Makers Gotta Make 1

Five tips for makers who want to write or blog.

  1. Start with a truth, even if it’s a small one. Describe where you are sitting down to write. Share something that happened recently, focusing on the details. Convey an emotional truth (not everything need be sunshine and roses, even makers are human beings, after all.) But if you begin with a truth (again, even small ones), the rest of the story that you are trying to tell or the information you are trying to share will flow naturally and honestly.
  2. Use your five senses. You experience the world from your own unique perspective and through your senses. By writing about these experiences and using your senses, you will create a world through words that is entirely your own and yet relatable to your reader through the specifics. “I ate a cheese sandwich for lunch” is not the same as “I sated my hunger with a piquant cheese and two slices of stale oat bread.” Details and specifics will make your language come alive. Readers will return to read about your real life, lived, concrete experiences.
  3. Focus on your craft and creations. Honor your work and creations by allowing them to be the focus of your website or blog; writing should be in service to your craft, not the other way around. If you are trying to sell what you create, your shop and images should be the focus. The blog and the words (unless you are a writer selling your writing) should support your true craft from the periphery. They should help keep a reader on your website and help them learn more about you, your process, and what you are creating. They should not be the sole reason someone comes to your website.
  4. Write to learn something new. Make it an adventure. Step outside of your comfort zone. A commonly heard phrase amongst writing students is “write what you know.” This is utter nonsense and it makes for a boring writing process and boring reading. Start where you feel most uncomfortable; ask yourself “what is the last thing I want to write about?” and begin there. Start with a question that you want to answer. If you end up producing something that exposes parts of yourself that you’d rather not bring into the light of day: there’s always the delete key. You don’t have to click “publish” on everything. Think of your drafts as a sandbox, a place to mess around and play and be creative. If you end up with something worth keeping, do so; otherwise, let the rain wash it away and begin anew.
  5. Don’t be afraid to hire a copyeditor or content editor. I get it. You’re a maker. You’re independent and capable and you are oh-so-very used to doing everything yourself. But there is no shame in realizing your limitations and hiring someone else to deal with details. This will allow you to focus on your creations and your process. As much as the creative process might be parallel across disciplines, do you really want to eat up time and brain cells discerning and memorizing the difference between “lie” and “lay”? (One is transitive; the other, intransitive.) Or would you rather spend time working on your craft and your creations?

Day 3: Abstaining

I must admit, on Tuesday, before lent started, the idea of all of this fasting and abstention filled me with a sort of gloom, a sort of adolescent, “do I have to?” internal whine. I had at that point already decided to not only give up coffee but to also give up purposelessly scrolling through and consuming social media. And on Tuesday, as I did this exact, mindless scrolling, I came across a post in which someone was asking for prayers for people who don’t have heat in their homes or don’t have homes at all. “See?” I thought to myself. “I might miss important prayer requests if I don’t scroll through twitter regularly, like every fifteen minutes.” But just as swiftly as I had that thought, I had the answer, “If I am relying on twitter to remind me to pray and for what to pray, then surely it is not my twitter life that needs more time and attention but my prayer life.” I don’t need the crutch of twitter.

We’re only a few days into it, but already the effects of abstaining have been profound. I still have my phone in hand at almost all times. I still check my email, often, and I still will post things on occasion, but I don’t consume the images and tweets. So once I’ve gone through that routine, and my phone is still in my hand, what do I do? Sometimes I write. Sometimes it’s just a sentence or two. Sometimes it’s a whole paragraph. And other times I simply put down my phone. I might pick up my knitting or pray or do some chores or pay some attention to my kids.

That last one is a tough one to reckon with: that my attention has been elsewhere when it could have been on my kids. When I mentioned that I wouldn’t be mindlessly scrolling through social media for lent, Ms10yo exclaimed, preternaturally, “More time for us!” Those minutes here and there had been stealing my focus away from them, little by little. It didn’t feel like much at the time, but it was. Here’s an example. On Monday, she had bought a yard of cloth from the discount bin at the fabric store for 3 bucks. She asked, in passing, whether I’d be able to teach her how to hem it at some point so that she could cut it and make a shawl. I said sure and promptly forgot about it. Enter the lenten season. Today, I was playing cards with Ms6yo when Ms10yo asked if she could bring the sewing machine upstairs and would I teach her how to hem on it. My initial feeling was, “This is going to be such a drag.” But, without social media scrolling, what else was I going to do? So I walked her through the steps in between hands of go-fish and crazy 8s and, eventually, getting Mr22mo up from his nap. She’s pretty capable of doing a lot of things on her own, including threading the sewing machine, with very little guidance. Tonight was the Knights of Columbus Father-Daughter dance. “If I get this done in time for the dance, it will be a miracle!” she told me as she stood in the laundry room ironing and pinning her hems. “Well, you can always try praying,” I told her and we looked up who the patron saint of sewers is (Saints Ann, Lucy, and Veronica all came up). As luck (and prayer) would have it, she finished the whole project in under two hours and with more than enough time to bring it to the Father Daughter Dance. It sat predictably, unused, on the back of her chair for most of the evening. But the shawl wasn’t the point. Making the shawl was the point.

She won this by hula hooping the longest at the Father Daughter dance.
So maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch?

Still, I wonder if all it has taken is these two days of putting down my phone more often to make my kids feel like I’m more available and for them to ask for my help or to consider projects that they might previously not have asked to do. I’ll guess I’ll never really know, but I’m grateful to have this now.

