Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Going live...

I have moved. Wait two seconds for the automatic redirect, or click here...

Now, at last, a blog that does not exclude the half of my readers uninterested in either domestic details or heavy moral sermonising!

Actually, two blogs.

like a tea-tray in the sky: politics, philosophy and general pontifications

down the rabbit hole: the real life of me

Please adjust your bookmarks to whichever you prefer. They each have links to the other, so there is no need to bookmark both.

See you over there...

Watch this space...

The new place should be ready later today. There are just a couple of final tweaks left and then I think I'd better write a post or two, otherwise you will be going over there and finding a big empty page. Back in a while...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

yes, it's another update...

Well, I only have sixteen more tons of things to do and my new blogohome will be up and running. It's being a very interesting experience. The state of web design seems so dreadful to me, I am thinking of setting up in business. The trouble with web design is it is all done by geeks instead of designers. For instance, I have been going through colours so slowly you would think I was Martha Stewart selecting a hundred different carefully-coordinated shades of grey for her new house. Not because I think my blogohome has to look like a stately home, just to avoid it giving me eye-damage.

I'm off to do that now once more, in fact. The practice template I am working on at the moment has a background which looks exactly like a paper bag I once got given in a gift shop somewhere in England years ago. I remember it distinctly because it is an especially annoying design example- mauve and flowery and looks like it should be quite nice, in a traditional kind of way- but instead it's badly done and horrible. There are a lot of 1980s sofas with the same sort of pattern. I think they thought they were updating floweriness to make it slightly art nouveau (the 30s were big in the 80s) and a little bit Millais. What they actually produced was the sort of pond full of vague blurry organic matter that probably accurately represents the last vision of the traumatised dying Ophelia. (OK, that's not a great conceit, but I like it.) If I ever go back in time, I will tell the fabric designers of the 80s that it is impossible to combine traditional English floral with modern edgy, you just have to choose, blurring it up does not work.

Thanks Connie and Sean, I do indeed intend to come back fired-up and full of things to say. Meanwhile I am having great fun doing this designing. I have wanted to have a Proper Blog for years now, but not managed to do it the way I wanted. This time I think I've actually got all three things I need, which are the look, the right twiddly gadgets, and the right blogging identity, which is a thing like a "story" in marketing. Not that I won't be me- I will be more me, which is what these things are about. But that's quite a big subject, I will have to blog more about it once I'm up and running.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

another update...

I really am sorry about the wait. It is of course taking longer than expected to renovate the blog, which always happens. In the meantime I am very excited about my new format, which will make possible all sorts of different and more in-depth writing without the accompanying problems that have been bugging me ever since starting blogging a couple of years ago. The changes are quite minor in themselves, and the reasons they are important to me and my writing are a bit complicated to explain, but I think you will like the results. Whatever you have liked about Alice in Texas or my other blogs before that will be back bigger and better than before, and whatever you are not interested in will be away in the background (but easily accessible to those who are).

As there is no way of knowing exactly how long this is going to take, I will endeavour to keep posting a few things here, although they may be somewhat minimal due to my energies being directed mostly towards the next stage. I asked before for feedback and only got one taker, but if there is anything you want to see more of please feel free to say so here. As you were, once again!

Sunday, August 21, 2005


I am still working on the new improved blog/s. It is taking longer than I expected, as I should have expected. Ongoing apologies for the fact that nothing is happening here in the meantime otherwise I would never get round to moving blogohouse at all. As you were.

Friday, August 19, 2005


I've been working on blog updating and redefining ideas, and am learning a new blogging system. The main issue is how to get rid of the picture of the two whales crashing through a car windscreen at the top. Anyway, it will take a while, so no blogging here for a couple of days. Please enjoy the holiday and be ready to readjust your sets on my return.

In other news, we have tickets for this. Three cheers! Cheaper than a summer holiday and with more obscure 1930s kung-fu movies! Actually I don't know what the movies are going to be, they don't tell you. But there are a lot, and they are sure to be incredibly obscure, and we have tickets for every single one. Gulp.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


This is worrying me. From Dov Bear via Mirty.

However, luckily my horoscope says not to worry today but simply to do whatever seems easy. We all know that horoscopes represent unfailingly accurate moral advice, therefore I shall be following this one's. Back with something frivolous later.

cookies and computers

I am still green but now using a different computer, as you can see. My usual one got a virus which destroyed a small but apparently significant part of it, "windows" I think the thing is called. And now it won't turn on at all anymore. So I got a lot of piano playing done yesterday afternoon. Every now and then I wonder why I am doing all this piano playing. It's not as if I am going to become a concert pianist at my age. But maybe there doesn't need to be a reason for everything a person does with their time.

I also baked chocolate chip cookies. Not having made American-style cookies before, it is taking me a few goes to get right. The first time, I used salt instead of sugar. Yes, I know. Post-house-moving mistake, things got mixed up. The second time, I made the mixture too runny and the cookies fused into one giant sheet. The next time, I tried to make them double chocolate flavour, so substituted cocoa for some of the flour, but then they weren't sweet enough. This last lot was quite close to perfect, but cookie baking is definitely nothing like the English baking I am used to. I want to get it right though, as really good cookies are my absolute favourite biscuit-type thing to eat.

They take eight minutes to bake so I had to keep checking the oven and doing things. In between I was practising the candenza-type bit from the end of the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata. So I was alternately sitting there in my floury apron going DA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA!!! loud enough to give your granny a heart attack, and popping into the kitchen to change around baking trays.

Well, you probably had to be there.

feedback please

While I slowly work on moving out of the blogger apartment complex (again), this seems like a good time for a general overhaul of the blog. Do you have any comments/ suggestions/ ideas? What do you like and not like? Any feedback welcome.


Gush Katif.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

all keywords

texas, alice, depressing, 2005, speak, bigger, native -
raindrops, business, sonata, custody, comes, song, joe -
meaningless, and, ever, women, most, battle, songs -
campisi, older, beauty, when, country, bachini, deaths.

beautiful, laws, winning -
spa, food, big -
notes, things, august -

bigger pictures

When we lose a great battle which we still believe in, it seems incomprehensible that any good can ever come of it. Even if somehow things might one day get back to where they should have been- and sometimes reality makes this impossible- the loss can never be made good. The time and effort it took to recover cannot be recovered. The learning we gain from dealing with the problems thrown up by the experience will never be equal to the loss. We are not merely mourning what has gone, but the fact that it was taken away. We don't want the world to be the kind of place where this can happen. We want justice to be real, not arbitrary. So at exactly the time we have to struggle for survival in the face of our real personal loss, we also find ourselves without the old sustaining laws we used to believe in. Nothing makes sense anymore. Anything can happen. There are no limits, no expectations, there is nothing to rely on.

This is when faith becomes a necessity instead of a happy luxury. Some people call it opimism, and think that meaning is hidden in the molecules of the universe, and other people call it G-d. But when nothing makes sense any more, we still have hope. When we reach the end of the road we are on at the moment, and can look back, there is a chance that the journey itself will finally make some sense. How much of a chance depends how much faith you have; not because people delude themselves to whatever level they choose, though sometimes one might wish to be able to do that, but because faith is the energy that gets you down the road.

There are many things happening at the moment which I do not understand. But knowing the limitedness of our current understanding is exactly what provides hope for the future. Given how much we do not know, there is every chance that a bigger picture that makes sense of things exists, beyond what we can see right now. And there is every chance that we can learn to see that picture, that it will ultimately emerge from the individual marks we make in the sand each day.

the garden

The garden (yard) of this house is enormous and very beautiful because it is full of trees, like an orchard. I assume it was planted like that for shade, when the little wooden house was built in the 30s. It is also full of animals and insects, which is very interesting for something to watch out there. They all fight over the fig tree and make a lot of noise. I am not a nature expert, I can tell the difference between a butterfly, a squirrel, a bird and a creepy-crawly that might bite me, and that's about it, so I may have to invest in a nature book sometime to find out what everything is. "Wild and dangerous creatures of Texas", something like that.

My plans for the garden are as follows:
1. keep the grass alive,
2. get round to doing something with the overgrown herb patch where one plant has grown into a huge bush and is smothering all the rest to death,
3. occupy the land.

This last part means using the outside space as if it was an indoor space, for recreational purposes. As I said before, there are two (more or less) insect-proof tents out there now, one near the house on the grass and one at the bottom of the garden on mud for using when the grass in the other tent needs a break. There is collapsible furniture for the first tent and the second tent has contents that don't need to move, consisting of an old two-person sofa, a small wicker coffee table, an ancient wicker chaise-longue which I found next to someone's dustbin (I found an identical less ruined version for sale nearby at the moment, for $150, which was cheering) and a tree-stump with side-roots acting as a table/plant-stand.

