Math and Stuff

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The I Hate Mathematics! Book, by Marilyn Burns, copyright 1975. Yeah, it's pretty old.

The I Hate Mathematics! Book, by Marilyn Burns, copyright 1975. Yeah, it’s pretty old.

There was a book that I needed to buy last week, and I found that it would cost me less money to buy four books than just the one. Evidently, Amazon determined its shipping costs on Logic’s day off. I don’t know whether to thank Amazon or Logic for that, but someone deserves my gratitude, because I have frequently managed to save money by buying extra books, and over the years, that has really added up to a lot of saved money and a lot of acquired books. In this particular case, one of the extra books I bought was something random that I remember from when I was a little kid. If I recall correctly, one of us picked it up at a library booksale where everything was so cheap that my parents let us buy everything that particularly struck our fancies. It was called The I Hate Mathematics! Book and it’s awesome because it’s so completely relatable.

I’m not saying that just because of the title, although that is part of it. When I was little, I remember my mother telling me that she thought I actually liked math, I just disliked math class. The I Hate Mathematics! Book is clearly geared towards that kind of kid. After an introduction that bashes math, it goes on for more than a hundred pages to describe mathematical concepts in a way that has nothing to do with arithmetic or equations or anything frustrating like that. For example, a few pages in, it says, “Ever find yourself thinking about shoelaces? You might be minding your own business, doing nothing in particular, and all of a sudden you start thinking about shoelaces. Then you start noticing shoelaces. Strings tied to people’s feet! And the longer you look, the funnier it seems. That’s when to do a shoelace survey. How many shoes have laces? Half? More than half? Less than half?” The book goes on to recommend sitting near a busy sidewalk and counting shoes and shoelaces for a while, just for the fun of playing with statistics.

This is youThat’s exactly the way my mind worked as a kid and it’s exactly the way my mind still works. My little-kid self thought it was awfully cool to read that kind of thing in a book about something as frustrating and hateful as math. The tone of the book is humorous and light-hearted, the information is presented in a way that makes everything seem like a game or even a practical joke, and it feels like a very light and easy read because the text is fairly sparse. (The book consists largely of sketched drawings, some of which show people with speech bubbles repeating things that were said in the main text, which is for some reason very funny.) Besides that, it was helpful and motivational to read something that showed that there’s more to math than sheets of scrap paper covered in disorganized equations and crossed out numbers and dark, harsh scribbles that symbolized the agony of living in a world that is an evil, evil place, full of hardships and heartbreak and math.

Maybe it would be an overstatement to credit this book alone with the fact that I have more or less made my peace with the academic field of mathematics and even ended up minoring in it in college. (I say “more or less” because, dude, math is hard, and there was a great deal of suffering involved in certain homework assignments and exams that I endured for the sake of that minor.) I suppose it may be true after all that I always had some degree of appreciation for mathematical thought, and just didn’t realize it when I was younger. But this book certainly played a role in convincing me that numbers are actually pretty fascinating things.

Binary CodeWhen I got this book in the mail the other day, I stayed up late to read the whole thing in one sitting, and I noticed some things about it that hadn’t occurred to me when I was a kid. In particular, I noticed that it has an awful lot of question marks. It’s full of “What if”s and “How about”s. For every experiment that this book suggests, it encourages the reader to keep thinking about different aspects of the concept being discussed. For every magic trick or practical joke or bet that it describes, it expects the reader to figure out how to make it work. It doesn’t just point out patterns, it asks the reader to notice further patterns or to speculate about why that pattern exists. Even the section about strategic games, which promises that you can always win if you figure out how the strategy works, doesn’t actually explain the trick. You have to figure it out yourself. I didn’t have all of these answers figured out when I read the book as a kid. And that was okay; it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book and it didn’t make me apathetic about the subject material. It was apparent that these were deliberately difficult questions and that a reader wasn’t supposed to know everything off the top of his or her head. That’s one reason that this book was interesting and entertaining, unlike a textbook, which inflicts anguish and despair. A puzzling question is a game if you get to decide for yourself how much effort to put into it, but it’s an unwelcome task if you are required to find the answer and responsible for being sure it’s right.

Another thing I noticed is that this book has a lot of big words for something that’s geared towards kids. (I’m not sure exactly what age range it’s intended for, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say maybe nine through twelve. The mathematical content seems to be at a pre-algebra level, but it assumes competency with basic arithmetic.) For instance, I’m pretty sure that the first time I came across the word “topography” was in this book, and that’s not a word I come across very often even now. It mentions or alludes to exponents and exponential growth, probability theory, and numerous other concepts that you wouldn’t expect a little kid to understand until they’re old enough to officially learn it in math class. But when I read it the first couple times, I don’t recall minding that there were parts of it that I only was just barely capable of grasping. The point is that I did grasp those parts, and that it was pretty awesome. This book assumes that its readers are smart and thereby subtly compliments them the whole time they’re reading. Occasionally, the book is even explicit and direct in its high regard for its own readers; the introduction identifies the individual reader as a mathematical genius in disguise. That in and of itself does a lot to make this book enjoyable and effective. Everyone likes to be told that they’re a genius, especially if they’re accustomed to being horribly frustrated by schoolwork despite the fact that they do have some degree of aptitude for the subject matter after all.

I CAN SEE THE MATRIX!

I CAN SEE THE MATRIX!

I have frequently said that the problem with math is that the kinds of people who write math textbooks are the kinds of people who inherently understand mathematical ideas and don’t know how to communicate them to someone who just doesn’t think in the same way. What makes this book so great is that it’s written in plain English for kids who understand plain English better than confusing equations. But it does that without dumbing down anything. I’m not trying to claim that such a book can be used to effectively teach math. It doesn’t offer formulas or mathematical procedures for solving certain types of problems; those are things that have to be learned by effort and memorization, not through pleasure reading. But I would recommend this book in particular and this way of looking at math in general for any mathematical geniuses in disguise who hate mathematics.

