Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Small Things

As I get older, I'm beginning to realize how our lives are composed of small things. The inconsequential, strung together like beads on a string. As the seasons change, I'm drawn back again inexorably to the sense of rhythms and the piling up of small things that make up the balance of our lives.

The leaves are falling and we begin plowing paths through carpeting over the yard. Bug is reveling in the piling up of leaves and jumping into them. He even got so ambitious as to pile up a mound at the base of the deck and jump into it. From the railing of the deck. Fools and children, I tell you.

The maple trees are making me glad that I live in New England and that Fall is a more brilliant affair than the sudden bleaching of brown that marks a Southern autumnal season. As we scrape the lawn clean of the bright litter, we stack up banks of it at the end of where the luge will be when the snow is deep enough to launch saucers down our back yard. Gotta have a back stop or there'll be no slowing down until one fetches up with an obliging tree. Permaculture at its best, no?

The garden, such as it was, is pretty much finished. I only have left the root crops to pull out. The shallots, if they didn't produce, at least survived and I've yet to explore what has happened to the chance yam that I stuck in the ground on a whim. There will probably be some butternut squash rendered up from an obliging volunteer vine. It was the volunteer fruit that saved me this year. Not many of my intended plans came to fruition.

Other markers of Fall are around. The nuts from the tree shading our house are falling on the roof, sounding for all the world like the squirrels are having a bowling party over our heads. They might actually be...Dog would probably know, given his intimate acquaintance with the roof. The chipmunks run around like a band of rodents with the mumps...their cheeks stuffed almost further than the diameter of their holes will permit.

A friend of mine called to pass on a message to me and made a chance remark about the washing of her windows...on just the day that I'd decided to drag out the ladder and hose and tackle ours. Some of the last of the warm, sunny days for Fall cleaning.

The piles of winter clothes cluttering the master bedroom. Too warm to put out all of the heavier clothing and too cool to put away the summer clothes for good. After seven years, I've still not worked out a seamless transition. So it goes.

As the Hobbits are growing, becoming independent, and assuming more responsibilities, I'm finding myself with--gasp--actual time on my hands. One of the matriarchs has inspired me to resume knitting. Which in turn has inspired Bug and Princess to become interested in needlework themselves. After teaching me the lacy stitch that is in short order becoming scarves, she's begun teaching Bug to crochet the basic stitches and even Princess is progressing with "finger knitting." Generational ties...

Small doings in schooling. Dog is progressing in his writing. We're working on formatting paragraphs and paragraph construction. Bug is tackling spelling with alacrity...okay, at least not outright resistance, which amounts to about the same for him and Princess is working on actually writing. It brings back memories of my childhood to watch her try and construct words from the letters she's mastering. I can remember stringing together random letters and bringing them to my own mother, asking if these spelled an actual word. Never happened. But of such attempts writers are born.

We've hung a poster of Roman numerals on the wall. Dog spotted an architectural cornerstone with Roman numerals on it and we've been working on decoding the date on the building since then. We inherited an abacus and Bug has developed a fascination with the beads on it. I've never learned how to use one, but I suspect I'll be proficient before all is said and done, if he has anything to say about it.

The chicken tractor is almost finished and awaiting its new tenants. I imagine that raising animals will add even more texture to our awareness of the passing seasons. All of this feels like putting down roots and planning to stay a while. This year I branched out into putting in asparagus and red raspberries. I'm finally settled into this settler's mentality, thinking further ahead than merely this season's crop. Who knows? Maybe next year I'll be planting apple trees...

One of these years, I'm going to plant potatoes. We eat so much of them and it would be simply delicious to be able to harvest new potatoes out of our yard. And given food prices, I'm looking for more ways to incorporate potatoes into our diet. Like tortilla de patata, which is becoming contagious in our homeschooling group. As a reciprocal gesture, one of the moms shared her favorite potato recipe with me:

Dill Mashed Potatoes by T.C.

Approximately 7-10 potatoes
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tsp. dried dill
1/2 tsp. powdered garlic
1 tsp. Real Salt

Dice potatoes and boil until soft. (I never peel my potatoes.) Using a balloon whip, mash up potatoes and mix in ingredients. Garnish will additional dill and serve.

I must be a Hobbit at heart, because small things have always given me a sense of connectedness and contentment. "You do not know your danger, Theoden," interrupted Gandalf, "These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience."*

Small things pile up like the markers on Bug's abacus. "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

*The Lord of the Rings(Book 3, Chapter 8).