We decided to make a deck to go under all this, otherwise the rain gathers in puddles, which would destroy the sofa not to mention the big rug under it. So we spent quite a while in Home Depot arranging long pieces of wood on the floor and doing sums, before noticing a ready-made deck leaning up against the wall. It was a big pallette thing for transporting planks, and they said we could have it for free. Apparently people quite often take them and make things out of them. Unfortunately we did not have a truck, and it was ten feet long and weighed several tons. So we bought a saw, cut it in half plank by plank and managed to get it home on the roof of the car. This was fine, as its original shape was wrong anyway, and the two pieces went together sideways to make the right sized deck for the tent.

It is all brilliant, basically, and I love it. At the moment huge citronella candles are mostly taking care of any mosquito problems not covered by the tent, and at relatively mosquito-free times of day I plan to have other things to do in the garden that keep you moving around and therefore less of a target. These are:

1. A trampoline. I have always wanted a trampoline, although what the neighbours will think seeing grown adults bouncing up and down I do not know. (It will be collapsible, to save the grass)
2. I thought about a ping pong table, but a better idea is a net that can be used for either badminton or volleyball. I like this kind of game too. So that is two forms of official exercise, which is good as I don't do any except play the piano at the moment.
3. A hammock. There are two trees in just the right place and the right distance apart for a hammock, although it may need a mosquito net over it. I wanted a Mexican one, but when we went to the only Mexican import shop I could find it was empty.
"We haven't been to Mexico for a while," said the Mexican lady, now living entirely on her fortune-telling and psychic healing skills. "It's too dangerous, people are getting shot down there." Oh well. I used to have a great hammock, but it got left behind in England.
4. A picnic table, to go with the tiny little barbecue which sits in a hole in the ground at the bottom of the garden by tent #2. There is no grass round there, just old logs from a cut down tree and the ground is dry earth. I am calling it the encampment because it is like a clearing in a forest. You can sit on tree-stumps and cook burgers then dash in the tent to avoid any more mosquito bites.

There is also a three-line washing line which could be used as another instant tent for any random children who happened to turn up wanting to play, and a big patch of plants in the middle of the garden that will turn into flowers in the spring. And the last potential plan is to put another tent on the side of the house, and turn it into a washing room with a washing machine and a dryer, because we don't have any in the house as it's too small. Not urgent at the moment though, with just the two of us. Also, going to the laundrette is not unpleasant because it is next door to no less than four different cafes plus an independent supermarket. So that's a coffee for the wash cycle then an ice-cream for the drying cycle, or something similar. I have actually missed out on the pleasantness of this arrangement so far, from being either ill or in a bad mood almost every washing day so far, but hopefully that will not continue.

So, that's all about my garden. There are few things as beautiful as well-designed nature for restoring the soul, so we really lucked-out with this one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

good news for your eyeballs

Hurrah! The blog is not going to stay looking like this. It will be becoming a whole new blog, with fancy things on like expandable posts, and a search facility that traditionally completely fails to find anything you try and search except the title of the blog because it ignores common words and can't find uncommon words, and a pop-up-toaster, and a matching Paddington apron and tea-towel... you name it, it will be on the new blog. Oh yes.

Alright, maybe not all that. But it will be moving in a while, and there will be less green, I promise.

I am staring at the people-counter, aghast. About ten people an hour come here, if the last 3 hours are representative. Taking into account they are probably all American and sleep during the night, that could add up to an entire hundred people every day, which is far more than three and well worth writing for. But then, those hundred people probably each read three times their weight in blogs every day too, and comment on approximately one every fortnight. So that means the number of comments here is actually extraordinarily high, and is probably even due for a nosedive.

This green is actually giving me nausea, it's just that the other blogger colours are even worse. Time for Bach.

another piano playing post

Well, I hit upon how to strengthen my fingers without having to play Hanon exercises. The Bach prelude in C minor for both hands, last movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata for right hand and Chopin study #12 for left hand. In other words, semiquavers. Or fraction notes (sixteenths? eighths? whatever) if you are any other nationality than English, including American as I was amazed to discover.

So, after a while of breaking down and rebuilding those muscles, a la Uma Thurman repeatedly punching that board of wood, my fingers are now doing things more similar to what I want them to be doing, and this is very pleasing. More pieces are a case of learning the notes and fewer pieces are a case of physical impossibility. However, I bought Beethoven's Appasionata sonata (nice rhyme) which is apparently still impossible, and for some reason I still can't play Chopin's study #5, even though I used to be able to 20 years ago. It's mostly on the black notes and my fingers just keep sliding off.

No idea why this is, but the more I play now, the more I become aware that I am doing it in a completely different way than I did when I was younger. In the olden days, I picked up more things on instinct, but I also seemed to have to fudge through more things. Now, I have to consciously program in every note, but I can do more difficult things with greater accuracy. For instance, I doubt that my hands have grown, but I can now play in octaves much better than I could then. It's because I think about it differently.

That's right, I'm old. The interesting question for me is, can a person learning something later on in life really ever be as good at it as they would have been had they learned it earlier? Not in terms of missed years, just from the same amount of work-time but at a different stage in their lifelong learning. I can't think of any reason why not, but I never heard of anyone becoming a professional violinist in their forties. Why is that?


I will be making some changes to the blog today, do not be alarmed.

later: OK, I know this blog is not exactly beautiful but I wanted a change and it's easy enough to put back like it was before.

I have added a tracking machine because I am firmly convinced that all you readers have gone away, and if that is the case then it would be time to give up, or at least restart in a totally different way. This is not a big-time blog designed to pull in lots of readers, but I don't believe in writing a blog for just three people, at that point you have to ask yourself why you dislike your only few friends so much you're not having them round for dinner every week instead, which would be better.


Monday, August 15, 2005


Read this post by David Bogner.

I am absolutely sick about it all.

classical education

I was quite lucky with my comprehensive state secondary (high school); we did Latin. But we didn't do proper Latin, with declensions and grammar. We did trick-Latin, for getting good grades in the exam. The teacher was quite open about this, and it worked pretty well, and I got an A. But it wasn't real Latin. However, I still count myself lucky, because I went on later to do English Literature at university, and at least I could roughly recognise which words were likely to come from Latin. Understanding where words come from is important if you're going to study English. As part of my degree course, I also studied French literature, a fair chunk of history, and Middle English. Done properly, English is supposed to be a very big serious academic subject indeed.

It was painfully obvious at Cambridge which people had been to decent independent schools and which people had been to bogstandard comprehensives. Those of us in the latter group (I wasn't exactly at that stage, but effectively I was, having boarded at a non-academic music school) had a lot of extra reading to do. We might have good exam grades, but we didn't have a sound classical education. Having grown up thinking that my mostly state education was no way inferior because my grades were just as good, this came as quite a shock. Having taught in the independent system I can confirm this impression all the more. There is almost no comparison betwee what a good independent school and an ordinary state school can teach, and exam grades are only tangentially related to that fact.

It is one reason why, when they are a bit older, I do not want my children attending a bogstandard comprehensive school. I want them to have a proper, wide-ranging, classical education, or at least the opportunity for one; and that opportunity does not exist in the state sector. It doesn't even exist in most of the private sector. It is very expensive indeed. (I am tempted to blow my own trumpet here, of course, but current family circumstances would make that a bit of a sick joke.)

Not all kids are cut out for the kind of education I'm talking about. There are other more vocational ways to learn, and we all know that Latin is a dead language. I have never had a problem with vocational education for children who don't have the ability to learn in an abstract way. The world will always need carpenters. But a broad knowledge of history, literature, the classics, foreign languages and the arts opens the mind, and gives you more than just "ideas"- it offers different ways of thinking. And one thing I am quite certain of is that children who can acquire this knowledge should have it made available.

Even in the home educating community there is a materialistic, functional attitude to learning in many quarters. Education is not just about facts, tests, practical skills, or (as some crackpot homeschoolers do) arrogantly dismissing "academics" as if the true value of knowledge could only be guaged by how often it appears on the Discovery Channel. Not everything valued by tradition is therefore evil, and conversely sometimes traditions grow to neglect and undermine what they were originally designed to protect. As far as I can tell, enormous chunks of institutional education are heading exactly that way at the moment.

The least we can ensure is that our children have the opportunity to be at least as well educated as we are ourselves. I am basically an optimist, in fact I have been accused many times of deluded head-in-the-clouds idiocy, but when it comes to state schools my opinion is that they are worse than they have ever been. Bright children may knuckle under and get their A grades, but that doesn't mean they have learned what they could or should have learned during the many years of childhood they were supposedly being educated. On the whole, but not always for an intelligent child, institutionalised schooling is more of an incredibly boring waste of time than it has ever been. The trouble is finding something better.

judging motives

I found this article on, about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping children (my bolds):

I don't believe there is any absolute way that any specific action can be judged selfish or selfless. The very same action could be completely selfless in one person, completely selfish in another. What it boils down to is not whether you're doing something for yourself or not, but why are you are doing it. Are you doing it for yourself at the expense of another, or are you doing it for yourself for the benefit of another?