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“You Can’t Call God on the Telephone” and Other Christian Teachings Specifically for Children

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telephoneI have a very clear childhood memory of siting at a tiny little table in a room full of toys, coloring a picture of different types of telephones and then crossing them out while listening to someone explain that you can’t call God on the telephone. I was five years old and it was part of a Sunday School lesson on prayer. To my mind, it seemed that I was being taught a great theological truth about the nature of God and telephones. This idea was reinforced by the fact that “You can’t call God on the telephone” was a maxim that was repeated whenever prayer was the topic of a Sunday School class for the next several years. Apparently, this is considered a good way to begin discussing prayer with small children.

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can't hear you unless your head is bowed!

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can’t hear you unless your head is bowed!

That strikes me as being extremely odd. Evidently, the point was to distinguish prayer from human-to-human conversation, but why is that such an important point to make? Why do people think that it’s the first and primary thing about prayer that young children need to know? Wouldn’t it be more significant to point out that prayer actually is sort of like talking to a person, and that it’s a really special blessing to be able to talk directly to God? Besides, it’s not as if a telephone somehow blocks prayer from reaching God’s ears. If someone was to pray while holding a telephone to their face for some reason, that wouldn’t negate the prayer. But that is also an unnecessary point to specify when defining prayer for children, because the topic of prayer is not intrinsically linked to the topic of telephones. At least in my case, the discussion of telephones was a distraction from the subject of prayer, not an instructive illustration of the concepts being taught.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Little-kid Sunday School, at least as I remember it, relied on a lot of canned phrases and irrelevant craft projects to discuss things in vague terms that would have been better if they were just taught explicitly. We were told over and over again that “God is everywhere” and that we were supposed to “Always trust in God” without any additional explanation or discussion of those concepts. Old Testament stories were taught as if the whole point of them was how righteous certain “characters” were and how we should be just like them. Bible stories from the gospels were learned by coloring pictures of Jesus and talking in vague terms about how loving Jesus is and how He always cares for us. The epistles were completely ignored until around fifth or sixth grade, at which point those teachings were incorporated into Sunday School lessons by having each student look up a certain number of verses, all taken out of context, that related to a certain theme. That theme was sometimes moralistic (like how important it is to love everyone) and sometimes encouraging, (like how God doesn’t want bad things to happen to Christians) but it was always something fairly vague and rarely had to do with salvation and justification. Instead of learning the Ten Commandments or discussing Law and Gospel, we looked at cartoons of children engaged in various activities and pointed out which ones were misbehaving and which ones were being good. Coloring on the walls is bad, setting the dinner table is good, pulling people’s hair is bad, and helping a friend who fell down and scraped his knee is good. Maybe the occasional Sunday School lesson happened to mention Jesus’ crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins, but if it did, that was a trivial point compared to the primary purpose of telling stories illustrating goodness and badness, or reminding us that God is [insert any generic adjective with a positive connotation].

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

For teenagers and preteens, most Sunday School lessons try very hard to prepare students for the possibility that they will have to defend themselves to peers who may tease them for going to church. I remember many, many lessons that involved watching videos or looking at stories written in comic book form, showing a Christian teenager explaining to his/her friends that he/she can’t participate in a certain social event on Sunday morning because he/she had church. The friends would laugh at the protagonist, say that church wasn’t important, and (horror of horrors) call the protagonist a “religious nut.” Then the protagonist would resist peer pressure, meekly walk away from the conversation, decide that those kids are terrible people and bad influences with whom no Christian can be friends, go home, do his/her chores and homework, and read the Bible for an hour before going to bed and getting at least eight hours of sleep because that’s the right thing to do. He or she is a good and faithful Christian, everyone else is bad and should be avoided, and the lesson is over.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad with teaching kids moral values, emphasizing the greatness of God, or warning teenagers about peer pressure and anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture. But I don’t understand why most adults think that children can’t understand anything beyond empty clichés and the distinction between good and bad. It would be so easy to take a stereotypical moralistic Sunday School lesson and expand it into a meaningful Law/Gospel lesson by adding a few words to the effect that Jesus died on the cross to pay for all our sins. That’s not an intellectually challenging concept; at least one of my younger sisters was able to articulate it as soon as she was old enough to talk in sentences. It would be so easy to take a popular theme or Bible story and expand it into a meaningful message by taking the fluff out of Sunday School lessons and using that time to read entire Bible passages instead of individual verses. It would be so easy to remind Sunday School students what their church teaches in addition to what their friends are likely to think about their church. Little kids would benefit a lot from having some substance in their Sunday School lessons, and older kids would benefit even more because their lessons tend to follow an even narrower theme than little kids’ lessons do. Just because teenagers face peer pressure doesn’t mean that all they need to hear is how important it is not to give in to it.

Kids, don't give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

Kids, don’t give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

It’s true that Christians are subject to hurtful stereotypes, especially on the internet, and that Christians do sometimes experience peer pressure that will try to turn them away from the church. It is very true that Christianity is distinctly set apart from the secular world, which is why “secular” is even a word in the first place. And it makes sense to occasionally warn teenagers about the anti-Christian messages that they will often encounter. (Here, I use “anti” both in the sense of “opposed to” and in the sense of “instead of”) But despite the non-Christian values of our society and the negative view of Christians that is propagated by certain aspects of the media and held by many individuals, this culture is still a very safe and easy place to be a Christian, at least in comparison to many parts of the world. In this country, not only is it legal to be a Christian, but it’s fairly normal.  Peer pressure and anti-Christian stereotypes are issues that Christian teenagers face in this society, but it isn’t exactly the constant hardship that Sunday School lessons tell them to anticipate. For one thing, Christianity is common enough that most Christian teenagers have friends who share their faith and would never tease them or alienate them for their beliefs. Besides that, very few atheists will suddenly dump a best friend for being Christians. Sure, religion does occasionally tear relationships apart, but it’s unlikely that those kinds of issues will occur out of the blue sometime when someone teases you for going to church on one specific Sunday.

