Grokking depth-- big time ramble - Mothering Forums
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#1 of 13 Old 09-23-2013, 06:05 PM - Thread Starter
 
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No, I haven't been indulging in psychedelics.  Although...hmmmm.... nope.... too random.  And I'm too old for that anyway.

 

And where to post this?  Spirituality?  No, in unschooling, where the conversation of depth began in regards to education.  And because PBH's value judgment of depth being encouraged over shallow exploration.  This is where it started, and I love you ladies!

 

I've been pondering and puzzling over this and I've hit a brick wall that reminds me of the walls I busted through when first attempting to understand the nature of the universe (I'm not kidding and I'm not going bonkers--as soon as I finish this the computer is going off ad i'm making dinner).  Clearly I am beyond the realm of education and children.  I am talking grokking ("Stranger in a Strange Land" reference--look it up, it's a useful word) depth in a broader dense--deeper sense, if you will.


Anyhow, remember "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"?  An increasingly psychotic exploration of the meaning and nature of "quality".  For a refresher--the narrator is on a motorcycle trip with his son (on a Harley Davidson--breaks often, cinch to repair by the owner) and his friend (on a BMW--rarely breaks, expensive to repair and requires a specialist).  The story becomes a smaller and smaller part of the narrative until whole chapters are devoted to pondering all aspects of "quality", until towards the end, the story creeps back in.

Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)

 His son, who has so far disliked the trip, shares that he can't see what his dad is seeing.  His father realizes his son has been sitting behind him, unable to view anything on the whole trip.

 Catharsis is reached.  Story ends.  OK, not a good synopsis.  Very good book, if you go for that sort of thing.

 

So, same with my brain examining depth.  One way to look at depth is specialization over generalization.  Another way, not entirely separate, is more akin to diving into living fractals.  E. O. Wilson does this nicely as he describes the denizens of the bark on a tree.  

 

Then there is the value judgments we place on depth, especially in regards to specialization vs. generalization.  Humans seem to have a tendency towards specialization, but it seems it's the generalists that pioneer new lands.  Specialization in society breeds consumerism (vs. production), but the generalist big box stores, which cater to that consumerism, are forced to not be specialists, and this creates openings for smaller businesses that specialize.  Specialization by everyone can make bartering a little difficult, but without it, the need for barter seems less.  Value judgments: depth brings about our awe and our respect, but only to a point.  We ooh and aaah and then talk about balance (child prodigies, rather off-in-the-head-artists a la Van Gogh).  

 

We have such a contrary relationship with our need to take things to such richness and depth, but at the same time be aware of all that surrounds us in the world.  We both desire a medical specialist, and bemoan the loss of the general practitioner.  We encourage children to study something in depth, then worry when they won't bring their noses back out of it, we speak of balance, but hold up the accomplishments of the single minded.

 

I think I'm repeating myself over and over.  I can sit in the woods and look closer and closer at the same square foot of space, in between reminding myself to look up and about.  I can get to know this corner of the world well, but clearly at the expense of keeping myself informed and worldly.  I'm not sure how I would value that.  I'm not sure about why I encourage depth of focus in my child, not understanding it--what it is and where it comes from and what the benefits are.

 

Oh.  OK, that's the end of the ramble.


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#2 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 05:42 AM
 
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I'm not sure that I entirely understand your whole point (my fault, not yours - it's early and my brain isn't fully functioning yet), but I'm thinking you're trying to figure out why we would encourage kids to study something in depth when they might do better by knowing a little about everything, instead of everything about a little.

 

i don't know that it has to be an either/or. First, we discover our passions by depth. If all I ever wrote was my name on a worksheet, I probably would never have discovered my love for writing (which led to my career), but because I wrote in journals, and wrote essays, and letters, and so on, I did discover it. I had to go in depth to find that I love it. So I think it is important to encourage depth when you see that there's a real talent or interest in something.

