Monday, January 26, 2009

Reading To My Grandsons

In every room of my house, there are books - even in the bathroom. Reading is a habit I developed as a young child when I first learned to understand the letters grouped together on the page. It is a habit I passed on to my children, and they have done the same to theirs. As a family, we are always sharing the latest find from the library or bookstore that we want someone else to experience. And I always give books as gifts at Christmas. I love the time spent carefully choosing a volume for each recipient.

From the time my grandsons were old enough to sit up, I have read to them. My daughter's sons, now 13 and nearly 12, still ask me to do it. In the last couple of years, the books I've read have been from the Harry Potter series. It is a ritual whenever they visit that I read a chapter or two as they listen while playing individual games of solitaire. Their cries of "Let's read some Harry!" have become a mantra when I ask what they want to do. Their own rooms contain shelves of favorite books, and they are always eager to tell me about what they are currently reading.

My youngest grandson just turned 2, and books are a major part of his day. He will stop playing with toys to be read to, he wants a story before his nap, and several before bedtime. The shelves of his room are filled with books from his father's childhood that I've passed on, as well as new ones he's received. As I read, he will sometimes interrupt, pointing to pictures to ask, "Dat?" (his word for "what's that?"), and sometimes he is more interested in turning pages than listening to the story, but we both enjoy it anyway.

It makes me happy to have passed on this love of reading to my grandsons. I've always said that I don't completely trust people who don't read, who have no books in their homes. I cannot imagine going through a day without a book in my hand at some point. And reading to Alex, Christopher and Fletcher is a joyful memory that I will cherish when they are all grown and off on their own. I still remember reading to their parents when they were young and nothing makes me happier than to carry on the family tradition.

In a world where too many habits of our day are ruled by electronic devices, and everyone seems to be in a hurry, it is comforting to me to have those moments when the only sound is my voice reading aloud. It is then that I glimpse the faces of the children as they absorb the words and, I know, enrich their souls with them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Writer Vs. Nonexistent Service

No posts have been made on my blog in over a week. To say this is frustrating for me is a gross understatement. Trust me when I say that it wasn't my idea to ignore this important part of my writing life. I was ambushed by the company that services my internet. And therein lies my tale for today.

The cable company who supplies my phone and internet have been playing an infuriating game with my husband and I for almost three weeks. Our first complaint about connection problems was in the first week of the month. We would have intermittent phone reception; we could hear the caller but they couldn't hear us. More upsetting was the time spent trying to get connected, or stay connected, to the internet while working. When service disappeared completely a week ago (after numerous service calls and examples of "passing the buck" had been experienced), our mobile phones began to maximize their minutes as we spent more time than was prudent voicing our frustrations. Finally, this afternoon, we had a technician here to replace the outside connection that we had requested from the time of our first call to the company.

I now understand why many writers, both past and present, have preferred old fashioned pen and paper to create their work. As I noted last week, technology can be a wonderful thing - when it works. Relying on a connection to the outside world in order to function can be the most irritating exercise imaginable!

More than the time wasted unable to post blogs, research articles, or receive and answer e-mail correspondence, is the time I spent annoyed with a so-called service provider that is supposed to promptly and courteously hande any issues I have with them. It has become the rule rather than the exception for consumers to complain that "no one cares". I certainly pay enough to them to expect good treatment and fast service. Trying to stay positive during this recent wrangling was impossible. The unending time and conversation spent to rectify what seemed to me a simple fix - and I'm certainly not electronic savvy - was brought about because my provider refused to do their job. And I sat here with a blank screen, powerless (excuse the pun) to get results.

I'm certain that anyone reading this could share a similar story. My question is: why do we have to suffer like this? Who do we go to in order to get things to change with regard to the service industry we used to rely on? Why should I have to write letters to some governmental commission to complain every time I try to get something done? Have I ranted enough? Maybe. I feel better now - sort of. But that could be because I'm back on the "net" with a forum for my venting! I welcome any comments. Now I have to go answer my e-mails.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Turning Ideas Into Action

As a writer, my brain never stops getting ideas for stories. They come from all corners of my existence. I might read an article in the newspaper or hear one on the radio or TV that spurs a thought to expand on. Insight can come watching a movie or reading a book. Conversation with friends or family trigger brainstorms. People watching, eavesdropping - the list is endless.

I carry a small notebook in my purse to jot down ideas. There are pads and pencils in every room of the house; no writer should every rely on memory for a good idea because they can disappear as quickly as they arrive in consciousness. I have notebooks and folders filled with notes, research contacts, internet sites and clippings. I read through them to get inspired, find a topic for today, or locate a source of insight or reflection that sets my fingers flying over the keyboard.

The work begins when I must take that thought and logically develop it into paragraphs of interesting reading. Even though I have been through the process hundreds of times, it still takes an act of will to go from ruminating to effort. There will always be a myriad of chores, family obligations or relaxing pursuits that get in the way of settling down at the keyboard. Sometimes, the hardest part of the writing process is finding the uninterrupted time to complete an assignment. I have to keep in mind at all times that priority must rear its ugly head if anything is ever to be written.

