Sunday, March 30, 2008

report from afar

Much of the country is flat.
But some of it isn't.
I've been knitting some socks. (I know, you're shocked.)
The sleeping compartment was tiny.
The Art Institute of Chicago was amazing.

LA has been a glorious, hectic blast, and we'll be back on the train tomorrow.
It's been fabulous to get out of my head, out of my house, out of my rut. Nothing like a trip to get things moving and flowing again.

Friday, March 21, 2008

outta here...

We're leaving tomorrow, on one of these:

to go to Los Angeles for one of these:
Along the way, we'll sleep in one of these:
And visit the Art Institute of Chicago during our long layover in that fine city, which I have never before visited.

Joe tells me that I'll be able to blog from LA as long as remember to bring this cable he's given me, so with any luck, stay tuned for updates about our trip once we land on the left coast.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


A couple of moms and I have gotten together and asked a local music teacher (who is a genius but really hates being photographed) to teach recorder to a small group of kids. The kids are just starting out, so we're learning things like tonguing and hand position, as well as basic music stuff like beat and rhythm. Today was our second class. It's way too easy for Big One, although he has agreed to participate when we start playing songs. And it's way too hard for Little One, because the other kids are older than he, even though they're also beginners. So it's not a good fit for either of my kids, but it's really, really fun to have a music class for kids in my house.

I've been thinking about where one draws the line when it comes to allowing a child to guide his own learning. Nine times out of ten, I think kids make the right decisions, and I believe that it's really important to build curriculum based on their needs and interests. Not just important; essential.

But music is a place where I'm not so sure. For me, music is like learning math or a language. Reading music is part of being an educated person, and learning to play an instrument is an essential aspect of a child's education. For me. It is akin to what some families feel about sports, I think: that there is so much important stuff to learn in the process that a child's education is lacking without it.

And learning to play an instrument requires practice, which requires discipline. It requires that you work through a difficult patch because you are reaching for a goal that is somewhere beyond the moment you're in. It's often not fun. In fact, when you're really sweating it out through a technical passage, it can be downright frustrating. What child would choose that?

When Big One first started to play the recorder, it happened because his music teacher at school noticed that he was really ready for it, but his class wasn't. So he started private lessons. This was four years ago, and along the way, I've reminded him to practice, over and over. I've also sat with him through figuring out difficult passages, helped him with reading new and tricky rhythms, and helped him persevere when he was frustrated to the point of tears. He is now at the point where he works these things through on his own, and does it for the intrinsic reward, but it was a long road to get there. If I'd left it entirely up to him, I don't know that he ever would have.

I never let him quit because he's really good at it, and that was evident from the very beginning. My thinking (which I shared with Big) was that some people are born with an ability to do some things easily and well, and those people have an opportunity to live their lives as artists. Mind you, I think an artist could be a painter, a musician, a scientist, a writer, or even a teacher: it just means someone who is doing for a living what they really live for. I told him that because he has a chance to live his life as an artist, he has a responsibility to develop this talent.

Little is anxious about learning recorder in a way that Big never was: he has daily evidence that learning an instrument is a lot of work. We may have to look into soccer for him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the de rigeur 'spring is coming' post, and a truly brilliant dinner plan

All over the mama-blogosphere are images of flowers coming up. Mine are well behind most, because it's cold here, but my post has the added benefit of letting you feel good about your own gardening. You will see exactly how much of a slovenly gardener I was last fall, and how very much I have to do before spring gets going in earnest. The beds are a mess, but the bulbs are coming up anyway. Above are the daffodils.
Here are the tulips.
Phlox, which seemed not to stop growing through the winter. Is this common? If it is, I'm going to be planting a lot of it. It's done very well here, in one of the hottest, dryest parts of my garden.
And here is my dinner, prepared for me by my friend Sandy Davenport (go have a look, she's also over there in the sidebar) because I am so swamped this week. It's a shepherd's pie, with half white potato and half sweet potato, and it's in the oven right now. Amazing. Thank you.