If I do something for myself before I take care of my children, and it is because I care more about myself, my needs, my desires--then that is selfish. If by taking care of myself first and keeping them waiting only I gain, then it is wrong. However, if I am doing something for myself first so that ultimately I will be able to help my children, and they will benefit, then it is not only not selfish, perhaps it is essential, both for their health and my own.

Now we can take this analogy even a little further. Because, after all, the oxygen we need to survive is not just the physical oxygen. Each person has his or her own individual needs in terms of the space, time and circumstances required to feel healthy. No one can judge that for someone else. And a person must first fill his needs before he can help another. Notice that I said, "needs" and not "wants." We are talking about what is essential--what is required to live and be healthy. These are not luxuries, these are necessities, though my necessities may vary greatly from yours. The important thing is that we both figure out what it is we need to ensure that we acquire it.

That's why I came to Texas and got married despite not being able to bring my children. I do not expect those who choose to judge to stop regarding my motives as selfish, but I do wish they would read articles like this one and understand that it is impossible to read other people's minds and know their motivations.

Of course, our attempts to understand the motives of terrorists are also doomed. None of them are going to admit, "It's because I am a spoilt angry brat with a pointless life largely of my own devising and the only act of ego I can manage is to get on the big stage of jihad." Or just, "because I can." What counts is their actions, not their inner worlds. Terrorism will be defeated when the balance of power shifts far enough from terrorist-supporting political groups towards peaceful ones. For this reason, Saddam was exactly the right first target.

The concept of judging motive as well as actions was introduced into the legal system by the ancient Greeks, and is still with us today. The best example is that killing someone in a drink-driving accident is not considered as reprehensible as murder planned in advance. Is this morally right? I don't actually think it is. Why can we not simply judge people for their actions?

The Greeks were trying to solve the problem of having to execute someone for murder because they walked past a rock that started a landslide that killed someone at the bottom of the hill. My hunch is that they confused moral motive with the knowledge inside a person's head, and/or their logical sphere of influence at the time. I might come back to this later. Maybe some of you (if are any of you still reading- are you?) know more about the establishment of modern western legal systems than I do. I just picked up a few vague notions in passing while studying Aeschylus years and years ago.


I'd had this particular what-if on my mind. Then I found a direct reference to it in the Telegraph from Scott Burgess' blog:

An extremist Islamic cleric based in Britain said yesterday that he would support hostage-taking at British schools if carried out by terrorists with a just cause.

"As long as the Iraqi did not deliberately kill women and children, and they were killed in the crossfire, that would be okay."
Mr Mohammed, 44, who lives in Edmonton, north London, but is originally from Syria, also claimed that the Chechen rebels were not responsible for the deaths of more than 350 people - at least half of them children - who are so far known to have died in Beslan.

"The Mujahideen [Chechen rebels] would not have wanted to kill those people, because it is strictly forbidden as a Muslim to deliberately kill women and children. It is the fault of the Russians," he said.

Those are my bolds.

If it is strictly forbidden to kill women and children, Islamic religious fundamentalism is not the problem. Evil people capable of dishonestly twisting their own "religious" beliefs into justifying breaking every actual law going is the problem.

This man is now apparently being thrown out of the UK. Which for some reason I do not find reassuring at all. I had forgotten about the Chechen school massacre, which I unwisely read all about at the time, and now there are pictures of horror in my head again. Time for another, stricter news blackout, methinks.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

ethnic cleansing

Here is an article that relates to my post below about the disengagement. A quote:

Those who advocate the dismantling of the Jewish communities in this territory are advocating a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Is there any general consciousness of this at all?

A depressing weekend all round. Back tomorrow.

the sins of the mothers

You know how, when you have your first baby, people say to you, "Ah, now you will finally appreciate what your mother had to go through when she had you!" ? Well, there are some people who have this experience, and there are some people whose experience is closer to that of the inestimable getupgrrl of Chez Miscarriage. As she does not have archives due to people stealing her writing, you will have to click that link super-fast, but here is a brief quotation for posterity:

A number of you have asked, where is my muh-thuh? Why is she not helping? The answer is, she's right here, and she's not helping because she's not helpful.

Example: last week, Gefilte had a stuffy nose. So I calmly attempted to administer some saline drops, until my muh-thuh came over and suggested that OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM IMMEDIATELY - HIS NOSE IS STUFFY!

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

There are certain advantages to blogging anonymously, and one of them is the ability to explain that actually thinking about your first baby and your own mother in the same equation only inspires a deep, intense terror regarding what unimaginable damage your own psyche went through in those early weeks and months when you were still a little stuffed ball of fish yourself. And in case my mother suddenly learned how to use a computer and read my blog- it's a joke. And hello, how are you?

Hopefully getupgrrl will publish her archives in a book sometime. It's a guaranteed bestseller, and if publishers aren't hounding her with large cheques right now then they are all crazy.


I was listening to the radio about the disengagement. They interviewed a very ordinary, nice-sounding Arabic gentleman who lived next door to one of the settlements. Then they gave us a bit of a prayer from a rabbi giving a service in a Jewish graveyard. It was impossible not to notice that while the Arabic gentleman had lived next door to Jews for twentysomething years when they were in charge, Jews are not going to be allowed to stay in the area when Arabs are in charge. The Palestinians have demanded their removal. So if they want to visit the graves of their dead relatives ever again, they are going to have to dig them up and rebury them elsewhere in Israel. Which is obscene.

Palestine will be Judenrein. According to Wikipedia, about 20% of the population of Israel is Arab. To me, the issue is not so much who owns the land as whether they use it to run a racist, fascist state. If there is competition there, I can't see where it is.

I have been thinking about the disengagement for months of course, although I choose rarely to write about politics on this blog at the moment. Nobody has to agree with my opinion, in fact I would rather they decided it was rubbish and felt comfortably superior than tried to get me into an argument, because I do not have the energy or the inclination. Whether they realise it or not, many many people are irrational, extremist, ignorant and bigoted on this issue, just as about everything to do with Israel. But for what it is worth, which I cannot put too low a price on frankly, my view is that Israel should be keeping the land rather than handing it over to the kind of people they are handing it over to.

It would be nice if the disengagement led to peace, absolutely lovely, but where is the reason to expect that? The only possible good I can see coming out of it is if Jews get better at talking to each other. I recommend David Bogner's devastating post on this subject.

Hard lessons may be good for us. They may even be the only way we ever learn what we need to learn. But that fact in no way justifies evil actions. As human beings, we have the choice of vowing to extract every drop of new truth and knowledge from every difficult situation that is forced upon us, and to use it to become better people, capable of doing more good, perhaps even doing enough good that such evil things never need happen again. We may even find it in our hearts to forgive those who commit evil against us- if such perpetrators exist, which is not always the case. The people I most admire are the ones who act like that. The people I have to work hardest not to loathe are the ones who just (apparently) blame everyone else instead.

But evil will always be evil, and good will always be good, and no amount of rationalising, justifying, trickery or self-deception will ever alter which is which. I have no idea who to blame about the disengagement, but I will never believe that it was, in itself, a good thing. The most I can do is believe that good can come out of evil. If we work at it.

Friday, August 12, 2005


The post below was edited in the few minutes after first being published. I tend to read things over on the actual blog after publishing, and sometimes only then decide they need improvement, so if you notice something changing this is because you found it right after it was temporarily published in an unfinished form. However, this habit of mine could be confusing so I will try to avoid it in future.

more things, Horatio

(Note: If you read this post as a defence of religion, you will be missing the point. It is actually about what to do when arguments are stuck at both poles going nowhere. The answer is to broaden one's mind, listen more attentively and create new common ground that can lead somewhere. Of course we know that already- we just don't know it well enough. It's a vast school of knowledge, not a fact.)

Theo Hobson asks in The Spectator:

how do you know what other people mean when they use a rhetoric of heaven, or of a godly realm? How do you know the difference between literal belief, metaphorical belief and social convention in an unfamiliar tradition?

Quite so. There is a reason why the term "backseat driver" is derogatory. Anyone who knows little or nothing about a bunch of ideas can pick a few out and criticise them at their leisure, but whether or not they have any real idea about what they're saying is another matter. It is a basic logical error to assume that every group of ideas can be criticised from the outside. Any group of ideas that constitutes an institution is likely to contain inexplicit knowledge which may not even be easily accessible to people who have been studying it for centuries, never mind newbies.

Experience gives us the opportunity to learn that inexplicit knowledge. It is not a method of learning, but a place and a time, and there may be no other place and time that makes it possible. Plenty of people with experience still learn next to nothing about the thing they are experiencing, of course, but even if your mind is closed, when you are physically surrounded by new things it is difficult not to pick up a few details of truth in the process of refuting every new idea that comes along. Details don't provide meaning unless you link them up with other details, but over a sufficiently long time a person can gather so many details that putting them together like a jigsaw becomes quite easy.

Anyway, experience is the necessary environment/ pre-requisite for learning certain kinds of inexplicit knowledge. So if you just stand outside and criticise all your life, you are never really going to learn anything at all. And chances are, your backseat driving will annoy the driver, making him perform less well and probably throw you out in the end. Because you're not helping, only hindering. This is the time to book driving lessons for yourself.

