Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking back at 2017

Today is the day to look back on the year I just had and try to take stock.  Problem is, my memories are kind of fuzzy.  Last New Year's feels like forever ago.  So I grabbed this survey off of Facebook and am going to use it to jog my memory.  Feel free to answer the same questions in the comments or on your own blog!

New Years' Survey!

1. What did you do in 2017 that you’d never done before?
Dropped the boys at school and left them there.  ALL DAY.  I think I missed them more than they did me.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Yes!  My goal was to "rise to the occasion" and do all that executive-function adulting stuff that I dread, and I did.  I took Marko to numberless assessment appointments.  I scheduled shots and showed up to the appointments.  I did not get to the dentist.  Oh well.  I had a physical though AND saw a dermatologist for a mole that has been scaring me for two years.  I can say that I have grown massively in organizational skills and in confidence.  I feel like I can commit to showing up somewhere or making a phone call without hedging that I'm a flake and may not show.  When I have to make a phone call, I usually do it the same day rather than stalling for a solid week.  Having to do it made me do it, and that made me less scared of doing it the next time.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
I racked my brain for awhile before remembering that I DID.  Jeez.

Two people close to me got pregnant, and I have been supportive instead of making bitter comments about how their lives are going to be ruined.  Go me!

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Not very close.

5. What countries did you visit?
None.  I went to Maryland once.

6. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2018?
My room to myself.  Sometime this year, I'm kicking Jackie out into Miriam's room and will finally get to put my pajamas on with the lights on!  It's going to be great!

7. What dates from 2017 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
January 20th.  Jackie's birth and Trump's inauguration.  It wasn't a great day.  At least the afterpains distracted me from reading the news.
Also August 15th, the boys' first day of school.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Finally, after over two months, getting Jackie to go to bed at a reasonable hour so I didn't have to spend 8pm-midnight nursing her and unable to move a muscle without lengthening the process by hours.

9. What was your biggest failure?
The garden.  Basically didn't do much of anything in there.  I planted stuff and ignored it and it all died, except the tomatoes and peppers which sort of plugged along in a half-hearted way.  The soil is not as good here as at the old place, and there isn't as much sun either.
Oh and the chickens.  I gave them the same treatment as the garden, and to the same effect.  Two died and the remaining one I gave away for fear she'd meet the same fate.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
So many illnesses.  Cold after cold after throat infection after flu.  The kids bring it home from school and share it around the family where, with six of us, it hangs around forever.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Honestly I don't remember buying much of anything.  I did buy a nice pendant for my birthday, so I could have at least one piece of jewelry that wasn't a cross.  It's just the earth.

12. Where did most of your money go?
That big ol' mortgage, I guess.  Also school supplies and clothes.

13. What did you get really excited about?
NaNoWriMo.  It was the most thrilling thing that's happened to me in a long time.  It meant I could be myself again and do something I wanted to do instead of spending all my productive time on kid stuff.

14. What song will always remind you of 2017?
Probably Blue World.  I've had that in the car for a long time and it's very catchy.

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:?
– happier or sadder? happier
– thinner or fatter? thinner
– richer or poorer? richer (in savings - income has stayed about the same)

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Nothing really.  There wasn't any extra time I could have spent on other things.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Waking up at night?

18. How did you spend Christmas?
At home, in my jammies.  I recommend it.

19. What was your favorite TV program?
Probably Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  That's John's and my show to watch together right now.  I also watched a good bit of Call the Midwife, Jane the Virgin, and Parenthood.  Didn't get back into action shows, though I would have liked to.  It wound up being too much tension for me.  Though my anxiety is getting better all the time, so next year I bet I will be able to.

20. What were your favorite books of the year?
All the Terry Pratchett books.  They got me through.  I highly recommend them when you're stressed, anxious, or depressed--they're light-hearted and never scary.

21. What was your favorite music from this year?
Like the previous question, I'm going to go with music I listened to this year, not music that came out this year.  I mostly listened to Rush and Moody Blues.

22. What were your favorite films of the year?
The only movies I can remember watching are Zootopia, the MLP movie, Rogue One, Boss Baby, and Bright.  Liked them all.

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I was 31.  Don't think I did anything special.

24. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
I have had a strict policy against might-have-beens this year.  I'm sure y'all can guess the very first place my mind went when I heard this question.

25. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2011?
Two words: Yoga. Pants.  Though my weight has stabilized to the point I can go buy some jeans now.

26. What kept you sane?
This mental health technique

27. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017?
Probably to trust my kids to meet obstacles and fears and still be okay.  I've been very protective up to now, and maybe that was the right thing then, but this year it has been the time to force my kids into situations they didn't feel ready for . . . and find that they were ready after all.  It did a lot for their confidence and for my trust in them.  And I gotta say, it's great not to be the only person responsible for their entire education anymore.

So, how was 2017?  Well, it beat 2016.  2016 was chugging along wonderfully when it suddenly started to derail, and things got worse and worse for the rest of the year.  I spent a lot of effort on my mental health that year, with the net result that I did not actually have the total mental breakdown I felt like I was going to have.  So that was something.  But it was, in general, a horrifyingly bad year.

But this year I knew it would be better, because no matter what awful things came my way, I figured at least I wouldn't be pregnant anymore.  And that happened.  Nobody has ever been pregnant forever.  Of course Jackie's newborn phase was a living nightmare; she was just the worst ... and they have all been high-needs so I know what I'm talking about.  But I at least had the comfort of having my body to myself.  That matters a lot.  And I felt a lot saner than during the same time period with Miriam, whether because I had a house big enough to hold my family, or because I used a baby swing instead of trying to hold the baby all the time, or because my hormones were in better shape.  I felt bad a lot of the time, but I didn't scream at the other kids (much) or fail them in any obvious ways.  Miriam loved being a big sister, so that really helped . . . one of the hardest things about having a newborn who isn't the first is that you are dealing with a clingy, upset toddler who is jealous at having to share you, and that really didn't happen at all.  It also helped a lot that she was potty-trained, no longer napped, and gave up nursing when Jackie was born.

But really, it was still overstimulating and exhausting.  The big kids were bored and fought with each other a lot, and I was usually too overwhelmed to get them out of the house much.  The real turnaround happened when they started school.  Finally they had a built-in place to go and do big-kid stuff, while I had some hours a day where I wasn't surrounded by yelling and screaming and mess.  Miriam had more of my attention, and when the boys got home from school, they played nicely together more and fought less.

Now Jackie is almost one, which means she is light-years less trouble than she was as a newborn.  She's still high-needs.  It takes her a lot to get her to nap, and then she doesn't nap long.  When she's unhappy she doesn't want to snuggle, she wants to claw your face off.  It's tough.  But I'm rejoicing at every milestone she reaches, because the older she gets, the more she joins the Big Kid Gang and the more I can do other things.  That's how I managed to write a book ... though she's having a difficult phase at the moment and I can't work on editing very much.  But I expect to be able to write another book in the coming year; I can't see why not.

So.  It's a year of slow improvement.  I'm proud of how I've handled it.  I did rise to the occasion, absolutely.

What are my goals for the coming year?

1.  I want to work on publishing my book.  I believe it's good enough, or can be made good enough.  It might not be what the market is looking for.  I hear a lot that the dystopia "moment" is over and nobody wants to publish them anymore.  But perhaps I can get someone to take a chance on it.  I'll submit it to 100 agents, or even more, and if after all that I don't get a bite .... I'll move on to the next thing.  I am telling myself that if I want to get published, I can.  All I have to do is work hard at it.  Writing not good enough?  I'll just get better at it.  Story not what publishers are looking for?  I'll write other stories.  A lot of books get published every year.  There isn't any reason why one of them can't be mine.

2.  I want to write another book.  I am bursting with ideas right now.  Should it be the one with the alien with another person living in her head?  Or the space pilgrims?  Or the agoraphobic, possibly autistic inventor who has to foil a global conspiracy?  You see I'm trending toward sci-fi at the moment.  I want to keep working on my fantasy epic sometime, but maybe not right now.

3.  I have to make a decision about school for the kids for another year.  Michael almost certainly will stay in school because it's been obviously great for him.  Marko is begging to homeschool again, but I am not sure I want to put myself through that wringer again.  He is really, really hard to homeschool.  My goal is to make a decision that weighs the entire family's needs, and is right for him.  (I say "I" because John is adamantly pro-school -- he's made up his mind.  So if I decide homeschooling is better, we're going to have some tough conversations and then decide as a unit.)

4.  I want to get out of the house more.  I want to visit with friends, meet new people, join clubs.  I want to join a writer's group and actually attend the meetings.  I want to volunteer at the library to teach knitting classes again -- something I did one time this past year and liked.

In short, I want to move on, move forward.  I want to value my own dreams and wishes, because I will have the space to do so more and more.  I've learned you can't go on forever putting yourself last.

