Monthly Archives: January 2011

The President’s Reading Level?

Today had the potential to go south even before the sun was fully up.  That’s what happens when you schedule dental work for 8 a.m.  So after I got home and saw this article about the reading level of the State of the Union address, I had a good chuckle, and things started looking up for the day.  It seems that Mr. Harvard Law Review enthralled the nation with a speech that only managed an 8.5 grade level.  That places him nearly 2 full grade levels behind George W. Bush and Reagan.  He’s not even close to Kennedy (grade 12), Eisenhower (11.9), or Roosevelt (11.4).

The evaluation comes from the Flesch-Kincaide readability formula, which looks at number of words sentences contain and number of syllables in each word.  Here’s the formula:

FKRA = (0.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59


FKRA = Flesch-Kincaid Reading Age

ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., the number of words divided by the number of sentences)

ASW = Average number of Syllable per Word (i.e., the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

Pretty cool, isn’t it?  Especially if you are word freak like me.  Now, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, the average adult reading level is 8th grade, but about a quarter of American adults read at or below a 5th grade level.  So I guess the president was on a par with most of his audience that night.  Here’s a question, though.  If the president is going to give his speeches at a level of comprehension equal to the average American, why do we need all of the talking heads in the news media to interpret the speeches for us?  Why do these folks devote hours of air time telling us what we actually heard from the president?

I find all of this rather embarrassing.  The leader of the United States, the only Superpower, addresses the Congress and the nation once a year.  This is the Big One: THE speech.  The best he can come up with is, “We do big things”?  Whatever happened to something like this:

Let us so conduct ourselves that two centuries from now, another Congress and another President, meeting in this Chamber as we are meeting, will speak of us with pride, saying that we met the test and preserved for them in their day the sacred flame of liberty — this last, best hope of man on Earth. (Pres. Ronald Reagon, January 26, 1982, State of the Union Address)


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Get a Job!

Junior needs a job.  He just plunked down a whole lot of his ready cash for some fishing gear, and now his piggy bank is pretty empty.  At 14, his options are quite limited.  During the spring and summer, he mowed the lawn for his grandparents.  He used to pet sit for our neighbors, but their cat recently passed away.  Too bad we don’t  live in New England anymore.  Oh, the money he could be making with a snow shovel these days.

He wouldn’t have much competition, according to this blog post that caught my eye.  The author, Mary Kaye, laments the fact that most kids don’t understand the value of a hard-earned dollar.  I love how she writes,

When a child has to work towards something (a laptop, an iPod touch, a pair of new Uggs) it becomes more precious because of the efforts it took to get it. In the process of earning it, the child learns skills such as planning, accounting, time management, sales, customer service, perseverance and a host of others.

Amen, sister!  We’ve tried really hard to implement this principle.  At our house, the rule is that money received as gifts (usually checks) goes right into the savings account.  This is not everyday spending money.  However, money earned babysitting, pet sitting,  mowing, or doing out-of-the-ordinary chores like cleaning out the garage is usually paid in cash.  This is the money the kids have available for spending.  We’ve tried to teach the kids how to comparison shop for the best value for their money.  We’ve encouraged them to think long-term about how an item will be used.  Hopefully this has molded them into good, responsible consumers.

Getting back to the work part of the equation, though, I wish more adults would take working kids seriously.  Why are they so willing to throw money at kids no matter how small the job?  When SuzyQ was 10, she did some pet sitting for a neighbor.  All she had to do was feed their birds and pick up the mail for 10 days.  I think she changed the newspaper in the cage once.  The neighbors paid her $50–to put bird seed in a dish and check the mail box.  In a different twist on the subject, Junior needed to do some volunteer work as part of his religious education.  We got a huge snow storm, so he offered to shovel our neighbor’s long driveway for him.  When he was finished, the neighbor insisted he take $20 for the work and even stuffed the money in his coat pocket.  Junior put the $20 bill in the collection basket at church that Sunday.

Both of these were cases of neighbors just trying to be nice and show their gratitude.  But they didn’t help to teach the kids that nothing in life is free or that a paycheck is the result of an honest day’s work.  Nor does it help them see that more skilled work produces a higher wage or that a raise or bonus shouldn’t be expected but rather merited.  It’s about the work ethic, people!