And that's the good news. The bad news is that between a French lesson, a glorious spinning session, a recorder lesson, and a quick visit from my parents who have just returned from Hawaii, I got not a speck of that editing project done today. Which means that after dinner is eaten, books are read, and the kids are tucked in, I'm going to be tapping away at this here keyboard, until way past my bedtime.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I'm tired at looking at all these words, so here's a picture of the spinning wheel I've started saving up for. It's a Schacht Ladybug. I've been learning to spin on a friend's Schacht Matchless, every Tuesday while Big One has his French lesson. Little plays with Legos in the living room while I spin in her dining room and Big learns French down the hall.

So I crept up to my room today for a couple of hours, to start the fact-checking and editing project I've agreed to do this week. It's clearly going to take some time to figure out how to manage all these competing priorities. You'll never believe what I served for dinner tonight. Smoothies and chips. Really. And the house is a mess. And the dishes are unwashed. And the cats are out of food.

But I earned a little money for my family, and the kids certainly didn't suffer. We still read together, and talked about the news, and did some math reasoning in the car on the way to the library in the morning. Big practiced his recorder, and Little is learning to count his blessings.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

great, just great

This is going to be an interesting week. Joe has just left on a five-day business trip to the West Coast, so I am the solo parent for a while. This won't change our day-to-day routine much, but it will mean that the boys and I will be having dinner alone, and that I'll be doing the bedtime routine alone. It also means I'll be washing the dinner dishes and changing the cat boxes myself. And that I'll be getting up for any night wakings. Yes, Joe usually does all those things, and yes, I'm aware that he's a saint.

It's also this week that my new job is finally going to start. I'm going to have to find two to three extra hours each day to do an editing project by the end of the week. It can't slide into the weekend, because at the end of the week, we're going on a trip.

Which means that somehow in the midst of all this other stuff, I also have to get the three of us packed and ready for a relatively complicated two-week trip, most of which I will be handling as a solo parent.

No, I'm not complaining. Of course not. All these things could be seen in a 'glass half full' sort of way. I'm delighted that Joe's job allows me to stay home with Big One and Little One, and I'm glad they trust him enough to send him across the country to talk about the company. I'm pleased that the editing opportunity came my way, and that I'm going to be able to contribute to the family budget. And I'm beside myself with excitement about that forthcoming trip.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

It's going to be very, very interesting, that's all.

Just don't expect much blogging.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

conversation early this morning

Little: I'm very sad. Nothing can make me happy. (Can you believe this kid? I really believe he's not actually depressed. He is very happy all day long, I promise. I think he just says this stuff to see how I react.)

Me: Oh. You know what works for me when I'm sad and it feels like nothing can make me happy? I take a walk or do yoga.

Little: I don't like either of those things.

Me: What do you like?

Little: I like ice cream.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Minor crisis, I should say. More of a conundrum, really. Conundrum didn't seem snappy enough for a post title.

Big and I did some new work today: more complicated long division, resulting in repeating decimals. This wasn't frustrating for him, because he knows how to do it, but it was tedious. All those steps, and then you have to keep doing them. And doing them. And doing them, until finally a pattern emerges in the decimal and you can put your damn repeating bar up there and be done with the thing.

So he was trying to make it more entertaining, for him and for me, by personifying the numbers in various ways, by pretending he was dueling the problem with swords, by putting in lots of meaningless zeros as unnecessary place holders. All these small diversions resulted in a tense mama who kept directing him back to the problem in a businesslike and humorless way. It also resulted in a single problem taking twenty minutes to solve.

We were clearly at odds, and when he finally dissolved in tears, I lost my temper. Or maybe I lost my temper first, and then he dissolved. That seems more likely, somehow.

And then I tried to explain myself:

Long division is just something you have to do.

The only fun part about it is getting it done. Maybe it gets a little bit fun when you can do it really quickly, but that's only because you're getting it over with.

It's like practicing scales and arpeggios: nobody likes it, but you have to do it.

