Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Presidential Biographies: Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler

For these one-term (or less) presidents, I turned to The American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger.  These biographies were written with the aim "to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar."  For my purposes, this series fit the bill.

Martin Van Buren

TheMartin Van Buren biography was written by Ted Widmer.  I found Mr. Widmer's writing style to be somewhat distracting.  He tried very hard to be demonstrate his own cleverness.  One of my favorite biographers, David McCullough, does this too but in a more successful manner.  Whereas I find McCullough entertaining, I found Widmer irritating.

Widmer did do a fine job of distilling the life and presidency of Martin Van Buren into a small volume.  There was an appropriate amount of detail without a lot analysis.  For instance, he adequately described the effects of the Panic of 1837 but only vaguely attributed the cause to 'speculation and growth.'  I was fine with the lack of depth.  There was enough detail that I came to understand Van Buren's role as the mastermind behind the political machine of his day.  I got a good-enough view of the the issues which characterized Van Buren's term such as the panic and emerging regional differences regarding slavery.

William Henry Harrison

Gail Collins short biography of William Henry Harrison, the man who served one month as president, was just right.  At first, though, her chronological treatment of Harrison's early days read something like this:  and then he _______ and then he ___________ and then he ____________.  However, by the time she got to the madcap election of 1840 she hit her stride and the descriptions she provided brought the extremes of that period to life.

John Tyler

John Tyler is considered to be one of our nation's worst presidents.  I was glad that in his biography of John Tyler, Gary May presented a somewhat sympathetic character.  Although ultimately a secessionist and, therefore, a traitor, May described an accidental President courageous enough to stand his ground whatever the political cost (those costs turned out to be high).  He set the precedent of ascension upon the death of the President, and he improved relations with Britain though the Webster-Ashburton treaty.  His determination may have lost him standing in the Whig Party but it resulted in the annexation of Texas.  In these ways, John Tyler, no matter how inadequate history considers him, changed the shape of our country politically and physically.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Presidential Biography: Jackson

Photo of Andrew Jackson

I expected a biography of the American Lion, the hero of New Orleans and the unlikely president who broke the presidential mold, to be a little more interesting.  In fact, Jon Meacham's biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, turned out to be something of a slog.

I do think a biography of Jackson as an upstart would have been interesting.  Another lesson I've learned while reading these biographies is:  you must pay attention to the subtitle.  As the subtitle of this book suggests, this isn't about the young Jackson, it is primarily about his eight-year tenure in The White House.

Meacham also wrote the biography I read about Thomas Jefferson.  Based on these two books, I think Meacham tends toward the sensational.  In his Jefferson biography, he dealt a lot with the Sally Hemings affair.  In American Lion, he devotes way too many pages to the domestic squabbles between Emily Donelson, The White House hostess, and Margaret Eaton, wife of Jackson's secretary of war.  He did link the conflict to the famous upheaval in Jackson's cabinet, yet the level of detail devoted to the scandal was, in my opinion, excessive.  It definitely did not serve to make the book more interesting.

Although the biography was not an exciting read, I did learn a lot about Jackson's administration.  I learned how he expanded presidential power being the first to liberally veto.  I also came to understand the challenges he faced in keeping the union together under the threat of secession.  He was, like many of his predecessors, somewhat of a contradiction.  He was a common man who sought to extend the power of common men, yet he was a slave-holder.  It was also his Indian removal policies that led to the Trail of Tears.  He was a a forceful personality and fierce fighter both in the battlefield and as President.

Seven presidents down!  Up next:  the second-tier presidents.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An October Daybook

Outside my window...

are these lovely flowers under a clear sky.  I'm not sure what they are.  I think of them as black-eyed Susans on a vine.   Although they're vigorous now, they're not long for the world.  The cold morning tells me the first frost is not far away.   We'll both enjoy the quintessentially fall days like today as long we can.

Giving thanks...

for my husband who goes out to slay the dragons every day.  As the kids and I drove downtown in morning traffic today, I was reminded of the sacrifices he makes to provide for us at home.  It's only been ten years since it was my daily commute, but ten years seems a lifetime. I don't think I would have the stomach for it anymore.

