Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sebastopol Mini-Adventure

Spring is just perfect for my mini adventure theme. The kids and I had a very lovely and unplanned quick trip to beautiful Sonoma County recently. I have an old friend who has been living out of state for the last few years (she's not old, I've just known her for a long time.)  Her family had just moved back to California, and thought they were here to stay, so we had vague plans to go see them "sometime." Well, plans change, and rather suddenly, they decided to move back out of state, and soon. That meant, if I wanted to see them, I had to get on it- like now!

So, I heard from them one night, and the next morning, loaded up my kids, a basket of food and sleeping bags, and hit the road. There really is no direct route from here to there, so we decided on a loop. On the way down, we drove through winding Napa roads. Calistoga is an adorable little town, which appeared to be having a music festival, as there were musicians outside every cafe, and people enjoying food and drink all over the main street. We are often leisurely stoppers on our road trips, but we wanted to get to our destination, and see our friends, so we just grabbed a snack and some drinks, and got back in the car.
My car, a big, old Volvo station wagon, was not in the least bit impressed with the hill climbing aspect of this route. At one point, I had a little car behind me, right on my tail, with no passing lane or turn out, and I could see the veins popping out the drivers forehead, and read her lips as she cursed my slowness. My poor car (we call her Gretchen Hildegard) was giving it her all, but she just wasn't made for hills. Since I was already doing all I could to speed up, without much success, and making my engine sound like it would explode in the process, I had my children turn around and smile and wave sweetly to the frustrated motorist. I find that this technique often (but not always) shocks road-ragers so much that they are at a loss as to how to slew further foul mouthed insults at happy children. I, of course pulled over as soon as I had a chance to let the speedy little driver pass me, and tried to mouth "Sorry!" when she passed, but she stared intently straight ahead, and refused to even look my way, let alone make eye contact. Perhaps she was a little embarrassed after realizing cute (seemingly) innocent kids witnessed her angry cussing fit.

This was my daughter's first road trip in the front seat. Being a petite person, with a paranoid mother who drives a car with old style air bags that don't shut off, the girl was 12 before she got to ride in the front seat. So, this- our first trip with just the 3 of us since her birthday- she was my co-pilot. We got slightly lost in downtown Santa Rosa, which caused me some stress at the time, but I won't hold that against her. We finally made it to Sebastopol to see our friends.

Friend and I shared lots of wine and lots of chatting, which probably was a bit distracting to her husband who was trying to work and get ready to move again, but he was a good sport about it. We checked out several nearby parks and a peace garden while there. There was also an old cemetery across the street, which my kids and I spent some time exploring. Reading headstones prompted lots of discussion on everything from average lifespan to immigration to family traditions. We also checked out some very old test gardens that belonged to Luther Burbank- a famed botanist and horticulturist from the early 1900's who is behind many interesting plant breeds like spineless cactus and hundred of fruits and berries. He has been criticized for not keeping careful records and not being "scientific enough" in his work, but that is exactly what endears him to me. He was a man who was just doing something he loved, and doing it his own way- to heck with scientific methods! His Sebastopol test gardens aren't as fancy or well maintained as his main home and gardens in nearby Santa Rosa, but we enjoyed the quiet solitude amidst a busy street- that is, until a storm blew in and we had to run back through the cemetery in the rain.

The weather cleared back up enough to spend a morning at Bodega Beach. The vastness of the ocean has a way of making all my troubles seem smaller. I miss living closer to it. It was slightly cold and windy, but at the beach, kids seem oblivious to temperature, and can't help having fun, running and playing. We feasted on delicious $6 loaves of garlic potato bread from a brick oven bakery, which were a splurge, but really, really, good. Besides, other than gas, the bread was pretty much the only thing we bought on the trip- so we still managed to have our adventure on the cheap.

