Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Vacation

I think I'm going to take a couple of weeks off from the blog for the holidays. May God bless you and keep you.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Landscape with Dragons, Part II

A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind by Michael O'Brien

Earlier I talked a bit about Mr. O’Brien’s assertions that what we read with our children is important on a grand scale. Later in the book, he presents some specific movies and books and shows how damaging they can be. I highly recommend this part of the book. He very clearly shows the worrisome aspects of familiar movies that really brings the concerns of the first part of the book into focus.

When one listens carefully to many of the programs made for children, one frequently hears the strains of modern Gnosticism: "if you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends."--"You decide. You choose. Truth is what you believe it to be."--"Right and wrong are what you feel are right and wrong for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must be a rebel."--"You make yourself; you create your own reality."--"We can make a perfect world. Backward older people, especially ignorant traditionalist, are the major stumbling blocks to building a peaceful, healthy, happy planet." And so forth. it's all there in children's culture, and it pours into their minds with unrelenting persistence, sometimes as the undercurrent but increasingly as the overt, central message. What stands in the path of this juggernaut? What contradicts these falsehoods? Parental authority? The Church? In film after film parents (especially fathers) are depicted as abusers at worst, bumbling fools at best. Christians are depicted as vicious bigots, and ministers of religion as either corrupt hypocrites or confused clowns. (p. 63)

I agree with him on the atrocious depiction of authority and wisdom of parents in current movies and books. For example, I found Happy Feet to be egregious in its depiction of the "elders" who thwarted the dancing penguin’s attempt to show the rest of the penguins the error of their ways. They were frightened of anything new and different and therefore banished it. In the end, of course, the elders were proven wrong and saw the error of their ways. Our kids mainly watch VeggieTales and we haven't yet had to fend off requests for any movies or shows we find worrisome.

In another time and place such films would probably be fairly harmless. Their impact must be understood in the context of the much larger movement that is inverting the symbol-life that grew from the Judeo-Christian revelation. This is more than just a haphazard development, more than just a gradual fading of right discernment in the wake of a declining Christian culture. This is an anti-culture pouring in to take its place. Some of it is full-frontal attack, but must of it is subtler and pleasurably packaged. Still more of it seems apparently harmless. But the undermining of a child's perceptions in forms that are apparently harmless may be the most destructive of all. (pp. 72-73)

It's easy enough now to weed out those books that present an obviously troubling view. It’s just those that are “apparently harmless” that can cause the most damage. We let them into our homes and only realize later (if at all) that they’ve been working against us. Mr. O’Brien takes some time to discuss some books in detail, pointing out the use of such imagery like dragons (for example), which historically were evil, as good. His point is that the twisting of the symbol of the dragon, from evil to good, is dangerous to the integrity of the child’s Christian foundation.

I know first-hand there are books, very engaging and well-written books, that can lead our hearts and minds astray in subtle ways. I read Orson Scott Card's books and enjoyed them for many years, but after reading more on the Mormon faith, I could see troubling elements in the books and am not sure I'd encourage my children to read them.

Mr. O’Brien classifies all children’s culture into four categories (p.86):

1. Material that is entirely good.
2. Material that is fundamentally good but disordered in some details.
3. Material that appears good on the surface but is fundamentally disordered.
4. Material that is blatantly evil, rotten to the core.

As he says, “There is no perfect work of art, nor is there any work of fiction that does not in some small or large way fall short of a complete vision of reality. But there is a crucial difference between a flawed detail and a flaw in the fundamental vision” (p. 103). He seems to suggest we can draw different lines in terms of reading material, depending on the age of the child, the concerns of the parent, and the amount of time we have to devote to the task. With a more mature teenager and a parent with lots of time, the more flawed material could be read and addressed with the issues causing concern being a main topic of conversation.

