Artist Boy, evolving

My son Artist Boy, now 14 years old, was… I don’t want to say difficult, exactly… but he was a complicated toddler. For one thing, he didn’t play with toys. (Being a new mom, I blamed the toys: Don’t these companies do research? Can’t they figure out how to make toys that kids will actually like? It was only after my daughter came along that I realized my error, ha ha.) He didn’t play with toys, and he didn’t play “let’s pretend” either. It was hard to know what to do with him, and it was nearly impossible to get him to play by himself for more than a few minutes at a time.

And then one morning he woke up and discovered he could draw. It really did happen practically overnight, and the change in him was absolutely dramatic. Once he discovered this outlet, he turned into a calm, happy kid who could keep himself occupied not just for minutes but for hours on end. In fact, he needed to draw. I can recall occasions when he saw something really fascinating, for example an exhibit at a “hands-on” children’s science museum, and was visibly distressed until he could get home and draw what he’d seen.

His drawing had a curious quality to it. Oh, the drawings themselves were just fine — he comes by his fine motor skill and spatial awareness quite honestly, from Hubs’s family, which is thickly sprinkled with architects, carpenters, potters, artists, engineers and inventors — but his drawing always seemed to fill a cognitive, not artistic, need. When he drew that science exhibit, he wasn’t just making an artistic rendition. He was taking that exhibit apart and putting it back together again. And when he was done, he understood it. Drawing, for him, was a means to an end. What he craved was the understanding, and he achieved it by re-creating his world on paper.

As he’s gotten older his need to draw has dissipated to a large extent. But he hasn’t stopped re-creating the world on paper. First it was architecture. He scoured the library and bookstores for books of houseplans, bought pads and pads of graph paper, and spent hours designing houses. His architect cousin, delighted, sent him a heavy-duty professional-grade tape measure and suggested that he practice with it by drawing the blueprints of our own house. Artist Boy didn’t follow through with that. He had absolutely no interest in rendering an existing house. No, his way of learning was to design his own. Once it was down on paper, he was done.

Eventually there came a time when he was done with architecture, simply done with it, and he moved on to Dungeons & Dragons. Here too he was more interested in creating campaign settings than actually playing the game. He rolled up sheets and sheets of characters, spent hours designing terrain (learning quite a bit about geography in the process) and creating towns, cities, and cultures. He did this with the same obsessive quality that characterized the drawing and the architecture.

His current obsession is language. About a year ago he stumbled across a website called The Language Construction Kit and he was instantly hooked on conlangs. Conlangs are constructed languages, like Klingon. So now Artist Boy is essentially taking apart language and re-creating it on paper. I’m not sure he himself sees the similarity between this and his previous interests but to me it is clear as day. And holy cow he has learned so much! Not just grammar but also orthography, phonology, and even the anatomy of the mouth and throat. He is totally fluent with the International Phonetic Alphabet. He also devours books about linguistics and existing languages, and next year when he starts high school he is planning to skip first year Latin because he already knows about moods and cases and tenses and declensions and whatnot. I’m sure he will do just fine.

— — —

In writing this, I feel like I am bragging about how smart is my son. I don’t mean to come across this way. Actually, he has been driving me crazy lately and I thought it might help to remind myself of what a cool and interesting kid he is. Because in addition to being cool and interesting, he is arrogant, selfish, mean to his younger siblings, and occasionally dishonest. In other words, he is a normal fourteen-year-old boy. Argh!

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Violin update

The other day Bookworm Girl commented that the “most advanced” student in her group class is this one girl who is actually two books behind all the others. But this girl plays beautifully, with great attention to detail, gorgeous tone, perfect posture, and wonderful musical expression.

The thing is, if you simply judge by “which piece,” it’s actually Bookworm Girl herself who is the “most advanced” in the group. I am so impressed by my daughter’s humble and generous spirit, not to mention how she gets it that it doesn’t matter how fast you progress through the books, and that it’s better to play a simple piece beautifully than a hard one sloppily.

Bouncy Boy, on the other hand, doesn’t get it at all! He is always talking about where he is in relation to his group, and wanting to be the farthest along and so forth. That’s okay, though. I know he’ll get over it eventually. I didn’t start out with BG’s attitude either. :-)

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Bouncy Boy’s practice sessions have been going very well lately. We had one setback, a couple of weeks ago. He was sick for two days and didn’t practice — literally the first days he missed since he started lessons in September — and it took another day or so for him to get back in the groove. I have to be super consistent with him. We practice at the same time (to the minute!) every day and if there is going to be any change in the routine I have to tell him well in advance. As long as I am that careful, he does great.