An idea, taken from a note I've made, may not always turn into a workable article or story. I may abandon it as a noble notion which has no basis for further expansion. But, I also might discover that it's just the beginning of a much more involved journey than originally contemplated. Luckily, I usually find a spark there somewhere.

Once I commit to the concentrated task, the organization of my thoughts and notes begins. It is almost never a simple process to create a flow of words that works. I force myself to just keep going at first, even if some of what I'm composing seems static or superfluous. I know I will go back more than once to correct, edit, and rework until I'm satisfied with the end result. The outcome - no matter how long in coming - never ceases to make me want to make the journey again.

It is a source of amusement for me that everyone thinks they can write. I have certainly read lots of examples where that theory has been debunked. Writing isn't the glamor job so many envision, and it is rarely one that results in monetary riches. Those aren't the reasons I do it. I do it because I just have the need to see my ideas turn into action - and that action result in enjoyment for a reader.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Taming Technology

Technology for this writer, can be daunting - and waste a lot of time. When I sit down at my computer to compose a blog post, or work on an edit, or draft a story or an article, I just want to type the words, have them appear on the screen as written and print out when I'm done.

The problems begin when text appears in other languages, formatting suddenly changes, or worst of all, when I save my work only to find that it has disappeared into cyberspace! One of those complications has caused my blog to come to a screeching halt for several days. I therefore apologize for having to rely on technology.

There is an upside to doing everything by phone waves and electronic connection. I'm able to work more quickly, love the quick way I can edit and publish items instantaneously, and I can get my ideas and finished products out to a reading public in ways I never dreamed possible twenty years ago - or even ten years ago - or five!

So, I guess I'll continue to blindly navigate (and learn) the puzzling maze of computer functions. After all, it keeps my brain alive and pulsing. That will help me to live longer and prosper while I'm at it. That way, I can have more time to formulate and publish the thousands of writing ideas that invade my gray matter on an hourly basis. That's the best reason to persevere when my screen goes blank or my browser refuses to act upon a request.

Hope you'll keep coming back to my Musings to see how I'm doing.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Home Schooling Thoughts

It's been nearly a year now since my daughter and I decided to home school her two sons; Alex, now 13, and Christopher, who's almost 12. It was a decision we made after many frustrating months of dealing with a broken public school system.

As a former English teacher, I was appalled at the lack of education the boys were receiving. There seemed to be no concentrated studies on anything. Basic topics were being sacrificed for advanced ones, leaving them frustrated and confused. It was obvious to us that "education", as defined by Webster as "the process of training and developing the knowledge, skill, mind and character" had been abandoned in favor of studying only what was needed to pass standardized tests.

We saw two boys - who are mentally bright, love to read and want to learn - turning into unhappy people who made excuses not to attend school. In attempting to help them with homework assignments, my daughter and I were constantly baffled with a curriculum that ignored things like handwriting, times tables and geography in favor of advanced math, complicated literature projects, and mountains of homework in subjects not fully covered in class, resulting in discouragement on everyone's part.

I am not naive enough to think that today's students can be taught in exactly the way I was many years ago. I realize that our society is considerably more complicated. However, without the basic tools firmly ingrained in their young minds, these boys were incapable of successfully tackling the assignments and classwork dealt them. It seemed only logical that you have to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide before you can do advanced algebra, yet so little time was spent on rudimentary skills before presenting them with complex math problems, there was no way they had the tools to deal with it. Likewise, asking them to write a term paper in fifth grade, without the verbal or written skills to do so, is ludicrous.

In the year we have worked to sort out what they know vs. what they need to know, we have taken them on a path back to enthusiasm about learning. Teaching them parts of speech, sentence structure and handwriting skills has given them the confidence to begin writing projects. Having them read classic literature books and stories has renewed their interest in reading all types of books. They are also learning things like sentence diagramming (no longer taught in school but which has helped them immensely in understanding proper grammar structure), spelling and punctuation rules (taught with a book that is easy to understand, logically laid out and fun to read), the joys of poetry and the biographies of writers. And that is only what I'm teaching them.

My daughter has led them on a careful route through math basics, times tables drills, fractions and word problems to the beginnings of algebra. With each section fully explained and worked until it was second nature, Alex and Chris are both eager to move on to higher math because they have the tools to deal with it. The same goes for science subjects, world and American history, geography, foreign language (French), music, and even health issues. My husband has even taken on the task of teaching them the many aspects of art and its history!

Doing all the preparation required to teach takes time - and sometimes some review effort on my part - but I am glad to do it. Our class time is relaxed but focused, and I'm rewarded for my work by having them want to go on past the day's lesson to what comes next. They complete their homework assignments with care, study properly for exams, and the final reward is the excellent grades they are making. Oh, and those grades are earned; my daughter and I don't "give them" high marks. Naturally, there are times when their grade is not what they were hoping for. When that happens, we go back and review with them and work to get them to a place where they understand their mistakes. We don't just move on to the next unit of work and leave them to figure it out for themselves, as was the case when they were attending public school.