We must ask ourselves some hard questions here: If a child's reading is habitually in the area of the supernatural, is there not a risk that he will develop and insatiable appetite for it, an appetite that grows ever stronger as it is fed. Will he be able to recognize the boundaries between spiritually sound imaginative works and the deceptive ones? Here is another key point for parents to consider: Are we committed to discussing these issues with our children? Are we willing to accompany them, year after year, as their tastes develop, advising caution here, sanctioning liberality there, each of us, young and old, learning as we go? Are we will to pray diligently for the gift of wisdom, for inner promptings from the Holy Spirit, and for warnings from guardian angels/ Are we willing to sacrifice precious time to pre-read some novels about which we may have doubts? Are we willing to invest effort to help our children choose the right kind of fantasy literature from library and bookstores? (pp. 110-111)

I'm just not convinced that the symbolism he's pulled out of the books is reason enough to restrict all of the reading he believes is dangerous. I can see what he's saying, but I'm not sure it really makes a difference. I am, however, ready and willing to admit my own love of many books Mr. O'Brien would deem fundamentally flawed could be clouding my judgment. (Translation: I'm not ready to give up my Harry Potter.)

Mr. O’Brien does provide us with some authors that provide strong consistent Christian imagery: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald.

Ultimately, Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald are each concerned with the destiny of human souls. Their primary concerns are salvation, grace, virtue, and spiritual warfare. If at times we are uncertain about how they have used various symbols, this can be turned to the good, for it can stimulate fruitful discussions with our children...[snip]...Hard questions, sometimes unanswerable questions. But if you want your children to grow up to be thinking people, here is a golden opportunity to enrich that process. Genuine literature stimulates the asking. It is not primarily about the implanting of praiseworthy ideas, though of course that is one of its roles. Most of all it is about the imparting of the great adventure, the majesty and mystery of the moral cosmos. (pp. 158-159)

Here on the Range, we've decided to decide later. We plan to return to this book when our children are a little older and assess the situation again, erring in the meantime on the safe side by setting aside any books of questionable symbolism and depictions of spirits, dragons and nature-as-ultimate-good. (To be honest, I'm not sure we have any books like this to set aside at the moment, so it's not really a change in our reading material...yet.)

There is an extensive list of suggested reading in the back, books for various ages. I've copied down the lists for picture books and early readers. As you may be aware, previewing books for my kids is one of my absolute favorite things to do!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Landscape with Dragons, Part I

A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind by Michael O'Brien

Mr. O'Brien begins with a description of neopaganism and Gnostic tendencies in today's society. He then describes problems in the symbolism he sees in many popular movies and books, striking at those more recent Disney films in particular. In the end, he gives us an analysis of three authors who do a reasonably good job of maintaining the correct symbolism and shares an extensive list of children’s books for parents to explore.

For the first time on the Range, I’m going to split this review into more than one post. There’s simply too much I want to share. It’s not clear what impact Mr. O’Brien’s assertions will have on our family, if any, but his book has certainly garnered some spirited discussions.

A few notes before I begin:

This book is written for Christian parents. Mr. O’Brien’s goal is to adequately prepare our children for the most serious battles they will face, battles for the state of their immortal soul. He very seriously believes there are forces at work to pull our children away from Christ and the Church. I do not disagree. If you are a non-Christian parent, however, it’s not clear you would consider anything he presents as a danger at all.

Mr. O’Brien is a Catholic. Personally, I think there is much here that can be shared by non-Catholic Christians, but it’s important to note there will be some differences.

I won’t delve too much into Mr. O’Brien’s descriptions of neopaganism and Gnosticism, mostly because I’ve already returned the book and didn’t copy down many quotes because I never intended to tackle that part of the book in my review. I am easily convinced of the pervasiveness of the ideas he presented.

He doesn’t say we should avoid fairy tales or fantasy or myths. On the contrary, these types of tales can provide insights and profound truths, ones that cannot easily be portrayed in straightforward stories. He also encourages us to ensure our children are engaged and entertained.