In today’s Gospel according to Matthew, “The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

This gospel begs me to ask the question, “When is a fast not a fast?” The answer: “When it doesn’t feel like one.” When we remove that with has no meaning, that vacuum becomes filled with that which does. When the bridegroom is with us, what started as a fast quickly and easily transforms into a feast. And for this I am grateful.

Day 2: The fast

One day, I was chatting with two moms, one Muslim and one Mormon (this is not the beginning of a joke), outside of the neighborhood elementary school back when our eldest was enrolled there. We live in a diverse area near the Mormon Temple, so this sort of interaction between people of different faiths and backgrounds is not unusual (although, not as common as one might expect given how close to each other everyone lives). It must have been Ramadan or close to it. One of the mothers, her head wrapped in a scarf, was visibly pregnant. I asked her if she was fasting. (There’s a large Somali Muslim population in Minneapolis where we used to live and so we were aware that many of the people around us fasted from all food and water from sunrise to sunset everyday for the month of ramadan.) This woman explained that she was because, even though she was “excused” from the fast because she was pregnant, she would have to make it up later on, which would be more challenging because she would be fasting alone.

“We don’t have to make it up if we are pregnant or nursing,” the Mormon mother explained. Mormons, generally speaking, fast from food and drink for two meals the first Sunday of the month.

The Catholic fast? We’re a bunch of light-weights.

We fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and for an hour (yes, a single hour) before receiving the Eucharist, which usually happens about 45 minutes into the mass, which means, unless you are literally eating while on your way into your church, you’re generally good to go. Our Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fast? We are supposed to eat three meals and only three meals: one regular meal and then two smaller meals which do not, together, add up to more than the one regular meal. I know. It’s more an exercise in quantity estimation and meal planning than “sacrifice.” And maybe that’s part of what makes the fast relatively easy: we’re so busy calculating what we are eating, when, how much, and what it all adds up to that we don’t notice that we are eating (slightly) less than we would on a “normal day”. We also abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and Ash Wednesday. Thus Catholics are sometimes called “fish-eaters”, which seems like a heavy moniker given that it comes from something we do what? seven days out of a year? And even on those days, we aren’t really “required” to eat fish. Grilled cheese and tomato soup is another favorite option. But “occasional meat abstainer” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

The other thing about the Catholic fast is that we’re not really supposed to make a big deal about it. In the Ash Wednesday gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” In other words, don’t talk about the fast and what you are doing. Don’t try to draw attention to it or any of our good deeds or sacrifices. We’re not allowed to talk endlessly about all the things we are doing; that’s why we aren’t very good at crossfit or paleo.

But what this also means is that, let’s say you’re Catholic and it’s Ash Wednesday and you are invited over to, say, your Mormon neighbor’s house for a meal. Even if you are fasting, you can’t draw attention to it. So you can’t really say, “No, thank you” again and again because eventually it will be an insult to your host and you will have to explain yourself. So, if you really want to eat meat on a Friday or on Ash Wednesday? Just get yourself invited over to a meat loving friend’s house.

Or if you’re craving meat, go ahed and eat beaver, which, apparently the church decided to “count” as an aquatic mammal sometime in the 17th century. “Fish of the land!” they called it, an entirely unnecessary rebranding because it was already so popular in North America, where it was also plentiful.

“Liquid does not break the fast.” And I’ve got the cup to prove it.

Here’s the other thing: we are also allowed liquids (although not meat-based broth). Some time ago, one of my brothers temporarily joined the Buddhist monkhood (a cultural practice done as a sort of tribute to one’s parents). At the Thai temple where he lived, the monks fasted from about mid-day until they went to bed. Like Catholics, they were permitted liquids. At least one of the monks counted ice cream as a liquid because once it melted (say, in one’s mouth or sliding down one’s gullet), it was, indeed a liquid. I opted for lots of tea during my fast this year, but perhaps later this year I will make use of the ice cream clause.

Day 1: Ash Wednesday (coffee, consuming versus creating)

This morning, I woke up and did what I always do: rolled over and reached for my phone. I checked my email (only spam and advertisements) and then my blog stats (nothing new) and my private (IRL friends and family) instagram account (quiet). At this point, my thumbs were driven by muscle memory and automatically clicked on my Wild Goose Land Instagram account, which is not private. Just as I caught a glimpse of what was undoubtedly an insightful post (a lot has been going on in the yarn world that I mostly follow), I remembered: it’s Ash Wednesday. Today I begin my lenten fast. I clicked off. What was I going to do?

The six weeks leading up to Easter are called Lent in the Catholic Church. They are a period of penance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection. We are all called to follow in Jesus’s footsteps and during his earthly life, Jesus walked into the dessert for 40 days and 40 nights to grow closer to God, the father. He also battled the devil.

In an attempt to follow him, many catholics make sacrifices for forty days of lent and add prayer. I am giving up coffee and “consuming” public social media. As Eric aptly put it the other evening, “So no scrolling through social media?” Right, I told him. Yesterday was Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) when Catholics go on a bit of a binge. We try to finish up everything in the house that might tempt us during lent: the fats, the meats, the sweets or whatever else we might crave. I certainly wasn’t going to finish up the internet which isn’t to say I didn’t try. After a big meal (including my dad’s deep fried spring rolls, in an attempt to use up all of the vegetable oil in their house), beer, and cake for dinner with my family, I lay in bed, scrolling through various feeds: tiktok and instagram and twitter before clicking off for the night.

