Yesterday, I made a page for this blog at Facebook.

I wondered, again, why I chose such a difficult name for my blog. Magistra is Latin for (female) teacher; Mater means mother. I was telegraphing my bent toward classical home education. I was deep in my Latin Stage, in which I interrupted you whenever you used a word whose Latin root I had recently learned.

You: “My kids don’t pay attention when—“

Me: “Attention literally means to stretch toward.”

You: (questioning stare) (pause)

You:  “…well, I need to monitor their—“

Me: “Monitor literally means to warn.”

You: “…um, so I’ll just put in a video…”

Me:  “I see.”

If I were to start a blog today, Nana Babe would be a better moniker.  My grandsons call me Nana, my husband calls me Babe

I could shorten it to N.B. which is also short for Nota Bene which, ahem, is (I blush to say) Latin for pay attention.

[…and if you want to follow the blog through Facebook you can find me there at Magistra Mater…]

The Music Pushed Me Over

“The problem with you is that you are a two buttock player.
You should be a one buttock player.”

“We have a B.
And next to it is a C.
It is the job of the C to make the B sad.”

Not since Robert Greenberg of The Teaching Company (How to Listen to and Understand Great Music) have I enjoyed such a passionate appeal to the power of music.

Of course, “the choir” will gladly listen.  But.  If you have this idea that classical music is just not your thing, you are precisely the person for this video. Benjamin Zander will make you care. 

A Lifetime Learner’s Plan for 2011



I love to learn. 

Heh heh.  That is I love to learn when I’m in control of the learning and it’s going according to my plan. In short, when it is my idea.  Many lessons have to be foisted upon me, more than once, before I get the point. The acquisition of knowledge, the advent of understanding, the getting of wisdom…it’s like gathering armfuls of flowers.  

2011 will open a new vista for me.  After fifteen years of educating my boys at home, I spent two years working full-time while we pressed toward the goal of being debt-free.  My retirement day is fast approaching; my heart is beginning to gurgle with joy at the possibilities.

There is so much to learn.  And here is my short list of learning goals for 2011:


•  Learn musical notation software.  Finale is the version friends declare I need.  Get it. Use it. Love it.  And perhaps do a bit of composing.

•  Learn how to track investments correctly in Quicken.  I have “Placeholder Entries” which need to be fixed. This goes under the broader heading of paying attention to finances, learning more about the stock market, bonds, etc.

•  Learn profound contentment with one serving of food.  Ahem. Practice, practice, practice!

•  Learn how to take pictures with my new camera, a Nikon D3100.  I’m drooling to make bokeh.  And to be able to toss around words like aperture, depth of vision, f-stops and those lens numbers with the smallest measure of intelligence.  As my brother says, “Get out of auto focus.” This also falls under the larger goal of spending more time outside.       

•  Learn ten new Bach pieces on the piano.  If I were ambitious I’d include Chopin, because Chopin always killed me as a girl.  Not that Bach is an easy walk on the tundra. The last few years I’ve only played piano for the joy and comfort of playing. I’m actually itching for some disciplined study.

•  Learn how to listen without thinking of what I’ll be saying next. 


•  Learn to make time for regular letter writing.  Ink on paper letters.  Goodness, I have the cards and stationery!

•  Learn the value of daily stretching.  It’s bizarre to get up in the morning creaky.

•  Learn to look through the microscope.  We have a worthy one.  I’m a bit science-phobic, but I think I could handle this.  I don’t need to keep a journal (or perhaps I do).  I just need to look.  Sort of on a daily basis.  Are there enough things available to put under the lens?  Surely there must be.

•  Learner’s option: learn how to knit.  Or.  Learn how to quilt.  I love the idea of knitting. But I love reading more.  

How Teaching Piano Made Me a Better Reader

When I taught piano lessons, I assigned different levels of music to each student.  One piece was below their reading level; in short, easy to play.  The student didn’t have to strain over which notes to play; instead she could concentrate on phrasing, dynamics, expression.  So even though the music was easy, it needed to be quality, worthy of expressive playing. 