He eventually settled down and we did several more problems. In a businesslike and humorless way. Which was satisfying for me.

And that's when I had my crisis: Doesn't he deserve a teacher who loves what we're learning about? When I was a teacher, I would at least muster some enthusiasm for a subject, even if my heart wasn't particularly in it. Especially when some of the kids were reluctant. Doesn't my child deserve the same? From me, his teacher?

When I was a kid, I never paid attention in math class, because my mother was (and is) a gifted math teacher, and I knew I could just come home and have her explain it to me, and it would be crystal clear in about twenty seconds. Why bother listening to a thirty minute explanation in class, when I had a home tutor always ready and willing? And interested, I might add. Maybe she didn't find long division scintillating, but she certainly never would have told me that the only good part about it was getting it over with.

So now what? I do think he needs to do his long division relatively quickly, and that he would do well to learn how not to get distracted by all the wonderful and creative things that reside in his head. But I also want it to be fun for him, and I want to do better than telling him it's just something we have to do, because.

Maybe it's too much to ask. Everything can't be fun, and there are some things we just have to do. Like dishes, and long division. But I don't want my feelings about math to dictate his feelings about it. I believe I can do better, and I'd really love to hear from other homeschoolers about how they pull this off.

The amazing thing is that after the long division, we went on to this:

That's Word Roots: Latin Prefixes, Roots and Suffixes, by Cherie Blanchard, which was like dessert. He LOVES this work, and is finding all sorts of amazing connections between what he's learning about Latin and his French lessons, between words he knows, and words he's just now finding out about.

Dessert. Learning Latin was like having a piece of chocolate cake. For both of us, really. It was so relaxing, intriguing, and just plain fun to jump into the world of words.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

blogging is brilliant!

Uh, not mine, necessarily. I just mean blogging in general.

The title of this post violates a basic rule I set for myself when I started blogging, i.e. Don't Blog about Blogging. How interesting could a blog about someone else's life really be anyway, and then when people start blogging not about their lives but about their blog... well, you see what I mean. That gets really boring.

Point of interest: I have many rules about what I will and won't blog about, all designed to protect you, the reader, from the perils of Way Too Much Information. Boundaries about public communication do not come naturally to me, unfortunately, and so I must carefully study the behavior and blogging of other people in order to learn what does and does not cross lines of propriety.

Anyway, I knew I'd have to violate one of these rules one of these days, and today, it's the one about hopelessly self-referential meta-blogging.

Now then.

It seems that taking pictures of my knitting equipment, or lack thereof, has had a most delightful effect: people are sending me stuff! What could be better?

My mother's friend Liz noticed that I was blocking my Shetland Triangle with lots and lots of straight pins, like so:
Liz and my mom got their heads together electronically, which resulted in the arrival of this on my doorstep yesterday:
That's a set of lace blocking wires, available here. Liz told my mom it was the kind of thing I would love to have but wouldn't buy for myself, and she was right. Mom was going to wait until my birthday, but hey, why wait when you can have it sent now? My birthday's so far away, anyway. Much lace knitting to follow! Probably some previously blocked pieces will get blocked again, just for the heck of it. Fun fun fun.

And then last night, Joe came home from work bearing gifts from my good friend Amy, whose husband just happens to work with mine. Amy and I have been friends for years, and our lives are overlapping in some new and interesting ways these days, but sadly, we don't see each other very often at all.

Amy saw a few posts back that I was using a newel post as a skein holder, and sent me this:
A folding swift and a ball winder! Much fun was had with these two tools last night after dinner. First I had to wind some sock yarn. Then I wound some of my homespun. Then I ripped out a sock in order to wind some Shaefer Anne. (Don't panic; the sock wasn't working out. My cut finger is causing some gauge issues, which I devoutly hope will be solved when the finger heals completely.)

Meanwhile, I'm going to start a new project: socks out of kitchen twine. Think people will start sending me Trekking XXL?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

if you were Alison...

would this be your blanket?