Before walking into the dessert, did Jesus consume, consume, consume all his earthly attachments in this way? Perhaps his mother, doting and worried, made him eat and drink all she could to prepare him. What else could she do?

In the morning, no longer able to so recklessly consume, I found time (which I so often complain that I lack) seemed to tumble into my lap. Even the few minutes required each morning to grind up coffee beans and boil water suddenly bloomed open, full of possibility. I wrote a paragraph on my phone and climbed out of bed.

This morning, the Holy Spirit stepped into the black void of mindless consumption and filled it with a little light of creativity. Happy Ash Wednesday.

Parenting Lessons from Saint Joseph: Showing Up

The Feast of Saint Joseph (March 19) quickly approaches and thus Eric recently began thirty days of prayer asking for Jesus’s adoptive father’s intercession and which will conclude on the day the church celebrates him, his life, and the sacrifices he made to care for and protect Mary and Jesus.

In the Bible, Joseph is a man of few words. Nay, no words, if I recall correctly. In one edition of the Magnificat magazine, the editors provided quotes from various saints for readers to use in prayer and reflection. Next to Saint Joseph, they wrote, simply, “respectful silence.”

Which is not to say that Saint Joseph does not pay a rather critical role in salvation history nor that we have nothing to learn from him. Quite the opposite. Listening to God requires silence, after all. And Joseph certainly listened to God, heeded his words, and took action. We see him visited in dreams, twice, by angels who instruct him to marry Mary and then, later, for him to take the mother and child into Egypt (from whence their enslaved ancestors had fled generations ago) to save them from King Herod’s jealousy and wrath. He does as he is instructed each time. Joseph is a man of action.

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This winter, Ms6yo Z started expressing a desire to take tap dancing lessons. I found a parent-child class at a studio in our area for beginners in her age group. The default mode for us with parent-child classes — and particularly those that involve art or movement — is that they are a “mom” thing. And that is where the “negotiations” began.

“I just thought that you would enjoy it because you like to dance,” Eric told me as we considered which parent would attend the class. And while I appreciate the sentiment, the man clearly confuses “enjoyment” with “innate gifts and talents” and “inborn, majestic sense of rhythm” and “natural strength, grace, and agility.” But I digress.

“I won’t be very good at it,” Eric lamented.

“Maybe not. You never know?” I told him.

“I will be really, really bad.” He said this in front of the kids at dinner one night, which was actually really, really good. Both because it was honest and truthful and vulnerable but also because both of us parents had been hearing quite a bit from the girls about how they didn’t want to do certain things (math, for example) because they were “bad” at it. It was getting to be a broken record.

And then Eric turned to Z and told her, “But I would like to spend time with you.”

And thus began their Saturday morning foray into the world of shiny patent leather, and shuffle-ball-changes taught to the beat of Ms Gigi’s music of choice: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.

And Eric was right. He is really bad at it. And Z tells him as much. “You’re too slow. You are so bad.”

“But maybe I will get better with practice,” he tells her.

“No, Dad, you’ll never get better.” It is as if she is challenging him to “give up” on tap-dancing, testing exactly how strong his commitment to her is to spend time doing something he will never be good at just to have time with her.

In other moments, she asks me to bring her to class next time. “Mostly everyone else comes with their moms,” she explains.

“One day, you will know how lucky you are to have a dad who wants to and can do these things with you. Maybe some of the other kids see your dad at the class and go home and ask their dads to come to class with them.” The truth is that I can see how much she already knows how lucky she is. I think partly she wants to re-assure me that she wants time with me too.

“You mean like how I saw other moms there and I’m asking you right now?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, this week there was another dad there.”

And the whole, “I don’t want to do this, I’m not good at it and never will be” attitude that had all of us battling over math and other subject areas?” Gone!

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In the meantime, Ms10yo A, has not been without her (completely normal and age appropriate) struggles. One weekday morning was particularly rough. I texted Eric, who was at work, that we were all having a tough time. I knew we would weather it just fine; I just kind of wanted to vent and complain to him, maybe even get a little perspective.

His response? Without hesitation, he texted: “I’ll come home for lunch.”

I know. God has written his blessings all over this whole thing. He blessed us with a job and a commute that allows for this and a dad and husband for whom “showing up” is the default way of thinking.

Eric has this image of “Second Dream of Joseph” by Daniel Matsui hanging next to our bed.

His lunch break that day wasn’t “easy” (there were lots of tears and perhaps a few ‘go aways’ as Ms10yo grappled with some overwhelming emotions) but it was cathartic and he and I were able to have a conversation about some of the issues she’d brought up and tell her how proud of her we are for being willing and able to bring her concerns to us, for battling through the barriers that we, as parents, sometimes (all the time?) put up against really hearing our kids. Emotions can be a scary thing for a kid (for adults too) and by coming home that day, Eric showed her that they aren’t so scary that we have to hide and run away from them, that she was important (more important than work even), and that he would be there for her, a constant in the whirling, changing sea of feelings that come with being a human being.

Faith Renewed, Part 1

(a fiber arts edition)

We enjoy making things around here and this past winter, I was struck by the desire to start knitting again after a multiple year (and three kids) break. At a local yarn store (LYS), I decided to tackle socks. This obsession also led me to staring at images of gorgeous yarn on Instagram. Did you know there is like an entire world of #yarnporn out there? It’s crazy. And alluring. I noticed one particular brand that, at least on line, seemed to have beautiful yarns, but they were pricey so I didn’t start piling them into my virtual shopping cart right away (thankfully). I wanted to get into the swing of things with knitting again first before spending too much. But, of course, I followed that yarn purveyor’s Instagram account. And several others.