I myself have never been directly and specifically mocked by a peer for being a Christian. There have been occasions where someone has questioned my values and beliefs or has expressed surprise and confusion about my unwillingness to skip church on a whim, but (unless you count the occasional hateful anonymous internet comment) I have never been victimized on account of my religion. But there’s something else I have encountered quite a lot, something that Sunday School never told me might ever happen. People ask me genuine, sincere, curious questions about religion all the time. Atheist or agnostic friends are curious about what exactly Christianity is all about, non-Lutheran Christians wonder what exactly Lutherans believe, and occasionally, people who are completely on the same page as me want to hear what I know about a particular topic. It’s a good thing that I go to church and Bible study regularly and grew up in a Christian home, because Sunday School alone wouldn’t have prepared me to be able to give even the most basic explanation of what my religion is. As it is, I admit that there have been a number of cases in which I have responded by mumbling something random and inarticulate that may or may not have resembled actual words. But there have been quite a number of other times where I have had a very interesting theological conversation with someone who genuinely wanted to hear about my faith and who had no intention to respond with insults or mockery. Those kinds of conversations are always good experiences, and I’d like to think that the other person gets something out of them, too.

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

At any rate, I think it’s an important thing for Christians to know and be able to articulate what they believe. It seems to me that Christianity in general is following the dumbing-down trend set by Sunday School lessons. Just take a look at the ways people express their faith on the internet. It’s impossible to avoid the “share if you love Jesus” facebook posts and the inspirational “Christian” quotes that have nothing to do with Christ. When we were kids, we were taught that faith means being good, or being able to tell when other people aren’t being good, or resisting peer pressure by letting everyone know just how much we love Jesus, or making generic and vague statements about how good God is. So that’s what Christianity means in our culture now. And, based upon what I have seen and heard, the result is that some Christians and most non-Christians really are unaware of what Christianity is. People actually don’t realize that Jesus’ death and resurrection is what’s important, and that the central teaching of Christianity is that His death and resurrection gives us salvation from our sins. That’s a much more important teaching, not only for the grownups, but for people of every age group. When it comes down to it, there’s no distinction between Christian teachings for kids and Christian teachings, because kids should be allowed to know what their religion says.

Assorted Childhood Memories

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When I was a baby, the wallpaper in my room had forest animals. I have been told that the design I remember was only a horizontal stripe, not the whole wall, but I remember it as covering more space than that because I was so small and it was right at eye level from my crib.

This picture was actually taken long before I was born, and I never knew Lysander as a kitten, but it's the only picture of him that I happen to have on my computer. He lived back in those olden days when cameras used film.

This picture was actually taken long before I was born, and I never knew Lysander as a kitten, but it’s the only picture of him that I happen to have on my computer. He lived back in those olden days when cameras used film.

I was adopted at birth by Lysander, one of my parents’ three cats. Lysander was black with yellow eyes, larger than average, and had the voice and personality of a Siamese. He was so intelligent and so capable of communication with people that I was about eight years old before I even realized that cats were supposed to be inferior to people in any way. From the time when I was a baby, Lysander would watch over me at night. When I went to bed, he would come with me and lie down next to me. I would put my arm over him so that I would know he was there even with my eyes closed, and he would reach out and put a paw on my cheek. My mother thought that we were so adorable that one time, when my parents had friends over late at night, she brought them to look at me through the doorway when she thought I was asleep.

There were nights when I would wake up crying and my father would take me downstairs and sit on the sofa in the darkened living room and sing Hey Jude and American Pie until I fell asleep. I remember staring at the grandfather clock and wondering what a Chevy was and what a levy was.

I don’t very clearly remember our church in Chicago, but I do have very specific memories of looking around the congregation and noticing that whenever I made eye contact with someone, they smiled at me. And I wondered if all adults had a rule that when a child looks at them, they had to smile. At some point, I thought that those smiles were in response to me putting a coin in the offering plate, because that was the only part of the service that involved any participation, since I couldn’t read yet. Sometimes, I would accidentally drop the coin instead of getting it in the plate, and then when I would look around and people would smile at me anyway, I would feel a little guilty.

When we lived in Chicago, there was a large family who lived near us, and a couple of the older girls babysat us. I don’t remember any of their names or very much about them, except that we were very good friends with them. I think that they homeschooled, and that their influence was probably part of what led my parents to start homeschooling. We were pretty close to our neighbors across the street, too. I don’t remember anything about them except that I think they were an elderly couple, and that one time, when we were at their house, I licked their glass door because I thought that was the only way to clear condensation off of a glass surface. There was a woman from our church that was a very good friend of the family, and she frequently babysat us, either at our house or where she lived. My memories of her home are very jumbled and vague. I don’t even remember if it was a house or an apartment or some type of condo, because I think I recall that other people lived in the same building, but I remember the outside of the building as a regular house similar to ours. The only memories I have of her home that I know are accurate are the wooden ducks that she had. I was fascinated by the fact that the male duck had a green head and the female duck was tan. I think that she also had a lot of small glass decorations displayed on shelves right past her front door, and that there was a large stuffed lion or tiger or something like that.

There was a girl named Brittany in my dance class, and she sometimes came home with me and my sister. I was jealous of her because she had Disney princess underwear. My underwear was pretty cool, too; it had the days of the week, but at the age I was then, Disney princess underwear outranked days-of-the-week underwear.

Every morning, Lysander would tell me when to get up, and I would go to my parents’ room and say, “Is it morning yet?” And they would look at the clock and say, “Not for you.” I would then point out that Lysander had told me it was morning, before going back to my room to pet Lysander. I have no idea what time I usually got up back then, but it must have been pretty early, because I do remember that it was always still dark.

Look what I just found on Google images! Oh, the memories!

Look what I just found on Google images! Oh, the memories!

My mother taught me to read using a book called “Teach Your Child to Read in One Hundred Easy Lessons”, or something along those lines. It was a large paperback book with an off-white cover, although that cover had mostly fallen off long before the youngest of my siblings finished the book. Those lessons actually weren’t very easy at all, but they evidently were effective, because after I got through that book, I was always considered a good reader for my age. As frustrating as it was at the time, I have fond memories of that book, and I still remember a lot of the goofy stories that were at the end of each lesson.