The bulk of the music was bread and butter.  Working from white bread to 10-grain, it got chewier in increments.  Not effortless, but with regular practice the music could be mastered by the next lesson.  Like bread, this was the daily sustenance of the art of playing piano. One bite at a time.

The long-term focus was the challenge piece.  This was music which, at first glance, seemed overwhelming.   Beyond the beyonds.  Too much black print.  Flat out unplayable.  But we broke it up into manageable chunks, slowly worked through the notes, the rhythm, the key signature.  Row by row, I watched my students get the job done.  Some lessons were work sessions, pounding the notes.  Eventually, it coalesced into a polished piece. 

Reading is like this.

Easy books are a good thing if they are good books.  That’s why, when I want a light read, I go to my stack of quality children’s literature.  Wind in the Willows is ever so much more satisfying than Whence Comes the Hunk.

Most reading is of the bread and butter variety.  Whether you have eclectic tastes or you gravitate toward a particular genre, there are books a plenty to read.  Memoirs, mystery, devotional, relational, informative, helpful books.  We all love stories.

Here’s an easy definition of a challenge book:  a book you have to push yourself to read.  A worthy challenge book will reward you and keep you at it.  Slow the pace down, take small bites, and row by row, you’ll bring in the crop. 

Sometimes it became apparent that the piece I assigned my student wasn’t a good fit.  So I unassigned it.   The same goes with books.  A hard-to-read book is not necessarily a good book.  It may just be poorly written.

These three levels of effort can apply to most occupations:  jogging, friendships (when you hear the word challenge friendship does a face come to mind? she asks smiling), mechanics, cooking, thinking….life.  

Home Below Hell’s Canyon

After Five Five-Star Books in a row, I didn’t expect to read a sixth stellar book.  A friend loaned me this book, and I decided I’d better read and return it.  We had swapped books of local pioneer stories and the one I sent her wasn’t really that good.  I approached Home Below Hell’s Canyon with a neutral attitude. 


This book whirled me around.  During the Depression Grace and Len Jordan bought a sheep ranch in Hell’s Canyon.  With their three young children, they worked to make a go of it.  Danger, isolation, toil, trials were daily companions.  Jordan does not resort to high drama, nor does she syrup the narrative. 

Our determined frugality did not ease much, even at Christmas.  In the youngsters’ stockings there would be something practical and something they had longed for, with a treat of candy and apples.

The life of the Jordan family was so foreign to a typical family’s life in 2010.  Risks had to be taken, decisions had to be made, chores had to get done…all without a husband a cell phone call away.  The pace of life was measured, time was carefully apportioned for the family and ranch hands to be fed and provisioned.  It was typical to can 1,000 quarts of fruits, vegetables and meat for the year to come.

A  canyon is a bad place for real wrongs, far worse for fancied ones.

What fascinated me was the education of the children using the Calvert School’s correspondence course.  The Jordans homeschooled before homeschool was a word!  The way Grace Jordan met the challenges of educating the kids while running a ranch is worth the cost of the book. 

From the first day of school it was clear that only by setting a rigid program would we ever protect ourselves from the double threat of alien interruptions and our own natural inertia.

This book is worthy. I hope to re-read it down the road.  Satisfying stuff.

Creation is making something from nothing; and creation is as bad for tying up a man’s day- and night-time thoughts as the drug habit.  Yet it is soul-satisfying, and for the weeks that we were involved in the carpentering and plumbing arts, we had never been happier.

Len Jordan went on to become governor of Idaho and a US Senator. 

We got word that we might have trouble disposing of our wool unless it was certified as shorn by a union crew.  A sheep-shearer’s union in the depths of the Snake Canyon was patently absurd, but the 1938 path of the American livestock man, a normally independent and rugged creature, was certainly not strewn with government roses.

