Writing: Finding your own story

Yesterday, I read this post from Brain Pickings titled, “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing.” It discusses what literary critic Samuel Delany has to say about the craft in his book, About Writing: Seven Essays, Five Letters and Four Interviews. It really resonated with me, this part in particular:

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the readers mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops at clarity and logic, doesn’t.”

I have a story in my brain that I started writing many years ago. I had a lot of great starts, then I’d hit a creative wall. Looking back, I think that I had no idea what I wanted to say or what issues I wanted to explore. A story about an interracial couple. Okay, what about them? Even ten years ago, I intuitively knew it needed to be about much more than their family/friends/co-workers don’t like the relationship. Outrageous plot-twists and secret-keeping sounded good at first, but once it got onto paper, it didn’t feel right for this story.

Another issue I struggled with was character development. Every writer does, but the main reason for my struggles were this: as a Christian at the time, I thought I had to weave a gospel message into the story. As a result, my characters were flat and boring. They also lacked clear, realistic motivations. I was attempting to wrench in a religious message at the expense of creating relatable, complex characters. And the final message of salvation, even then, felt incomplete and empty. What did I really want to communicate to my reader? Did I want to lecture them and manipulate their feelings or just present an experience and let them create their own meaning? Did I want to tell my own story, or a story I think I should be telling? Ultimately, self-censorship will never produce a good story.

Now, after maturing a bit, having different life experiences and leaving religion behind, I feel like I’ve grown as a person and can write from a more authentic place. Authentic for me, to be clear. This will be different for everyone. And shrugging off the shackles of religion is by no means the only way to grow as a person. But religion can indeed be a hinderance to personal growth (particularly the fundamentalist kind).

Homeschool: Handwriting update

I think that our decision to start cursive was a good one. So far, #1 son likes it and doesn’t have any difficulty learning the strokes. We’re using Kumon My Book of Cursive Writing Letters.

He still does some printing in Explode The Code (ETC) workbook; interestingly, his printing has improved as well. Although I suspect, it is more that his desire to try to print the best he can has improved. Why? I don’t really know, but I can speculate.

Maybe he likes the pace we go at now better than before and is more relaxed? Back in September, he was very resistant to handwriting. ECT has a few pages in each lesson where you have to write quite a bit and this is where he had little patience. We have since slowed down the pace of completing the ETC pages. There are nine pages in total and I originally tried to encourage him to complete all of them in one day. He wasn’t having that. I slowly realized that, even though he did not problems with the material, requiring a 5 year old to sit still and complete all those pages was an inappropriate expectation (it’s first grade work and I think expecting a 6 year old to sit still for that is a probably a bit much too). So now, we do the first five on the same day the lesson is introduced. We complete the remaining four by the end of the week. I don’t think the few cursive lessons he’s had has anything to do with his improvement in printing because we haven’t been doing it that long.

Most likely, his improvement is probably just increased maturity. It doesn’t seem like it, but there is a big difference between 5 years and 5.5 years.

We’re only a few pages into the Kumon book, but I will do another update in a few weeks!

Homeschooling Kindergarten: Winter/Spring

We made a few changes to our curriculum.

1. Handwriting. After going back and forth between considering print vs. cursive (I wrote a post on it here), we decided to teach cursive first. #1 son doesn’t particularly enjoy printing; at least he doesn’t enjoy having to write such straight lines. I think cursive will be more fun for him to learn, since it’s almost like drawing in some ways.

2. Reading/Phonics. We’re still doing Explode the Code, but have decided to do the lessons at a slower pace to account for #1 son’s impatience with writing. ETC is very writing intensive, so we’ll see if spreading it out helps. He loves reading, however, so we’ve added Hooked on Phonics to reenforce that. We did the first lesson today and he liked it.

Now I’m Reading is still a hit. The HOP books are similar, but I think the stories in NIR are written much better. Doing both is fine. I don’t think there can be too many ways to help with reading, as long as the child isn’t struggling or dislikes something.

3. Social Studies. These aren’t lessons, per se, but just reading books together. We bought a book series by Stuart J. Murphy called I See I Learn. The stories are based on four areas children are developing in: emotional, social, health/safety and cognitive. So far, we’ve read Percy Gets Upset and Freda Stops a Bully. He likes the stories, so for homeschooling, we’re going to both read and talk about what happens in the book.