I went through a phase where I was obsessed with manatees. It started when my grandmother gave me a manatee Beanie Baby, and I didn’t know what it was. I hadn’t realized there were animals that I didn’t know; it astonished me that the world was still full of those kinds of wonders and surprises even when I had already reached the mature and sophisticated age of four and a half years. As it happened, the world still had plenty of new animals I had never heard of, such as the duck-billed platypus and the sloth and various odd sea creatures and bizarre insects, but none of those revelations fascinated me quite as much as the discovery that there were things such as manatees. So manatees became my favorite animal, and I can’t remember exactly when or why I stopped being so interested by them.

In our front yard at the house in Iowa, there was a large maple tree. My mother took a picture of me hugging that tree the day we moved in. That tree really meant a lot to me and I don’t even remember why. (Incidentally, I happen to know from Google Earth that it has been cut down since we moved away from that house, which is really sad.) In our back yard, we had a tree that we later found out was a crabapple tree, but for the first few years we lived there, we didn’t know what it was. Most years, it didn’t produce any fruit at all, but it had beautiful flowers in the springtime. They usually only lasted for about a week.

Look what else I found on Google images! This was what my first Bible looked like.

Look what else I found on Google images! This was what my first Bible looked like.

One Sunday in church when I was about five, my mother handed me a hymnal and told me that I could follow along now that I could read. It actually took me a little while to figure out the format of the hymnal, but that was a pretty big deal to me to be old enough to use a hymnal in church. On Easter 1997, my parents gave me my own hymnal. It was the LW (Lutheran Worship) because that’s what our church used at the time, although I’m now much more familiar with both the TLH (The Lutheran Hymnal) and the LSB. (Lutheran Service Book) My favorite hymn was “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice”, and I kept a piece of paper on that page. It was pink, and it stained the edges of the hymnal. My first Bible was a Christmas gift; I don’t remember whether it was in 1996 or 1997. It eventually fell apart, and I was going to get rid of it after I got a new Bible in 2004, but I think the old one is actually still packed up in a box that got put in my parents’ garage when I left for college.

At one time, each of my siblings and I were limited to two sheets of scrap paper a day for coloring and writing. Later, we each were allowed to own a ream of colored paper. Mine was pink. We still were originally limited to two sheets a day, but that was still a major upgrade because the paper was double-sided and because colored paper is a lot more interesting than white paper. I wish I had kept more of the stories I wrote when I was little. I have memories of a story that overused the word “declare” because I was proud of myself for knowing what it meant, and a story where I didn’t allow myself to ever use a word twice consecutively, and a lot of stories where I started by introducing all of the characters and didn’t get much farther because that was the best part. As I wrote, I had a habit of letting each line slant downward as it approached the right-hand side of the page, and the slope of that diagonal would become steeper with each line. For that reason, every single page had a blank spot in the lower left corner. It was a major, life-changing event when I started using lined paper.

The television was downstairs, and we didn’t use it very much. There were occasional family movies on weekend afternoons, but those were special and unusual events. My father would sometimes watch television late at night, either alone or with my mother, but he usually didn’t start until after I was in bed. The sounds of the television would sometimes come up through the air conditioning vents, which bothered me because the sounds were distorted and sometimes sounded scary. Long before I ever saw Doctor Who, I knew it as something my father watched that had a very eerie theme song. We did watch sports sometimes. For a while, we were major Chicago Bulls fans. I don’t actually remember much about the game of basketball and I no longer enjoy it. I think that the main reason I liked it so much when I was little was that it was fun to watch television with my father, especially when there were pretzels involved.

There was a member of our church who worked for the local radio station. I don’t even remember his real name, because I always referred to him as Mr. Radio Station Man, which my parents thought was pretty funny. Once a week, on Friday mornings if I recall correctly, he played nothing but requests for a certain amount of time. My father called in a request every single week. Sometimes it was a song that had come up in conversation recently, sometimes it was a song that he had sung around the house that we had doubted was a real song, and sometimes it was just a song that we really liked. There were a number of songs that were major family favorites for a short amount of time, and most of us also liked anything by the Beatles. Mr. Radio Station Man liked the Beach Boys. There was a special event that occurred once a year on a Saturday in the summer. It was called Superbee Saturday because the radio station called itself “The Bee.” Beforehand, all of the radio station’s listeners would submit a vote for their five favorite songs. It had to have been a top 40 hit during a certain time period. (I don’t remember what that time period was, but all of the songs that won were oldies) The votes would be tallied, and on Superbee Saturday, the top 100 songs would be played in descending order over the course of the day. My father would turn on every radio in the house so that we could all listen no matter what we were doing.

In our town in Iowa, there were parades on a regular basis. The best part about parades was the high school marching band. We actually got to see and hear them even if there wasn’t a parade, because they would often pass right by our house when they were practicing. In the fall, there would be high school football games, and we would usually go a couple times a year. The marching band was the highlight of that, too, but it was also exciting to get to stay up late. And it was exciting to walk to the football field, which was only a couple blocks from our house, along with a crowd of other people, many of whom we knew. I was unaccustomed enough to sports events that to me, the crowd that gathered to watch a small-town highschool football game seemed like a multitude. I never understood the game at all and I never cared who won or lost, and it didn’t bother me at all that we always left before the game was over. It was fun just to be there. But it was also kind of fun when we were at home while a game was going on and could hear the sounds coming from the field.

Lysander’s birthday was on May 13, which was conveniently when the catnip was most plentiful. We had lots of catnip in our yard in Iowa, and it came back more profusely each year. By the time we moved, the catnip plants were growing to sizes that surpassed garden-store-catnip to such an extent that it was getting ridiculous. Of course, we brought catnip leaves inside for the cats on a regular basis throughout the spring, but Lysander’s birthday was the biggest catnip day of the year. We would use my plastic tea set to have a party for Lysander. For tea, we soaked catnip leaves in water. Lysander loved it.

Meet KirstenFor a few years, my mother would read books to us before bedtime. The American Girl books were the ones that I remember most clearly. I distinctly remember that we started with Kirsten, and that we read the third chapter of the first Kirsten book on Halloween one year. I also remember one night when my mother accidentally sat on Lysander’s tail while reading to us. I interrupted her to point that out, and she stood up and moved his tail out of the way and told him that he should have said something. He looked at her with confusion and annoyance that she had stopped reading.

