Monday, February 28, 2011

Fannie’s Last Supper Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Fannie's Last Supper: Two Years, Twelve Courses, and Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook
Author: Chris Kimball

Publication: Hyperion Books, 2010

Genre: nonfiction, cooking

My Star Rating: 3 Stars out of 5 = It's Okay

Summary Statement: I'm a Fan of Chris Kimball's but This is Uneven and Choppy, Dry and Sometimes Just Uninteresting



I'm a fan of Chris Kimball's and it pains me to write a review for this book of 3 stars = It’s Okay. I have learned a lot from reading Cook's Illustrated over the last fifteen years since I first discovered it. I had high hopes for this book but it was a letdown.



I am a home cook and home baker and canner of preserves. I cook from scratch five or six days a week and eat a diet of almost all whole foods. I enjoy reading cookbooks and like to learn about cooking history. Another reason I thought I'd like the book is that my grandmother grew up on Cape Cod not far from Boston having been born at the turn of the century, and her main cookbook used throughout her life was Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School cookbook (which is well soiled and falling apart and resides with my other cookbooks). My grandmother also used an old-fashioned cook stove for many years in the first half of her life. I was curious what FANNIE'S LAST SUPPER would teach me and what it may reveal about daily living in the time that my grandmothers were homemakers. I was mostly hoping that it would make a fun escape read for enjoyment.



I was disappointed that Kimball has such a low opinion of Fannie Farmer. I got sick of hearing it: how he looks down upon her for using cooking methods that he feels are inferior compared to what he knows and does a hundred years later.



I found the book's pace uneven. Some parts were much more interesting than others. Some parts were beyond dry to the point of being boring. It seems some topics were included to be thorough but they were uninteresting. I understand wanting to paint a complete picture or wanting to include all the information he took the time to research but the fact is sometimes it’s just uninteresting and maybe should have been edited out. He arranged the chapters by food courses but didn't always connect with the food or recipe that was supposed to be the focus of the chapter, which resulted in a poor flow or gave a choppy or disorganized sense to the book. I had hoped it would be a page turner but I found it real work to continue reading.



Sometimes great lengths were taken to be authentic to the point of ridiculousness while other times something that didn't seem that big of a deal was pushed to the side in favor of using the modern alternative. I do not take issue with Kimball over-analyzing or over-thinking as that is something I appreciate about his work. Some of the most interesting parts were when an old food was of different composition that meant finding an equivalent in 2010 is impossible so adaptations had to be made (i.e. venison roast).



I would like to respond to his note about the currant jelly recipe. Kimball says leaving the stems on per Fannie Farmer's recipe didn't improve taste. Why would anyone think it would improve taste? As a home canner, I feel the reason Farmer left the stems on was just to save prep time, just as when making applesauce or apple jelly we cook the apple with the core and seeds and stem and skins on it to save time, and then strain all that out after cooking. When I make crab apple jelly I do the same thing, leave the stems on, it saves prep time and makes the use of every last bit of the edible parts of the fruit. I never would think that leaving the stem, core and seeds in a food during the cooking time was done to enhance the flavor.



The mock turtle soup chapter was a bit much. I also was a bit traumatized by the lobster killing technique section and will surely feel guilt the next time I put a live lobster into a pot of boiling water, which Kimball portrays as being traumatic to the lobster but the alternative of using the knife killing method is not something I feel confident to begin doing.



The entire premise of putting on a gourmet meal for celebrities was of no interest to me since I’m not a celebrity worshipper.



I enjoyed the musings at the end of the Dinner Party chapter and some thoughts in Requiem for Fannie and wondered if what I was looking for more of in the book was ramblings of that nature: the things we do for pleasure, we want to work but not too hard or too much, and the idea that "cooking transcends dinner it is a thing unto itself". What Kimball is trying to say is that the process of cooking can be an enjoyable pursuit in and of itself. Many of us enjoy the process of cooking and baking perhaps more than the eating. There is something satisfying about making jam at home with strawberries I picked myself even when I have access to less expensive factory made preserves.





To sum it up, I found the book uneven and not always engaging. It didn’t fulfill my hopes for a fun escape read. Again I am disappointed in feeling that. I respect Chris Kimball so I find no joy in writing this not glowing review.



A book that fulfills more of what I was looking for is the writing style in TWAIN’S FEAST by Andrew Beahrs which had me hooked from the start and was truly a pleasurable escape read.


Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of both books mentioned in this post from the Amazon Vine program. I was not paid to write this review or to blog it. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prescription or Poison Book Review by ChristineMM



Book Title: Prescription or Poison? The Benefits and Dangers of Herbal Remedies
Author: Amitava Dasgupta PhD
Publication: Hunter House, 2010
ISBN: 9780897935500

My Star Rating: 3 stars out of 5 = It's Okay

Summary Statement: Biased Against Alternative Treatments; Avoids Fact that Many Similar Side Effects for Prescription Drugs Exist




The best thing about this book is the thorough research done and the citing of references and studies to back up the author's writings, so you know he's not making anything up. The laws in America for the testing of prescription drugs are such that there is data on the prescriptions while the herbs have no such requirement. Therefore the studies are not always available on the herbs or any of the alternative treatments. The author is so cautious it seems he always errs on the side of caution going with the prescription drug with a study over a very old plant based remedy which doesn't have a study on it. He is playing it safe, almost acting like a lawyer in his attempt to be so cautious.


I also note the bias in the subtitle "the benefits and dangers of herbal remedies" YET he does not discuss negative known side effects of prescription drugs! Also read carefully the title which implies that the prescription is good but the alternative medicine is poison, it doesn't imply that sometimes the prescription drug can be the poison. For example he may recommend against using a certain herb or plant based remedy as it sometimes causes liver damage yet many very common top selling prescription medications are used today which have more data behind them showing they cause liver damage. Doctors monitor patients who take Lipitor (used to lower blood cholesterol levels) with blood tests to look for signs that the drug is damaging the liver. Users of Warfarin (aka Coumadin -- first used as a rat poison now used as blood thinner) and Lithium (used to treat depression) are monitored to prevent poisoning by too-high levels of the toxic materials in the patient's bloodstream. Yet Dr. Dasgupta is so cautious that he warns the reader that St. John's Wort can cause photosensitivity (which, come on, is no big deal compared to some of the known side effects of some of the depression prescription medications which are the other choices).



What I wound up liking the most about this book was the thorough explanation of various alternative treatments and supplements. I learned more about the general nature and history of homeopathy than I'd read elsewhere for example. I also learned something I'd not seen in my readings about herbal tinctures: that a study has proven the shaking action of the plant matter in the menustrum is vital to the herbal medicine making process.

Who is this book for is another question to be answered. There is too much here for the layperson reader to buy and use to look up say, how to best treat their common head cold. I would bet only a small number of very interested laypeople would buy this book to inform themselves and if they did they'd not read it cover to cover as they'd not care to know the best or worst treatments for a lot of conditions they don't suffer from and also of treatments they may have never even heard of in their life.

