Thursday, May 31, 2007

Parenting Beyond Belief

Every now and then, I come across a parenting book that is useful. This one, Parenting Beyond Belief, is a keeper. The editor, Dale McGowan, has compiled a great bunch of essays about "raising ethical, caring kids without religion." Rather than a "how to" guide, it's more of a "how we do/did it." If nothing else, it's great to see something in print that suggests atheist parents aren't amoral bastards bent on destroying society as we know it.

Until very recently, polite society absolutely relegated talk of atheism to the same status as things like cannibalism, hummingbird fights, prison violence, deforestation, defenestration, masturbation, animal sacrifice and Dick Cheney. We know they happen and that really bothers most people but generally better not to mention them at the dinner table let alone at playgroup. Recent offerings by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have given atheists a little more confidence in their (our) convictions, but have not (as yet) done much to further respect for atheism and atheists. That's probably going to take some time, since a lot of us get defensive at constant needling from theists and take an "us vs. them" stance when it's probably not strictly necessary. Eventually this discussion will mature, but for now both sides are carrying on in the face of what seems like increasingly open hostility. Of course, I could be wrong but that's how it looks from here.

It is a common misconception that theism and morality are synonymous. For many people (theists and budding skeptics alike) this leads to the belief that atheism and amorality are also synonymous. Erroneous assumptions all around for reasons I won't detail here, but worth pondering. Hence the title and subtitle of this book. Wow-I can raise good kids without god?! Earth shattering! Not really, but it gives me an inkling that I'm not crazy for trying.

So-on to my review of this book...

Generally, my favorite essays are the ones by the editor, Dale McGowan. He's funny, ironic, and succinct. He's a great foil for some of the more self-important contributors. The things he writes generally gel with my parenting philosophy.

A few of the essays were just so self-important I couldn't get into them. This includes Pen Jillette's smug contribution and a self-congratulatory piece by Shannon and Matthew Cherry. Otherwise, even the essays that didn't speak to my particular experience/perspective were helpful and engaging.

My very favorite piece in the whole book is by Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons and titled "Dealing with Death in the Secular Family." Compassionate, level-headed, common sense. This is the only part of the book that felt specifically instructional to me, and I loved it. I'm thinking of memorizing it for when Princess Lemon Drop (the goldfish), Beaker (the bird) and Flapjack (the cat) all eventually shuffle off their mortal coils. An indispensable resource, and not just for atheists. I've been asked by many a theist "So what are you going to tell Elise about death?" and this is my answer. Thank you, Rev. Gibbons.

I also really liked the point-counterpoint on Santa Claus. It was helpful, and as I found so many times in this book, McGowan saves the day. We had a bit of a Cult of Santa thing going on here this year, and I'd begun to think that we'd irreparably harmed our child. Not a surprising worry when our lives were beginning to be run by obscure rules about what might please Santa. I dare you to keep a straight face while watching a three year old presenting offerings of dead leaves to garden gnomes or throwing leaves and flower petals to the southeast (always the southeast-it was uncanny) in hopes of appeasing the Big Guy. Or speaking in whispers while playing maracas in the living room for fear of waking Santa and making him mad. And, what normal child wants cookies to leave around for Santa but not eat for herself? A religion was born right before our eyes. The "Santa is evil" contributor confirmed my worst fears, McGowan had me laughing and convinced we'd be just fine.

Jean Mercer's excellent essay is a nice primer on human development and morality, a further reminder that theism doesn't create morality, human experience does. Pull this one out for the smarty-pantses who contend there's no way a kid can grow up "good" without religion.

McGowan's Seven Secular Virtues are fabulous and would be helpful guides for any conscientious parent. Or non-parent. And they're presented in McGowan's excellent style, so prepare to enjoy. Also, Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder. That one reminded me to get out there and rediscover my sense of wonder. Voila, I have two new hobbies of birdwatching and astronomy because by gum I don't want to have to explain to my kid how to not be bored. And ohmygosh even a little bit of scientific exploration is enough to provide years of wonder and awe at the incredibleness of the universe in which we live.