Next door lived a couple who sat out on their porch very frequently. They had a ramp going up to the porch because the woman was in a wheelchair; I think I remember my father saying that she had had polio when she was young. They really enjoyed watching us play and talking to us, so we spent a lot of time sitting on their porch and chatting. One time, when they had some friends over, they made a point of telling my mother how sweet it was when I would sing while I was swinging, and I was really embarrassed and literally hid my face in my mother’s clothes.

Friday was pizza day, and for that reason, it was the best day of the week. My mother would go grocery shopping in the morning and would bring home frozen pizzas. They would go in the oven as soon as she got back. My father was always the one who cut them. The pieces were squares rather than wedges, so that there would be less pizza wasted if someone didn’t finish theirs. Nobody wanted the corners, because they were the smallest pieces.

I was a big fan of peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches when I was little, especially after I was old enough to make them myself. There were two different tuna casseroles that I really liked, too, and they were the first non-sandwich and non-dessert foods I learned to cook. Then there were tacos. We didn’t have tacos very often because it was a time-consuming meal to prepare, so when we did, it was a special treat. We always had two kinds of fillings: beef and chicken. The chicken filling was the one that I liked. It had almonds and pimento and sour cream. I didn’t know until I was older that the recipe my mother used for her taco fillings was not what most people think of when they think of tacos. When it came to side dishes, my favorite foods were fruit salads. My mother had two fruit salads that she made fairly frequently, both of which were pretty quick and simple. The one that I especially liked was cherry jubilee, or at least that’s what we called it, although I’ve been told that it wasn’t real cherry jubilee. It was made out of cherry pie filling, whipped cream, canned pineapple, and chopped walnuts. I know that now because I made it once or twice, but when I was little, I had no idea what was in it except cherries.

Every Wednesday morning, we went to the library. If the weather was nice, we would walk, because it was fairly nearby, and all but the last couple blocks of the trip were through residential neighborhoods. By the time I was ten or eleven, I was allowed to walk to the library by myself occasionally in addition to the family library trip on Wednesday. The library was a three-story brick building. The basement floor was used for children’s programs, the ground-level floor was the children’s section, and the top floor was the adult’s section. The children’s librarian was called Miss Liz. She had short dark hair and often wore a denim dress. There was a man with white hair and a white beard who spent a lot of time in the library; I don’t even know whether or not he officially worked there. He was an artist, and he painted the walls in one room with a garden scene full of various animals. It was fun to walk around that room and count all of the animals, and I didn’t necessarily get the same number each time. My mother let us each check out two books each week. At any given time, we had a certain favorite series, and would mostly check out books from that series, then spend all of Wednesday afternoon reading them. By the time I was about eight or nine, I liked to check out non-fiction books from upstairs. I recall that I frequently told people that, but added that I still checked out fiction from the children’s section because I didn’t like adult fiction. It took me years to figure out why people thought that was funny.

Next door to the library, there was a place called the Sanctuary because it had once been a church. I could be remembering incorrectly about either the name or the reason for the name, because I don’t really remember that place very clearly. I don’t even remember if that was its real name or just a popular nickname. We went there for milkshakes as a special treat every now and then. I think they served other foods, too, but I don’t remember ever actually eating anything besides milkshakes there. I don’t remember exactly what flavors they had, or which were my favorites. I do remember that my mother absolutely always got a hazelnut milkshake.

I mean, I can understand why other people might think this looks gross. I just don't happen to think so.

I mean, I can understand why other people might think this looks gross. I just don’t happen to think so.

We had a lot of cicadas, and we would find the skins that they had shed on trees and walls all over the neighborhood. Sometimes, we like to count them when we went on walks. I never thought they looked disgusting, and I didn’t have any qualms about touching them. For some reason, I only saw whole cicadas a couple times, and I was astonished at how big they were. I had imagined that they would look exactly like their skins.

My siblings and I used to play outside a lot. In the winter, we would play in the snow and roll giant snowballs because that was somehow much more fulfilling than building snowmen. Sometimes the snow plows would leave a pile of snow on the edge of our yard that was big enough for us to bring out the sleds. My brother would always be the last one in; when he got involved in a building project, he’d forget all about the cold. In the autumn, we would play in the leaves. My father would rake them into a big pile and we would all jump in them together. Of course, the swings were there all year round. We used to like to swing as high as we could and then jump off. There were a few severe bruises that resulted from that sport, but somehow it never caused any serious injuries.

Holidays were always a big deal in my family. For some holidays, like New Year’s and Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day, we didn’t have any specific traditions, but it was always necessary that we do something to celebrate. (Saint Patrick’s Day, of course, became a much bigger deal after my sisters started Irish Dance in 2006. But there never was a time when it went unobserved in my family.) Birthday celebration customs varied from year to year and from person to person, but they were extremely important. Then there was Easter, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas. I always saw Christmas as the big one. In fact, I had a tendency to get overwhelmingly excited about Christmas as early as mid-October. I was so impatient that, for a number of years, I had it in my head that it was bad to be excited about a holiday, and I tried to repress my anticipation. There were a couple years that I was actually proud of myself for not getting too extremely excited until Christmas actually was pretty close.

Making a wish list for my birthday or Christmas was a complicated process that took the good part of an afternoon. For reasons that I cannot explain, I made it a personal policy that I couldn’t send the exact same list to different people. For each relative, I had to make a unique list. They naturally contained more or less the same requested items, but the order was determined by a combination of how much I wanted the item, whether or not it was something I actually needed, how likely I thought that family member was to give it to me, and how many other family members were being asked for that particular item. I don’t actually know whether or not my family was aware that my wish lists were such carefully crafted masterpieces.

My brother and I tried to dig to China one time in the space under the clubhouse my father had built for us. Another time, we found particles of yellowish dirt under the swings, and decided that it was gold. A few years later, after my father had put leaves under the clubhouse, my sister and I discovered that there were lots of earthworms in those decaying leaves. We spent about a week digging around and collecting earthworms and carrying them around before my parents told us not to do that.

