Sunday, December 28, 2008

Money Matters: The Spirit of Giving

It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, an hour and a half before Christmas Eve mass, when I called the girls to the kitchen to make envelopes for their church donations. I gave them each a piece of card stock folded in half which they could decorate before sealing their donation safely inside. One at a time, they retrieved their ceramic cat banks from the kitchen shelf, opened them and, with remarkably little assistance on my part, counted out their money.  Emma the Brave was expected to give 4 Francs and Might Mouse, 3F50.  Twenty minutes later, without a whimper or hint of a tear, the two slid their packets toward me to be taped shut. Emma the Brave had given an extra 2 Francs, bringing her total to 6. 

I was stunned by their generosity. After all, these were the girls that nine months ago fought over not having the same number of coins in their banks, regardless of their inherent value. One might argue that they are nine months older and, therefore, more capable. True. But here are a few other elements may have played a part: 

A Weekly Allowance
Receiving a small sum weekly provides a child not only a sense of monetary value, but also of time. A child learns that the amount and day the money is received is not negotiable. This discourages impulse purchases and, as credit is not an option, saving toward a goal.  

As you may recall, the girls' first purchases with their allowance were the first items they could afford: two junky plastic motorcycles. Within a day in their possession, both bikes had broken, leaving the girls to experience their first bout of buyer's remorse. As a result, their future purchases became increasingly more studied. They even pooled their funds on occasion, buying toys together and displaying a resourcefulness I hadn't anticipated. 

A Designated Bank
Having a fixed location where money is kept safe is essential. Money is not a toy, but a tool to be used with utmost discretion. 

Shortly after instating allowances, I presented the girls with two ceramic cat banks in different colours: green for Emma and blue for Mouse. Along with them were two small spiral-bound notebooks to keep track of their deposits and withdrawals.  The books and banks were thereafter kept in the kitchen where their use could be monitored.  Money could not get lost or be given as tokens of friendship or remorse. Also, by keeping a record of their purchases, it was easy to quell fears of inequity. ( "See, you bought your deck of cards, that's why you don't have as much money as Emma any more.")  

Quarterly Virtual Donations
We introduced the concept of giving money to charity as a condition to receiving an allowance. Every three months, a designated amount (in our case, 1 Franc) was deducted from the girls' balances and earmarked to be given at Christmas Eve Mass, the most tangible opportunity we could think of.  By deducting the amount slowly over the year, its potential negative effect was diffused. It also brought up the topic of giving on at least four separate occasions.  By the time Christmas Eve came about, the girls didn't question what they were giving or why.  And, given Emma's generosity beyond what was required, I believe underlying value had struck home. 

So what will 2009 bring in the topic of Money Matters? Not too much. I think the amount the girls receive as an allowance is adequate and its use is well controlled. The only significant change will be to introduce other possible non-for-profit organizations where their donations could be put to work. As I discover them, so will you, under a new label called 'Kid Power.'  I plan to uncover at least five different organizations that kids can get their minds and muscles around.  If you've ever watched kids attack a pinata, you know the kind of energy I'm talking about.  Move over Walter the Farting Dog. Make room for Kid Power!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Season's Greetings à la Suisse

Vacance de Noel is finally here and not a moment too soon. I had only just put my novel's latest draft to bed when the call came: one of the teaching assistants at the school was sick, could I come in? Eager to put my shiny new work permit to the test, I was quick to accept. I would have to do lunch duty a few times, would that be a problem? Pshaw! I thought. Bring it on.

I have since come to the conclusion that there is a special place in heaven for lunch ladies. Strive as I might, I cannot recall the faces let alone the names of the martyrs who, year after year, paced the cafeterias of my youth. Of course, back then, I'm fairly certain none of my buddies carried anaphylactic shock kits with them, or if they did, they kept their secret well hidden.

I had just finished passing out the hot lunch plates--hamburgers on sesame seed buns--when a young girl ran up to me. She had swallowed a sesame seed that her table mate had flicked in her direction. Already her lips were tingling and turning red. She guided me to the box where her anti-histamines were kept. I watched as she counted eight drops from the bottle onto a spoon, then swallowed them. I hovered, waiting for them to kick in, all the while declaring an official cease fire in the battle of the buns. In the end, all went well. The drops had done their job and an all-out hamburger war had been averted. Day one of lunch duty was over. Two weeks later it's safe to say I may never enjoy this aspect of the job. There was bound to be one.

The girls are beside themselves with anticipation: euphoric one minute and miserable the next. I've had to wake them for school every day for the past three weeks. Given their normal tendency to wake earlier than your average rooster, this behavioural shift is indeed remarkable. Emma the Brave charges down each morning to devour her advent chocolate. Mouse is, for the most part, saving her chocolate squares for Christmas morning. Emma's warned her that eating that much chocolate at once will amount to a big tummy ache. Mouse is not concerned.

Geneva is poised on the brink of yet another Christmas. Lights, however understated, are strung up. Restaurants are serving vin chaud and small wooden shacks have sprouted on street corners selling roasted chestnuts or marrons. The grocery stores are stocked with mounds of shellfish and are accepting orders for Christmas turkeys--fresh never frozen. There are sweet potatoes and cranberries for us North Americans who can't go without. Platters of dried fruit sit wrapped and ready for giving. In the midst of all this hoopla it's easy to forget what this celebration is about: a long time ago there lived a man who dreamed of peace.

Wishing a happy, healthy holiday season to you and yours!

