Home again

We had a great week by the lake. Some highlights:

My brother in law brought his new girlfriend along, and we all unanimously adore her. His ex-wife, I hate to say it, but she must have been unhappy in the marriage for a looooooong time before we realized it, and she was always a bit of a downer at family gatherings. The new girlfriend is fantastic, fits right in with the rest of the family, would make an awesome stepmom for my nieces, and is just an all-around good egg. Plus she has no family of her own so she is always available to do stuff with us. :-)

Sailing was good, especially with Jay. He finally started to catch on to the thrill of it. In the past he’s always been the bored teenager, or the bored 10yo, or the bored 7yo, but this year hubby and I made a point of taking him out, just the three of us, and insisting that he take over as skipper. As he sat there with the rudder in one hand and the mains’l sheet in the other, it suddenly clicked for him and he said “wow, it’s an amazing feeling when the rudder answers.” Oh yes it is! And we especially loved that he used the word answers. :-)

We played tons of games. We taught Elle how to play Hearts — that was a mommy moment for sure! Also, she also finally learned to do the bridge (shuffling) which she has been working on for a long time. Awwwww!

We also played quite a bit of our favorite board game, Wise and Otherwise. This game is basically the same as fictionary, only with proverbs. You are given the first half of an old proverb, for example, “There is an old Italian saying: The chestnut is for . . .” Everyone writes down what they think is a plausible second half of the sentence. One person reads them all aloud and everyone votes on which they think is the true one. Just like in fictionary, you get a point if someone votes for yours, and you also get a point if you vote for the true one. This is the most awesome game for family gatherings ever. Little kids can play just as well as grownups, and every round is hilarious. My one criticism about this game is they made it a lot more complicated than it needs to be, with playing pieces, a board, extra rules, etc. All you really need are the cards with the proverbs, pencils and paper. This shouldn’t be a competitive game; it’s about laughing and having fun together. In fact we ended up giving a lot of “ghost votes” to show appreciation for proverbs we knew were not correct, but were too clever or funny to pass by.

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Folie à deux

So, I’ve returned to blogging only to leave again. Tomorrow we are off for a week’s vacation, lakeside. While the kids do their thing, hubby and I will spend our afternoons zipping across the lake in a Flying Scot. Not bad, but we are the little dog that thinks it is a big dog. Because in our joint imaginations hubby and I are actually sailing one of these:

And as we zigzag back and forth across the little lake in the little dinghy we will speak to each other in all the Age of Sail jargon we can dredge up from our Patrick O’Brian-saturated brains. We’ll pretend to tie Matthew Walkers. We’ll quote poetry about “th’impervious horrors of a leeward shore.” We’ll trim the mains’l, we’ll batten the hatches, we’ll call out “the boat, ahoy” as we approach other vessels and if they get in our way we’ll call them “scrubs” or (worse) “dutch-built slab-sided buggers.” We’ll point out landmarks that are “two points off the larboard bow” or “abaft the beam.” We’ll imagine that we’re in the Mediterranean… or perhaps we’re rounding Cape Horn… or no, wait, we’re in the Indian Ocean… or *shiver* the North Atlantic.

See you next week!

Block quotes revisited

The post that gets the most hits on this site, by far, is the one I wrote last January complaining about the practice of styling block quotes so that they are automatically italicized. In a nutshell, I argued that italics are not just esthetic. They can change the actual meaning of a phrase, and when you are quoting someone else’s words (which after all is the purpose of a block quote) you are morally obligated to quote them as they were originally written or else add “italics mine” at the end.

What I didn’t do in that post was talk about possible fixes for this problem. Here’s how it works. Your wordpress theme is composed of several files that combine and interact with a database in order to produce the HTML that underlies the actual site. One of those files is the style sheet, which uses a language called CSS to tell your browser how the HTML should look. For example, you might have a line in your stylesheet that specifies that items in a bulleted list should be indented by 15 pixels. Or that all links should be colored blue and underlined. Or, more to the point, that all block quotes should be italicized. Now in theory it is a very simple matter to change the look of those block quotes. You just go into the style sheet and find where it says blockquotes: {font-style:italic;} and change it to blockquotes: {font-style:normal;}. Done!

In theory it is simple, but in practice it is not. Because the folks at wordpress.com do not give you free access to your stylesheet. You can pay $30 a year and go in and make the edit I described, and you’re all set. If you’re not willing to pay the $30, there are two other things you can do.

Method 1: Use CSS inline styles.