It was a quick trip- two nights and we headed home- this time taking a route that was more high speed highway, and less winding mountain road. Thankfully, my car does not mind maintaining constant speeds, as long as there is not much in the way of elevation change. My co-pilot in training missed telling me about a couple of upcoming exits, so we didn't end up going exactly the way we thought, which is a good lesson in flexibility. We also stopped about 12 times, making the trip take a few hours longer than it could have. The kids and I often do this on trips when we have time to spare, checking out any oddity or place of interest that catches our eye, whether it be a store shaped like a castle, a petrified forest, a bird and wildlife refuge, or even just a Trader Joe's where we know we can get some extra snackings. This habit drives the husband nuts, but since he wasn't along, we could stop to our hearts content. All in all, it was a fun little mini adventure, and although my husband has trouble believing it, the whole thing hardly cost us anything- maybe $65 tops. My sanity and happiness are well worth that!
We're all in the mood for more good time family fun road trips now, and discussing camping versus a city trip. I'd love hearing suggestions for other adventures on the cheap...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Our Many, Mini-Adventures Quest

My newest scheme of the month is to incorporate more mini-adventures into our homeschooling lives. This isn't exactly a new thing- just something I want to consciously put a little more effort into. I think my entire family has been feeling restless lately- feeling a little too bogged down by the every day, and ready to hit the road and check out new things. I love having our home to come back to, but I also love seeing new things, meeting new people and going new places, and right now, my inner vagabond is calling again.
My whole family is full of travel dreams- we have been for years, and I think as homeschoolers, we should make every effort to take advantage of the freedom we have with our time and learning schedules, and have as many hands on learning adventures as we can.

My crazy husband wants to sail around the world. Unfortunately for him, none of his family shares that dream. The kids and I are more into sailing in calm, tropical locations or on lakes, while always in sight of land. Weeks at sea, and I am sure I would lose my mind and throw someone over board. Since it would probably be my husband I tried to make walk the plank, and he is both bigger than me and the only real sailor in our bunch, it does not sound like the best idea. But, we could try flying to destinations, meeting him there, and sailing around small island chains. We haven't figured out how to fund such a thing, but that's OK. We haven't figured out how to fund my travel schemes either.

What I would really love is to take a cross country trip, and see all the states with my kids. The rich history, the National Parks- it's a homeschoolers dream come true. We often look at the US map, plotting and marking places we want to go, things we want to see, and cities with friends or family that we might stay a night or two with. Six months on the road in a small motor home would be wonderful. Nothing too big where I couldn't park or change lanes- just big enough for the four of us to sleep, eat and shower. If we can't pull that off, I would settle for four months in a camper van. Heck, we'll take a month with tents if that's all we can swing- we just want to do it! I want to see this great country that I live in- and, I'd really like to do it before my children are as large as me. There is a benefit to traveling by car or staying in tents with people who take up less physical space, and since my kids won't stop growing, I can't wait forever, so I need to figure out how to make it happen.

Other big dreams we have include traveling Europe by train, studying Spanish in Costa Rica or Guatemala, and visiting relatives in South America and Africa. Again, I have no plans for how to pay for these dreams either, but I can't let that stop me from dreaming. We all need dreams to keep the everyday responsibilities from sucking the life out of us, but we also need to find a way to work towards our dreams. If we never pursue them, they lose something, and so do we.

The thing is, if exploring the world is what we want, we do have a big chunk of the world right here around us, and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface. So my short term sights are set on places closer to home, and trying to squeeze in plenty of mini-adventures we can do right now, while we're figuring out the bigger adventure plans. Luckily, there are mountains, lakes, beaches, and cities galore, all within a short drive, and not requiring huge chunks of time or money. Exploring our state alone could probably keep us busy for quite a while. We're checking out maps, brochures and websites, and driving my husband nuts asking "Want to go here next month? How about here?" It may not be New York or Washington DC or Europe, but the kids will still be learning about history, art, nature, culture and science. They'll also be learning resourcefulness, and having fun.