4. Math. Still on Singapore Math and he has done well. Still, this is the hardest subject for me mostly because I constantly worry I’m not teaching it well. I think a confidence in math is super important, especially if a person ever wants a career in the hard sciences or technology. Basically, I don’t want the I’m-not-good-at-math virus to damage any future interest in the fields above.

Also. I am not sure how useful memorizing math facts is. I read this article on the matter. It seems to me mastering the concepts (with a good deal of practice, of course) is a better foundation for doing well in the higher mathematics (algebra, etc.). So, eventually mastering the concept of 10’s helps you do math better in your head, vs. memorizing addition facts.

I don’t know. Will be chewing on this for a bit.

Lastly, #1 son is taking a drama class at Oregon Children’s Theater. I think it’s about 6 or 7 weeks. I think he’ll enjoy it!

Happy New Year!

As always with this time of year there is the positive anticipation towards new opportunities and new goals, mixed with quite a bit of oh-now-back-to-the-grindstone-ugh feeling. I think it’s all normal. Aim high, and you’ll get some things accomplished.

We’re starting our last leg of Kindergarten. This semester will be twice as a long with Spring Break wedged in between. My next post will be a review of fall semester (#1 son did well!) and the tweaks we made for winter/spring. We officially start school tomorrow, but are taking it very slow since it’s a two-day week and our break was long.

Regarding my regular blog posts, it will be the same as usual; a mix of whatever the heck is on my mind. Hair, religion, writing, atheism, race, mixed families, homeschooling, pet peeves/rants about movies and shows. Woot!

Happy New Year and hope everyone has a great week!

Movie Review: Man of Steel

My DH and I went to see Man of Steel for one of our very few date nights back in June while we had family in town to babysit. I thought the movie was awesome. And now I can address some issues people have with the ending and the general tone of the movie. I’m sure everyone that has wanted to see it has seen it by now, but still: there are SPOILERS in this post!

Great start for a reboot

Culturally, we’ve been living off of the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman for over 30 years. The first Superman was, in my opinion, the first serious attempt to tackle the superhero genre. The material was taken seriously. Superman II was even better. Yes, there was some camp, but not too much.

Then, Superman III and IV happened and…*tears, ugly crying*

Then, Superman Returns happened and…*cursing, throwing chairs, Hulk Out*

I think the mistake Bryan Singer made (in addition to ditching the X-Men franchise HE started, to horrid results, but I digress) was riding on the coattails of Reeve’s version of the character. Perhaps he was banking on the nostalgia so many people have for it. But it was a failure. If I want to watch Reeve as Superman, I can just watch the original, not something pretending to be the original.

So enter Man of Steel. I think it was a great start to a new franchise. In my opinion, complaints about it being darker are unjustified because they are based, in part, on too much comparison to Superman I & II. In Man of Steel, Clark’s internal conflict was illustrated well and, I might add, more realistically. In the first Superman movie from 1978, Clark comes out of this 12 year hibernation ready to roll and fight for “truth, justice and the American Way.” Cavill’s version of Clark made it a little more clear that the character had to make a choice on what path he was going to take for his life and that it was not a particularly easy process.

That ending

Major spoilers ahead, so if you’ve somehow wandered here, LEAVE. Like in Superman II, Zod dies in the end; only this time it is from Superman snapping his neck. Some people think that killing someone goes against Superman’s established morals or ethics or something. I disagree.

1. Superman kills Zod in Superman II, as well. In fact, an argument can be made that he did this in somewhat of a cowardly fashion. He tricked Zod (which is fine) into getting his powers taken away. Then he pushes him off a cliff inside the Fortress of Solitude. Um, okay? Zod and his crew were as weak as a human at that point, why not take him to jail to face this justice you fight for?

2. In Man of Steel, however, it was clear that Zod was going to continue to go on a rampage. But that’s not completely why I think Superman made the correct decision to kill him. Superman had gotten the upper hand with Zod while inside a building with bystanders. Zod decides he going burn up a group of adults and children with his newly controlled heat vision. Superman asked him repeatedly to stop. He did not. After all that happened up to that point, only a fool would have taken a chance on those people’s lives, to see if Zod would suddenly not be homicidal, just that one time.