 

But generalization is also good. Learning a little about everything is helpful. As I explained to my parents the other night when we were discussing my children and American history, I don't expect them to remember all the little details of names, places, and dates that I'm giving them. But it's important to go over them because the overall ideas will stick and are necessary for them to understand the future events. They don't need to remember the names of the men who left England and formed their own colonies and religious ideas in America, but they do need to understand that they did this because they weren't happy with how things were in England and that they wanted religious freedom, so that they can understand why religious freedom is so important to us today (that's the example coming to mind right now, as it's what we're discussing right now).

 

Too much generalization can be just as bad as too much depth, though. Knowing a little about everything does you no good if you can't do anything with your knowledge. Knowing, for example, that a hammer is a tool isn't much use if you don't know how to use that hammer.

 

Finding balance, as you mention, is important, but I think the real question should be who determines what is considered balance? We might look at the med student or law student who spends nearly all his/her waking hours studying, working, and going to class and think that that's a perfect example of imbalance. But if we speak to that student, we may find that he/she thinks their life is perfectly balanced because it's what they want to be doing.They're following a dream and they're happy, so to them it's balance even if it's not to us.

 

I think, when we're talking about trying to get our children to pay attention to more than just one focused thing, we should use the word compromise instead of balance. Their idea of balance may be far different than ours, but compromise is fairly universal and I think would be a better fit. We shouldn't be trying to enforce our idea of balance on them, but instead compromise with them. Compromise that they want to focus on A, but we think B is just as important, so we all agree that they can stay focused on A most of the time, but we'd also like them to spend some time learning B, and even C and D.

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#3 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 06:08 AM
 
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Loved reading this, SweetSilver. 

 

I think that we had a thread earlier about the rambling nature of conversations that come up in our daily lives with our kids - illustrating how everything is connected to everything.  Is that depth or breadth?  The connection takes place somewhere at a "deep" level but to perceive the connection one must view from a broad scale.  

 

I haven't read the books you mentioned, will have to look them up. 


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#4 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 06:23 AM
 
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Some practical matters:  

 

What are the pros and cons of specialists versus generalists as home(un) schoolers?  

 

What are the pros and cons of specialists versus generalists in life in adult life?

 

Are specialists or generalist born or made - do we really have any influence over this?

 

I will say that encouraging specialism during the childhood and early teen years has many merits.  it allows people to go deeper, which means:

-they might be challenged in more significant ways.  Generalists often stay in xyz 101, which can be pretty easy

-they will get to grapple with more complex texts, gadgets, ideas etc than if they just stay fairly surface learners

-they may have more opportunities for cool experiences - such as travel, competitions, etc.

 

In the adult world, though, I am not so sure that  specialists come out on top (and what does "on top" mean?)  from a job perspective - specialists often have few positions in niche markets.  If you know a lot about rare books from England and not much else, there may be xyz number of jobs out there for you that deal with rare books from England.  If you know about books, a bit of technology and a bit of customer service - the field is suddenly blown wide open: book stores, libraries, etc.  

 

I am not sure if people are born or made generalists/specialist.  I imagine most people are generalists and a few are born to be specialists.  Generalism is what allowed humans to develop (anthropologically)  the way we have, but speciailists have forwarded growth in specific areas.  I suspect most of us are born generalists, so trying to encourage specialism in a child not built that way  be a bit of a battle.

 

 For myself the path that I have taken through my life is that of a generalist who tinkers with serial specialism. I know a lot about numerous areas - art, some aspects of health, books, cooking.  I know middling amounts about others- such as gardening.  This has worked for both my work and my life.  It is my path, though…YMMV.  Kids need to figure out their own path.  I think throwing opportunities for going deeper at them is fine, but so is letting them abandon one pursuit to take on another.