So I hate to wish for a snow storm, especially in the South, but…

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How Long Can You Stay Mad at a Dog?

Chaos is reigning in our house.  And the culprit is this:

The Uncommon Greyhound

The poor dog has been on Prednisone for a couple of weeks now.  We are finally tapering him off, but what a wild ride it has been.  The vet told me it would increase his appetite and make him thirsty.  OK.  He has always been food driven, so I thought I was prepared.  Not exactly.  The dog has learned how to help himself to the food in the pantry.  So far, in the past 2 weeks Uncommon Greyhound has sampled:

  • chocolate-covered granola bars
  • Reese’s Pieces
  • an old chocolate bunny (hollow, I think)
  • Ritz crackers
  • a 5-pound bag of sugar (my personal favorite–and, no, he didn’t eat it all)
  • strawberry Pop-Tarts

So last night brought the last straw.  We all had to out to various activities, so the dog would be left alone for 2 hours or so.  By this time, we figured we had everything he could get into put away.  Wrong.  He managed to find a bag of Dove dark chocolate hearts.  I’m guessing he ate about half of the bag, foil wrapping and all.  First came the rage.  NOT AGAIN!  Then the panic.  MORE CHOCOLATE!  Isn’t that toxic?  After quickly checking online for what to do, I came across this handy-dandy chart with dangerous amounts of chocolate based on a dog’s weight.  Apparently, I am not the only person with dog addicted to chocolate.  Too bad the chart doesn’t address the question of how many foil wrappers he can eat before I should start to worry.

I tried to shrug all of this off as the side effects of his medication.  Here’s the thing, though.  In my effort to put away everything edible, I noticed a new box of Milk Bones that hasn’t made it into the canister yet.  It’s untouched.  So is the spare bag of cat food.  If he’s so hungry, why is he so picky?  Why did he go for the Dove and not the Nestle Crunch hearts?  It’s not unlike kids who whine about being hungry but “There’s nothing to eat!”

So the kitchen’s on lockdown for about another week.  Today the atmospheric conditions in the house are particularly gassy.  And I guess I really didn’t need those chocolate hearts anyway.


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How about a State of the Union Billboard Instead?

Get ready.  The State of the Union Address is on all the networks tonight.  I think I’ll pass–again.  Leaving aside the fact that watching the current tenants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. turns my stomach, I can’t stand the production that has become the annual address to the nation.  It’s like a really bad variety show:

  • First you have the big intro:  “Hereeeeeeee’s the President of the United States!!”  And he walks through and works the crowd like Leno used to on “The Tonight Show.”
  • The laugh track, or in this case, the applause track.  I really, really, really hate the pauses after every other sentence for applause.  It’s so undignified.  This isn’t a pep rally; it’s a report mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
  • “Our special guests tonight…”   Why, oh, why do presidents insists on trotting out their human props for this speech every year?  You’re guaranteed to see a military hero (never mind that it’s likely that most of these soldiers would prefer standing watch that sitting next to Michelle Obama all evening) and maybe a poor, disadvantaged person and probably someone who just did his job or acted like a decent human being ( the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot, the NYC Subway hero, and tonight–Congresswoman Giffords’ trauma surgeon).  These people never look happy to be there, and they always seem incredibly uncomfortable standing there throughout the applause, like they’re thinking to themselves, “How long before I can just sit down?”

Here’s an idea:  Why don’t we go back to the State of the Union report in writing?  That was good enough for presidents from 1801 to 1913.  After all, the text of the speech is always released ahead of time anyway.  The news media talk about it all day long before the speech.  And we know he’s not going to say anything really important.  This isn’t like some special address to the nation in a crisis.  Most of the garbage that’s proposed during these speeches never gets past the idea stage, so really, what’s the point?  I could learn more watching “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery Channel or “The Horrors of Hussein” on History International, both of which air at the same time as the President’s speech.

Better yet, why doesn’t the White House put out the main bullet points from the address on billboards across the country?   People could check them out while they are stuck in rush hour traffic or sitting at choke points created by all of those road projects funded by stimulus dollars.

Spare me the theater and spectacle of tonight’s State of the Union Address.  I’m sure I have a good book to read.

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Heaven or Harvard, or…What?

We are deep into the college search at our house.  Maybe a more accurate statement would be that I am really into the college search.  SuzyQ, a high school junior, and I seem to have a difference of opinion about what type of schools should be on the list to consider.  And it’s not what you might think.  If you refer back to my “About” page, you’ll learn that I’m a faithful Catholic who is trying to raise her family to be counter-cultural.  A big part of our decision to homeschool the kids through high school was the desire to keep them away from the indoctrination into the narcissistic and relativist mindsets that have taken over American culture.

So when it comes to searching for the right college for our first-born, why am I the one encouraging SuzyQ to look at more secular schools, rather than only “approved” Catholic institutions?  In case you didn’t know, there is a group of colleges and universities that can truly be called Catholic, while the vast majority of schools that call themselves Catholic actually are so in name only.  I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with these “approved” schools, especially if you are looking for a degree in theology or philosophy.  Generally speaking, though, they aren’t terribly strong in the sciences.  And that’s where SuzyQ’s interest lies. 

My argument:  After sheltering her for what will be about 18 years, the time comes when she needs to go into the world and face what it has to offer.  Without a doubt, it will not be easy to maintain and defend her faith at a secular school, and it will be even harder at a school that claims to be Catholic while scorning Church teaching in its classrooms and on its campus.  Hopefully, after all of these years of religious education and the example Darling Husband and I have set, she will have the tools she needs to find her way and possibly help fellow Catholic students do the same.  Maybe she will be the beacon that others are looking for.

Then there’s the question of what college is really for.  I think the days of college as a pure learning experience are over.  Frankly, it costs too much.  If you aren’t going to college with a view to preparing for a career in life, maybe college isn’t for you.  I say this as a full-time mom.  I truly believe I use my degree in History every day as I help educate my children.  Had the internet been available to offer employment from home in my years as a young mom, I likely would have pursued some outside employment that way.  The investment in a college education should be an investment in your future, in the contributions you hope to make in society.  Like it or not, studying primarily the Great Books and Western Civilization is not going to get you far in today’s world.  It might get you into law school, but even that isn’t saying much, according to this article.  And a degree in theology likely won’t land you a job that will allow you to repay those college loans in a hurry, not to mention your other bills.

Here’s my other worry about some of these “approved” schools:  They might be what some have called “Catholic ghettos.”  I don’t necessarily like that terminology, but it could be aptly applied.  Spiritually speaking, they may be Catholic utopias, but what about educationally?  When you’re shelling out close to $200,000 over 4 years, should you settle for 2nd best in faculty or lab facilities or connections that give your kid a boost in job prospects?  This post about this very issue really started me thinking about all this. 

Am I less of a good Catholic mom for questioning these colleges as the best fit for SuzyQ?  Am I risking her soul by encouraging her to look at institutions I know are filled with unashamedly anti-Catholics?  Theoretically, she could end up graduating from an “approved” Catholic college as a fanatic on the conservative end of the spectrum.  You know, the super-judgmental, “I’m a better Catholic than you because I read the entire Summa Theologica, and I don’t wear pants” type? 

So, chime in.  What’s a Catholic parent to do?

Incidentally, Harvard isn’t on my list.  But Princeton might be.  It has a thriving Catholic campus presence in spite of being Ivy League.

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Words Mean Something

I think I may have mentioned before that I am a word lover.  Actually, I’m more of a word freak.  My kids would tell you that I get giddy over recognizing Latin or Greek roots in words.  I love the Word of the Day feature on my homepage.  And I nag the kids in their writing  and speech about choosing their words carefully.  I know that writers can agonize over each word to give their sentences exactly the right tone.

That’s why, why I was outraged to learn that Mark Twain’s most famous works will be revised in a major act of political correctness.  Apparently, a certain Twain scholar has taken it upon himself to replace the “N-word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with he word “slave” in a new combined edition of the books.  Also out are the words “Injun Joe” and “half-breed.”    The thinking here is that the new wording will be less offensive to readers so that middle school and high school teachers can begin assigning these classics once again.

Where to begin on what irks me about this English professor and a publisher taking such liberties?  Most obvious is the fact that by changing the dialect and vocabulary of the characters, he is changing the characters themselves.  This is not a matter of translating, say, Chaucer because no one understands Old or Middle English.  This is putting new words in a character’s mouth, words that Twain could have chosen but didn’t.  Mark Twain knew the meaning of the words he chose and used them for a reason.