The book probably is best for western medical doctors who want to know more about integrating what they call alternative medicine or for alternative medicine providers to use and inform themselves with.

As I read the book I kept thinking it is so fear-based that I kept putting it down vowing to not ever want to take anything! My opinion after reading the book was to think that the factory made prescription drugs must be safer than alternative remedies, but if you read the package inserts required by law to be included with the prescription medicine you will learn they have plenty of dangers themselves! And let's not even think about the news report I just heard of the number of pharmacy mix-ups where patients are given wrong drugs or wrong doses that make them sick.

I'm rating this book 3 stars = it's okay. I liked the research and felt it was well written and approachable for me as a layperson who has a strong interest in health and wellness and who formerly worked in the field of western medicine. I don't love the book as I feel a bias is there that falsely implies prescription drugs are safer when in reality, they really they are not always safe either. Picking a treatment can be compared with voting for politicians there is not always a great candidate, we must sometimes go with either the Devil We Know instead of the Devil We Don't Know or we go with the one we think has the lesser of two evils. This book at least seeks to inform us further, which is why I can't say I dislike or hate the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program with an agreement to review it on the LibaryThing.com website. I was not paid to write the review or to blog it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Ponder: Race to Nowhere Post Screening Discussion



Below are video recordings in Amherst Massachusetts of discussion after a screening of the documentary Race to Nowhere.

(I still have not seen the movie but have seen clips; I have plans to see the movie next week.)

The older I get the less I feel like having debates or pointing out flaws I find in other people's arguments. I used to enjoy it more than I do now. I still am of the mindset that I like to discuss and I can "agree to disagree".

People are saying this movie will hopefully open up a dialogue about schooling in America and to get people thinking about the purpose of schooling and about education. I'm already there, they are preaching to the choir with me. In the thirteen and a half years I've been a parent I've been thinking about the education of my children. Actually due to not being happy with my own education I was already thinking about the future educations of my not-yet-conceived children when I was a single young adult.

You, like me, will probably benefit from listening to opinions of others and pondering them which can lead to the formation of your own opinions.

The video quality of the below videos is poor. I chose to listen while I was sorting books.

My thoughts on the post screening discussion follow.

1. The zero sum game is mentioned (not by name), that is, that some people are of the mindset that in order for one person to succeed someone else must be pushed down below them. I do not prescribe to this mindset. I feel that what one learns is just in the mind of that one learner. Regarding grades they should be looked upon as a reflection of the student's work as an individual not just using the grade to compare one student against another. The truth is that everyone could score a 100 if they performed well, there is not just one 100 score to give out and one 99, et cetera. The issue is class rank where students are measured against each other. However, class rank is not the major focus of a child's education.

2. The quest for happiness though seeking a career in a field that one loves is a worthy goal. However I still feel happiness can and does stem from other things not just working for pay. If the only source of happiness in life was picking the right career and working at it, would not then all the stay at home mothers be miserable? What also of retired persons? Thus placing all of one's eggs in one basket, saying college and a career that stems from that course of study is the one right and best path seems ridiculous.

Therefore I don't quite know how to react to the statement by the father of an Ivy League college student who says the subject that made his son the happiest in high school was woodworking. The boy wanted the Ivy League education more than his father says he wanted it for him. Therefore who is to say the kid is on a path to unhappiness? And that is also a case where the father didn't push his will onto the student's life so isn't that something to be praised? Maybe the college student will be lucky enough to find a career that provides well for him and he can have woodworking as a hobby for personal fulfillment (much like how blogging and knitting and photography provide happiness to me).

3. I take issue with those who always want to talk about the have's and the have not's. All people must support themselves so if the parents are wealthy that's no solution to the question of what an education is or should be and if the child is learning or not.

As to those who want to dismiss the education of "the wealthy" or "the priviledged", I believe there are very few people who our government labels as wealthy who have enough money or the intention to have their adult aged children sit on their butts and not work, while the parent supports them. All these kids need jobs and a way to support themselves. It is the employers who want the college degree as a litmus test for competence even when said degree is not in the field of the job itself.

4. The issue for some families is probably not just wanting to Keep Up With The Jonses' by having so-called priviledged kids attend college, the issue is the kids themselves also seek a life of something other than living in poverty or being unemployed and homeless.

What is wrong with the desire to want to support oneself in a job something other than an entry level minimum wage job? Face it, between paying off the college loans, paying for a car (to get to work in) and (the required by law) car insurance, the medical insurance (mandated by Obamacare), paying rent and utitilies and groceries, and saving up to buy a home someday and to pay for a wedding, oh, and paying taxes, there is not a lot left over. Those college grads need to make money to live, period! Who can blame a person for wanting to make a decent wage to support themselves (and their future spouse and future children)?

And since when is being self-sufficient and self-supporting something to be criticized? How can trying to prepare oneself to support themselves finanically being "Keep up with the Joneses?".  I'm sorry I don't see the connection.

5. I loved it when the teacher discussed what is the purpose of an education and what is the purpose of a school? He said the school in the inner city, he feels, has lost its purpose. I'd like to hear more of that discussion being had by school administrators, politicians and parents, but across all levels of income.

6. I enjoyed hearing the calls for education reform but hey, people have been calling for education reform for over a hundred years and look where we are now. Has any progress really been made?

If you watch these videos and would like to share opinions, please leave a comment.

Part I



Part II



Part III

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thoughts on Book How to Be a High School Superstar

I'm a quarter of the way into the book How to Be a High School Superstar and feel the need to share my initial thoughts. This book has been recommended to me by a few of homeschool moms I know in real life and some of my blog readers. I didn't research the book before buying it. I didn't even know the subtitle when I ordered it from Amazon.com.

The subtitle is: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) and the book is by Cal Newport who apparently prior has published two books, one on study habits and one on succeeding at college.

This book is written to an audience of schooled teens and their parents. The author knows of the race to get into top colleges and realizes that most feel the way to do that is to do rigorous academics, which today (versus in my generation) means taking AP classes in high school and let's not forget to do other things to show that the student is active and well-rounded. I am sure you have heard of teens stressed out by doing too many extra-curricular activities. Can't we all agree that some teens do things with their time just as resume boosters? Okay now that we're on the same page...

Newport offers an alternative plan. The premise is that colleges are sick of having (in my words) carbon copy applicants with a zillion of the typical teen extra-curricular activities. Newport first discusses the other, newer fad of trying to prove that the applicant has a passion for something. Newport moves beyond this passion thing, to say what the colleges really want, now that they have (in my words: a ton of applicants who have rigorous courses, AP classes and test scores, high SAT and ACT scores and all the extra-curriculars) --- what they really want is INTERESTING PEOPLE for their student body. These interesting people are not just good souls they actually DO things out of the ordinary and enjoy their life.

Newport says that what they want more than the rigorous classes on the transcript AND good grades AND high standardized test scores is something unique and interesting to the student that the student had to take initiative of and to have found time to learn about and do. This is the same notion that I read in The New York Times perhaps four years ago. That old article (it was a whole newspaper page long I wish I had the link, sorry), said that there are too many students doing formal organized events with someone else in leadership and that what they now wanted was the student doing something that was unique or out of the ordinary that the student must create or take pains to make happen and navigate themselves through rather than doing some lemming activity.

The emotion I'm feeling at this moment about this idea is hard for me to describe in one word. I want to say out of body experience but that's not it. Oh, what is the word I'm searching for? Is there such a word in the English language?

What I'm thinking is that a major reason I started homeschooling in the first place was for all the reasons that Newport talks about here. I am a homeschooling mom who (wanted and now has) interesting happy kids who already have had the benefit of relaxed academics and who do not yet suffer with stress or anxiety about their schoolwork or fretting over their futures.

However as a homeschooling mom there is a pressure that the colleges are giving us homeschoolers to have our kids be carbon copies of traditional high school kids, the things that are making kids stressed out, physically and mentally sick. (Have you seen the documentary Race to Nowhere yet?) Some of us escape the drill and kill until the high school years then it rears its ugly head.

With my son in his second semester of eighth grade homeschool I was on the verge a couple of months ago of making big changes to our homeschool and even considered entering him into school in order to give the colleges what they deem necessary. We decided to stay the course with homeschooling.

I note also that some colleges have even stricter requirements of homeschoolers that would rob them of more of their free time and make their lives even more stresseful than the schooled kids by requiring them to take even more SAT II tests and it also would help if they had more AP classes with the accompanying AP test score of a 4 or 5.

Yet Newport writes with advice for how high school students should change what they do with their time (including taking less high school courses than typical in order to make more free time) then to do something interesting and unique under their own guidance in order to become an interesting person that colleges happen to value (he says) more than they value the cookie cutter top students.

In fact the kid who comes out looking like what Newport describes would be what we in homeschooling circles call either a "relaxed homeschooler" or even maybe "a radical unschooler". If Newport is correct that means those radical unschooling parents who tout that they did very untraditional things with their time and had relaxed academics, gave their kids the gift of time to follow their passion even if that left gaps in certain common content areas, are right about their kids turning out just fine and also being highly sought after by colleges when it came time to seek admission.

So where I'm at today is I'm thinking about the many reasons over the years that we chose to homeschool and among them are things that Newport is recommending schooled kids do in order to help them get into competitive colleges (and of course to find joy in life). Yet I feel the colleges are pressuring homeschoolers to not just replicate the now-common high school student path, transcript and scores but to do even more.

I don't know if I'm coming or going...

If my kids had feelings of confusion about their futures or certain low expectations it would be easier for me to grasp the idea of continuing with relaxed homeschooling through the high school years and continuing lots of unstructured time in order for my kids to just do what they felt like doing (preferably with that being something worthwhile not just watching entertaining TV and playing video games).

Well what I know from my family's own experience so far is the nutty over-scheduled homeschool experiment I tried in 2010 in order to have more group learning activities and have my kids do sports and Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts was an unhealthy way to live. We were all starting to get anxious and stressed enough to not really be enjoying much of what we were doing. I also note that it was harder to really learn when running around like a chicken with our heads cut off.

At the start of 2011 (without Newport's guidance) we went back to the mindset of accomplishing more by doing less. I have made sure we are have large blocks of unstructured time in our days. I have increased goals for academic content mastery but by teaching at home rather than majorly focusing on outside classes we are being more efficient with our use of time (since teaching 1:1 takes less time than group learning). I have cut out some extra-curriculars. Three homeschool co-ops are being cut down to one. My older son is even leaving his favorite academic competition after the March event (since the way it is being run this year is much more of a time waster and is less effective in accomplishing a good end result). We are all learning to say no more in order to make more time to do what we really want to do while also having time to do the things he needs to do.

I need to let myself follow my instinct and my heart even when it overrides what so many others seem to be doing. I'm going to have to trust the process first and foremost and secondarily make sure enough boxes are checked off to make my kids look good on paper.

I guess what's bugging me about How to Be a High School Superstar is it sounds a lot like the books I read in my early days of homeschooling about "why homeschooling is good and how it produces kids who are not only intelligent but more mature than schooled kids and it produces good hearted people who are truly interesting so don't worry about homeschooling "ruining" your kid they will turn out great if you just try it you will see".

Homeschooling done well produces kids who you actually want to be around as they are not only able to hold a conversation with an adult and are willing to look them in the eye but have something to say that an adult would want to discuss. Some of them do really cool things that show they have already or will soon be making an impact on our world. And guess what? That is exactly the same goal that Newport discusses in this book including laying out a plan and a process for how a typical, generic, stressed out, boring high school student can change (which makes them look like a homeschooled kid).

Wow, my head is spinning...after years of being questioned by pro-school people about possibly wrecking my kids lives due to homeschooling it seems that their kids are being given advice to live their lives more like the homeschool kids.

Too much of this kind of thinking is enough to make a person go crazy or leave them feeling like they are living in an alternate reality.

(Cue the Twilight Zone theme song.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Great Appetizer Recipe: Caponata

My husband and I were watching Buddy Valastro on TLC's Kitchen Boss make Caponata and we couldn't wait to try it. This can be made ahead of time and taken out in small batches each day if desired.


The next time I was at the grocery store I picked up the ingredients and my husband made the recipe we saw on the show. It is delicious! We ate it on crackers at first but the best way was over toast points we made from french bread that was two days old that was getting too dried out to eat plain. To make the toast points, he sliced the bread and toasted it in the toaster oven.

Give this recipe a try you won't regret it.

Buddy Valastro's Caponata Recipe

Photo copyright ChristineMM 2/19/11

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

First Mind Map for Science Olympiad Prep

Earlier this week my older son and I sat down to make our first mind maps. The content was mirrors, about optics in physics. This is part of some home studying and prep my son is doing for a middle school level Science Olympiad event.

What I learned from making this mind map is that there is a lot of thinking and organization of thoughts that goes on in the mind in order to make a complete and accurate mind map.

Some people who are used to working with traditional notetaking on paper, like me, find value in the process of listening to a lecture and thinking quickly about what to write down. The act of writing it down helps us cement it in our minds. We often never look at this again but something about writing it with our hand and seeing the words appear under our own guidance glues it to our brain. Sometimes I can even see an image of the paper and where on the page I wrote that note and can read back from it. When I was in school I used to be able to do this with more of a photographic memory but I don't have much of a need to do this now and can't seem to do it as easily as I used to.

Mind mapping is visual and the use of color and images and symbols is recommended. Although I was not trained to use this study tool until teaching myself this week I have a feeling that for me the value in the process is similar to (effective) note taking in that the most important part of it is the thinking about large quantities of information, figuring out how to summarize it or narrow it down to core concepts. Then asking onself if what one has included is thorough enough to have covered the most important facts.