I think he made a good call that in no way diminishes his ethics. In that situation, killing Zod was the right thing to do, not just to save those people’s lives, but to stop the madness that was sure to continue unabated. Also, he clearly did not want to do it. I imagine that he was conflicted on not only killing another person, but the last surviving person of his “race” besides himself (that he knew of).

That’s my take.

Monologue or Dialogue?

Discussions are two-way, usually. Debates are between two people that state their point of view and there is little attempt to understand the other side. The goal is to best them, verbally. Dialogues, on the other hand, are different. There is still the exchange of viewpoints, that there may be intense disagreement on, but there is more emotional intelligence involved.

There was an ongoing discussion between a Christian family member and I about my changed religious views. My goal was not to convince them to change their minds, but I thought it might be helpful for them to hear about my experience in order to better understand why I left Christianity. Hearing or reading about the experience of atheists you do not know is one thing. But hearing about that experience from someone close to you, is another.

However, the discussion isn’t going anywhere.

We both accept that the other person isn’t going agree with some of the statements we make. That’s good. But I can’t seem to break through the assumptions on their part that I am in “rebellion against God”. They also seem to be mostly interested in a monologue-type conversation (which isn’t a conversation at all): they say what they want, with little to no response from me. Unless my response is “You’re totally right” and I re-dedicate my life to Christ. There is also little understanding that their point of view about God and Christianity, was exactly my own point of view when I was a Christian. Hence, I am quite intimate from where they are coming from, but they seem to think I do not understand at all (even after I expressed that I did).

So on that note, I will more than likely drop the conversation. To be fair, I think they want to have a discussion…or think they should want to have one (you know, defending the faith and all), but it’s too much work. Responding to theological questions, many of which don’t have a clear answer, is time consuming. Frustration on their part sets in, there is lots of talk about their faith being strong and they wonder what the point of the discussion is. Perhaps I have a need or an agenda and not quite sure about this atheism thing, hmm?

I think discussions are always worthy. But not when empathy and compassion for people is not present. And when talking with some religious people, that is how it goes. There is more concern for the feelings of a invisible entity you cannot see, hear or feel, than for the person standing right in front of you.

Thoughts on ritual and mythology

I’ve been having a  discussion with a Christian family member about my atheism and trying to give them a clearer picture of what led me away from Christianity in particular, and then away from religion in general.

A lot of topics came up from this discussion and I plan to blog about a few of them that I have extended thoughts on. The first is the role of ritual in religion.

Relationship vs. religion

One common explanation from Christians about why their faith stands out is that Christianity is not about religion. It’s about a “relationship” with Christ. I used to think that made sense. But now, looking back, I think it’s a way to make your brand of Christianity stand out from other religions or denominations. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that something is “off” with the rituals, rules and rigidness of traditional Christianity. This blog post from 3-D Christianity talks a little about that. In it, the writer points out that this viewpoint creates a false dichotomy that is made to point a judgmental finger at other denominations (particularly Catholics).

But what is most interesting, is an essay the 3-D Christianity blogger cites that talks about what that writer, John Suk, believes are the secular roots of the “relationship with Christ” viewpoint (read that essay here). He is very understanding on why people talk this way, but asserts that there is no Biblical basis for the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ and that the phrasing actually causes confusion with both believers (who may feel they are not having as authentic an experience as their peers and suffer anguish over it) and non-believers (who won’t find any difference between this “relationship” with Jesus and spirit channeling) alike. Ironically, he blames “the pervasive influence of the language of secularity” on the metaphors comparing Jesus/God to a friend, parent or lover.

However, he says what causes the creation of these metaphors are the reality of feeling the absence of God and realizing, if just briefly, that the experience is not at all like when you spend time with a person you can see, touch, hear and feel. He suggests not ignoring that reality, but confronting it by seeing oneself as part of a larger whole and not focusing on the “personal” aspect. I am paraphrasing here, but be sure to read his essay to get the full picture of his points.

Myths and ritual

I think it’s a true observation that Catholicism is very heavy on ritual and rules, but that is hardly something that is  indicative of Catholics. All religions have had and still have certain ways in which they choose to worship and express themselves, largely based on tradition. However, it is a tradition that is very, very old, and often from a culture that is no longer with us or that has changed drastically. So is ritual and myth empty? I think the answer is both yes and no. Rituals, stories, myths and traditions start to feel inauthentic after a while when (after the emotional high has ceased) those things are not relevant to your life or culture. So trying to adhere to rules and norms created by people that lived many thousands of years ago is, to say the least, awkward.

