We're working on a complete remodel of our playroom/schoolroom (it's orange now, you can see here). When I look at old photos and see how long the previous arrangement held sway I'm amazed—that futon and "entertainment center" cabinet, repurposed for board game storage, weren't anything like ideal for how we use the space. The worst part was how little organized storage we had for the kids' school stuff: papers, art supplies, found treasures. Lots of good work has gotten lost and wrinkled. So I'm excited to be building new shelves and desks—desks!—where there will be a place for everything. Including our hard-working boys.
The only problem is, building custom furniture is hard and slow. And since Leah and I are mostly tag-teaming when it comes to balancing work and child-minding, when I'm deeply absorbed in wood-working the children are going unminded. Sometimes that's fine, like when they play outside happily with their friends; other times it's less fine, like when they get deeply absorbed in watching shows on the iPad. And it's always true that the longer I ignore them the rougher things start to feel.
So today, even though I had an out-of-the-ordinary Wednesday at home, I laid the tools aside to hang out a little bit. We built some with legos, read some books, played some ball tag, did some math and some drawing. Took a walk together. It wasn't all focused attention—that isn't good either. I did the regular chores of the household and put in an hour or so of work for my job. But the furniture hardly advanced at all (Lijah and I did work a teeny bit on what will soon be his desk). It's a balance. I guess there's no hurry anyway: even unfinished, the furniture is already getting lots of use.
Lijah turns three in a few days, so every afternoon at nap time I have a moment of doubt about whether he's actually going to fall asleep. Not that three is a magical age; I'm told that plenty of kids are still napping well into their fourth year. It's just that Harvey and Zion both gave up any pretense of sleeping during the day when they turned two. Not Lijah! He's still going strong.
Of course, he's always needed more sleep than his brothers do: we noticed that when he was just a month old. And then we also figured out some things about parenting as we practiced on our first couple children. I figured out that, if a boy needs to sleep, I need to make him sleep whether he wants to or not! And with Lijah the key to doing that at nap time is music by the Youngblood Brass Band.
When I wrote about his affection for the group back in 2015 I noted that the soporific effect their tunes had on him was wearing off. But then Leah started working more hours and, in an effort to keep our homeschooling days sane, I instituted a hard line on nap time based on mandatory listening. It works! (I wrote about the first day of the program, before I knew it was going to be a thing.)
Lijah's reaction to the prospect of napping goes in phases. At first, fully cognizant of how tired he is mid-afternoon, he was happy to relax and fall asleep. Then he started to push back some, by whining or by trying to start a conversation. With the magic music backing me up, I could indulge him a little—with the reminder that we were going to listen to our three or four songs regardless. Lately, I just turn on the songs and give him some time to finish up what he's doing; before too long he comes right over for me to pick him up. It's kind of nice! (it also helps that the other two boys have their own rest time routine down pat).
Not everything is lovely and easy. As ever, there are many ways in which he is horrible, or at least ridiculous. But I love him a lot, especially when he's had enough sleep. So I'm glad that part's still working out!
So I finally pulled the trigger on the Amazon order I started back in January—I'm not good at spending money. One of the three books came today: I Learn Better By Teaching Myself, by Agnes Leistico. I'm about half way through it and I'm enjoying it for what it is, which is an early description and defense of student-led learning. It's not really telling me anything I didn't already know, but it's still nice to be reminded that other people have done homeschooling the way we're doing it. And it works! Stops me from busting out the worksheets or whatever when I start getting nervous. At 1¢ (plus $3.99 S&H) I consider it totally worth it.
Besides that and John Holt's How Children Learn, I also ordered a picture book called Frank and Lucky Get Schooled, by Lynne Rae Perkins. We got it from the library a couple weeks ago and all loved it, so it's totally worth owning. It's not a homeschooling book necessarily, but it's all about how life is full of learning opportunities—just like we unschoolers always say. It's about a boy (who goes to school, though not in the pages of the story) and his dog, and what they get up to together. All the adventures are described in terms of school subjects: math problems, science experiments, geography lessons. And it's super funny. Highly recommended by the Archibald family.
