Saga: The Book Club

By Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
By Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

This week I attended a book club where my friend Karen and I recommended a comic series for our “book.” We are both fans of Saga by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples. For the seven women there, Karen and I were the only ones who read comics or graphic novels on a regular basis. Our previous book was The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love. This month’s selection of a science fiction comic book rated Game of Thrones level NC-17, was a bit of a departure from the norm.

I was surprised that everyone enjoyed it. Continue reading Saga: The Book Club

GeekMom Book Club: The Eyre Affair–Week 1

The Eyre Affair by Jaspe Fforde
The Eyre Affair by Jaspe Fforde

March came to a close and so did our GeekMom Book Club’s first book selection, The Hobbit. GeekMom Mandy did a tremendous job leading our discussion board on Goodreads and we received a lot of great responses. Amongst other things, Mandy and our readers discussed their own adventures, but one adventure stood out from the rest: Reader Bettina had her baby on the bathroom floor at home two months ago! Whew! If you missed out on that and more, you can review Mandy’s discussion topics for week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4, and week 5!

I will be taking over the Book Club this month and I’m really excited to discuss April’s book selection! In mid-March, we opened a poll so you could all participate in choosing our next book. The choices were The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and two selections by GeekMom editors:Pilgrim of the Sky by Natania Barron and Phoenix Rising by Corrina Lawson. The Eyre Affair won, so here I am knee-deep in affairs of the Eyre kind because of you.

All jokes aside, I am really pleased with the book so far. I think you will all love the protagonist, she is one tough cookie. And in case you saw “Eyre” in the title and were afraid that Jane Eyre was a prerequisite for reading The Eyre Affair, rest assured it is not. The book is definitively tailored to the classic lit geek, but I have absolutely zero classic English literature knowledge and I’m still enjoying the book just fine!

Because we only have one month, I’ll jump right in with a question to get you going! Don’t worry, this question shouldn’t spoil the story for you.

  • Question: While in the hospital, Thursday is visited by her future-self who instructs her to take a job in another town without so much as a reason why and then disappears. Thursday followed the instructions without one hint of doubt. Even in a world where time travel is possible, would you have blindly followed instructions from your future-self?

Go buy the book, read the first quarter, and answer my question on the GeekMom Goodreads page! We’ll be discussing The Eyre Affair on GeekMom every Monday for the next four weeks, then start a new book on April 3oth. Happy reading!

Education Week: Boost Learning & Fun With Special Interest Groups

multi-age bagpipe band,
Image by L. Weldon


We like spending time with people who delight in the same things that fascinate us. That might be playing bagpipes, understanding Civil War strategy, making homemade cheese, or brewing beer. Who doesn’t love talking about a favorite topic? It’s certainly easy to build friendships that way. Shared interests also foster greater enthusiasm and motivate us to expand our knowledge. That’s why interest-based groups make so much sense for our kids.

In my family, interest-based groups are an important part of homeschooling life. We have formed a number of these groups over the years. Some, like a history club made up of eager parents and not-so-eager young children, barely lasted long enough for a few meetings. Others have lasted ten years.


teen science club, kids interested in science, hands-on learning,
Image by L. Weldon


Our Science Club

The most successful has been our boy’s science club. It was started by five families with nine boys between the ages of seven and eleven. When we began it was highly structured. We met regularly at each other’s homes. Parents took turns planning a project or experiment, got the materials, explained the educational principles underlying the activity, and if things didn’t turn out as planned (actually quite frequently) it was usually a parent who searched for answers.

As time went by, more and more control over the science club was naturally taken over by the boys. They planned what they wanted to do and figured out what they’d need in order to do it. They decided whose house was best for that activity and when the day came, together they carried out the project or experiment, often improvising with different approaches.  If things didn’t turn out they searched for their own answers. Although nearby, parents didn’t hover to assure their safety nor insist that they officially learn the principles behind each activity. Our boys remained safe, happy, and increasingly savvy about many branches of science while running their own science club. Their projects included various propulsion systems designed to shoot tennis balls, a 12 foot high trebuchet, and a hovercraft which managed to get off the ground but not (as they’d planned) with a passenger. Over the years one family moved away and another was welcomed to the club. Now the youngest members are 17. The older boys have gone on to college, several into the sciences and one to Harvard on a full scholarship. Since they shared the honorary title of Science Club President over the years, it probably didn’t hurt to put that on the college application.


Image by L. Weldon


Making Interest-Based Groups Successful

There are some lessons we’ve learned that can help make any interest-based group successful.

1. Build on what your children love to do. If they adore taking hikes it’s easy to expand on that. Depending on what your children and others who join in decide, the group may expand to bird watching, letterboxing, geocaching, nature sketching, Volksmarching, any number of related activities. Or they may choose to stick to the simple pleasure of hiking. Your children may not be hikers, but prefer fashioning swords from household objects to joust with their siblings. There are plenty of ways to expand on those interests as well. Consider forming a special-interest group to enjoy fencing, foam fighting, Society for Creative Anachronism, writing and enacting scenes from the times of knights or high seas pirates, or live action role-playing games. Just about any interest can spark friendship and learning in a group of children.