This is my proposal for an arrangement of the colors we've been choosing over the last several months. Alison keeps saying she needs to see it all laid out before she can say whether she agrees to my proposal. These are not sewn together, and in fact, the dark blue squares are still rectangles; they've just been folded in half to get a picture of how they might look in the finished blanket.
So what do you think? Would you go for this arrangement? Or tweak it slightly? Or come up with something completely different?

Tell me what you think! Tell Alison what you think!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

what I miss

Most of you already know that I used to be a teacher at an alternative elementary school, before it closed at the end of September and we became a homeschooling family. That info used to be over there in the sidebar, right under my photo, but both photo and description have disappeared since Joe accepted my invitation to post under his own pseudonym. I can't seem to get Blogger to let me display that profile info again, so I'll just tell you again, right here. I taught a multi-age class of early elementary students. I usually had a small class, and I got to know the students really well. I would often have a particular child in my room for two or three years. We created the curricula as we went along. The children got to make lots of meaningful choices about what they wanted to study and how they wanted to present what they'd learned.

This blog was created to be a place for Joe and me to record our progress on various projects, mostly having to do with minor renovations--touch-ups, really--on our old house. We never really found the time to do either the work or the blogging about it when we were both working. It has become a place where I work out some of what's happening in my head as I adjust to a life in which my work is at home. I've used a lot of time and space figuring out how to make a reasonable dinner on time, how to keep the house tidy without driving myself and my kids insane, and some time figuring out what kind of homeschoolers we are.

I've spent very little time reflecting on what I've lost. I really loved my job. And while I love our lives these days, and I would choose it any day of the week, there are just a few things I miss about my previous life.

I'm going with the list format again, just because it's fun. This, my friends, is what I miss:

1. Playing recorder with a bunch of very young beginners. It never got boring, and they never sounded bad to me. Even when we were playing the very simplest of tunes, I enjoyed it. I also liked showing off for them by playing a complex tune, showing them what they'd be able to do with practice.

2. Sitting on the floor, putting together fabulous patterns with pattern blocks. Or doing the daily tangram puzzle. I loved this hands-on geometry, and loved sharing it with the kids. I can do this with my kids now, but there is a depth and a richness that is missing. A bunch of different kids all working on related projects, bouncing ideas off each other, figuring things out... that was really, really fun.

3. Working things out in the classroom, Alfie Kohn style. These were some of the most amazing experiences I had as a teacher, and Alfie Kohn is definitely worth an entire blog post at some point. Turning important decisions about the running of the classroom over the the kids turned out to be some of the best work I ever did. If you don't know about Alfie Kohn, look him up.

4. Being trusted and loved by a bunch of kids. The year I was out on maternity leave with Little One, I visited school several times a week, and the kids made me feel like a celebrity. They would literally scream with delight as I approached the school yard, and then compete with each other for hugs. The kids who moved on from my classroom still knew me and trusted me, and by the time the school closed, almost every kid in the school had been through my classroom. I really, really miss this. The kids in the homeschool groups don't know me, so they don't have any reason to trust or even like me.

5. Being trusted and consulted by parents. It was a good feeling to know that the parents trusted my insights about their kids, and really wanted to know what I thought about their learning. I had started to feel like I actually knew what I was talking about.

And that seems like enough. Have I conveyed that this work was immeasurably gratifying? It was. Lest you think it was always amazing, however, may I reassure you that there are many aspects of teaching that I don't miss. It was hard work, it was often thankless, and in many ways I'm not sorry it's over. But I would never have walked away from it, ever, and I know it was an experience that will shape our lives for years to come.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

top ten surprises about homeschooling

1. It's a lot easier than teaching a classroom. Really, this shouldn't have been a surprise, and I knew it would be somewhat easier, but people, let me tell you, it is a LOT easier.

