Saturday, June 27, 2009

Friendly Neighborhood Farmer

The fella who hays the farm across the way invited us to come check out his machinery, an offer the kids gladly took him up on. He explained how the mower worked with the cutters and flails, why it works that way, and how the entire process of hay baling works from start to finish. I wish I'd gotten a picture of his square baler shooting the bales back into the wagon because that was pretty stinkin' cool. After he was done showing us, he offered to take two of the kids for a ride while he finished cutting the last couple of rows. Jules and Sam had a blast riding with him. What a great guy!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Brief Message: My apologies to all who've left comments recently. I think I have that all figured out now. Geesh.

We had our first campfire of the season the other evening, and it was so much fun that I thought I'd share some of the photos here. We had a delicious dinner of rotisserie chicken and homemade bread that made excellent sandwiches. Jim and I had fresh, roasted asparagus and homemade cheese on ours, but the kids skipped the asparagus. Man, they don't know what they're missing, but that's okay—more for us!

Fixin' sandwiches:

Roastin' marshmellows for s'mores:

Runnin' with a pointy, burning stick:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On the Joys of Anachronism

On our trip to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, Jules really wanted to get a ridiculously expensive Native American dress. They wanted $40 for this dress, and she had her own money. I talked her out of it, reasoning that we could make one for just a third of the money that would be even nicer. That if we did that, she could keep her money to spend on something else. She wasn't convinced.

Her father offered to take pictures so we would remember exactly what it looked like. That helped a bit. I promised we would make one, that we wouldn't forget or get too busy.

By the time we got to photos of the back of the dress and had a chance to talk about accessorizing the dress, she was a bit more on board with the idea, as you can see. Accessories always sweeten the deal, and it wasn't too hard to beat the lame fabric paint on this gift store dress. She settled, instead, on a Native American necklace for $9.99 that would go well with the dress we'd be making.

The first weekend we were home, true to my word, I took Julia to the local fabric store to see what we could find. We found a great faux suede fabric that was already fringed. Perfect! We brought it home and set about designing the dress, what we wanted it to look like, how we'd make the pattern, etc. I finally finished it yesterday, and it took maybe an afternoon, at most. Thinking through the different parts took longer than actually making it, and for the same price as the dress in the gift shop, we got enough fabric to make her dress, a dress for Em, and a pair of fringed pants for Sam. I, of course, happily picked up the tab on this one.

Here's the finished product, minus the cool shell beads that Jules will add herself:

She looks pretty darned pleased, doesn't she? She hasn't taken it off yet to add the shells, so I'm guessing that's a yes. Em braided Julia's hair for her and is looking forward to finishing both her Indian dress and the new Colonial dress we're working on that didn't get finished for our trip. Ah well, there's always Mt. Vernon.

Another cool aspect of this has been the kids' interest in learning to use the sewing machine. Here's Julia learning to sew, wearing her Indian dress. Not terribly period-appropriate, but way cool. ;)

She's been practicing all afternoon on different scraps of fabric and even made time to show her brother how to use the machine:

Monday, March 30, 2009

They finished Izzi!

Okay, I know I'm a total nerd, but we've been playing with this puzzle off and on for a while now (cleaning it up each time because it gets knocked out of whack), and we always get within one piece of finishing it.

I was messing around with it this weekend while Jim's folks were visiting because his dad really likes puzzles. We got within one piece, played around with the possibilities for a while, and then I got bored and started playing Bananagram solitaire.

Sam wandered in and got interested, and he and grampa finished it! Here's Sam feeling mighty proud of himself.

Editing: OMG, I just found the mistake! Shhhhhh, don't tell Sam. Can you find it?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Great Wolf Lodge

We just got back from an awesome vacation to Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Virginia. We had a total blast, and this time, Jim was able to come with us, which is always a special treat. Thanks Steph for farmsitting!

The water park is awesome, and we were lucky enough to get a really good deal on the room rates with a group discount. The slides and flow rider were the most fun for Jim and I, but the kids really loved the big water fort and the lillypad pond. They spent hours and hours just playing on the floating log rounds.

And here's a totally blurry picture of Jim doing tricks in the flow pool, mostly because it's pretty cool and because there's just no way I'm putting a photo of myself up here:

We also spent time in Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Settlement, two of our favorite places to visit. Sam and Jim spent lots of time talking to the blacksmiths at both places, picking their brains about how to get started and getting tips on how to build a backyard forge. Guess what we have in our future?

The weather was gorgeous the day we went to Jamestown, though it cooled down considerably for our visit to Colonial Williamsburg. While several of the Williamsburg exhibits that we enjoy were closed for the winter season, most notably for me was Great Hopes Plantation, I was pleased to be able to check out their winter gardening techniques and to get time to talk to some food historians in one of the house kitchens.