James Campbell talks a lot about the role of myths, rituals and traditions. In this interview, he says “mythology is a validation of experience.” He offers the Jesus story as an example: he was crucified, buried for three days, rose from the dead and then rose back to heaven. Campbell points out:

“[We] know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.”

Of this, he says that image does not fit the contemporary mind, because of what we now know about the universe, saying:

You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

Campbell suggests “mythologizing” what we know today scientifically, so we can “validate our experience”. Part of the problem, as he saw it, are that humans need new myths. They need to be able to relate to a tradition or story. The superheroes of comic books and cult phenomenons like Star Trek might seem trite, but they are no different than the stories about Zeus or Poseidon. What is different, is that we can relate much better to the adventures of Captain Kirk or the X-Men, than we can to some ancient Greek (or Hebrew) god. These contemporary stories reflect our knowledge of the universe and what we can imagine being possible with space travel and natural explanations for extraordinary abilities (e.g., a genetic mutation).

So, I think stories, myths and rituals are good for us. The challenge, is taking what is useful and educational, without a belief in the stories being literally true, especially where there is every indication that it is not. Also, we need to resist the urge to go overboard in systemizing beliefs.


Update: caring for fine, natural hair, pt. 2

It’s been five months since I started using the Pantene line for fine hair. The results are that my hair has improved quite a bit. Feels stronger and there is a lot less breakage. The verdict is that thickening and/or volumizing products are best for my hair. Now, it’s time to try some other products. I boiled it down to two options:

1. SheaMoisture Yucca and Baobab line

2. Organix Biotin and Collagen line

SheaMoisture is more expensive than Organix, but still affordable. However, I will have to order it online because I haven’t found a local place that sells all of the Y+B line. The one place that I might have luck is Walgreens, but my memory is hazy on what SheaMoisture products they carry. If they have any of the Y+B line, it’s just the shampoo and/or conditioner. I’ve decided to try Organix first, since it was easier to find local and is cheaper. I used it the first time this past Sunday. In between wash days I also started using the Organix Coconut Milk Anti-Breakage Serum on my hair daily. I just put a tiny bit in the palm of my hand and smooth it all over my hair.



Pretty good, I think. My regimen is: detangle, wash, condition and style.

My detangling conditioner is Tresemme Split Remedy. It has lots of slip and I start on dry hair, pre-wash. For the purposes of detangling, I use a lot of product. I let it sit in my hair, with a cap and towel on while I eat brekkie. Then I detangle with a wide-toothed comb (I’m actually considering trying finger detangling next wash day), then get into the shower and shampoo and condition. I used to wash my hair in sections because I have, like, 90 percent shrinkage and that causes too many tangles and knots. Keeping my hair sectioned until I styled cut down on that. However it seemed like during the shampoo, my scalp never got very clean and it was time consuming to make sure no shampoo remained on my hair. So I now wash my hair loose, put conditioner in, and gently section my hair again, securing with duckbill clips. I never rinse out conditioner, always using it as a leave-in, whether it is technically a leave-in or not. After letting my hair dry slightly (but is still pretty wet), I twisted my hair with Organic Root Stimulator Olive Oil Smooth and Hold Pudding.

My hair feels good. I would say it is perfectly moisturized. Soft, yet strong. For the weekend, I’m going to wear a twist-out. Then once that gets old looking, I will twist my hair into large twists nightly, wearing it out during the day, until next wash day. This will be my basic regimen throughout the winter.

I’m beginning to think that the hair typing system is not useful for figuring out what products are best for your hair. I suppose it’s nice to formalize the different hair types, so that people are aware. But you can tell just by looking if your hair is straight, wavy, curly or kinky; it’s not rocket science. I think where a lot of naturals get frustrated is that they stop there and don’t consider if their hair strand diameter is fine, medium, or coarse and if their hair density is high or low. Those areas are where product type matter the most. The finer your hair, the less natural protein is in the strand. If you’re on the fine end of the spectrum and you overuse moisturizing products, loading too much on, your hair will be a mushy mess and be prone to breakage. Coarse hair as a lot of natural protein in the strand. If you’re on that end, overusing protein laden products will make your hair a crispy mess and lead to the same problem: breakage.