Years ago, a wise woman once told me "Honey- you've got to bloom where you're planted."
Apparently, I'm not planted in the pages of a glamorous travel magazine at the moment, but in the foothills of Northern California. It's a pretty nice place to be, and I think I'll follow her advice, and bloom right here for now.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Blasted Nutrition Class

There's nothing like taking a Nutrition class to squelch my favorite healthy eating illusions. I thought it would be a great online college class for me- one that I could share in the learning with my kids- I love healthy food, I love raising healthy little people, and this smug little part of me felt that I already have pretty darn good nutrition. We've been eating whole grains for years- lots of fruits and veggies, in season, fresh and ripe, picked at it's peak, and all that. I'm not big on meat, and very rarely eat fast food. The junk or processed foods I do feed my family are usually at least all natural, if not organic versions. (Thank you Trader Joe's)  In fact, at times, I can be a bit of a food snob, so I was rather taken aback at how this class keeps exposing my flaws.

A number of things that I cling dearly to- like the health benefits of red wine and dark chocolate for instance- well, this class had to burst my bubble by pointing out the extreme calories, carbs and fat that go along with them and pretty much diminish the benefits. Thanks a lot. Then, we had to do this intense three day diet analysis, keeping track of every gram of food or beverage we consume, and logging them into a computer program. The computer proceeded to point out the incredible amount of cheese I eat. Since I don't really like milk, I was justifying cheese as my source of calcium. Apparently, I'm still deficient in calcium, but have plenty of fat in the form of Brie. That actually explains a lot about why I need bigger pants, although I still prefer to think they are shrinking in the dryer. There was also an alarming amount of fat in a tasty super veggie burrito with cheese, sour cream and guacamole, which totaled about a days worth of calories and fat in one meal. It was really good, but reading that kind of spoiled it for me. Perhaps I should have clued into this possibility since it came from a restaurant named Los Gordos. My Spanish speaking skills are remedial, but I'm pretty sure that means I ate my lunch at a place called "The Fatties." And to spoil the fun even more, my kids were reading along with me, so now they are wise to their mother's shortcomings.

Still- some sources of fatty lunches just seem more obvious- a big greasy burger and fries for instance- if I ate that I would feel  like I ate a big, fat-filled lunch. I'd be sluggish, and all blah. But a veggie burrito not only sounds better- it feels better. Too bad the fatties have never heard of non fat sour cream or yogurt for that matter. Big restaurant salads can be the same way- more calories than a burger, and mostly due to fatty dressing. What kind of madness is that?

A similar disappointment  happened a few years ago, when thanks to some annoying news story on NPR, I learned that my grande mocha had a full days worth of calories. I really like my $6 coffees, but I guess it's a good thing I can rarely afford them. It just really diminishes the pleasure of something to know that much about it. I would love to just say "who cares?" and consume away, but as I look down at my spreading lower half that is sitting in an office chair for far too many hours these days, the tasty treat just loses a big chunk of appeal.

I thought I was pretty good at enjoying things in moderation, but once again, that diet analysis revealed that I am apparently more of an indulger in things than I realized. I guess I'll have to be careful with that, especially since it was also pointed out that "as people age beyond their early 30's, metabolism slows markedly." Boy, they just don't stop with this buzz kill business.

It isn't as though I have a bad diet though- it's still pretty darn good- it's just not nearly as good as I had thought it was. Maybe I should take consolation in how much worse other people's diets are. Yes, that should make me feel a little better. My cheese, chocolate and wine loving spirits are slightly dampened, but I think I'll embrace a French attitude of enjoying delicious things in life, just not with American size portions.

So, what do you all think? Is knowledge on matters like these power, or is ignorance bliss?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You want me to do what?

I was recently confronted by something I never really thought I'd hear. But, life likes to throw funny little things at people, and sure enough, the other day, one of my kids said to me:
"I was thinking maybe you could start giving me weekly assignments, and then you could check them and give me evaluations."
I was nearly too baffled to reply, but the child was serious. This kid has always been a hard worker, with a good ethic, committed to her projects and all that. She was one of those babies with wise eyes that would peer into your soul. As a toddler, she would come up with shocking bits of wisdom, and has continued to be a child with a strong moral and logical compass. While I strew her path with many wonderful educational things to choose from, most of the time, the choice is hers. I'm not that into labels, but if I were, I would say we are pretty darn relaxed in our eclectic homeschooling style. We're not exactly radical unschoolers, but we're pretty unschoolish. More often than not, this child has had an amazing sense of self motivation, and I like to let her roll with it. But now she wants assignments, and evaluations. Oh dear.