The principle at stake in this issue is not so much our laudable desires to raise compassionate children. The real question is: What approach will best raise compassionate and courageous children? Normal childhood play, riddled with joys and conflicts as it always has been, "educates" at a profound level. The secret is not to deprive a child of his sword but to make the sword with him and teach him a code of honor. In other words, chivalry. Responsibility. Character. Justice. It is a distinctly modern prejudice that holds that a boy with a sword will probably run it through his little sister. The truth of the matter is, most boys, unless they are mentally disturbed, quickly learn that it is far more heroic, exciting, and rewarding to protect a little sister with that very sword by chasing off dragons and bullies. (pp. 36-37)

His point is not that brothers should have swords and sisters need to be protected; it’s that all children should encounter books and stories that teach, through actions and plotlines, that there is a Good and that we may seek out opportunities to do battle for that Good. The stories depict the battle in a physical way, but Mr. O’Brien contends that children innately understand that those battles may be spiritual in the “real” world.

In protecting our children from the dangers of neopaganism and Gnosticism, Mr. O’Brien is careful to separate those ideas from science and research.

Authentic Christianity has no quarrel with genuine science, with the pursuit of knowledge for good ends. But because the Church must maintain the whole truth about man, she warns that unless the pursuit of knowledge is in submission to the pursuit of wisdom, it will not lead to good; if it is divorced from God's law, it will lead to death. (p. 54)

Consider environmentalism. Our family is concerned with proper stewardship of the land and resources entrusted to us by God. It would be wrong, however, to place the state of the environment above God himself. The size of our family, for example, will be determined through prayer and petition to God, and not limited because a larger family would put a greater strain on the earth’s resources. I haven’t seen many children’s books that say you shouldn’t have little brothers and sisters, but I do try to be careful to select books that do not place the environment above people.

When the moral order of the universe is begins to know who he is, where he is, and what he is for. When the moral order of the universe is corrupted, his perception of reality itself collapses. The collapse may be slow or rapid, but the end result is a mass submersion into a swamp, in which creation is radically devalued, life becomes meaningless, and man, no longer able to know himself, is driven to desperate escape measures. (p. 40)

We must give our children a firm foundation in what is right and what is true. That includes a grasp of where man fits into God’s creation. We can only be partners in His creations, but that partnership is an ultimate Good.

Chesterton understood that culture is a primary instrument of forming a people's concept of reality. And he warned that when shapers of culture slough off authentic faith, they are by no means freed to be objective. They merely open themselves to old and revamped mythologies. When men cease to believe in God, he observed, they do not then believe in nothing; they will then believe in anything. (p. 53)

So we are charged with giving our children a firm foundation in Truth.

Because true culture has an inherent restorative power, and furthermore because art always has an authoritative voice in the soul, we must trust that over time works for truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man. It goes without saying that culture alone will not restore a society to sanity, for culture can reinforce both the good and evil impulses in man. The question we need to ask is not so much what sort of surgery should be applied to a sick body but what are the first principles of health. And in this respect, I think the classical fairy story has a great deal to teach us. (p. 119)

I don’t agree with everything Mr. O’Brien says in this book, but I think he has an apt description of our current society:

I would call [this] the Age of Noise. In the entire history of mankind, there has never been such a continuous battering of the human brain. The ever-present background throb of machinery, the roar of traffic, the high-pitched buzz of fluorescent lights and computers, Musak in elevators and supermarkets, herds of joggers wearing Walkmans, a gaggle of talk shows. A world drowning in chatter! Words, words, words!...[snip]...The mind is not renewed simply by packing more and more into it; rather it is renewed by grace and by habits of discernment and by a sincere search for what is good and beautiful and true. Silence is the natural habitat of truth. Prayer is the dwelling place of right seeing. (pp.164-166)

More to come...

Just Because I Can

That last one is First Son, wearing the same cow sleeper.

Rolling Rolling Rolling

I left her like this.

But she was on her back when I turned back around.

Second Daughter can roll from her tummy to her back! Yay!