I just don't know of a word that sums all that up.  Hopefully I can think of one before we're too far into 2018!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Weighted blankets

I've been busy lately.  And I mean really busy, not scrolling-through-facebook busy.  School has all kinds of random demands lately--bring cookies for this party!  Bring grapes for that party!  Send in three dollars, must be cash, for the field trip!  There's homework, of course, a daily nightmare.  There's editing my book, which I've started now that I let it sit for a few weeks, and a few people have read it.  (They had some hard-hitting criticism, which stung at first, but I sat on it and I think they're right.  And now at least I have a direction to go in for the rewriting.)  And Christmas presents too!

For Marko and John, I made weighted blankets.  They're very popular for kids with autism, SPD, and anxiety, because supposedly the sensory input is calming.  I figured Marko's would help him be a bit less restless at night, and as for John, he's always loved big heavy blankets, but they make him very sweaty in summertime.  So he is getting one as well.  My hope is that it will feel like a big comforter without being hot.

I read some online tutorials and figured out the basics: you sew around three edges and sew some vertical channels.  Then you pour in the weights and sew across a horizontal row, pour in some more and sew those in . . . until you have little square pockets all over that hold the weights.  That's the way to make sure they stay put instead of all gathering in the corner.

You can use any number of things for the weights.  There are PVC pellets, like in beanie babies and bean bag chairs.  You can use beans or rice if you don't care that it's washable.  You can use BB pellets apparently.  I picked sand.  This was a mistake.  Sand is very dusty and I worry it will wash right out if I attempt to put the blankets in the washer.  Imagine fifteen pounds of sand in my washer.  I'm not even going to try it.  And there is a thin film of dust everywhere I worked on it, little bits of sand on the floor, sand trying to get into the crevices of my sewing machine.  I cannot recommend it at all.  Next time I'm going to see if I can find washed pea gravel or aquarium gravel, because much as I like the idea of something softer that won't feel lumpy . . . I also want something that won't get everywhere while I'm working on it.

My first step to make this was to get my old sewing machine fixed.  My Grandma J -- the grandma who taught me to sew -- got it for me for my 18th birthday.  It's been shipped across the country more than once, kept under a bed, shoved in an attic, left in a garage . . . it's had a hard life.  When Marko was a toddler, I tried to use it and found a little rubber part inside had melted from the heat in the attic where I was storing it.  I took it completely apart, ordered the new part online for a few dollars, and put it back together . . . but alas, it still didn't work.

So a few weeks ago (read: after it had been shoved in a box, broken, for six years) I finally took it to a repair shop.  The guy said it would cost me a fortune to fix, and all because I'd unscrewed something I hadn't been supposed to unscrew.  So much for my repair skills.  In addition, the bobbin case was rusted and would need to be replaced.  The repair man (who was really nice, I'll heartily recommend him to any local people who are interested) told me he couldn't possibly take my money to fix it, because it was a cheap machine in the first place and it would cost me less to replace than to fix.

That upset me because I don't have money right now for either.  So I moaned about it on Facebook and my other grandma (Grandma C) emailed to tell me to pick a new machine, whatever I wanted, and she'd get it for me.  Wow!  I was tempted to say no, but my Grandma J passed away some years ago, and all I could think was, let me let my grandma love me.  I wish I had more memories from Grandma J, let's not make the same mistake with Grandma C.  And there's just something special on sewing a machine that comes from someone in the family who also loves to sew.  So I picked out this baby:

I thought I was being greedy, because it's a high-quality machine with heavy-duty metal parts inside.  The sewing machine repairman recommended Singer as a brand that's easy to repair.  It can do all kinds of things, like a zigzagging and decorative stitches and automatic buttonholes.  But my grandma thought I was holding myself back.  Nope!  I know there are more expensive machines out there, but they're complicated computerized gadgets.  I want something simple and strong.  This fit the bill.  Reviews say it can sew through layers of denim!

The actual materials cost under $30.  The My Little Pony fabric was a little pricey, but I knew Marko would love it.  The other side of his blanket is green, like Link from The Legend of Zelda.  He wears green daily, so he can be Link, so naturally the blanket had to be green too.

John's is dark green on one side, and a green pattern on the other.  It's kind of huge -- about 3'x6'.  That size weighted blanket is over a hundred dollars online.  Whereas with the help of my sewing machine, I was able to make it over about a week's worth of naps, for a fraction of the cost.  Am I proud of myself?  Yes.  Yes I am.

The real question is, are they really soothing?  I tried John's out today to see.  It certainly did smoosh around me in an interesting way instead of tenting the way lighter blankets do.

But I didn't really love the feeling.  It wasn't constricting as I might have feared--it doesn't feel heavy, with the weight distributed over the whole blanket.  But it didn't seem to do anything for me either.  Maybe if I'd felt anxious or overstimulated I might have felt differently.

We'll see how John feels about his!  I gave Marko his already -- he was having a really hard week, and I didn't feel like waiting on something that might be comforting.  He didn't say anything about it helping, but he did really like it, and I think he might be sleeping better.

Now, of course, everybody else wants one.  But no one really cares about the "weighted" part, so I'm going to make a plain cotton blanket for each of the others.  Miriam wants pink on one side, rainbow on the other.  Michael will have to come to the store with me and pick one.

But that, alas, will not be by Christmas.  There's only four days left and Jackie is too much of a toddler for me to take out needles and scissors any time she's awake.  But I'll get them done eventually!

Friday, November 17, 2017

7 quick NaNo takes


So, given that I'm always behind on blogging, you wouldn't think I would have time to turn around and write a novel.  But apparently I was not as busy as I thought I was, because not only was I able to crank out an average of 3,000 words a day, I actually have finished the 50,000 word goal already.  I may have skipped vacuuming a couple of times to make it happen, but nobody starved or ran out of clean clothes.

Now I'm having that uncomfortable feeling you have when you turn in an exam first and everyone else takes another half hour at it.  I mean, was there stuff on the back I missed?  I feel like if I wrote it this fast, it can't possibly be any good.

I wrapped up the story in another couple thousand words, so it's technically done, but I suspect it's utter garbage.  And I really wanted it to be good.  It's tough because it's YA, and so the reading level and word count are a bit below stuff I've written before, which makes me feel like it's infantile and stupid.  And it's first person.  First person is hard to pull off.  I worry it really, really sucks and will be completely unsalvageable, so when I finally decide to do a good job on it, I'll have to rewrite the whole dang thing.  But *deep breath* at least I'll have the plot and characters, I guess?

Then again, it might not suck.  I just don't know.  I wrote it too recently to be able to even think about it at the moment.


It's a YA dystopia about a back-to-the-land cult which winds up being the only ones to survive the apocalypse.  I made the cult more-or-less Catholic, but with a trad/sedevacantist vibe.  (Sorry Enbrethiliel.)  I wanted to mine the smells and bells of my own experience, while at the same time not having them be actually Catholic, because that would offend the Catholics.  ;)  That, and I couldn't see real Catholics being quite this extreme.  The mainstream Catholic Church has many flaws, but fanatical extremism is not one of them.  So trads it was.

I suspect non-Catholics will hate it because it's so Catholic they can't even get the references, atheists will hate it because nobody actually attacks religion in the whole book, and Catholics will hate it because there are gay characters.  Everyone, in fact, will hate it unless they are me.

I really like the parts where people defend the cult, because I used real arguments people use to defend cults, but I'm afraid people will find those bits a stretch.  People wouldn't really say that stuff!  Alas, they do.

Also the part where my heroine climbs up the outside of a gothic cathedral.  You know you've always wanted to do that.


This book is supposed to be the one I actually publish.  But the thought of actually doing it makes me psych myself out worse than ever.  What makes me think, of all the people in the world who want to write books and get them published, that I'd succeed where so many fail?  I've always been a bit confident because, after all, most people don't bother to write the ideas they have, or they start but don't finish.  But the NaNoWriMo website is jam packed with people merrily writing novels and finishing them.  I thought I was a prodigy finishing so fast, only to find out there are people who finish in a SINGLE DAY.  What?!  There are hundreds and thousands of people writing and finishing books all the time.  Whole forums of people specifically writing YA dystopias with cults in them.  I feel .... a bit overwhelmed.

My dream is to publish with a traditional publisher, in print.  Apparently self-publishing is a bigger thing than it used to be, and you can actually make money at it, but somehow I still feel like it wouldn't count.  I feel like I need a professional to look at my book and declare it good before I could trust that it was.  After all, I mostly do not read amateur writing myself.  So much of it is horrible that unless it comes recommended by someone I trust, why should I waste my time?  I'd as soon watch movies high school kids made with a camcorder in their basement. And if I judge other people's writing that harshly, I imagine other people would do the same to mine.