In the meantime, I purchased a weaving loom for my daughter for her birthday, which falls right after the Christmas holidays. I ordered the loom and made note of when the expected shipping and arrival date was. Both dates came and went and no loom. I contacted the seller, who responded with “we have to be patient.” Huh, I thought. Ok? Eventually, the loom arrived, a month late and well past my daughter’s birthday.

I painstakingly placed an on-line order at another yarn company, slightly less expensive than the Instagram one I mentioned in the first paragraph, but still expensive by my standards. But I was lured in by some beautiful images and a specific pattern that would be a challenge for me but not impossible. But my credit card kept getting declined. Or the website said there was a problem with my postal code. I tried unloading and re-loading the cart several times. I called my bank. No problems on that end. Eventually, I called the company and left a voicemail. I tried to email them and contact them via Instagram. I really wanted this yarn and pattern and it felt like I had already invested so much into the decision and trying to get the website to work. Finally, the company emailed me back. They had some suggestions for me to try involving clearing caches and whatnot. Nothing seemed to work. This had already taken the better part of a day and so now it started to feel like it would *really* be a waste if I didn’t buy the yarn. In for a penny, in for a pound. By the end of the day, it worked. I was able to make my purchase and a few days later the neatly wrapped package arrived. I even took pictures.

I still had my eye on the beautiful and expensive Instagram yarn mentioned above. One day, as I scrolled through the feed, I noticed that one of their posts contained a racial slur. It was a typo (and one that any yarn-buyer can probably guess at). But still, in that moment: it dawned on me. I am a grown woman spending my grown woman money. I don’t care how beautiful the yarn is, why on earth would I spend hard-earned cash on a company that is in too much of a hurry to post on Instagram that they don’t even notice a racial slur? Unfollow.

I suspect the Holy Spirit was leading me away. God seemed to be saying “woah, ease up on the covetousness.” I’ve been asking him on the regular, after all, to lead me not into temptation.

And suddenly, the difficulties with the shipping and the check out experience on the other website with the other companies didn’t seem like such a big deal.

My daughter was learning her way around her new loom, which had finally arrived, and we were running out of scraps for her to practice with. So we decided to look around for a real project for her to start. We came across this project at Gist Yarn. It was expensive, especially for a new weaver and as much as she loved it, the price gave us pause. So we looked around a bit more. But she kept coming back to the beautiful blue scarf. She still had some Christmas and Lunar New Year money plus some of her allowance. I told her we could split the cost and I would pay for the shipping. “Ok. Can you please order it for me?” she asked, smiling excitedly.

The pattern arrived via email and a short time later the package of yarn arrived. It was neatly packaged, but nothing special: no extra tissue paper or stickers or frills. Which, actually, I appreciated. It felt practical. Not flashy. Just get the order to the customer so she can start weaving.

Ms10yo started balling her yarn right away. It’s a painstaking process, but somehow soothing. After I showed her how to cut the small yarn ties that hold the skein together, she turned on some podcasts to listen to while shaping a “butterfly” between her fingers and then rhythmically winding the ball. She was on the last skein when I heard the dreaded words, “Mom, can you help me get this knot out.”

She never fails.

This would not be the first time that I had to un-knot some yarn or string or a ribbon. In fact, just early in the week, I sat at the dining room table and de-tangled this green mess while praying to Mary Undoer of Knots.

Mary, Undoer of Knots….

pray for us!

But, well, this wasn’t a knot. It was a proper, felted clump. And in the process of trying to see if it was un-doable, I noticed that there were a few ends of yarn hanging out, meaning that the skein had been cut in a few places already. It was a mess that even with Mary’s intervention, would stay a mess.

The company we had ordered from had an easy “chat” option on their website, so I went to that and started sending them a few images of what was going on. It was one of those things where, given the option of either having to repackage it and go to the post office to send it back, or making do with what we had with some well-placed snips and thoughtful weaving, I would go with the latter.

A note at the top of the chat stated that the customer service person was away, but if we left an email address, they would get back to us as soon as possible. It was after business hours and I told Ms10yo we would just have to wait and see. If no one got back to us, we could just continue with the project, making do.

A few days passed without any word and I went to follow up on the chat. This time, someone was there. I asked if they could see the message I had left the other night, as I didn’t really feel like re-typing it all. The other person found the chat and explained that somehow it had ended up with a colleague and she hadn’t seen it.

And then, and I am not making this up, she offered to send me a new skein, which she double-checked before packing it up right then and there. She also asked if there were any other problems with the other skeins. We chatted for a moment about how we had never seen a skein with this problem and she said she would also contact the yarn maker and tell them about the mistake. And she also told me just to keep the problematic one and that hopefully we would figure out something to make with it. And then (again! I’m not making this up!) she apologized for not seeing the chat I had started a few days ago and for not getting back to me right away. It was lovely.

When I told Ms10yo that a new skein was on its way, she sighed and her shoulders visibly loosened: “Wow. That’s a relief!” she exclaimed. I could see that the weight of trying to figure out how to use this yarn had been on her shoulders.