I wrote about this a while back on my previous blog. It's the soup idea- that if you want to understand some things, the only way is to try them. However, it is something of a Catch-22. The only answer to the question, "Why should I try the soup?" is that if other people you admire or respect, or who seem to know more than you, are eating soup and saying it is wonderful, then why not try it yourself? The only reason not to try it is that you still think it could be poisonous, and for that you must have a reason. But there is no "pro-soup" argument, no reason for trying the soup, only the apparent effects of the soup that you can observe in the soup-eaters, and yes, those might be false. You can, however, analyse your anti-soup arguments, and if they don't stand up there will be no reason not to try the soup.

Those who want to argue for specific institutions because they contain valuable inexplicit knowledge have no rational way of doing so. Those who want to attack those institutions have no motive for criticising their criticisms. The only way forward is reasonable dialogue. The worst mistake we make is in responding to (perceived) aggression or diversion with further aggression or diversion. If you think someone is taking something out on you, offering them helpful psychological analysis of their problems is going to make things worse. So is insulting them and their family for their terrible behaviour. It may seem obvious to you that the soup is poisoned and the drinkers of the soup are all sick, but if they think they feel just great then telling them they are sick and trying to poison everyone else too is not going to help.

We seem to be stuck. If you regard a person as worthy of only contempt and derision because they are "left" "right" "religious" or "G-dless", you cannot communicate with them effectively. As well as sharing your most deeply-held ideas and considered beliefs, you need to establish the right style of dialogue. These days, everybody is in some kind of "camp", probably the majority of them having been put there by their interlocutors rather than going in voluntarily. But yelling over perceived trenches is not going to work, especially when the other person is actually standing right next to you on neutral territory being painfully deafened.

The answer to the question at the top of the page is that we cannot know what is inside other people's heads, ever. We are not psychic. And when it comes to their most deeply-held convictions, we are less likely to have any understanding at all: where those convictions come from, the precise quality of them, the balance of different ideas within them, all create something unique. The sum total of a person's lifelong thinking and experience is not that they acquire an accurate label. What counts is their relationship with the world, and that knowledge is different for every person. It is an unimaginably huge place to look for progress, but if we all did it, we could get there. If we can't bring ourselves to try their soup and they don't want any of ours, then at least we can start trying to create other soups that can be shared. And by "we" I do mean all of us. Standing there declaring how great your soup is and that everyone should like it is not enough. You have to understand and work with consumer demand. Nobody ever sold an idea by telling the customer he should appreciate it better, still less by laughing at him.

We have a bunch of different shops, each one catering to a niche market. The first person who invents a product everybody likes will make a fortune. As everybody is human, it is not unlikely that there is something everybody likes, but you have to start small before you can get big. Every little counts, as they say on the Tescos commercial.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Guardian home-education-watch

It is a common concern that home-educated children will become less adept socially, but experience shows quite the reverse. (...) Most home educating parents make sure the school playground is replaced by richer social contact with a wider age group.

More in the Guardian about home education. The article is about a recent survey which found bullying to be the main reason parents are taking children out of school. Given that bullying has been leading to so many suicides, that's not surprising, but there are lots of other parents who home educate from scratch whose motivation for home educating may not be reflected in this survey as they never "removed" their child from school.

The Guardian article also mentions this study, which I remember from when it was first published:

A 2002 Durham University study, which surveyed 400 families and tested nearly 200 children, found extremely good standards of literacy in children up to the age of 10 and good maths results for seven year olds. This study by Paula Rothermel also concluded that home-educated children demonstrated good social skills.

Interesting that the liberal press should be so interested in private education. I think this is because, like some other kinds (Montessori, Steiner-Waldorf) home education is regarded as "alternative" in the UK. I suppose this shift is similar to the one in medicine, where the same people are spending money on non-traditional forms of healthcare rather than going to their NHS GP. I don't think labelling these trends "left-wing" works at all. Intriguing.

things I have learned #2 random stuff

1. If you want 50's vintage clothes or furniture, buy it in America. If you want anything older than that, buy it in Europe. Then bring it to America.
2. It is better to spend twice as much on chemical hair-dye than half as much on the same colour henna, unless you like massaging mud into your hair then trying to get out every grain six hours later when it has finally worked.
3. Play either the piano or the guitar. There is not much solo repertoire for the oboe when you decide not to pursue it professionally and just want entertainment in your later life.
4. Get good at cooking. Microwave food is rubbish and even the best restaurant food will be substandard once it has been delivered to your home.
5. It is better to let the mosquito drink your blood while you get a good aim than to risk letting it live.
6. Plants die and it is not your fault. They just die.
7. The same outfit worn in a different part of the world will look completely different.
8. The most expensive gadgets have the most built-in obsolescence.
9. The lesson of The Incredibles: hiding is the most dangerous thing you can do.
10. The lesson of Batman Begins: if you're going to be a target, keep moving. And learn to fly. And if you are Katie Holmes, stay single.

things I have learned #1 dry philosophical stuff

1. People can decide to be happy. There is nearly always tons and tons to be happy about, if you think about it, far far more than there is to be miserable about. But your state of mind is not hardwired to your circumstances anyway, you have free will and can change it.

2. Nearly all our unhappiness is linked to fear. This requires thinking about as well. There are probably millions of best-possible-outcomes for almost every situation, but we think it safer to imagine the worst ones and emote about them in advance. It doesn't really help at all. If a good outcome happened, wouldn't you feel silly for having wasted your happiness being so negative before?

3. Regret is a total waste of time. It is always better to make mistakes and learn from them than to do nothing, and those of us who actually live our lives instead of hiding behind anxieties and social conventions should feel good about that.

4. Goodness does bring rewards and badness does get its come-uppance. For instance, a good financially comfortable person will be enjoying every aspect of his fortune, while his bad equally financially comfortable will be miserable, unappreciative and drinking himself to death. Also, actively living a good life maximises your health.

5. A life well-lived is full of challenges. The harder the challenge, the more you learn by working through it, even (or especially) if at the time it seems dark and impossible. Happiness comes from mental fitness, whereas avoiding challenges ultimately leads to mental and physical stress, boredom and unhappiness. The fitter you are, the harder your challenges need to be in order to get you fitter. Anyone can seek and find a challenge when they need one.

6. Theories are just theories. They can help you a lot, but real knowledge is in the nitty-gritty, often sub-verbal, detailed information that comes with experience. Of course, experiences are often misused and misinterpreted, and many experiences are dangerous and sub-optimal. But the less you act, the less it is possible to learn.

7. People can be incredibly stupid, wrong, arrogant, objectionable and irrational. Expecting anything more from a person without good reason is silly and doomed to failure.

8. People will dismiss your most heartfelt, deeply-held, principled convictions out of hand. They will condemn ideas they know little or nothing about. They will pick apart your morals on a whim, and assume that everything you spent your life learning is similarly just a whim, only an even lesser one. None of this matters. They are only damaging themselves- if your knowledge is good then it will serve you fine whatever they think or do.

9. Life is good.

10. Life in general is getting better, because we are making it better. Individual lives can always be improved, but only through the efforts of their owners.

rain and vampires

We are having a very very wet summer. Texas rain is not like English rain. Mount Olympus style thunderbolts and lightning (very very... um, forget that) are the norm rather than the exception, plus the raindrops are five times bigger and more plentiful. All this is good, because it means:

1. the temperature is less hot than normal, and
2. not having to water the lawn every single day or watch it bake to a crisp.

But it is still weird, because it's supposed to be summer, when nothing but blistering heat comes out of the sky, it is not supposed to be The Monsoon Season. Also there is also one annoying thing about the high-water relatively-low-temperature weather, which is:

1. more mosquitoes.

I still cannot get over the general idea of an near-invisible insect-vampire that temporarily anaesthetises you. Intelligent design, yes, and also evil.

No, I did not really mean that. Actually they are better than wasps, I just I wish there was some simple magic way to scare them off such as garlic, staking them through the heart with cocktail sticks is becoming exhausting. You can get expensive machines, I don't know what they do, fill the air-waves with terrifyingly loud noise at mosquito-frequency or something probably, but they are expensive. Maybe they'll start doing MP3s of them eventually. I don't suppose anyone has more tips? Oh well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


The school where I taught had very good facilities for the staff. There was a staff room full of desks, one per teacher, built in rows with shelf space above and below, in which one could work when not in the classroom. There was also a common room with comfortable chairs, where one could work from one's lap in more spread out fashion, but which was mostly used during morning break and the lunch hour for people to relax and chat over cups of coffee, everything punctuated by calls from outside that Annabel so-and-so wished to see Mrs so-and-so.