Em got to try out her new piano skills on a beautiful handmade harpsichord at the cabinet maker. Of course, I had to ask the man who worked on it how much they sold for because it was such an incredible piece of art and craftsmanship: $30,000. Wow! Jim asked and found out that they use bird quills for the picks that pluck the strings, giving it the characteristic tinny sound. Cool! We just love learning, and we learn something new every time we go there.

We had a blast, but still, it's good to be home!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Thanks to Madeline for this awesome meme. I'm going to treasure these answers, even if some of them are an absolute riot!

I interviewed each child separately, and Sam was kind enough to pause his game to humor me. What a guy!

1. What is something your mom always says to you?
Emily: I love you.
Julia: The more you clean up, the more you find.
Sam: Don't listen to your daddy.

2. What makes your mom happy?
Emily: clean floors
Julia: Seeing our smiles.
Sam: Seeing her children have fun.

3. What makes your mom sad?
Emily: She doesn't get sad very often, but when she yells at me she does.
Julia: When she and daddy argue.
Sam: Seeing her children being really sad and hitting their own selves.

4. How does your mom make you laugh?
Emily: She tries to tell a bad joke. when there's no laughter, I start laughing.
Julia: Makes jokes at my dad.
Sam: By tickling me so much.

5. What did your mom like to do when she was a child?
Emily: I really don't know; she doesn't talk about her childhood much.
Julia: Look in the garden for gnomes.
Sam: read books.

6. How old is your mom?
Emily: 38
Julia: 37
Sam: 38

7. How tall is your mom?
Emily: shorter than daddy
Julia: How do I know!?
Sam: 7 feet

8. What is her favorite thing to do?
Emily: garden
Julia: garden
Sam: garden

9. What does your mom do when you're not around?
Emily: Have private time with daddy.
Julia: Be on the computer.
Sam: garden

10. If your mom becomes famous, what will it be for?
Emily: her delicious food
Julia: our farm
Sam: gardening

11. What is your mom really good at?
Emily: everything
Julia: farming
Sam: gardening

12. What is your mom not very good at?
Emily: video and computer games
Julia: math
Sam: building houses

13. What does your mom do for her job?
Emily: provide food
Julia: farm
Sam: gardening

14. What is your mom's favorite food?
Emily: cheese
Julia: chicken giambatta
Sam: salad

15. What makes you proud of your mom?
Emily: So much stuff, I can't choose one thing.
Julia: her gardening.
Sam: That she builds the strength to do what she does today even though it's very hard.

16. If your mom were a cartoon character, who would she be?
Emily: Nausicaa
Julia: Princess Jasmine
Sam: Superwoman

17. What do you and your mom do together?
Emily: So many things I can't think of one. We talk together, help me read and write, and she cares about me.
Julia: play bananagrams
Sam: play

18. How are you and your mom the same?
Emily: we're very alike. We have a lot the same personality. We both get very powerful sometimes and a bunch of other stuff.
Julia: We like baking.
Sam: we both like snuggling with each other

19. How are you and your mom different?
Emily: I've got thicker hair and I'm younger.
Julia: she likes to weed; I don't.
Sam: I know how to do a lot of computer games and she doesn't.

20. How do you know your mom loves you?
Emily: That she's caring enough to do things for me.
Julia: Cause she takes care of me.
Sam: Because she says it every day, and I know she means it. And she doesn't, like, roll her eyes.

21. What does your mom like most about your dad?
Emily: I don't know. There's so many things she likes about him.
Julia: Him.
Sam: Everything.

22. Where is your mom's favorite place to go?
Emily: the garden
Julia: the beach
Sam: The family room because it has all the family in it usually.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Autonomy and the Politics of Unschooling

I'm lifting this post from an unschooling list where the list-owner understandably prefers to keep political discussions off list. Neither the quote nor the response in the box below are my words, but I've had some ideas floating in my mind as a response to this particular post and others for the past couple of days, and here seems as good a place as any to explore them and get them out of my head. I jump around quite a bit, and this is as much a genealogy of my own foray into the concept of autonomy as it is any kind of coherent statement; think of it as a citation of sorts of my sources. I do hope to draw the threads of my thoughts together by the end, but I make no promises. Mostly, I'll just be impressed if anyone gets to the end.

And yet we all have that need, to greater and lesser degrees, to have relationships be on our terms.

It's a luxury, to have anything on one's own terms. It's an exception in the history of the world.

The fact that having something on one's own terms is a relatively recent phenomenon doesn't make it any less worthy a goal. For the founding fathers of the United States, the ideals of self-governance were something worth declaring and fighting for: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that those men fell short of imagining how these revolutionary ideals might extend to women or people of color does not detract from the import of the ideals themselves. The fact that the world is still in a state of becoming does not detract from the appeal of the dream.