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#5 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 10:16 AM
 
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So much great stuff in here already ... and I'm swamped and don't really have time to process or contribute as I'd like to. But one idea jumped out at me, since Fiona and I have been talking a lot lately about the transition from tribal / nomadic living to civilization -- and also about the value (or not) of self-sufficiency. Most historians talk about this shift as being one of specialization: that people discovered that by living in close proximity, they no longer needed to be able to do everything to survive: they could specialize in one are, create a fair bit of efficiency as a result, and rely on others nearby to cover other areas. So specialization (or depth) is tied to interdependence and community.

 

Of course this has all reached a new iteration in the age of Google. Not only do we no longer need a generalized skill-set for survival (I buy beef rather than raising it myself), but we no longer need generalized knowledge (I can quickly find E.O. Wilson's wikipedia page if I know nothing of his ideas). There is, I believe, an increasing cultural tendency towards specialization, though I think cultural expectations about education tend to favour generalism. (I know that generalism isn't a word, but I can't find a better one. Generalization means something different, and what is the opposite of specialization? I looked up antonyms of it on-line and got a bizarre collection of words like idleness, unemployment, fun, entertainment .... ??? So for the purposes of this post, I'm making generalism into the antonym of specialization.)

 

I do think there's an strong element of temperament. I wonder if people who are introverted tend to prefer depth, while extraverts tend to prefer breadth. I am an introvert, as are my kids. I definitely have a temperamental preference for depth, though I tend to be a bit of a serial specialist. I can sew an insulated seam-sealed GoreTex snowsuit, play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, insert an IUD, write computer code, run a marathon ... from having thrown myself into learning in various areas to a fair degree of depth -- but rarely for more than three or four years at a stretch. 

 

I see good and bad in both extreme generalism and extreme specialization. Generalism can provoke a certain amount of audacity and arrogance; it can play into a distractible preference for novelty, a lack of meaningful engagement with anything, an easy way out of anything challenging. Specialization can cut one off from social and intellectual connectedness, it can become a place of retreat from the world and its complexities; one can miss connections and opportunities because of that single-minded focus -- and also be subject to occasional great crises of meaning if and when the value of the chosen area of specialization is cast into doubt, or if circumstances intervene to prevent continuing with it. 

 

Like any spectrum, at the extreme ends there can be difficulties and imbalances. Most of us inhabit somewhere along the spectrum between the extremes, and of course we'll sidle a little this way or that way as time goes on and we see things in ourselves and our children that we want to address. If we're encouraging depth, I think it's important that we still look for those web-like connections to other areas. If encouraging breadth, we need to especially encourage the ability to persist through challenges. And no matter which side of the spectrum we're inhabiting, we should be open-minded and appreciative when it comes to people who inhabit other parts of it.

 

How's that for wishy-washy?

 

Miranda


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#6 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 11:04 AM - Thread Starter
 
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How's that for wishy-washy?

 

Miranda

You wouldn't be alone!

 

Thank you for seeing the aspect of human civilization in all this ramble.  I'm amazed that amyone posting here has picked anything meaningful from it, but thank you!

 

The fact that we highlight the amazing accomplishments of those who have taken depth to extremes--Olympics, teaching art to students, even when the artists have a tenuous grasp on reality, people who have accomplished amazing things but have the barest hold on social functioning, actors that succeed because they are skilled at making impetuous, vulnerable decisions in their craft suddenly get ostracized when they take those same qualities to the CHPman who pulled them over.... I could go on and on.... In a way, it is fun to see the extremes of what people are capable of, perhaps that is it, but it doesn't explain why we hold these people up as examples to kids of what success looks like.

 

I agree that we have become so incredibly specialized in some ways.  But in other ways, true generalists have still had support of society, whether from blacksmithing or manufacture of guns and bullets or plows--especially in mining minerals and making use of them.

 

Fun to see others having fun with this.