May peace be with you,

Mighty Mom

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Santa à la Suisse

Santa and star ornament made by Mighty Mouse

Santa and star ornament made by Emma the Brave

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Review: Revealing Minds by Craig Pohlman

It seems so long ago now, but in my life before kids I was a physiotherapist. As such I was an expert assessor of the neurological, cardiorespiratory, and musculoskeletal systems, combining subjective history and objective testing to formulate working diagnoses and subsequent treatment plans for my patients. Not until reading Dr. Mel Levine's A Mind at a Time five years ago did I consider that struggling learners require a similar systematic approach. In Revealing Minds: Assessing to Understand and Support Struggling Learners, Craig Pohlman delves into the nitty-gritty of assessment, using a neurodevelopmental framework to organize findings or 'phenomenae' and to assist in developing a learning plan.

Have I lost you already? Perhaps. Let's use Dr. Pohlman's book to figure out why.

Assessing Attention
Were you paying attention? There are multiple facets to one's ability or inability to attend to the task at hand. Did you sleep well last night? Do you ever sleep well? To take in new information you need to have adequate mental energy. You also need focused cognitive activation so that you don't drift off task. For instance, when you read the word 'neurological' above did you think about your dearly departed granny who died of a stroke? If so, you might have completely missed the point of the paragraph, through no fault of your own. A third aspect of attention is one's production control system which has more to do with controlling what you do, or your output, than what information comes in.

Assessing Memory
My second sentence above is a doozie! Thirty-two words, in fact. I'd say its a personal record, if I kept track of such things. It would be easy to forget the beginning of the sentence by the time you got to the end, especially if your short-term memory was weak. There are also quite a few long and potentially unfamiliar words, demanding you, the reader, to access your long-term memory for clues as to their meaning. Each word is composed of 2 to 15 letters, each with their own individual sound which imposes on the reader's paired associative memory. Quite frankly, it's a miracle the sentence can be read at all.

Assessing Language
Reading draws upon one's receptive language abilities. It begins at the phonological level, as the brain converts letters on the page into sounds, a highly unnatural process. Not only do the formulated words need to be understood, but also their relative meaning given the sentence structure and context. "When push comes to shove," is an expression that could summon violent images in the mind of the most literal reader.

Other Neurodevelopmental Factors to Consider
My opening paragraph put no demands on your Spatial Ordering. If, however, I were to ask you to copy a pencil sketch of a three dimentional cube, that would be another thing altogether. Temporal-Sequential Ordering comes into play when assembling Ikea furniture. Neuromotor Function refers to your ability to control your body's movements. It can be broken down into four main categories--gross motor, fine motor, graphomotor, and oromotor--none of which are being significantly taxed as you read this blog. Higher-order cognition, on the other hand, is working overtime to see the parallels between physiotherapy assessment and treatment and those used to help struggling learners. Finally, Social Cognition may come into play when you leave a comment. Will you be friendly or analytical in your response? Or both? Which would be most appropriate given the present context?

Revealing Minds is an absolute treasure for any educational professional who wishes to better understand and thereby assist their students. It is not a system of assessment that will result in a label. On the contrary, it will produce a clear, individualized student profile highlighting not only weaknesses, but also relative strengths and affinities. Neurodevelopmental Assessment is no more restricted to testing than is physiotherapy assessment. Extensive history taking is key, not only from a child's teachers, but also from parents and the students themselves. The appendices are extensive, offering abundant supporting research, tests and batteries, and learning plan resources. I can't over emphasize how eager I am to put Dr. Pohlman's approach into action. It's not a question of if, but when.

Reindeer Sighting in Corsier

It's the last week of school before Christmas, the week when tradition dictates Honey wear her furry red antlers on the walk to and from école de Corsier. Typically stoic commuters along the route de Thonon wave and smile from their cars, some even rolling down their windows to shout their season's greetings. Children who on any other day give our excitable pooch a wide berth beg their mothers to pet her. And, all the while, Honey basks in the glow of general approval.

Perhaps it's not her most regal look, but its effect is now rippling through Geneva, one smile at a time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Grinch in the style of Mighty Mom

Every Scrib down in Scrib-ville

Liked writing a lot…

But the Grinch

Who lived just north of Scrib-ville

Did NOT!

The Grinch hated writing! In fact, reading, as well.

Now, please don’t ask why, for he never will tell.

It could be his prescription wasn’t measured quite right.

Some might argue he still gripped pencil too tight.

But, whatever the reason,

His eyes or his grip,

The Grinch stood on Christmas Eve, hating the Scribs.

For he knew every Scrib down in Scrib-ville below

Was revising their stories and making them glow.

“And they’re penning their poems—their Christmas cards, too.

I can just hear them now, ‘Season’s Greetings to you!’”

Yes, he’d had quite enough. But what could a Grinch do?

Then he got an idea!

An awful idea!

The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!

“I’ll dress up like Santa and go into town

At night when the Scribs will for sure not be found.

And I’ll take all their paper, their pencils and pens,

Their books and computers, their useless book ends.

With nothing to write with and nothing to read

Not a word would be heard—quite a Grinch-y good deed.”

That very same night,

With old Max and his sleigh,

He slid into to Scrib-ville, his plan underway.

In no time at all he had filled all his sacks

With laptops and journals and pens in their caps.

He was at the last house when a little voice cried,

“Santa, why are you taking my story books? Why?”

He turned around fast, and what did he see?

Little Susie-Lou Scrib who was no more than three.

But you know that old Grinch was so smart and so slick

He thought up a lie and he thought it up quick.

“They’re missing two commas and some onomatopoeia.

I’ll fix them at home, then I’ll bring them back here.”

And as Susie-Lou Scrib went to bed with her cup,

The Grinch went to the chimney and stuffed the books up.

It was quarter past dawn…

All the Scribs still asleep

When he packed up his sleigh and away he did creep.

He had every last word

Not a one had he missed:

The phone books, the flyers,

the last grocery list.