2. Consider factors such as age range, group size and location before starting a group.  What factors are likely to contribute to interesting, enriching and fun experiences?  How far are you willing to travel? Flexibility is important. For example if your daughter is eager to start up a journaling group for girls ages 11 to 13, you might consider forming a group for younger siblings who can meet at the same time for their own interest-based group (as long as they leave their older sisters alone!).

3.  Invite potential members. Some interest-based groups develop out of casual get-togethers between friends. Some are formed as sub-groups within larger organizations such as block clubs, churches, or homeschool support groups. And others are the result of invitations spread on forums, lists, library bulletin boards and across homeschool networks.  How do you want to form the group?

4. Get started. For older kids, you may want to hold an informal organizing get-together at the local park, library meeting room, or your backyard. Gather ideas from the kids in attendance by encouraging them to brainstorm what they’d like to do and how often they’d like to do it.  Toss out questions to keep the ideas flowing and write down their suggestions. If they’re teens, let them run this meeting on their own as much as possible. This first get-together is also the easiest time to get some guidelines established. Consider questions such as: Do you want to be open to new members once you’re established? Do you prefer to agree to some basic rules or accommodate as the need arises?  How will responsibility for group activities be shared?

Or simply launch into the first session instead of holding an organizing meeting. After making apple butter and dipping candles with your new heritage club, or enjoying an afternoon making puppets and putting on an impromptu puppet show with other new members, they’ll understand what group sessions entail. Their suggestions for activities, group name, and potential rules will more easily flow from that initial encounter.

5.  Once your get-togethers begin, make sure that unstructured time is included. Build in ample time for kids to spend together after the activities are over. Friendships are a strong factor in motivating kids to stick with special interest groups. Whenever possible, be open to the inevitable plans your children concoct with friends in these groups. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of one’s worth to spend time with friends who are equally crazy about model trains, skateboarding, manga, horses, or cake decorating.

6. Recognize that the group will grow and evolve.  It’s important to be open to changes. Get-togethers between friends often naturally drift toward other activities as interests change. More formal groups tend to continue on long after the originators have moved on. An interest-based group your children start may last only a short time, but it still provides learning as well as enjoyable experiences. Some families launch quite a few such groups as their children grow up. You may be doing the same thing without recognizing that toddler playgroups and older children’s regular enrichment activities function just as interest-based groups do.


Wikimedia Commons


Examples of successful interest-based groups

~A cooking club for preteen girls meets at members’ homes to make (and eat) themed foods and plan recipes for next club event. They’ve made various ethnic meals, fancy desserts and food to donate.

~A multi-age group of stop motion movie-makers (youngest member five years old). They chat online about individual projects and also make collaborative movies. They have hosting screenings of their short films for an appreciative audience of relatives.

~A nature sketching and journaling group made up of families who schedule hikes in different wilderness areas to write, draw, and share their work.

~A boys’ book group based on sci-fi and adventure books. They vote on which book to read, read it the month before the meeting, then after the book discussion take part in activities such as scavenger hunts, making costumes and re-enacting scenes, testing tactics used in the book, or using repurposed materials to build something mentioned in the book.

~A multi-age rock climbing group which practices at indoor climbing walls as well as outdoor locations.

~A young children’s hands-on science club.

~A youth and adult fiber works group with projects, farm trips and visits to other spinning/weaving guilds.

~A group of families who get together to make costumes, chain mail and armor for re-enactments.

~A beachcombers group. Young children play along the waterside while adults and older children monitor ecological conditions for a non-profit organization.

~A debate and elocution society which prepares for regular memory-based recitations as well as occasional debating society competitions. The members’ aspirations include acting, politics, and law.

~A cartoonists’ meeting. Young members work on graphic novels, cartoon strips, and cards.

~A multi-age sculptor’s group. They meet to hear guest speakers which have included welders and mineralogists. They go on field trips and occasionally meet at one another’s homes to work on projects together.

You may find, as my family has, that interest-based groups are a favorite activity with extraordinary benefits. You may even notice that your child’s eagerness rekindles interests of your own. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the fellowship of other enthusiasts as you master the bagpipes or learn to make cheese.


Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Photo: Andrea Schwalm

I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.

Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.

A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.

“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”

Intimate yet awe-inspiring: The Celeste Bartos Forum in the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online  think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”

Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our  best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.

On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)

For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”

Question and Answer Session With Guy on Right Coming Out of Nowhere. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.

“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.

After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.

Armstrong closed her talk with these words:

“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”

That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.

My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…

At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.

I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.