Many of our apple trees did well this past fall. Last time I wrote about them I was celebrating 2017's successful harvest, one that we dramatically surpassed this year. There were so many fruits, especially on the Macintosh and Northern Spy trees, that I'm kind of worried that I did something wrong and there'll be none next year (what that says about about my mental state than or my knowledge of apple cultivation I will leave to the reader). We've long since eaten all the Honeycrisps and Golden Russets, and baked into apple crisp all the Macs we couldn't eat. But as we approached the turning of the year there were still at least a dozen Northern Spies holding on to near-perfection in the fridge.
True, they did take up a little more room over the last 2-3 months than they deserved, but we find that our cellar doesn't have the consistent temperature and humidity that you'd look for to preserve apples. So Leah was kind enough to suffer their presence so I could like my dream of making a pie for New Years Eve. Which I did, and it was delicious. (I may have boasted about the apples' provenance to two or seven people, I'm not sure.)
There are still enough apples for one more pie. Leah says they don't take up an objectionable amount of space any more. When do you think I should make the last pie?
My nebulous New Years resolutions highlight a problem endemic to all aspects of my life. This evening I'm thinking how to prioritize a few different goals: writing; being a respectful participant in the work of the house; sleeping. Is it possible to do all three?! Maybe, but not if I want to write out the Complete Christmas and New Years Report (With Pictures).
Today Leah went back to work, and the boys and I resumed our regularly-scheduled existence. I use "scheduled" loosely, of course, but nothing could be looser than our vague, chocolate-fueled maunderings over the past ten days. The schedule for today included cleaning work, shopping, reading together, and free time outside. That last category means I kicked the boys out the door with instructions to go have fun; the biggest problem we had over the vacation was not spending any more time outside most days than it took to walk to the car.
To be honest, that's a considerable overstatement. In actual fact we took two hikes—or at vigorous walks in the woods—between Christmas and New Years, which is probably more than lots of other people managed. But it did feel generally that our life was very sedentary and inside-oriented. Which is probably fine for midwinter, especially midwinter without snow. Now that the sun is on its way back, though, it was just wonderful to see the boys spend a half-hour exploring in the woods across the street.
The cleaning work went fine too, at least the cleaning work we did together. Sent up to spend some time trying to clear out the "office" (a space that all four Archibald males share culpability for destroying) they allegedly worked hard for an hour, though I couldn't really see a tremendous amount of difference. They did find many previously missing lego pieces—from out of the big box of legos in that room, natch—so I suppose that counts for something. Not much to say about shopping, except that we hit all our marks for time, even with a tight schedule, and didn't forget anything. And the reading together was of course lovely.
Tomorrow is another day, and I don't have the schedule planned yet. That's another thing I'm meant to be doing with these precious moments after the sweet darlings are all abed (Leah is away at a meeting). Resolving is stressful!
We're lucky enough to be able to spend the second half of every Thursday afternoon with Harvey's friend from around the corner. He's one of Harvey's favorite people, and someone Harvey seeks out assiduously on weekends—the only other time they have to hang out during the school year. So why does our sweet sociable boy sometimes seem less than enthusiastic by the prospect of three hours with his friend? I think it might be because he's not totally ready for his energy level.
See, Harvey hasn't been in school all day. He's just been bicycling, wrestling with his brothers, and being forced by his cruel father to spend hours outside in the yard (and also doing lots of reading when he wants, but that doesn't fit the narrative here). His friend has been working hard doing fifth grade things, which from my personal recollection involve a lot of sitting in chairs and talking quietly. When he gets off the bus, he's got energy to burn and it shows!
I've thought of trying to resolve this mismatch by keeping Harvey more sedentary on Thursdays, but that doesn't really seem fair. So instead I've just tried to talk about it and manage expectations. It's not a big deal: in general, Harvey is still delighted—thrilled!—to spend time with his friend. Even after some tired moments this afternoon, this evening at bedtime he was full of excitement about the sleepover the two of them are having tomorrow night. But it is interesting.
This year I never managed to find the timer that I use to automate the Christmas lights on the porch. And here I was at Thanksgiving talking up how much I love my setup, with the lights coming on automatically from 4:30 to 11:00, and then for another half-hour first thing in the morning when we're up and about before sunrise. Never mind: the manual option works well enough. Our house was cheerfully decorated from when I noticed it was getting dark until I went to bed. Or sometimes all night, depending on how I was feeling. Good stuff. But no more. Everyone else in our neighborhood have taken down their decorations already—all down by the twelfth day of Christmas—and I don't want to look like the only one who doesn't know what's going on. It's too bad... it's still pretty dark out of an evening!
Our tree is still up too, but that's by mistake; we just haven't had a moment to take it down. That's a task for tomorrow morning. Christmas is well and truly over, and we're back to our regular unschooling schedule. How do we do that again?