I had this set! I remember being so excited when I got it.

I had this set! I remember being so excited when I got it.

Paper dolls were one of my favorite and most long-lasting hobbies. My grandmother gave me my first few paper doll sets when I was very little, so little that my mother cut them out for me, and they usually didn’t last very long before getting thrown away. As I got older, though, it became very important to me to cut them out myself and to keep them permanently. The main thing that I did with them was beauty contests. My sister and I developed a game that entailed taking the children paper dolls from each set, lining them up in age order, splitting the line into pairs, and choosing the prettier paper doll from each pair. The pretty ones would then repeat that process over and over until only one doll was left, and that one was the winner. The contest would then start over in order to select the second place winner, and then the third, and so forth. Later, the beauty contests included all of the paper dolls, not just the children, and they were stacked rather than lined up, and they were in groups of three rather than in pairs. The entire contest could take weeks, and now that I think about it, it’s both a little strange and a little impressive that I would dedicate so much time to such a complexly regulated game when I was so little.

In the summer, we would take in some black swallowtail caterpillars that we found on my mother’s parsley and dill plants. We would keep them in a glass jar with cuttings of dill so that they could climb on the stems, and we would feed them parsley and watch them grow. We got to see first-hand how they transformed first into chrysalises and then into butterflies. Then we would set them loose, which was always kind of a bittersweet occasion. Usually, we had named them and had tried to keep track of which caterpillar was which, so we came to see them as pets.

Every year in the autumn, my father would record a Christmas tape to send to family and friends. It would include a lot of Christmas music recorded from his vinyl record collection and from other cassette tapes, it would include a few favorite songs of the family, and it would have medleys and other things he had thought of and taken the time to edit, usually humorous things. Sometimes, we would sing a song or two. The older Christmas tapes, from before I was born and from the first few years of my life, contained more references to current events and a good deal of current music. The ones that I like best are the ones from the first half of the 1990s, but I don’t actually remember when those were made. When I got a little older, I was a little more aware of what was going on in the recording process, even when it didn’t involve me, and it was exciting when the tape was finished and we got to listen to it.

My bedroom had a walk-in closet, and it was so large that we could even keep furniture in there. One of my sisters and I kept pretty much everything we owned in there, because we shared our room with two little sisters, and they frequently damaged our things. They got into the closet so frequently that my father eventually put a hook on the door so that we could keep them out. I spent a lot of time in that closet. It was a miniature playroom that I shared with only one sibling instead of all of them, and sometimes, I could use it as personal space just by myself. In the month of December, it became a workshop where my sister and I would take turns making little paper gifts to give family members, including cards, tiny handwritten books, and paper snowflakes.

My sister and I shared a biography about Paul McCartney that my parents had given us for Christmas one year. We argued over it so much that we eventually had to draw up a peace treaty concerning it. Essentially, the peace treaty said that we would take turns owning the book for a week. Whoever was not in possession of the book would keep the peace treaty, because it was understood that the peace treaty must be presented in order to compel one party to turn the book over to the other party. For this reason, that was an incredibly important document that was treated with as much care as the Paul McCartney book itself. It eventually came to pass that my sister forgot to bring the peace treaty to my attention and legally force me to give her the book, so I got to keep it for a while, until we eventually ended up keeping it on a shared bookshelf after all.

For a couple years, after my sister and I finished our math lesson each day, we would go downstairs to play with our Barbies and Kellies. Even after we no longer played with them every day, we would spend at least a couple afternoons a week with our dolls. Sometimes, they would explore castle ruins that we would build out of cardboard boxes, or sometimes they would stay at home and do schoolwork or have elaborate popularity contests that would be utterly ridiculous in real life. Other days, we would reorganize their houses, which were precarious stacks of cardboard and plastic boxes. My parents wished we would organize our toys in more space-efficient ways that weren’t in constant danger of being knocked down, but we couldn’t do that without mixing together the possessions of various dolls.

For a while, the Lees were the predominant characters. We each had a doll named Lee, and the Lees had more or less the same characteristics and talked in the same weird voice. Over time, the Lees decreased in significance and their roles were filled by Jane and Catherine, otherwise known as JAN! and Cafwin. Those two characters outlasted my doll-playing years; their tales lived on for many years through their diaries and through written D&D adventures. (Not only did our dolls play D&D, but our dolls’ D&D characters told long stories, and occasionally, the characters in those stories played D&D.)

Yes, we stuck with 2nd edition. The 2nd edition was cool.

Yes, we stuck with 2nd edition. The 2nd edition was cool.

I think I had been about ten when my father taught me, my sister, and my brother to play D&D. I played a chaotic neutral thief named Jacqueline. She was constantly endangering the mission by running after treasure, so everyone else simultaneously hated her and thought she was hilariously funny. We normally played on Friday evenings. I remember certain scenes of our adventures as clearly as if I had seen them in real life or on a TV screen. There was the fight with the giant boar that nearly killed my brother’s fighter at the very beginning of our first adventure, there was the time that my thief ran away from the group to search a fortress for a hidden treasure by herself, there was the battle with the giant that we won because of my sister’s mage’s blindness spell. There was a beholder and dwarves named after the children in The Sound of Music and mermaids who were weresharks.

For a while, we would play with legos every Sunday afternoon. I don’t actually remember how many of us were involved in that. It’s possible that I even did it by myself sometimes. At that time, we were going through our Phantom of the Opera phase, and so we would generally call our structure the Paris Opera House and name the lego people after Phantom of the Opera characters. The actual storyline of our playing rarely had anything to do with the Phantom of the Opera, except that the mirror in Christine’s dressing room always played an important role. Before the legos were our favorite toy, we used to play with duplos. (In case anyone isn’t familiar with those, they’re made by the Lego company and are basically just larger lego blocks.) Our favorite game to play with the duplos had something to do with the underground railroad. At one point before that, I think we used to play zoo with those blocks, because that’s apparently what the set was originally supposed to be. We had a lot of zoo animals, and there was a train that they rode. Sometimes, when we weren’t playing with the duplos, my father would take all of the blocks and build a pyramid.