I'm so glad she's sleeping in the co-sleeper now, so I don't have to worry about her rolling off the bed. At least not until I come to bed and fall asleep nursing her when she's next to the edge...I'll have to work on that.

Jumping to Conclusions

First Son burst into our room this morning. "It's Christmas! Look! It's Christmas!"

A lovely snowy morning, but not quite Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bringing the Nativity Story to Life

Mountain Miracle - A Nativity Story, by Alvaro Correa with illustrations by Gloria Lorenzo

I just knew I'd be able to read and review this book in a more timely manner than my previous books from The Catholic Company!

In this story, Martin and Beth are portraying Joseph and Mary in their church's Christmas Nativity scene. They seek a real baby to be Jesus, but all the infants in town are unavailable, so they pray for a miracle. In response, the one and only baby Jesus appears to portray...well, himself.

This little book shows Jesus as a real baby, warm and smiling. Becoming a mother made Jesus as infant so much more real for me. I can still gaze down at my youngest daughter and remember the thrill I felt when I realized Mary had once held her son, our Lord, just as I snuggled my son. That wonder and gratitude for His humble birth as a man is something I'd like my children to experience.

What I really loved most about this story were the illustrations, especially the one shown on the cover. It's so soft and blue. The lines are loose, light, as if the illustrator just needed a slight wave of her hand to create them.

It's a sweet little story, though I found the language a bit awkward in parts. Perhaps it's a reflection of the translation. I read the first chapter aloud to First Son, but it didn't seem to hold his interest. Hopefully a year from now he'll have more experience with longer books. I suppose there's even a chance he could read it to me.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. I have not received any payment for this review, but I did receive a free copy of the book Mountain Miracle by Alvaro Correa.


I tried to take a nap with Second Daughter today, but she wasn't interested in sleeping. Finally convinced I'd have to live without it, I left her on the futon while I made myself a cup of tea.

I found her like this when I returned.

First Daughter jabbered and played for her nap today, finally convincing me to come in after about an hour and fifteen minutes when she yelled, "I'm ready to be done with my nap now!"

First Son, meanwhile, convinced me to skip his reading lesson so he could practice drawing "cannibal" chickens.* (We don't really have a schedule for reading lessons. Since we usually have them every day, including weekends, we're moving very quickly through the book and I think a few days off here and there can be a good thing. He did read through a couple more of his Bob books. I just love that he loves them!)

* Translation: mechanical chickens, from VeggieTales - An Easter Carol, which we're watching every day because he received it for his birthday.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Practice Makes Perfect

There's nothing like making a pie to remind me that there are some things that just must be done to be done well. Piecrust is one of those things. To be really good at it, you must make a lot of piecrusts. I do not, mostly because they take more work than those quick breads of which I'm so fond, but also because they are usually quite dangerous to our health.

Birthdays, though, deserve something special. Since we still had cupcakes in the house, I convinced Kansas Dad he wanted Peanut Butter Cream Pie, recommended by MaryJane, who should know. Poor Kansas Dad had to help me out with it a bit as my wrist doesn't take kindly to stirring thick things. (Usually I use my mixer, but there's no substitute for folding by hand.) Luckily, this piecrust didn't have to be perfect to be yummy.

I'd like to try it again. I'd risk using my food processor to cut in the butter and I want to try it with creamy peanut butter rather than extra crunchy. Given the calories and questionable nutritional value, I won't be making it again soon, though.

Happy birthday, Kansas Dad! (We had to celebrate early because we're celebrating Christmas on his real birthday.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Growing Up


First birthday:

Second birthday:

Third birthday:

Fourth birthday:

Birthday Pictures

First Son has his first real birthday party yesterday. We hosted it at a local church and they provided a bouncer for the kids. First Son and First Daughter tested it out for a good fifteen minutes before anyone else even arrived.

First Son let us light some candles for the first time. (He's been anti-candle until just recently.) He placed the candles and blew them all out. I can't tell you his wish, though!

Second Daughter had a good time, too. She barely fussed, even when she was very sleepy.