About a week later, the new yarn arrived. And, there was no frilly packaging (utterly practical, which I mean as a good thing), but there were two little notebooks, just enough for Ms10yo to keep one for herself and share the other one with her little sister. Again, I’m not making this up. Evidence follows:

Yarn and these other things are wants, not needs. And I have the freedom to spend my money where I want to. There are so many great companies and makers and small businesses out there selling beautiful things. And there are also ones who are careful and thoughtful, who genuinely appreciate their customers and even have relationships with them beyond just making money. There are even those who are actively anti-racist. And there are ones who notice when a customer is actually going out of their way to help them, to point out problems and to share their experiences so that they can improve their business. Gist Yarn managed to not only do all these things, but to renew my faith in humanity. Thanks, Gist!

America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

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A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

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I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

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We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

Free Stuff and Podcasts

A few months back we came across and free math app that we were initially pretty excited about. We saw that it was free daily word problems that were newsy and cross-curricular and, given that most apps are pretty easy to use, we hope that it was something enriching that was also self-directed. And maybe we were pinning too much on something that is, after all, free to us. After the initial excitement, however, we lost steam on using this app quickly. The problem was that there were a few errors in the app: one of the solutions was wrong and one of the problems was phrased in such a convoluted way that I had to look ahead to the answer and then reverse engineer it so that I could explain to my kids what it was asking. So we simply stopped using it. Lesson learned. Another bonus of this experience is that I am much less likely to assume that “free” and “quality” always go hand in hand.

Fortunately, we have found at least some content on-line that has been free and has delivered on being high quality, and engaging. Below are a few of the podcasts that our kids enjoying listening to and that, as homeschooling parents, we find has high quality content.

Six minutes I do not know how many times the children have listened to this. It seems like it has gotta be close to 52 million. As Ms6yo Z explained to me, “everytime I listen, I notice something that I didn’t notice before.” This podcast is a sci-fi coming of age, family story told in six-minute increments. It begins when the Anders — mom Monica, dad James, son Cyrus, and daughter Birdie — pull a girl from the water off the coast of Alaska. When it becomes apparent that she has amnesia, the parents tell her that she is their daughter. Thus starts a story which is, really, at its heart about what it means to be family (and particularly siblings) told with a backdrop of mystery, hover boards, conversations around artificial intelligence, and, of course, school “frienemies” and drama. The other day, the finale of the entire series was posted and my daughters were simultaneously thrilled and sad that it was coming to an end, a sign of any good story well told.

Pants on Fire is a game show featuring a kid contestant, two guest adults (one of whom is lying ), a robot named LISA (live in studio audience), and a host named Deborah Goldstein. Both adults claim to be an expert in a similar field (past topics on different episodes have included mushrooms, hip-hop, and sewing), but only one actually is. Each must answer the kid contestant’s questions and generally keep up with the LISA and host banter to convince the contestant that he or she is the expert. At the end, the kid guesses who the liar is. And then each of the adults is asked to correct mistakes and lies (so that listeners don’t end up walking away with misinformation). The two older girls (10 and 6) love this show. I think there’s something very appealing to them about considering what is the truth and what is a lie and the idea that adults might sometimes “break” those rules but that it’s all in the name of good fun. They also walk away having learned real information about different jobs and areas of expertise. It’s almost like a fun “career” day for homeschool kids where they get to learn about all the different things adults do in the world right in their own homes and in the entertaining context of a game.

Tara Tremendous is another “sci-fi” type of adventure which features Tara, who was an ordinary girl until she acquired all of the superpowers of all of the superheroes in the world. There is, of course, a nefarious evil doctor who is trying to steal them from her along with wise and caring mentors who guide her through learning about her powers. Oh, and music. It’s a musical. My kids sometimes fast-forward through the music (at least on their second or third lesson; yes, they listen to some of these podcasts that many times), but there was one tune “Ordinary” that they will search out to listen to over and over and will often break into spontaneously, as if they themselves were in a musical. I think that what appeals to them is, like in many stories, this idea of an ordinary child (who actually also has a really tough go of things) suddenly being extra-ordinary (sort of like little orphan Annie). And while both of them have said they wouldn’t want to be Tara or to have her powers, even as an adult, I do find this narrative appealing.

Earth Rangers Before posting this set of reviews here, I asked the two older kids (10 and 6) to tell me what their top podcasts are right now. So I got the run down on the three above. But then the next day, Ms6yoZ came up to me, kind of quietly and said, almost in a whisper, “I also like one more podcast. It’s called Earth Rangers.” As the younger sister, Z is often pulled into older kid interests — like the three podcasts listed above — but she’s still only 6 and she finds ways to carve out time and space for all the stuff that she might say is “kiddish” in front of Ms10yoA. I suspect that Earth Rangers is directed at a younger audience and while her older sister might scoff, the 6yo still loves to learn the basics of animals and enjoys the soothing simplicity of a podcast directed at younger kids.

BONUS: Recommendations for grown ups!

A few years ago, there was a Peter Pan Live! showing on TV. We watched it together as a family. Afterwards, I said to my brother-in-law, whose kids are all older than mine and who has been a parent for about 8 years longer than I have, that it was really hard to “hate watch” anything once you have kids. I just get caught up in seeing these things that a decade ago, I would have thought were cheesy or hokey, through my kids’ eyes. “Yeah,” my brother in law said, “That’s the reason to have kids!”

That being said, as much as I love to see and hear and consume all of this made for kid content and particularly to be able to consume it through their fresh senses, sometimes I do need adult content. I like to be able to plug in the headphones while I cook dinner or, even better, while I knit, and listen to something made for adults. And the two recommendations I have are definitely made for adults.