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#7 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 11:27 AM
 
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i think it's important to remember that depth of focus is not the same as intensity. i have laser focus – hours will fly by, i get into mega 'flow' (as they're calling it these days)–but that doesn't mean i wasn't focusing on the myriad connections, analogous linkages, points of overlap, etc., of twenty different things! and i am, in fact, a huge fan/proponent of the benefits of the liberal arts, in that we think in a better manner about any given thing if we know quite a bit about a lot of things, and understand fairly well where they intersect.

i think we need both. depth in some things, for the practical matter of having proficiency and mastery. but breadth is an increasingly undervalued thing in the career-focused training curriculums that seem to abound.

there was a study done where kids entering computer science undergrad programs were shown to be more successful at their core areas of study (programming, math, physics) if they had at least one other area of (seemingly unrelated) strong passion and proficiency. this study changed the admissions policy at GA Tech, an already really great computer science school, where the results proved themselves. check out the book "the world is flat" for a better explanation than i gave. it's been years since i read it & i know i didn't explain it very well. especially b/c i'm pretty sure i recall them also talking about a more useful tidbit about how breadth changes the way we synthesize, store, and retrieve knowledge.

and if it doesn't, there's information out there on that very topic, and lots of it. being, first and foremost, a generalist, has a positive effect on how we synthesize, store, and retrieve information. and seems to positively correlate with creativity/inventiveness.

here's an interview with the author of "the world is flat" so you can see some of the points he makes that relate to education, so you don't have to actually go find the book to see what i was referring to (the book is about lots of things, only a small portion related to this topic, i seem to recall): http://www.aasa.org/schooladministratorarticle.aspx?id=5996

here's a quote from that interview, to give you an idea: "My friend Rob Watson — a great environmentalist who founded the LEED building concept — Rob likes to say that integration is the new specialty. The generalist is really going to come back. The great generalist — someone who has a renaissance view of the world — is more likely to spark an innovation than the pure engineer."

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#8 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 11:47 AM
 
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I see good and bad in both extreme generalism and extreme specialization. Generalism can provoke a certain amount of audacity and arrogance; it can play into a distractible preference for novelty, a lack of meaningful engagement with anything, an easy way out of anything challenging. Specialization can cut one off from social and intellectual connectedness, it can become a place of retreat from the world and its complexities; one can miss connections and opportunities because of that single-minded focus -- and also be subject to occasional great crises of meaning if and when the value of the chosen area of specialization is cast into doubt, or if circumstances intervene to prevent continuing with it. 

This is what jumps out at me so far.

Especially the 'great crises of meaning' part, being that that is what has happened to me, on occasion. I've been specializing in writing since I was a child, at the expense (yep, going to use that word) of a great many other interests I might have pursued, given the time and inclination. It's by my own doing, for the most part.

I find that I place greater value on specialization, and tend to think of people who are generalists as shallow, lazy, disinterested, and lacking deep wonder. But the truth is likely that they have a corner on the 'wonder' market, because they see all kinds of sparkly things and want to go check them out, whereas I've got my wee handful of sparkly bits and am hyper-focused on building my nest.
I get drawn away from my specialty nearly hourly, by flights of fancy and ideas that dare to take me in another direction, but when I can't perfect the new thing I often give up (Miranda: whiffs of what we were talking about in that early reader thread and how I know to see it in my 4yo) and return to my first love / first obsession.

Which brings me to obsession. And personality.
It is an introvert/extrovert thing? Not sure. I have several friends who are as extroverted as it gets, and they've 'specialized' in things that keep them in good company. Back country guiding, white water stunt kayaking, Olympic-level sports, activism, DJ'ing, actors, performers, etc.
What I do notice about all of us who have a deep specialty, is a tendency towards obsession. Dangerous territory there. But true, in my case, if I'm being honest. Given the time and resources, I won't come up for air until I'm about to perish. While I'm hyper-focused, I'm gaining skills having to do with my interest, and perhaps that results in deeper knowledge, but it is a bit dark. A bit shadowy. What Miranda was talking about.