Three-thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpit,

He road with his load to the tiptop to dump it.

Once there, the Grinch paused,

For wouldn’t you know,

He wanted to hear the Scribs waking below

“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two

and, with no word to be heard, they will all cry BOO-HOO!”

So the Grinch put a hand to his Grinchy green ear

And stood listening hard for what he wanted to hear

But then over the crest of the new fallen snow

He heard a soft sound and it started to grow.

All the Scribs down in Scrib-ville

The tall and the small

Were sharing their words with no paper at all

“How could this be so?”

The Grinch said in a rage.

Words lived on in Scrib hearts and not on the page.

And what happened then?

Well, in Scrib-ville, they say.

That the Grinch’s tight grip grew three sizes that day.

He whizzed back into Scrib-ville, replete with his load.

Returning every last item, or so it’s been told.

And where’s the Grinch now?

Well, with his Grinchy-ish diction

He’s taking a class in

Creative non-fiction.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo Cabret is an orphan living in the walls of a Paris train station doing his utmost to stay alive and undiscovered. He has in his possession two items from his deceased father: a broken mechanical man (or automata) and his father's notebook containing sketches on how to fix it. Hugo believes the pen-holding automata, when repaired, will write a message from his father intended for Hugo alone. Determined to perform the repairs, Hugo steals parts from an elderly toymaker only to uncover an even greater mystery than his own.

I bought The Invention of Hugo Cabret simply for it's notoriety: it was a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the 2008 Caldecott Medal. I wanted to have the book that had reputedly changed the face of children's book publishing forever. As I read, I was awestruck by the inextricable use of words and illustration. I found myself wishing I were a writer-illustrator with the freedom to go non-verbal whenever the spirit and story moved me. I can't say the tale, itself, will become a personal favourite, but its telling is unprecendented and an experience I won't soon forget.

Bravo, Mr Selznick.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Santa Hats Off to Four Go on an Adventure

A dear friend of mine over at Four Go on an Adventure has started a Musical Advent Calendar. Being of similar 'vintage' myself, I can't help but get a kick out of her early choices. Here's one of my personal favourites I only discovered last season, courtesy of Straight No Chaser.

Hit it, boys!

FYI: Last year this video was uploaded to You Tube by one of the members and received over 6 million hits. Thanks to their overwhelming popularity, the original members of Straight No Chaser have put together their first album entitled Holiday Spirits. It's wonderful. Way to go, guys!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogging My Novel: 25,0000 Words

It was late afternoon today when I clicked 'recount' and saw the magic number for the very first time: 25,000! My novel is now officially 50% longer than it was three weeks ago. I am a bit shocked, to be honest. This past September I thought it was done. Sure, there was some opportunity to polish, but the bulk of the work was finished. Then I was told it was a bit short--I believe the exact expression was 'rather slight.' Could I see making it longer? Little did I know...

As much as I love a tally, it's time to stop counting. Word count is rubbish without quality. I'm just glad to have this hurdle out of the way. I'll be working chapter by chapter in reverse order, searching for ways to deepen the story without slowing it to a death march. At the end of this week it will be tucked away for the holidays, to be revisited in the dawn of 2009. In the meantime I'll be blogging like there's no tomorrow.

Who knows? This might just work out!

Goal: 25,000 words

01 Dec - 25000 !!!
28 Nov - 24077
27 Nov - 23365
25 Nov - 21637
24 Nov - 20641
21 Nov - 19938
20 Nov - 19356
18 Nov - 18901
17 Nov - 18363
14 Nov - 17260
13 Nov - 16930
12 Nov - 16777
11 Nov - 16632

Friday, November 28, 2008

Book Review: Jack: Secret Histories by F. Paul Wilson

Not much happens in Johnson, New Jersey until the day 14-year-old Jack discovers a dead body in a wooded area near his home. Soon after, members of an exclusive lodge in Johnson begin to die, one after the other. Driven by intrigue, Jack and his friends work to uncover the secret behind these suspicious deaths. But can they do so without becoming victims themselves?

Read more here at the Well-Read Child

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Blogging My Novel: Leaping into Draft 7

In case no one noticed, I fell off the blog wagon last week. I spent all day Monday and half the day Tuesday re-reading my novel and reviewing all the criticism it's received in its current state. I figure I read the bloody thing six times in two days--enough to challenge anyone's resolve. Tuesday afternoon I boiled my intended revisions down to seven tidy bullet points and sent them off to my 'interested-but-not-yet-representing-me' agent. That night I slept like the dead. The process of revision had begun.

What makes me so anxious about this draft is that what Draft 6 lacked can't be fixed with a few lines of funny dialogue or the odd omitted detail. Increasing a manuscript's length by 50% requires a major plot twist. It's like taking a two act play and squeezing in a third halfway between intermission and the grand finale. It's enough to make my brain cramp just thinking about it.

I am happy to report that sitting down to work is less painful than the anticipation of it. In only four partial days I've already boosted my word count by over 10%. More importantly, though, I think I've found the plot twist it needs. It came to me Friday night while cooking pork chops, go figure. I don't have all the details yet--doh, there goes that brain cramp again--but a year ago at this time I didn't have a novel.

Well, that's just about enough writing for one day. Always a sucker for public ridicule, I'll be posting a tally of my progress in the sidebar, so be sure to check in.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

When in Reims...

It was 1o o'clock in the morning and raining when we arrived at the Gonet winery, but my friend C and I weren't complaining. We'd been in the Champagne region less than 24 hours, and already we'd feasted on prosciutto di Parma and Gouda on French baguette, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee as black as peat. The bus had arrive à l'heure at our lovely hotel on the outskirts of Reims (pronounce a bit like the Engish word 'rince' with your nose pinched), setting in motion the answer to a silent promise we'd made ourselves not so many years ago: we would visit Champagne, husbands be damned. But raining it was, and quiet. The house, completely dark. But we were exactly where we were supposed to be: on the cusp of fulfilling a dream.

