Happy Left-Hander’s Day!

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It’s Left-hander’s Day!

Generally speaking, lefties are more likely to use both hands comfortably than righties are. Personally, I think that this is probably because it’s sometimes just easier to use the computer mouse as it is, or because steak restaurants tend to have table knives that are beveled to favor righties, or the scissors at the craft table are all righties, or the swipers on credit card machines are almost all built to favor use with a right hand, or whatever. (The Edinburgh Inventory is a ranking of how “handed” a person is. I’m personally about 40 points left of ambidextrous. Would you like to know where you rank? There’s a little test here.)

As it turns out, the habit of switching hands might be good for your brain.

It seems to be popularly suggested that using your non-dominant hand for everyday tasks builds additional connections and pathways in your brain.

Now, think of your brain like a library. Everything you know – from algebra to how to brush your teeth – is on a shelf in the Brain Library. A physical library has different pathways – main aisles and side aisles, shelves can usually be reached from either end, and sometimes even through the bookcases. Then, for whatever reason, the roof collapses! And you very much need some piece of information, but the main aisle is completely blocked. That’s quite all right – you know how to access the needed information by walking down a side aisle or reaching through the stacks. Those multiple pathways come in handy.

In the real world, brain damage and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are very similar to those roof cave-ins.

The more neural pathways you have, the less devastating that cave-in is. The damage is still there, to be sure, but you have taught your brain how to do things in different ways.

Give it a try. Go out and be sinister today! Try and be a lefty (even if just to brush your teeth) – your brain will thank you!
Note: I first encountered the brain-as-a-library analogy when listening to an episode of the podcast “Two Guys on Your Head.” (I’ll update when I’ve tracked down which one.) For the whole catalog:

http://kut.org/term/two-guys-your-head

Additional reference:

http://www.awakeningfromalzheimers.com/what-being-right-or-left-handed-says-about-alzheimers-risk/

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Speak Out

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We are trying to raise kids who are comfortable navigating in their world.

With that in mind, there was an opportunity this week that we simply couldn’t pass up. The kids and I attended a rally at the Texas Capital, and I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

The rally was kid-oriented; two Representatives, Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and Wayne Faircloth (R-Galveston), read The Lorax, and we then discussed the bill in question, HB70, which prohibits all political subdivisions from creating any regulations regarding trees and other vegetation. I had already told my kids about the bill, and what it meant, and we went to this event only after they agreed it was something they’d like to speak out about.
Texas Campaign for the Environment then had some lobbyists delivering copies of the book to different Representatives. We tagged along, and though the House was still meeting, we did get to speak with some staffers. The whole thing was an interesting experience, and I know that not everyone shares our viewpoint, but I think there are some things that apply to everyone, and I’d like to share what we learned.
This experience taught me – and the kids – that speaking out about your opinion doesn’t have to be scary – even if it WAS intimidating at first. We went to five offices, and everyone we spoke with was quite pleasant, and even welcoming. It was a wonderful opportunity to remind my kids that we have every right to be there, and speak to the people who represent us.
We learned that sometimes, your allies might surprise you, or even hold a slightly different opinion. Some of the people protesting this bill were doing so because they love trees; some were protesting because they thought it was a slippery slope to other environmental issues, and some protests were not about trees at all, but were people who want to preserve local government’s right to regulate local concerns.

It was also a very neat way to remind the kids that if you don’t tell people – or your government – what you are thinking, then they don’t know.Aside from our gentle little foray into political activism, we made a whole day of it. We spent the day walking around the capital city, riding public transportation, and talking to people and taking in the public art, all of which goes back to the goal of comfort in navigating your world. (I realize that there are places where this is not a big deal, but for those of us in Texas: we love our cars, and we are well out in the suburbs. Public transportation and learning how to safely walk on a city street are experiences that we have to actively seek out!)

Go out and be brave! Ride the bus, talk to a stranger, voice your opinion!
Speak your mind even if your voice shakes. — Maggie Kuhn

The Zen of the Jigsaw

I sat down with my kids on a recent, rainy summer afternoon, to lay out a jigsaw puzzle on our coffee table.

I love jigsaw puzzles. My mom and I used to work puzzles together. I have very specific dallas jigsaw.jpgmemories of having puzzles strewn across the formal dining room table. Specifically, I remember the Dallas yellowpages puzzle, and the night before christmas jigsaw.jpggreen Night Before Christmas puzzle. (Funny, I guess other people remember them, too – a very quick googling brought them up right away.)

