YOURSELF. Right in front of them. See the last paragraph about reading to them, but also make certain that they see you reading to yourself as well. Read what kind of book you like. It doesn't matter; you probably won't affect their preferences at all. My mom read a steady diet of Harlequins, and I assure you that I wouldn't touch one of those things without a hot-suit and a Geiger counter. What matters is you modeling the behavior for them.

Next step - make sure they have books around they like. Once they get the ability to read for themselves, make sure it's there for them to read. I'm not just talking about the classics, either. I'm deliberately leaving out Harry Potter. It's an anamoly, and given the steadily more adult tone of the series you're going to have to make that call for your kids yourself. There's a whole lot more out there. Here are some ideas.

I probably shouldn't have made that crack about the classics. There are some great stories there. For the horse-lover, try Walter Farley's "The Black Stallion" series, "Black Beauty", and "King of the Wind". If your kids have finished Lemony Snicket and are looking around for something else, Roald Dahl and his ilk have wonderful stories for kids who have grown past Dr. Seuss, but aren't ready for Tom Clancy. The real "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is wonderful and strange, and my kids really loved "Witches" (and there's a great film starring Angelica Houston to go with). The REAL "Peter Pan", the original Winnie the Pooh books, and Grimm's fairytales all got good time at my house, too. As they get older, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and a whole lot of other good swashing and buckling is out there.

Rocketships and moonlandings are still the stuff of dreams. The sci-fi fan is well supplied. Robert Heinlein surprisingly wrote some great sci-fi that's perfect for the tweener/early teen set (just make sure you read through it first if you worry about these things. "Rocketship Galileo", "Citizen of the Galaxy", "Farmer in the Sky", and "Star Beast" are good stories with teen protagonists. When they hit the middle teens, trot out "Starship Troopers" (which isn't at all what you think it is if you're going off the movie), and "Space Cadet". Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" series is excellent but it's even better the second time through with "Ender's Shadow", "Shadow of the Hegemon", and whatever the next one is called. For older teens and grownups, I recommend "Songmaster" and "Treason".

For the fantasy buff, try David Edding's "Belgariad" and "Mallorean" series (the Belgariad is the first five books, and then the Mallorean" is the second). The Xanth Series by Piers Anthony still enchants, as does Robert Aspirin's "Mything Persons" series. I read my kids "just the good parts" of the novel "The Princess Bride" and they loved it. The "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and it's whole series also plays well (and now they get half my jokes). Once they're older, the whole realm of pulp is available. Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, Alan Quartermain, John Carter are all ready to take them off to a world of not necessarily politically correct adventures.

For young boys, nothing beats military fiction to catch their attention. I know, I know. You don't have to like everything they read, though, and as long as it is written for their audience you might be surprised. Ender's Game is the hand's down champion in our neighborhood for the tweener set. The videogame Halo has three novels out based on it's story that are excellent for the early teen boy (I wouldn't give them to anyone younger than 10). "The Regiment" series by John Dalmas can go pretty young, and he has a couple good books for grownups, too (try The General's President).

I don't know how much of this is going to work. We did get him started on one of the Encyclopedia Brown books, because he likes detective stories. We'll see.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Death of a Grammarian...

Miss Gould is an institution at the New Yorker. Her ability to wrestle the raw prose of even the thinnest hack into clear shape was fundamental to the look and feel of The New Yorker for over fifty years. She died this last weekend, and you can read her obit here. (no registration)

It's obvious from the writing that the staff there truly loved her and understood the place she had in making them better. Godspeed, Miss Gould, and I hope the Lord has a good stock of fine red pencils.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Ministry of the Mini-Van....

I came in and carefully slumped down in my usual pew where the youth group circles the wagons every week. I was exhausted and sick and really not with it. The text of the day was on Jesus' exhortation to bring the children to him, and I enjoyed the adventures of the Pastor trying to deliver a sermon with all the kids on the stage around him. One little boy had brought a toy with him that kept joining in, but it turned out well. Mr. Lizard is quite the theologian. And it turned again to how we're all supposed to go out and give the message to everyone around us.

Squirm-time again. It gets me. I'm far from the best Christian. Doubting Thomas and I could hang out, and I have far more in common with Jonah (pre-whale) than Peter or Paul. I have many more questions than answers; once you get past John 3:16 my authority starts to run pretty thin. My own adventures in proselytizing have so far turned into me running for help when I step off into the deep end about three questions in. I have talked to people. I have brought friends. When he's up there reminding us it just doesn't seem like enough, though.

After the closing prayer it's off to the Fellowship Hall to track down my Pagan Horde and chivvy the gang off to their various activities. I end up with a couple extra kids who need a ride home. They're all jazzed about getting ready for the next youth activity and reminiscing about previous years. We pile into the car. I get them to their places and do the rest of my appointed rounds, but at the bottom of it I keep thinking about the message and their fond discussion of old snowball fights and who snores the loudest. I thought about the kids who sit in that group, and the others who show up on Wednesday nights. Counting back, quite a few kids who have come and gone through that place have come in the back of my car.