2. I don't need to take relaxing herbs anymore. I am already relaxed, most of the time.

3. Most of what Big One does for fun can be seen as some kind of academic subject. Paper airplanes? Physics and geometry. Dungeons and Dragons? He's learning to use an index, read for information, and he has to do long division when we divide up our treasure. Origami? He's learning to read complex diagrams and developing small motor skills.

4. The public library is my best friend. No longer just a fun thing to do with the kids on the weekend, going to the library is a vital part of what we do. Since we no longer have access to a school library, we need books about all kinds of things. Last week, Little wanted to know more about bats. This week, it's horses. No problem, the library has it all.

5. I don't need to spend money to do this well. I already have most of what I need in terms of materials, and what I don't have, I can make, find online, or find at the library.

6. Big One is dying to learn cursive. Can you imagine? Since this is as boring as dust to me, I may have to break down and buy a workbook for this one. But I'll investigate online first.

7. Little is risk-averse. He's afraid to make a mistake, so he's not willing to try new things. I think it's because he's surrounded by older people who can do more things than he can. I don't think I'd have known this if we weren't all home together. In fact, it might not have happened if he were in school with others his age.

8. Big's math skills go away when he doesn't use them. Bummer, huh?

9. Socializing with adults counts. So does socializing with one's mother and brother. So does socializing with cats and horses. This makes getting to weekly playgroup less essential, a bonus.

10. The less we run around to various homeschool classes and groups, the more we get done.

Monday, March 03, 2008

as promised...

Here's the Shetland Triangle, yanked into shape after a soak in the sink.
I'm pleased. I think it's an intriguing pattern, and it was fun and easy to knit. I'm a little disappointed that it isn't bigger; I followed the directions exactly, and I wish I'd added at least one or two extra pattern repeats. It is a skimpy scarf more than a shawl, and one I'll use mostly when the weather is mellow. I'm planning to wear it to a wedding at the end of the month. The wedding's in LA, so I'm thinking it won't be snowing. Now I need a dress...

The completion of this shawl, the completion of the last pair of socks I was making for a Christmas gift, plus last week's rip fest, all combined to create an alarming situation: No simple knitting projects currently on the needles. I have a Cat Bordhi pair of socks currently going, but they're sort of languishing because it's not an automatic pilot project. I need those.

So I dug into the sock yarn stash, and started winding this:
That's a skein of Shaefer Anne, in an unknown colorway. A pair of socks made with Anne is a bit of a commitment for me, because it's skinny yarn, and I have big feet, and I knit socks on little needles. Anne knits up just right for me on 0s, with 80 stitches around. These should take a while. I may even be knitting them on our way to that wedding in LA.

the blanket project continues

Intrepid friends Alison and AK braved a snow storm this weekend to enjoy pancakes and continue work on the reclaimed felted sweaters patchwork blanket. First we cut the felted sweaters apart at the seams, resulting in a colorful pile of seams:
(I know, doesn't this look knittable? Into rugs, maybe? Too bad I didn't think of it until I'd already tossed almost all of it out. Next time.) Fortunately, our work also yielded a pile of cut apart sweaters, which Alison proceeded to lay out on the floor, picking and choosing until she had just the colors she wanted in her blanket.
After she'd decided which colors would become her blanket and which would become part of my felted sweater stash, we started cutting them into rectangles, 4 inches by 8 inches. We did this the old-fashioned way, with pattern pieces, pins, and scissors.

And we cut, and cut, and cut. After a while, Alison discovered that it was just as precise to cut the rectangles without pins, holding the pattern piece flat to the fabric, which made it little easier, but it still took f o r e v e r, hours, after which we quit and took the families out to dinner because we were utterly whipped, and still we had a formidable pile of fabric to render into rectangles.