Anyway, I feel terrified by the whole submitting-to-publishers process.  I don't know anyone who's done it and can hold my hand.  And it is uncomfortably rife with stuff like self-promotion and executive function which I suck at.  In my dream world, you just send them the manuscript, but nooooo, there are all those steps which seem designed to weed out loner geniuses who are really only good at writing.  Possibly because they have this fantasy that the same person might both write a blockbuster novel AND be able to promote themselves and save the publisher the job.

But.  This is me, promising you, my mostly imaginary readership, that I'm going to edit it and actually submit it somewhere, in a reasonable amount of time.  Unlike the epic fantasy I've written, it stands on its own.  And because YA dystopias are having a "moment" right now, I'd better do it soon if I want to have much of a chance.  There is no reason to delay and every reason to be serious about it.


Meanwhile we continue to be prey to every sickness that comes along.  For the most part it's no big deal.  We have had a bunch of colds.  We have a full cupboard stocked with baby ibuprofen and children's mucinex and everything else that can possibly help, and Michael and Miriam get over things in just a few days.  The baby takes a bit longer, but she doesn't seem to mind being sick that much.

But Marko . . . it seems every time he gets a cold it turns into something more serious.  He had a double ear infection all last week.  We had him medicated up to his eyebrows because it was the only way to get the pain down to "not constantly sobbing" levels, and even so all he could do, the entire week, was lie on the couch and stare glassily into the middle distance.  He couldn't hear unless you shouted in his face.  He spent four days pretty much sleeping, and then once we got him on antibiotics, he spent three more days just watching YouTube videos of Legend of Zelda walkthroughs and begging us to carry him anywhere he needed to go because his legs "weren't working."  It was kind of scary, even though he had been seen by a doctor and the doctor didn't think he was dying or anything.

He's better by now, more or less.  He's still coughing.  He pulled a muscle in his back with all the coughing, which gives him a great deal of distress and anxiety.  You see, when he starts to cough, it hurts, and that makes him panic, so he starts crying and hyperventilating, and so it hurts worse . . . repeat forever.  He woke up many times the other night and it was all we could do to calm him down.  We know, from his past history, that his level of freakout about pain has very little bearing on how much it actually hurts.  He used to not mention he was hurt at all, and then when we managed to convince him that pain was an important message from your body that you need to tell your parents, he started taking it too seriously and going completely bananas about it.

Anyway, I tried several strategies that are supposed to stop panic attacks (like "find five things that are blue, name three things you can hear" which SUPPOSEDLY calms down freaking-out children in seconds) and these didn't work AT ALL, but then I started asking him questions about obscure Legend of Zelda details and it totally worked.  So now if he starts to freak out and cough and cry, I start talking Zelda and it instantly calms him.  Yet another reminder that an autistic child's special interests are a good thing which can be very powerful in helping them manage the world.

sick and clutching the Master Sword


So the ear infection is, for the most part, behind us.  But I am still pretty dang worried about him.  Why does he get sick so much, so badly?  He's missed something like 15 days of school already.  He eats reasonably well (given that he hates all vegetables--but we make him eat at least some) and takes a multivitamin.  He doesn't sleep as much as the other kids, but he doesn't generally seem tired.

We did find out, when we took him to the doctor last, that he's underweight.  His BMI is 13.5, well below what's healthy even for a kid with John's long and lean genes.  I can't figure out if it's just that he's been sick so much, and he doesn't eat when he's sick, or if it's something else.  I've been tracking his food intake and it seems normal when he's not sick.  He did go a week recently when he mysteriously wouldn't eat his lunch, but he's back to eating it now.  We've added dessert for every dinner (for everyone, because we can hardly give ice cream to just one kid) and I've been making snacks and lunches a bit higher-calorie, and we'll just have to see if that makes up the difference.  If not . . . well, between that and the frequent illnesses, I'm worried it might be something serious.


Meanwhile, he is doing great in school for the most part.  He made the A&B honor roll in the first quarter, and he's always coming home knowing new things.  Sometimes he brings home a paper with everything wrong on it, and it turns out he misunderstood the directions or wasn't paying attention, but more often than not he gets good grades and the teacher reports his behavior is good.  He seems to be doing especially well in math, though that may partly just be that it doesn't require much writing.  Writing is still a big struggle for him, but it is definitely getting better.  He doesn't write in all caps anymore.  And he reads fluently now.  This is a problem sometimes, as he loves to hang over my shoulder while I'm writing or reading and start asking questions about what is on my screen.  I've never been so thankful to be writing YA!

Michael is doing amazing.  His behavior in school, the teacher tells me, is excellent and she wishes she could have a classroom full of just Michaels.  And he's learning everything they can teach him, plus some he seems to be picking up on his own.  He's sounding out words and very enthusiastic about showing off his skills with print he sees anywhere.

It can be hard to praise each child's accomplishments without making the other one feel bad.  Both are doing really well given their abilities.  Which means Michael is, technically, doing better, but Marko is overcoming more challenges, so we just have to try to praise them out of earshot of the other.  I remember growing up hearing my brother praised for his intelligence and me for my sweetness, and I thought it meant I wasn't smart.  I want both my kids to explore all their strengths and not define themselves as not being whatever the other one is!

Miriam is being very stubborn and demanding lately.  I mean, she is three and that's standard.  It doesn't bug me like it did with previous kids, and I can't say if that's because she's not as difficult at three as they were, or if I just know three-year-olds now, so I know you don't argue with them, you just wait awhile and try again later.  Or, in some cases, you just give up and let them show up at school drop-off in a bathing suit and boots and hair that hasn't been brushed since their last haircut.

Jackie is walking a lot.  She's my earliest walker now at nine months, one week.  It's super impressive and I like to show her off to everyone.  She also waves, claps, signs "more" and "all done," and responds to her name.  Naps are still a tossup; she has been known to go through the whole day on the strength of a 20-minute nap.  She doesn't eat a whole lot besides crackers.


Not sure I have a seventh thing to say, so I'll just share some Halloween pictures.

We had Link, a dinosaur, a mouse, and a cat.  Marko refused to be in a picture with the other kids because there aren't any dinosaurs, mice, or cats in the Legend of Zelda.  I have to admit that this is true.  But they also don't demand candy from the neighbors, either, so I think the authenticity was a wee bit selective there.

How have y'all been, my five or so faithful readers?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

10 plagues of families

If you have kids, you probably have sufffered a plague or two.  What do I mean?  Well, I am thinking of one month during which our family suffered fleas, mice, and flies in the house, all at once.  My mom joked that it was like the plagues of Egypt!  And she wasn't wrong.

The more kids you have, the harder it is to get rid of some of these, because they pass things among themselves.  Sometimes we've gone months where we can't meet up with anybody because we've all got something contagious.  Venture out just once, and we bring home something else!  This is one of those times; we've had colds, fevers, and sore throats circulating among us since school started.  It's pretty horrible, but on the bright side -- it's not vomiting!

Here are the ten plagues I know most about.  None of this constitutes an admission that we've had any of these!  I admit, some of these are nasty and embarrassing.  But that's all the more reason to find out what they are and how to deal with them before they happen to you.

1. Ants

Let's start out with something not too scary: ants.  I hate them, especially if they get on me.  Nothing like sitting on the ground and then finding out you sat on an anthill.  But in the house, they're more an annoyance than a threat.  You find lines of them getting under your door or through the cracks in your window frame, and they just keep coming back.

How to prevent them: Don't leave food around.  Easier said than done!  It's a good policy to keep food contained in the kitchen and dining room only, not all over the house, especially not in carpeted areas where it's hard to clean the crumbs.  Store food in places the ants can't get to, like in the fridge or in sealed containers. We keep pet food in sealed pails because the ants were getting into it when we left it in the bag.

How to get rid of them: For an occasional ant trail, wipe down the area where they are walking.  This erases the chemical trail they lay, so they aren't able to find their way back where they were.  The best thing for this is probably citrus vinegar -- vinegar you've soaked citrus peels in for a week or more.  Ants hate it and run like crazy if you spray it near them.

For a more serious problem, those little plastic ant traps are the best.  They have poison, but the poison doesn't touch any of your stuff.  Still, keep them out of reach of curious toddlers.  You can put them out at night, inside cupboards, or on counters where ants have been spotted.

If there's a certain spot you are always finding them, you might consider sealing the cracks if possible.  Or, if there's a nest very close to your door, you could pour water on it steadily for a day or two (leave the hose trickling on the nest), making it an inhospitable spot for them.  I had great luck with this when the nest was inside a flower box outside.