Minutes later an elderly man appeared. Monsieur Godet himself, hair still slick from his shower.

"I am sorry," he said, his r's rolling with utmost French civility. "It is a holiday in France today. It is the day we visit the graves. Between my wife's family and my own, we have five to visit. I did not expect you."

He had me at, "I'm sorry." The gentleman was forgiven.

Monsieur Godet escorted us past his large steel vats of this year's stewing juice, to the elevator that took us into his cellar. He showed us the cages where he loaded hundreds of bottles at a time so that the sediment from the wine's second fermentation, that which produces the wine's characteristic bubbles, would settle down to the cork. He showed us the machinery that would later uncork, fill and recork the bottles; the forklift that stacked the cases; and the nooks and crannies where his workers didn't come often enough.

"They work 35 hours per week," he said. "No more." His sigh spoke volumes.

Shortly thereafter he escorted us to his lovely banquet room reserved for tastings. Its windows overlooked rolling hills of vineyards as far as the eye could see. The tables were adorned with handpainted bottles of conspicuous vintage; the walls bore certificates of honour. On a long central table lay a tray of nearly two dozen champagne flutes. Along side were four bottles he'd painstakingly chosen for our pleasure. At the table's center was a large silver spittoon beside a plate of the infamous pink biscuits of Champagne. Let the tastings begin.

He poured his Champagne Reserve Brut to start. It was lovely with fine bubbles and a pale colour. The glasses were filled more than the typical drab afforded by Swiss caves. I was impressed by his generosity. Half way through, I heard the pop as the second bottle opened. Curious to compare, I scanned the room for a place to empty my glass, still half full. I found my way to the center of the table and tipped my flute into the silver spittoon.

The second glass had a remarkable nose. "Honey," we all agreed. I sipped slowly and appreciatively, but when third bottle made it's appearance I turned again for the large silver vessel. I was mid-dump, past the point of no return, when our charming host cried, "Not the vase!"

I can only be grateful that he'd not cried, "Not the urn!" Had I poured his lovely cuvé over the ashes of his dearly departed belle-mère I fear I might not be here to write this post.

I honestly never noticed that I was the only one pouring off my glass. I apologized profusely and for the rest of the day never once poured my coupe into anyone's precious family heirloom.

It was a lesson that I will not soon forget: when in Reims, one drinks.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Warding Off the Rejection Fairy One Draft at a Time

I've received what one might refer to as a request for unrepresented revisions. They like my novel enough to ask to see what else I can do with it. There's no guarantee they'll produce an offer once the revisions are done, but I'm at least out of the slush pile. In this mouse-seeks-cheese game of children's literature, this counts as one baby step forward. They've also asked to see what else I've written--another step. Yesterday's excitement is giving way to abject fear today. I'm sure once I get into the thick of it, my apprehension will dissipate, but until I do I'll be trembling here in Corsier.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Long Story Abridged

"Oh, thank God!" These were the first words that escaped this morning when the radio announced that Barack Obama had won the 2008 US Presidential Election.

"What? What is it?" the girls asked, pausing their spoons mid-bite.

"Sshh," I said, straining to hear more.

He'd won. The American people had decisively elected a person of colour to the White House. "He won!"

"What, Mommy? Who won?"

I turned off the radio and sat down at the table between them. "A long time ago people with dark skin were stolen from Africa and brought to America where they were forced to be slaves. Slaves are people that are bought and sold as like animals. The people who owned them made them do hard work and often treated them very meanly. A man named Abraham Lincoln put an end to slavery in America, but people with dark skin continued to be treated poorly. White people wouldn't let them use the same bathroom or go to the same schools. Slowly things have changed, but until today there has never been a black president of the United States. Now there is--his name is Barack Obama."

"Oh," said Emma, putting down her spoon, "Can I have some more cereal?"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

28 Years Ago Today

It was November 4, 1980--the day I turned nine-years-old. I was living in Dearborn, Michigan and spoke with a born-and-bred Midwestern accent despite having moved there only two years before. My best friend's parents were out of work and they weren't alone. The majority of families whose children attended my suspiciously all-white elementary school earned their living from either GM or Ford and both had invoked widespread layoffs.

Despite our young age--or, more likely, because of it--the teachers at Snow Elementary staged an election. The ballot was simple: Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter. As far as I could tell--remember, I was nine--Reagan's economic platform would get my friends' parents' jobs back. I entered the school gymnasium that morning a decided voter. I made my choice and, to this day, I don't regret it. An educated choice is one's responsibility, right, and privilege. I pray that the American public has risen to the challenge.

Until tomorrow...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Blogging My Novel: Rejection Reflection

Number of agents approached: 8

Number of queries completely ignored: 2

Number of rejections on query: 2
(My sincere thanks!)

Number of rejections on query plus partial manuscript: 2
(Again, thanks for taking the time!)

Number of requests for partial manuscript from query: 1
(Can I wash your car?)

Number of requests for full manuscript from query: 1
(Can I paint your house?)

Number of rejections after reading full manuscript: 1
(Since your rejection was so nice, I forgive you...but I won't paint your house.)

Number of requests for full manuscript after reading partial: 1
(I can make a mean stew. You hungry?)

and finally....

Number of agents upon whom all hopes are hanging: 1
(Come on! You know you want it...)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween à la Suisse

Halloween is not officially celebrated in Switzerland, though it's presence has certainly become more evident over the past five years. The grocery stores now carry a limited selection of spooky costumes and the odd family will throw a party. Door-to-door grovelling for sweets has not yet reached our end of the pasture, but it's only a matter of time. As much as one might object to the sinister undertones of this the spookiest of holidays, its kid appeal is hard to beat.