I am thinking about...

the contribution I'm making to our little family unit.  I'm convinced I'm adding value by staying home even if that contribution is not to the bottom line.  However, I know I need strive harder in all areas as a wife, mother and educator. 

In the kitchen...

Southwestern chicken chili is simmering in the Crock-Pot.  I pulled it out of the freezer yesterday and dumped it into the cooker at noon.  I went to a Wildtree freezer meal workshop last month and am now fully committed to a freezer-meal lifestyle.  I've always been too much of a procrastinator to pre-assemble meals before.  What a luxury on a busy day!  

Like most direct-sales products, the Wildtree wares are not cheap, but I enjoy supporting people who earn income this way.  

My family has eaten four of the meals so far and all but one have been quite delicious.  I'm planning on going to my second party next month. 

In the schoolroom...

we're in our sixth week of school following our vacation.  I like to follow a six weeks on, one week off schedule, which means we have a break next week.  Oh happy day!  It amazes me each cycle how needed this seventh week is by the time it rolls around.

Around the house...

The kids are cleaning while I type.  Huh?!?!  That's not a typo.  Their dad promised a little surprise for them this weekend if they get their rooms cleaned.  

I am reading...

The Princess and the Goblin to the kids after lunch.  I started it in October after being directed to this post and have four chapters to go.  It is proving to be a real crowd-pleaser.  I highly recommend it.

Little House in the Big Woods pop-corn style with my daughter.  It's her required reading, but I want to know how her reading is progressing so I'm tagging along.

The Bible following a year-long plan.  I started sometime in September and am on day 26.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson for book club.  Traditionally we read a classic horror or mystery book in October.  It's my second time reading this one.  Primarily because I know how it ends, I'm not enjoying it very much this time through.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


We recently celebrated this guy's 10th birthday.


He's come a long way in a decade.

Ten is twice the number of pounds he weighed when he was born.

Ten was the number of days we stayed together in the hospital.

I hated being in that hospital every one of those ten days.  In my hormone-addled state I was not one bit appreciative of the medical care we were receiving.  Borrowing a phrase from Anthony Bouvier, I thought of it as our 'unfortunate incarceration'.  I only wanted our little family to be at home away from the nurse practitioners, the needles, the monitors, that guy, Billy Rueben, the nurses kept talking about, and, especially, those dreadful scales.

I may have taken it more in stride had I known in ten years he'd be big and strong.  If I had had a glimpse into the future and known he'd be making macaroni and cheese from scratch, quoting the Bible and poetry, and playing a mean Irish fiddle, my heart would have been put at ease.  (I would have tactfully overlooked the part about him tormenting his sister and hiding half-chewed food in his pockets.)

Yep, at ten he's pretty okay--a guy who loves baseball and Oklahoma City Thunder basketball and books.

And maybe because it took him so long to get here, he really loves just being home.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Presidential Biography: J.Q. Adams

Photo of John Quincy Adams

I recently finished John Quincy Adams A Public Life, A Private Live by Paul Nagel.  I don't recall enjoying a presidential biography as much as this one.  Mr. Nagel wrote a compelling account of the remarkable life of a remarkable American.

I don't want to detract from Mr. Nagel's writing, but I imagine a biography of John Quincy Adams would not be the most difficult one to write.  In the family tradition, he was a prolific writer, keeping a journal consistently from boyhood until death.  Living across the Atlantic from the ever-flowing pens of John and Abigail further contributed to the body of first-hand records of his life.  While there must be plenty of written documentation available, Mr. Nagel did a fine job of distilling the information into a highly readable, not-too-detailed account.

One thing I've enjoyed about reading these presidential biographies back-to-back is that it has allowed me to see how the lives of the founding fathers and mothers overlapped.  Each biography exposes a new facet of the lives of these men and women.  This particular biography was unique in its exploration of the conflicted relationship between JQA and his mother.  It is the first time I've read anything that put Abigail in a negative light.  I came to understand that the pressure put on JQA from an early age left him inwardly frustrated, a man of science and letters who felt compelled to make a mark on the world.   As a result, despite his every natural inclination, he entered the world of politics.  It was a world for which he was not initially well-suited despite ideal education and experience.  After his presidency, which was a failure, he finally hit his political stride as a vocal and tireless (and cantankerous) opponent of slavery in the House of Representatives.