 

I have so many other puzzle memories, too. Working the US Postal Carousel puzzle on the coffee table, watching the news, when the famous OJ Simpson white Bronco car chase was going on. Spreading out the Paris Cafe puzzle on my apartment kitchen table. Working the Visit from St. Nicholas puzzle on my own kitchen table, while my oldest baby sat in her high chair next to me, eating (read: playing with) her afternoon snack. Spreading the blocks from the kids’ farm puzzle all over the living room floor. Having a collage of all the kids’ puzzles spread on the coffee table. Sitting up way too late with my husband, working puzzles on the puzzle board. Spreading a tablecloth over the puzzle on the kitchen table so we can have lunch; giving up and going out for dinner, because every hard surface in the house is covered with a different in a jigsaw in progress.

Yes, I love jigsaws puzzles.

I once had a coworker who confessed that she didn’t like them, and didn’t understand them. “What do you do with them when you’ve finished it?” And it’s not just her – I’ve heard other people express similar sentiments.


In January of 2013, my oldest daughter and I had the amazing opportunity to witness a group of monks from the Drepung Loseling Monestary, as they worked towards creating a sand mandala in the atrium of one of our local university’s art museums. A sand mandala is designed with the specific purpose in mind of destroying it when it is finished. It is meant to represent the impermanence of material life, and its value is not in the having, but in the creating. The act of its assembly is a sort of meditation.


The concept of mindfulness seems to be something that our culture struggles with more and more. There is a facebook ad that keeps popping up on my news feed, encouraging me to just breathe for 15 seconds. There is a dutch trend called “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh), which really doesn’t have an direct English translation, but which basically means being mindfully cozy. Do a quick google search on “stress addiction” – it seems that being addicted to cortisol – the hormone released when the body is placed under stress – is a thing.


My jigsaw puzzles get assembled; displayed on the table for a day or two; carefully (and completely) disassembled and returned to their boxes; stored on a shelf for a year or more; and greeted once again like the old friends that they are, for the process to begin again.

Despite the display and the return, the joy is in the peaceful assembly. The gentle, quiet, socialness of sitting with a friend or loved one over the project, and the ritual of working the same Christmas puzzles, year after year after year.

For many of us, I suspect it is the closest we will get to creating our own sand mandalas.

I would like to make a humble, and perhaps biased, suggestion for all of us who are searching for peace and mindfulness. It might be time to just sit down, and work a jigsaw puzzle.

 

There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.  – Deepak Chopra

To be, or not to be.

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.   – Reinhold Niebuhr

Fairy tales are full of people who won’t share their name, because it gives power. The stories say that if you give someone your true name, then they have some control over you. But maybe, just maybe, fairy stories have some sort of distant relative in reality. Superstitions, after all, are based in practicality – it’s bad luck to open an umbrella in the house, but only because something as unwieldy as an umbrella is likely to knock over and break something.

I’ve never really felt in control of anything, and I wonder if that’s why I’ve always felt awkward when I’m introducing myself to people. I invariably mumble, and then they have to ask again, and then I have to tell them again. I dread being asked what my name is. Is the mumbling caused by the dread? Or is the mumbling caused by distaste? When I was a kid, the first person I had met who shared the same name had already claimed the only logical nickname. It had never occurred to me until that point that there WAS a nickname for “Amanda,” and Mandy is the first person I remember being consciously jealous of.

(I did try, briefly, in high school, to claim the nickname “Alice,” because it sounded vaguely like my initials strung altogether, but I’m insecure enough to have hated it the very first time it was said mockingly, even though I’m sure the person only meant to be funny rather than mean. There is only one person left who still brings that up, and I can’t seem to get her to stop. My own fault, I suppose, for bringing it up in the first place. Que sera, sera.)

I’m not a terribly assertive person. “That’s not what I would have expected you to choose,” or “Oh, no, you really don’t want to do that,” and “We’re going to do it this way,” and “I want you to care about this,” are things I have been in the habit of capitulating to. I don’t confront decisions that I would not have made. I’ve been in the habit of consoling myself that situations are only temporary. That I can just go back and quietly and privately fix it later.

