Category Archives: children

What gives? Amazon won’t publish this review

I’ve tweaked this review a couple of times and re-submitted it, but Amazon responds with a no-go. You tell me. What’s wrong with this review? The book is “The King of Prussia and a Peanut Butter Sandwich” by Alice Fleming.

Russian Mennonites and Kansas Wheat, May 24, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: The King of Prussia and a Peanut Butter Sandwich (Paperback)

This is a read-aloud or a young reader’s book that traces the steps of a group of Mennonites, from Germany to Russia to Kansas. The reason for the trekking was the Mennonites’ conviction against participation in military service- a point which the book makes clear. Frederick the Great inaugurated mandatory military service which the Mennonites were unwilling to perform. Catherine the Great of Russia offered the Mennonites exemption from military service for 100 years in exchange for developing the Crimean Peninsula for agricultural purposes.

The story doesn’t focus exclusively on the religious beliefs of the Mennonites. Farming is the second track that carries this train. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the telling of how the Mennonite children sifted through sacks of wheat grain looking for the best specimens in preparation for the move to Kansas.

About half of the book is illustrations, which engaged the children.

“King of Prussia” fit in well with our homeschool curriculum. Appearances are made by historical figures/events Ulysses S. Grant, Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874 (circa the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder books), emerging nationalism in Europe. And Frederick and Catherine, too.

There isn’t actually any peanut butter sandwich in the story. The author is trying to connect the wheat of the story with daily fare of the child reading the book.

The binding is a little unusual. It has no spine because it is a staple-bound kind of book. But the book seems just a little too large to go spineless. It makes it a little difficult to keep on the book shelf because of this feature. All the same, I think that its a piece of history that is rare to find in children’s books, and it is worth owning.



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Metrics of quality

…industrialism brings on a paralyzing gluttony and greed in which the quality of life is quantified.

– John Senior, quoted by Cindy Rollins @CindyOrdoAmoris

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Me and Benjamin



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My 5 yr old daughter at the supper table: “I’m allergic to ice cream, tall grass and beets.”
Me: “beets? I thought you loved beets.”
Her: “yep. I like beets. And shredded wheat.”


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Part 3: Ranching: The Basis of Sorrow

“Of all the passions, sadness causes the most injury to the soul.” – Thomas Aquinas

The news of the missing steer brought me to reflect on the universal curse of sin and the unlikely prospects for happiness while still in this mortal coil. But as Emile Cioran said in ‘A Short History of Decay’, “We change ideas like neckties.”

My thoughts moved from the existential to the practical. Where were my 3yr old and my 5yr old daughters who, 15 minutes earlier, were directed to remain on the porch? And how quickly were the temps dropping and the daylight fading? And how far could a 500 lb steer have gotten in a quarter hour? And how much time was I morally obligated to spend in the predictably fruitless task of searching for an escaped steer possessed of the spirit of Houdini? What would Aquinas say about that one?

I found the girls and we piled into the cab of the truck. My son climbed onto the flatbed and we rumbled out into the field. Slowly, we traced the perimeter of the six acres of thick, brushy woods. Occasionally, we thought we heard the animal calling to us, like a siren through the splash and foam of the breakers. But we were only fooling ourselves.

We completed our circuit and began to slowly cruise the country road, peering into the neighbors’ fields, examining the barbed wire fencing for breaches. We came up with nothing.

The children loved it. We made U-turns in the road, circled the block, criss-crossed our earlier paths. Eventually, we parked the truck and went inside. Bathroom breaks were in demand and the girls needed long sleeves. We then began a search on foot; perhaps the diesel engine spooked “Brownie”.

We began strolling down the road- again. We saw the same cows from earlier, but no steer with the necessary markings.

Then our neighbor came by. He hopped out of the truck and began a search on bicycle. While he did that, we decided to go back to the truck and interrogate another neighbor. So even if we never would find the steer, we were still building community!

After making no headway with the other neighbor, darkness had covered the sky and we retired to the house. No steer. That night we slept.

Sunday morning came. Still no steer. We went to church. “Call the sheriff.” “Maybe someone has him penned and reported him missing.” “Put feed cubes in a bucket and shake them while walking around the field. He might come out of the brush when he hears food.” “Cows can smell sweet feed anywhere.” “He might be stolen.” “Cows can break your heart.”

We left church. On the way home, we saw him. We were two miles from the house and, on the shoulder of a long, sweeping bend in the road, our steer was tossed in a pile, dead. I stopped to examine him.