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Best Learning

I'm thinking that Thursdays are my favorite day of the week. Even if it is my busiest. That's the day of the week we have our homeschooling co-operative. When we get together to learn. But we do so much more than have class together. There are so many things that we teach each other.Throughout the afternoon, one parent is teaching some of our children about the fundamentals of reading and equipping them with the tools to be inspired by books. Another is teaching art theory and color confluences. One spot is littered with plastic bodies...a diorama in a historical re-enactment. In another room, we are parsing sentence structures and improving register selection. From the kitchen, wafts the scents of blueberry muffins or those glistening cinnamon rolls,sending out tantalizing fingers...proud product of the Home Ec class.(A definite incentive to show up before Announcements, so as to be entered into the drawing--what a pity it isn't gluten free!) Somewhere else, saw dust dances to the buzz of the machinery that set it in motion. This is most of what we gather for. But not all.

But even then this may not be the best learning. In many ways, the best learning is what happens outside of the classroom or hasn`t been pre-meditated and written down. I recall one college professor announcing to our class, 'I`m not here to teach you. I`m here to teach you how to teach yourself.' I imagined what my parents would say to the concept that the tuition that they were paying wasn`t actually funding an liberal arts education, but one in learning to fish. As in 'give a person a fish and they are fed today--teach them to fish and they feed themselves for a lifetime.' So part of what we`re doing here is learning to fish. We`re creating autodidacts. Like when our Butterfly Whisperer came in with a compelling caterpillar, there was an exciting opportunity to scour the internet in an attempt to discover what kind of butterfly it would become...and what will it eat in order to become that. Spicebush Swallowtail, it turns out.

Additionally,some of the things that we learn are not even overtly taught. Or are not in the curriculum or on the lesson plan. Things like teamwork.Learning how to work together toward a common goal, putting impatiences and irritations aside for the greater good. Not every child is thrilled about the course selection or the activity planned for the day, but in this process, learn forbearance. It`s the iron sharpening iron again.The rubbing of each person against another that wears off everyone`s rougher spots and hones us. It`s the learning to speak to each other with the law of kindness on our tongue. The learning of respect for each other`s space and place...sometimes as simple as standing in line.As homeschoolers, we are often free to wander our own paths and the discipline of working in harness with others can be a useful exercise.This isn`t the sort of thing that I write on my lesson plan when I`m projecting what we need to cover in class for the upcoming week, but I`m glad that it somehow finds its way into the learning process anyhow. These are the things we all need to learn.

One of the things the Hobbits need to learn is how to eat their vegetables. So in the spirit of guerrilla nutrition, I'm always looking for ways to stealth move vegetables in to their diets. Since they like just about anything that looks like a pancake and hold the promise of maple syrup, they were game to try the latest invention.

Parsnip Pancakes

6-8 parsnips, chopped and steamed
1 cup sourdough starter
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp guar gum
2 T chopped onion
1 egg

Run steamed parsnips through a food processor until creamy. Add remaining ingredients and whirl until incorporated. In hot skillet, melt a small amount of lard or ghee and dollop in 1/4 cup or so of batter. When browned on one side, flip and flatten with spatula. Cook until pancake is cooked to the center. Serve hot. Syrup mandatory for Hobbits.

Not all of the Hobbits were inspired by these, though Bug came back for thirds. They're learning.

Indeed, the best learning isn`t really inside the classroom at all, though that`s the stated reason we all come. The best learning happens in the spontaneous 'teacher' conferences in the hallways and kitchen. The sharing of ideas and experiences. Newly-discovered research. Newly-mastered skills. Or even old ones that are new to someone else. We`re teaching each other how to teach ourselves. The best learning.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fools and Children

It is generally to be expected that children of a certain age will require less supervision than ones of a younger age. I've watched with envy as other moms pass off responsibilities to their maturing youngsters, enjoying greater liberties even while having much smaller ones underfoot. It was with such burgeoning expectations that on a morning when I was running behind schedule, I tossed back over my shoulder to the Hobbits heading out the door, "You're surely old enough to know the rules and I hardly need to helicopter over you, right?" Listening to the chorus of assent, I informed them where I'd be and admonished them not to kill each other. I failed to mention not killing themselves. An important distinction, it turned out.

I've been a mom for almost twelve years, so I've done this for a little while. I've heard and even affirmed the chestnut, "When you can't hear them, go look for them, because they're up to something." Rookie error. No doubt. I got out of the shower and proceeded to proceed with my day, checking things off of my tyrannical to-do list. I vaguely remember thinking that they had come so far, matured so much, mellowed so significantly to be playing together so well. Must be the diet stuff, no doubt of it.