We've never really done grades. I mean, if one of my kids does a lousy job (as in lousy because they didn't try, not because they're kids) I'll definitely call them on it. But that would be something like "When I said sweep the floor, I meant to sweep the stuff UP and into a dustpan rather than under the rug." or "Was this writing supposed to be in some kind of code, or did you just really not want to do this?" I've never felt the need to dissect their work with letter grades. Sometimes they do a great job, sometimes good, sometimes OK, but  if they're genuinely trying, that's what I'm looking for. If they're not trying, it depends on the reason. They might not like every single thing they ever have to do (like clean the cat box, but the like the cat, so that's part of the deal) but I'm not into the forcing of things that are boring or pointless. Many kids their ages groan about and dread what they consider "learning," but I am pretty darn pleased with the fact that learning is exciting to mine. I'm also convinced that it is because we keep fun and choice in the process. The world has enough suffering without adding to it needlessly. Besides, I'm homeschooling because I enjoy the good times with my kids, not because I want them to struggle and suffer.

We haven't really separated school and life either. It's all part of life. We don't do subjects; we just do stuff. So, it took me a bit to process how this was all going to work. But, I do want to give my kids what it is that they need, so we talked more about it. It turns out what this child is really wanting is not necessarily externally imposed goals and grades (Thank God!!) but more help in learning how she can accomplish her own goals (which are growing all the time,) in staying on track and moving ahead, learning time management, more feedback etc. That, I can do.
She decided she wants to continue progressing more in math and music, so I am helping her to make sure she schedules those in her days at least three times a week. She also enters a lot of writing and art contests, so I agreed to give her more feedback on her work (which she can take or leave) before she submits it. She agreed to try not to be sensitive about it since it was her request. We also came up with a few other people who can also critique her writing so she can hear what a broader audience thinks. Lastly, she wants to earn more money for dance and other things, so instead of just randomly assigning chores, we worked on a list of things that regularly need to be done from which she can choose daily. We agreed that every weekend, we'd set aside a time to talk about the past week, how things went, and what everyone wanted for the week ahead.

We did all of these before, but overall, what I think she is looking for is more consistency and less randomness. Our rhythm has always changed with the seasons, but with all the changes in our lives in the last year, it's been a bit more scattered than usual. Since we're on this life learning journey together, I'm trying to be a better example and work on my own skills in balancing and prioritizing, not to mention stress management. I'm realizing that with some things (like the above mentioned ones for me,) it really is a life long process. I will probably never be one of those super organized, ultra calm and cheery moms, but as long as I'm making baby steps, trying to meet my kids' needs, and raising a happy family, I'm going to be happy with that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Why Must They Spoil Mythology With Mushy Talk?

My kids and I are big fans of mythology and adventurous kids books, and really enjoyed the first two books in the Percy Jackson series. So, when wondering what to do for their Great-Grandmother's 81st birthday a few weeks ago, they decided to take her to see the movie The Lightning Thief.

Granted, it's a bit of an action packed movie full of mythological monsters for a woman her age, but since she loved Harry Potter, the kids thought she'd like this story too.
We had read the first book in the series about a year ago, which is a good amount of time. I hate when I read a book right before a movie comes out and then I'm totally disappointed in the way the film makers butchered the story. After a year, I can usually just enjoy the movie without too many comparisons.

I did enjoy the movie, but there were a few differences that were hard not to notice- like the fact that the main character in the book, Percy, was supposed to be in 6th grade, and yet the movie featured a high school age kid. Apparently, the movie makers must not be planning on doing movies for all the books in the series because that actor is going to be way to old for it. My 12 year old was rather annoyed with the fact that she was expecting an adventure movie about kids her age, but they turned it into a teen movie. Then, the whole google eyes, mushy talk with the character of Annabelle started, which had both of my little cynical children rolling their eyes, and making sarcastic comments. Budding romance was definitely not part of the book.