It was curious, and I’ll never know how it happened. It looked like a gunshot wound to the head. There were no tire marks on the road, no tracks in the grassy shoulder. Had the steer been wounded but not killed by a truck, and then mercifully put down with a gun? Had a hunter mistaken him for a deer and then disposed of him on the road? Was I simply misreading the signs? I still wonder, even today.

We finished the drive home in silence. We had found the steer. Our search was over.

Ranching is pain, and yet we return to it. We are turned to destruction. Even so, for all that we ranchers lost, Brownie lost more.

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From ‘The Heart of Virtue’ by Donald DeMarco

There are just a handful more than a hundred neurosurgeons practicing in Canada. Dr. Harley Smyth is one of the best and most highly respected of this relatively small fraternity. But when it comes to dealing with the pituitary gland, that mysterious organ the size and shape of a lima bean, situated at the base of the brain, he is arguably the best. Smyth, however, finds such comparisons invidious. His interest is not in status. The principle by which he practices his highly intricate art is the one that Albert Schweitzer adopted: Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben (reverence for life).

Smyth understand onlyh too well how easy it is for authority to become superiority, and he strives to resist this temptation. “There is a certain disdain”, he says, “by some doctors for the laity. I have no doubt that medicine sometimes attracts people who are unconsciously looking for a place from which they can exercise power over people.”

Some doctors are better at rounds than others, but Smyth is superb. He is so tuned-in to his many Italian patients, for example, that he has picked up enough Italian during his bedside chats to carry on cheerful, if clumsy, conversations. He has an extraordinary memory for not only the names of his patients but also the names of their relatives. His abiding awareness that, more often than not, he is holding his patients’ lives in his hands leads him to pray before every surgical intervention. Taped to the inside of his locker door are the words Sir Jacob Astly wrote before the battle of Newberry:


I shall be verie busie this day:

I may forget Thee

But doe not Thou forget me.

Smyth’s commitment to the “reverence for life” principle includes his defense of the unborn. His practice as a neurosurgeon fully corroborates his view that the unborn child warrants respect. He cites, for example, an occasion when he operated on a twenty-three-year-old woman who was bleeding from a malformed thin-walled artery in her brain during the fifth month of her first pregnancy. The procedure took eleven hours. The twelve-member team included two anesthetists and two obstetricians who kept unbroken vigil over each movement and heartbeat of the unborn child. Four months after the operation, the baby was delivered normally; both the child and the mother were fine. “Life is a gift”, according to Smyth, “of which we may become, over a short season, loving caretakers and loyal stewards.”

Around the same time that Smyth began his witness for life, his wife was pregnant with their third child. She knew intuitively that something was wrong, and when her little girl, Anna, was born, they discovered she had Down’s syndrome. “It was ironic”, said Dr. Smyth, “that I, who had been an advocate for the unborn, had been called to the witness stand. The timing was breathtaking.” When some of his colleagues suggested that he institutionalize his daughter at age three, when she would be entitled to free care, the very idea repulsed him and prompted him to ask: “In the elimination of the obvious heartache involved in the receiving of a mentally retarded child into the family of man, what else might we eliminate?” In due time this question was answered for him in a most dramatic and personal way, for the “something else” that might have been eliminated was his very own life.

Smyth was devoted to his daughter. In fact, he sometimes introduced himself at public appearances as “Anna’s dad”. Despite his eighty-hour work week, he always managed to spend time with her. In particular, he was fond of taking her to an indoor pool for swimming lessons. One day at the pool, his then seven-year-old daughter noticed a “freckle” on his back that looked different from the others. She noticed it again the next time they went swimming, and said, “Doctor fix it!” Because of Anna’s insistence, Smyth asked a plastic surgeon at the hospital where he worked to examine the curious spot. The “freckle” proved to e a malignant melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. Because it was treated at an early stage, the doctors gave Dr. Smyth a good prognosis.

Today, a dozen years later, Smyth is still practicing neurosurgery, and with no appreciable reduction in his work hours. Moreover, he has not lost his gracious willingness to be led, especially by his daughter. Now nineteen years of age, Anna continues to lead her father, as he puts it, “onto unusual paths and into unusual places”. Recently, in March of 1995, he accompanied her to a special school in Camphill Village, Ontario. There, with fifty others- half of whom were handicapped, and most of these nonverbal- they spent two weeks together in community giving witness to what Smyth describes as “magic moments of complete teamwork”. Smyth’s own role, which he accepted with both graciousness and pride, was to keep the fire going for the maple syrup.