The one chapter of this book that fell flat for me was the one on seeking community. Theists have communities, and many closet atheists stick with theists for the sake of that community. I'm skeptical that a community of people devoted to not believing in god(s) is viable. That throws "belief" right into the center of things again, and didn't we all leave theism behind to get away from that? Too much potential for dogmatism, in my opinion. There are a lot of other fun, interesting things to do and communities to be found and formed. I dunno that I personally want to devote any more of my life to setting myself up in opposition to theism than I already do. And the essays in this chapter kind of reinforced that for me so maybe that was an ulterior motive of the editor...

In conclusion, I was much more impressed by this book than I expected to be. So much of the atheist literature out there is smug and combative and designed to impress (and irritate) theists. This one is relaxed, gentle, and a real breath of fresh air. Don't expect to buy it at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble-they aren't stocking it. If you're of an atheist bent, go in and order it-maybe they'll order extras. If you're of a theistic bent and don't want to encourage the godless, surreptitiously order it online and use it as a tool for understanding what your weirdo friends are thinking about.

If anyone out there has read this book or is reading it currently, I'd love to see your thoughts! Oh, and if you'd just like to rant about theism, atheism, parenting or Dick Cheney, please do so. It would be nice to see some things written on this blog by our readers!

Another good review to read is here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fabulous Weekend

It's been awhile since we've written, but in our defense there hasn't been much to report. Or maybe there has and we've just been lazy. Hmmmmm...

We're starting to get a feel for the pace of things here in sunny California. Who'd have thought that there are so many things to see and do out there? It feels good to be rounding out a long holiday weekend feeling like we've used it to the fullest.

Friday night, Heather went out to fondue with a moms' group she has been attending. If anyone out there is looking for a cost-effective, satisfying group activity, fondue is a good bet. (Provided you like fondue.) Lots of time to sit and gab, lots of things to try, pretty much all of it tasty. Good times!

After a leisurely breakfast on Saturday, we went to our neighborhood farmers' market. It was the first of the season, and we'll definitely be back. The nice people from the CTRC brought all kinds of neato train stuff, including a hand car with a length of track. Elise wasn't all that interested, though, and let us know it was time to get started on our big adventure for the day!

Following a quick lunch at Peggy Sue's, we headed to the top of Mt. Hamilton to visit the Lick Observatory. Really we did! Of course, we forgot the camera so there's no photographic proof, but we know we were there. Our stomachs told us. The twists and turns of the road challenged all of us, and we were very glad to get to the top. Until someone pulled a fire alarm which was also conveniently connected to an air-raid siren.

On the way back down we stopped at a park with a cool lake. There were all kinds of interesting birds to watch, and we found ourselves wishing we had some binoculars so that we could take them all in.

Sunday, we were a little slow off the mark, largely because we were busy savoring the pancakes Elise and Andy made. It's really fun to watch Elise help measure ingredients. Not only is she good at scooping and leveling and pouring, but she remembers how many of which scoops of which ingredients are needed. Great chef potential, that kid.

The big adventure of the day was the Campbell farmers' market, and a stop at our new favorite outdoor stuff store for a pair of binoculars. Good luck eluding us now, birds! Errands in the afternoon and we were wiped out.

Today, we decided to check out the Tech Museum. It's aimed at an audience older than Elise, but she was able to enjoy many of the exhibits, and we're planning to return often. Over lunch, Elise asked each of us what our favorite parts of the museum had been so far and then volunteered her favorites as well. The robot that picks up blocks to spell names is right up there, as is the programmable Mr. Potato Head. We didn't get to see all that we wanted to, but that just gives us an excuse to go back!

To round out the day, we went to a BBQ at the home of one of Andy's colleagues. It was good to have some adult conversation, and Elise seemed to enjoy the change of scenery. Andy made our favorite chocolate cupcakes (and a cake) to bring along, and those of us who had some (not Andy, ironically) really enjoyed it.