Cumbersome, but it works. Here’s what you do. Type in your paragraph, highlight and hit the block quote button. Then switch over to the HTML view in the editor screen. Your paragraph will look like this:

<blockquote>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Etiam varius odio ut sem malesuada in facilisis diam dictum. Sed a magna non quam mattis ultrices. Morbi sed risus non metus placerat pretium. Aliquam erat nisl, posuere eget gravida vitae, ultrices vitae dui. Aenean dignissim facilisis pharetra. In eget rhoncus nisi. Aenean et purus neque. Aliquam gravida mollis est ac dictum.</blockquote>

Now, for every instance where it says <blockquote> you will need to change it to <blockquote style="font-style:normal">. Lo and behold your blockquote is no longer italicized! But note: if you want to have something italicized within your quote you’ll have to manually put that in as well. Normally italicized text, on the HTML side, looks like: <em>this is in italics</em>. For every instance of italics within your block quote you will need to edit that <em> tag so that it reads <em style="font-style:italics">this is in italics</em>.

Inline CSS is not considered good coding practice; it is a method of last resort. And as you can see, this would be a bit of a hassle if you did a lot of block quotes. But it definitely works.

Method 2: Use the indent button instead.

Another thing you can do is bypass the block quote button altogether. Presumably you already know that the last button on the right (“Show/Hide Kitchen Sink”) is the toggle for a second row of formatting buttons. And presumably you already know that one of those buttons on the second row will indent your paragraph. Just in case you didn’t already know, here is a screen shot:

This is a very simple, easy solution and I like it because it not only avoids italics, but also any other styling your theme author thought fit to add, such as a fat left-hand border, a different font, a giant quotation mark, an enclosing box, the works. Indenting the paragraph gives you just that: an indented paragraph. A block quote as God intended it should be. And for those who are scared of HTML, you never have to go there; you can do it all within the visual editor. No coding involved.

However. (You knew there would be a catch, right?) From a web standards and accessibility angle, this solution way worse than inline CSS. Because when you bypass the <blockquote> tag, your browser does not know that it is supposed to be a block quote. So that means anyone using a screen reader won’t know either. Nor will Google for that matter.

Does that mean you shouldn’t use this option? After all, you never know who might visit your site with a screen reader. My answer is no: you can use this option so long as you are aware of this issue. There are other ways to let someone know “this is a block quote” than an HTML tag. For instance you could precede the block quote with an explanatory phrase like “here is a quote” — and you could end it with a citation. If someone were reading aloud to you, you would still know it was a quote.

Method 3: Whine and beg wordpress to edit the themes.

Last but not least, you can always complain to the powers that be.

Reading: The Enchantress of Florence

I’m about a quarter of the way into this book and whoa! It is absolutely fantastic. Oh that Salman Rushdie! *swoon* He is truly one of my all-time favorite writers.

I can’t really “review” this book since I’m only on page 91 but I can tell you about the setting. The Enchantress of Florence is a historical novel that takes place during the mid sixteenth century, mainly in India. At that time India was part of the Moghul Empire which originated with Genghis Khan. The empire was huge, covering much of Asia including the Silk Road.

The novel is set during the reign of the emperor Akbar the Great, who was quite a fascinating character. I know this because I looked him up on Wikipedia to find out how much of Rushdie’s portrayal of him is fact and how much is, well, Rushdie. From what I can tell he was nearly as fascinating in real life as he is in the book. He was quite the puissant warrior, but also a sensitive soul who grieved whenever he had to kill somebody. He was charismatic and philosophical: a whole religion sprang up around him. He was an enlightened ruler: he married off the daughters of rival chiefs to form alliances instead of killing them, he didn’t interfere with local religions, etc. Here is a taste:

The country was at peace at last, but the king’s spirit was never calm. The king had just returned from his last campaign, he had slapped down the upstart in Surat, but through the long days of marching and war his mind wrestled with philosophical and linguistic conundrums as much as military ones. The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory — the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, oversexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage — this all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster who referred to himself in the first person plural — had begun to meditate, during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first person singular — the “I.”

Akbar obsesses over the possibility of referring to himself as I instead of We quite a bit. He actually tries it out on his favorite wife (who happens to be imaginary, yes I said imaginary), but finds it impossible. I don’t know why but I just find that so touching.

There’s a whole plot going on besides, and the main instigator is a young man who has come from Europe to Akbar’s court. I will save this character for another post after I’ve read more, but in the meantime I’ll just tell you that this guy is one of the grandest fictional rogues I’ve ever met. Oh heck, one more quote:

Near the end of his long reign, many years after the time of the charlatan Mogor dell’Amore had passed, the aging emperor nostalgically remembered that strange affair . . . . When the emperor learned the truth he understood all over again how daring a sorcerer he had encountered on that long-ago morning after the dream of the crow. By then, however, the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

Oh yes it does!

Natural consequences FTW

My parenting philosophy, if you can call it that, is based on actually doing as little as possible. Many of my friends think I am neglectful, and I in turn think they are hovering helicopters. Whatever. But it never ceases to amaze me how things have a way of working themselves out. Kids will learn from their mistakes if you just let them be.