The Score: Bank Robber Diaries GO OUT AND FIND THIS PODCAST AND LISTEN TO IT. Joe Loya tells the story of his life in this series of podcasts. No wait. That sentence is just not even remotely close to what this podcast is doing. Joe Loya weaves an incredible tapestry of long, twisting, unbroken narrative threads, colorful characters, heartaching humanity, and emotional and spiritual redemption. Nope. Still not there yet. Trust me. Just listen to this podcast. (In the meantime, I’ll work on a sentence that might vaguely capture its essence.)

Joe Loya robbed 30 banks in 14 months and served time in prison after he was caught. Right after I started listening to this podcast, I read Just Mercy for my book club. Just Mercy, was, in my opinion, not very good. Amongst other issues, I don’t think that the author, Bryan Stevenson, is as good a writer as he is a lawyer. (Writers should be paid to write and be paid to ghost write for lawyers. But I digress.) At times, his bias was strong as to be a disservice to the truth and honest reflection on the ways in which the system can and should be changed in order to be redemptive rather than just punitive. In Just Mercy, Stevenson tells several stories of children raised in situations of profound poverty, abuse, neglect, and violence. Many wind up in the justice system where they are further victimized. So this raised the question for me: what do we, as a society, need to do and what changes do we need to make to help these kids who have been raised in these situations? Ultimately, the book Just Mercy seems to be saying: the justice system is not a place of redemption. I don’t know that Joe Loya would disagree with this. But his story, as he tells it in this podcast, does reveal to us how one individual can and did redeem himself and heal himself if not through prison then certainly while in the prison system. And perhaps Joe Loya’s ultimate healing was in spite of his time served; but part of what he seems to be saying in the podcast is that, had he not had a lot of time to himself to think and to be by himself, he might not have received as much healing he did from his childhood of profound abuse.

Loya is best known as the “Beirut Bandit” (because the media at the time interpreted his appearance as middle eastern and because alliteration) but as this podcast illustrates, his true God-given gift is that of storytelling. Aside from his innate understanding of narrative structure and tension, even the timbre of texture of his voice is 1800 thread count, like liquid silk poured into your ear. This was one of the reasons why I did find the extra auditory flourishes (the music and the occasional sound effect) to be completely unnecessary and at times even a bit of a distraction. But I get it. I’ve never made a podcast but I imagine it’s super fun to play with all of those auditory gadgets. But please don’t let this one criticism stand in the way between you and this symphonic celebration of storytelling.

In the fall of 2002, I was in a remote area of the Thailand/ Burma border where the only news I received on a daily basis was from a sketchy Voice of America radio signal and the occasional Thai (English language) newspaper. The closest town (where I could get on the internet in small, linoleum floored shops) was a half hour drive away, usually on a pick up truck tricked out to fit twenty people in the back. So while I heard news of the DC sniper at the time, I was about as far away from it as I could have been and certainly not living it in the “real time” that my parents and other loved ones back in and around my DC hometown were living it. The first shootings took place in various locations that triangulate where my parents live, work, and shop.

And perhaps the distance at the time is what makes me so hungry right now to hear about what actually happened at the time. Now that I live in that same geographical triangle that my parents did, the DC sniper feels shockingly real, perhaps even more than it seemed even at the time. So I am primed to be an ideal, hungry listener to Monster: DC Sniper. But, this combined with the reporting (both at the time and now) on this podcast makes for an incredible podcast investigating this complicated event and negotiating the multiple players and themes involved. I am currently one episode behind from what has been released, but I know that this podcast will continue to give what it has given from the beginning: an in-depth look from multiple perspectives on how two men could cause wreak so much havoc in this part of the country and including an examination of how a society (our society) and culture makes such events possible.

Double Pointed Needles versus Magic Loop, an entirely made up (but still not completely implausible) history of sock knitting

I have recently become obsessed with knitting socks. And when I say “obsessed” I mean mostly that I knit a single pair of socks. But I have certainly purchased an obsessive amount of sock yarn and have certainly looked at an obsessive number of images of knitted socks on instagram and elsewhere (who are we kidding? mostly instagram). My first sock I knitted using a technique (new, to me at least) called “magic loop”. The second I went with the traditional “double pointed needle” method. What follows is my breakdown — and I do mean breakdown (like I was probably very close to a breakdown)– of the difference between the two.

There was a time when there was no magic loop knitting. And before that, there was a time when all socks were knit flat and then sewn together, creating a seam or two or, perhaps for those unfortunates who were “knitting with very short skeins” (which is not a euphemism but could be) from which they could only create tiny patches that then had to be grafted together into larger patches and then stitched together into something approximating a sock. And way before that there were no socks at all and people just stuffed grass into their shoes. And a long, long time before that, there were no people. We’ve gone too far back. Let’s go forward to a time when there were people, with feet, but questionable means of protecting these appendages and keeping them warm. In all these periods of time when there were people, all the people had one thing in common: they were miserable. Their feet were either cold or grassy or they spent all their days with their feet warmish but with seams digging into their skin and leaving horrid red marks and impressions when they pulled off their socks before climbing into bed (because only monsters sleep with socks on[*]) and generally making them irritable throughout the day.