A long-standing tradition in our household is to listen to Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre on the days leading up to the big night. I was thirteen years old when I performed Danse Macabre with my town's youth symphony and the piece has stuck with me ever since. It opens to the sound of a single violin plucking the stroke of twelve. It's midnight on Halloween. Death appears with his fiddle and calls forth the dead from their graves to dance. One by one, they rise from their earthly beds, old and young, rich and poor, to dance together as equals in the darkness. Bones rattle as wind whips through the trees, sending leaves swirling, until, suddenly, there is the faintest hint of light. Death is first sorrowful, then defiant, leading the dead into another frenzied burst of dance. Only when the cock crows, signaling the break of dawn, do the dead finally scury back to their tombs, bringing the festivities to a close for yet another year.

Click below if you wish to give it a listen:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Losing My Marbles: A Progress Report

It's been an interesting almost two weeks. I'm down to 16 marbles from 45--excellent progress considering we've just come off of a week's holiday with few, if any, time constraints. The words, 'supper's ready,' are now consistently followed by a singsong-y, "Okay, Mommy!" from Mouse. That's not to say she immediately drops what she's doing, but it's a huge improvement over the ear-splitting 'no's' of yore. Even Emma's jumped into the fray, insisting on an empty jar of her own. To be truthful, I hesitated at first. After all, I perceived Emma to be a transition champion, particularly at mealtimes when Mouse was at her worst. But in the end I caved. Why not? There were only marbles to lose.

Here's a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the marbles in action:

Emma the Brave comes into the kitchen after having brushed her teeth before bed. Mouse is still dawdling, singing to herself instead of doing her bedtime washing up. As Emma brings our jars to the table, Mouse snaps back into reality and runs to bathroom to finish getting ready.

Earlier in the evening I'd listed the specific instances when I'd said, "It's time..." during the day and posted them on the kitchen chalk board:
  • leaving for school in the morning
  • leaving for school after lunch
  • turning off the video
  • bath time
  • dinner time
  • getting ready for bed
I show Emma what I've written and within seconds she's read it and done the math. "I get six marbles," she says, reaching for my jar.

"Not so fast," I say, sliding my jar away. "Let's go through them one by one. How did you do at leaving for school in the morning?"

"Good," she says.

I nod and hold up one finger. "And after lunch?"

"Good again."

Two fingers. "You're right. How about turning off the video?"

Emma holds up a hand, palm down, and rocks it back and forth. "Not so good."

"I would agree." She'd been really enjoying Lazy Town. It took multiple requests for her to turn it off after her one episode had finished. "And bath time?"

"Good." Three fingers.

"And the last two?"

"Good and good," she says and helps herself to five marbles.

At this point Mouse pads into the kitchen. "Now me," she says.

Mouse and I go through the same procedure as I'd done with Emma. In the end, she gets five out of a possible six marbles, having missed one thanks to her after dinner dawdle which comes as no surprise. With their marbles safely tucked away, the two compare notes and are relieved to discover that, in the end, they were the same, at least in the marble department.

There's a lot I like about this experiment in parenting. It demands that I be clear about my requests and pick my battles. There are times when I am open to negotiation and times when I'm not. These times are now far more clearly divided. It also allows the girls and I to reflect back on our day together, accounting for all successes and opportunities for improvement in a calm and relatively objective manner. Last but not least, it ensures the Captain and I are on the same page in the expectations department. Nothing undermines child-rearing faster than a weak link in the parental chain.

So here's the question: do I keep up with the marble jars once they earn their reward? We'll see. If so, I'll have to get bigger jars or smaller marbles. They're just getting to damn good!

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Vultures Are Circling

This picture I caught of a bearded vulture feels rather fitting at the moment...

Panique pas!

Two weeks ago I came home to two men sitting at my kitchen table. One was my landlord, the other, a real estate agent.

"Paniques pas," said my ever-charming proprietaire. He assured me he was only thinking about selling the house. Thinking about it? There was a realtor sitting in Emma's chair with official looking forms sprawled where she normally eats her cereal. Don't panic? Too late.

A week later two workmen arrived to repair the roof. Today painters are erecting their scaffolding outside my kitchen window. As the place has been left virtually untouched since the mid '70's, this does not bode well. It's one thing to move because you want to; it's quite another to be evicted. While I've been assured that the local laws favour us locateurs, I can't help but be worried. It may not be our house, but it's our home.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Queen of All She Surveys

Honey tends to believe that all she sees from our garden belongs to her. This amounts to a great deal of senseless barking at perfectly respectable farm vehicles. All I can say is that it's a good thing we don't live up here!

Photo taken from the top of the Schilthorn in the the Bernese Oberland.

Friday, October 24, 2008


We're heading out on a short road trip in just a few hours. To circumvent any last minute packing offenses, I called the girls to the kitchen table so we could compose a list of all needed items for a two-night excursion. Emma the Brave spoke up first.

"We'll need pajamas and two day-time outfits."

"And toys," added Mouse.

I reminded them that daytime outfits must include socks and underwear and gave Mouse a knowing look. She giggled. "What else?"

"A night light." This was Emma.

"And toys," said Mouse.

With a little coaching they finally rattled off such inessentials like toothbrushes and toothpaste, dog food and bowls, toques, scarves, gloves, water bottles and rain gear.

"But then we won't have room for any toys!" Mouse cried.

"We'll see," I assured her, then sent them off to pack--or, rather, repack.