Rookie error. No doubt.

I was shaken out of the hazy-fringed, pinkish fantasy by an ominous crash in the vicinity of our back deck. Trying it imagine what it was that had caused such a loud noise, I dashed toward the back door to see a ladder laying on the deck and the blur of Dog, scuttling for cover. To tease the details out of what happened weren't so direct as what I'm relating and took quite a bit of time to unravel, but I did manage to find out what had happened.

It seems that the three of them had invented some kind of pitch and catch game between the deck and the ground, involving a Woody doll...or is it more politically correct to call them "themed action figures?" At any rate, this Woody--as much abused as his big screen doppelganger--ended up on the roof and stubbornly refused to come down. Smart Woody. Not to be deterred, these squabbling siblings were able to truce long enough to devise a plan of appropriating a ladder, bringing it up to the deck, and climbing up to retrieve the...action figure. Who was seeing a great deal more action that Disney ever imagined or intended, given his subsequent bedraggled appearance. This worked well for a few times--apparently all of the times while I was still in the shower--and they were actually throwing the doll up there for the purpose of retrieving it. Until Dog hit his knee on the poorly placed ladder and managed with that blow to knock himself off the ladder, barking his knee and obtaining quite a lump from the ladder's descent to the deck. I couldn't decide whether to shake my head or laugh. I think I did both. He was most incensed because Princess, of the Amazon stature of five years old, failed to hold the ladder securely enough to avoid this.

Where was Bug in all of this, you ask? Oh, when his exit from the roof disappeared, he availed himself of gravity and jumped off the roof at the front of the house. I kid you not. It should be noted, for the sake of everyone's cardiac stability, that our house is a low-slung bungalow which sits on an incline and the lowest part of the roof is actually the front of the house. I can stand flat footed and reach the top of the roof with my hand. But for an eight year old, even one who is tall for his age, that is quite a jump.

Dog was quite offended. I'm not sure exactly why. I didn't laugh in his face, nor did I yell at him for being stupid. I didn't ground him or exact any punishment or consequences for it, though I did try to explain to him why it was ill-considered behavior. He disappeared in a sulk and when I noticed that he'd been off my radar for a while, I asked the other Hobbits if they'd seen him. Nope. My last sighting of him was the vicinity of the van, so I suspected I knew where he was. Sure enough. Sulking in the van. I hopped in and sat next to him.

"So is this what running away looks like at your age?" I asked. He muttered that he wasn't running away. Somehow we managed to get the conversation going again and he poured out all of his tweener frustration. I listened, sympathized, and reminded him that if he was being an eleven-and-a-half year old for the first time, then I was being the mother of an eleven-and-a-half year old for the first time. We chuckled and walked away friends again. Though I'm still not sure what I'd done wrong in the situation. Other than take a shower.

The Hobbits like sweets, but for comfort foods, nothing beats fried anything. The moment seemed to call for comfort food, so Bug asked if I would make up fried onion rings. He even suggested the application, though I was mentally heading in the same direction when he made the suggestion. He's the one making his own breakfast these days...scrambled eggs. The next generation's chef, that one.

These onion rings take a bit of advance prep, but are, in Dog's words "awesome" and Bug concurred, asking, "Who wouldn't like these?" That's a five star rating in our house.

Grainless Fried Onion Rings

2 onions, sliced thinly and separated into rings
2 cups tapioca starch
2 tablespoons seasoned salt

Take sliced and separated onions and soak in cold water for a few hours or overnight. In a plastic bag, measure the tapioca starch and seasonings and shake to mix. Drain the onions and toss into the plastic bag, shaking and mixing thoroughly to coat. Remove onions and spread onto a large platter or cookie sheet. Spritz with water from a spray bottle until the flour is damp, but not so much that the flour is rinsed off of the rings. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours, then repeat the procedure with the bag of seasoned flour a second time. Spritz lightly a final time and leave the rings in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or ideally overnight.

When ready to cook, heat lard in cast iron dutch oven or skillet to frying temperature and scatter rings in hot oil. Fry for 2-3 minutes or until desired crispness. Remove and drain. Enjoy!

When I spoke with my dad later that week--he was out of the loop, working on a hurricane relief crew on the coast--I shared the story. He laughed, too. I told the story of the neighborhood kids, including me, climbing up on the roof of the pump house located in a no-man's-land in our neighborhood. He informed me that he was aware of the practice, but let us stretch our wings, as it were. Then he shared a few of his childhood horror stories. Generational ties.

There's an old expression that God protects fools and children. Good thing that, since we seem to have a double dose of both.