Funny You Should Ask
Life without a Field Guide Book 1
Copyright © 2015 by Lill Hawkins
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover art from a public domain illustration by Molly Brett
I’ve published [_Funny You Should Ask _]and [_Unschooling Who? _]previously in article form
Other homeschooling parents make me feel like such a slacker. Like Ava and her husband, Carl. She’s a translator. He’s a biologist who specializes in diseases of plants. This year, they’re educating their three kids in France via field trips to the Louvre and strolls along the Champs-Elysees. She’s translating books from Arabic to French and he’s fighting grape blight or blot or rot or something.
They’re both so intelligent that they have to drink three glasses of wine and take a Benadryl to talk to ordinary people like me. On Thanksgiving this year, while we ate our turkey and cranberry sauce, they digested their dinde rotie and [_sauce de myrtille. _]Then I assume they hit the Beaujolais before they composed a “what our kids are doing in homeschool” blog post. Sandwiched in between photos of French street scenes with tiny figures that might have been them or might have been almost anyone, including pigeons, were lists of what their kids were up to. I swear they only do it to make unschoolers like me feel inadequate.
My kids are very artistic but they’ve never shown any interest in art history or anyone else’s art. Their kids are making a copy of Empress Theodora and her retinue, a mosaic that appears on the south wall of the apse at San Vitale. Life-sized. In their hotel room. With pieces, they manufacture themselves by breaking bottles, ashtrays, ceramic soap dishes and cough lozenges. (The picture of it is kind of dark, but I believe I can just make out the Smith Brothers logo on one of the red robes.)
My kids go to the library and get books about Pokémon, the latest fantasy novel, Barbie, and fairies. Their children write books like “Deforestation and its Impact on Biodiversity, Habitat Loss, Trade and Endangered Species.” With footnotes in Latin. I’m only up to page 568, but I can tell you, we won’t be getting any mahogany furniture anytime soon.
We visit museums and spend more time arguing about whether the blinds are made out of aluminum or plastic than we do looking at the exhibits. Their kids are docents at three museums and a private collection of Faberge Eggs. Imperial Eggs. The eight missing ones.
We have a Black Lab and three cats. They have a Giant Gambian Pouched Rat, a Komodo Dragon, several hedgehogs and a platypus. Laying eggs. It’s their science fair project at the homeschooler’s science fair. We don’t attend ours, ever since the unfortunate incident with the manure vs. chemical fertilizer experiment. (I still say they should have given us extra credit for demonstrating the explosive property of those chemicals).
We play Mario Tennis. They play polo with real ponies and several members of royalty. We spend hours wading in tide pools but never remember to bring our marine biology book, so all we can identify are crabs and those brown wiggly things with all the legs. Sandworms? Clamworms? Well, they’re ugly as sin and can give you a painful pinch, we know that. They often do research for the Cousteau Society. In a shark cage. With the door open.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little here, but honestly, this is what it feels like sometimes, when I read all the blog posts about museums toured, concerts attended, instruments mastered, classics read, projects completed, esoteric knowledge acquired and businesses in operation. Doesn’t anyone else just hang out with each other most of the time? Visit with friends? Read for pleasure? Make things just for the heck of it, not because they’re projects or educational? Consider Jeopardy or the History Channel or PBS specials highly informative? Doesn’t anyone take a walk without a field guide?
We do get a lot of non-fiction out of the library every week and my kids are both very creative, but we’re pikers compared to what seems to be the norm in the homeschooling blogosphere. I have this recurring nightmare that my kids are going to turn 18 and sue me for not making them learn more. Oh wait, didn’t I just read that a ten-year-old homeschooler did that? And represented himself? In a Class Action Suit? And won? Serves you right, Ava and Carl.
We were paying for gas at a convenience store and the kid behind the counter – who looked all of twelve to me – must be the new bifocals – asked the question, “No school today?” Sometimes, it’s, “Why aren’t you in school?” Sometimes, it’s “Doctor’s appointment?” My daughter usually answers, “I am in school. I’m unschooling.” Sometimes this stumps the chump who asked the question and he or she just smiles and nods and we go on our way. Each of us is thinking that the other one just wasted a few minutes of prime talking time that could have been used to comment on the weather or Maine roads or whether it’s too early to plant peas.
Sometimes, though, we run into someone who isn’t just asking to make conversation. These are people who firmly believe that kids should be in school and they don’t hesitate to let us know that. “Don’t you miss your friends?” is one of their questions. “Don’t you worry about socialization?” “What about college?” “How will your kids ever learn to fit into the real world?” “Kids need to learn how to deal with bullies” (Or homework or doing things they don’t want to do or fill in the blank.)
We got tired of answering these questions a long time ago, so I’m thinking of carrying a FAQ sheet around with me so that I can hand it out. It’d save a lot of time. Here it is if you’d like to use it. If you think of anything I’ve forgotten to list, let me know.