Talking with the boys in class has opened my eyes to the fact that their schools were even more woefully lacking than I had previously thought. I simply cannot fathom an educational system that makes the promise of "no child left behind" when, in fact, they are cheating every student of a proper education with their misguided curriculum and fast-tracking schedules.

In addition, the school staff always seemed to be more interested in our grandsons' home and social life than they were in how well they were doing in their subjects. My daughter was harassed repeatedly about certain non-traditional aspects of their lives, such as the fact that she is a single mother struggling to make a good life for her children and wants her sons to understand what that entails. Apparently, the educators felt this was an inappropriate topic for young minds. I agreed with our daughter's enlightening the boys about the state of their finances, and her training them how to be more helpful at home. I knew such things growing up, so did she, and it hasn't resulted in negative influences on our lives. She was asked to give permission for the boys to see a social worker because of this; she declined. The most ludicrous incident occurred when she was approached about receiving state assistance to pay for school lunches for the boys. The reason: they always brought their lunch to school so the teacher was worried that they didn't have funds to buy lunch!

Needless to say, this emphasis on social issues to the detriment of education brought about the final impetus to remove the boys from public school, and set up our home school. Our daughter works nights so that she can be home to educate and be with them during the day. I give them lessons each week, and help with making sure they have adult supervision when their mom is working. It adds to everyone's responsibilities but we know that the rewards in the end will be immeasurable.

I want Alex and Chris to know the joys of learning, to have the skills to tackle any goal in life, and to be confident in themselves. I see all that happening already, and, with our teachings, it can only get better. I have to admit that I wasn't too sure about home schooling when we began all this, but I'm a big advocate now. I've seen how well it works for them. We have discussed with both of them the possibility of going back to public school when they reach high school age. We feel that, by that time, they will have the learning tools to handle a public school curriculum. They haven't decided yet just what they want to do. For now, we're setting the groundwork for their future, and we're all happy about that.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Setting Priorities

The beginning of a New Year presents me with a calendar free from entries. It is the perfect opportunity to put my new positive resolution into practice. My mind is filled with all that I want to accomplish. This is a good thing, but it can also spell trouble if I don't work hard to prioritize.

There are so many avenues I can travel. My work is the first topic to tackle, I think. Deciding what my writing goals will be for the year brings to mind so many story ideas, lists of agents and editors to query, research to pursue about certain topics, organizational thoughts about the set-up of my study, my files, my computer, how to hit my financial targets to help our budget, etc., etc., etc.

Family and friends are leading concerns as well; making sure the important people in my life are not ignored while I'm busy working away. I want more personal contact, not just quick e-mails to stay in touch. I want to write letters, make social phone calls regularly, entertain friends, and schedule more family get-togethers and outings. There are also lesson plans to prepare for the English class I teach my two oldest grandsons.

Still settling into a home adds desire to decorate and organize our new abode and becomes part of the path of priorities. There are paint chips to be sorted through, closets to arrange properly, and, even in the midst of winter, I'm thinking about the flowers I want to plant.

Taking trips is never far from my mind. Plans to introduce my grandsons to new places, to have getaway weekends with my husband, to explore new and exotic locales, and visit familiar ones. Naturally, in tough times, travel seems unlikely, but it doesn't stop me from wanting to find a way to make it happen.

So, obviously, coming up with ways to stay busy in 2009 is not my problem. All I've mentioned are noble pursuits and important to me. They all seem to fit my "stay positive" theme, too, so how do I put it all in perspective without stressing myself to the max?

This dilemma seems to be one our entire society struggles with today. Multi-tasking is a word heard frequently, and one I abhor (and really don't think our brains are capable of handling anyway). I refuse to be goaded into believing that, in order to accomplish the things I have outlined, I must be in a constant state of movement, dealing with three tasks simultaneously, sleep-deprived, and unable to enjoy my life.

I think the solution to prioritizing is not to let every task, dream or obligation become a jumble of stress-related guilts. The trick (if I can use that word) to having it all is to arrange the hours I'm given one day at a time. Before the routine of the morning takes over, I take a few quiet moments to think about what I can accomplish before I know I must sleep and renew. Making a written list prompts me to keep on target, and I never put more on it than I can finish without stressing. I make sure to leave time for a walk, a quiet read, or time with loved ones. Knowing that I can effectively execute quite a bit in one day, while enjoying what I'm doing is the key. Realistic time blocks for each task, added up, show me how much time I really do have.

For all you naysayers reading this who are saying, "Oh right - can't be done!" Well, I say, "try it. What have you got to lose?" I just know that, when I have a daily plan, I end my day relaxed, and satisfied that I've completed the items on my list. Now, I don't claim this is a foolproof strategy. There will be interruptions to your daily list that require attention. But my previous experience, when I would scurry from one thing to another in random fashion, had me ending my day with laments about what I didn't get done, exhausted and not even sure why. So, on my "think positive" road, there's only one way to go.

Got to go now and make my list for today.