And then someone (a misunderstood genius perhaps) was like “screw this! I’m figuring out a way to knit a tube in one continuous spiral so that we don’t have to have these ridiculous, uncomfortable bulky seams.” And so (cue climactic music) the double pointed needle was created. Well, no. There was probably some fiddling around for a while. Someone probably figured out how to “knit in the round” (as knitting one continuous tube is called) using two regular needles, painstakingly sliding the stitches off and on each needle as they went. But, eventually, someone (who everyone probably assumed was a sadist initially) decided that instead of sliding each stitch onto the other needle, they could use three, four, or even five! (ergo, sadist) double pointed needles (ergo: super-sadist) and just keep going around in a circle from one needle to the next, knitting merrily away. And people were probably at first like, “who is this insane person knitting with three, four, or even FIVE needles and with double the number of pointy bits?” But! But! when said person was able to create seamless socks, everyone was like, “hang on a minute, this person is on to something. I was wrong to judge them.” And then probably paid this genius knitter millions of silver coins (or quid or ducats or horses or whale fat for their lamps or whatever the currency of the time was) for pairs of seamless socks.

And so knitters happily went along knitting their socks on double pointed needles (DPNs) for hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe millions (I never claimed to be a historian) of years. Until someone came along and said, “hang on! why are we knitting in the round with double pointed needles, we have all sorts of plastics and other bendy materials that we can use instead now?” And so they took two straight needles and joined the back (not pointy) ends together with a bendy piece of plastic and now people could knit in the round by simply going around and around and around and never stopping. Ever. No more back and forth. No more switching between double pointed needles. And it was a miracle and amazing and all the people rejoiced. Or, well, at least the knitters rejoiced. But this allowed them to knit large tubes (like the body of a sweater) faster and so their previously cold loved ones also rejoiced.

But there was one problem. Because of some basic laws of physics (like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time), it was impossible to knit socks in the round using these new “circular needles.” Basically, in order for circular needles to work, the knitter ends up bunching the stitches that are not being worked on the plastic part and so the only way they can be used is if the circumference of the finished product goal is larger than the circumference of the knitting needles. For socks, the tubes have to be relatively small. And therefore the circumference of the circular needle would have to be so small as to make it impossible to hold the needles at the appropriate angle (which at times has to be close to 180 degrees) to knit.

But the sock knitters were fine with that. They were all like, “No. It’s fine. I’m fine with that. You sweater knitters just keep on doing your circular needle thing. We will be fine over here with our double pointed needles. It’s cool. I mean, someone has to use these old things. Amiright? Heh. Heh.”

But secretly, some of them weren’t ok with it. They desperately wanted to get their hands on some of those circular needles. They wanted to feel their stitches sliding across the cool flexibility of the plastic cords. They wanted to be able to push their stitches all on to the cord and jam their half-knitted socks into their project bags and run to make their train, their precious stitches and needles and yarn banging against their hip without the constant nagging fear that stitches and stitches were falling off of either of the two ends of the three needles they had in there, precariously jostling about. SIX! SIX! SIX! … opportunities for stitches to be dropped. Oh, how they suffered with their quiet fears and thirsty jealousy.

And so, one of the more, shall we say … industrious (but perhaps what we really mean is opportunistic) amongst them created a new way to knit socks. It would combine all of the ease and convenience of circular needles with the cachet that comes with being a creator of socks. Above all, it would be called something that would make it attractive and undeniable to knitters (and, frankly, to non-knitter as well) everywhere: MAGIC LOOP.

I must admit that I was one of those pulled in by the name. Magic? I thought to myself. You mean, I can use MAGIC to make these socks rather than hard work and meticulous care? Hand over the size 2 circular needles with an extra long cord! Amiright?

That’s right. I might as well have made a pact with the devil himself. Not that I’m proud of this. But I’m not here to sugar coat anything, least of all myself and my guileless willingness to be pulled in by a mere word: magic.

Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I was just desperate to knit socks, to join the rarefied air that those knitters of foot attire occupy with a breezy attitude of “yes, I turn a heel and form a gusset and graft a toe” as if it was nothing. NOTHING. NO-THING.

But I digress.

I did sit down to knit my first sock. And I did use the magic loop technique. And I must have been through most of the cuff and nearing the heel when it suddenly dawned on me, “There’s nothing magic about this. Like. At all. At. All. It’s just knitting in the round and using this chintzy cord to hold stitches and then sliding the needle through your work to “turn it” rather than the elegant constancy of a DOUBLE POINTED NEEDLE!” The man behind the curtain was revealed. And I was crushed.

Lesson learned.

I hate to tell you, dear reader, but there is NO magic in magic loop. It’s all just smoke and mirrors and a fancy (and, really, all too obvious) name. And in addition? That loop that was supposed to be magic, all it did for me was create more opportunity for “ladders”, which I will not explain here NOT because it is too hard to explain but because if you don’t already know what a ladder is in knitting, we must preserve your innocence at all costs.

For my second sock, I shamefully, apologetically picked up my double pointed needles. And, almost as if by magic, the second sock practically knit itself. Not really. It was painstaking work. I had to be attentive at every phase, making sure that I wasn’t dropping stitches, picking up my work with thought and care and only when I knew I would be able to give it my full attention and putting it away when I was done for the time being. In other words: exactly what the process of making something should be. And the end result? No ladders. Instead: one cozy, slow-knit, comfy sock fit perfectly to my foot mismatched to it’s less-than-perfect companion.

I am not anti-innovation and I’m certainly not anti-circular needle. But sometimes we already have the right tools for the job, tools that, like the double pointed needle, have hit a sweet spot between adapting a previous iteration without going so far as to reinventing and adapting something that, well, really didn’t need reinvention or adaptation. Double pointed needles do the trick. And, yes, “magic loop” might be slightly faster or more convenient, but the end product also, well, sometimes kinda looks faster and more convenient. Sock knitting with double pointed needles is a challenge. And that’s ok.