The recent holiday season was not our finest. All of us were sick off and on, with varying degrees of seriousness; for my part, I was pretty much knocked out with illness two separate times over the ten day span. And leading up to Christmas I did a bad job focusing on what Leah wanted, so my presents for her were not what she was hoping for. The boys had plenty to unwrap. Harvey made some sweet gifts for his brothers, including the stuffed blue triangle with eyes and a smiley face that Lijah desperately wanted (plus a house for it to live in!). I made Zion his bow and arrow. And there were lots of legos. We opened some here at home, then headed for my parents' house for the rest, and for the assembly phase.
There was also a fire to sit by and plenty of delicious food, starting with brunch and going continuously from there through supper. We sang some songs to work off the calories.
My brother and his family came up on the 27th, so on Friday we had a second Christmas celebration with them: more of the same, only even more relaxed. Thankfully there weren't too many more presents to open, since Harvey and Zion at least felt by the afternoon of the 25th that they'd gotten more than they ever wanted. It can be a little overwhelming. All they really wanted was to play with their cousin Nisia—and meet their baby cousin Esther! We did those things.
I had thought of having a New Years Day brunch, but then we got an invitation to spend the day with my cousins, who we barely ever see. So I figured we could do a New Years Eve brunch instead. There was plenty of food and plenty of board games.
When everyone got tired of our house we all moved on to the next event, a pot-luck supper at our friends' house. There was more food and more board games, plus Super Smash Bros for the kids. All was perfect except that I was too worried my fever would come back to be able to have a drink. Never mind, that meant I was sharp enough to completely dominate a game of Stone Age. The competition was all-consuming, so I was pretty surprised when we finished up and I noticed it was already 9:30. Yikes! More than late enough for us, so we went home and went to bed.
New Years Day the cousins cancelled on us, after hearing about the plagues we were suffering (Nisia came down with a fever New Years Eve). Since she already had all the food, my mom invited us to come anyways; since I had already made two quiches, I said sure. At least this time we took a walk. The kids had fun, even if they chose not to show it in pictures.
All in all we had a pretty good time, but we're also glad to see the tree come down and the schedule go back up on the chalkboard. All that eating and relaxing is hard work!
An important part of our Christmas that I left out of yesterday's report was the gingerbread baking. Besides the cookies the boys made for Grandma and Grandpa, we also did our annual construction and decoration of gingerbread houses. We invited friends over to make the whole affair as festive and exciting as possible.
It was a pretty intense day. The boys and I started first thing in the morning making the dough: two batches, with a total of seven cups of flour. That might not sound like a lot but for scale, it's almost all of a five-pound bag. Or maybe it's not, and the bag was only empty because of how much we spilled. Which was a lot. But the dough got made, and we rolled it into balls and left it to chill.
A little later our friends arrived. Together we designed a house template, then each of the five kids worked (with an age-appropriate amount of help) to roll out their portion of dough and cut pieces for their walls, roofs, and auxiliary accessories. The adults were also making lunch at this time, so there was a lot going on. The house pieces were big enough that each house took up two baking sheets, and each one needed to be in the oven for 15 minutes. There was some confusion over which parts went to which house, but we got it all sorted out in the end. The frosting to glue the houses together took a pound of sugar, and then we needed another batch—another pound—for the decorating.
Which of course is what the kids were waiting for! (Some of them had such a hard time waiting they started decorating before their roofs were quite attached; it was only a little sad, because everything that fell apart was repairable.) We had a tremendous array of candy available, which was good because they expected to taste more-than-representative portions of each type. Decorating techniques varied: the 9-year-olds were guided largely by aesthetic concerns, whereas 7-year-olds and younger were more concerned with attaching the maximum volume of the types of candy they wanted to eat later. Never mind; all five houses came out beautifully.
That was all a week before Christmas. I was talking a couple days ago with friends whose kids were having trouble letting go of the season—they're fellow 12-day-celebrators, but still hadn't taken down their tree two days past Epiphany. I told them my secret for helping the boys accept the end of Christmas: I didn't let them eat their gingerbread houses until the season was officially over! So there was something to look forward to on January 6th.
Harvey and Zion's houses aren't entirely gone yet, but what remains can fit in a tupperware container in the bread drawer. Lijah's is still standing; that's because, as he describes it, "I don't like gingerbread, just candy." I estimate another three days till all the decorations have been stripped off, then maybe we can put the remains out for the squirrels.
If you want to make your own houses, here's our recipe as I have it:
In a large bowl whisk together:
7 cups all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
In the stand mixer, cream:
1 cup (two sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
Add and mix until well-blended:
1 cup molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla
Add the dry ingredients to the wet about two cups at a time, mixing until combined each time. If necessary, add:
up to 1/4 cup cold water
Form the dough into three or four balls, wrap each one in plastic wrap, and store in the fridge until you’re ready to make your houses.