We were half way through reading the second book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, when we went to the movie, and it did bring up the fact that in addition to changing relationships, aging the characters, and leaving out important details, they also left out a few key people. The fact that the character of Luke wasn't working alone with his evil plot would probably be important if they planning on going any further with the series in theaters, but again, I'm guessing they aren't.

The books sparked our interest in mythology, and had us checking out other books, movies and websites to learn more about the ancient stories of the gods. The movie didn't have that effect, but it did spark some interesting discussions on changing art to make it popular, who gets to decide what "popular" is, and the concept of owning and selling "rights" to a story. For what it was- a mainstream fantasy / action movie, it was fun, but my 12 year old still can't see why they have to try to make a perfectly good mythological story into a romantic one.

My 9 year old loved the it anyway, despite the attempts at teen romance (although he thought it was pretty silly too.) Since he had generously sprung for the big day out with his own money, I tried not to point out any bad acting, or focus on what was lacking. He didn't remember much of the book, and scary monsters and cool special effects are enough to make him happy. It definitely had plenty of those. I saw poor Great Grandma covering her eyes a few times. I expected some nightmares, and we did have a few nights of weird dreams at our house after wards. Fortunately, none were really frightening. I'm just hoping their Great Grandmother is sleeping OK after her birthday date.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Brownish / Green Thumb

Most winters, I look at garden catalogs, excitedly planning and plotting for the growing year ahead. I have always liked the idea of a garden as a part of our lives, of our homeschooling, and as a contributor to our food. This year, for some reason, I just couldn't muster up the effort to care. I think I was just sick of the failure. Every summer for the past few years, in the height of the growing season, when all the booths at the Framers Market are full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and all my gardening friends have bumper crops of tomatoes and squash, I am lamenting what horrible luck I have with my garden. 

The heat is oppressive, my soil is rocky and infertile, I can't keep up with the watering, and things shrivel up in the sun and die. I have actually lost multiple fruit trees from sunburn. Who knew trees could get a fatal sunburn? Every year, I keep trying, and every year, large numbers of plants in my care die a dry and painful looking death. I don't even want to think about how much money I have spent on plants that didn't make it, and I certainly don't want my husband to think about it. Nor do I want him to think about how many holes he has dug which now occupy dead twigs. Sometimes the plants live, but look awful all summer, and don't produce anything edible, so what good does that do me in my quest for self sufficiency? What kind of botanical lessons am I giving my children?

Well, now, it's almost spring, and it's really hard to feel bad about the garden in spring. This is the time of year when everything is green and full of life, and the fact that I live in a beautiful place is very much everywhere I look. While sipping my morning coffee in my overgrown and neglected flower and herb beds with a cat the other morning, I began to notice how many things were not only alive, but blooming and thriving.

And- many of them were actually things I had planted! So, I don't kill everything- lots of things I try to grow die- BUT, lots of things live too, and many of them are doing really well- especially the hardy herbs, like the rosemary above with the happy bee, and the tasty sage, and the fragrant lavender, and the refreshing mint.

I feel like an herb advertisement!

But wait....... there's more.

I have a few vegetables that have managed to live here on our Rocky Ridge Farm as well.

This beautiful Rainbow Swiss Chard is apparently being appreciated by some insects since the plants have a few holes in them, but they are alive and thriving after several seasons of neglect, and we harvest bunches daily. It's an amazing plant  that just keeps coming back year after year. It usually looks pretty good, it is very low maintenance, and  it provides us with lots of tasty greens- it really is a miracle plant in my case.