In the summer, we went to the pool several times a week. Normally, we went in the evenings. There were various reasons for that, but I think the original reason was that the pool was significantly less crowded late in the day. Also, we were less likely to get sunburned. After we moved, our new swimming pool was much farther away from our new home than we were accustomed to, and it was a giant water park instead of the comparatively small kind of pool we were used to, but we still kept our old swimming pool schedule. I spent so much of my childhood summertime going swimming that I there are a lot of books, foods, and computer games that make me think of the pool.

At one point when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I invented a game that was basically a fantasy dance school. I would make up charts listing all the students, class schedules, cast lists, recital programs, and all sorts of fictional records. I started over with a new fictional dance school several times, but there were certain details that we always the same. It’s a little ironic that I actually started doing that back when I was still taking dance classes only once a week myself, and I think that’s part of the reason that I had to start over a few times; I felt a need to keep it somewhat realistic. I remember days when I spent hours of my free time on my “dance class thing” before going to my actual real dance class, just to do the exact same thing the next day and the next and the next. Somehow, even when I had hundreds of fictional dance students, I could remember details about all of them. I thought of them as characters in an epic tale, even though they were actually just names accompanied by a line of coded statistics that represented plot points of a story that had never been written in words.

Two of my sisters and I started recording CDs together in February 2008. At first, we made a CD about once a month, and each one took less than a day to make. They were basically themed playlists with a couple tracks of talking. We would have to script the talking, record it with background music, choose the songs, decide on an order, save each song onto the computer, and burn it. Our first medley was on a CD we made in May 2008, and it was pretty low quality, but we were proud of it. By the end of that summer, our standard for the quality of our recording was a lot higher, and we eventually started making CDs a lot more frequently and spending a lot more time on them. At any given time, we were in the process of making our next CD, and the computer always had a file full of works in progress. Over the course of a year and a half, we made 30 CDs. There were a few in there that weren’t particularly good, but overall, we were pretty proud of those CDs, and there was a lot of stuff on them that was funny, clever, and well-edited. I still listen to those CDs every now and then.

Why Young People Leave the Church

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I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I've taken myself. So here's a picture of my family's church in Arkansas.

I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I’ve taken myself. So here’s a blurry and low-quality picture of my family’s church in Arkansas.

I frequently read or hear things about how few “young people” there are in churches, and how the youth of this generation doesn’t care about religion and is falling away from the faith. The definition of “young people” will vary depending upon the context; it could refer to a specific narrow demographic group, usually high-school aged kids, or it could just be the opposite of “elderly” in a binary system where everyone is either young or elderly. It doesn’t really matter; regardless of how you define youth, it is statistically true, at least in many congregations and denominations, that there are a lot of elderly people and few young people. At least in this society, it is accurate to say that young people as a demographic group are falling away from the church. Sometimes people comment and complain about this in order to criticize young people for leaving the church and sometimes they’re criticizing the church for losing young people.  In either case, it’s understood that something must be done to bring young people back into the church.

People offer lots of reasons for why young people might have a tendency to leave the church, and most of these reasons imply possible solutions. For example, it is often said that young people don’t like liturgy, and that a contemporary worship style encourages teenagers and young adults to attend worship and to develop an emotional affinity for church. I had thought this was actually a very recent idea, but I once saw a non-denominational hymnal from the 1920s that claimed that young people are so emotional that they can only be drawn to religion by singing hymns that are very emotionally charged. Hence, I-Love-Jesus theology becomes preferred over Jesus-Died-For-Me theology. This is a problem, and I highly doubt that it has any success in drawing young people into the church.

Then there are some people who say that young people leave the church because church is boring or irrelevant. I think this may be a more valid argument because I actually have heard former Christians or Christmas-and-Easter-only churchgoers say that church is boring. It would seem that this actually ties very closely to the reason in the previous paragraph, because the proposed solution is often the same: dispense with the liturgy, change the musical style, and present a more modern and socially relevant image to the world. Let youth group activities take precedence over worship, use pop culture references to keep things interesting, and make sure that the clergy come across as being cool and fun people. The problem with this is that it turns church into a social group and a genre of entertainment. If the desired young people start coming to church for the fun and the society, they will only stay for the fun and the society. People can get tired of a favorite band or a favorite genre of movies after loving it for a few years, and people can drift away from a set of friends over time. In the same way, people can get bored of a fun and culturally relevant church just as easily (and in fact, much more easily) as they can get bored of a liturgical and confessional church. You can’t combat a person’s tendency to get bored by catering to their changing tastes. But boredom becomes irrelevant when the topic at hand is understood to be important. Someone can stop liking their favorite food, but they can never get tired of eating. Someone can stop liking their favorite TV show, but that won’t drive them away from television itself. Someone can get bored with their favorite hymn or stop being fascinated by their favorite Bible verse, but they won’t get bored of religion if they realize that religion is more than whatever personally relevant message they are currently getting out of it. A clear law and gospel message is always relevant, and if that’s what people are hearing, people aren’t likely to get bored and aren’t likely to let temporary boredom drive them away from the church.

101_9768Another commonly offered explanation for why young people might not like to go to church is that religion is too full of rules and accusations, and that most of these Christian values are hypocritical anyway. If we want to bring young people into the church, we should therefore tone down the morality and emphasize God’s love. In other words, we need less law and more gospel. That would certainly be true in a congregation that was too legalistic in the first place, but it doesn’t work to remove all references to sin. If you do that, you’re throwing out every aspect of theology, because things like forgiveness and grace and salvation lose all of their meaning when sin isn’t acknowledged. The result of this is a church that portrays God as nothing more than a benevolent guiding spirit who loves us. That is certainly appealing, but in the long run, it’s much less appealing than the message of a God who loves us so much that he sent his only Son to live a sinless life and die to pay for all of our sins so that we might have eternal life. That story has some gruesome and disturbing chapters, but it’s a story with a much happier ending, and besides, it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious what’s really driving young people away from the church. It isn’t that church is too boring, too old-fashioned, or not cheerful enough. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The problem is that this society doesn’t acknowledge the fact that children are intelligent and easily interested. Our culture caters to children’s short attention spans, propensity to become bored, and undeveloped thought processes when those are traits that children don’t actually have. I think we actually encourage kids to become bored quickly by letting them know that we’re afraid they’ll become bored, and we discourage them from being curious and intellectual by letting them know that we’re afraid they won’t understand things. Therefore, everything is dumbed down for kids, and that includes religion. For example, when I was a little kid in Sunday school, I frequently was made to sing a certain fun, interesting, and easy-to-remember song that went like this:

“Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT, HEAD! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord!”