The problem is, when you aren’t assertive enough to do it right away, “later” keeps getting further and further away, and before you know it, temporary situations become long-term, and the starter house and furniture and miscellany of life that you bought 14 years ago, that really wasn’t what you wanted, has become the house you are going to stay in for at least another ten years until your youngest graduates from high school.

I’m afraid that this is who I am now, though. The last time I really tried to be assertive was ten years ago, and I was told that I was pregnant and hormonal, and throwing a temper-tantrum, so I’m kind of in despair that I will ever be taken seriously as someone capable of defiance of any kind. I’m trying to dig myself out right now, to say that “later” is finally here, but I think I let it go too long. I’m afraid it’s no longer possible, and that maybe, since I’ve always lacked the courage to change anything, it’s time to just accept.

I’m really very blessed. I know this. And in the end, I suppose this current sadness is really just another temper-tantrum. Maybe fairy stories have nothing to do with mumbling when you introduce yourself. Maybe fiction is beloved because it gives us the illusion that people exist who really do get to decide their own fate.

Maybe you all feel the same way, and I’m only just now coming to the same “what have I done with my life” mid-life crisis that everyone feels. If so, then I’m going to tell you something that you really need to hear: It’s okay to feel this way. I understand, and you aren’t alone.

Standardized Test Season

I’m still fleshing out how I feel about all of this. But I’ve got some ideas.

My general attitude about school is that a school’s job isn’t to teach kids how to memorize facts. It’s to teach kids how to learn. Because once they know that, they can tackle anything.

And a test doesn’t measure how smart you are – it measures either how well you understand an idea, or tells us what you need help with. By the same token, report cards are only reporting what a child does or doesn’t need help with – not how smart they are.

So what does that have to do with standardized tests, anyway? STAAR testing begins next week, so we had that discussion this morning.

Just like every other test they’ve taken, this test isn’t measuring intelligence. It’s not attempting to take a snapshot of a child at all. It’s measuring how well they understand certain ideas. And, it’s measuring how well the school is helping them understand. If a lot of students don’t seem to understand something that pops up on the test, the school will know that something isn’t quite right.

Naturally, my kids have heard the rumor that if you don’t pass the test, you don’t get to go to the next grade. I told them that was very rare, and that it’s because if a student needs more time to understand, then it seems like trouble to move them on to other things if they don’t have the right building blocks. To use academics they’ve experienced – being really good at addition helps you with multiplication, and you have to be comfortable with short stories before you’re ready for novels, right? And I think they can all understand. We just need to teach them in the same the way they need to learn.

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I believe there’s another side to this coin, too. Texas just started a somewhat controversial system of grading schools with an A,B,C,D, or F letter grade. A bill was proposed in this legislative session that would reduce the impact standardized tests have on that letter grade, and put some emphasis on parent and community involvement. This makes some sense to me.

It’s not unusual for me to explain something to the kids in such a way that it makes no sense whatsoever. But when Daddy explains – the lightbulb clicks on. It’s also not uncommon for the teacher to explain something to the kids at school, and they kind of understand, but it doesn’t 100% make sense until we sit down and do it together as homework. This is part of the reason homework exists. It’s not just practice – it’s hands-on, practical application, and sometimes, hearing the words from a new voice or in a new way. Which is why “do some homework” is in the Mommy Rule Book – not just for kids, but for Mom and Dad, too.

(But we don’t do homework to the point of stress. Just enough to reinforce, but not enough to drive everyone nuts. There’s a different sweet spot for everyone, I suspect.)

I think there should be some way to measure a school’s effectiveness. I don’t think it lies in causing stress to anyone – that seems counter-productive. But it really doesn’t seem like all of the blame – or all of the credit – should be heaped on a school.

I tell my Scouts that their school is part of their community. The things that are taught in the school are going to affect the community. Just as school the affects the community – the community needs to remember that it also affects the school. Kids learn, and they grow up and become the people who create reality. Let’s help them make it a good one.

Love for the Humble Shortbread Cookie

We have two Girl Scouts in our house, which means that for the last five weeks, we’ve been consumed with cookies. (Five days left! Woo-hoo!)

So, let’s talk cookies.

shortbreadbox_webSpecifically, I’d like to give some love to the often-overlooked shortbread cookie.

Some of y’all are seeing them as “Trefoils.”

(Not tree-foil. Trefoil. Y’all aren’t climbing anything.)