If you are at all interested in the lives of presidents or the founding fathers, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Washington by Land, Air and Sea

Last week our family went on a family vacation to northwest Washington.  It was well timed.  Temperatures in Oklahoma were forecasted to be in the 100s, while Washington temperatures topped out in the 70s.

Our first stop was Seattle where we visited the usual tourist haunts like The Pike Place Market

and took in some culture at the stunning Chiluly Garden and Glass exhibit.

Our favorite Seattle activity was rather surprising to me.  You see, for over ten years I lived down the road from Branson, Missouri, all the while looking down my nose at those people and their yellow beaks quacking their way across town.

Turns out (as is usually the case) I was missing out on all the fun.  Riding The Ducks was a hoot!  And while it was Seattle not Branson, I discovered there's no better way to learn about a city then to have it described by a man wearing a goofy hat while riding an amphibious vehicle from World War II with fellow undignified tourists from around the world.

After, Seattle, we headed north to Everett and toured the Boeing plant.  We saw the areas where they assemble the 747, the 777 and the 787.  This was the trip highlight for my husband and son.

Whidbey Island was our next destination, a short ferry ride form Everett.  It was beautiful and tranquil.

While there, we enjoyed time on the beaches

and experienced some wildlife and seasickness on the Puget Sound.

As an added bonus, one of the quaint island towns was holding a Shakespeare Festival the week we were on the island, so we got to watch an outdoor production of The Taming of the Shrew.  My kids still can't believe their luck!

Despite all we saw and experienced, as we weary travelers drove home from the airport, my kids declared Oklahoma to be the most beautiful place of all.  You've got to appreciate loyalty.

Monday, September 1, 2014

August 2014 Progress

Our month was cut a week short by a vacation we took last week.  We still accomplished much!

Classical Conversation

We started our sixth year with Classical Conversations.  This is my son's first year in Essentials and both kids' second time through Cycle 3.


Shaping Hearts for God Bible curriculum studying the life of Jesus

My son finished learning the 23rd Psalm and is working on learning Matthew 5:3-12 (The Beatitudes).



RightStart Mathematics Level C - Lessons 58 through 70 (multiplication and fractions)
Singapore Math's Challenging Word Problems Level 1 - pages 146 through 159 (time)
Dreambox - logged 20 minutes for the month


Saxon Level 5/4 - through Lesson 31 (starting multiplication review)
Dreambox - logged 20 minutes for the month



Writing With Ease Level 2 - Week 24 through Week 29


IEW's  U.S. History -Based Writing Lessons - Completed Lesson 1

English Grammar

Her:  Classical Conversations English grammar memory, week 1


First Language Lessons Level 3 - finishing up with Dictionary Skills


Her:   Level 3 of All About Spelling - Step 11 through Step 13

Him: Level 4 of All About Spelling - Step 21 through 23


None.  We're focusing on Bible memory work for a few weeks.


Classical Conversations Week 1 memory work and experiments


We are continuing to read non-fiction and historical fiction chronologically through American history.

Early European Settlements:

James Towne Struggle for Survival by Marcia Sewall (Read Aloud)
"King James's Town" from SOTW Volume 4 (RA)
The New Americans: Colonial Times (1620 to 1689) by Betsy and Giulio Maestro (RA)
The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh (Her IR)
Small Wolf by Nathaniel Benchley (Her independent reading)
The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh (Her IR)
Jamestown New World Adventure by James E. Knight (His IR)

Literature and Required and Free Reading

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb - read King Lear, Macbeath, and All's Well That Ends Well (RA)


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O'Brien 
Firestar's Quest by Erin Hunter

Fine Arts

Her:  Finished "Minuet in G" by Bach and various Irish fiddle tunes

Him:  Finished "Concerto No. 5 in D Major, Op. 11, 1st Movement" by F. Seitz and various Irish fiddle tunes


Visited a glass art exhibit by artist Dale Chihuly

Attended a performance of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew"