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9/11/2001 and beyond

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

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I commuted to NYC (Jersey City PATH train to WTC or Amtrak to WTC) daily for quite a while. And for a while I worked in a building with windows facing the WTC – watched the window washers swaying on the upper floors with fascination and dread.

WTC was really a very unpleasant building to be in. At the subway level, and the level of the shops just above, it stank of urine and the homeless who lived there were in terrible shape.

And yet that absence on the skyline tugs at my stomach every time.

On 9/11/2001 I woke up to NPR re-broadcasting the planes heading into the WTC; spent the whole day hoping our younger one hadn’t heard anything about it at school, but of course she had.

I didn’t even try to get hold of my many friends in NYC until Sept. 12 and when I did the phones were all down and emails were not returned, sometimes until weeks later.

One friend, Tom, FedEx-ed me, at my request, the black-covered New Yorker magazine that I for some reason desperately needed to read. My friend, Elizabeth, told me of the terrible filthy smoke and the smells that persisted for weeks.

Now I see that this terrible event has been used to justify all kinds of other really inexcusable incursions into our rights and the rights of others around the globe.

So far, I see very little good that has come out of this and that makes it all the sadder.

In the words of one of my Twitter pals, @pourmecoffee:

Let’s all remember to honor America [on 9/11] by dividing it into groups and being openly hostile to the ones we’re not in.

Or, commemorate @markos birthday and Sept. 11, 2001 in a meaningful way by buying @markos book: American Taliban

Some of my favorite reflections on 9/11:

Musical Review: Rent

Friday, August 20th, 2010

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Some musicals strike us as perfect, or at least nearly perfect. We’ve seen Into the Woods nearly fifty times and would be willing to watch it weekly or more if we could afford to. The book is interesting to us, most of the lyrics are clearly intentional and speak to us, the music is complex and beautiful. Sure there are songs that we think could go, or be improved, but still.

Rent seems terrifically unfinished to us. My teenage daughter who did not experience the 1980’s when AIDS first began to wreak havoc with so many lives and who had never heard the acronym AZT was utterly confused by the initial half hour. (We paused the DVD to explain what was happening and why.)

We admired Rent as an impassioned, furious, context-free snapshot of that awful time. The performers on the DVD are gorgeous, with voices to match. But the music and lyrics don’t rise to the cause they represent. The perfect song that Roger runs away to Santa Fe to write is not.

Wonder if perhaps, if the creator, Jonathan Larson, had lived to see the show on Broadway, he would have refined it further.

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Book review: Pirates!

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

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Author:Celia Rees
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction
Year of publication:2009

I don't think the exclamation point in the title is warranted.

I picked it up because I saw "based on a true story", and wanted a glimpse into what pirate life was really like, but throughout the book I felt like it was very fictional.


After I finished reading the book, I learned that it was only loosely based on a true story and none of the characters was ever real. Anyways, a quick, cute read (I read it in about three hours) but not in any sense a gnarly pirate book as is implied in the title.

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Pirates!

Trip report: Amish Friendship Bread

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

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I sent the following out to my Freecycle group the other day, Day 7 of our latest Amish Friendship Bread adventure:

My daughter’s friend met her the other day, and, smiling, said, “I have something special for you.” and handed her a bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter. Which means that said well-intended friend is not very far along in her Amish Friendship Bread journey.

So we now have a starter at Day 7, and in about 4 or 5 days, it will split into four little babies, each of which will multiply like bunnies and pretty soon our home will be overrun with fattening cakes and the smell of cinnamon. Which is why we have resolved to terminate this particular branch on the Amish Friendship Bread family tree quite abruptly, after we’ve baked the first iteration. UNLESS some of you fine folks would like a packet of starter when it next becomes available, which will be soon.

Please let me know if you would like to at least experience this interesting flashback to 1950s America.

Also serves as a GREAT lesson in exponential growth.

You would need to take possession of the starter promptly when it becomes available. What you do with it once it’s yours, I do not need to know.

Freecyclers from near and far responded, mostly with condolences.

One helpful soul pointed out the obvious: We did not have to keep a starter for ourselves. We COULD just bake all the babies into tasty coffee cakes and freeze what we could not eat.

We would then have NO STARTER to foist upon an unwilling Universe, but we would have many yummy cakes to eat when we are hungry.

So here we are, on Day 10: Baking Day

  • One bag of starter is going to an intrepid Freecycler who has promised she knows exactly what she's getting into.
  • One bag is going to a friend who, I fear, is in denial about what she is getting into.
  • One bag was used to make two yummy coffeecakes, one of which will soon be given away. I found a recipe that does not require me to use vanilla pudding mix. Vanilla pudding mix, in fact, pudding of any variety, is not an ingredient I would ever choose to have in my pantry.
  • I will (!!!!) keep one bag of starter, since I now know I can and will kill it off and eat it at any time I care to.