First Son asked all day today if he could have his friends over for another birthday party. I think he missed them. We didn't do much today for the actual birthday. We had noodles with sauce and cheese for dinner and some more chocolate coins and he smiled every time we called him the "Birthday Boy." He also read through the first three of his Bob Books, which was very exciting for all of us! He also spent the day trying out his new Jonah game and all the puzzles he received as gifts. He was even excited to wear some of his new clothes.

I cannot believe my little baby boy is five years old. I very much remember his birth day and his first few weeks. Life has a funny way of happening when we're busy doing "stuff," doesn't it?

Happy Birthday First Son! I miss the chubby baby you were, but I'm so excited to get to know the boy you're becoming.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Party Party Party!

We had a birthday party for First Son today (who turns five tomorrow!) and it was wonderful. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have some pictures to share, but right now I have to tackle dishes and laundry and finding all the pieces of my cupcake stand.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Holy Hour on a Holy Day

Kansas Dad decided he'd like to attend mass today on campus so I slipped away to church on my own last night. That's right. I left all three kids at home. The older two were watching a video and the youngest was sleeping. I hardly felt myself as I drove down the road in the little car I never drive.

Just me. By myself. Sitting in the pew. I could think. I could pray. I could listen attentively to the homily. Our priest truly made it a holy mass. We sang all the lovely Marian hymns. It was simply wonderful. I felt refreshed after mass (when usually I'm just relieved).

I do not want to make a habit of attending mass without my family. I love having my little ones with me. I love the moments when they seem truly entranced by the mass (few as those may be). I am thankful, though, for the little time I had last night, just me in the church.

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Stockings Were Hung

It's hard to tell in the picture, but they were filled by good St. Nicholas. First Son was so excited on Saturday morning, he accidentally pulled all the stockings down. Luckily, his little gifts soothed his aches. For posterity's sake, we'll record that St. Nicholas left each of the older kids some chocolate coins, six little candy canes (which we now know First Daughter does not like), chopsticks (oh, the kids love eating with chopsticks!), some Jonah cards, and a flashlight. After emptying the stockings, we feasted on chocolate chip pancakes!

First Son talked about St. Nicholas the rest of the day and even decided to write him a letter. It's not clear that he realizes the difference between St. Nick and Santa Claus, but we'll work on that. I'm hoping next year to have a book to read about St. Nicholas. Anyone have suggestions? I haven't had a chance to read through the suggestions here yet. (I'm also tempted to make cookies next year. There are a number of traditional cookie recipes for the feast day.)

The kids spent Saturday night with Grammy and Paw Paw so Kansas Dad and I could enjoy a dessert reception at his university (where Second Daughter was much treasured) and an evening out on the town. (We went to one bookstore until it closed, then had dinner, then went to a second bookstore until it closed. We're real party animals.) It was wonderful! Second Daughter even sat in a high chair at the restaurant while we ate. Such a treat for Mama to have both hands free!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Classic for a Reason

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I am always refreshed when I pick up and read a classic. A book that's been treasured for a hundred years or more is almost always of value. I made the mistake of reading Great Expectations when I was not ready for it and I think it soured me on Dickens for far too long. I am so thankful I decided to give him another chance because this book was magnificent. The prose was wonderful, the action was riveting and the depiction of the French Revolution (though horrible) was a wonderful example of a living book. I won't bother giving a proper review (though it would be good for my "narration" skills) because you can find thousands of them on your own. Instead, I will let G. K. Chesterton speak (from the Introduction reprinted at the back of my copy from the library):

Yet with everything against him [Dickens] he did this astonishing thing. He wrote a book about two cities, one of which he understood; the other he did not understand. And his description of the city he did not know is almost better than his description of the city he did know. This is the entrance of the unquestionable thing about Dickens; the thing called genius; the thing which every one has to talk about directly and distinctly because no one knows what it is.