Grace Jordan wrote four more books, taught journalism and English at various Idaho universities and has an elementary school named after her. 

Fizzy Fact of the Year

Our friend Steve was describing a birding trip he recently enjoyed.  In real life he doctors most of our family, but he is a credentialed ornithologist and a hoot to be around.  My husband, a bird-watcher from way back, can appreciate the rarity of a grackle sighting in our valley, and show proper enthusiasm.  Me — I sit back on my perch and enjoy their chat even though most of it flies over my head.   

Then Steve rocked my nest by casually mentioning there are dialects in birdsongs, a fact proven by sonograms of the songs.  There are variations between different parts of the country, but there can even be a variation from one valley to the next.  Why does that fizz and sizzle in my bird brain?  Does anyone else find that Absolutely Fascinating? 

I jumped on Google to scratch around.  And promptly ordered The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (which comes with a CD).  Reviews of the book here.  I gleaned some quotes from an NPR story about Don Kroodsma and this book.

“Birds have song dialects just like we humans have dialects.”

After some intense listening and study,
Kroodsma concluded that, just as with people,
where a bird learned a song
is just as important as a bird’s genealogy.
He noticed in his travels that birds of the same species
but in different states sang the same song,
but with their own unique “accents.”

And, because I’m a “word bird” here is a great group.

Grex, gregis – Latin for flock.  From it we get gregarious (seeking and enjoying the company of others); aggregate (gathered into a group); segregate (divided into separate groups); egregious (something remarkably awful) literally means outstanding, or to stand out from the flock (the e at the beginning is a shortened form of ex, out).  But my favorite grex derivative is congregate (to gather or flock together). 

Tip for Closed Eyes in Photos

Jim – an excellent  wedding photographer – gave me the best photography tip EVER.  When I was in Pennsylvania we had to take the requisite family pictures. 

“I’m sorry, but my eyes are always closed in pictures.  I try not to blink to no avail.” I apologized in advance.

“Here’s what you do.” Jim replied. “I will count to three and you blink on two.  Your eyes will be open in every picture.”

It works!  Blink on two.  Profound!  Have you heard of that? 

Now if I could only learn to shut my mouth.

My six sibs and me

It’s About Science

Science is my nemesis.  I never got it.  I didn’t get the sparks, the aha! moments, the passion. 

My dear friend, however, almost chirps – she waves her hands and rocks up on her toes – she’s that excited about science! When her kids were young they would pulse with recognition: “Look, Mommy!  It’s a dicot!” 

As a young homeschool mom, I overbought science enrichment materials in an attempt to compensate for my deficiencies.  They mostly stayed on the shelf. Fortunately, we had co-op teachers who lived and breathed science, whose heart beat faster when they contemplated quarks.   

I wasn’t happy about my Science Idiot status. But it paled in the light of feeding four males, keeping them shod and clothed and breaking three of them of saying, “Me and Josh are going to the park.”  

Then I had an epiphany. 

I read Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.  It was an incredible story, well-written, absorbing page-turner.  Not until I was finished did it occur to me that I had just immersed myself in…..science! 

And that, my friend, was an AHA! moment.  My path to scientific knowledge (a redundancy since science means knowlege, learning) was through literature.  What rebounded off my brain in a textbook, had a chance of sticking if it was couched in a story.  All-righty, then.

I followed Longitude with another Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, which was wonderful and textured and satisfying and fabulous.  (It begins with one of my favorite letters of condolence ever.) 

I thought, perhaps, that I was on to something.  Paul de Kruig’s Microbe Hunters was an excellent read aloud bit of science history that took us from Antony Leeuwenhoek’s first microscope, Spallanzani and Louis Pasteur (who wanted to learn how to make good beer) to Walter Reed.  I also enjoyed The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

I tried Kepler’s Witch: An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother; I actually raved about the first third of the book.  Then I lost interest.  There are other books and authors – John Muir for instance – whom I read with such enjoyment that I don’t think about the stuff I am learning along the way.  I’ve read several adolescent biographies of scientists like Ernest Rutherford.

