Elizabeth Gail Mysteries

Rachel (age 12 and 1/2) is flying through the Elizabeth Gail books by Hilda Stahl. And by flying, I mean reading two books a day. I stumbled across this Christian juvenile collection at a homeschool used curriculum sale in May. The books looked interesting so I bought the entire lot – 19 books in all. How could I resist? A big fat stack of books for Rachel – just my type of present.

19 books in all

At first Rachel was reluctant to begin the series. Frankly, they seemed a little too thin, not meaty enough for her. Thankfully there’s nothing like the combination of a prodding mother and a long summer afternoon to encourage one to dive into a waiting book.

I’ll do my best to snag Rachel for a real review of the books this week. She can give us her opinion and recommendations.

What are you pre-teen daughters reading this summer? Are you participating in the summer reading programs at your local library? Rachel told me she recently passed the 10 hour reading mark and is ready to collect her first prize.

Ah, the joy of raising a family of readers!

Project 366 – Day 188

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An Early Start

“If we’re not careful we’ll lose a good portion of our Saturday,” Tim said as Friday night rolled on and neither of us showed any sign of retiring.

Those words woke me up this morning and pushed me out of bed and down the stairs. My head was fuzzy and my eye lids heavy, but I was determined to get up. The house was quiet. It wasn’t particularly early (in fact, I can’t post the time as my beloved morning friends and family member would roll their eyes) but the house was quiet. After a late night of fireworks, the children were all still fast asleep.

I grabbed my Bible study book and pen and settled in on Big Blue, our love seat recliner.

Reading the first page, I prepared to answer the questions. “Rats, I forgot to get my Bible,” I mumbled to myself. “Surely there’s one on this little table. Who picked up this room anyway? There are books piled everywhere.” Grumble, grumble. Always a good place to start a Bible study.

Spotting my Bible across the room, I decided I would just close my eyes for a few minutes before leaping enthusiastically up and getting it.

20 minutes later I was still napping, study book and pen clasped firmly in my arms.

So much for embracing the day and getting an early start. I think I would have done better had my early start included a cup of coffee.


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Happy Fourth of July

Holiday Hours

Let’s see, how shall we spend this year’s Fourth of July? Last year it was hot and sunny and we spent a good portion of the day at the park with friends. This year was more cool and gray. Washington is nothing if not a study in contrasts.

Nonetheless we managed to have an excellent day, as you can see.

Sleep in – check
Sugar cereal or pancakes for breakfast – check
Backyard relaxing – check
Time with friends – check

girls waiting for candy

Sarah, Caedie and Jaalah wait for the parade to start.

Parade – check
Board game with kiddos – check
Fried chicken – check
Snuggle couch time w/ children reading – check

boys are there too

Daniel, David and Eli are sure they will beat the girls to the candy.

More time with friends – check
Fireworks – check

I think we did it all.

God Bless America

How did you celebrate our independence day? Family, friends, picnics, hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, sparklers, watermelon, games, a fair. All of the above? Do share!

Homemade ice cream! That was missing from our day. I knew we forgot something.

Ah, maybe next year.


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Memoirs of a Tomato Stake

I had a couple of long talks Monday with my middle boy, to whom we are applying our “Tomato Staking” parenting technique. It has been nearly four weeks since we started, and his patience is starting to wear thin.

“How much longer will I be Tomato Staked,” he asked, plaintively.

“Does it bother you?” I temporized, trying to keep my tone level while smiling gently at him.

“Yes. I don’t like never being allowed to be alone, and I’m embarrassed not to be allowed to play with my friends unless you or Mom are with me,” Daniel replied.

daniel boy

It has been a long month. We’ve mostly stuck to our guns on Tomato Staking, and we require Daniel to be in the same room or in our direct eyesight, seven days a week (except for when he is asleep or sent on a specific errand). We’ve poured out hours of extra teaching into his ears, and we’ve been very encouraged that some of it seems to have lodged in his heart. By being present in his life nearly all the time, we’ve guarded his conduct from spiraling down out of control, and helped him to significantly improve his relationships with his siblings. We’ve worked to teach him some basic charm, so that he can avoid coming to our negative attention by thoughtless disrespect. I’d like also to think that we’ve shown him the depth of our commitment to him, and that our relentless love is fixed on him in an unwavering way.

One of the pervasive themes of our teaching has been in terms of teaching him to respect God, and (by extension) other people. We’ve invested in the filling of his ‘moral warehouse’ so that he can evaluate situations for their moral content and make choices that reflect a heart that is pleasing to God. We’ve taught him about respect for property, respect for authority, respect for nature, and a host of other values that stem from the value God places on people. Any moral code needs a meta-ethical basis, and we’ve chosen to identify with the moral pattern that God has laid out so clearly in His word, the Bible.

daniel waters the tomatoes

We quickly realized that the first thing we needed to teach Daniel was how to listen. Although I’ve had ample occasion to teach Daniel many times before, I’ve not done a very good job at holding him to a high standard in terms of listening attentively. In the past, his typical response to a ‘lecture’ or any form of verbal correction would include:

  • a slumped body posture
  • scowling face
  • overt yawning
  • gaze vacantly directed out the window
  • body fidgeting
  • hands playing with anything within reach
  • sullen, monosyllabic answers to questions (or no answer at all)
  • a remarkable ability to misunderstand
  • an apparent general unwillingness to think about what I’m saying

As I would correct my son, I often found that my initial mild displeasure with his infraction was soon replaced by a strong sense of resentment over his contempt toward me. My attitude toward him would darken, and my willingness to teach him would soon be exhausted in the face of what seemed to me a profound rejection of my efforts to share my wisdom with him.

driving the golf cart

One day I questioned him about it.