If you want to read or talk about any of these books (or any other of the thousands we own) just stop on by most any time! We're always learning around here.
Lijah turned three today. He was cogniscant of the fact, even though he didn't get a party (yet). It helped that his brothers showed a charming level of birthday loving kindness; here's Zion giving him the homemade present he made for him last week (!).
Harvey hadn't actually made a present in advance, but he quickly threw together a fabric letter "E"; seven-year-olds are resourceful.
Besides those gifts, Lijah enjoyed the opportunity to pick what he wanted to eat for all three meals. Bacon, eggs, and pumpkin bread for breakfast, chicken nuggets for lunch, and popcorn and pickles for supper. Yes. He actually only asked for popcorn; I supplied pickles and hot dogs based on my knowledge of his tastes. He had two pickles, and the members of the family with more mature tastes appreciated the presence of the hot dogs. There was no cake, but when he asked for a marshmallow for desert we did the obvious thing.
He's a wonderful boy, and it was my treat to get to spend the day with him. Happy Birthday Elijah!
Eric at Root Simple wrote a post last week wondering whether it made sense for them to be keeping chickens. I was surprised to read it: they wrote a whole book on "the Urban Homestead". And here I am going around saying that everyone should have at least a little flock—not least our friends who will soon be moving out here to the
country slightly more spread out suburbs. So why do we keep chickens?
Reason 1: for eggs. We can get great local cage-free eggs at a reasonable price at the farm around the corner, or expensive pastured eggs at Whole Foods, or, seasonally, local super-expensive eggs at the farmers market. All of which are fine, but how much easier is it to be able to pick up hyper-local, free-range, sometimes-organic eggs right in our own backyard every morning? How much do we pay for them? Um, I'm not quite sure. But I don't think we pay much more than $30 in feed a month, and we're getting maybe 120 eggs per month this time of year, so around $3/dozen? We spent some money on the coop too, but not much, and a long time ago.
Reason 2: as pets. While our hens don't have names—well, not names that we know, anyway—we feel like they're not just livestock. Like, when they stop laying we'll be happy to keep feeding them in recognition of their service. And the boys would be more than happy to hold them and pet them, if they would ever let themselves be held and petted (I guess we didn't socialize them super well to people). I still don't like when they get in the house—but they're part of the full prayer-time roster ("...and Rascal, and the chickens").
Reason 3: as lifestyle accessories. Seriously! We can't call ourselves suburban homesteading hippies if we don't have chickens around the place. And they really liven up the property: visiting kids and people walking by on the street alike seem to appreciate them.
Even the work involved in their care is a positive in my book. Sometimes I even wish there were more of it!
Of course, there are downsides. The permitting process in our town is a little annoying (not to mention costly). And this time of year, as the hens' wake-up call inches backwards past 6 am, I sometimes wish I could feel a little less like a farmer. But never for long. One issue I've heard from a lot of people is trouble with predators, but we've been lucky in that regard. I built the coop pretty secure, with multiple latches to the doors... but in all our years of chicken keeping I don't think we've seen any serious attempt to break in (and now Harvey leaves the nesting box lid unlatched almost every day). We have lost two hens to hawks over the years, but that doesn't seem unreasonable. Maybe Rascal keeps away other potential—more persistent—predators.
So while I won't say categorically that you should get chickens... if you've got any sort of yard at all, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't.
As I predicted, now that Harvey can read there are definitely those moments when we lose him to the charms of a book. This afternoon we spent a while at the Lexington Library, where he found a new comic book (bande dessinnée really..). He spent the whole time there reading it, read in the car, and then established himself on the couch to finish it up. Never mind that we brought his friend Megan home with us and the house was full of fun and music and dancing. In his defense, he had spent a couple hours at Chuck E Cheese for Lijah's birthday outing, so maybe he just needed a little quiet time to recover.
So far, though, he's not as bad as I remember myself being. He's more extroverted, for one thing, so he won't start reading a book if there are lots of other things going on. And he's generally not prepared to commit to chapter books at this point, though he did make an exception for Stone Fox—a Christmas gift—and Wayside School is Getting Stranger (I need to write a whole post about that book—or maybe two..). Oh wait, he also read the Dory books. And I kind of wrote this post before, a couple months ago. Clearly, the record-keeping for the literacy portion of our homeschooling program is not particularly rigorous. Maybe if Harvey gets into a book tomorrow I can work on getting things up-to-date.