At which point I said, you know, this would be so much easier with a rotary cutter. Now, I didn't really know if it actually would be easier with a rotary cutter, but I thought so. I'd never used one, but I knew that people who do a lot of precision cutting of small pieces use them, and so it seemed a likely lead.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, I did a little online research and discovered that rotary cutters are not terribly expensive. I already had a cutting mat and several metal rulers, so I dug out my coupon for my local big-box craft store (Jo-Ann's, which used to be a fabric store. Sigh.) and got myself down there. After exhaustively perusing the choices, I settled on this:
It's a Fiskars, 60 mm. For a short time, things went swimmingly. I was rendering rectangles at a dizzying rate. My rectangles had precision and speed. They were charming. I loved my new toy.

And then I sliced off the tip of my left index finger. Much bleeding ensued. Band-Aids were applied. A phone call to a doctor friend revealed that all I could really do was lay low and apply pressure until the bleeding stopped. I bled on my new favorite Salvation Army found sweater. Joe rinsed it out. I became pathetic. Joe sat by me. (He's a good one. We'll be keeping him.) And then, finally, the bleeding stopped.

This morning, I find that it is sort of relaxing to have a minor injury. I am more mindful as I go around the house, because I have to wonder which of my usual things I can do, and which I can't. Shower? No. Bath? Yes. Wipe down the table? Yes. Wash the dishes? No. Prepare Big's math work for the day? Yes. Read to Little? Yes, but it turns out that my tiny but constant discomfort makes me not quite patient enough for yet another round with Where's Waldo.

Thankfully, I am still able to knit. The Shetland Triangle is finished and needs blocking. Like all unblocked lace, it is a strange and shriveled thing. Blocking lace is the magical opposite of felting. Pictures of the properly blocked shawl to come.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

time-consuming appliances

This is a legendary mixer post.

Sharp readers already will have zeroed in on the ambiguous adjectival construction in the previous sentence. Props to you.

Meet the Deluxe family's Hobart C-100 10 quart mixer. It does not have a pet name. It does have an exploded view. =>

Suitable pet names would include Bertha, Dreadnought, Neaddought, L'Utile, and GL'Utile.

I brought the mixer out its mixer kennel to meet you. I discovered that it weighs 96 lbs. All muscle.

A big mixer [a small commercial mixer] has been an object of desire in the Deluxe household since way back when.

My potter friend Alex gave me the C-100 in June 2006. I was giddy. But my bride wasn't sure that a 100 lb vintage mixer from a friend's barn qualified as a dream come true.
It did have a few problems.

The lifter arm [25, above] had become welded by corrosion to the cast iron body. It would not lift.

Was the solution more force? Sometimes that's all that is needed. When forced, it indeed did move a bit, then more. Then, too much; it broke off flush with the frame. A degiddying setback.

Drilling and hammering were the bones and bowels of Plan B. And pondering and cussing. A heat gun perhaps. In time I made a new lifter arm and the rehabilitated C-100 moved into the pantry in the fall of 2006.

It may be 25 years or more since Hobart stopped making the C-100. It is hard to find good information on the model. I joined a newsgroup for a while called "We actually collect electric mixers." A jolly, privileged group, they actually didn't collect C-100s.

But I do see these machines purring away at fairs and boardwalks, making batter for fried dough sellers. Like all planetary gear Hobart motors, the C-100 is essentially bombproof, except for the Achillean lifter arm.

If you are looking for the C-100 diagrams featured in this post, try here:

[Update from Joe: The above method to see the C-100 manuals is broken. Try this instead:]

Aftermarket bowls and beaters still are made but they are pricey. One interesting fact is that the hub for attachments that mount on the front is the same size as the common KitchenAid stand mixer. A No. 10 tapering hub. Named for the C-10, common ancestor of the C-100 and the KitchenAid. That wasn't interesting for you?

I use the mixer every week to make dough for bread and pizza. We use spelt flour. If you have come here to read about spelt flour, I'll tell you to order your flour from 50 lb bags of flour via UPS. It's the way to do it.

So this weekend, as is typical, bread was made. A pleasant sourdough 80/20 spelt/rye.

With 20 oz. of extra dough Big One and Little One made some crackers. They shared the rolling and cutting and all the rest.

According to B.O. and L.O., this qualifies as homeschooling.

I concur.