2. Fruit flies

How to prevent: Again, don't leave food out!  If you keep tomatoes on the counter (which you should, they aren't good refrigerated), check them daily and use or throw away any that has cracked skin.  The same goes for any other room-temperature food, especially fruits and vegetables.  If you have a frequent problem, you might want to confine fruit to inside a cupboard or under a cloth.  Take out the trash every couple of days, even if it's not full, and throw out a compost bucket daily.

How to cure: Clean up all food fragments.  Sweep the floor and wipe down the counters.  Pour boiling water down your drains, because they like to breed down there (ew!).  Then make a fruit fly trap: one piece of fruit or some fruit juice or cider vinegar, in a jar of water, with a squirt of dish soap.  You don't need to cover the container; when the fruit flies land on the water to taste it, the dish soap makes them sink.  You'll see them at the bottom of your jar.

3. Mice

Our old house was prone to mice.  I'm not scared of mice, but I didn't like finding their droppings in my silverware drawer either.  A couple of them, I was able to catch with oven mitts on (you don't want to risk them biting you) but in the end I had to resort to traps.

How to know you have them: Little black droppings like black tic-tacs are an obvious sign.  So are chewed holes in food packages.  You may not see any mice at all, but if you have these signs, you have mice.

How to prevent: Block up holes leading into your house.  Our weak point was the gap around the oil pipe leading into our basement.  Some expanding foam took care of that easily.  You can also plug any mouse holes you find within the house, where they might hide or travel from room to room.

How to cure: Those cheap spring traps are really the best option.  Poison is dangerous to have around, and you run the risk the mice will die inside your walls.  The smell is unbearable when this happens, and you basically have to wait for a month or so while the corpse rots away.  Don't do it!  Get the spring traps from the hardware store and put them out, with a bit of peanut butter on the pedal, wherever you saw mice.  When you find a mouse in one, it will probably be dead (they usually kill instantly, which is at least humane) but if it isn't, you'll have to put on heavy gloves to handle it.  It's up to you what you do with it at that point, but let me warn you -- if you catch and release, and you haven't blocked all your holes, the cute little mousey will be right back in your kitchen with its uncute droppings by tomorrow.

4. Fleas

Fleas are both unpleasant and embarrassing.  You don't want to have friends over and have them discover you have fleas -- much less carry them home!  But if your pets are bringing them in, they can get out of control before you even notice them.

How to know you have them: A pet who has fleas will scratch a lot.  You may not see any fleas, but if you brush the pet over a light-colored surface, black "dirt" will fall out of their coat.  Get the "dirt" wet, and it turns a rusty color.  That's the flea's poop, which contains your pet's blood.  If you see it, it's a sure thing, whether or not you see any fleas.  A flea infestation may also be discovered when you find bites.  They are red, flat circles, often in a pattern, like the flea was grazing along your leg.  If you're awake when you get them, flea bites sting.  Later, they itch.

How to prevent:  Talk to your vet about the best flea prevention for your pet.  The drop-on-the-back-of-the-neck kinds are really effective, but they can make your pet sick, and they're not safe for children who snuggle the animal either.  Frequent flea baths and combing are toxin-free.  Simplest of all is to keep your cats inside and walk your dogs instead of letting them roam outside.  If your pet picks up fleas in your yard, it is possible to get the yard sprayed for them.  If your pet always sleeps on the same bedding, wash it weekly.

How to get rid of them: Oh, we tried so many things, in an effort to stay all-natural.  We swept, we vacuumed.  The eggs and larvae hatch and grow in the environment, not on the pet, so if you can keep them out of the environment, the cycle will be broken.  However, that's pretty near impossible to do.  We stripped all the beds and put all bedding and rugs in the laundry room.  Started washing and drying the stuff, only to find out that heat and humidity (which was put out by the dryer) triggers hatching.  Within a day there were fleas so thickly in the laundry room that to go in there, you had to pull socks on over your pants to avoid having them go up your clothes.  Then when you came out you had to rip off all your clothes and throw them back in the laundry room, because they were hopping with fleas.  It was a nightmare.  We dumped diatomaceous earth, we made traps with lightbulbs shining into bowls, and these things only made tiny dents in the problem.  So in the end we turned to chemicals.  This is the stuff: Ultracide.  You spray it on all the carpets and upholstery and baseboards, then spray again a week later when the eggs hatch.  It's not supposed to be toxic for humans, but I did take the kids out of the house for awhile while John sprayed.  It worked immediately and (perhaps in part thanks to many miserable baths for the cat and dog, and much flea-combing) the fleas never returned.

5. Pinworms

These are disgusting, but they say most kids get them at least once.  So try to make it through this section, because you're going to need to know.  Children ingest the eggs, and the worms live in their gut for about 1-2 months before starting to lay their eggs at night on the child's anus, causing intense itching and sleeplessness.  They aren't harmful except for the itching, but you should still treat them immediately so you don't spread them to other children.

How to prevent them: Have children wash hands after playing in playgrounds or other public areas.  Encourage kids not to suck thumbs, pick noses, or bite nails.  The eggs stay on surfaces, and children who are always touching their mouths will ingest them.  Direct contact isn't necessary for them to be infected.

How to know you have them:  Children will wake up screaming at night and wailing that their butts itch.  If more than one kid is doing it and you don't see rashes, I'd consider that a positive diagnosis on its own.  But a doctor can look for eggs with swab and a microscope.  You won't see the worms themselves unless you get a flashlight and look at your child's butt at night.  They are about half an inch long, white, and as thin as a thread.  If you get infected, you'll notice intense itching that you really cannot ignore.  Mild itching when reading this post is probably psychosomatic.

How to deal with them:  There's a medicine you can buy, which is sometimes shelved with the first aid stuff and lice treatments, and sometimes behind the pharamcy counter, called pyrantel pamoate.  You do not need a prescription.  Everyone in the family should be treated, with the exception of infants and pregnant women, who shouldn't have the medicine.  (The worms will clear after a few months, provided you are scrupulous with hygiene to not reinfect anyone.  Don't even try that route with toddlers, they are just not clean enough.)  After everyone has had a dose, it's time to clean.  Wash all bedding, cut everyone's nails, wipe down surfaces.  You may want to do all this again in a week, because that is how long the eggs live.  Keep kids, as much as possible, from scratching, and make sure they wear underwear or diapers at all times.  They can have a bath, but make sure it's hot and involves soap.  No swimming or wading pools.  Within a couple days, the itching will go away.

 A week or two later, give everyone a second dose.  You may think you got rid of them the first time, but the kids have almost certainly reinfected themselves.  A second dose will kill all the juvenile worms in their guts.  If you don't do this, two months from now they'll all be screaming at night again and you'll wonder where they got it this time.  Answer: they got it from themselves.  That is how long their life cycle is.  The second dose prevents this and hopefully you won't ever have to deal with the disgusting creatures again.

6. Impetigo

Impetigo is a staph infection of the skin.  It's usually not serious, though it can get bad if you leave it too long untreated.  And it's very catchy -- the doctor told us he once treated a family of ten that all had it.  Imagine the cost of ten doctor visits.  Yeah, don't let this get out of hand.

How to prevent: Put neosporin or another antibiotic ointment on all cuts and scrapes.  Neosporin kills most strains of staph, which usually gets in through small cuts.  If one child has it, avoid sharing cups, utensils, and food.

How to know you have it: Sores like bad cold sores, whether on the mouth or elsewhere on the body.  They might be blistery-looking, oozy, or even green or purple.  Basically they look nasty and infected, and may grow instead of healing.  Impetigo by the mouth looks almost exactly the same as herpes cold sores, but the good news is, you don't really have to know which it is.  Antibiotic ointment will cure it if it's impetigo, and if it's a cold sore, it will heal on its own.

How to treat it: If neosporin doesn't work, or if you're first noticing it and the child has multiple large sores, take them in to the doctor and get prescription ointment.  The doctor may also prescribe an oral antibiotic.  If it's just one spot and it's small, go ahead and try neosporin first.  If it's working, the sore will start shrinking within a day or two.

7. Stomach virus

The bane of all families everywhere.  If one child gets it, you're all doomed.  I hardly know which is worse -- for everyone to be puking at once, or for you to drop one at a time, so that it takes ages before everyone is well again.

How you know you have it: Oh, you know.  Vomiting is not something you can miss!  If anyone has vomited in the last 24 hours, just assume it's a virus.  It might be food poisoning, it might be carsickness, it might be choking, but can you really take the risk?  Unless you are positive it's something else, stay home for 24 hours after an isolated case of vomiting and 48 hours after full-blown illness.

How to prevent it: Never ever for any reason go over to the house of someone who has just had it, or have a playdate with someone who might have it.  The virus lives up to a week on surfaces and is extremely catching.  It can't hurt to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, but if you have children, you can safely assume that any contact with the virus will result in illness.  I once got it from my siblings a solid week after they'd gotten better.  Spent half my Christmas vacation in a sleeping bag feeling the room spin and wishing for just one sip of water, which I knew I couldn't keep down.