Trip report: Berkeley 2010 Juggling and Unicycling Festival

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

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When @johnnyfuncheap tweeted that there was going to be a free juggling and unicycle show in Berkeley this weekend, we were torn, torn, torn.

We don’t much enjoy driving to Berkeley and we always dread the drive back. It’s a long drive for us, we who have a very painful personal history with bridges letting us down hard (literally), and the Bay Bridge has not been retrofitted, etc., etc. But we nearly always have a great time when we get to Berkeley.

The fire juggling show at ten was what compelled us, and so we dragged ourselves to the Berkeley High School Jacket Gym to see what it would be like.

Our festival experience did not start all that auspiciously. We have never SEEN a high school that big. But beautiful, very, very clean. Nicely laid out. Big though. We drove around, drove around looking for parking. Eventually, we DID find a legal parking space very close by.

We arrived at the huge, huge gym and found it absolutely PACKED with incredible jugglers. There was a guy juggling miniature toilet plungers. There were large groups hurling pins at each other. There were folks with rhinestone-encrusted hula hoops. There was a guy spinning balls on his fingers. There was a woman in a purple t-shirt who kept doing incredible juggling things while the expression on her face implied that nothing whatsoever was going on. We kept having to dodge out of the way of stray pins and lurching unicycles.

I said the gym was PACKED with incredible jugglers, but that was a lie. About a third of the gym was dedicated to a ferocious game of unicycle basketball. Some of the players were on normal unicycles, some were on taller ones. Each rode with a unique style. It was simply amazing that in all the time we watched, no horrendous crashes occurred. We noticed that traveling with the ball seemed to be legal, as did handling the other players pretty roughly, and we also noticed that players fell off and go back onto their unicycles as if rolling out of and then back into bed.

Well, we talked with a bunch of the talented jugglers around us, watched jealously as a tiny, tiny boy getting his first unicycle lesson on a tiny, tiny unicycle, and gawked at the wide array of missiles soaring from hand to hand and at the apparently never-ending basketball game. After about 45 minutes or so, my daughter said, “We don’t know how to do these things. We don’t belong here.” It was still an hour until the fire show.

And then, who should take us over? Dan Chan, Magic Man. He asked my daughter if she knew how to juggle. She answered, “A little.” He offered her a lesson. She shyly refused. Dan did not give up. He asked ME if I knew how to juggle. I said, “Not a bit.” He said, “Are you willing to learn? Come over here.” So I went. And my daughter followed.

Dan handed me the most enchanting juggling balls you’ve ever felt. They are called GBallz and they are made of buttery leather and stuffed with millet. They seem to be the perfect size for any hand. They have a very reassuring weight as they drop into your palm. When they fall, they make a very, very quiet, non-embarrassing splat and THEY DO NOT ROLL AWAY.

So poor Dan started to teach me to juggle. I was an attentive but inept student. And by then Dan could see that my daughter was begging to just hold the GBallz, let alone learn from Dan. He looked at my daughter and said, “She’ll be juggling in 20 minutes.” He gave her three GBallz. (We later learned that this was very kind, since they are very expensive and we were sorely tempted to take them home so we could keep juggling them all night and for the rest of our lives ….)

Dan is just a fantastic teacher. He shows you something, and then he lets you try it and gives you feedback. Then he says something like, “Do that ten times and then you’ll learn something else.” Then he walks away and shows back up a little later when you’re ready to learn more.

I learned to juggle two balls fairly well considering I have no talent in this area. My daughter was juggling three pretty nicely before an hour or so had passed. People whose juggling we admired kept walking up to us and giving us helpful tips.

In no time at all, the incredible, wonderful, exceptional fire show was on. At fire show, there was a guy on a unicycle making origami from burning paper, shouting in Spanish and English for us to cheer him on. There was a guy with a burning whip. There were several flaming unicycle-riders juggling fire. There was a fire-eater and a fire-dancer and the music was great and the space in which we watched was comfortable and beautiful.

The Berkeley 2010 Juggling and Unicycling Festival runs through tomorrow, Sunday, July 11. If you can go tomorrow, go. If you can’t, look for it next year and go to their workshops. (Everything except a show on Saturday night was free, far as I know.)

My photos are here:

Book review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)

Monday, April 26th, 2010

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Author:J K (Joanne Kathleen)  Rowling
Illustrator: Mary GrandPrť
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2003

I think this is my favorite of the Harry Potter series so far, but also my least favorite in some ways: Harry, Ron, and Hermione have definitely grown up a lot between books four and five, but they do it in a somewhat annoying fashion.