Being gracious can prove to be a lifesaver in more ways than one. The distinguished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was awakened once at 3:00 A.M. by the telephone call from a complete stranger. The caller was a distraught woman who spoke incoherently for about twenty minutes about committing suicide. Frankl, though extremely groggy, listened to the woman until she concluded the conversation. Some time later, the woman met Frankl and thanked him profusely for saving her life. Frankl recalled the telephone incident ut pleaded that he had been too sleepy at the time to have told her anything that could possibly have been helpful. The woman heartily agreed, remarking that she could not make head or tail of what he was tring to say. “But”, she added, “the very fact that a great man such as you would spend twenty minutes on the phone at three o’clock in the morning with a complete stranger such as myself meant that I must be important in some way, and so I decided to go on living.”

Graciousness is the largeness of heart that allows a person, no matter how outstanding he is in a particular field, to remain in touch with the essential humanity of others. It keeps him from taking himself  and his achievements so seriously that he forgets everyone else.

Toward the end of his life, Artur Rubenstein heard much about the prowess of twelve-year-old piano prodigy Dmitris Sgouros. Though he had always been suspicious of child prodigies, he graciously invited the boy to play for him at his home in Geneva. Happy and honored to oblige, Sgouros gave a two-hour concert for his audience of one. As the final note died away, Ruenstein, considered the last of the great romantic pianists, declared the lad a better pianist than himself.

The antithesis of snobbery, graciousness flows from a disposition of benevolence and, in its clearest manifestations, bestows honor and respect on those who have no personal, social, or professional claim to such largess. The person who displays snobbery prefers what separates people from each other rather than what unites them. He ranks his fellowmen according to how important they appear to be in terms of their wealth, occupation, social standing, and the like. He does not “waste his time” on those beneath him but seeks recognition from those above. He deems not being obliged to return telephone calls a clear sign of success.

The gracious person, on the other hand, is a democrat in the truest sense of the term. He does not allow class or other distinctions to prevent him from seeing the worth in others. He does not allow his personal, professional, or social advantages to alienate him from his “inferiors”. Graciousness presupposes the ability to see grace in everyone and respond appropriately.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy expressed graciousness when he introduced himself to the French as the husband who had accompanied his wife, Jackie, to Paris. Louise Fletcher exhibited the same virtue when, after receiving an Academy Award for her role in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she used sign language to thank her deaf parents for giving her a dream that they now could see had been realized. And General Charles de Gaulle was so gracious a man that, even when preoccupied with political matters of historic and global significance, he managed to make time for his daughter with Down’s syndrome, delighting her with his singing and dancing.

Pride often interferes with our capacity to see the evidence of grace in others. When our vision becomes limited to our own exertions and accomplishments, we have difficulty acknowledging that God is the source of all that is good. We then also fail to see the gifts he bewtows generously, albeit differently, to everyone else.

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer”. On that day in 1863, Lincoln stated that although Americans had been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven, they had forgotten God, the source of all those blessings. “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

The drowsy father who walks the baby in the wee hours of the morning, knowing he has a full day of important business ahead, and the young mother who subordinates her professional pursuits to the needs of her newborn mirror to their children the graciousness of God. Graciousness is essential to motherhood and fatherhood, but it is not essential to a career. A careerist who is a snob may improve his standing in the world, but he will be marred by an inherent misanthropy. His will be merely the appearance of success, under which will lie a failure in humanity.

In the movie The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, the villagers dismiss the three children who claim to have seen the Blessed Mother with such remarks as, “I’m sure the Mother of God has more important things to do that speak to children.” They overlook a truth we easily lose sight of ourselves- there is nothing that should be more important to a mother than speaking with her children. In a debate over the merits of feminism, Gloria Steinem asked, “Who wants to be locked up all day with the intellect of the three-year-old?” Her opponent, Midge Decter, like a true mother retorted, “Three-year-olds are some of the most enchanting people in the world”, and she added that she would not mind being locked up with one of them any day. We should not forget that Christianity came into the world because a woman was willing to make a child the center of her life.

Through graciousness, which begins with the recognition that there is something other than ourselves that is graced, we come to realize the deeper source of grace that lies within us.


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Part 2- Ranching: The Basis of Sorrow

I ran down the driveway toward the road as my 7 yr old son gave me the intelligence. The “breed cow” had run from the pen on the northeast corner toward the southcentral part of the land, then ran back northeast and onto the county road. The steer- Brownie- was still in the pen. When I arrived at the road, puffing like a somewhat overweight man in his thirties, I saw the cow, black against the early fall scenery. Actually, she was quite scenic: head alert and held high; muscles tense; partially hidden among the tall grass in the low ditch. Surrounded by green fields hemmed in by colorful oaks, she looked regal.