"Wonder is respect for life." - William Steig

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#9 of 13 Old 09-24-2013, 01:25 PM - Thread Starter
 
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I find that I place greater value on specialization, and tend to think of people who are generalists as shallow, lazy, disinterested, and lacking deep wonder. But the truth is likely that they have a corner on the 'wonder' market, because they see all kinds of sparkly things and want to go check them out, whereas I've got my wee handful of sparkly bits and am hyper-focused on building my nest.
I get drawn away from my specialty nearly hourly, by flights of fancy and ideas that dare to take me in another direction, but when I can't perfect the new thing I often give up (Miranda: whiffs of what we were talking about in that early reader thread and how I know to see it in my 4yo) and return to my first love / first obsession.

 

Poring over all the ideas and thoughts shared here, but I smiled at this.  As something of a generalist, I like the idea of seeing "sparkly things" all over the place-- it is *brilliant* :wink way to describe it.  Though I have also gotten profound satisfaction at sticking with something long enough, that the sparkly bits I've been unable to focus on become apparent, or entire sets of skills become available to me that I had no access to at the beginning.  


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#10 of 13 Old 09-25-2013, 12:07 AM
 
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sorry, double post, deleted


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#11 of 13 Old 09-25-2013, 12:09 AM
 
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Very interesting discussion, SweetSilver, I thank you.

 

I think I agree with you Smartmama about there not existing a depth vs breadth dichotomy. I'd personally see them as functions of particular leaning rather than anything inherent to the learner or the subject. While I think that there are certainly kids and adults who seem to be drawn to studying one or two subjects in great detail, I do wonder if that is partly to do with our own external way of conceptualising these things.

 

Ok I'm going to give an example from one of my kids. Dd1, who is 8. Loves music and even more loves playing with others. Off the top of my head, I'd say she conservatively plays or sings for around 16/17 hours a week-assuming no concerts, no special opportunities, and excluding the impromptu musicmaking that happens in my house etc. Now that's a fair bit as a baseline for an 8 year old and if I were telling someone who didn't know her that she did this, I suspect they might think she's gone for depth in music. But the situation is more complex. The musical opportunities open to her are quite limited and to maximise them she plays two instruments, plus piano, and sings in a choir. This gives her access to the standard u12s orchestra, the u12s brass bands, and also lets her play with others via the piano. A lot of her focus is on playing with others. She loves the social side but its not really that that she wants, rather the musical enjoyment of harmonising (she's the kid who will always opt to sing the harmony). I absolutely get this (viola player :rotflmao...).  Incidentally, I'd describe us both as extroverts.

 

I think I'd see depth and breadth as things that co-exist, in one person, but even in the study of any one subject. Another way to phrase it might be whether you like to consider things in or our of their wider context? Do you see everything as fundamentally interconnected?

 

So to me, really, whether she is going for depth or breadth there depends entirely on where you are standing. You certainly could say that she'd gone for some depth in music, particularly group music. Or you could say, she hasn't specialised in one instrument-breadth. I played violin only at her age and I can see that splitting practice time three ways-including on two instruments, clarinet and trumpet, that kind of work against each other a bit- certainly means she hasn't really progressed as fast as she could in terms of going up the grades. My hunch is that a normal person would say she'd gone for depth, a musician for breadth. Her trumpet teacher, interesting again, plays something like seven or eight instruments (violin, piano, brass etc) to a good (UK grade 8) standard, teaches all of them and is, IMO, a very talented teacher with a deep understanding of the needs of a musical leaner, who knows exactly how far he can teach a kid before them needing someone who is a greater specialist. He's gone for musical breadth to allow him pedagogical depth. 