A while back I said that the magic number for Bouncy Boy is three. If I ask him to do any more than three repetitions he melts down. It’s funny because in the course of a single practice session he often ends up doing five or ten or even more reps, and he can do it just fine. I just can’t ask him to do that much at once. I have to break it down into tiny pieces so that he doesn’t realize what he’s doing. This is very true to the Suzuki philosophy, by the way. One of my favorite Suzuki quotes is: “if at first you don’t succeed, never do it again.” Eh??? What that means, though, is if you ask a child to do something and it turns out they can’t do it, don’t keep asking. Instead, break it down into smaller steps. That way, not only will they get it, but they’ll feel a sense of accomplishment instead of frustration.

In that spirit, I have now decided that the magic number is one, not three. I give him just one tiny task, for example, to play one Twinkle while keeping his scroll up the entire time. If the notes or bowings are wrong, so be it. All he has to do is keep that scroll up. One time. But if the scroll doesn’t stay up, it doesn’t count. Then the next task might be to play that same Twinkle with all correct bowings. If he doesn’t keep the scroll up, so be it. And voilĂ ! He has now played Twinkle twice! Best of all, he almost always succeeds on the first try. His focus is increasing daily, he’s making good progress, and he is so proud of himself.

This Suzuki thing. It’s so good for what ails you.

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What’s stewing

Some odds and ends…

Blog design

Not using Typekit any more. May come back to it. Could not get past the issues I described earlier. On a related note, have you checked out the new theme, monochrome? It is gorgeous. Comes with cool theme options, too. I am trying hard to resist the temptation to switch. I did try it out on my old blog. I do think it’s a bit chilly looking, though. Certainly not as warm and friendly as Cutline anyway, and it doesn’t have the customizable header. Still, it’s very well done.

For all you caveman wannabees

Ok, this is goofy, but I must confess I’m sorta tempted. I came across this website that sells things like a Basic Flintknapping Kit (“The essential tools and enough stone to get started”), a Great Plains Indian Style Arrow Kit (“A beginners course in arrow-making”) and a Deluxe Flint and Steel Firemaking Kit (“Flint and Steel Firemaking Kit with large striker, tin and supplies”). I wonder who their target audience is. Off-the-grid survivalists? Anthropologists? Fans of *ahem* Clan of the Cave Bear?

Reading history

Wow, Howard Zinn died this week. I love that guy! I posted something about him on my facebook, and discovered that one of my cousins has, um, very different political views from mine. Who knew? However, we have begun an interesting (and respectful) discussion about The People’s History of the United States which he is currently reading, and which I read half of, years ago, and as of last evening, am re-reading. I give my cuz a TON of credit for reading the book and wanting to understand a viewpoint so antithetical to his own. Funny, too. I am the oldest cousin on that side of the family and even though he is (finally) married, gainfully employed, and expecting his first child, I still think of him as one of the little kids. Never thought we’d be debating history and politics. Very cool.

On hold

I just paid off my fines ($24) and now I can use the library again! I put holds on two books: The Fifth Servant, a mystery set in sixteenth century Prague, which is one of my favorite settings for historical fiction; and Can You Forgive Her because I’ve been meaning to try Anthony Trollope for years.

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Man, I wish I’d thought of this myself

Helvetica-shaped cookies

I mean, the documentary was pretty awesome, but cookie cutters? Sheer genius! The designer is Beverly Hsu.

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Scratch paper

Artist Boy began drawing, seriously drawing, obsessively drawing, when he was not quite four years old. If he had been a musical prodigy we would have given him lessons. If he had been a budding athlete we would have signed him up for soccer. But there’s not much you can do to support a kid who just wants to draw all day long. The one thing we could do is simply make sure he never ran out of paper and pens. We bought reams and reams of copy paper — legal size, which he always used landscape-oriented, like a widescreen tv — and never hassled him about using both sides or not wasting it.

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When I was a kid, we drew on “scratch paper.” My dad brought it home from work. The paper came stapled together, several sheets per booklet, with typewritten or mimeographed text on the back. We thought it was normal for art paper to have text on the back, and it always seemed perfectly proper to have the staple in the upper right corner. Whenever we ran low, we’d ask Dad to bring home more scratch paper, and very soon we’d have another teetering stack of the stuff in our art cupboard.