Wednesday afternoon found us hanging out at a playground in Lexington. It was before elementary school dismissal, but there were lots of preschoolers and their parents busy playing together. As Zion, climbing over the four-foot-high chain link fence around the play area, teetered precariously with one leg on each side calling "look at me!", a mom of two preschoolers commented approvingly.
"It's great that you let him do that... I'd be a nervous wreck!"
I appreciated the remark! She continued by saying she feels like kids need to have more "dangerous" experiences, something that might be tough these days. I agreed, but reassured her that she might be a little more relaxed about things like that when her second was almost six! We also talked about how dads might tend to be more relaxed about danger, while moms handle the keeping-the-kids-from-dying duties. It was a nice conversation.
And she has a very fair point. The playground we were on was pretty safe—designed to modern American playground standards, with a cushy rubber surface under all the CPSC-approved equipment, but still most of the parents were hovering around their two-to-four-year-olds—or worse, running towards them in a panic if they started climbing up the wrong ladder. What's the worst that could happen, I wondered?
Yesterday evening I read a lovely YA novel by Patricia Reilly Giff called Jubilee. It's about a girl with selective mutism and her efforts at the beginning of her fifth-grade year to connect with the people around her. There were lots of nice things about the book, most notably its setting on an unnamed island in Maine. Besides being an evocative setting for the story, it also meant that it was plausible for the author to have the young characters wandering around on their own—island kids will know everyone they're going to come across, and there's a natural boundary to how far they can roam. Susan Bartlett did the same thing with Seal Island School, and I'm sure there are other examples too.
Now, I don't know if the authors picked the island setting for that reason. Maybe they just appreciate the romance. But it's a fact that it's harder to find—and maybe to write too!—believable stories about kids who face real adventures and get to make real, meaningful choices for themselves in real-world settings. If you ask me, that's why we see so many sub-par fantasy books, especially in the magical-wonder-collides-with-everyday-life mold of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson (it also helps that those two series are such huge money-makers that they've spawned hordes of second-tier imitators). I've got nothing against stories with magical elements. But I like real adventure too, and I think kids should read about it, and I think they should have a hope of seeing some adventure for themselves.
Climbing over fences is a good start. Playing in the woods without adult supervision. Going to the bathroom alone in the library (hey, baby steps). Staying home alone while I walk the dog. Walking to friend's houses. Any six- or seven-year-old should be able to think about doing those things (at least in a safe neighborhood like ours). Island adventures are great—and you should totally read Jubilee, by the way—but I'd like to hope that a little freedom for kids isn't just something that happens on islands.
This past weekend was devoted to celebrating Lijah's birthday (and mine, to a much smaller extent). On Saturday he had his party here. He invited three guests his own age, but they all came with parents and two with siblings, plus we had a bonus Harvey-friend guest at the last minute—so it was a pretty good crowd. Good thing I made lots of hot dogs and mac-and-cheese.
You'll notice Lijah isn't in that picture. He didn't actually come to the table for lunch, on account of he ate constantly all morning (up to and including the pretzel and veggie straw appetizers we had out to start the party). He really enjoyed having a day where his every whim was recognized and catered to. But you can bet he was there for cake time!
Like both his brothers when they turned three, he asked for a chocolate cake with no frosting. I'd remembered Harvey wanting that, but it wasn't until I went through the blog in search of a photo to show him—to make sure he was ok with the hole in the middle—that I was reminded that Zion also had the same cake. He was quite satisfied with it.
Both before and after eating there was lots of running around and various independent play. Present opening happened sometime in the middle of all that, so I didn't get any good pictures. But there were good presents, not least a set of books from Harvey's friend Jack, invited only 45 minutes before the party started—good job Jack! They were just the thing when attention finally started to flag.