My dogpile of books to read includes Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher and Philip Yancey’s Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

And that’s the extent of my remedial-science journey.  As my responsibilities of teaching my sons are coming to a close and my learning and reading is not curriculum-driven, I want to begin “filling in the potholes” of my learning. I’m making a list of stuff I want to learn and a plan on going about it.  

Can you recommend any books along this line? 

I would be very grateful. No textbooks. Biographies, narratives, non-fiction.  Books that make your eyes light up; books that make you suck in the air and hold it without knowing you are doing it.

Bonus:   If you have a title that makes physics even remotely accessible, I would write a post with your name in it forty-five times.    

A Display of Ignorance

Ah Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

“I didn’t want to show my ignorance” – that’s the wrong road for an intelligent young woman to travel.

Showing ignorance is how we learn, it’s how we get strangers to tell us their stories, it’s how we experience the world fully.

False sophistication – putting on a cool knowingness – is the road to ignorance.  You should never be afraid to say, “What is that?” No need to preface it with an apology.  I say this from bitter experience, Sarah. 

I wasted some of the best years of my life in pretending to a worldly sophistication that stopped my education right in its tracks.  Even today, people looking at me imagine that I know all sorts of things that in fact I’m stupid about.  […]

Remember this little life lesson, Sarah. Some of the great journalists of our time have found that nothing works so well in gathering information as a display of ignorance.

~   Garrison Keillor responding to a listener’s question

You know that feeling in a conversation when someone has casually mentioned a word/topic/event and you have not a clue what he or she is talking about?  Do you smile and bob your head, hoping that illumination is just around the corner and will arrive in time to rescue you?  Or do you ask for an explanation or clarification?

I’d guess I’ve wasted three decades bobbing and bluffing my way through life. 

At my twentieth high school reunion a guy approached me with exuberant pleasure.  He called my name out from a distance and bounded over like a gazelle. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the man he’s become.  I didn’t know the yearbook picture on his name tag. His name did not ring a bell. But he’s talking about sitting next to me in World History.  After a second look at his name tag, I arranged my face into a smile.  “John! How’ve you been?”  I exclaimed, while inside I frantically shuffled my mental rolodex: who is this guy?who is this guy?who is this guy? 

I have learned the most in a bluff-free life from a lovely friend who is blessed with charming simplicity.  Whenever I use a word she doesn’t know, she simply says “I don’t know that word.  What does that mean?”  No apology, no pretending, just a question.  It is so refreshing. 

I have learned from her ignorance so much more than she learned from my intelligence.    

Don’t Miss Planet Earth

I don’t know who to thank for the tip to see Planet Earth.  Thank you, unknown friend!
Here’s the deal: whenever a blog or essay mentions a book that I want to read, I go to  PaperBackSwap.com - Our online book club offers free books when you swap, trade, or exchange your used books with other book club members for free. and add the book to my Reminder list.  And when someone mentions a DVD, I go to Netflix and add it to my queue.  We watched the first episode of the first disc last night and were…enthralled.   Our 4 year old grandson was with us taking in the elephants, penguins, caribou, and impalas. 

After ten minutes of viewing I knew that this was a set that any decent person who goes by the name Papa or Nana needs to own.  Oh.  My.

The emergence of a polar bear from hibernation, a bird-of-paradise courtship dance, a great white shark suspended above the ocean, aerial views of mass migrations — wildlife photography like you’ve never seen before.

This is what I want you to do.  Go to Planet Earth where there is a 14 minute sampler.  Bet you can’t just watch 3 minutes of it!  If you are impressed, look over to the right.  Used copies of the entire set are starting at $15.00.  I ordered one this morning.

I’m certain the makers of this media didn’t intend it to be a devotional tool, but I can’t wait a sequence without awe, without thinking, “This is my Father’s world.”