So, anyone have a favorite Dickens book they recommend I read next?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Gifts

The kids and I have been having some Christmas fun. We've decorated the tree (Monday), baked Christmas cookies (today) and finished our family ornaments (except for gluing on the ribbons, which I'll do myself...maybe even tonight!). The Jesse Tree is languishing, but the Advent Wreath and two Advent calendars are getting some use, which is the most fun for the kids. Now I'm contemplating just doing the Jesse Tree readings by myself as I think it might be good Advent preparation for me.

Anyway, I will probably post some pictures of our toddler-decorated tree (pretty much all the ornaments are on one of five branches at the bottom) and the cookie decorating they did today (actually quite good, though how can you go wrong with M&Ms on sugar cookies with homemade icing?), but I'm feeling a little too lazy to swap chairs with Kansas Dad and turn on the other computer (where all the pictures live) so instead I'll write about something that's been on my mind...the best Christmas gifts ever.

Here are my top three Christmas gifts (in no particular order):

1. My keyboard. I haven't played it in years (though the kids like it), but of all my childhood gifts, it was my most cherished. I was in junior high. A keyboard was all I wanted and I was devastated on Christmas morning when there was no big rectangular box with my name on it. I've always thought of myself as an intelligent gal, but I was concentrating so hard on not crying I didn't even think to ask myself why I was opening gifts like a monster pack of size D batteries or some weird electrical plug. Yeah, you guessed it, the keyboard was in another room. I loved it. There's a good chance I'll never get rid of that keyboard, just for the memory of that Christmas. (It's good for my ego, too, to remember how I completely failed to realize what my parent's had done.)

2. My most beloved Christmas CD. For me, the Christmas season didn't really begin until Anne Murray's Christmas Wishes graced our stereo. At some point, I bought the CD for my parents to replace their tape (or was it a record?...oh my). Well, after I got married and had a home of my own, I tried to find the CD and found to my shock and dismay, Anne Murray had a new Christmas CD out and I couldn't buy the old one. The new one just wouldn't do; it wasn't Anne Murray I wanted, it was the Christmas music of my childhood. A couple of years ago, I received it as a gift from my parents. They'd wrapped up and given me their own copy, just because it meant so much to me. I still love it. I've been listening to it all day.

3. A waffle iron. Kansas Dad loves a hot breakfast. He bought this waffle iron for me because I like waffles more than pancakes, but that's not what puts it on this list (though it was thoughtful of him). No, what puts it on this list is that we ate waffles about once a week for at least a year after I opened this gift one Christmas...and I never ever made them myself. In fact, years and years later, I still have never used this waffle iron. This, gentlemen, is the only kind of kitchen appliance gift allowed for your wives (other than something expressly requested).

I've gotten plenty of good gifts in my day, but these are my three favorites. (Unless we count First Son, who was born exactly two weeks before Christmas five years ago.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Big Kids

First Son and Second Daughter had well-child visits last week. I actually drove everyone there first thing in the morning on Monday, only to call from the parking lot and have my suspicions confirmed that the appointments were on Wednesday. So we left and did the whole crazy run again two days later. Having both appointments at once was a little disconcerting for me. They gave us two nurses and had First Son out of the room quite a bit of the time to check his eyes and ears and such without me. I'm not sure I liked that very much, though he handled it all with good nature. He also had fun with the developmental tasks they gave him: standing on one foot, hopping on one foot, putting a piece of paper under or behind himself, etc. As expected, both kids are healthy and on track developmentally.

Though most of you don't care about the specifics, I must record them here because this blog serves as our baby books.

First Son:

Weight: 48 pounds, 90th percentile
Height: 45.5", between 90th and 95th percentile

Second Daughter:

Weight: 16.75 pounds, 95th percentile
Length: 26", 95th percentile

I think my little baby may need to move up to 6-9 month clothes soon, especially with the extra bulk of cloth diapers (though most of ours are quite trim). I just got all those clothes organized and packed up so I'm a little loathe to pull them out again, but I will force myself to do so before we go on vacation.