Although everyone has crushes on everyone else, both Harry and Ron are very oblivious about their own feelings, and others, and what limits that they should push (in terms of girls, and rules, and stupidity).

What I really like about this book is that the themes are broadening. There are a lot of government scandals that make a lot of sense and add an interesting edge to the book, making the series more true-to-life, rather than only focused on one kid's adventures to save the world...

But I really do NOT like the "Hogwarts High-Inquisitor" because she is badly done and annoying. No one is actually that cruel.
Similar books

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)

Test of ISDN 0192752790

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

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Songs: Men don’t buy pajamas for pistol-packing mamas, and other hard lessons I’ve learned from Broadway musicals

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

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Books etc. / For children 5 and under / For children 5 and up / For children 8 and up / Learning to read / For children 12 and up / Sophisticated readers / Fat books (Deep books for sophisticated but young readers) / About educators educating / Technical Books / Gifted Education / Books whose protagonists are gifted, intellectually / All book reviews


Caution: This piece includes spoilers. If you don’t want to learn much about the plot of Annie Get Your Gun, please don’t read on.

About 11 years ago, desperate for a distraction for my then-4 yr. old daughter, I sat her down in front of a TV, popped a tape of Carousel into the VCR and walked away. When I stopped by to check up on her 45 minutes later, I found her facing the screen, tears streaming down her face. It was then I should have
realized that musicals’ pretty costumes and music often disguise powerful messages.

Years later, I found myself in the video rental store on my birthday. The plan was to eat a festive dinner and watch a video of my choosing. √ā¬†“Old musicals are always safe,” I thought, addled by the aging process. I brought home the 1950 screen adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Betty Hutton and Howard Keel.

Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of Annie Oakley, best shot in the West, in music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Much-loved songs from the show include Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, The Girl That I Marry, I Got The Sun In The Morning,
Anything You Can Do, and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Annie Oakley sings the theme of musical loud and clear in the brilliant lyrics of You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, which include:

… When I’m with a pistol
I sparkle like a crystal,
Yes, I shine like the morning sun.
But I lose all my luster
When with a Bronco Buster.
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

While Frank Butler, the man Annie aspires to wed, sings:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery

The girl I call my own
Will wear satin and laces and smell of cologne


A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry must be.

There we sat, the daughter (by now a teenager) who cried through Carousel, younger daughter about 6, parents, and even the cat watched, rapt, as the music traced Annie Oakely’s life. Annie evolves from an ignorant hillbilly (Doin’ What Comes Naturly) whose shooting must be sharp if she is to feed her family, into the most talented and renowned sharpshooter in the world. Which threatens to destroy her romantic relationship√ā¬†with the second-most talented sharpshooter in the world, Frank Butler. So after watching for nearly two hours, the lesson my daughters learn is that in order to catch and keep the man she loves, a talented, beautiful, intelligent young woman does best to convince him that she’s just not as good a shot as he is.

Which is why, several days later, I was not thrilled to observe my usually-retiring young one scale to the top of a pile of bags of manure outside our drug store and unabashedly belt out multiple choruses of There’s no business
like show business
to the amazed and delighted stares of our fellow-patrons. √ā¬†“That’s alright,” I told myself, √ā¬†“these people have no idea that this song, which has no doubt delighted millions, is from a reactionary musical that delivers a negative message about the need for girls to scale back their ambitions and hide their talents in order to succeed in the world.”

My feelings of failure as a parent worsened when my young daughter became infatuated with a CD of the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Bernadette Peters. Not only is the message of the show in this very recent production unimproved — and how could it be, it’s deeply embedded in the book? — but the performance by Peters is a real disappointment. Her hillybilly accent goes in and out and is embarrassingly influenced by Brooklynese.

Thank goodness my daughter was most interested in the funny competition song, Anything You Can Do, which Annie (at a point in the story where she is still mercifully unaware that a woman’s place is second to the man’s) sings with her rival/intended, Frank Butler:

Anything you can do,

I can do better.
I can do anything
Better than you.

Since dear daughter objects to “mushy love songs”, she (and I) were mostly able to avoid Annie’s decision to permanently hide her gifts. Unfortunately, You can’t get a man with a gun is such a funny but direct description of the thought process that leads to Annie’s capitulation that it proved impossible to ignore. I hate the meaning in the following words, but I just adore the word play:

A man’s love is mighty
It’ll leave him buy a nightie
For a gal who he thinks is fun.