The thing is, there are two different bakers. ABC and Little Brownie. As I understand it, Girl Scouts owns the recipes, but the bakers own the names (except Thin Mints – Scouts wisely held on to that one). Now, y’all are going to argue that the cookies are a little different, and to that, I answer that my brother and I use the same chocolate pie recipe that Mom does, but if you put all three pies together, they’d all be a little different. Any one who has ever tried to copy a recipe has experienced this phenomenon. So that clears THAT up.

Anyway, shortbreads.

We are celebrating 100 years of cookie sales this year! The cookie sale was started by the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1917. And their cookies were handmade, but the recipe was for a shortbread cookie. Yay!

trefoilThe old Grande Dame of cookies doesn’t get much love these days, but she’s still around.

People say she’s “boring.”

But she’s not “boring” – she’s a wonderful building block.

A box of shortbreads and a jar of Nutella? Oh, my.

But there’s also my favorite way to love this cookie. Here you go:

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The very best way to prepare a Shortbread (or trefoil) cookie dessert!

Crunch up a sleeve of cookies – whether you’re in a “Kill the Wabbit” mood…or just feel like banging on them!

 

Now you need a couple of young helpers. Part of what cookie sales are all about is helping our young Scouts with life skills and being independent. I’m extending that by making  asking them to help with making their own desserts.

Get one pair of little hands to mix up instant banana pudding, and another to put some crunched cookie goodness into that unused glassware that’s collecting dust in the cabinet. Mom has been known to use champagne glasses. I’ve seen sundae glasses. Espresso cups make nice little “mini desserts.” Top the crushed cookies with pudding.

 

Now, be the meanest mommy in the world, and wait until after dinner.

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Chill until after dinnertime.

Make them nice and pretty, eat them all up, and then get the approval of the kiddos!

And, because I’m not only a parent, but also a troop leader and a cookie mom, I must now tell you to run out and get some Shortbreads or Trefoils right now! I’ll bet you can find a local Girl Scout to help you out.

But until February 26, you can also get them (and the other cookies!) here:

http://onlinemarketing.abcsmartcookies.com/GirlInternetOrders/Invitation/Open/06e83227-1c6a-4a06-8472-2ca6766c56a1

or here (two Scouts, remember?):

http://onlinemarketing.abcsmartcookies.com/GirlInternetOrders/Invitation/Open/caddcc1f-0213-4f59-8ed7-82ac8136c935

Enjoy!

 

L’État, c’est moi.

I am the State. – Often attributed to, but almost certainly not said by, Louis XIV.

Nonetheless, it kind of illustrates the prevailing attitude towards politics for most of human history. We have forgotten that the Founders of our country came up with something incredibly radical: the concept of loyal opposition. Until they came along, one was not loyal to one’s country – one was loyal to one’s king. At the time the Framers created the constitution, even imagining the king’s death was considered an offence punishable by being publicly drawn and quartered (for men), or burned at the stake (for women).

But then came the concept of loyal opposition. Nationalism. Prior to the American and French revolutions, there was no such thing. If you google quotes about nationalism, you get a lot of negative stuff, but it doesn’t have to be. At its basic form, nationalism simply means loyalty and devotion to a nation.

We’ve refined that, quite a bit. Now we have patriotism: devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country.

Devotion to a nation. Love of a country. Not devotion to a king or ruler or, dare I say, president.

Isn’t that amazing? Our Founders created a world wherein it is possible – even encouraged – to love your country without liking the rulers. Our very government is based around the ability to change our decision-makers at will. We are allowed to say we don’t like them, and want to replace them with someone new. We are constitutionally required to periodically replace our own government.

So, what?

It means that I can be loyal to my country, even if I don’t like the people in charge. Because we do not owe loyalty to a president. We owe loyalty to the Office of the President, and to the United States of America. There have been times when I have not necessarily liked the president, or decisions that person has made. But I will always respect the Office. Regardless of who gets elected today, that is what patriotism and nationalism are. I don’t have to like the president. I am allowed to not like the president. But I will defend the Office.

I believe that one’s love of country cannot be determined by the person they vote for. Can it be an indicator of other things about them? Maybe. But I don’t believe you can ever truly say that a person who takes the time to do their research and vote for the person they think is best has no love of country.

L’État, c’est moi, et c’est également vous.