“Do you mean to communicate disrespect for what I’m telling you, by the way you look away and play with anything you can get your hands on?” I tried to keep my tone free of menace and incredulity.

“No.” He still didn’t look me in the eye.

“Do you understand how I might feel, trying to explain things to you, when you give every outward appearance of paying me no attention?”

“Not really.” A bored scowl was still plastered over his face.

“When your face is frowning, and you don’t look at me, and you play with your pencil, and you don’t answer my questions, all those things communicate disrespect to me. I feel as though I’m wasting my time telling you things, because you don’t seem to be listening.”

Eventually I took the time to carefully and individually spell out each component of his body language, and how I interpreted it. I enlisted Kathy’s help to support my assertion, so he could see that the response was general and not something he could easily dismiss, thinking, “Oh, that’s just Dad, picking on me.” As we looked at each of the behaviors in the list above, we realized how much Daniel had unwittingly sabotaged his interaction with us, through his body language, and through our response to the contempt he was broadcasting.

These days, when I correct my son, he works harder to present a respectful posture. He often sits up attentively, and looks me right in the eye. He maintains a neutral or smiling expression on his face, and he (mostly) keeps his arms and legs still. Sometimes he answers my questions with complete sentences, and he works hard to stay engaged in the conversation. If he has to yawn, he has learned (or is learning) to discreetly cover his mouth and to quietly apologize.

smiling away

These simple manners have worked a substantial change in my attitude toward my son. I find my tone is gentler, my face is kindlier, and I’m much more willing to explain abstract concepts, even when he doesn’t understand the first or second time. Daniel is making excellent progress in understanding and embracing the moral principles that I have been teaching him … I’d say he has made about a year’s progress in moral maturity over the past month.

I’m very proud of my middle boy. He is kind, gentle, generous and thoughtful, and can be very selfless when he wants to be. He has a keen sense of justice and an evangelist’s heart toward people who don’t know Jesus. He is funny and loves to laugh – his witty cleverness is a delight to our family. He is talented in math, and has a knack for figuring out how mechanical things work. His sunny disposition helps to endear him to many of the people he knows.

We still have some considerable work ahead of us. Over the years, Kathy and I have explained many moral principles to Joshua and Rachel, but Daniel was (at first) too little to understand. As time passed by, I think that Daniel got into the habit of ‘tuning out’ to our teaching, and we were not alert enough to correct that deficiency. Now we’re making up for lost time, and pouring into him very explicitly the moral values that he needs to identify morally-charged situations and respond in a way that will please God.

grab your ice cream bags

“I figure you’ve got another 4-6 weeks of being Tomato Staked,” I told him, “if you work really hard to listen to what Mom and I are teaching you. Early on in this process, it seemed to me that you were fighting against me, deliberately refusing to accept the principles I was teaching you. But lately, I’ve seen a change in you, and I’ve heard you repeating the things I taught you to your brothers and sisters. That kind of thing convinces me that you are ready to build up your moral muscles by making good moral choices without Mom and me hovering over you.”

Some time in the next week we’ll probably give him a day off from tomato staking, and see how he does. He is a quick learner, and if I can convince him of its importance, I think he can get up to an age-appropriate moral maturity level in a matter of a few weeks. Kathy and I would greatly appreciate your prayers in this matter.


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91 Days of Ramsey

It has now been three months since we began living according to a budget, and we are astounded with God’s kindness and graciousness to us. In that time, thanks to God’s faithful provision to us, we have been able to retire almost half of our debt (not counting the mortgage on our home). What seemed (just three months ago) to be an insurmountable and crippling debt, now appears to be a manageable amount we could potentially pay off in less than a year. I am reminded of Paul’s prayer benediction in Ephesians 3:20-21:

Almost Halfway!
We’re down to 51%!

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

We have never been grossly foolish with our money, as far as I can remember. We conceal no illicit gambling habit, have bought no big-ticket luxury items, and have not squandered our wealth in foolhardy, get-rich-quick investments. But the steady attrition of self indulgence and inattention has landed us in the unenviable position of owing a sizeable amount of money. Frankly, we were scared when we finally added it up and took stock of how much we owed.