How to cure: Alas, you can't.  I have heard of drinking grape juice as soon as you feel queasy, but I have no idea if this works.  Just wait it out.  Give children small sips of water or pedialyte -- no food until they've been vomit-free on fluids for several hours.  Infants may breastfeed, but what I do is nurse on one side only, so they're getting a bit less than usual.  That way they're getting some fluids but not too much.

Children cannot possibly make it to the toilet in the time it takes them to realize they're about to barf, so give each child a bowl to hold in their lap or put beside their bed.  Wrap everyone in easily-washed blankets and keep rags handy.  If you are puking yourself, taking care of them may be very difficult.  Keep the TV on and everything you need handy.  I wish you could get help, but unfortunately anyone who helps you WILL get it, so most likely no one will want to do that.  If they offer, they clearly would take a bullet for you.

When the children start to recover and are asking for food, start slow.  Do the BRATY diet -- bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, and yogurt.  Start with a bite or two, wait a bit, then let them have more.  Once everyone in the family is well, wipe down all surfaces with lysol, bleach, or straight vinegar.  Don't invite anyone over for at least a week, but the family can go places again once everyone has been vomit-free for 48 hours.

8. Carpenter bees

So much less of a big deal than germs.  Carpenter bees are big bumblebees that come out in about May and eat holes in your deck.  They like untreated wood best -- fences, porches, trellises.  Mostly a nuisance, but if you let them be, they'll eventually destroy all your wooden things.

How you know you have them: Holes appear in your wood, about a quarter to half an inch around.  They're slanted, so you won't see inside very well.  Sawdust may appear below the hole.  And in the spring, big black bumbling bees fly around.  They rarely sting, but my kids are terrified of them anyway.

How to prevent: Treat all wood in your yard by painting or sealing it.  Once you've got the bees, they may not be deterred, but if you don't have them yet, they will probably not get established.

How to cure: Traps are the best way.  This kind can be made yourself, or your hardware or garden store might have them.  At first, our trap didn't catch anything.  I heard it was because they prefer weathered wood and it was brand new.  But elsewhere I heard that you can attract bees by catching a female bee (the one with a black head) in the jar.  I happened to find one stuck on our screen porch, so I scooped it into the jar.  Sure enough, by the next day I was starting to catch bees.  They prefer pre-existing holes to having to chew new ones, so you'll catch more if you plug up all their old holes with caulk, wood glue, or expanding foam.

9. Bathroom mildew

Mildew is just gross-looking.  It's never caused us any harm, but I still don't like it and want it gone.

How to know you have it: black or gray patches growing on your bathroom ceiling, toilet lid, or any other damp place.  How do you know it's not dangerous black mold?  Well, the main way is that mildew comes right off, while black mold doesn't.  Here are some more tips.

How to prevent it: Ventilate your bathroom.  If it has a fan, turn it on when you shower.  If it has a window, open it after you shower.  There is mildew-proof primer you can paint your bathroom with, which may help.  Hang towels where they have air all around them, and spread out the shower curtain to dry.

How to cure it: Scrub it down every time it starts to reappear.  I use straight vinegar but bleach will also work.

10. The common cold

Alas, much, much too common.  We've been passing around different strains of it since school started.  It's usually no more than a nuisance, but coughing and stuffy noses can interfere with sleep.  And sometimes children get fevers even with colds that give adults few or no symptoms.

How to prevent it: Wash hands.  I know.  Encourage kids not to touch their faces.  One of the most common places they'll get a cold is from you, the parent, so try not to swap germs with them more often than you have to.  If you go somewhere without them, or the other parent does, wash hands when you get home.  Each child should have their own sippy cup rather than drinking yours.

How to know you have it: You know the drill: sore throat, runny nose, sinus headache, cough.  With a baby who can't talk, you'll only see the snot, so very often the first day of the cold, they'll just be inexplicably fussy.  Then the next day, they have a runny nose, and you're like "ohhhhhh."  The main difference between colds and allergies is that colds have a progression of symptoms while allergies keep the same set of symptoms, just more or less off them, as long as you have them.

How to cope with it: You can't cure it, obviously.  But plenty of rest will help everyone get through it as painlessly as possible.  A day off school isn't a bad idea.  I like to make chicken soup with lemon, garlic, ginger, and cayenne -- it really blasts the yucky feeling away.  Medicine isn't really necessary unless people feel really awful.  Unfortunately, cough medicine isn't available for children under four, but for older children you can give some before bed.  For sore throats, sore ears, and sinus headaches, ibuprofen or tylenol are available.  Ibuprofen works better and lasts longer, and there's less risk of overdose, so it's what I choose.

If their forehead feels hotter than usual, as well as dry, they probably have a fever.  (A hot face and neck is common with a cold even if they don't have a fever.)  I leave it alone unless the child is very distressed and uncomfortable, or if they can't sleep.  If it gets over 102, it's good to bring it down with ibuprofen.  They say medicating a fever doesn't make it less effective, but it can make a child feel so much better he goes back to playing, while a fever will make them rest.  With a baby, if they're not medicated, I keep them against my body as much as possible, so that I have a sense of how hot they are and my body will cool them down.  You really break a sweat doing this.

If a child has a fever, keep them home for 24 hours afterward.  Fevers often peak at night, so never assume that a fever that disappears in the morning is gone for good.  It could come back later.

Best wishes, and I hope all these plagues stay clear of your family!  But if they do befall you, I hope my experience helps you out.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nature is beautiful and terrible

This morning I went to let the dog out, as I do every morning.  Normally he runs over to where his chain is and I clip it onto his collar.  He stays out there for twenty minutes or so, does his business, and then I bring him inside again.  I wish we had a fence, but it isn't really practical with our set-up.

We do, however, have a fenced garden -- a high fence, to keep out the deer.  But lately I've left the gate open, since nothing much is growing in there and we haven't had a problem with deer getting in.

Anyway, I opened the door and let the dog out, but instead of going to his chain, he bolted into the garden.  There I saw three deer, browsing on the weeds in there.  When they saw the dog they went crazy, trying to leap away but crashing into the fence, too agitated to find the gate they came in by.  The dog went nuts, lunging for their throats and seizing their legs in his teeth.  I screamed and screamed at him but he had gone completely wild, ignoring me in his lust for prey.

I did, eventually, with a help of a long garden stake, beat the dog off the deer and drag him inside by the collar.  But for a little bit I thought, in my fear of getting bitten by him or kicked by the deer, of just letting him kill the deer.  It's nature's way, right?  I could stand there and watch him tear their throats out and see them die in terrible pain, just like those horrible nature documentaries.  I'm glad I didn't, but even though these deer got away, many wild animals did get torn apart by predators today.

In theory, I like nature.  It's perfectly balanced; the wolf eats some deer and some deer live another day, the deer eat some plants and so the plants grow some more.  On every level, nature is intricately complex, balanced, and beautiful -- if you don't particularly care about any of the beings involved.

But if it's close up, if you care about the person infected by that beautifully flourishing germ or if your heart has been softened by that adorable harp seal in the documentary ... it's the opposite of beautiful.  It's hideous and heartless.  Nature is beautiful in a very cold, uncaring way. It's an alien sort of beauty that would be created by a very alien sort of mind.

Someone told me yesterday, "If God actually intervenes directly to control the exact outcome of everything, he's kind of a douche."  They felt that a God who actually meant our world to be as it is must be cruel and sadistic, because after all our world is full of suffering and awfulness.  But I don't believe so. There's also breathtaking beauty, and I don't think a sadist would come up with anything like that.

But if you're trying to deduce God's personality from nature alone, you'd have to attribute to him all the coldness and impartiality that nature has.  Nature, by keeping the balance between the harp seal and the polar bear, has to be impartial.  It isn't swayed by the cuteness of the harp seal or the intelligence of the polar bear.  It isn't swayed by the suffering of a child dying of measles any more than it has any particular love for the measles virus.  It lets us all fight it out -- in fact, it demands we fight it out.  The only way we can survive -- and we must want to survive; nature requires us to -- is to throw all our efforts into beating all the other creatures.  God does not protect us from smallpox or hurricanes; that is entirely up to us.  Our own efforts can save us, while God won't.

Yet at the same time, God isn't biased against us either.  He simply is (if he is at all).  He builds (or allows to happen) all the complex, beautiful systems we see.  And that includes things repulsive to humans.  He lets my dog tear out the throat of a helpless deer.  If that is to be prevented, it's up to me.