As if that wasn't enough party, we did it again yesterday evening. Well, not quite again, because with just grandparents it was, if not calmer—playtime with Grandpa is never calm!—at least more contained. Rather than a cake, Lijah asked for a specific cupcake from Wilson Farm:
Then he asked me to take off all the frosting so he could just eat the chocolate cake part. Which he did. There weren't many presents, but there was a big one. He knew what to do with it.
It was a beautiful green scooter, which I'm sure he'll be delighted to try out when he manages to pry it away from Zion. But not tomorrow... it doesn't look like there will be road to scooter on, with the blizzard warning at all. I'm glad we had fine weather the last couple days for a great party weekend.
Yeah, we had another storm yesterday. Winter holds us in its grip. And its grip feels particularly strong and fierce this evening, with all the snow that fell yesterday compressed into maybe five inches of icy cement, and giant solid snowballs lining the street. We're kind of over it; the boys declined to go sledding today. In their defense, they did play outside for a fair bit yesterday, despite the driving wind and icy snow-rain mix that fell all afternoon. Zion even helped shovel.
But we don't even care about that, because we're enjoying the time change. Yes, you heard correctly; I've complained about losing our morning light before, vociferously in person and a little more mildly in these pages, but actually this year it's gone pretty well. We've managed to adjust bedtime to the new time almost instantly, and mornings are later but still relaxed. Most importantly for me, I'm getting up before the hens again! (long may it last).
This evening saw the boys outside to play after dinner for the first time this year. "Feel like" 15°F, but there was still sunlight so they they were. I think going out late put Zion in summer mode; his friends were wearing snow suits but all he managed was a sweatshirt. (Or maybe he just couldn't find his coat. That happens a lot these days.)
Judging by the forecast winter is going to stick around for a little while yet—that groundhog knew what she was talking about. But we know it can't last for ever, and all that hot sunlight coming through the skylight will be just the thing for starting seeds in a couple days.
So it's too bad that everyone else is finally starting to come around to my formerly grumpy view of time changes. We've had two great ones in a row, so now I'm happy enough to stick with the current system. But we're flexible; if you want to change it, that's cool too.
On Friday morning the boys and I set out on a walk to Whole Foods and the play space. The younger two asked why we weren't bicycling—easy for them to say, they don't have to do any peddling!—and I told them I wanted to be able to go slow, look around, and observe the signs of spring. The ones visible under all the snow. So we hit the road.
The sidewalks were plowed (finally), but there was still plenty of lumpy ice and snow that made it tough for Lijah so, contra the evidence of the picture above, I mostly carried him. There were moments that I wished I had the backpack for him, or at least the Ergo carrier; but then I realized that we weren't actually in any hurry, and I wanted him to be able to go down whenever anything caught his interest. Because even over the mile distance to the Great Road Shopping Plaza there's lots to see—like our local storm drain retention basin
Or the big pile of plowed-up snow in front of Leary Auto.
Or the tree that fell across the Narrow Gauge bike path.
We stopped at those places and many others—Harvey and Zion were completing a series of challenges. It was nice to take the time. Usually when we're walking we have the dog, who—quite rightly—imposes his own priorities. Nice, but also kind of tough for me: I had to work hard not to hurry everyone along, since I'm so used to hurrying. But no, this was totally a trip on which the journey itself was the destination. Lijah (who doesn't do ice or piles or trees) could have all the time he wanted to stomp snow.
Eventually we did make it to our actual destination, and had a lovely time for several hours. Then we had to walk back home, which was... less delightful. But that's another story! (spoiler alert: we made it).
There was some debate in the neighborhood as to when spring officially begins, but it's got to be around here somewhere. Yesterday was a lovely early springish day: bitter cold at sunrise and barefoot-worthy by mid afternoon. So we spent some time outside.
We did some running and some scootering—Lijah working on his new birthday scooter for the first time!—and some wagon hay-rides, all together with a great crowd of friends. And then when the kids all got tired of running they brought ten thousand legos out onto the front porch to play with them in the sunshine. I should have taken a picture, but I was too busy talking about great picture books and home improvements with other homeschooling parents who Know What It's Like.