Sprinkler Buddies
These Boys of Summer aren’t scared …

Thanks to some of Kathy’s recent Dave Ramsey reading, and to the encouragement of many of our friends and relatives, we decided to make a few simple changes in our lives:

  1. We figured out how much our monthly bills would be (on average) and set aside money to pay them each month. These include our mortgage, utility bills (there seem to be an unending barrage of these), auto insurance and similar, predictable expenses.
  2. Kathy and I designed a budget to cover the remaining, more discretionary categories of spending, and (this is the important part) determined not to overspend in these areas. Such categories include groceries, household maintenance (light bulbs, shampoo, etc.), fuel, clothing (adult and child), homeschooling expenses, and (most precious of all) Tim and Kathy’s Individual Unaccountable Funds (money that we can spend individually without having to get our spouse’s buy-off). I spend a high proportion of my monthly allotment on gardening supplies and Slurpees (™), while Kathy prefers lattes and home decorating items. If, through inattention, we overspend in any area, Kathy and I contribute money from our personal funds to cover the overage.
  3. After hours of study and intensive economic research, we came up with a wild plan: we stopped using credit to cover our overspending. Oh, we still use a credit card for online purchases, but when we do, I fire off a check from our online banking that same day to cover the full amount of the credit card purchase. Then when the billing cycle is complete, we read those magical words: No Payment Due. Sometimes I get a little carried away paying off Chase or Bank of America, and actually end up with a small credit on my credit card statement, which stands the whole system on its ear. Imagine, actually having credit on a credit card. What’s more, if you leave a balance on the card long enough, they have to send you a check. While I don’t advocate this as a crafty investment plan, it is sort of fun to get a check from a company whose mail you used to dread.
  4. We’ve trimmed and squeezed our monthly budget so that we could make steady payments against our debt. When we get extra money (which seems to happen a lot, lately), we often do something crazy: we use it to reduce our debt. We know it is un-American, but we just can’t seem to help ourselves. As of this writing, we’ve reduced our debt to 51% of what it was, only three months ago. We owe our humble thanks for this to our Lord, Jesus Christ, who has helped us to pay this down so quickly.

As victorious as we feel, it hasn’t all been a bowl of cherries. It hurts not to be able to spend in a carefree fashion, and it takes time (mostly on Kathy’s part) to record each and every transaction, and to monitor the dwindling monthly funds in each category. Both of us have had to swallow some of our pride as we learn to live within our means.

We’re also conscious of how pathetic we must seem, to some of our friends and relatives who have faithfully stuck to a budget for decades. It is interesting to watch our children learn from our mistakes and rapidly adapt our new-found budgeting skills. I was talking with Joshua the other day about the principle of setting aside an emergency fund before saving for a discretionary purchase.

Joshua's savings
Not Joshua’s actual savings.

“How’d you decide how much you would establish as your emergency fund,” I asked him, wondering what he would consider an emergency.

“I decided to set aside the $160 I would need if there was a sudden youth group retreat that I wanted to attend,” he informed me. “That way I still could go, even if I hadn’t known in advance to save for it, or if all my other sources of income suddenly dried up.”

Rachel has been hinting about getting a cell phone for some time. I told her she could have one as soon as she could (a) buy the phone, and (b) pay me, up-front, two month’s reserve to cover the cost of her plan. Dave Ramsey talks about a ‘gazelle-like intensity’ in paying down debt – Rachel left all the gazelles milling around the starting gate in her rush to save enough money to get a phone.

“Hey,” says one gazelle to another. “What was that pink flash?”

Fortunately for Rachel, my employer (just this month!) increased the value of my cell phone perquisite so that the monthly fees for another cell line are quite reasonable.

“Here’s the money, Dad,” she informed me (rather smugly) a couple of days after I had set out the requirements. “I’ve saved up my babysitting money and I’m ready to buy a phone.” So much for that strategy to slow her down.

Rachel's New Phone
Rachel spent at least 10 hours playing with her phone before the account was even activated.

One interesting development is that our spending categories have begun to acquire personalities. Fuel, for example, is a burly, simple man who lives in the moment and doesn’t have to worry about the future. “Next month is Vehicle Maintenance’s problem,” he chuckles, confidently. Since I’ve started van-pooling to work, the end of the month holds no terror for him.

Groceries, on the other hand, is a thin, melancholy woman with low self-esteem, who wishes every month were February, (not on a leap year). “How can I possibly make it to the end of June when I’ve already spent two-thirds of my budget by the eighth day of the month?” she wails.

We talk about them as though they were people. “I don’t think Households wants to pay for that,” Kathy warns.

“How ’bout Kid’s Clothing then, he’s got lots of dough,” I fire back, while Kathy laughs maniacally. (Kid’s Clothing is a chronically under-funded waif with a starvation-swollen belly, who philosophically and somewhat apathetically takes whatever life throws his way.)

As much as it pinches to restrict my discretionary spending, it is fun to be able to spend without guilt. The other day I bought some gardening supplies out of Tim’s Unaccountable Fund, and I didn’t have to worry about justifying the expense to Kathy, or feeling bad about borrowing the money to pay for my hobby. Kathy and I also look forward to the day when we no longer must allocate 10% – 20% of our income to paying down our debt – I’m sure we can find something to do with that extra money every month — maybe we could buy some Teriyaki take-out for Kid’s Clothing.

Project 366, Day 183

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