I don't hate God or nature.  But at the same time, I think it would be madness to expect whatever power is behind the universe to be on our side.  We can appreciate the beauty of nature, but we shouldn't expect her to be a friend.  There's no placating her, but she isn't out to get us either.  Sometimes I look at the universe, or whatever parts are nearby, and feel awe and wonder.  But I don't pray, because I can't believe it cares.  It isn't loving or kind.  It's beautiful and terrible.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Questions about ethics

It's been two years since I stopped believing in God, but most people in my life still don't know.  When I do tell someone, invariably the first question they ask is some permutation of this: "How can you be moral without God?"

I find this strange, because at the tail end of my time as a believer, my main worry was, "How can I be moral while being religious?"  After all, religion constrains your choices; sometimes you might have to abandon something your conscience wants you to do because your religion forbids it.

But I do try to answer the question, because it's important.  Even if the asker never leaves religion, I want them at least to be thinking about which of their moral choices would still make sense in a godless universe.  Call it the Reverse Pascal's Wager -- act in such a way that, even if there isn't a God, you still haven't done anything horrible.  Believe in God without the Inquisition, is what I'm saying.  And the only way to do that is to know what would be moral if God didn't exist.

I've talked about this a lot before, so you can read all my posts on the topic if you haven't already.  Today I want to talk about a few other moral questions which I've untangled lately.

Question 1: But don't you need objective morality?

I really am not sure what people are asking for here.  Morality is mainly about being objective -- to stop being stuck in your own wants and needs, and consider what is best for humanity as a whole.  Imagine you could pop out of your own body and float above the earth, looking down.  Don't ask "what's best for me" or even "what's best for my friends" but "what's best for everyone?"  The answer that you get from that is a moral answer.  If what is best for everyone is for your nation to, say, allow refugees in -- because the risk to your nation is small but the benefit to the refugees is vast -- then that is the moral thing to do.

Ah, my interlocutor would say, but why should I care what's best for everyone?  You have to give me an objective reason to care.

Well, there is no such thing as an objective reason to care, because caring is a bit subjective, isn't it?  I could tell you there is an omnipotent being who cares, but that is a statement of fact, not a reason for you to care.  I could tell you you'll go to hell if  you don't care, but even that doesn't bring you to an "ought" -- you could claim that you don't mind going to hell.  So no, there is nothing I could say that could universally make you care about this.  It is an observable fact, though, that most people do care.  They don't actually want to make the world a worse place.  And if you really go over it with them, they might admit that they do, in fact, want to have positive relationships with other people, and you get that by being good to people.  The specific arguments against all the various evils people might attempt would be a longer conversation, but I think the arguments could be made.  It won't be an objective proof, though.  It will depend on what the person actually wants, and what their ethical concerns are so far.

Question 2: But why is it moral to care for all people, rather than just some people?

Here's a question that has troubled me for awhile.  A person who's not endowed with much empathy or conscientiousness might be talked into some basic decency because they want to have friends.  They might want to be loyal to their friends; most people at least like to think they are.  But why should they be decent to people who aren't in their tribe?  They might define their tribe as "people they regularly interact with" or "people of their religion" or "people of their race," but that still gives them plenty of people to have positive relationships and engage in trade with, without having to be moral toward strangers.  And human nature doesn't really give us much to combat this tendency with, because it naturally is suspicious of strangers.  This is why there's so much racism and ethnic cleansing and so on -- because neither our reason nor our instincts put the brakes on this tendency very much.

But it occurs to me that the basic game-theory motive for moral action still works on this level.  I am kind to the cashier who scans my groceries because we are both better off if we are both kind, while we will both be worse off if we aren't.  I could be mean, hoping she is still kind, so that I get what I want without being moral, but that doesn't work, because if I'm mean once, she'll be mean in the future.  And this is true of groups as well.  My group can practice reciprocal morality with other groups, just like I can with individuals.  It is better for the US to get along with Canada than for us to fight with Canada, so Americans should be nice to Canadians.

Of course, Machiavelli might say this only holds true if some group, in the future, might have power to hurt us.  If we wipe them out entirely, they can never get revenge on us, so we'll be better off.  And all I can say is that history does not bear this out.  Wiping out an entire race and everyone that cared about that race is virtually impossible.  It didn't work for Hitler, it didn't work for Milosevic, it's not going to work for you.  Keeping them as a powerless subclass doesn't work forever, either.  Haiti is an example of this.

Now the best way to solve tribalism is probably to increase inter-tribal interaction and relationships.  If you have several black friends, and they're actually close, odds are good you won't want to join the KKK.  If you have a Syrian friend on Facebook, you might stop suggesting "bomb the whole region from space" as a solution to the unrest there.  Basically, once you realize that the stranger is not all that different from you, that they have feelings, hopes, aspirations, and loved ones like you have, you will want to be kind.

Still, even if you're a heartless xenophobe, if you really think about it, you should be able to see that a world where people interact positively with one another is better for you to live in than a world where all nations are constantly at war and you're always watching your back in case one of your slaves shanks you.

Question 3: What is a person?

That's a brief way of asking, "How do you define the class of beings that are morally significant?" or "Who has rights?" or possibly, "But who is my neighbor?"

I was brought up keeping it simple: humans.  Humans are morally significant; no other life form is morally significant.  But that sort of leaves out aliens.  If we were to discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I would argue that we should treat them ethically, for all the reasons discussed in question 2.  They would be able to participate with us in reciprocal morality -- perhaps they might share their technology with us, for instance.  Whereas if we tried to wipe them out, we'd probably get a reputation throughout the galaxy of "these people are mass murderers, kill on sight" long before we managed to wipe them out.  So on that ground, even if we're completely selfish, we should try to be nice to aliens.

Further, just as we can empathize with a fellow human from a different country, with different experiences, because we have many things in common with him ... so too would we have things in common with intelligent aliens.  Their culture and minds would be vastly different from ours, but their experience must have some commonality with us if they're rational like we are.  We might find they make interesting friends.  And our instinct not to kill a being that has hopes and dreams and friends will likely kick in, once we get over our squeamishness over their different appearance and start communicating with them.

But of course once you draw the circle larger than "the human race" you open a massive can of worms.  Are animals morally significant as well?  Should we respect the lives, liberty, and happiness of animals?  How are we to know whether or not we should?

This is a really, really thorny problem and it isn't something I'm going to be able to hash out in its entirety here.  I do think that, to some degree, intelligence matters.  A pig or a dog, which can be trained, read a human's intentions, and solve problems seems a lot more likely to be morally significant than a shrimp or a snail, if only because the "higher" animal will experience longer, more complex kinds of suffering if it's mistreated, while the snail doesn't seem to be capable of it.  (It may be impossible to say for sure.)

My general feeling is that it is good for animals to exist and not suffer.  However, for them to die is not such a big thing.  I know this sounds odd, but animals generally do not seem to comprehend death, and so they aren't upset by being in a situation where they will die, unless they are otherwise afraid or in pain.  Most domesticated animals don't mind a lack of liberty, either, so I don't consider them to have a "right to liberty" the way humans do.

Of course the reason this is so thorny is that humans like to eat animals.  So I feel like I should be able to justify, morally, why I eat meat, or else stop doing it.  My current reason is this: either we farm domesticated animals like cows and chickens, or these animals, with a few lucky exceptions, cease to exist.  If people stopped eating meat, farmers would probably kill their breeding stock, sell them for dog meat, and go out of business.  If there is no money in cows, there is no reason for cows.  They eat a lot, and humans cannot afford such a huge drain on the world's food resources unless we're going to eat the cows.  (We also kill an awful lot of mice and birds to keep them away from our crops, but that's a whole other problem.)  Cows and chickens cannot survive in the wild; they are too thoroughly domesticated.  Pigs can, but pigs are environmentally devastating if you let them run wild, so humans would probably end up having to cull them anyway.

Given that the cow is not distressed, per se, by being kept in captivity and then painlessly killed, it seems that if it had the capacity to choose, it would prefer to live a short time than not at all.  This might change if its life were guaranteed to be full of suffering, as the lives of many farm animals are.  But if you take farming in the abstract, if it were perfectly done, I don't see a problem with eating any animal that cannot visualize and be upset by the prospect of its future death.  It's going to die at some point, anyway, and Temple Grandin pointed out that, if she were a cow, she'd rather get knocked on the head than eaten by a lion.  "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be," is a catchphrase of hers.

I do think that any animal that can suffer, should be treated humanely so that it doesn't suffer.  We shouldn't scare dogs on purpose, or keep pigs in tiny crates, or cut off chickens' beaks.  It's not my life's crusade or anything, because there are still so many humans being mistreated all over the earth, but ideally, we would be humane to all feeling creatures because we too are feeling creatures and can understand that no one wants to suffer.

This isn't something I am able to prove, per se.  There is a great deal of argument on either side of the question of animal rights.  But for the moment, I'm not vegan and have no real intention to be.  I am hoping to buy some pastured beef soon, though, because the more I find out about conventional meat, the less I want to eat it.