I think it is assumed that if your hair is kinky, 4A, B or C, then it’s automatically coarse. And you need to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. There is also a irrational fear of protein, probably based off of some coarse-haired naturals experiences. When one is new to being natural, you are likely to think of fine hair being that less kinky, 3C type. But it does not matter what your curl pattern (or lack of one) is; you can have hair that is anywhere on the fine/medium/coarse continuum. Many naturals also realize their hair isn’t very dense. My hair is fine, but the density is high. Some 4A-C naturals have both fine strands and low density. Which means heavy products, too much moisturizing and not enough protein will eventually damage their hair. Or, in the very least, their hair will seem not to thrive well and length retention is difficult, if not impossible.

In my opinion, it is largely irrelevant how kinky or nappy your hair is. When someone decides to transition from relaxers to natural hair, they should (in my opinion, of course) figure out just two things: hair density and strand thickness. Now, there are definitely major differences between hair on the straight to kinky spectrum. Curlier hair is harder to keep moisturized. But if curly hair is fine, making sure you use enough protein helps your hair retain moisture better.

Introducing the subject of religion to kids

I grew up going to a mostly African-American Baptist church, was baptized at a young age and all I knew was that Sunday was for Sunday School and then church service. It of course never occurred to me that by the time I became a parent, our Sunday mornings would be a whole lot different.

My journey towards atheism started when my oldest son was a baby, after round of Bible studying, during long stretches of sitting while breastfeeding. At that point, we were living in a new state, were still trying to find the “right” church and I felt at some point, I need to be sending my kid to Sunday School. Or something. Right? Well, as most atheists can attest to, reading the Bible, with no filters (aka, Bible study books), real objectivity and an open mind, is the straightest path to atheism. By the time I accepted that I was an atheist and embraced secular humanism, I had kid #2. Fortunately, my DH and I were on the same page.

Now with a 5 year old and a 2 year old, I’ve recently begun thinking about how we will introduce the subject of religion to them. They have seen people pray over food and has heard my mother say, “Oh, Lawd!” at one of their funny antics. That pretty much sums up their religious exposure. But they will get older. They might hear one or both of their grandmas talk about God or Jesus. They could hear about the concept of hell. I don’t want them confused or frightened when these topics come up.

So, I’ve decided to get a Children’s Bible. Kids love stories and mine are no different, so why not just read them Bible stories? Except I am not burdened with the task of convincing them that any of the stories are true. We can freely critique them; laughing at the absurdities, rightly judging good or bad behavior of the characters (including God), or acknowledging a moral action. And if they don’t like the stories, we can stop reading.

I’ll be very interested in hearing my children’s honest impressions of these stories. In your secular family, if you read some Bible stories to your children, what did they think of them?



Homeschooling: Learning cursive before manuscript?

One of the many advantages of homeschooling is that you can switch things up whenever you want or need to. DH and I have been discussing handwriting and some schools of thought suggest teaching cursive before manuscript (print). In fact, many Montessori schools teach cursive first.

This blog post from Our Montessori Home presented the case clearly for teaching cursive first. A few things stood out for me:

1. Kids find cursive attractive

2. Cursive writing matches kids early drawing and writing squiggle attempts.

3. This I will quote directly from the writer: “Once children have learned cursive, it is very easy for them to learn print.  The reverse is more difficult.  Also, a child who writes in cursive can also read print, but a child who only learned print cannot read cursive.”

That third point I knew, but just accepted it as part of the process. But again, difficulty, in this case, doesn’t have to be a part of the process. There are options. Like learning cursive first. Also, the writer cites a paper written by a pediatrician that suggests kids brains are more primed  for learning to write printed letters later (between ages 6 and 9).

In addition, a recent article in Psychology Today suggests that learning cursive has benefits for brain development. This is particularly relevant for kids in public schools since, as the article states, learning cursive is no longer a requirement for elementary school children.

DH and I discussed whether to teach #1 son cursive at all. It seems to be going out of style, going the way of the dodo. But we decided against that and are now considering whether to just start with cursive. Whether or not cursive writing goes extinct is irrelevant. There seems to be many advantages to learning cursive that go beyond just having the ability to read it when needed.

Lastly, #1 son seems more interested in cursive letters and has little trouble recognizing them. His favorite cursive letter is what he calls “fancy G”.

We’re still thinking about it, but there are a lot of pros to learning cursive first.