With mind mapping versus creating an outline or notes on a typical notebook's sheet of lined paper is that the putting down of the information can move from the mind to paper in more of a random way. It is hard to write out notes (in just one attempt) on lined paper as to do that requires organizing all the information in the mind then putting it down in the proper order. With mind mapping as each thing is thought of it can be put down and in the end the mind map can look pretty decent and no one would know that the way it spilled out of the mind onto the paper was more erratic.

Going into this first mind map process with my son I was worried about his prospects for competing in the Science Olympiad optics event as based on classroom review sessions with the coach of the event and based on conversations I had with him it seemed he'd forgotten everything he learned in the classes and labs he took with a high school physics teacher 2-4 months ago. In making this mind map it was apparent to me that 90% of this information was in his mind. He just needed a little effort to extract it (by thinking). In an attempt to be thorough he/we used the textbook Conceptual Physics by Hewitt to review the information to see what might have been missed then that was filled in.

I myself did not know this information so I let him teach it to me and I referred to the textbook as well to learn from.

I think it would be beneficial to my son to make a mind map for all the optics content that may be on the test he will be taking.

I have come to the conclusion that it is time for my son to realize that in this case something that is generally true in schooling situations is probably true for him right now: that to succeed at this academic content event he is going to have to accept personal responsibility for learning difficult content by studying and working hard to learn it. I don't feel that dumping him on the coach and having him attend group sessions is enough. I know that my son is rusty on this content and the most effective and fastest way to get him up to speed is to re-learn it by independent study and to actually study the material using various methods, mind mapping being one of them at his disposal.

Here are photos of our first mind mapping session and what a learning experience looked like in our home the other day. (You can double click on the photos to see more detail if you desire.)






This was a fun exercise to make the mind map and to review this, it completely painless and we worked about 90 minutes straight on it. I enjoyed working with my son in this manner. The process also helped me realize that this is probably the biggest start he has had with the idea of tackling large amounts of high school level content and being able to deconstruct it in order to master it. I have hope!


The only bump in the road was a mini lecture I gave him near the beginning of the process when he declared he didn't remember anything. I talked (lectured) about the need to sometimes actually study and that sometimes being exposed to something in a class once or twice is just not enough to master the content, actual follow up with studying and reviewing content to refresh our memories is necessary. That's the way it is in school and college, that's a fact and although he's been spared a lot of this due to homeschooling with our (in my opinion) relaxed homeschooling it gets to a point where it just can't be avoided any further. Period. Anyway once we got rolling on the mind map 90% of the content was in his long term memory, he just needed to get into the groove to extract it and pull it over to working memory.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How to Make a Mind Map Video Tutorial






I am in the process of learning about how to make a mind map. I was going to say I am teaching myself so I can teach my thirteen year old but the truth is we're learning along

side each other. I had him watch this with me after watching a couple of less helpful video tutorials.

The spark came from a blog reader's comment a couple of months ago combined with the fact that mind mapping is briefly taught in a book I'm reading: Study Smarter Not Harder.

I would be willing to buy one of Tony Buzan's books  on the topic of mind mapping if someone can guide me as to which of his many books on this one topic is the best one to buy. I'm not sure why so many books are published on the same topic. The most recent book was out of stock on Amazon when I tried to buy it there so I'm holding off on the purchase for now. (My first inclination was to just buy the most recent one.)

Let me know if you have an opinion on any of Tony Buzan's books.

I'm tempted to put in an interlibrary loan request but that can take up to six weeks and I'm not that patient. Actually the main reason we're working on this now is to help my son master some concepts for a Science Olympiad event which takes place in about five weeks so we can't wait an indefinate amount of time.


Update: After writing this post my son and I each created our first mind map. We learned some things by doing. I think the benefit of mind mapping is that we really had to think about what was important and that included searching our  memories for what we knew already then referencing the textbook for more information to add. The benefit of this is probably the thinking and organizing the thoughts part not just looking at the finished product. Tomorrow I will blog some photos of the first mind maps. I am still wondering what I'd learn from a whole book on the topic...
Disclosure: I bought the book mentioned here. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Some Books I'm Reading Lately

How to be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport
A couple of blog readers recommended this and a local homeschool mom friend is reading it so I picked it up. Just started it. From the back cover: "do less, live more, get accepted" and "Newport explores the world of relaxed superstars -- students who scored spots at the nation's top colleges by leading unclutterd, low stress and authentic lives". Can't wait to see what this has in store. If anything is learned it will have been worth the $8 that it costs to buy new from Amazon.

Disclosure: I purchased this at Amazon.com.

The Idea Factory Learning How to Think at MIT by Pepper White
I read this cover to cover and it is still on my mind. I wanted to write a full review but keep procrastinating. This is written in journal style a few years after he graduated from MIT with a masters in a field in engineering. To sum it up I learned that to attend MIT is a lot of hard work and crazy studying. It takes hard work and determination, it's no joke, as evidenced by the suicides.

After I finished the book I looked on Amazon.com at some of the customer reviews and the most interesting are angry at the book for not being true to the school in the last couple of years. People, this is a memoir, and it reflects the time the student was there, the early 1980s. Readers also must understand that a memoir is a person's experience and viewpoint. People each have their own unique lens they see life through and even two people who experience the same thing together can tell two very different stories about what went on.

Disclosure: I purchased the book at the MIT campus bookstore, The Coop.

Fannie's Last Supper Recreating One Amazing Meal From Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook by Chris Kimball
I have learned a lot about cooking from Cook's Illustrated and I have respect for Chris Kimball. In this book he discusses cooking in the Victorian Era, how they did it, on what equipment and about life in Boston then, such things as what was available to buy in the market and what it was like to cook and bake on a coal cookstove. He also worked for two years to recreate a twelve course gourmet meal.

The book is a disappointment for me. It is boring and seems uneven. In an attempt to be thorough by talking about all the different things with explaining daily life in Boston back then he bored me to death. The book is organized by chapers around a course but often the majority of the thing discussed in that chapter has nothing to do with the meal associated with that chapter.

It's boring and dry. Here and there are elitist comments that I hate to hear.

I'm really disappointed and feel guilty to give the book a negative review since I respect Chris Kimball and have learned so much from Cook's Illustrated that have helped me and my husband become better home cooks.

Disclosure: I received an ARC from Amazon Vine product review program.

Twain's Feast Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Foodsteps of Samuel Clements by Andrew Beahrs

Now this is the book I was looking for in Kimball's book. Beahrs, whose writing I have never read before, was engaging. When I read this I have that experience of feeling sucked into the book and it's an effective escape read for me. This is a book that I relax to by reading before bed. It has served as as escape read on weekends.

The book has a good pace and it never gets boring. Somehow, Beahrs infuses history and facts in the story without it ever getting dry or boring.

Highly recommended for foodies or those interested in food history or to a lesser degree, the food history of the United States, or someone who must read anything having to do with Mark Twain - Samuel Clements who also cares about food and cooking.

Disclosure: I received an ARC from Amazon Vine's product review program.

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression by Ida Lichter
This thick book is filled with stories and essays to explain the issues facing Muslim women in different places around the world. The chapters are organized by country.

Many thoughts and emotions flow as I read this book. I think I will start a little notebook to write down reactions to the different chapters. There is so much in this book that the thoughts can start to swirl and begin to get muddled.

I'm thinking this would be an excellent book to read with others such as for a book club but it would have to be divided up. Perhaps it is perfect for a college course with discussion if it could somehow be sectioned so as to have the students discuss things in some kind of an organized manner.

This book makes me realize I have been taking some of my freedoms as an American citizen and as a woman for granted.

This book makes me feel sad and angry that a huge topic like this was never taught to me in public school or in college. I have a feeling most Americans are really ignorant about this topic.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from a publicist.


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Carnival of Homeschooling Week 268 Has Been Published






The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 268 was published at The Faithful Homeschool on February 15, 2011.



This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!



I enter these Carnivals and encourage you to as well.



If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.



Enjoy!



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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dual Credit for Homeschoolers Leads to Thoughts About Our Family

A neighbor who doesn't know much about homeschooling was asking about a mutual acquaintance that started homeschooling her son at the start of grade nine. She wondered what ever happened to him. I explained to my friend about dual credit at community college and said he took that route.

Dual credit is when a high school aged homeschool student takes community college courses that are then counted as both fulfilling the high school curriculum (to fill a transcript) and also count toward getting the college degree IF the student wishes to do that.

For those who don't know, I'll explain this. Let's say a grade 10 homeschooler takes college level US History at community college. That could count toward the high school program and the credit could count toward the college degree if the college the student is seeking the degree from will accept it.

It is called dual credit when the student does apply those college credits toward a degree. One path is to attend one community college and earn an Associate's Degree at that school. If that method is chosen a homeschooler in their four years of high school may attend community college part time and wind up having their Associate's Degree at the same date that a high school student would be getting handed their high school diploma. Or perhaps they may finish their associates in the year their same aged peers were a freshman in college.

Whether the homeschooler has some college credit that they wish to transfer into some other college so they can take a smaller number of college courses at the (more expensive) four year college is up to them. That is another path some take. Some students try to shave one or even two full years off of the education at the larger more expensive college or university. Surely saving $50K per year appeals to some families.

This method of using inexpensive community college credits and being a transfer student at a four year college (for all types of students not just homeschoolers) was recommended in a book published last year DIY U.
I almost finished that book and am not happy with it. I made many margin notes of my disagreements, mostly what I have experienced in real life that show that these ideas don't always work. I was reading the book for an Amazon Vine review and something unusual happened, I lost the book. I wasn't able to finish reading it but worse, all my notes were lost that I was going to use to write the review. I have resisted borrowing it from a library to finish it as I'd have to skim what I'd already read to take notes in order to make my points in the review (since I take issue with and disagree with some of the content).

My first thought about dual credit is that if the family feels community college is a good idea for homeschool high school they should use it. I can think of a few good reasons: to access science labs that are hard to do at home or more dangerous at home, to teach subjects mom doesn't want to teach or can't teach, like lab science or pre-calculus or calculus, to give the student more classroom experience because they like a live professor, or they enjoy live students in a class and like the classroom learning environment (but the parents feel the local high school is not an option for any number of different reasons which I'll not get into). Sometimes the parent feels it is time to give more independence in learning than having mom as the teacher and school principal; it is time for the student to start to answer to non-parent teachers. Sometimes the community college course is impressive on the homeschool high school transcript, more than a 'mommy grade' given for a home course. Lastly some of those courses are available as online classes but not all students want or thrive with online classes and prefer live classes.

The teen mentioned previously in this post decided to pursue a career as a college history professor. At age eighteen he was accepted as a candidate for a Bachelor's Degree at a well respected private university but decided to go the less expensive route by going to a state university (where he lives on campus in a dorm so he's having the typical college life experience). Another teen whose mother I know did dual credit at a community college then took a gap year then enrolled as a transfer student to a respected private college seeking a degree in the arts.

When I told my neighbor about dual credit she got angry. I'll sum it up to say I think she felt it was cheating in a way, and that homeschoolers should have to go through all the classes like school kids then go through all the college level classes at the older age. It seemed to come through as the attitude (if you homeschool you may already have encountered this mindset) that "my child must suffer through all this and jump through these hoops so the homeschooled kids should as well".

I tried explaining that at the community college they are actually doing college level work so why shouldn't it count as college work? If a student can do higher level courses there is nothing wrong with skipping past taking high school courses with easier content. I couldn't get through to her but it was not for lack of trying; I don't feel that my friend had an open mind to really hear and to reason about what we were discussing.

Another friend is considering having her homeschooled child start to take community college courses in grade 9 then to transfer as a junior to an above average if not competitive college in order to save two years of expensive tuition.

My main issue against dual credit for those who think they may seek admissions to a rigorous academic and competitive college is this: there are slots for transfer students then there are slots for incoming freshman. The fact is, and this is a fact, that there are many less slots for incoming transfer students than freshman.

My husband's alma mater reported admitting just over 2000 incoming freshman for the 2010 year but only 140 transfer students. Additionally that university does not take any transfer students into their school of business or school of architecture. The odds of even getting into that school are low but to try for one of the few slots for a transfer student is narrowing the odds even more.

I also compared that artsy college's statistics to my husband's alma mater and found the same percentage were admitted as incoming freshman but the transfer student acceptance rate was exactly double in the percent which shows that the artsy school is much more open minded toward admitting transfer students. But, the artsy school only accepted 85 transfer students while my husband's alma mater has been accepting between 130-160. Plus there was an explanation on the FAQ of the more difficult to get into alma mater that stated the transfer students must have done well in high school and come from a four year college and have met the specific requirements they have for transfer students.

On the other hand, if the student who took community college courses when high school aged and wants to use dual credit seeks a degree from a college that is easier to get in to then it seems that using dual credit would be more of a real possibility.

The good thing about the option of dual enrollment is no decisions need to be made early on. The homeschooler can attend community college (if they get in and are allowed by the school) and then later on the student and family can decide if the community college credits earned will be used as dual credit or if they will JUST be used for the homeschool high school transcript.

I think there are benefits to attending a four year college for the full four years that can outweigh saving the cost of college tuition and room and board. I have done many things as an adult to live frugally and I try to not overspend when I can get the same good or service at a lower price. I think college costs have skyrocketed and realize saving money is a top priority for some people especially if they truly don't have the money to pay $50K a year for an expensive college. However I don't think a family's first consideration for what college their child attends should be where they can get the cheapest tuition.

This is where I could tell multiple personal stories from my life and my husband's life which would further explain where we are coming from and what impacts our decisions for our own kids but I'll just keep quiet about those tonight.

I'll end by saying that I'm getting sick of thinking about the options for homeschooling high school and thinking about implications on my kid's college years. I have begun to feel like a puppet on a string with the marionette operators being some strangers 'out there' who are college admissions officers who grin like maniacs while taunting us with threats that we'd better make the right choices or our kid's entire careers in their adult lives is in jeopardy. Other times I feel like my kids are dogs in a circus act with colleges holding up the hoops to jump through while I'm the scared trainer cracking the whip and forcing them to leap through hoops.

I just want to live my life and homeschool my kids and enjoy them now while I have them home, and to focus really on high school studies. I don't feel rushed such that I should be cramming my son to take online AP classes or community college classes in grade nine. I don't even really want to think about making him take an SAT subject test in grade nine.

I am starting to feel that some people around me who seek to influence me are rushing things and pushing down higher education into younger years. I hated and resisted that regarding when my sons were babies, toddlers, and in the elementary years. I still hate it now that they are middle schoolers and as we gear up for high school to start in the fall of this year. I'd like to focus on just doing well on high school level studies and to somehow find enjoyment in that learning not just be focused on passing a standardized test at the end. I would like the studies to be good enough so that a test could be passed but I don't want to be overly focused on the testing.

We've made it so far without my kids having diagnoses related to anxiety and being spared therapy or prescription psych drugs. I don't want to do anything to stress them about about college admissions to get them going down that road now! We've made it this far with well-adjusted kids I want to keep them in that good state of mind!

And I want my sons to be kids while they are kids...even for these last few years before it is time to make the big decisions about where to go to college and when plans are set to fly the nest.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Delicious Indian Soup Recipe

I needed a change from the regular same old, same old chicken soup and beef stew we have been eating this winter, so I tried this recipe. I have never tried this type of soup before. This is delicious.



Here I share my adapted version of the recipe, changed enough so as to not break copyright laws. The cookbook is vegetarian and includes low fat options so if you like this recipe consider trying others from it: Beautiful Bowl of Soup: the Best Vegetarian Recipes by Paulette Mitchell. 


Soup

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup onion finely chopped
4 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 potato about 10 ounces, diced to 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 red bell pepper coarsely chopped
2 14 oz cans coconut milk (I prefer full fat not low fat)
1 cup water
1 15 oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed
10 cups stemmed and chopped raw spinach (previously frozen is okay)
2 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro
2 serrano chilies, minced
1/2 tsp salt

Rice

1 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
salt to taste

To Make Rice:

Combine water, rice and salt in pot and put lid on. Bring to boil then turn down to simmer and let simmer until all water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Test when finished to make sure the rice is tender. Remove from heat then let sit 10 minutes.

To Make Soup:

Heat oil, add onion and garlic, cook until translucent. If liquid evaporates add a bit of water so it doesn't burn onto the pan.

Add dried spices, stir. Add potato and bell pepper, stir occasionally until the vegetables are crisp but tender.

Stir in coconut milk, water, chickpeas and spinach. Bring heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer until potato is tender.

Stir in fresh cilantro and chilies. Cover and simmer about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt if needed.

If you are a cilantro fanatic (as I am) I suggest putting some fresh diced cilantro on top of your bowl of soup at serving time.

Serving and Storing:

Serve soup over rice in a bowl.

If the soup is too dry add a bit more water.

The soup is white after cooking but my stored soup's liquid turned green the next day due to the spinach.

If the soup is dry after storing, consider adding more coconut milk when reheating.

I did not try making this ahead to freeze. I made a double batch and we stored it in the refrigerator to eat multiple times that week.

I will also note I don't like spinach but loved it in this soup.

Enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thoughts on Teens and Behavior and Peer Pressure Study

A friend sent this article from The New York Times to me which discusses a study about teens, behavior and peer pressure using brain scans to help figure out what is going on. They measured teens against college students against adults.

"Why do otherwise good kids seem to make bad decisions when they are with their friends? New research on risk taking and the teenage brain offers some answers."

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"In the study, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking among boys and girls. However, some real-world driving data suggests that teenage boys take more risks behind the wheel when one or more boys are in the car, but drive more carefully if they are with a girlfriend."




"For parents, the study data reinforce the notion that groups of teenagers need close supervision."



“All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends,” Dr. Steinberg said. “The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.”

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The findings of this study should be known to the parents who find themselves saying, "I know my child, and my child would never do (fill in the blank)".

I have been with kids and teens and seen them doing things that their parents later tell me "my child would never do that" when I saw it with my own eyes. Never say never.

Once a friend who I had a pact with to share these issues refused to believe what I saw happen. She was sitting right next to me when the thing happened but was looking away from and she just would not believe me. We exchanged a few words when her child protested and said what I said happened was not true. Her child wanted his way and to get it the child had to lie about what took place. She chose to believe her child. After that we didn't speak for about a month (she seemed to avoid me) but later we were friends but never spoke of the matter again. That was years ago but that really surprised me as we'd had an arrangement to share with each other whatever was going on and said we'd believe each other over whatever claims the kids made. Looking back that issue was small beans compared to the stuff that is happening with kids aged 10 and up now.

Most parents of my generation seem to be different than my parent's generation. When I was a kid it seemed all the adults were a united front against the kids. An adult would believe an adult when it was reported that something happened such as a kid threw a rock through a window for fun and got caught, or the time my brother was caught throwing snowballs with ice chunks from behind a tree at cars driving down the road and the driver came after him and demanded to be brought to my mother to report the incident. My brother was punished. My mother did not say, "Not my child, it must have been one of the other boys who did that".

The parents today seem to want to believe their kids are angels and when they hear of some problem their kid did they deny that it could be true. Perhaps the worst situation is when the child is at risk at having their soul damaged or at risk of physical injury and the parent won't believe that it is happening so the child remains at risk (and may also be doing things that endanger other kids).

Besides having rules for what happens in the family's own home I feel that parents should try to make sure their kids are safe when they are away from us. By that I mean, do we trust the leadership of the Boy Scout Troop when they are away on camping trips and who is chaperoning and what is happening on that evangelical Christian youth group indoor sleepover weekend and what about that sleepover at a friend's house?

I could go on and on and I'd love to share true stories to illustrate my concerns but I risk getting people angry with me, so I'll just stop there.

Well I'll just say that past rants I've blogged after hearing stories on the Dr. Phil show or after reading pieces in the newspaper or in magazines are not exaggerated, the same stuff is happening right here and right now with kids I know.

I only ask that all parents open their eyes and try to not put their heads into the sand. Open your eyes, open your ears, watch and listen to what is going on....and remember parenting is a verb. Parenting is usually never easy, it can be really hard sometimes, but just remember you are the adult and you bear the responsibility, so, do the right thing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Driveway During the Ice Storm

I love driving through the woods on my way up the driveway. Here it is with everything crusted in ice.

The view going down the driveway toward the street.



The view from the street end looking toward the house. (Those poor birches are bending under the ice!)




Standing in the driveway looking over the side yard into the front yard. The trees across the street are in the background. Everything was encased in ice.



Photos taken 2/02/11 by ChristineMM in Fairfield County, Connecticut, not digitially altered.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Watched by the Hawk

We have a pair of Red Shouldered Hawks living in the woods across the street. My neighbor told me the nest was in one of her trees but I can't see it from my yard. I have been watching these hawks for three years, maybe four.

The hawks are not too afraid of us. From a falconer I learned they can get used to certain people they are around. Hawks can also learn their names if they are used by the humans around them on a regular basis. After I learned that I decided to call our hawk Swift. The only problem is unless I see the pair together I can't tell which is the male and which is the female so I could be calling each of them Swift. I'm no falconer but just to explain, you can train a hawk to come when called by name by rewarding them with food. I don't reward the hawks with food.

Usually when they see me they look at me then look away. When I make sounds or call them by name they look at me and watch me then look away and get back to looking at whatever it was they were looking at or for. I have done that repeatedly and can feel the hawk looking right into my eyes. I can sense that they are intelligent creatures. I can tell they are not really afraid of me the way they size me up and then choose to go back to what they were doing.

When I clap suddenly they usually fly away. I confess to doing this sometimes so I can photograph them flying. If I walk too close they usually will fly to another farther away tree or just leave.

I had a freaky experience last week. We had an ice storm. I was angry that no one was shoveling the front walk and it was iced up and a mess. I was also worried about finances and wondering about where we may wind up moving and if we'd have to leave this place and this house that I love so much. I went outside and started shoveling and hacking at the ice. I used the metal tip of the shovel to chop at the ice. It took multiple hacks to get the ice to break up. The shovel hitting ice or brick made so much noise, it was the only sound in my neighborhood. It echoed though the woods. I couldn't stand the sound, it was so loud. I worked so hard I was getting out of breath and my heart was pumping.

I decided I'd done a good job and would go inside. As I turned out of the corner of my eye I noticed something that didn't belong there: a bump in the white oak next to my bedroom window. I looked up and sure enough it was Swift, perched there in silence just staring at me and watching me. It was such a weird feeling that I got that startled feeling in my gut, an adrenaline rush to know I was being watched and had no clue. It was downright creepy to be honest. I realized the hawk must have been watching me for a while as if it has flown there while I was working I'd have spotted that in my peripheral vision.

(I have tried to explain to my husband and kids but they don't seem to understand me. If you get to know what the normal shape of trees are or are familiar with certain trees you see regularly, it is easy to spot a bird sitting on a branch as immediately the mind knows something is abnormal, even in peripheral vision. That is how I spot so many hawks and large birds while driving down the highway.)

Although you don't know my white oak, can you see the hawk?


I went inside and ran for the camera. I didn't take the time to get the 300mm zoom lens out so shot these using my 18-55mm lens only. I also peeked at it from my bedroom window but could only see its bottom which wasn't impressive in person or in a photo.

The hawk watched me as I took photos then would ignore me. It finally flew away just as I was walking back in the house to get my 300mm zoom lens.

It never ceases to amaze me how when the hawk takes off from the branch, it is silent. Only once was I able to detect the sound of the flapping of the wings. I caught that one on video with my point and shoot digital camera.

After this exchange with the hawk and taking the photos I felt calm and happy. All my anger and worry was gone and I felt at peace.







(Double click to enlarge any photo.)



Photos taken 2/02/11 by ChristineMM, not enhanced digitally.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Working on Writing Composition With My Fifth Grader

I worked with my 5th grader on writing about a nonfiction topic last week. He really protested and it became a battle of the wills. Then his attitude shifted, suddenly it got smooth he proudly showed me his writing (the third draft) which blew me away.

I had a moment of satisfaction that all would turn out geat for him due to homeschooling under my guidance.

Then I got suspicious and checked the source document. He'd committed plagarism despite us having discussed this in the past.
My son tried to convince me that because he didn't publish it to the public he did not really commit a crime (or do anything unethical). He apparently misunderstood our (months ago) talk about plagarism.

I had to explain plagarism again and how it is not allowed in middle school or high school and it could get one kicked out of college.

Then he made a case for seeking careers that did not (he thought) require writing such as being an attorney, and saying therefore that he had no need to learn to write well. I broke the bad news that lawyers do a lot of writing and have to read and interpret legal terms which are mumbo jumbo to laypeople.

He then shifted to say his main career choice is to enter the military and he feels all he needs to do is learn to shoot a gun, not write. I just shut up about that as with him anything I try to dissuade him from thinking about becomes the new obsession and the new goal. He's been talking about joining the military since age three or maybe two. He wants to pilot aircraft and to shoot guns in battles. We'll see what happens when he's older. But for now, he needs to practice writing composition more. Period, end of story.

(I note this is typical behavior for logic stage kids.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Have Snowshoes

Using Christmas gift money I purchased snowshoes for me to use. At this point I'm the only one with snowshoes in our family.

My first snowshoe walk was an invigorating 75 minutes long. It was about 25 degrees out, sunny, and breezy. I was more than warm. After the workout I was refreshed and energized.

I look forward to daily snowshoeing. With all the snow we have I doubt the ground will be snow free by April 1. I need to move and the treadmill indoors is just not cutting it. I want to be outside in the fresh air, but the conditions are so bad here that I risk falling and breaking a bone just to walk to to get my mail at the end of the driveway.

My older son laughed to see me standing on our snow-covered deck. He snapped this photo of me from his vantage point in our kitchen the other day.




2/09/11

Friday, February 11, 2011

New England Penuche Fudge Recipe (Brown Sugar Fudge)

My favorite fudge is Penuche. Some call this a New England fudge. I read that the same recipe is traditional in the south but is called Brown Sugar Fudge there. I prefer this fudge without nuts, as do my kids.

I misplaced the great recipe I used last winter and tried a new recipe last week. Here is my recipe as I adapted from multiple websites.

Note: I used 1% milk as that's what I had on hand and felt it was not rich enough. I wonder how it would taste with 4% milk (regular milk) or even with cream? I'll have to try it and see. I had not found any recipes calling for cream in penuche fudge.




Christine's New England Penuche Fudge
4 cups brown sugar
2 cups white sugar
2 cups milk
1 cup butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

optional: 2 cups chopped walnuts (New England-ish) or chopped pecans (Southern style)

I use typical fudge directions; I'm not reproducing all of them here.

Heat sugars, milk and butter in a heavy saucepan until 238 degrees F (the soft ball stage).




Remove from heat place in bath of cold water. Immediately add vanilla extract to it but DO NOT stir it. Do not touch it, just let it cool to 110 degrees F. (You can see the vanilla extrac sitting on top of the fudge in the photo below.)






Pour into food processor bowl and pulse to process until it loses is sheen and glossiness.

Pour into greased 8 inch square baking pan.  Refrigerate to cool. Score and cut fudge then store in airtight container in the refrigerator.

Notes:
If you do not hit 238 degrees it will be soft and gooey and will not set when cooled.

There is a fine line between not hitting 238 degrees and burning the fudge, that's just the way the process is, there are no shortcuts.