Ten minutes later the pair arrived at check-in, conveniently located in the kitchen. Emma was first, wheeling her Winnie the Pooh suitcase to the spot on the floor in front of me. In the crook of her arm she carried her one permitted carry-on--her favourite stuffed bear. Quick inspection revealed everything was in order. Not only had she managed to include all required items, but also a blanket, two notebooks, a pen, and four small soft toys. Next up was Mouse.

Immediately I sensed trouble. Mouse's suitcase bulged so much that Piglet's stomach looked like something out of Alien. To make matters worse, over its handle were three small hand bags, all stuffed to capacity. Without a word, I broke out the list.

"Pajamas? Check. Two day-time outfits? Check and check." Together we went down the list, unearthing her essentials from an assortment of nine soft toys, a deck of playing cards, 2 blankets, two journals and a pen. Calmly, I suggested we scale back on the toys, leaving behind the heaviest ones, and keeping it to one small blanket so her bag would close without difficulty. "But no handbags, Mouse. Sorry."

I waited. Historically speaking, a wail was imminent.

Mouse looked pensively down at her handbags. "Okay, Mommy," she said, then carried the handbags and four of her soft toys back to her room. I almost fell out of my check-in chair. When she came back, I had her roll her suitcase to the loading zone a.k.a. the dining room. "No touching your bag until we go. Got it, Short Stuff?"

She smiled up at me. "Got it!"

Yes, I think she has.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Book Review: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah Freeman is 12-years-old and 'fra-gile.' It doesn't take much to spook him and he's about as gullible as they come. But one thing's for certain, he wants to 'growned.' The first child born free to the Elgin Settlement at Raleigh in Canada West, Elijah must learn for himself the true meaning of respect, freedom and love.

This book brought me to tears like no book has in a very long time. I was outraged, heart-broken and overjoyed, sometimes all at once. Other than the story revolving around the issue of slavery, I will not elaborate. I don't want to spoil it for you. All I can say is that Elijah of Buxton will evoke an emotional response within any reader and thereby shape them. When my girls are about Elijah's age, we'll read it together. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Elijah of Buxton is a book that should be read and not forgotten.

Thank you, Mr. Curtis. Thank you.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Time

Historically speaking, Mighty Mouse and I have always struggled with time-limited transitions. Once engaged in an activity she enjoys, Mouse fights redirection harder than a drunk in a conga line. Requests to come to the table or to get ready to leave for school have been known to either fall on deaf ears or be met with ear-splitting rage. Most of the time, it's the former; lately it's the latter.

For both our sakes I've invoked the marble jars: a full one for me; an empty one for her. Every time she pleasantly stops what she's doing to do something that must happen immediately, a marble moves from my jar to hers. Once her jar is full, she's decided we'll all go to Parc de la Grange, a park in the city, for an afternoon snack and play.

Twenty-four hours in, we've both made excellent progress. Mouse is getting credit for all her pleasant transitions, even those that may have gone unrecognized in the past. I figure that in a week I will have lost all my marbles. Better figuratively than literally!

Now, I wonder if this would work on the Captain?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Life of Mighty Mom in the style of Julia Donaldson

There was a young woman with a husband and pup
who had almost no time to do all she thought up.

A wise old man heard her grumble and gripe,
"There's not enough time in my life.
Wise old man, would you help me please?
My life is a squash and a squeeze."

"Have a child," he said, "maybe two, if you can."

"Have a child? Or two? What a curious plan."

So they first had a girl, then a second soon after,
and, surely enough, time began to move faster.

The young lady cried, "Oh, what shall I do?
One baby takes time. It's double with two!
I hardly have time to properly sneeze.
My life is a squash and a squeeze."
She said, "Wise old man, would you help me please?
My life is a squash and a squeeze."

"Move house," said the man, "to Europe, if you can."

"Move house? To Europe? What a curious plan."

So move house they did, to Europe, no less.
Brushing up on her French brought her no end of stress.

The young woman cried as she slumped on a bench,
"Things were harder in English, but horrid in French!
The baby is sick. The toddler won't eat.
To make matters worse, they barely will sleep.
Wise old man, would you help me please?
My life is a squash and a squeeze."

"Go back to school," said the wise old man.

"Go back to school? What a curious plan."

So she signed up online and studied at night.
and, surely enough, it was sleep she would fight.
The woman, she cried, "What's with this old man?
Is he trying to kill with these curious plans?"

In a sleep-deprived moment, as she lay on the floor,
against her best judgment, she called out once more:
"Wise old man, would you help me please?
My life is a squash and a squeeze."

He said, "Join a committee and start up a blog,
volunteer at a school and make time to jog.
Edit a novel and write one yourself,
but do not forget to take care of your health."

"And when, may I ask, can I throw them all out?"

"Whenever you want, though I do have my doubts."

I thought for a spell.
He knew me too well.

"My life is a squash and a squeeze, old man,
full of frolicks and fun and fiddle-dee-dees,
a perfect squash and a squeeze."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Book Review: The Blue Stone by Jimmy Liao

Mighty Mom has become a guest reviewer at The Well-Read Child, the terrific children's literature blog created by Jill Tullo. The following is an excerpt from my debut review. If you wish to read it in full, click here.

An enormous blue stone lies peacefully in the forest until the day it is discovered by people. The people split the stone in two, leaving one half undisturbed while taking the other to a sculptor's workshop to be carved. There, the artist turns the stone into a massive grey elephant. The people delight in sculptor's creation, but the stone is not happy. It mourns for its forest home and crumbles. The largest remaining piece is delivered to a new artist. This time it is shaped into bird for an old lady's garden. The lady is quite happy with her bird, but the stone is not. Again, it falls to pieces. And so the pattern continues: the stone, transformed repeatedly by humans, crumbles each time it remembers its true home. Only when it finally turns to dust can a breath of wind bring it back to where it belongs. There, in the forest, the stone finds peace.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Windows, Doors and Ironing

It's been just over three months since I didn't get the job, the one that would have thrust me back into the land of pay stubs, dry cleaning and cafeteria lunches this past August.