I used to sit in the smokers' corner, at the far end of this vast double-sized room, a privilege which disappeared not long after I left. Here I would drink my coffee, smoke and organise my lessons for the day from a big hard A4 folder on my lap. There were a couple of very senior members of staff who sat in the same area, and although I did not know them well it was an interesting place to sit. Also the geography was different to the more clique-oriented chair arrangements through the rest of the room, with people coming and going because of the smoking designation. Sometimes (non-smoking) friends would sit there and chat, but other times it was possible just to get on with some work and not have to be part of a group, which suited me fine.

One day a senior colleague nearby began talking to those around about her life story. She was a very unassuming, very lovely person whom everyone including the girls respected and liked, and this day, completely surprisingly, her photograph had been in a major national newspaper. This was because she was with someone more notable (but still not particularly notable, there wasn't much news around at the time) when they were pictured. I am changing all the details here because the conversation was relatively private, being among colleagues, and I wouldn't feel right about revealing her identity. I shall call her Margaret.

So, Margaret spoke about how she knew this papparazi-worthy person, from a very mundane connection, and this led onto something else and something else, and more and more people were being drawn into listening, because the life of which Margaret spoke was so far from the assumptions one would normally make about an ordinary-looking middle-aged schoolteacher. There were several marriages, one involving a conversion to Islam and one to a millionaire American businessman. The millionaire businessman was later on, and the marriage had collapsed as the financial empire grew. But the interesting one was the Islamic marriage.

Margaret had married her Islamic husband in England, but after a few years he decided to divorce her and at the same time return home to his country of birth. When he did this, he took her three small daughters with him. In his country divorced fathers always had ownership of the children, so there was nothing Margaret could do except accept the situation. However, this was all a long time ago, and since then her daughters had grown up and they had established a good ongoing relationship.

While they were growing up, the girls had not been allowed any contact with their mother, but Margaret said whenever she went on holiday, or just from time to time anyway, she would send them a postcard of where she was, with some writing on the back. She didn't know if they ever got these postcards, and never heard anything back, but it seemed like a good thing to do. Years later, Margaret was able to visit them in their home. I think this was when they were teenagers. She said it was a bit strange because they didn't really know her, but in their bedroom there was something surprising.

Every one of Margaret's postcards had been saved and stuck up on the wall. The entire collection was there, I don't remember how big it was but in my head there is a picture of hundreds of small pictures lined up in rows to make one huge diverse collage.

After that I expect the conversation turned to reminiscences about wedding arrangements, which was always a popular subject in our staffroom, as there was generally at least one younger female teacher getting married. Not many male teachers tend to work in girls' schools.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Long-time readers of this blog probably deserve to know that I no longer have legal residency (the new British term for custody) of my children.

I am sure that many of you will consider my position on this completely and even disturbingly wrong, but it is an absolute moral principle of mine that I refuse under any circumstances (other than child abuse) to enter a courtroom in order to fight over the possession of my children against their other parent. Aside from the fact that it would mean separation from my new husband, spending thousands I don't have, living back in my former home for months on end and who knows how much upset and stress for the children that doesn't bear thinking about, I just find the whole idea utterly, repulsively, wrong.

Anyone who thinks this means I do not care about my children, do not want them spending half the year (or more!) with me, am happy for them to go to school instead of homeschooling with me, or in any way tacitly condone the actions of those who have acted against me, could not be more wrong. The fact is that being able to look my children in the eye for the rest of our lives is more important to me than anything else, including how much time I spend with them while they are young, and that is my decision to make.

As well as refusing to fight in court, I also refuse to return to my former home in the UK as a condition of visitation. So I have no idea whether there will be any or not. It is shocking that other people can regard these principles of basic freedom as "neglecting the children", but they do. However, to compromise would be to support evil ideas. I cannot do it.

Being a non-residential mother, especially an unwilling one, is a kind of social tabboo. It's like being recently bereaved, or having cancer: everybody's worst fear, so they try to stay away from it. I am sure none of you will stop reading this blog just because you found out I have a lurgy, although if you think there is no higher good than fighting-for-ownership-of-your-kids-with-all-your-might, as is very much the secular cultural norm, you will obviously find my position immoral and possibly even unbearably pompous. Sorry about that and please feel free to leave.

Lastly, I can tell you that we are all fine and there is no need to worry. Nor is there any advice you can offer me. I am completely confident that, G-d willing, everything will ultimately be for the best. Truth always wins eventually, and evil always dies; it can take a while, but time is one thing I am not at all worried about, G-d willing again.

Comments closed for this post. You are welcome to email me at aliceintexas at hotmail dot com. If you email criticisms, I may not be nice but I will do my best to be sweet :)

Fear of food

I recognised what Mirty was talking about in this post:

I don’t completely understand it myself, but the fear was real. Perhaps because food is something you take into yourself: You are what you eat. I wanted to take in only what was pure and clean. A stick of celery, carefully rinsed. Lettuce, each leaf examined and washed. Perhaps it was the only control I felt I could have in my chaotic world.

Except for this part:

I never had this problem before, when I ate at home. Of course, I completely and implicitly trusted my mother’s cooking. I knew that the man from Baltimore brought the kosher meat and chicken and it was all stored in the downstairs freezer. I had watched my mother prepare our meals. At home, food was safe.

I've had a similar problem all my life, and it didn't start when I left home, it started when I was younger than I can remember. I would like to put it down to not being brought up in a kosher home, but that is somewhat implausible as an explanation, what with semi-protestant gentile families not actually being obliged to practice kashrut, and all that.

As I have got older, my diet has expanded, but as a child it was extremely limited indeed. So I am always interested in stories such as that of "jam sandwich boy", the British teenager who had rarely eaten anything but jam sandwiches throughout his life ("I just really really like jam sandwiches") and was found to be perfectly healthy as far as any doctor could tell. Then there is chocolate lady, a thirtysomething mother of three who was forced to eat food she hated as a child, and has eaten nothing but different kinds of chocolate bar and a bowl of mashed potato a day since she grew up and left home, and is also apparently healthy, and definitely not overweight.

I am not interested in judgements about whether such things are unnatural and dangerous. The truth is, nobody knows. We have perfectly reasonable theories about what a healthy diet should be like, based on perfectly good and tested theories, but that doesn't mean we can be sure that they apply with equal rigour to every individual. If your child has a limited diet, you are very likely right in thinking that a more varied one would be better. But if you force it, he could end up like chocolate lady anyway.

I love (good) food, and always have. But the food of 70s and 80s England that surrounded me when I was growing up was for the most part utterly dismal. I'm not surprised it repulsed me. Another thing worth noting is that plenty of babies and small children are resistant to solid food, and the way it is forced down their throats is very often unnecessary. As a culture we are completely neurotic about feeding babies. But that's a long subject for another time- although I would like to request that more people treat their tiny ones like the intelligent people they actually are, and respect their eating instincts and preferences, rather than trying to obliterate them and get stuff down at all costs. Taste is supposed to develop gradually. "I'll eat anything!" is not a badge of honour, it is a lack of discrimination.

Anyway, this fear of food is not all about being traumatised. You can have two different children brought up in exactly the same way, nursing on demand, late weaning and no pressure regarding solid food, and one will turn out to be an adevnturous gourmet eater and the other will be a completely conservative creature of habit who refuses to branch out in the smallest little direction for years. And maybe later on, they will swap roles, who knows.

I'm used to being an oddball in this area now. One thing that helped was noticing how incredibly resistant to new food apparently "normal" eaters can be. There are thousands who won't travel to a foreign country because they "don't like the food" which they have never even tried. I will find the things that look "safe", try those, and work outwards from there, anywhere I go. But it is definitely the things with unidentifiable ingredients that I won't go near, especially if they have a strong smell. No doubt such things are supposed to repulse babies, because they actually make sense- strong smells might be concealing up unhygienic contents, and a mixed-up stew could contain almost anything. Rats, spiders, stewed cabbage, who knows?! Anyway, babies and small children also have undeveloped digestive systems and it is very important to allow them to mature in their own time, so gourmet pheasant stew followed by truffled caviar may well not be the way to go with a one year old.

So I say, just how rational is it really to eat everything anyone who happens to be around decides to stick under your nose? Not very. On balance, I think I would rather have a healthy uncertainty about potentially unsafe food than fearlessly consume everything someone else thinks I should eat. Overeating, whether followed by weight-loss programs or not, seems to be the closest thing we have to a dietary norm in our culture, and I think this points towards a lack of discrimination: either an excess of high-calorie foods, or too much food all round (most likely either fat or carbohydrates) and neither of those options is objectively as enjoyable as a balanced diet that satisfies you perfectly.

Of course people use food to fill the "G-d-shaped hole". When desperately trying to fill a deep emotional void, they will use just about anything you care to mention- alchohol, television, work, other people, their stuffed bunny-rabbit collection. But you would think a person urgently in need of inner salvation and given a choice between ice-cream, cocaine or G-d, might more logically choose G-d, if only because the Torah is more likely to tell you how to live happily than the back of a choc-ice wrapper. I conclude that there is truly no accounting for people.