[*]OK, fine, I sleep with socks on.

Turing Tumble

Ms6yo Z builds her own computer using the Turing Tumble. Perhaps one day she will build a robot that will help us clean up our mess!

This Christmas, Ms6yo Z received a puzzle game called “Turing Tumble“. Like many of the most engaging games and puzzles and educational systems, the idea behind it is simple. In spite of this elegant simplicity, there are a vast array of ideas that she learns and skills that she practices when she uses her Turing Tumble, which, at this point in time amounts to usually a few times a week.

It is comprised of a simple, white slanted plastic board that reminds me a bit of the “Plinko” game on the old Price is Right TV game show (or maybe it’s on the current one too?). Plinko consisted of a large board at a slight angle. It was large enough that it required a staircase the contestant would climb in order to stand above the board. Once up there, the contestant would drop a puck from the top of the board, which had regularly placed pegs sticking out of the board. The puck would slide down, bouncing unpredictably from peg to peg. At the bottom, it would land in a slot labeled with one of various fabulous prizes. Rather than pegs, the Turing Tumble table has holes into which the “contestant” (student or puzzler) can place various tools. The small, colorful plastic “tools”, when used correctly, behave in a much more predictable way. And rather than a puck, the student uses small red and blue ball bearings, which make a satisfying plink, plink, plink sound as they hit the different plastic pieces. Sadly, there are no fabulous prizes at the end. Although, I’m sure that the learning that happens is more fabulous than anything offered on The Price is Right.

The game is named for Allen Turing, the mathematician whose decoding work during WWII (and the tragic discrimination that he faced) was made famous by the movie Enigma in which he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. And while MsZ is only 6 (and therefore too young for the movie), certainly some of the scenes (if we can find some) of the massive computers Turing and his team built to decode German messages might place her much smaller Turing Tumble into context for her. The Tumble website contests that with a table large enough and with enough of the given plastic pieces, one would be able to use to system to solve any mathematical problem.

Eric explained it to me this way. Coding is a language. Each of the pieces in the Turing Tumble are like parts of language: words or sentences or paragraphs. Maybe a punctuation mark. As MsZ combines them together, she’s writing a program, just as a writer might use words or sentences or paragraphs to build, say, a blog post or a short story or even a poem. Each of the pieces of language work in a distinct way and we can use them together in infinite combinations to solve a problem — or to communicate an idea. But we still have to stay within the rules of language. If we break the rules, the problem becomes unsolvable, the idea uncommunicated.

A Turing Tumble success!

The Turing Tumble also leads MsZ through the process of building a mechanical computer. For right now, she’s still in the early stages of the puzzles and so, as in early education math, the computers she is building create simple patterns. According to the Turing Tumble website later computers will solve actual computations.

The Turing Tumble allows to her both build a physical, mechanical computer, but also to practice the logic behind coding. It’s an introduction to the basics of if-then logic and also learning the rules and limitations of the language. Some of the pieces illustrate, in very concrete ways, how some of the gadgets or gears store information in the same way that information is stored in a computer.

The system comes with a booklet, which includes, of course, the rules and how different pieces work. It is contained within a sort of “graphic” (meaning illustrated) story, which I have not read, but MsZ has. She has not shown much interest in the story and would probably show the same enthusiasm for the game without the graphic story behind it. She’s only 6 and the suggested age on the box is 8 and up, so perhaps she’s just too young to appreciate the story. But more likely, I think that it has more to do with an idea inside the enclosed booklet. “Now you might think proving mathematical statements is a rather boring, straightforward task. Not at all. It requires tremendous creativity….” I think that MsZ is attracted to the creativity and problem solving of the table. For her, and I think for people who are mathematically minded in general (I would include children in that group), the process of learning the game and solving the problems is creative enough. They don’t require a story. The graphics and stories are what we adults think kids need in order to make “exciting” and “fun” what we fear they will think is “boring”. In my experience, most kids don’t need or even want the stories and colors and pictures. It’s the adults who think they need it.

That all being said, I think that the Turing Tumble would be great for adults too. We play a fair about of games and puzzles around here. Some of them are on screens, which are slick and convenient and have their place, but it’s really nice to have such a highly physically interactive puzzle that is still a challenge. She’s working on her fine motor skills in ways that touching a screen never does.

As for a six year old using this item for which the recommended minimum age is 8? It’s been fine. I don’t know if she would have been able to just pick it up and start doing it without one of us getting her started and pointing out a few things to her, so I’m guessing that the lower end recommended age of 8 is more appropriate if you are looking for something in which the child can be completely self directed. We did run into a few “glitches” initially in which some components on the back of the board were getting in the way of the pieces on the front and prevented them from working properly. And this is the sort of issue that probably requires someone older to solve. But solve them we did and it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.

Every so often, she asks for help, but as homeschooling parents, that’s part of our job. Obviously. So we are happy to do it. But we try to avoid doing things for her or solving the puzzle for her. We might ask a few questions to help her get to the solution. Or, as happened recently, if I end up helping a bit more I had intended to (I couldn’t figure out the solution myself so I had to actually do it), I will ask her afterwards questions about what the problem was and how it was solved. This sort of “processing” of what went wrong (and what went right) is an important component of teaching the kids to practice metacognition. As Eric likes to remind us, we learn more from failing or losing than winning all the time. But this requires a close examination of what went wrong and how to do things differently next time. In other words: one of the things we are trying to do is to teach them how to learn. And the Turing Tumble is a great tool for doing so.