At that point, preheat the oven to 325° F and grease a cookie sheet or two. Roll one ball at a time on a oured surface to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cut out your house pieces and bake them on cookie sheets for 15-18 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces Let the pieces cool completely before assembling the houses.
For the mortar—er, frosting—combine in the stand mixer:
1 package powdered sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
Whip vigorously with the whisk attachment, adding more powdered sugar or water as necessary to achieve a thick, glue-like consistency.
I started yesterday to relive my undergraduate glories by rereading that seminal volume of my youth, E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Actually, to be honest I'm not sure if I ever read it cover-to-cover before, but I certainly read from it. It's good stuff. Here's a quote that I thought could be applicable to today:
But so great has been the reaction in our own time against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars had propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical roles: the persecuted are seen as forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as victims of persecution.
White male fragility, anyone?
It's a bit of a challenging read at this point in my life: anything more rarefied than my usual fare of middle grade fiction can be hard to follow while the children are shouting and/or climbing on me. Still, I'm pushing on. As an intellectual history, the book assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader about what actually happened around the various developments in working class consciousness; I remember some of what Thompson is talking about. It makes me want to also read some more concrete history of the period to refresh my memory. In my free time.
I try as a parent not to be too bossy, but there are still times—oh, there are times—when I find in necessary to ask the kids to do something. Like if I have to pick up their winter clothes from all over the floor I'll go berserk and do something I'd regret later. To stay as far away from that scenario as possible we have rules for putting things away, and we also have cleaning time in our schedule. Times. That way I have to do less bossing. Interestingly, though, any cleaning work provides an opportunity for Harvey to pass the buck on down to Zion.
In his defense, I do sometimes do it to him. If I'm vacuuming and see legos on the floor I'll ask him to pick them up, say. Being a good big brother, he does whatever he can to subcontract to Zion. Zion is the one who ends up bringing things up the stairs, more often than not (which he maybe doesn't mind because then he can hide out for ten minutes "putting them away"). But Zion's service isn't limited to cleaning time; today they were playing outside and Harvey sent his brother in to fetch him his binoculars. That's the way of the world, I suppose. Hierarchy is inescapable.
That said, nobody tries to tell Lijah to do anything in the cleaning or fetching line. We all know it would just lead to disappointment. Poor Zion.
I only took one picture this week. But with snow on the ground at long last, I'm sure there will be more soon!
The first part of the winter has been pretty disappointing from a weather perspective, so we were delighted to finally get some real snow Saturday night. Well, almost real snow; there was enough warm air involved somewhere that the precipitation that fell all day Sunday was really more like sleet. Never mind, it accumulated to a sufficient depth and piled almost like normal snow. The boys spent a good amount of time outside in it both Sunday and today, even though the conditions weren't perfect for outdoor entertainment: Sunday (when church was cancelled to give us more playing time) was so wet they needed to change their mittens every 15 minutes, and I don't think today's temperature broke 10°F. Never mind. First snow!
It's amazing to think of it, but this was the first time this year Lijah put on his snow gear (Harveya and Zion spent some time out in the significant but short-lived snow we had back in mid-November). I was glad to be able to find him snowpants and boots that fit, since I hadn't thought about it at all before Sunday morning. Good thing he has two older brothers! To be honest, he's not totally enthused about the cold weather. I heard him saying he wished it was summer. Oh well, can't please everybody. Harvey and Zion will sleep well after their hard playing outside this afternoon, and even Lijah survived the arctic blast for couple minutes. All of them certainly earned their hot chocolate.
Martin Luther King Day is very important in our household, and it did not go unobserved. But when it comes to recounting the most exciting part of our days it's hard to argue with the outside adventure. Today was the most beautiful of winter days possible, and we took full advantage of it. Our friends recently bought a house with a golf course conveniently located across the street, so this morning we invited ourselves over there to do some sledding with them. It was lovely.
We've never experienced golf course sledding before, but I can't deny the appeal: there's not just one hill to go down, you have your choice of dozens! It helped that with the icy snow you didn't really need to break a trail to have a good run. The best part was sliding across the water hazard at the bottom of one hill, as pictured above. The second best part was when we all got tired we were able to walk right across the street to a warm house and be treated to hot chocolate and a lovely lunch!
I know Harvey and Zion are wonderful sledders and fully enjoy being outdoors, but I was delightfully surprised by how well Lijah did. It was cold—probably not a whole lot above 10°F when we started—but he didn't mind it at all. He was excited for the first run down the hill, and then he managed to recover after a pretty good wipeout on the second run (he yelled alot, then when he calmed down he declared he wasn't going to use the blue sled again). He was having such a grand time that on the way home I had no qualms at all about stopping, at the boys' request, to play on the frozen Concord River.