Monday, August 08, 2005

strange news of the day

What is the best way to celebrate discovering that you are Jewish? Tattoo some Jewish sacred text on your arm, of course. That's what David Beckham apparently did, on tracking down his birth mother's heritage recently.

I am trying to think of something else less appropriate. And failing. Maybe this story is just made up, it seems more unlikely than anything else I've heard for at least weeks...

From Hatshepsut.

another big homeschooling post

(Actually this post is so long you may want to save it for a rainy day. There's another new one down below it though. Here's a link, to save you half an hour of scrolling.)

I said something lately, can't remember where, about homeschooling not being the right choice for every family. Although my opinion of institutionalised schooling is not high, I would not have all schools or all government schools closed down tomorrow. School can be the best most valuable thing in a child's life, depending on the circumstances. It can be their only practical option for making progress in life. A good teacher can be the most inspiring, caring or helpful mentor in a child's life, and the school curriculum can offer the most exciting learning path a child has available. And depending on what other opportunities the child has for meeting people, the social life of school may be a treasured gift.

Merely taking children out of the classroom does not in itself provide them with better opportunities. Children are entirely dependent on adults to provide opportunities for them. They cannot leave home, get a job and run their own lives without support. There is no point in removing the limits on learning and growth that institutionalised education imposes if you are not in any case going to provide better opportunities for your children that even aproach those limits, never mind going beyond them. If you're going to home educate, you need to be able to provide something better than what the school has to offer; not necessarily in all specific areas, but definitely overall. You may feel, for example, that your child is not suited to learning literacy at the age of four. You may be right. But if he is also learning and enjoying English, art and science in the classroom, and you are not willing or capable to provide him with similarly productive activities from home, school may still be better for him.

Even the social skills children pick up at school may be better than the ones available at home, depending on what the parent has to offer. Kids can learn about the value of team-work, the importance of respecting others, non-violent communication, simple moral philosophy eg. from Bible stories or moral fables, in the classroom and the playground. Of course, they may also pick up the very opposite. It depends what they know already and what kind of knowledge they are looking for. But to argue that no school is better than the absence of school for any pupil is simply irrational. It should be obvious to the most vehemently passionate home educator that for many kids, school is as good as it is going to get. Removing your child and leaving him to his own devices alone in the house all day is obviously worse. Hanging around in the house all day with him while still leaving him to his own devices is also worse.

For home education to be better than school education, the parent must take an active and involved role in the child's educational and social life. If your children love learning, are highly motivated to set themselves challenges, and actively seek out and tackle new fields of knowledge with enthusiasm, you will be working hard trying to provide those new challenges. What do you do when all the textbooks in the library have been read? What if they need hands-on help with complicated chemistry experiments? You don't just give up and let their fascination with science die a death. You have to go a few extra miles than a teacher needs to: find a local expert interested in helping your child learn more, read up yourself on the subject, spend all night surfing the net for discussion groups and further research.

On the other hand, if your child is more passive, and needs help getting motivated, then you have to take an enormously active role in inspiring him about learning in general. Your enthusiasm will infect him too. An apathetic child will be quite happy to do things if someone else makes them happen. I do not think any child is born apathetic, but quite a few end up that way after a while for one reason or another. If you homeschool, then it is your job to turn things round. Life is full of fascinating and exciting things to learn and do, and you are the one who must demonstrate this to your children with your own energy, and get them excited about it too.

Either way, home educating is a lot of work, and the fact that good home educators enjoy this work does not make it anything other than work. Just taking your kids out of school does not immunise you against doing this work inadequately, even if you call it "unschooling". (There is unschooling and there is unschooling: totally individualised child-motivated learning can be fantastic for exceptionally mature and brilliant kids, total neglect is useless for any child.) At one end of the spectrum, there have been homeschoolers who sit their children down at a desk all day with breaks only for meals and chores, and basically threaten the kids into doing what they say. This is worse than school. At another end of the spectrum, there are unschoolers who apparently regard any activity a child chooses to do as inherently valuable, even if the child has lost all interest in challenging his own mind due to near total lack of anything interesting to do, and can only beat up his little brother or watch cartoons all day.

Of course, when schools fail kids, they fail them far worse. This fact is very important to bear in mind. Home educated children are not committing bullying-induced suicide every other week. Homeschooling the institution/ phenomenon is far better than state schooling, in my view.

However, both homeschooling parents and everyone else needs to understand that homeschooling is only better in the generalised sense, and that whether it is better for specific kids depends entirely on the specific family. They also need to understand what makes it better when it is better, that this is the actual educational life it offers to the child (obviously I don't just mean academically, I mean all round).

Now, the educational life of the child is very difficult to measure. Examinations only give you limited information about a child's knowledge and problem-solving abilities. School reports consider the dedication and general wellbeing of the child within the school environment too, but are also very limited. Home educating parents don't have control group comparisons consisting of their child in a school, by which to see how well they are doing. But I am not suggesting any of those things.

The main thing is simply that we need to be aware of the fact that just because something is difficult to measure, that does not mean it doesn't exist, or that we can safely assume we are doing well just because evidence is not either obvious or flawlessly presented. Home education can be very daunting, and parents often decide against it or limit their own enjoyment and success because they don't feel as confident as they should. Competing with big old institutions supported by most of your community can be daunting. However, I think if some people took the bull by the horns and developed a few better ideas for seeing how well we are actually doing, those who are doing fine but not feeling confident would feel better and more relaxed, which could only be a very good thing. And those for whom home education is not the best choice could send their kids to the best available school, and stop feeling guilty about it.

So here is my checklist of signs that your homeschooling is working:

1. Children will concentrate for extra-long periods on educationally demanding activities they enjoy, in entirely self-motivated way, and produce remarkable results for their age.

2. They will constantly ask lots of questions, and be seeking out new ideas institutionalised children tend not to seek out, again advanced compared to what you would regard as average for their age-group.

3. If you are doing your job well, they will enjoy trying out your new suggested activites/ fields of research.

4. They will turn mundane situations into learning activities. For example, while cooking a pancake a younger child might want to know the chemistry of how butter melts, what burns when, what hotness is, and so on. They don't just passively accept the world around them and their learning is not limited to "lessons".

5. Socially, they have a small circle of friends they are quite close to in the way normally associated with adults/ possibly teenagers. They get to know individuals well, don't just hang around in groups for the sake of activities or impressing peers. They are uninterested in impressing peers, and take pride in their own special talents and uniqueness. They have a kind of inner confidence that is very valuable, and they don't have any need to compete or impose their will on others in order to assert it.

6. They are polite and respectful to everyone, but especially polite and respectful to those they respect the most, which means their parents. Think about it: if they don't respect you any more than a local schoolteacher, then either you're not actually doing any better than the schoolteacher would or you're being taken for granted. If you're being taken for granted, then why would they get motivated about learning, if there's a convenient workhorse there to do everything for them?

7. If they are relatively "behind" average on some educational subjects, they are also far ahead in others, because the different is from specialised learning choices not overall growth.

8. Yes academic subjects do have some knowledge and meaning in them, and cannot be dismissed out of hand. But while thinking of areas of learning, consider also the following:

- sporting and physical prowess
- emotional maturity, ability to learn through adult-style conversation and solve difficult problems by thinking about and discussing them
- aesthetic sensibility- developing a good ear/eye for aesthetic meaning and beauty, creating original and interesting art work, having reasoned thoughtful ideas about different artistic genres, familiar appreciation of demanding genres such as ballet, classical music.
- practical life-skills like cooking, household management, DIY, all those useful things adults learn out of school which contribute to our quality of life. These often overlap with academic disciplines (science, chemistry, design technology), and tend to embody various kinds of learning mixed together, also they are inherently valuable. Many can be developed into careers later on.
- critical thinking skills. This does NOT mean being able to argue the toss about whatever first came into your head about the next-door-neighbour's cat. It is quite possible to be great at arguing like a dog with a bone in its mouth, without saying anything remotely enightening or reasonable. Signs of critical thinking skills are:
a) changes mind about things through considering them, admits previous mistakes and misapprehensions, entirely happy to do so,
b) develops new ideas over time that are often the opposite of the old ones
c) learns something in a discussion, and gives other people new things to consider as well
d) relaxed, unemotional, unloaded approach to learning- not defensive, aggressive, insecure or rude
e) follows through ideas, even when wrong, to find out exactly where they went wrong- doesn't just drop things when argument is "lost"- not arguing to win but to learn
f) open-minded, doesn't dismiss other people's ideas, however crazy or ludicrous they might seem, willing to learn about the bits that are valuable and which they don't know yet, for the sake of learning

There must be more, but this post has gone on too long. One thing though- all of the above apply to all ages of children. Children are inquisitive in all these areas from the day they are born. Our job is not to plant those qualities, but to keep them alive and help them grow. But it is possible to find the tiny surviving sprout in a disaffected child and start feeding it at any time. And it is possible for a child to thrive in school that way too. I am sure I can think of at least one wonderful girl I had the privilege to work with when I was teaching who had the most enormous love of learning, incredible insight and was a thoroughly lovely person all round to boot. She was fairly quiet and most popular in her small group of like-minded friends, just as her home educated peers would have been, and not at all the prom-queen type. Some of the aspirations offered by educational institutions really are very bad indeed.

an insect lesson

There are now two mosquito-proof tents in my back garden. One to enjoy the garden without being bitten to death, and the other to let the grass in the first one recover. Tent mark two went up fine yesterday, and was working really well until we went out there after dark and found it was full of little beetley insects that had apparently come from nowhere. They had probably slept in the ground all day, then woken up in the evening and attached themselves to the inside of the tent trying to get out. Unlike mosquitoes, they were very polite and well-behaved insects, and they were lined up in neat rows along the top edge of the net-windows, and gathered in small groups round the ceiling air-vents. They made no fuss, and when we came back a bit later to try and get them out, they plopped quite calmly into a big plastic cup and agreed to be deposited outside on the grass.