I had never counted them in those little defensive lists I make to myself when that whole spread-the-word topic comes up. I'm not doing this because of some attempt to reach out. The whole neighborhood just seems to congregate at my house all the time. This is just the offshoot of having four kids and managing our life. By the time you include a shifting group of various neighbor kids and whoever is so-and-so's best friend this week you've got a car-full and then off you go.

I mean, it's not like we talk about Jesus all the time. I certainly haven't shared any particular wisdom with them. I drive them places and they hang out with my gang. I listen to the teenage drama and answer homework questions and a lot of "Why does...." and "How do you get past X in that game?" When they have THOSE questions I've helped them get some sort of answers. We sing silly songs and might share a round of mints. But that's not missionary work. Is it?

When Jesus told the Apostles to stop keeping the kids away from him, he was talking to our time as well as his. They face so many challenges today in growing up, and it seems so many people think that once a kid can dress and feed himself their job is done. They don't talk to them, or do more than the minimum. In a sad number of cases the people in their life that should be bringing them to Jesus for his blessing aren't. It's not necessarily those people's fault - they have their own burdens and chains. The stories are heart breaking; over the course of the years I've been doing this I've learned so many things that I wish I didn't know. I've tried, but I can't fix them. But with the utmost respect and love for them and their children, I can help them with this.

I think this might qualify as a mission. I'm not chasing lost sheep in far off lands under threats and fire; seems more like shooting fish in a barrel. But these fish are just as precious as those others being fished for in distant oceans. I'll call it the Ministry of the Mini-Van. It meets several times every day at various locations and for various times. Today's text was "Does Jared Count as a discount-friend For Snow Camp?", "Castle In the Sky - Japanese or English Soundtrack?", and "Weird Melon-thingy We Found in the Produce Section That One Time". The music was the Smothers Brother's version of "The Streets of Laredo" and a recap of the second verse of that one song during worship that they thought sounded weird.

There are far better hands than I for the task of teaching them the specifics. I can listen to their questions, though, and help them talk to the right people for their answers. I can make getting there and being a part of it possible. There are good people around us who know how to show them the word. I will leave the complexities of faith and all that to them until I learn and grow more myself. For now, I'll have to stick with bringing the children.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Adolescent Noir...

The glass door shuts with a dull clunk from the bell on a rope hanging from the closer. The floorboards creak as I step onto the sopping doormat. The boys drop their bags by my feet and head over to talk to an older guy leaning against the far wall with two kids doing pushups on the floor in front of him.

They're joining a gym. I'm not talking about a nancy little yuppie-magnet with a steam room and a juice-bar. I'm talking an old-fashioned boxing gym. I'm not sure this is the best idea, but if it gets us some control on the wrestling around (or at least gets it out of the house!) then I'll go along with it. I'd met this guy, and I know his wife pretty well. He understands about my younger son because one of his sons is in the same class at school. All the stuff I need to know has been dealt with, but just walking in the door is hard. I just stand there and try to look around as pleasantly as I can with ghosts wrapping themselves around my head.

It smells the same. The underlying vinyl competes with that crinkle in your nose from sand being beaten through seamed leather. Someone is wrapping up over in the corner and the adhesive bites right into the back of your tongue as it rolls up onto their knuckles. The ghosts of old sweat overcome the disinfectant tang when the handles of the equipment warm in your hand. The only bright lights in the place are aimed at the ring, and they are angled so they don't flash on the mirrors at all the other stations around the edge so the brown tint in the high windows seeps into all the corners. Jumpropes hang limp over their hooks on a slightly unsteady coat stand, and the lumps of heavy bags and speedbags complicate the edges of the shadows. The thin thump of the rope hitting the floor is punctuated by the flat slap of bootsoles.

Their father was a boxer in his day. Golden Gloves. He loved it. I can't even begin to count how many hours I spent down at the cluttered little basement rooms under the VFW where his coach held sway. Coach was a a crabbed little man, but he never reminded you of Rocky's Mickey. He did look sort of like a leprechaun, but from Kansas. He had harsh tall-corn accent and he rolled his own cigarettes and he sounded like Baby Herman would have if "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" didn't have to keep it's PG rating. I have no idea how old he was but he had stories from three wars to tell and after watching him throw two fractious heavy-weights to the mats by their ear you started to believe them.

He and I got along. He didn't hold any truck with girls in the ring, but he knew that I wasn't exactly a delicate flower. The Saturday before we were properly introduced I had already proved I knew how to punch with my thumb on the outside of my fingers during a bench-clearing "discussion" at a hockey game that had shed gloves from one blue line to the other. As far as he was concerned that was all I needed to know. He let me use the equipment they weren't using and listen to the stories while he ran everyone else ragged. It was a refuge for me in a lot of ways, and I got a lot of good advice just by a strange sort of osmosis. We graduated and went off to college and last I heard he'd retired but one of the guys that used to hang out there when we did is running it now.

Back to dripping on today's doormat. He must have agreed to just start right in because both boys have joined the line of kids doing pushups. We nod at each other, and then I go back out to the car. I've got an hour to kill and too much to do to spend it woolgathering by the door.