"There's a time for everything," a good friend reminded me. I shrugged and smiled, doing my best to swallow past my disappointment and relief. In an instant, life just got whole lot simpler. No job meant no Wednesday child care to arrange, a task I was dreading worse than a trip to the gynecologist. My kids have been everything to me for so long, the thought of delegating their care to someone else hurt more than I was ready to admit.

In the weeks that followed, I decided to put my name on the replacement teaching assitant rota and leave fate in the hands of the benign seasonal viruses of Geneva. As luck would have it, child birth got the upper hand. I'm working all this week, save Wednesday, replacing a woman who's just become a granny. And what will I be doing Wednesday, you ask? Taking care of my kids, of course. Yippee! I couldn't have arranged it better if I tried.

That said, I've got some ironing to do.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Here are a few tasty images from this year's Fete de la Courge in Corsier:

Chicken Wings


Gateau Bordelais

You can appreciate why I'm beginning to regret my saucisse and bread...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008


I'm tucking Emma the Brave into bed when she asks, "Why do you have a writers' group, Mommy?"

The Birkenstocks, my every other Friday night writers' group are expected to arrive at any moment.

I sit down on the edge of her bed. "Because it's hard work to write something down the way you feel it inside. It takes lots of practice. It's a bit like school, I guess. I check that their writing makes sense and they check mine."

Emma pulls the covers up to her chin and nods. She understands completely.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Full Scoop

Last Friday morning found me in the back seat of a Kangoo, my feet straddling the hump, on my way to the south of France. I was about to participate in a weekend workshop on character development and lacked the one essential ingredient -- a character. My mind was not a blank, but rather an indiscernable mix of expectations, responsibilities and laryngitis. I tried to tell myself that it wouldn't matter if I came home empty handed. The food would be good and the company, outstanding. What more could I ask for? A novel?

We arrived in Argeles by late afternoon, checked into our hotel, then set out to explore the village and maybe even steal a glimpse of the sea. We trawled the narrow streets of the old town, pointing out our favourite buildings, the old men congregated on park benches, and the places we'd shopped the year before. We tried to find the sea, but failed. At seven o'clock, we headed to the studio--our creative space for the next two days-- and shared an aperitif on the rooftop terrace before heading out for dinner. Our workshop was officially underway.

At 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the group, now six, headed back to the studio where a beautiful spread of breads, pastries, ham, cheese, and fruit awaited us. My mind had begun to clear despite not having found the sea. Perhaps it was the gambas? In any case, when we set down to work, a character sat down with me and dared me to write him down.

So I did.

Over the next two days, D-L Nelson guided us through ten different exercises to better understand our characters. We role played, wrote dialogue, staged artificial scenes, and even killed our characters off, all in the name of good fiction. It was a weekend that exceeded all expectations: the food was amazing, the company, fantastic. And the sea? A bit cool but who's complaining. As for a second novel? It's too soon to tell.


Monday, September 29, 2008

We worked hard... honest!

My sincerest thanks to everyone for a truly memorable experience.
Until next year!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Never Say Die

The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the opening pages of her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert is in her mid-thirties living in the suburbs of New York. She has a successful writing career, but is unhappily married and suffering from depression. What follows is an account of Ms. Gilbert's year as a newly divorced woman, traveling through Italy, India, and Bali in search of pleasure, spiritual fulfillment, and, ultimately, balance.

I expected to love this book. I really wanted to like it. What's not to love. Food? Mmm. Spirituality? Amen. And balance? That's the key to everything, isn't it? You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself often apathetic to her journey.

It wasn't because of the writing. Ms. Gilbert is more then well equipped in the language department to relate her experiences. At times I felt the narrative could have been tighter but, for the most part, it was an excellent read.( In fact, some of her lines are downright bladder busters. I won't spoil them for you by sharing them here.) What was lacking was tension. To recap: it is the story of a successful, divorced woman with no kids, being paid to travel the world to write a book about her experiences. Yes, she had inner demons, but I felt most were tamed by the time she left India and that a real lesson in balance would have been to go back her normal life (complete with deadlines and an ex-husband) and achieve it there. The story ends, however, after a leisurely, yet culturally enlightening stay in Bally. Nice, peaceful, but climactic, it is not.

That's the thing with memoir: it needs to be true. There is no tweaking the truth for tension. It is what it is. As this book is a New York Times bestseller, there are plenty of readers who would disagree with me. I, for one, would love a post-script. How did the balance go one year later, Liz?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Irresistable Ammo

There are 18 horse chestnut trees on the grounds of the girls' school, all currently bearing fruit. The city planners either had no insight into the nature of children with projectiles or a really twisted sense of humour.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shave Me Bald and Call Me Waldo

The Captain made dinner and it wasn't spaghetti!

The menu:
oven roasted lamb racks with a rosemary and garlic rub
olive oil mashed potatoes
steamed carrots
2001 Merlo Rosso from Villa LaSelva, Toscana

Moelleux au chocolat

Bravo and, by all means, encore!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It's Mighty Mom's First Blog-iversary

A year ago I started this blog with the sole intent of getting "my sorry butt back in the chair." It had been a long, hot summer of nearly full-time parenting. Complete sentences were a vague memory, fragmented into near oblivion by the incessant responsibilities, interruptions and joys of normal, every day motherhood. Emma the Brave was back at school, only this time with Mighty Mouse in tow. Suddenly I had time to write and seemingly nothing to say. My own faulty logic led me to Blogger and the rest, as they say, is in the archive.