I don't know what they were, but that's my kind of insect. It is very encouraging that not all insects go about biting you a few times under false anaesthetic then running away before you notice the great itchy lump growing on your leg. It is also notable that even insects can line up in an orderly fashion and wait for further instructions. One might explain this as mere dumbness, but does panicking and being aggressive denote intelligence in moths, flies and mosquitoes? I do not think so.

I have been watching various animals out there. We have a resident comedy-squirrel who does daredevil tricks in the trees and sometimes naps draped over a branch with all four legs dangling. There are a lot of cicadas, I've been collecting their old shells. There was a huge butterfly flapping around near tent one last week, with some kind of military airplane pattern on its back. And I've been meaning to look up what the red birds are. There are two, one is brighter than the other. All the animals like figs anyway, they've been helping themselves liberally to the tree. I wonder if the walnuts will be next.

Friday, August 05, 2005


I' m temporarily closing down new comments on posts below while sorting out a technical problem. Hopefully back to normal soon.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Quote of the day

I'm not telepathic, so I really don't know - or care - what Bush's motives are. -Amritas

dealing with difficult people

Sharon's comment below on dealing with a certain kind of person critical of homeschooling reminded me of a useful tip I once got from one of those "How to be successful" books you find in thrift/ charity store/ shops. First of all, you have to be able to identify the difference between a person seeking an honest debate and a person trying to force their idea on you. The first kind will be interesting to talk to, one of you will learn something and most importantly neither of you will have an axe to grind, you will both be perfectly happy whether or not you "win" the debate, and aware of this right through it.

The second kind is persistent, repetitive, and makes you feel exasperated, cornered, unable to leave without overstepping your own boundaries of politeness, or sometimes flat-out bullied. If you identify that they are talking at you and not taking your ideas seriously early on, the best thing is to end the interaction. The way to do this is to be clear, firm, friendly and smile broadly. You can't do it just by saying you want the conversation to end, however. You have to communicate two different things effectively, by enacting as well as referring to them:

1) your position is different than theirs,
2) you are entirely comfortable with that fact,

To communicate and enact them you do this:

1) state your difference as clearly and concisely as possible.

Don't state your position, just the difference. Slight inaccuracy due to the restrictions of summarising is not a problem. Don't aim for watertight argument- you're not trying to convince or win a debate, just stating difference. Directly contradicting achieves this perfectly: "No, I don't want to buy cable TV," "Actually homeschooling provides more diversity," "No, children make fewer real friends at school than homeschooling," or whatever. It doesn't matter if you can't back-up your argument flawlessly: the idea here is to disengage from argument.

2) Smile, say nothing more, do not respond to scepticism or further attacks. If your interlocutor continues ranting, occasionally repeat what you said in 1) above. Each time you repeat it, so so more quietly and disinterestedly, until the dynamic of the interaction has wound down to nothing and the other person loses interest in it.

The only thing that can hijack you here is questions. The success book I mentioned didn't say anything about those. However, the ranting person will ask a particular kind of question that is more of a demand for attention and engagement than an inquiry into your ideas. They will often ask things that don't make much sense and puzzle you if you stop to think about them, because their questions are based on false assumptions.

dealing with questions:

1) don't say anything- often they will wait two seconds and then go onto something else anyway,
2) say you don't know, or don't understand the question (and repeat in the style of 2 above until they lose interest)
3) "Hmmm, I'll have to think about that".

But many questions are just disguised statements, so you can just contradict as in 1) above, "What about all the sports she will miss out on?" "No, we do lots of sports," or "we do far more of everything than schools can," or restate your underlying position: "We feel homeschooling is the best choice."

It can be tiresome dealing with these situations, but it is only to be expected, and these days far more people are positive and encouraging than ever before, which usually outweighs the negatives, as Sharon said. Of course, what one would like to say is, "It's none of your business how I choose to bring up my children," or, "While we're setting each other straight here, how dare you wear such a disgusting lime-green hat, Mrs Jones? Don't you realise its ugliness impacts on the spiritual wellbeing of us all?" But, you know. One has to set a good example.

divorce ethics I: whether, when and how

As I always say, divorce is neither good nor bad. It's like chemotherapy. You wouldn't do it for fun, but sometimes it is necessary. Our ability to recognise that things are so far gone that only divorce will save the patients is in a pretty dire state these days, but this incredibly important issue falls right down by the wayside, because we've been having the wrong debate since about the beginning of Christianity, namely, "Divorce- yes or no?" This is the "whether" debate. But generalisations like that cannot be ruthlessly applied to the infinitely variable relationships that can exist between two people. Like most kinds of agreement, marriages can be perverted and abused by one party at the expense of the other, and anyone with an ounce of humanity should at a bare minimum allow the victims in such cases to get out. A blanket yes/no argument does not deal with the reality of human life.

Jewish law is very clear about this reality; there are certain circumstances under which divorce, like abortion, is actually mandated. This removes responsibility from the victim for their own victimhood, in a way that is impossible under Western law. Here, you have to take it upon yourself to divorce someone, and it can be a very difficult battle. Jewish law also sets out in some detail what kinds of settlements should be made after divorce, which removes a great deal of the potential for vicious conflict during and after the divorce. However, I'm not going to discuss Jewish abortion or divorce laws here, because I am not knowledgeable enough and do not wish to open up discussion on either subject. What I want to point out is that the yes/no debate is meaningless, and distracts us from the real issues which are when and how, and that other systems than the modern West do actually acknowledge and try to get to grips with those issues. Whereas we have few good standards and very limited knowledge on those things, because we are too busy wondering yes/no and crossing our fingers in the hope that it won't happen to us (or sitting in our marital towers looking down on those lesser mortals who didn't get such a good spouse). And this is a serious problem which needs remedying.

When and how. Is there any way we can develop a realistic and humane understanding of when divorce should occur, for ourselves and our children, and to help us better support those around us in the midst of bad marriages and bad marital breakdowns? Can reasonable general rules about what should happen after divorce ever be established, and how would they be applied and cultivated?

The system of the West is currently based on adversarial debate. People are motivated to improve their ideas in order to win battles. For example, fathers who were not winning custody (now called residency in the UK) developed the idea of shared custody, which had more chance of success. At the same time there have been moves by the authorities to encourage mediation before legal contests, an improvement no doubt designed to limit the time-wasting pointless mud-slinging and emoting that has dominated family courts for years. Adversarial court proceedings are all those things, and also extremely destructive to the individuals concerned and any future working relationship they may need to have for the sake of their children. They are a brutal kind of chemotherapy when a more humane one would work better, the people administering it are exploiting us for thousands of dollars worth of medicine (and we seem often to want that- which doesn't mean the doctors should be allowed to give it to us!) and we should certainly not be relying on this whole thing as the system which will lead to improvements for the future! We can do better.

But we will continue to do sub-optimally as long as we stay stuck in the yes/no divorce debate. Yeses are in no position to help, and nos actually like the difficulties and regard them as necessary deterrents. Divorce is never actually going to be easy, because it is not just a matter of filling in some forms and walking away with everything you regard as rightly yours. "Just walking away" from the bed you made and surely ought to lie in forever, then, often means leaving behind many things that you care about and value. Actually, nobody is entitled to stay in bed forever: we do things, sometimes we fail, we clear up the damage as best we can, take note of the lessons, do our best to help others involved in the disaster, and go and start in a new place with a hammer and a few planks of wood. That's more what life is about than clinging forever to Titanic wrecks. But the difficulties of divorce are not about whether you can file right now or not. They are all about what happens after that. The ease of divorce we tend to discuss is the ease of being legally allowed to do it: but diagnosis is only the start of the unpleasant treatment that actually constitutes divorce.

Giving chemotherapy on demand to drug-addicts would be as unethical as punishing cancer patients for having treatment. Both causes unwittingly fail to notice the real obligations on which their judgements should be based. The first, in denial about the need for informed expert diagnosis, in practice enables healthy people to kill themselves. The second, in denial about the existence and dangers of cancer, used to kill sick people when it had the upper hand, and now attacks people in their hospital beds for trying to recover. Both are stuck on whether. Neither has got to when, never mind how.