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized the recto was actually the verso and started reading the “backs” of our scratch paper booklets, but I’m sure I was still in elementary school when I discovered that they were well worth reading. My dad is a professor of clinical psychology, see, and this was back in the day when Freud was still considered one of the cool kids. I was gobbling up Rorschach and TAT responses, case histories, student papers and exams, drafts of his own work, and getting with it a heady dose of Oedipal conflict, dream interpretation, and neurotic drama. Totally age-inappropriate, of course, and I’m sure I never told Dad I was reading it. :-)

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Reading: The Blue Cat of Castle Town

The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate CoblentzSo I mentioned the other day that one of Hubby’s random picks from the library was a book called The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate Coblentz. Ever heard of her, or the book? Me neither.

This book has an interesting back story. The author wrote it in the 1940s after making a visit to a Castleton, Vermont, where she learned some early nineteenth-century local history. She learned about the carpenter who built a church altar at great personal expense; the pewterer whose teapots were true works of art; the weaver who made a rug with a picture of a blue cat on it, a rug which is now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And she started wondering about those people, and especially about the blue cat. And she wove a story out of these disparate elements.

Now I have to say, the story feels like it was woven out of disparate elements. It doesn’t hang together well. It doesn’t have a tight plot: it’s episodic, there’s not a lot of action, and the separate characters don’t really interact with each other. The only thing that ties them together at all is the blue cat, who encounters them one by one. But that is okay, because the point of the story isn’t to create suspense. The point is to create a mood, a feeling, a sense of time and place. And that it does, in spades! The author was also a poet, and that comes through loud and clear. The story is one big prose poem. Here’s a taste:

He meant to listen very carefully. But the voice of the river was gentle and slow. The cat settled down and closed his eyes so the light of the blue moon on the waters should not distract him. And almost at once he began to sink deeper and deeper into the dark velvet softness of a kitten’s sleep.

But the river was too busy telling its secrets to notice.


The story does feel dated. The religious overtones are not subtle, and it’s quite preachy in an old-fashioned “well begun is half done” and “idle hands are the devil’s playground” kind of way. And you get things like the mother cat cuffing her kitten because she’s feeling “cross,” which the author mentions off-handedly, in a manner that would not go over well today. These things, though, I can live with. When a book reads like a big prose poem I can forgive a lot. I’m not a big reader of children’s books, and I am especially not a big reader of children’s books that feature talking animals, but I must admit I’m intrigued by this writer. She wrote several other books, including historical fiction about a group of pilgrims. I’ll be on the lookout.

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What’s stewing

a yummy bowl of beef stew

I know what you’re thinking: enough already with the stupid burgoo metaphor! Well, here’s what’s stewing in my brain today:

OMG, Avatar was AWESOME!!!

So much in life depends on your expectations. God knows this is true in parenting, and plenty other things as well. Hubs and I finally saw the movie Avatar and I LOVED IT!!! I want to see it again, IN THE THEATER, even at ten bucks a ticket. And I want Artist Boy and Bookworm Girl to see it too so we can talk about it. The thing is, I had absolutely no expectations at all for this movie. I am totally clueless about Hollywood these days. We don’t have TV at our house, I don’t read or listen to entertainment news, and I’ve never even heard of most of the magazine-cover celebs. All I knew about Avatar was that it was a special effects extravaganza. I hadn’t seen a preview, hadn’t heard a plot synopsis, didn’t even know if it was live action or animated. So in addition to the story unfolding for me brand-new, I had the fun of wondering if all the allusions to Aliens were deliberate, and then at the end discovering the movie was directed by James Cameron. Hoo boy, it was good!

So, now that I’ve told you this, you’ll go see it with really high expectations and of course the movie won’t live up to them, and you’ll hate it. Oh well.

Random picks from the library

And I mean random. I love it when Hubs takes the kids to the library. They do their own thing while he cruises the aisles in the youth department and grabs whatever catches his eye. Once he came home with a non-fiction book about the history of the flavors chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Kid you not.

I don’t do this. Like I said before, I’m a methodical, linear, left-brain thinker. I stick to the list. When grocery shopping this is a good thing, because I spend way less than Hubby and we actually USE the groceries I bring home. But at the library, random is better.

So right now I’m reading an obscure children’s book called The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate Coblentz and it is delicious! The Amazon listing has it wrong; this is not a book for babies and preschoolers. It reads quite well at an adult level, in fact. I’ll tell you more about it when I finish it. Thanks, Hubs!

Sriracha Sauce

East meets West in Daxie’s kitchen

SOMEone in my family *cough* artistboy *cough* thought it would be perfectly fine to eat up the leftover tamales and salsa while leaving the leftover beans and rice untouched. So it fell upon me to dispose of the beans and rice. The beans and rice were not particularly flavorful on their own, since our local tamale shop naturally expects them to be eaten together with the tamales and salsa. So I added a few squirts of Thai sriracha sauce to the Salvadorean rice and beans. It was pretty tasty, too.

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