Case in point. Several months ago, Jay mysteriously “lost” his glasses. He and his buddy got into a play wrestling match, he said. His glasses fell off, it was dark outside, he couldn’t find them. (Play wrestling? Can I just say, Jay is sooooo not a wrestler, not even a play wrestler. Never has been. But who am I to argue.) Anyway, he was strangely reluctant to go back and look for them the next day, even though he knew exactly where the wrestling match had taken place. And even more strangely, he was not the least bit upset about this loss. No, all he could talk about was getting contact lenses now that he didn’t have glasses. Ahem.

Sorry honey! Our insurance only covers one eye appointment per calendar year. Of course you’re welcome to save up for new frames (or contacts) yourself. And what’s that? You want to take drivers’ ed? You didn’t know there would be a vision test? Bummer! Maybe next year . . .

Now how easy is that? No yelling, no arguing, no possibility of negotiating, and a lesson learned that he won’t soon forget.

Josef Suk, R.I.P.

Violinist Josef Suk died earlier this month. A year ago I had never heard of him, but in the last few months he has become a daily presence in my life. In fact, I featured him on this blog: he’s the performer of those Five Madrigal Stanzas that I am still crazy about. The original recording of the Stanzas, which also has two violin sonatas by the same composer, is one that I listen to just about every day. Oh it is splendid!

As a matter of fact, though, my daughter still has not gotten around to learning the Martinů. However, we’ve got another Czech composer in the pipeline, Antonín Dvořák. The piece that I mentioned yesterday, where she is being required to make “artistic decisions”? It is the first movement of Dvořák’s Sonatina for violin and piano, Op. 100.

Now, about this sonatina: when my daughter and I listened to it together for the first time, her reaction was somewhat noncomittal. Ok, sure, whatever, I’ll learn it. “You know,” I said to her, “Dvořák wrote this piece for his own son and daughter, who played piano and violin. They were about your age when he wrote it.” Elle was silent for a moment, and then said, “Wow! It’s a whole different piece now!”

The recording we had listened to, by coincidence, was the video below, starring none other than Josef Suk. Who, it turns out, was the great-grandson of Dvořák. That teenage daughter who played the violin, Miss Ottilie Dvořák? She grew up, married a composer also named Josef Suk, and the end result was this:

Post A Month, anyone?

Because whoa, it’s been longer than that since I checked in here at all. I stopped by just now for the first time since Mother’s Day and wow! People came and visited, and even left comments while I was gone. I am touched, and inspired to start this up again.

Summer is always a crazy time at our house. Everyone is home all day long, including my husband the teacher. With two parents home (I’m a WAHM) all day, we’ve never been big on signing our kids up for day camp or summer activities. We live in a perfectly nice neighborhood with trees, parks, and other kids all around, and we obviously don’t need daycare, so what’s the point? Right. Well, it sounds good anyway. But the fact is, there are five of us living in 1,500 square feet and with everyone home all the time we are constantly bumping into each other, both literally and figuratively. The house is always a a mess and no one has any privacy. Add to that the fact that summer is my busiest time for work, and yes I am feeling a little bit crazy.

So, here are a few tidbits:

My son has a girlfriend. A real girlfriend. Their facebooks say they are “in a relationship.” He goes to her family functions. He teases her little sisters. He hangs out with her friends. In an earlier era she’d be wearing his class ring. And I’m really glad for him. I like her. But it is definitely weird. Uncharted parenting territory. I’m discovering I have surprising feelings about it. Like: she better appreciate what a lucky girl she is, the hussy! (She is soooo not a hussy. They met in Latin class, ferchrissake. And her summer job is mother’s helper to a family with newborn triplets. But that thought creeps up on me from time to time, regardless.)

My daughter is learning to take chances, get messy and make mistakes. This is very very hard for her. I’ve never known such a cautious, risk-averse person as this girl. It is a perennial struggle for me to judge how hard to push her towards independence. Right now we’re working on it in the context of music. A few weeks ago her violin teacher had her in tears at her lesson, not over tricky passage work, but over the fact that he wants her to make her own artistic decisions and not wait for him to tell her how to polish a piece. And guess what, little by little, she is doing it! She’s working on a piece right now that isn’t too technically demanding but has a lot of musical depth to it and is perfect for making artistic decisions. And a wonderfully “safe” way for her to try her wings.

My little guy is playing with Legos. All. Day. Long. Ugh, the darn things are everywhere. But I have to give him credit for one thing: he really does play with them. He gets quite a bang for his Lego buck. When I was a kid I loved Legos too, but as soon as I built something, I was done. Dee, however, builds in order to play. And unlike his sister, he has no trouble making artistic decisions. His lego creations usually stray pretty far from the direction that come in the box. And his favorite pieces are the people.