I inspected the fence for breaches, and quickly discovered a large one. The cow would stay put in the grass, I knew, so I took my time, opened the gates and lumbered back to the house for the truck.

Upon arriving at the house, I gave quick orders to the children to stay on the porch. Three of the five were with me while my wife was shopping in town, so I felt a little overextended in my responsibilities. “stay,” I directed. “Stay on the porch. I’m going to get Blackie.”

As I entered the road, the cow heard the diesel motor and began running away, down the road, away from the house. I accelerated, passed her, circled back and intimidated her along the fence line until she found the open gates to her pen and took refuge right back into her little 2 acre paradise.

I hopped out of the truck, closed the gates, and went to the cow shelter to find Brownie the Steer.

But there was no Brownie. I waved Benjamin over to me. “Was the steer out with the bred cow?”

“Yes, she [the steer] was by the chicken pen.”

To Be continued.

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If not me, who? If not now, when?

I come to bury Facebook, not to praise it. Herein I offer sundry reasons for our separation.
1. My children. I don’t want my five children spending much time in digital social networks. It is harder to retract than it is to abstain from FB.

2. The entrenchment of uncommunication. When I was a lad, my parents and their friends would tell us that we should turn off the video games and “rediscover the art of conversation”. Facebook seems to provide the ingredients for just this thing, but somehow the alchemy does just the opposite. Instead of the art of conversation, there turns up a certain artless series of comments. Conversation is reduced to poorly devised thoughts buttressed by an eternal regression of informative web links.

It doesn’t have to be so. For a number of years I’ve enjoyed the company of a dozen or so friends in an email forum. (Two of them are actually FB friends). Via simple email, mostly in a lo-tech “dial up” digital connection, sturdy conversation is created, bringing friends together from as disparate locations as Texas, Costa Rica, Pennsyvania, Ontario, Guatemala and Florida. We call this forum “The Campfire” because digitally we are able to do what campfires enable: thoughtful social interchange, otherwise known as the art of

The promise of connecting that Facebook usage portends simply becomes a facile surrogate for genuine communion. I would drive hundreds of miles to visit with my FB friends, just so long as they don’t show me funny pictures of kittens, politicians or food. But FB connections have rarely resulted in in-the-flesh table talk, unfortunately.

3. Lack of personal control of the distribution of my content. This is a long way to say “censorship and surveillance”. FB controls the flow of information that appears on your screen. Not everything you write gets sent to your friends, and that is after taking the various restrictions and tiered lines of communication set up by users into consideration. Further, your communication is monitored; FB also encourages other users to monitor your communication. Your comments are subject to scrutiny based on key word usage, inclusion of certain persons within your social network, etc. by your comments (which might not see the light of day) you are categorized by FB and marketed to businesses and governments.

4. Facebook profits from your enrollment. They set advertising rates by the number of users and the details of their comments and personal info. I don’t really like that.

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Ranching: The Basis of Sorrow

It’s no wonder that country music is sterotypically melancholy.

On Saturday, I broke my 7 year hiatus and again took up the art of ranching. Right now, we are running approximately one head, to use rancher parlance. That’s down from Saturday’s seven-year high of 2 head. Yes, within hours of beginning ranching anew, one head of cattle had already died.

We live on 28 acres, most of which is open fields of coastal grass. Over the summer, we partitioned off a 2 acre lot with barbed wire, gates, animal stalls and water tanks. I still have plans to reinvigorate the old shallow water well near the pens, but as of now, we are going to limp along with the 150 ft garden hose. We are prepared for winter with lots of hay from the field and a minimal amount of cattle knowledge from years past.

So, down to the auction (auwshkin, according to the 3 yr old) we went- “we” being me and four young children. That’s an adventure in itself, but suffice it to say that we came home much poorer with a 4 yr old bred beef cow and a 500 pound steer. The steer we planned to eat in a few months, after it doubled in size; the cow we plan to keep as a calf producer. The cow is scheduled to calve in late March, which is perfect for beginner ranchers: fresh grass and warm weather in abundance.

An hour after penning the creatures, my son came inside with news that the cows were out of their pen. Acute buyer’s remorse exploded within me, only to quickly give way to the more natural machismo of my inner cowboy. To be continued…

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