We have come a long way towards the guarantee of those inalienable rights within the United States, and though we still have far to go, we can choose to stop and savor the idea that perhaps—even if not exactly linear—there is progress and hope for improving and going beyond what our forebears might have been able to accomplish or even imagine in their cultural moment. Here in America, we're lucky enough to be able to homeschool and even make claims to the notion of autonomy; that's certainly not the case everywhere in the world even today. We have gone from black slaves building the White House to a black family living in the White house, and although this is not a fulfillment necessarily of Martin Luther King, Jr's dream, it is definitely a watershed moment.

Dreams of a better and brighter future are always worth having, and dreams that encompass humanity and social justice are by their very nature political. I believe that our choices and actions every moment of every day reflect our own dreams and ideals of humanity and social justice. The personal is political.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated by Dr. King for the Nobel Peace Prize, together with a small group of his fellow monks developed the idea of "engaged Buddhism," a way of imagining the religious and the political together in the face of an ugly war where the people were hurting. This need to meld religious practice with political action was a direct reaction to the apolitical nature of Buddhism that was abandoning the people of Vietnam. Engaged Buddhism encouraged monks to speak out against government atrocities and engage in efforts to alleviate suffering, turning their personal practice into political statement.

bell hooks, African-American teacher and activist, imported this idea of engaged Buddhism into the classroom, calling for what she termed "engaged pedagogy," or a form of teaching that has at its core the self-actualization of both teacher and student, transforming the classroom into a place where relationship and learning are central and extending the notion of "classroom" out into the world. bell hooks and other educational activists like Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, Gayatri Spivak, and several others explore the political nature of the intersection of teaching/ learning/ culture, and each has in common a recognition and insistence that personal practice is political, that teaching and learning and dreaming are themselves political acts.

Unschooling, for me, is fundamentally a political act. Choosing not to send my children to the state-run schools was and is a political statement. Of course, that's not all it is, in a reductionist kind of way; it's lots of other things as well—a way to continue the connection with my children that we enjoyed when they were little, a way to preserve and protect their freedom and authenticity, a way to offer them the chance to grow into themselves unfettered by others' expectations. That, and much, much more.

Each of these things is political in its nature in large part by virtue of the fact that they run counter to the norm of society, so even to make those decisions is to reject at some level the cultural conventions that prevail. To make these choices is to make a stand, and the very visibility of that stand makes a statement. Each time my kids and I are out in public, people are reminded that they, too, have choices. True choices, though, depend upon the freedom to make those choices, the personal autonomy to make those choices, and that's a word that's become a bit of a bugbear in certain unschooling circles recently.

Autonomy isn't a new concept. It's been around since the 1600s and came into vogue with the Enlightenment and German philosopher Emmanuel Kant's exploration of moral philosophy. These ideas were circulating at the time the Declaration of Independence was written, and the idea of the autonomous individual is fundamental within the context of American political thought. Indeed, the very idea of "the individual" behind the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is a product of Enlightenment thinking. Prior to that time period, people tended to be thought of in context of community, class, family, church. The dream that a person could step outside of that structure and define himself was pretty revolutionary.

"Put most simply, to be autonomous is to be one's own person, to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one's authentic self." America itself was founded on these ideals, and the American dream is inextricably caught up with the notion of the self-made man and the colonial context that provided the material trappings of his making. The fact that the autonomous individual was always a white male, usually from a colonial power, within these discourses (with the notable exception of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) has been a particularly problematic legacy for thinkers like bell hooks, Paolo Freire, and others who have simultaneously embraced the idea of autonomy and critiqued the oppressive power structures of its cultural legacy. They have sought through their own revolutionary discourses to claim access to and ownership of the notion of political autonomy with the classroom as the locus of their intervention.

During the 20th century, the idea of autonomy as a basic human need emerged within the field of psychology under the Self Determination Theory, which has, in turn, sent the concept out into all kinds of arenas ranging from education, as in hooks and Freire, to health care to parenting. Within this context authors like Alfie Kohn, Naomi Aldort, and Marshall Rosenberg have discussed children's autonomy both in relation to schools and to their parents, and their work has been influential on a number of other writers and parents alike. Autonomy has become a fundamental term in educational theory and a definite trend in alternative parenting theories, and the notion of supporting children's autonomy rather than gaining authority over them has become commonplace in this genre.

The question for me, and others I think, is whether we haven't sacrificed something by adopting the dream of the autonomous individual. Enlightenment ideals encapsulated by the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness sound grand and lovely, but they are inherently defined against the notion of an oppressor, operating within the master/ slave dialectic: we're either autonomous or we're oppressed. That dichotomy is problematic and, largely, what I personally am seeking to move away from in the way I choose to live with my children.