Question 4:  Is there any limit to how selfless you're supposed to be?

I've been bothered by "utilitarian guilt" for some time.  I mean, I've rationally worked out that I'm no more important than anyone else.  Then how can it possibly be justified for me to spend more effort on myself than on anyone else?  I just ate some ice cream.  Someone elsewhere in the world died of malaria.  Why did I buy the ice cream instead of a bed net?  Am I a monster?

I was going to call this scrupulosity, but I think if I were really all that scrupulous I would have bought the bed net.  Nah, I'm as selfish as the next person, but it does kind of bother me how selfish I am.  I mean, I could always be doing more.

And the answer, which I got from John -- whose lack of angst on this topic is refreshing -- is this: if you make the world a worse place, you're a bad person.  If you leave it the same, you're an okay person.  And if you make it better, you're a good person.  Instead of trying to divide it between "stuff I do for me" and "stuff I do for other people," why not take it as given that I, as a human being, am going to take care of myself, because that's what we do.  If I eat ice cream, and I pay the person who made it, I'm breaking even.  I didn't do anything good, but I didn't do anything bad either.  I'm still at the neutral place between good and bad.

But if once a week I skip the ice cream and give a buck to the Clean Water Fund, then I'm edging into positive territory.  I haven't done anything that great, but I did a thing and I don't have to weigh it against all the things I did for myself.  Taking care of myself isn't an ethical negative, it's a zero.

I do feel every person has an obligation to do good and not simply avoid evil, but perhaps there is no minimum amount of good you have to do before you count.  If you do something, that's good, and if you do more, that's better.

I am not sure if thinking about it this way helps anyone else, but I'm throwing it out there.

Does anyone have any other questions about morals -- either in the abstract, or my moral reasoning specifically?  Don't be bashful, I like talking about it .... to the point that I often mistake idle questions on the topic for Serious Curiosity and take up hours of somebody's time. 

(If anyone is wondering why I have been posting so rarely .... it took me a solid week to write this post.  That is how little time I have these days.)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

7 quick school takes


So the kids started school last week. [Edit: more than that now.]  That's been ... exciting.

Michael has been enthusiastic from the start.  He's been all about getting to start school and finally have some fun, learning, and social time with other kids his age.  I think he's been too much in Marko's shadow and hasn't gotten enough that's really geared toward his age, so it's great for him to have a chance to branch out.

Marko has been upset about this from the start, but he's slowly gotten more and more used to the idea.  There were only a few brief tears on the first day.  He wasn't the most nervous kid in the class, anyway.

John took off work so we could be lonely and nostalgic together.  And we were.  But ohhh, it was so QUIET!  I don't think our house has been so quiet in the daytime since 2012.


I expected things to be a lot easier when school started.  In fact, I was counting on it, and it was a major reason we signed them up in the first place.  And it kind of is.  I mean, there's a lot less noise and overstimulation and bored children clawing each other's eyes out.

On the other hand, I'm still not relieved of enough duties to actually get anything done which I wasn't previously, because Jackie is still far and away the most challenging and she's still here.  And she's going through a rough phase -- or rather, reverting to normal after a brief actually-taking-naps phase -- which makes life unpredictable and difficult.  Her naps go from five to forty-five minutes, max, while when she's awake she is either clingy and wailing, or getting into stuff.  I can't do any job which requires running up and down stairs carrying things, because then I have to take my eyes off her and I can't do that ever.  She heads up the stairs or pulls the trash can over on herself or eats legos.  If I try to clean the kitchen with her playing at my feet, she does what all cruisers do and pulls herself up by my pant legs, so I can't walk over to the sink without knocking her over.  And if my hands are covered in raw chicken or something, I can't detach her either.  It's not the end of the world, but I'm still super unproductive.  I also can't really type while holding her, thus how long it took me to write this blog post (three weeks, not even kidding.  And I'm still only on point 2).  Aaand now she's screaming again, because I pulled her off the stairs.

I just wish, if she were going to be so doggone clingy, she wanted to nurse.  But she doesn't.  Or rather she'll act like she does, and then yank off.  She's much happier grabbing stuff or clawing my face or digging her feet into my belly.  If Miriam was the World's Happiest Baby, Jackie is the World's Most Discontented.


Other reasons my life hasn't gotten much easier include the extra work that school entails.  I have to make the kids get dressed every day, with socks and underwear too.  I have to pack lunches.  I have to walk them to school.

We live approximately one block from school, as the eagle flies.  That's if we cross lots and come up behind the school.  But, despite there being doors ALL OVER the school, there are only two places you can drop kids off: the side door, which is for the "kiss and ride," and the front door, which is for parents who park and walk their kids in.  Walkers are supposed to use the front door too.

This means we have to weave through a line of cars waiting at the kiss and ride, cross the parking lot, go through the playground gate, clamber down a steep grassy hill, and take the sidewalk the rest of the way around the building.  It's too steep for a stroller, which means Miriam has to walk and our whole progress is very slow, plus I have to carry Jackie in the wrap, which neither she nor I really like.

I keep saying I'm going to call the principal and ask if we can switch our drop off and pick up location to the side door, where I can just pretend I'm a car, swing by, and pick up the kids -- but I've waited too long, and now Marko is attached to the door we normally go in by, and insists that we are never allowed to change it.  Meanwhile Michael sobs if I don't walk him to his classroom and help him unpack his backpack every day.  I could fight this, but right now the weather is nice and I'm like -- what's three times the distance, anyway?  I'm sure I'll be sorry when it's rainy.  Especially as, if I choose to drive, that means buckling two kids in, driving two blocks, unbuckling them both, walking to the door, checking my kids out, walking back to the car, buckling everyone in, driving two blocks ....

On the other hand, the kiss and ride line is so long that even with all that walking, we still get home while the cars are still stacked up.  Since school doesn't even get out till 3:40, every minute of our afternoon counts.

After school, we have snack.  I put the snack on the table before leaving to pick the kids up, so when we get inside they can just run up and eat it.  Before I started doing that, it was mass chaos as everyone was taking off shoes and throwing backpacks around and demanding snacks and hitting each other while Jackie would suddenly decide it was time for nurse and nap.  While the kids eat their snack, if Jackie isn't asleep, I unpack the backpacks and see what they've brought home.

Marko always has homework.  I consider this The Worst Thing Ever.  I mean, if I wanted to fight with him for an hour to do five minutes' worth of work, wouldn't I still be homeschooling?  It's an especial shame given that he has about two hours total that he gets to spend on unstructured play with his siblings before dinner, and half of that is going to homework.  And then I have to make dinner, so that leaves zero minutes for me to spend with Michael, who has no homework.

The hour total it often takes?  That's with me doing half of it.  I do almost all the writing, because writing is still extremely difficult for him.  There are often tears, flat refusals, hyperbole ("homework is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life"), threats ("I will never be nice to you ever again") and then, somehow, the homework gets done.  Generally I remind him of future rewards (computer time on the weekend) or that his teacher will be so happy and give him one hundred percent.  He really loves his teacher, and he loves earning good grades and points for good behavior.

Basically my day is frenetically busy between the hours of 7 and 9, and 3:30 to 7:30, but all the rest is peace and quiet.  Well, mostly.  Miriam is basically no trouble ever, as long as there are no brothers to fight with.  She plays nicely with Jackie or by herself.  Jackie is trouble, but it's baby trouble ... that is, you basically just hold her.  It's mostly pretty quiet and peaceful, and while I am theoretically supposed to be getting stuff done during the day, it's mostly a time to recharge.  I also run errands.  Running errands with only two children feels like a vacation.


What do I like about school?

I like that the kids' teachers seem super nice and they seem to be learning a lot and mostly like it.  I like that they're no longer bored and starting fights with each other all day just because they're understimulated.  I like that when they're home, they don't nag at me to turn on the TV, they get straight into serious playing.  I like that the teachers make a real effort to communicate often.

Marko's behavior in particular has gotten better.  He can be a bit on edge; he throws a fit from time to time, but not more than before.  And he's better at completing tasks independently.  He gets dressed usually with very little guidance (so long as there is a clean green shirt to wear! Lately he will wear only green shirts) and the other day he sorted all my laundry in return for a chance to watch My Little Pony.  He goes into his classroom by himself and unpacks his backpack and turns in his homework.  He's successfully communicating with people at school about his needs, and he's able to report at least some of what he did at school back to me when he gets home.  Sometimes the details are fuzzy; other times he knows in detail when the various teachers have doctor's appointments but has no idea if he has any homework.  But I'm mostly impressed he is communicating so well.  And he's started tentatively writing a few lower-case letters!