And then there's this bunch of lettuce that my daughter forgot she planted last fall. We also found some forgotten radishes that didn't look so good, but made a decent addition to a salad. The lettuces were the base of the salad, and a very pleasant surprise at the end of winter. Kids are always proud when they grow something that makes it to the dinner table, and adults are too.  I get a satisfaction out of contributing to our sustenance, even if only in very small bits. I may not have a green thumb, but I guess it's not as brown as I thought either. I decided to call it a lovely brownish-green hue, which means I'll probably buy more plants, and while the weak and high maintenance types may not make it, a few strong super hardy specimens will survive and be a part of my next harvest.
I don't think we'll be living off the land any time soon, but we will be enjoying what we've grown nonetheless.
If else anyone has any amazingly hardy plants to recommend (that can tolerate hot and dry climates,) I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Evil Chickens

My son has been telling me for a while now that some of our chickens are vicious attack creatures, but I thought he was just being dramatic. We got rid of all the roosters, at least all the ones we knew of. I haven't heard crowing in months, and how mean and scary can a hen really be? I thought my little boy was just making a big deal about it because he didn't like having to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. I can't blame him for not wanting to deal with the birds- they do jump up and get excited when they're hungry, and a chicken coop is gross in any season, but it's particularly mucky in winter. So anyway, I dismissed his slight fear of the birds as a way to avoid unpleasant chicken chores.

Well, yesterday I got a first hand look at how evil those hens can be.

A little background...I have a special chicken named Miss Tequila Puffy Cheeks (no, she does not drink tequila, and I wasn't drinking it when she was named either. It's a long story, but I like the bird.) Anyway, she does not seem to think she is a chicken. She refuses to go to the coop, and instead wanders around looking for people or hanging out with the dogs on the front porch looking in the windows and wondering why she can't come in and enjoy the fire. My husband regularly threatens to let her enjoy the fire by roasting her over it for dinner. He dislikes the bird because she is not potty trained, and has made the unfortunate mistake of wandering into the garage (when my husband, who is the one who is so angry about it, left the door open all day) and pooping on the pool table. She also has a bad habit of pooping on the front porch. This is obviously not something I approve of, nor do I enjoy cleaning the messes, but it's not a capital offense.
So, the other day it was pouring, and Miss Tequila must have been feeling lonely because she did not want to be on any covered area besides the porch. Finally, after moving her 5 times, and having her come right back and poop, I decided to lock her in a big condominium style cage that she often sleeps in.
A few hours later, I was trying to feed and put the rest of the animals away, and a chicken named Chuckling (another long story, but basically, she's a chicken who was hatched and raised by a mother duck) would not go to the coop. She was watching Miss Tequila eat, and trying to find a way in to get some of that food. Well, it started to thunder and I was standing in the rain in leaky boots, and I got tired of trying to lure a crazy skittish chicken who was ignoring me. I didn't want to leave her out all night for the coyotes, so I just opened the door to Miss Tequila's condo and threw in some more corn. Chuckling hopped right in, I put everyone else away and headed in to dry off.

Well, the next morning, I kind of forgot that I had locked them in together, and didn't let them out until 9:00ish. That's when I discovered that evil Chuckling had viciously attacked Miss Tequila, plucking out feathers and making her comb bleed. My daughter, who loves animals, was furious at the unprovoked attack, and chased Chuckling down the hill to give her a scolding. We cleaned the wounds and applied some antibiotic ointment. It was pretty gross, but Miss Tequila was a trooper and afterward, we gave her a large serving of her favorite foods. Then, we created another condo for her in a sunny spot near the garden, as her main condo is a little shady in the mornings. We had to leave for town, and although my dogs are usually good about not harassing chickens, I was afraid a chicken with a bloody head wound who hops in the dogs bed might be a little too tempting. So, Miss Tequila was set up in style, and is recovering well. Animals are amazingly hard core about injuries. If any human I know had chunks of their forehead and neck pecked off, we'd certainly be laid up in bed moaning about the pain. She's out in the grass right now eating bugs and acting like nothing happened.

Now I've seen the light- my son was right that some of my chickens can indeed be evil. Maybe that's why Tequila never wants to go in the coop- the other chickens pick on her. It kind of reminds me of how some school children can be with bullying and picking on people who are different. Thankfully, she's OK, and I won't be forcing her to hang around with those mean hens again. As for the bully- I gave her and the rest of the hens a warning. Bad attitudes on this farm will get you a ticket to the stew pot.