If you stir it when its between 238 and 110 degrees you will make it grainy. Leave it alone to cool and you will have creamy fudge.



More on my fudge making attempts can be read here: Latest Autodidact Project: Fudge. I learned the technique with the food processor and other fudge basics in the book Oh Fudge! by Lee Edwards Benning.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Online Personas vs. Real Life Relationships

I received an email from a stranger yesterday. I have no clue where it came from. The subject line had "re:" in it but I'd never seen that subject line before, so I was not in the original thread.

Well the message was short but true. It said something about people living through their virtual lives and some liked that better. Well that part is sad, the idea that someone would like their online persona better than the real them. This struck a chord with me and it's something I've thought in the past especially about certain people I know both in real life and through their online presence. I also have had the experience to read a blog for a couple of years and life seemed rosy then later secrets are shared that reveal quite a different picture, thus, their online persona was not just a little fake.

Before I go on I'll insert that a couple of days ago I was home all day and evening. I was really busy and doing things but I still had time to pop online to blog and tweet and check my Facebook. By about dinnertime I was starting to feel bored and a little blue. My husband went to the Cub Scout meeting with our younger son and my older son went along as well as one of his Scoutmasters was to be there and he needed to speak to him. I was just in no mood to deal with the zoo that the Pack meetings usually are. I've hit full burnout from Cub Scouts after ten years.

So I was alone in the house and had time on my hands. I had the gift of time and peace, a cause for celebration! I popped around the Internet to my usual places for some kind of intellectual stimulation or to find something to make me smile. I hoped for an email from a friend that was a "friendly voice" in cyberspace. I came up empty. The blog posts I read were boring. None of my friends were posting anything interesting on Facebook and Twitter seemed dead and uninteresting, and my email inbox was even empty of discussion board posts. I suddenly had a empty feeling that I needed a friend and no one was there.

To shake myelf out of this I shut the computer off and phoned my father to say hello and see what was new with he and my mother. I wondered if I ate something 'extra' would it make me feel better? There was no dessert here, no candy, nothing that was a treat so I just had a glass of water. Plus, I was telling myself that what I was looking for was to do some emotional eating which I know really doesn't help anything anyway.

I picked up a book and read some of it. I did a couple of things in the house that needed doing. I did some knitting while watching a TV show on my DVR. Then everyone came home and I talked to my kids and we did our usual nightly routine then it was time to go to sleep (and I woke up refreshed and happy).

That experienced underscored for me (yet again) that sometimes the busy internet can be a lonely place. Sometimes we look for fulfillment from something like the internet or the computer that just can't provide it, because those virtual communications are just not as fulfilling as more personal 'real' relationships.

Between that experience of looking for some kind of emotional stimulation or emotional fulfillment via internet chat boards, blogs, social networking sites or email and not finding it, and that email I got yesterday about some people liking their virtual online persona better than tehir real life, I was reminded again that what we share online (or in any other way such as what we say in a phone call or what we share while at a barbeque party) is just a slice of ourselves and our lives. There is no way in any part of our life that we can share 100% of who we are and what we've done and what we think. There is not enough time so what we share or what people see of us is just a slice of us.

I have a lot going on in my life and it feels odd to know that close relatives and close friends don't always know major things that have happened in my life or what is on my mind, my current worries or what I'm happy about. I barely have time to live my life and do what I do; I don't have time to phone my mother and tell her everything I've done, then email a friend to tell her, then blog a story about it. I just can't.

I also realize everyone else is busy living their lives and they don't have time to hear a ton about my life nor would they probably want to. It's true that I tweet a lot but I don't feel that I'm burdening anyone with my tweets (they can unfollow me if I bore or bother them). I also don't pretend to think that every tweet of mine is profound but I throw it out there and what anyone thinks of it is their own business. At the very least what I choose to tweet is not hurting someone so it's harmless chatter if nothing else.

The only people I knew who hung on my every word were my lonely grandmothers who were living at home alone and had nothing but time on their hands. They wanted to hear anything and everything in a phone call or face to face visit. Howevers sometimes what they heard stressed them out so it was not good for them in the end! They'd worry more than I did about problems happening in my life. Other times they would say they didn't like modern life and that life in the old days was better and they'd had enough of the craziness that happens today.

I was reading something recently about book authors. We may love their book but when meeting them in person sometimes we are disappointed. This is because their personality is different than their thoughts, their written opinions or their fiction writing story ability. From watching BookTV I have learned that some excellent writers are terrible public speakers and orally they could not convey their thoughts anywhere near as well as they did in the book of theirs that I read.

This blog is a slice of my life. What I share here is just a part of my life. I also don't "live to blog". I am living and doing things and just some of my life is shared here.

The email groups I'm on, the emails I write, the phone calls I make, and the face to face talks I have are just small snippets of my thoughts, ideas, and my stories. Some real relationships are entwined with those communication media but the communications themselves are not the friendships or the relationships.

Perhaps that is why I'm always a bit hurt when a friend tells me they read my blog and felt they "knew what was going on with me so didn't feel they needed to call me or see me". To me the relationship in real life is real, our friendship is real and it is a two-way street. A friendship is not me writing and publishing words on a blog so you can read it and feel you are my friend. This is doubly-true when my friend doesn't blog or rarely shares info and thoughts via email so I can know what is on their mind. Any real friend of mine who reads of a hardship on my blog and chooses not to contact me to at least say hello and "I'm sorry your husband lost his job" perhaps is not a real friend to me. Yet oddly I have received greater condolences from strangers who know me only online or from acquaintences who I didn't know even read my blog. Then I'm left asking myself, "Are not online relationships of some value after all?"

It's alright to share thoughts and stories online to the world, they may be (probably will be) read by strangers. I don't know who is reading, why they're reading it or what they think of it most times. But occasionally I find out that my real life friends and acquaintences are reading and then choosing not to relate to me in real life crushes me. Perhaps this is how some teens feel when they share their hearts on Facebook and know hundreds of their FB friends are reading it and no one reaches out or few have a kind word to say in response (while the rude comments seem to be shared so easily).

The take away message I have is not to dwell or rant that some people may put on a false online persona or to accuse that all people are fake online. The better message to focus on is that online communications are here to stay in one form or another (they shift over time, less email, more text messaging, less MySpace, more Facebook) but they should not replace real, deeper relationships.

Online communications may be faster or are easier to share but we need to make some minimal amount of time to nurture some certain number of real relationships with face to face communications and phone calls or we'll all wind up alone sitting staring at a computer screen or staring at a tiny smart phone screen and feeling lonely amidst a world of chatter that is broadcast out to the world but is not a two-way conversation.

Choose to take the time to have two-way communications. Make the time to see a friend. Pick up the phone when you have time to talk. Even if you reach their voice mail, their heart will be warmed to know you thought of them enough to call.

And if you read something online that would indicate a friend needs a shoulder to lean on give them a call on the phone. Reach out to them when they need it and they will reach out to you when you need it.