But they don’t buy pajamas
For pistol packin’ mamas,
And you can’t get a hug

From a mug with a slug,
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

Anyone who rode in our car listened to this song over and over again until our local librarians finally compelled us to return the CD.

We’re now on to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and Weird Al Yankovic. The music and lyrics aren’t as fantastic, but at least the messages are slightly more positive, for girls at least.

The lessons I hope I’ve learned from this experience are:

  • Musicals do pack a punch. The songs that make them compelling also project their messages to impressionable children.
  • Children do listen, hear, and, worst, understand these messages. Stephen Soundheim told us this in Into the Woods. But I had forgotten.

Happy listening.

–Emily

If you’re going to watch Annie Get Your Gun, get the DVD or VHS video of the 1950 movie. The CD of Bernadette Peter’s performance is certainly interesting, but the Ethel Merman version’s the one I recommend.

Carousel, on the other hand, is gorgeous, if depressing. There’s a VHS version but the DVD is not much more expensive.


Rants and reviews table of contents / Into the Woods / Annie Get Your Gun / Learning to Build and Program Robots / Stomp / The Armadillo Dance

Into the Woods: An appreciation

Monday, March 6th, 2006

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I understand that of late many mothers (and fathers) have stopped telling their children fairy tales. Often, I learn, this is because they consider fairy tales politically incorrect. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explores some fairy tales to discover why they persist in human memory. His conclusion is that different tales address different issues in the pychological and emotional development of children. Bettelheim emphasizes that, although moral development is also very important to children, that is not the purpose that fairy tales serve. Instead, fairy tales are life lessons that model problem-solving to young children.

So, for example, Bettelheim notes, in fairy tales the mother is often replaced by an evil stepmother.This is because, in most healthy relationships between child and mother, at some point the child begins to test the mother. When the mother starts having to deny some of the child’s requests, the child, in its mind, decides that its mother has been replaced by someone else — an evil person. In other words, the presence of stepmothers is not really a chauvinist plot to eliminate mothers from plotlines.

In 1988, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine interpreted Bettelheim’s book into a musical called Into the Woods. In the first act, the Grimm’s fairy tales Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood are intermingled into a multi-layered musical tale that is appealing to children of all ages. There is more blood and gore than in the Disney versions, but, as Act I ends, the protagonists get their wishes and settle in to live “happily ever after”.

Act II is when reality intervenes. According to Bettelheim, the purpose of fairy tales is to help children get past certain emotional obstacles in their lives. In subsequent stages, they deal with the realities of their lives. Which is why, in Act II, it turns out that happily ever after does not last very long. Marital infidelity, death of parents and friends and other dangers that can’t be magicked away beset the heroes and heroines of the fairy tales. The lesson of Act II is that, although real life can be scary, it affords each child an opportunity to grow and contribute to society.

Into the Woods has been important to our family since our older daughter, then not-yet three, first heard the songs on CD and realized they were being sung by fairy tale characters. Since then, our family has attended at least one or two performances each year. Every time we attend a performance of Into the Woods or watch the video, we and our children have come away with new insights. Sometimes they have to do with stagecraft and the engineering of a musical, but topics that have come up have included: dealing with disappointment, catastrophe and death, the politics of marriages, the advantages and disadvantages of growing up, the nature of evil, well, I could go on and on.

We have chosen to encourage our children to watch BOTH acts, because we believe it is important for them to both hear the lessons of the tales themselves, and to learn that, in real life, not every adventure ends “happily ever after”. However, we do understand that for many children, it would be best to watch just Act I and to then leave the premises.

Disheartening news about Bruno Bettelheim’s personal conduct has recently come to light. These allegations should not discourage parents, or anyone interested in raising children, from reading The Uses of Enchantment or in taking their children to a live performance of Into the Woods.

There’s a DVD of Into the Woods. It stars Bernadette Peters as the witch. We recently bought the DVD, because we wore the tape out.

And here’s something very cool: Children Will Listen, a recording of a production of Into the Woods that about 200 schoolchildren pulled together in about 6 months and then presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It had been half a year since we’d seen a production of Into the Woods. After watching this DVD, which showed only glimpses of the final production, we wanted to see the show again, immediately.

Welcome to Armadillo’s Book Blog

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

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I’ve been keeping lists of what my kids have been reading at various ages, although lately the 11 year old is going through them so quickly that I can’t possibly keep up. I don’t (necessarily) feel it’s my job to \”nurture\” their progress, but I do enjoy sharing books with my kids and talking with them about what they are reading.

My already-existing lists of book reviews are accessible at:

From now on, I will try to blog out each review…And, I would love to hear what you think of the books reviewed.