 

What I thoroughly agree about is that this notion that depth is superior to breath is problematic. It goes contrary to a lot I believe, as an unschooler about kids learning. If kids are engaged, they are learning. But also, and this is pretty key to me, the point of kids is not that they learn. They need to do some learning to prepare for life after kid-ness, yes, but I sometimes feel that every single experience a kid has is looked at through a "learning" lens, when there can be other values to an experience beyond its educational one. We don't measure the value of an adult experience in terms of how much we learn so why do we tend to do that for kids? And I sometimes feel homeschoolers can be especially bad at this, with everything analysed and justified educationally. The point of breath to me can simply be that, especially for a kid under 12 or so, its a nice way to spend your life, its a nice way to live as a family. And that's worthwhile also.

 

Its a lifetime since I read Pirsig. (seriously. A kid born the day I read Z&TAOMM the first time could now have graduated college or, eeek, be a parent themselves.) but I seem to remember that this is roughly consistent with the understanding I took from it. I'm not entirely convinced by the metaphysics of quality, I have to admit, but I think they are an interesting framework.

 

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#12 of 13 Old 09-25-2013, 08:55 AM - Thread Starter
 
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I just finished reading the interview, thanks.  It was great to hear others, not unschoolers, thinking along the same lines as I do.

 

I think it is about connections.  E. O. Wilson, the great entomologist and biologist, believes that diversity is less without connections.  That diversity in and of itself is not enough for a healthy ecosystem.  Perhaps the direction people go--spread out, across the spectrum, or further into one area, is really about the number and complexity of connections we make.  We weave a web, but the web can be wide, or it can be more like a funnel, it can be chaotic or highly organized.  But it's the connections that do the job, isn't it?


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#13 of 13 Old 09-25-2013, 01:59 PM - Thread Starter
 
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In fact, he more I think of the spider web analogy, the more I feel like it is the missing link I was searching for.  I tend to reach far around me for different areas of study, but I don't feel like they are at all disconnected and they all have meaning to me, thus the strength of the connections.  E. O. Wilson's passages about diversity and connections was strictly biological.  I can make it a human connection.  For example, he uses at one point the example of a human garden, with huge levels of diversity but usually very low levels of interconnectedness.  However, that is talking biology and the literal sense, not humanity and analogy.  For the person creating the garden, the connections are in their sense of usefulness and aesthetics.  They are connected by color--contrast and complement-- by seasonal blooms, by height and scent.  They are connected by whether they are flowers for cutting and bringing indoors, or ones entirely outdoors.  The plants and gardens are connected by time, a living scrapbook of a person's life.

 

If we make our web of connections in the shape of a funnel, we find intimate connections deep inside one small area, but if we build it wide, it can still be interconnected.  The strength and usefulness of the web depends upon our goals and the meaningfulness of the connections to us.  Casting the web wide without meaning can make for a weak web that catches nothing.  Even if we are unclear of our exact goals, if the web is thoughtfully made, it provides us a place for us in the universe, even if the eventual shape and purpose of it is yet unclear.  The health of a person will depend on how strong and interconnected we are with the people and society around us, not by the exact shape and design of the web.

 

Really loving this analogy.  I've had a lot of mental breakthroughs about many things recently-- in myself, in my relationships, in my actions.  DH asked me yesterday what my goals are.  I didn't know.  Now they are clear to me-- one, what I am doing now is one goal one that I don't want to set aside.  The other is that I really do want to go to college and study in areas that have meaning to me, and pull them together somehow--botany, mycology, soil-ology (whatever they call that!), hydrology, and agriculture, with doses of permaculture and wilderness studies.  Wow.  That's a mouthful!  The funny thing is that in all that pondering, I never once mentioned what I thought was a goal of mine-- unimportant to specify-- but it was absent in my conversation, when I was listing all the things I loved to do and where I wanted to take it (I still would be in heaven if I could fit further guitar lessons into that.  Hmmmmm.......)

 

Anyway, still exploring other aspects of this digression away from WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING RIGHT NOW which is finish getting ready for a Girl Scout meeting tonight.  AACK!


Give me a few minutes while I caffeinate.
SweetSilver is online now  
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