I like getting to spend quality time with Miriam instead of just dealing with the kids as a pack.  I like knowing when Jackie wakes up five minutes after laying her down, it's not because of the noise because it's nice and quiet at home.  And I like that when everyone gets home and everything's hectic, I've been keeping my calm better because I've had a (quasi) break.

What don't I like?

I don't like being away from my kids so long.  I miss them.  I wish it were only a few hours a day, or better yet, that I had it in me to provide the amount of fun and learning they need all by myself.  They leave the house at 8:30 and don't get back till almost four.  That's almost a full workday .... for a five and a seven-year-old.

With all their time spent on school, I have no time to teach them to do chores, or have fun learning experiences, or read aloud to them, or answer all their zillion questions.  Sometimes they have a ton of questions and I think "ooh we could do a cool project to learn this" but there isn't any time to do it.  Marko asked a question about why the word "indivisible" was in the Pledge of Allegiance, and I wanted to teach him about the whole Civil War, but there was no time.  I like homeschooling and so sacrificing time learning with my kids is something I kind of resent.  I envy their teachers for getting to do that kind of thing with them, and I can't even volunteer in the classroom because I have little kids.  I miss being a teacher.

I also don't like that they have only one recess per day, or that most of the day is spent on reading and writing so science and history are basically just electives.  I bet the teachers don't love that either, but it's a result of the testing and ranking that American schools are plagued by.  Apparently our school is not ranked very high.  That doesn't matter to me at all, though, because regardless of what test scores are, I can tell the teachers are caring, the class sizes aren't that large (like 24 kids each), special needs kids are getting the help they need, and pretty much everyone we run into knows my kids' names.  That's what counts for a lot more in my book.  I just wish the teachers with my kids were the ones choosing what to spend time on, because I think they'd make better choices.

I don't like all the paperwork, the fundraisers, the pick-up routines, the socialist kindergarten snack (bring a snack for the whole class once a month instead of packing for your kid), or the germs the kids bring home.  School is not the bureaucratic nightmare I would have assumed, but it is a bit bureaucratic.

Basically, Marko and I have about the same assessment of it: not as bad as we thought, but we still like homeschooling better.  So far I'm still planning to return to homeschooling next year; I figure with a toddler and no baby, it'll be a heck of a lot easier to do co-ops and activities and stuff.  But I think I'll be a lot more official about my homeschooling, with more ready-made workbooks and more hours a day spent.  I can tell that increased time and effort spent really does result in more learned; counting on my kid to eventually want to write resulted in zero writing, while Ms. M's gentle guidance has gotten him writing a little every day.   The idea is a few hours a day on the boring math and spelling stuff, and then we can keep unschooling the history and science with books and movies and projects.


So we had that eclipse, of course.  Here we had about 85%.  That's code for "basically nothing but weird shadows, unless you have eclipse glasses."  On the other hand we did have eclipse glasses, so we got to see a crescent sun.

Teeny tiny little sun!

Miriam holds a colander for some crescent shadows.

All the dapples turned crescent-shaped.  Kind of cool.

The famous "diamond ring" effect, with my head playing the part of the moon.  This was right at the peak of what we had, so you can see the sun remains extremely bright -- you couldn't photograph it without just getting a bright smear, and I couldn't even try to look at it.  All that fuss about "don't look at it" and I was not tempted at all.  It was amazing to look through the glasses and see just how tiny the sun actually is.  It looks like it takes up a huge chunk of the sky, but nope, it's as small as the moon.

I was really upset, ahead of time, that the boys would be in school when it happened.  Not only would we not get this fun, educational experience together, but they were being kept inside altogether (for fear they would look at the sun and blind themselves) and weren't going to see it at all.  But since they get out at 3:40 and the eclipse wasn't completely over till 4, I brought the eclipse glasses along and we stood on the sidewalk and had a look.  The sun was down to the "cookie with a tiny bite out of it" stage but they still thought it was super cool.

But both they and I agree that what we really want is a total one.  There's one not far away in 2024, and it makes me happy imagining having kids from 7 to 14 and having really no trouble zipping up to Ohio or someplace for a little camping.


About a month ago I first heard that pertussis was going around the area.  This ticks me off because apparently the first cases showed up in May, and nobody said anything, so I spent all summer going to the park and the library and every playdate we could.  That, and putting off the girls' vaccines till after school started because I didn't want to haul four kids to the doctor together.  Regrets: I has them.

Well, they've now had one dose, and we're not going anywhere.  So far I don't think we've been exposed.  It seems to be centered around the parish, and we haven't been there, or to any church activities.  However we've all had a slight cold, which past in a couple days for everyone but Jackie.  Of course I am worried it's pertussis and she will die.

I am also finding my new pro-vaccine views are getting more emphatic.  After going through all that research and deciding the AAP and CDC are trustworthy sources about vaccines, I'm really frustrated to see "alternative" sources peddling misinformation.  I've become pretty good at judging a website straight off -- if you're familiar, you can easily catch the phrases quacks use -- but proving it's wrong is another matter.  For instance, someone in a local group was trying to convince everyone that the pertussis vaccine doesn't prevent you from getting the bacteria, but only prevents the symptoms.  I knew the article she shared was bunk, because the blog was obviously "alternative" and peddled some theories I know are false, but it was packed full of (probably meaningless) detail and the footnotes led back to the CDC website, so it looked like it must be by someone who knew what they were talking about.  Immediately vaccinated people started worrying they were carriers and should quarantine themselves even though they had no symptoms.

In time, I eventually managed to find a reliable source that answered the first one.  The very first comment?  "That's clearly a pro-vax source, you can't expect me to trust that!"  Well ... actually, no.  I know exactly how it is.  The science itself is too complex to pick apart, so you're stuck just testing the author on how much they agree with your other beliefs.

You know how I'm always changing my mind about what I want to do when I grow up when the kids grow up?  Right now I'm thinking biology teacher.  People are growing to adulthood with no idea how to decode scientific studies and articles, journalists write about them in a way that's downright irresponsible, and you can't possibly make good decisions if you don't know the facts.


Basically, life's going fine.  I'm not actively unhappy.  I think my anxiety is a little better lately too, since I've finally been able to outsource some of the worrying.  But I'm still not back to where I was before I got pregnant with Jackie.  I'm definitely in the trenches.  I haven't gotten out my spinning wheel since she was born.  I've brainstormed some story ideas, but written nothing down.  I am still barely cranking out a blog post every three or four weeks.  It's just been a really long time since I was caught up enough on my job to do anything I want to do.

I guess that sounds greedy.  Many people would love to be able to care adequately for their kids, feed them sufficient food, have a big clean(ish) house to put them in.  The recent flood really brings that home.  And I am thankful.  Even in the past year, I have been a lot worse off than I am right now.  But it's still just a wee bit demoralizing to finish the day's work, finally collapse on the couch to watch some TV or text with a friend, and get interrupted by the sound of crying and have to slog up the stairs to nurse the baby again.  It's been seven years now that I've been doing this -- seven years that I've always been on call, always had to drop what I'm doing and go nurse somebody.  I'm tired.

And I really had hoped that I would have an easy baby this time around.  Miriam was so chill, I guess when I got another girl I was hoping it meant another chill one.  And Jackie is severely unchill.  She is fun too, at last, and I'm grateful I can play with her and exchange smiles and all that.  But she is really, really demanding.  I would have thought a fourth child would shrug its little baby shoulders and say "guess I can't be high needs, with all these other kids around here," but nope, high needs babies don't care how many resources there are around.

How high needs is she?  Well, she spends probably half an hour per day on average wailing inconsolably, even in arms.  Sometimes it's a lot more than that.  Even when she's not crying, she's not contented -- she spends a lot of her time climbing up my body, digging her feet into my gut and clawing my face.  I have a scab on my nose where she took a chunk of skin off -- even though I'm pretty careful to cut her nails, obviously.  I have scratches and pinch marks on my belly and breasts and neck.  But if I put her down, usually, she howls.  Sometimes the swing helps.  Sometimes not.  It's good that she's getting more active so she can actually play -- Miriam and Jackie and I spend a lot of the time in the playroom while she crawls all over.  If you turn over the trampoline so she can't climb on it and fall off, and make sure the legos are put away, there isn't much trouble she can get into in there.  Even then, though, she spends a lot of her time using me to pull to a stand, then grabbing my face or hair.

I'm just kind of looking forward to things getting easier.  Like when she's two, or maybe three.  I've never had no kids under three.  Imagine the things I could do.

And there she goes.  Awake again.  In the time she was asleep, I wrote point 7.  I did not clean up the lunch mess in the kitchen, or use the bathroom, or carry the laundry upstairs.  I prioritized this post, and I may be sorry.

On the other hand, she has a blond curl on the top of her head.  Were my other kids this blond at this age, and was their hair so long?  It could not have been. *rubs face in baby hair*  It's not all bad.

How was your week?  Or rather, month?
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