You know, it's funny. Lijah didn't get nearly as much exercise as the bigger guys—he can't keep up the scootering for long, and he was in the stroller for our walk rather than running back and forth like a spring-mad puppy—but he was the only one to actually fall asleep outside. I guess growing up so fast is hard work!
Happy Spring, everyone.
Leah isn't doing quite as much crafting lately as she has at other times, and almost all of her efforts are going towards making the house more beautiful, with new paint and custom switch plates and outlet covers for every room. I don't blog those—just like I don't blog all the furniture I've been making—because I want to wait until it's "done" to show anything off. And home improvement is never "done". But last week she took a little time off from the switch plate work (and her day job) to learn needle-felting, and in true Leah fashion climbed right up the learning curve in no time. Since she's not writing here these days, it falls to me to present you with her latest creation.
It's for her brother, as a late Hanukah/birthday/housewarming present. He's into meditating, plus he's in LA now so it will help him fit in with the natives. He appreciated it.
Sadly, I missed the needle-felting homeschool day, so I'm not qualified to explain the details of this particular project. But even seeing it take shape I was delighted and astounded by the final product, and I couldn't let it go unblogged. And it's nice to remember that, as much as our time is taken up by encouraging creativity in our kids and putting food on the table, we still have time to be creative ourselves.
After spending too much time Thursday and Friday tuned in to the workings of national politics, as I followed the debates around the AHCA, I was able this evening to get to participate in the democratic process a little more directly in Town Meeting. This was only the second one I've ever attended, but the Bedford Citizen did such a good job with advance press that I just couldn't stay away—even though the proceedings kept me out way past my bedtime. There were—are, it's most likely not done yet—lots of things on the docket, but I mainly wanted to cast a vote to ban thin film plastic bags in town. Which I duly did, and the measure passed.
It turns out I didn't even need to be there, since it wasn't even close enough for a counted vote—though it was much closer than any of the other measures. My brief argument in favor probably didn't do much to sway anyone either, but I was glad to have a chance to say something. Especially after watching all those John Lewis clips this weekend...
I left at the three hour mark, with five or so articles still left to consider. It gives me new appreciation for the 12-hour sessions our national representatives put in when discussion contentious issues. It's all bigger and better down in Washington—but local democracy is pretty important too.
In the middle of the winter when the green of our garden is just a memory, looking at the pile of winter squashes on the counter makes it real again. Butternut squash is one of just two storage crops I've managed to grow in any worthwhile quantities—the other being the garlic—and we've started the past three winters with a significant number of them taking up space in the dining room. At this point in the season the pile is smaller, but there are still squashes! It feels like a success. It also feels like a success to turn one of them into delicious food.
One of my favorite ways to do that is by making roasted squash soup. It's pretty easy. Peel a squash, split it in half, and take out the seeds. Then slice it up, splash some olive oil and salt on the slices, and bake them on a cookie sheet until they're soft and browned on the edges. You can do that ahead of time. (You can also eat the delicious squash morsels right off the sheet when they come out, but not too many—or else you'll have to do another one to have enough for your soup.)
Then it's time to make the soup part. Chop a big onion, a couple carrots, and two-three stalks of celery. Melt a lump of butter in a stock pot and when it's hot toss in the vegetables. Cook them for a while, over not-too-high heat, stirring every once and a while. When they seem ready, toss in the roasted squash and enough chicken or turkey to cover it all up. If you have some delicious roasted-vegetable turkey stock made from the carcass of a pasture-raised bird you're all set for ingredients; if your stock is milder you'll probably want to add some salt, at least. Simmer it all together for a while.
If you have a stick blender, now's the time to put it to use. Blend everything up into a beautiful puree. If you don't, all the ingredients should be soft enough to mash with a potato masher. Don't bother with a blender—what a pain. Lumps are fine too. If it's too thick—not everybody wants to be able to stand a spoon up in their soup—add some more stock or water. Taste it. If it isn't wonderfully delicious, you can add a little maple syrup and a little cayenne pepper... but if you started with well-roasted squash and good stock you won't want to.
And that's our squash soup, beloved of adults and small children alike (the bigger children aren't quite so appreciative). There really should be a photo of the finished product, but it didn't last long enough.