If you’re still reading at this point, I’m betting that you skipped most of the words of that song, or at least skimmed over it pretty quickly. I got pretty annoyed and impatient just typing it out. I was going to cut it off in the middle, but I decided not to do that because my annoyance and any reader’s disinterest in those lyrics is exactly the point I’m trying to make. In contrast, here is a song that Martin Luther wrote for children in 1531:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word/ Curb those who fain by craft and sword/ Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son/ And set at naught all He hath done./ Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known/ For Thou art Lord of lords alone/ Defend thy Christendom that we/ May evermore sing praise to Thee./ O Comforter of priceless worth/ Send peace and unity on earth/ Support us in our final strife/ And lead us out of death to life.”

Do you notice a slight difference between these two songs? For example, do you notice that the first one is repetitive, boring, and demeaning to the intelligence of anyone who is told that they’re supposed to like it because of the fact that they’re a child? And do you notice that the second one is more interesting, more meaningful, and doesn’t drive you berserk with its utter inanity before you’re even halfway through the second verse? Do you notice that the first song would make you want to rip out your own vocal chords if you were forced to sing it on a regular basis while the second song is something that would actually be enjoyable to sing frequently? Also, it’s worth noting that it has a tune that is more interesting and aesthetically pleasing (by virtue of the fact that it has a range of more than three notes) while still being quite simple and easy to sing. As a young person and as a former small child, I feel qualified to say that young people don’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted by stupid and annoying ditties and that young people have good enough attention spans and enough emotional maturity to be capable of understanding that church isn’t supposed to be a form of entertainment. If young people are being driven away from the church, maybe a good solution would be to stop forcing young people to sing “Father Abraham.”

I Was Clever When I Was A Little Kid

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Childhood memories

Learning how to read is very difficult. I say that from personal experience, because I remember very well the confusion and frustration of the beginning of my reading career. But I was pretty determined about it; my little four-year-old self knew that the ability to read would give me power and skills beyond my wildest dreams and would immediately catapult me into the world of big-kid-ness. As it turned out, I was more or less right about that, but the actual process of learning how to read was so challenging and took so long that even now, I’m kind of proud of my younger self for accomplishing it.

The ability to read requires certain advanced cognitive abilities because it involves translating marks on paper to verbal sounds to complete ideas. For someone who has just started learning how to read, every single letter is a test of memorization skills. To read an entire word is already an accomplishment that demonstrates good retention and intelligence. It would be difficult enough even if a person could take a few seconds to think about each letter, but that just isn’t the way it’s done. An average person reads about 200 to 250 words per minute, which is 3  1/3 to 4  1/6 words per second. We’re all accustomed to doing that by the time we’ve known how to read for a few years, but if you think about it, that’s pretty amazingly fast. And that’s just average. Apparently, it’s not extremely rare to be able to read as many as 700 words per minute, with decent comprehension. That’s 11  2/3 words per second, which really doesn’t seem like it even should be humanly possible. In most cases, we all learn how to do that when we’re still small children and we don’t improve much even later in the educational process. (Note: I got those numbers by looking at various internet pages, some of which were more reliable than others. Pretty much everyplace agrees about the average reading speed, but the maximum seems to be a matter of contention, probably because there are so many internet speed-reading courses that want people to believe that they’ll be able to learn to read faster than is really possible. 700 is definitely possible, but I wasn’t sure if I could trust the source that said 1000, and I highly doubt the sources that gave even bigger numbers.)

Of course, the main reason that people need to learn how to read when they’re small children, even though it’s very intellectually challenging, is that we need to know how to read in order to learn other things. Although it’s commonly understood that the most effective way to learn is through a variety of methods, including verbal instruction and the method commonly known as ‘just do it’, academia relies heavily upon reading because written text is capable of cramming lots of information into a small space, allowing you to quickly and efficiently stuff as much of it into your brain as your brain can possibly hold. Or, to put it more concisely, reading goes faster than a teacher’s voice. (And way faster than personal experience)

Pictured Above: A clever little kid
(This picture is about three years old. She’s not that little anymore.)

I think there’s another reason that it’s best for people to learn to read when they’re still quite young. Little kids are very, very clever. People tend to think of children as being incapable of much intelligent thought, but that’s just because it takes time for someone to accumulate factual knowledge, to figure out how to express their thought process, and to gain enough experience to acquire specific skills. The most significant kind of intelligence, though, is the ability to learn, and little kids are undoubtedly experts at that. Children have brains like sponges. If you don’t believe me, find a random kid and quickly teach him or her a song. Then run away with your hands over your ears, because that child will probably sing that song over and over and over again, leaving you wondering in annoyance how someone could possibly memorize something that thoroughly in such a short time. (If you can’t find a little kid to sing to, or if you don’t feel like it, you can take my word for it, because I have a bunch of younger siblings who were little kids not so long ago, and I am speaking from direct observational experience when I say that little kids pick up songs the way ceiling fans pick up dust.)

See how smart I am now?
In my defense, I was trying to do it very fast.

As hard as it was for me to learn to read when I was four and five years old, I expect it would have been even harder if I had to learn when I was older. I certainly don’t think I could do it now. I more or less take it for granted now that I know how to read, but if I stop and think about it, it’s a really amazing skill that seems like it should require exceptional ingenuity to learn, and I am sadly lacking in ingenuity, exceptional or otherwise. If I’m technically more intelligent than a little kid, it’s only because everything I’ve learned in the past fifteen or sixteen years has just been built on the foundations of things that my genius little kid brain learned back when I was a genius little kid.