I will come to those in my next post.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


I have been suffering for the past week or so, with the kind of persistent and recurring illness that one needs to tackle partly by removing all stressful factors from one's life and building up health in general. It's a bit annoying because a couple of months ago I managed to knock my allergies on the head, partly by research and effort and partly by miraculous intervention, and had been thinking that my health was now extremely optimum. But clearly there is more to be done before I reach total George Bush levels of fitness. (I have no words of disdain strong enough for those recent claims regarding the president's obesity- ignoring the evidence of common sense and simple eyesight in favour of ludicrous pseudo-scientific poppycock should not be the business of news stations. But then I think most of us have given up expecting the media to be sane.)

Anyway, all of the above is good, because it means if anyone asks me to do something stressful now, such as, stand on my head for eight hours or something, I will be absolutely obliged to refuse even to discuss it, for the sake of my long-term bodily wellbeing. I'm not going to stop blogging because it is a good distraction from physical discomfort. And now it is time to put mosquito-proof tent number two up in the back garden. We've been having a very rainy summer, it saves on sprinkling the lawn but I think it encourages the little nasty ones.

on going home

When I left England, some people asked when I would be going back. I don't know, I said, thinking it seemed a bit premature to be thinking about such things. I was more concerned with how on earth to get the suitcases to the airport with no car than the unimaginably distant possibility of a return visit. Because, I'm not coming to visit you over there, they said. Charming! If I'd had this conversation once it would seem within the range of normal, but I kid you not, the exact same conversation occurred on at least three or four occasions. Anti-Americanism is my best explanation.

At the moment, it's practically impossible anyway. If I got on a plane tomorrow, I would be going right back to the beginning of the visa process that has taken eight months and several thousand dollars so far. We are waiting for a letter from the tax office, which does not seem especially motivated about such things, before filing yet another set of forms. After that, I don't know. More forms, probably. But at least I am actually here now. And I even have an ID card! Most people use their driver's license, which also has a photo on it, but I don't drive. You need photo ID everywhere you go. I don't understand anymore what the fuss is about in the UK on ID cards, it's far worse here. But no, doesn't bother me at all, unless I leave my card at home and can't get a margarita.

Anyway, the suitcases did make it with us, somehow, and now I have been here a while and amazingly I still have no inclination to think about going back. It even (shrink in horror at my desecration of the god of social convention!) occurred to me that I might not ever go back!! (Two exclamation marks fail utterly to do justice to the sheer selfish evil of the very thought!)

So it looks like if any of my British friends or relatives want to see me in the forseeable future at least, they are going to have to suffer after all the dreadful experience of sitting on a plane being waited on hand and foot all day, followed by landing in the horrible Texas sunshine and having a boring deprived holiday not enjoying everything wonderful this place has to offer. Tragic yes, but could be worse- think of all the children starving in Ethiopia! as my generation was brought up bizarrely being told all the time. Did I tell you about our primary school lecture about the ethiopians ever?

horror stories

Not ever so long ago, I was informed by a person who shall remain nameless that children are better off at school "because then they can make some friends". This was after quite a lot of years of home-educating, and the person concerned had actually known my family for the whole time. Of course I explained that making friends was no problem at all, gave a brief outline of the social situation at the time, etc etc.

The problem with people like this is, they then just shift the argument. If I recall rightly, something like, "but it's not the same as friends you make at school- school friends share a unique experience which makes their bond unmatchable!" Something like that. But more implicit. Because saying it explicitly would sound ridiculous, obviously.

So even if I had memorised this (found on Wikipedia) it wouldn't have made any difference:

ERIC, the Education Resources Information Center of the U.S. government, has published multiple articles on homeschooling. Here's an excerpt from one which examined several studies on homeschool socialization:
"According to the findings, children who were schooled at home 'gained the necessary skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to function in a rate similar to that of conventionally schooled children.'
"The researcher found no difference in the self concept of children in the two groups. Stough maintains that 'insofar as self concept is a reflector of socialization, it would appear that few home-schooled children are socially deprived, and that there may be sufficient evidence to indicate that some home-schooled children have a higher self concept than conventionally schooled children.'"

Sometimes people just do have half-baked ideas they don't feel like thinking about properly, and they try to force them on others when they feel like they can get away with it, because that just makes them feel better. It's a common phenomenon that occurs whenever a person does anything out of the norm, which challenges people's preconceptions (uncomfortable) and threatens their existing frameworks for making moral judgements. People cling like limpets to their frameworks, because it helps them avoid dealing with difficult issues and often personal or emotional problems.

When you home educate, you get used to this sort of thing and learn to stay away from it. However, when big changes like divorce occur and things are temporarily up in the air, people see an opportunity to stir and steer things in their own direction. It's a sort of unconscious instinct, they don't actually know that's what they're doing most of the time, but, it happens. On the other hand, it sorts the sheep from the goats, so to speak. I can't honestly say that I feel great about having discovered in the past year exactly what various people really thought of me and how I'd been spending my life, but in general truth is good, so hopefully the knowledge will somehow prove useful eventually. In the meantime, should one initiate communication after such events, or merely appreciate the stony and/or embarrassed silence?

Anyway, my advice to people who know someone who is getting divorced is this: offer help, but refrain from the personal and moral judgement. Telling someone where their kids should live and who with, how they should be educated, what they are doing wrong and how they have been going wrong for the previous decade is not a good idea. It's also not a good idea to complain behind people's backs about what you see as their catalogue of irresponsible failures. None of those things help your case, and when the dust has settled you might find that seizing on what looked like a free-for-all has left you embarrassed, compromised and cut off from people who still matter.

It's shameful that adults still act like this, really. What any kids overhearing such behaviour are going to make of it in years to come one can only shudderingly imagine.

P.S. On the subject of school friends being the best most unique kind, how many of your schoolfriends do you still know? Were you able to make friends from different environments than school, as a child- and was there any difference, in your view? I imagine the main factor is that most kids spend more time with their school friends than any others.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

stuff for kids

Jeremy Clarkson, capitalist British folk-hero, in the Sunday Times on how children don't want toys:

Today’s children have outgrown what you and I would classify as a toy by the time they are five. And before that, as you know, they’d be quite happy to receive an empty cardboard box just so long as it was covered in pretty paper... it is only nostalgic parents that are keeping the toy market alive, endlessly buying their kids stuff they don’t want.

The main reason he gives for this childhood ennui is that kids are constantly being given huge quantities of stuff, and work their way through toy-ness extra fast these days. In my experience he is right. It's a difficult problem for parents to control, too, even when they aren't part of it. How do you tell all those well-meaning friends and relatives not to shower your little cherubs with fifty different kinds of unwanted garbage throughout the year? Don't ask me, I've never done any such thing. Anyway, it usually is the parents, as Clarkson says.

Unwanted gifts aren't a favour, they're annoying. If your husband bought you a brand new item of clothing from the Marks and Spencers Polyester Editions range every day, you wouldn't be grateful. There is only so much plastic a child can enjoy before their optic nerves start filtering out any kind of smooth surface altogether. The way to give a child an appropriate gift is to find out what they really like and are interested in. If they don't really like anything especially much, something's gone wrong already. I don't know, read a parenting manual or something. Usually there is, if enough a) consultation, and b) thought, has gone into identifying it.

Obviously I am also assuming some degree of reasonable judgement here on the part of the adult. More Clarkson:

My eldest breezed into the kitchen the other day and momentarily removed her iPod from her ears to announce that she’d saved up £15. “Is that enough to buy a car?” she asked. “Of course not,” I replied scornfully. But you know what? If all she wants is an old banger, it is.

Some old favourites will always work for children. But kids only need one bicycle, and the competition to be the first one to buy it that goes on these days is unsightly, and results in premature purchasing. Three year olds do not need mini-mountain bikes. They may barely be able to cope with a woolly sheep on wheels. I think a bit of imagination is in order, however. An old banger (note to Americans: Mr Clarkson is talking about a very old automobile, not a sausage, which can also be called a banger), if you have lots of private land and good car-maintenance skills as he does, is a pretty cool idea. Here are my ideas for things to give kids that might actually be appreciated. If not, just don't bother. (I made them up, have only done less than half so far myself)

1. trip to a really good museum
2. weekend camping in a tent, kids love camping
3. huge block of ice (I don't know, try the yellow pages, borrow a big chest freezer) to carve (for fun, not great art!)
4. second-hand ping pong table (for the garden, fold down and cover with plastic for the winter)
5. teach them a skill- embroidery, knitting, whatever (yourself)
6. really old record player, with fun old vinyl discs (wow!)
7. old black and white movies
8. trip to the ballet
9. seeds to plant plus ongoing lessons on looking after them
10. sit down and eat with them every evening, find out their concerns, listen to them.

Any more ideas? The idea is to be creative instead of just spending a fortune on things that are really aimed at your own Inner Child instead of the actual kids, which is a missed opportunity, wasteful and also very rude.