What I find to be so laughable is this professor’s desire to protect kids from a word that they very likely use themselves or certainly hear repeatedly in the hip-hop music they love.  The “N-word” is routinely tossed about in song lyrics and teenage conversation, especially by the demographic group that would cry offense if someone of another race were to use the word.  That is a garbled, “sensitive” way of saying that it seems it’s OK for black kids to refer to each other as “niggers,” but it is a mortal sin for white kids to use that word.  There, I said it.  I half expect to find the PC police stalking my comment box now and posting hateful messages.  So the word is just fine in song lyrics, but it’s offensive in classic American literature??

Here’s what I find offensive in the so-called “literature” on high school required reading lists: sexually explicit scenes and 4-letter words.  I know a lot of that language is part of kids’ everyday vocabulary; I hear it all the time in the mall or at the library.  But to me, it’s offensive.   I also find detailed descriptions of rape, oral sex, and even consensual sex to be highly inappropriate for high school kids.  Books containing these, however, are forced on kids as “literature” by librarians and English teachers.  Take, for example, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  It’s very explicit in its description of sexual abuse.  Found on some required 9th Grade reading lists is the more recent The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  It’s loaded with shock-value scenes in place of plot, but it’s cheerfully assigned with a little disclaimer  about mature content for parents of Ohio freshmen.  Teachers really think kids are comfortable discussing such scenes in front of the whole English class?  But teachers will argue that’s what makes the books “real” and “relevent.”  Hmmm.

So are we supposed to be sensitive about are word choices or not?  I’m confused.  Mark Twain…bad; hip-hop artist…good?

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Writing about Not Writing

It has been a while since my last post, and I have been feeling lots of internal pressure to write about SOMETHING.  But what??   Darling Husband suggested I comment on the teen pregnancy epidemic at one Memphis high school.  My sister thought I should write about the threats to free speech that are emerging after the Tucson shooting.  Then there is the question of the shooter’s mental illness and how difficult it is to protect the public from the potentially violent mentally ill.  All very important topics.  But there’s plenty of talk  out there about those issues.  And really, all I would say about any of them is that our country is in dire need of a change in morality and priorities before any of those issues can be fully addressed.

Maybe it’s the time of year–the after-Christmas doldrums, that are weighing me down and making me stay away from these burdensome topics.  Mostly, I’m reading blogs about simplifying my life, clearing away clutter, more efficient organizing, and decorating tips for winter months for a clean and calm home.  I’m keeping  most of the heavy news in the background these days.  At times, I want to be a news-of-the-day sort of blogger.  I certainly keep myself well-informed and, I think I form pretty solid opinions about what is going on in the world.  But sometimes I envy those bloggers who regularly write entertaining posts about decorating inspiration, household disasters, or poignant family moments.  They seem a lot less despairing of the state of the world, a little more serene (at least for the moments it takes to write their posts).

So, while I’m conflicted about the sort of blog this is (political and serious or light-hearted entertainment from a Conservative perspective), I still need to get words out there.  After all, you can’t become a better writer unless you write more.  In that spirit, here are some totally random thoughts to consider:

  • As predicted, “The King’s Speech” did not take in all of the Golden Globe awards last night.  It was snubbed in favor of  “Social Network.”  Sigh.
  • Still in the Anglo vein…Did you know that more than 20 years after the fact, you still cannot donate blood if you spent a significant amount of time in England between 1980 and 1996?  This is due to a serious outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain in 1986 followed by an up-tick in human variant cases.  I fall into this category of indefinitely banned donors after studying abroad smack in the middle of the outbreak.
  • Why are all of the network shows on hiatus until “after the Superbowl”?  I know the weekends in January are pretty much exclusively football, but come on!  What about the rest of the week? 
  • In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, schools across the country are closed.  So are the local libraries and recreation centers.  So what we have in my community are a bunch of bored kids stuck at home (since their parents must work–unless they work for a government entity).  They can’t go to the library to get caught up on schoolwork or just find something to, gasp, read.  They also can’t go swim or play or exercise at the rec center.  So much for the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

That is pretty much what is on my mind today.  That and how to manage feeding the family all week when SuzyQ has chorus commitments every night but one.  If only I wasn’t Uncommon, I could hit the drive-thru on the way to the event.  Sigh.

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