So-a full weekend! We're realizing just how much there is that we want to see and do around here. Elise could use another trip to the beach in the near future, so that may be our next goal. Our weeks are bound to fill up here very soon with the coming of preschool. That's right, Elise is slated to start preschool two days/week beginning in mid-June sometime. Heather found this preschool, and we're pretty excited about it. Hopefully Elise will be too!

That's about all of the news there is. We'll work on getting some pics to go with another post soon!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Loveseat has Landed

We haven't been very blogtastic this week, largely because nothing much has happened. Elise's toilet mastery appears to be complete, because this new diaperless lifestyle has become the non-event of the month. How does a kid go from full-time diapers to complete self-reliance in four days? We're still scratching our heads.

The newfound freedom from the tyrany of diapers has not been without cost. Now that Elise feels like she has control over one major aspect of her life, she's working on seizing control of the rest. We are not amused. Some of the excitement earlier this week began to be a little much. We nearly posted an blog entry titled "Mommy Does NOT Negotiate With Terrorists," but the time was better spent cleaning up the after effects of the mayhem and going to bed early.

This week's real news involves furniture. Approximately a thousand years ago, we wandered into the LaZBoy furniture gallery and sat on the loveseat of our dreams. It was out of stock, so we ordered it and waited. And waited. Finally, word came this week that it was here and ready for delivery. When Elise found out that we would soon have a sofa in the den, she made us proud by saying, "Yay! Now we can sit on it and read books!!!" Never mind that the adults in the family were fixated on having a comfy place to watch TV. We've calculated that it has been just over a year since we were able to sit and comfortably watch the idiot machine. It was time, and this thing is every bit as wonderful as we remembered.

So, while it's not of the style we usually choose, this piece of furniture is making us all pretty happy. It's been great to read so many books in the den.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Favorite Pancakes

We've been making pancakes for years at the Steingruebl household. As with many seemingly simple things they can be a lot tricker than you'd expect to get right.

We finally settled on a favorite pancake recipe that seems to turn out right every time. I'm sharing it because I'm sure that if you ever meet Elise she could quote the recipe to you by heart as well as the colors of the different measuring spoons we use.

3/4 Cup White Flour
1/4 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 Tsp Baking Power
1/2 Tsp Baking Soda
1/2 Tsp Salt

1 Cup Buttermilk
2 Tablespoons melted butter
1 egg
1 Tsp Vanilla

We use the powdered buttermilk. You mix 4 Tablespoons of the buttermilk in with the dry ingredients and use 1 cup water with the wet stuff.

Mix up all the wet ingredients separately otherwise the butter doesn't get mixed in properly. Put them together and you should get a nice fluffy bubbly batter.

I cook the pancakes on medium heat about 1/3 of a cup at a time on the center of a griddle since they seem to turn out a lot evener that way. Doing smaller ones on the griddle (its stovetop griddle) leaves the pancakes a little uneven in how they get done.

Kind of a silly posting here, but these have become our favorite breakfast treat and we thought we'd pass the recipe along.

Oh - if you want to because these are buttermilk pancakes and tend to puff pretty well you can add blueberries without a lot of trouble. Mix them in after you put all of the ingredients together. 1 to 1 1/2 Cups should do it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mind Games

At the inception of this blog, we promised we'd attempt to avoid drivel. That pledge may be broken with this post. (If it wasn't before...)

We have found the solution to NBC's flagging ratings. It comes down to honesty.

Each prime-time program ends with "Stay tuned for more ..." and the name of the show that just ended. That's right-they tell viewers to expect more of what they just watched after the commercial break, and it NEVER HAPPENS. It fooled us for a long time, and even now we still begin to get our hopes up before hitting the fast-forward-to-the-end-and-delete buttons on the DVR.

One can not help but feel sorry for the woman who recorded all of these lies to be played at the end of every show. Did she know they would be used for nefarious ends? Did she receive extra compensation due to the fact that her voice would be used to lie to millions of people several times every night?

But therein lies the rub. Fewer people tune in because they hate the rush of anticipation followed by disappointment. Fix that, NBC, and your ratings will soar. Probably.

Stay tuned for more postings.