But there's a paradox here for me: the way I seek to live in partnership and respect with my children seems to have the notion of autonomy as its foundation—the idea that children are people and that people have a basic need for for respect and self-determination. I'm caught up in the power matrix by virtue of living in a culture that defines parenting in adversarial and authoritative ways. I'd like a new term, a new image, a new model of mutually respectful interdependence, but at this point I can't even imagine what a truly communal identity would look like outside the tyrant/ victim worldview. I suspect, hope, believe (or perhaps console myself) that this new concept is still in its early stages of becoming, still in its own imagining and that the choices we're making as unschoolers are part of bringing it forth into the world. The every day act of living in partnership with our children whether we name it or not gives birth to this new way of being.

I have more ramblings having to do with John Holt's Escape from Childhood, but this is long enough already. I'll post more later this week as I sit with these ideas a bit.

There are times when I fear that someone reading this, even if not yet totally converted to neoliberal pragmatism but perhaps somewhat contaminated by it, may think that there is no more place among us for the dreamer and believer in utopia. Yet what I have been saying up to now is not the stuff of inconsequential dreamers. It has to do with the very nature of men and women as makers and dreamers of history and not simply as casualties of an a priori vision of the world. ~Paolo Freire

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Favorite Games

Izzi. We found this one recently, and it's totally addictive. And way hard. This is one of those puzzles that you want to come back to over and over again, and the different iterations make it challenging each time you sit down. This is one to leave out for folks to tinker with as they walk by.

Bananagrams. Thanks Kelly for this one! We've been playing constantly. Loads of fun, this is a kind of scrabble meets crossword game that can be played with one to several players. It's loads of fun and can be modified for many skill levels.

Maya Madness. This is a card game similar to Uno, but based on adding and subtracting numbers and dealing with both positive and negative numbers. It's fast-paced and really reinforces both the way numbers work together and the importance of zero while also being a lot of fun to play.

The cool thing with all of these is that they're small and easy to take along wherever you go.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Confusing Messages

I was gazing at my oldest, amazed by the adult she's rapidly becoming, when it occurred to me that all my hopes and dreams for her come in an awful jumbled emotional mess. This all came clear in an instant as my tenets flashed through my head:

1) you are perfect and infinitely lovable just the way you are.

2) happiness comes through being happy just where you are.

3) but don't ever be satisfied to be just where you are.

Interesting. There's a lot caught up in that third notion of goal-setting, striving, and ambition....

Thursday, January 15, 2009

We went snowboarding!

Ouch is about all I can say.

I'm taking the photo, but I promise I snowboarded too--twice. My tailbone is still lecturing me about it.

Sam and Julia absolutely loved it, and they were naturals. Em, not so much. She and my friend (the one in the photo) hit the lodge after their first run while I went back up with the rest of the kids for another run, masochist that I am.

Unfortunately, my surfin'/ skateboardin' honey couldn't come with us, so we'll have to go back again when he has off. Em and I plan to try skiing next time, but the rest of the gang will snowboard. More power to 'em. I used to be a pretty avid skiier back in high school, so I feel confident that it won't hurt nearly as much. At least that's what I keep telling my tailbone.

We were able to go for the Pennsylvania learn to ski day, so we got a lesson, the equipment, and a half day lift ticket for $10 per person. It's a really great deal and worth checking into if you live anywhere near a mountain. Of course, we got sucked into buying their special beginner package, but we live so close to the resort that it seems a sin not to take advantage of it now that all the kids are old enough. Jim has every other Friday off of work now, too, so we'll be able to do a lot more family trips on off hours. Yay!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Holiday Fun!

Here's one of those drive-by picture posts, just so I can say that I've updated the blog, and so that I can prove to Madeline that we made good use of her gingerbread mold that I still haven't returned.

Christmas morning. Those are original Lionel trains under the tree that Jim's dad had when he was young. It's hard to say who has more fun with them every year: Jim, his dad, or the kids. I'm in the back checking the fire in the wood stove:

Here's Sam with his new cowboy guns. I think they're the same ones that he wanted to win so desperately from Marty Dodd at the St. Louis Live and Learn Conference several years ago. He's quite pleased with them! Better late than never. And yes, Kelly, if you read this blog, those are our caricatures from the conference on the wall behind the sofa. Connections, connections!

This is also a good shot of the basement family room we've been working on, for those following that ongoing saga:

Gingerbread house fun on Christmas Day:

Not a particularly good picture of the gingerbread houses, but it's photographic proof anyway:

An afternoon romp in the pastures, trying to work off all the food we've eaten already. Don't know if you can see them, but Sam has his guns and holster for good measure:

I'm bringing up the rear a bit more slowly. It's the mimosas and the eggs benedict draggin' me down. Jules, of course, was sweet enough to run back down the hill to keep me company:

Had to include this one of tattoo fun:

And last but not least, a New Year's Day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Happy New Year all! Maybe this year I'll get my new year's cards out before April. Maybe....