I honestly believed no one would read what I wrote. I was 4,490 visitors wrong. The single most popular post is the one of me sexing the hamster pups. (I can't help but wonder what people are expecting to see when their Google search leads them here.) The next most popular entries are my book reviews, particularly the non-fiction titles on dyslexia. But what is most surprising is the number of people who just keep reading regardless of what I'm babbling on about. To all of you, I want to say thanks. With print publication so elusive, this writer appreciates every last page load.

So what new adventures will the coming year bring? I haven't a clue. I can assure you there will be no more hamster havoc. As much as I came to love Peanut, it is my definitive opinion that hamsters were never meant to be pets. Friendly wild creatures, yes. Our apple seed days have ended, too, with the last seedling going to the great orchard in the sky this week. As for Life à la Suisse, it will continue, though I fear our fondue days are numbered. And where will the great corporate merry-go-round take us next? Good question. One thing for certain is that life will keep dishing out more blog fodder than I know what to do with and I'll be serving it up here, one post at a time.

Wishing you all a blog-worthy day,

Melissa Miller
aka Mighty Mom

Thursday, September 11, 2008


In only a matter of days the fields will be stripped bare of this year's spoils.

Part of me will miss them.
The other part is getting hungry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kids These Days

It's Tuesday, September 2, and I'm helping out in Mrs. Hugo's level 2 (grade 1) class. The kids are busy making clay models of themselves for a display on the United Nations Charter of Rights for Children.

Six-year-old Leo is putting the finishing touches on his still headless torso when he looks up at me and asks, "Who are you going to vote for in the US presidential election?"

I can't help but smile, but successfully smother a laugh. "I'm Canadian, Leo. Canadians don't get to vote."

"Me neither," he says, shaking his head in all seriousness. "But if you could, who would you vote for?"

I don't hesitate. "Obama."

Leo punches a fist into the air, "Yeah! Obama rocks." He then reaches for his clay head and sticks it on top of his torso. Would you believe he puts it on perfectly straight?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Happy Monday

Rest assured, no seed was harmed in the making of this photo
--at least not by me!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Seeking 007

It's no secret that I've spent the last two weeks agent hunting. It has been both an enlightening and frustrating process. It takes an inordinate amount of time to learn about an individual agent, amassing such details as their literary preferences, their needs and expectations, and the working relationship they have with their authors. You can therefore imagine how bloody discouraging it is to reach the conclusion that one's work and said agent are not a good fit. Tick that one off the list and it's back to square one.

The truth is this: it's simply no good for anyone to spew manuscripts aimlessly into the world. Agents and publishers end up with unwieldy slush piles and authors end up with carbon copy rejections that inevitably dent their self-esteem. At the very least, I hope my current process yields some constructive criticism. Just to share, here is my current check list for agent suitability:
  1. What genres do they represent and what are their current needs? If the answer to this question isn't clear from the agent's blog or website, I send a brief email to inquire. I don't send a query because they take too long to write well. Agents can smell form letters like my dog can smell horse dung.
  2. What books inspire them? Did they grow up reading the same books I loved? What are their current favourites? Who do they currently represent? If they grew up hiding comic books in their math book and despised Blubber, there's a good chance they won't like my book.
  3. How do they write? In the past year I've come to love a good blog. Because of the more casual nature of blogs, you can get a real sense of a person. Are they respectful? Do they have a sense of humour? How do they negotiate on behalf of their clients? What is their involvement in the revision process? I've come to respect the advice of many agents whose blogs I follow though may never submit to.
So how do you get the ball rolling and get to know an agent? The best way I've found is by attending writing conferences where agents are on the faculty. Short of that, here are a few sites that can also help:

Agent Query
Publishers Marketplace
The Association of Authors' Representatives
The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

I've also discovered Cynsations, a wonderful blog by fellow SCBWI member, Cynthia Leitich Smith who has interviewed countless agents and authors in the children's book industry. Great work, Cynthia!

So that's it, my advice, for what it's worth. Care to share any of your own?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

For the Record

Days of school so far this year: 7
Birthday party invitations received to date: 5

September 11, 2008
Party count: 6

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: Double Lives edited by Shannon Cowan et al.

Double Lives is an anthology of essays on writing and motherhood published this year by McGill-Queen's University Press. It is not Chicken Soup for the Writer-Mother's Soul, nor is it solely a lament on the mental thicket that is motherhood. Double Lives lies somewhere in between. The contributing authors are all highly successful and include wed, unwed, and divorced mothers, lesbian mothers, adoptive mothers, and mothers of children with special needs. All, save one, were writers before motherhood. I suppose I was, too, if you count what I wrote in high school--but I don't.

It was interesting for me to read about the universal impact children have on a creative life that requires so much unencumbered internal reflection. Before I had children, I didn't write. Or rather, I wrote like this:
Dear Dr. Bones,
Thank you for referring Mr. Lumbago to our clinic for assessment of his chronic low back pain.
On subjective exam, Mr. Lumbago reported....
You get the idea.

It never occurred to me to write for pleasure. As I said, I wrote in high school--required writing, and not a word more. My English teachers did their utmost to encourage me, but I was hell bent on becoming a doctor which, as far as I could tell, required little literary prowess. On that point alone, I was correct.

It was motherhood and my own turbulent beginnings in the role that led me back to the page and as such, I've never known what it is to write and not mother. The two have only ever co-existed and, truth be told, without motherhood I might still be writing to Dr. Bones. If anything, Double Lives bolstered my hope that one day it will get easier, that one day the mental freedom I once had (and wasted on advance physics) will return--but by then I'll be missing my girls.