The town very kindly plowed the dirt road to the boat launch, so we were able to spend a pleasant half-hour sliding on the ice on the river and in the woods (the river having been very high when it froze). Once again, I'm sure we'll all sleep well tonight!
We don't really do "curriculum" here at the squibix home education shop, but when there are seasonal events that I care about you can bet that the kids are going to hear about them. Like the solstice, election day, and, most of all, Martin Luther King Day. We spent four days concentrating, to the extent that we ever concentrate on anything at all, on Dr. King's life and legacy, and on the broader struggle for integration and equality from the '50s to today. Then we made posters.
The unit got off to a bad start on Thursday when we arrived at the library, blank non-fiction book record sheets in hand, to find that all the biographies of Dr. King had already been checked out from the children's section. Oh well, I suppose that's a good thing overall. We actually ended up with the more interesting books related to the topic—on the Birmingham children's marches, integration in Selma, and the cart that carried Dr. King's coffin at his funeral—but weren't able to find much in the way of biographical information. Then when we got home I thought of checking the Levar Burton's Skybrary ap on the iPad, and lo and behold it had two fantastic biographies (and one bad one). The littler boys listened to all of them a couple times.
The poster project had two goals. We're talking about posters generally, as an example of information design and organizing our thoughts to share knowledge, so it was good to practice that. Plus, I wanted to have a tangible goal to our studies to concentrate minds a little bit. Harvey's poster, above, contains images from the famous "I Have a Dream" speech; see how many you can identify. Of course, I'm not really strict about content: Zion's been very taken with the Reflecting Pool in Washington DC, so his poster contains only a large blue rectangle. And Lijah illustrated a dispute he'd had with his friends the week before.
Never mind; the important work of the week was our conversation around what we read and what we thought. That's most of our learning, actually: conversation over lunch or in the car or sitting on the couch after we finish a book. Conversation about whatever takes someone's interest. This morning we talked about the space program and watched Youtube videos of rockets exploding. It may not be organized, but these children are learning many things. Including, especially, the importance of active anti-racism. Happy Martin Luther King Day; let's make it a Martin Luther King Year.
Today we got to check out a new spot in West Concord called Art Gym. To let folks know about their offerings they're holding some free introductory sessions; when I read about them on the homeschoolers mailing list I knew we had to go! There were lots of cars parked outside when we got there so I expected a full house, but as it happened everyone else was visiting the bakery downstairs; we were the only ones there for the art. That was fine. The boys take up a lot of room when they're being artistic!
The artist in charge was very welcoming, and invited us to dive right in making art with the materials she'd put out. Zion and I explored with soft pastels, and Harvey made some idiosyncratic Valentines Day pictures. Then the boys got interested in the wooden drawing model guys, and got some help to kit them out like knights. And the only one who minded when they got a little rambunctious with the rolling chairs was me.
I love doing art, but sometimes it's hard to concentrate on it at home. So when I visit someplace dedicated to creative work—like Old Frog Pond Farm—I'm just filled with inspiration. So much better if said place gives me paper and pencil and invites me to get to work! I'm not saying what I made over the hour and a half we spent there is any good, but I feel good about myself for taking the time to work on it.
I hope we'll make it back to work on some more focused projects; my art muscles need a workout!
It's an exciting week in the world of Pokemon: the release of a new set and the prerelease tournaments that go with it. That's something that happens four times a year, so this is the fourth one we've seen since we started playing with any seriousness at the beginning of 2018. Each time we've been a little more confident, a little more fully involved with what's going on, and this go-round was no exception. Harvey played his second prerelease event of the week this past Sunday—the first time he's ever done two for one set. I would have played too but I couldn't, since I was judging. It was fun.
I've become a volunteer "League Leader" at Omar's, a store in Lexington with a relatively new Pokemon League. This was the first prerelease they've done, and coming into it I was a little nervous about turnout: on the one hand that nobody would show up and we wouldn't be able to run the event, on the other that it would fill up and all my children and their friends wouldn't be able to play. As it turned out it was perfect, with plenty of eager players and room for everyone who wanted to play (Zion decided to just watch; he still isn't confident enough about his reading to want to play with brand-new cards).
I was happy enough with my judging—nothing went egregiously wrong—but Harvey wasn't happy at all with his play. It just wasn't happening for him: he had a chance to come back in his first game but didn't quite make it, then he conceded his next two when he just couldn't draw the cards he wanted. He got a win in the final round but still felt pretty discouraged. I told him never mind: the real purpose of the afternoon was to get a first crack at the new cards, and in that regard Harvey finished near the top of the tables.
This new set also marks the first time I've felt good about building decks with the new cards right away, and two of those cards Harvey pulled were just what we wanted to get started. Of course, that means I had to drop a little too much money this week to order the rest of the cards we need, but that's OK... Harvey'll make it all back in prize money when he gets famous. Or we'll just have fun with our hobby; that'll make it worth it too!