Q. What do you do on your day off?
A. The same thing we do every day: live, learn, love and laugh. A. Fight with my brother/sister and drive my mom crazy. (Actually, she’s so close; it’s a walk, not a drive. Some days, she could fall over and be there.) A. Play video games and watch Jeopardy. A. Draw A. Read A. Run around outside. A. Play with friends. A. All of the above, which I can’t do in school, which is why I’m not in school.
As usual, Daughter and Son and I went to the library last Monday. While there, I perused the new books and had a hard time finding anything at all to read, so I browsed the stacks and found a couple of ancient books that looked intriguing but turned out to be more like bible tracts than books when I read them later. Daughter, on the other hand, found a stack of books and was already putting them into her cloth bag when I joined her in the children’s room.
Now, some of my relatives and a couple of friends have criticized me for not monitoring my kids’ reading material. When I was a kid, one of my late mother’s church lady friends told me that reading the wrong kind of books when you’re a child leads just one step closer to the Marriage Bed of Satan. This phrase pops into my mind when Son takes out books with covers that show warrior women wearing the latest in leather bikinis. But I still let them read what they want to read.
Daughter’s reading tastes are, like mine, varied and eclectic, and tend to run in spurts. Lately, she’s been reading a lot of American Girls, Ranger Rick and Discover for Kids magazines, joke books and her constant favorite: animal encyclopedias. Son, on the other hand, enjoys a range of non-fiction, but only sci-fi and fantasy fiction. Lucky for him, fantasy seems to be the genre du jour lately and he also found bushels of books. So we were all booked up and went home to read our heads off.
A few days later, while I was working at my desk and Daughter was reading on the couch behind me, I heard mutters and mumbles and exasperated sighs. When Daughter sighs, work is impossible. If Tolstoy had been blessed with a daughter like Daughter, War and Peace would have been a shopping list. However, I’m not writing War and Peace, although it feels like it sometimes when ideas won’t come, so I turned to her and asked what was wrong.
“Her father’s a jerk,” she said.
“Whose father?” I asked her.
“Lizzie, the girl in this book I’m reading. He’s really mean. First he’s nice and then he’s not nice. And her stepmother is a wimp. She says she’ll help and then says she’s too busy to even see Lizzie. And I think he killed Lizzie’s mother. Lizzie thinks so too.”
This did NOT sound like an American Girl. Well, unless the latest AG takes place in Prohibition Era Chicago and Lizzie’s daddy is a gangster. I didn’t think that was likely, so what the heck was my ten-year-old reading that had this level of domestic violence in it?
“Are you sure about her father killing her mother?” I asked. “Maybe you read it wrong?”
Sometimes, Daughter’s attention wanders and she misses facts and the odd sentence or two in books, although she’s an excellent reader otherwise. This is one of the reasons she learns at home – so that someone else can fill in those little gaps. Like when she read the book about American government, but couldn’t answer the question about why we have an electoral college. Oh wait, that was me! Well, anyhow, she misses things sometimes.
“I’m going to go back to the beginning and read the part where she talks about her mother dying,” she said, “Maybe that’ll help.”
So she did and it helped.
“Yup, he killed her. Killed a bunch of his other wives too. What a jerk.”
“What’s “Lizzie’s” father’s name?” I asked.
“Henry Vee or Vie. It’s V-I-I-I, but I don’t know how to pronounce it. What a jerk.”
So there you have it, folks. Daughter’s pithy but accurate review of Henry VIII. And they say unschooling kids can’t do book reports. Hah! Later Daughter finished the book and treated me to a scathing, but original report on most of the Tudors and a couple of the Stuarts with a short but compelling airing of her views on Phillip of Spain, who was, according to Daughter, also a jerk.
If your daughter or son would like some painless – and actually enjoyable – history lessons, point them to the shelf in your local library that has The Royal Diaries, published by Scholastic. And if like me, your library books of the week turn out to be clunkers, the Royal Diaries aren’t bad for a quick read after the kids go to bed. I’ve just finished Kazunomiya, Prisoner of Heaven, Japan 1858 so Daughter will be reading it today. I wonder what public place we’ll be in when she asks me what concubines are.
If you want to feel utterly stupid, go to www.ixl.com and try to ace all the activities in anything above Pre-K. I don’t know when you went to school, but I started first grade in 1957. There was no kindergarten in our town and my birthday is in April, so I had to wait until I was almost 7 to go to school. I had been reading since I was 3, but I still had to take off my shoes to count past ten, which Miss McElroy, otherwise a very nice teacher, refused to let me do. Still, back then, first-grade math pretty much stopped at simple addition so I didn’t have any trouble with it.
Apparently, things have changed in the academic world since then, if IXL is anything to go by. Daughter and I have a little friendly competition going there, as she reviews her math skills preparatory to launching into 8th-grade algebra. Me, I may have to settle for a spot behind Jethro Bodine of the Clampetts, who, if I remember correctly, was a proud graduate of 3rd grade. I can’t get out of first grade, thanks to something they call “Geometry: Count vertices, edges, and faces.” It’s a diabolical little exercise that can lead the spatially impaired amongst us to teeth grinding and hair pulling. I mean, would YOU be able to figure out how many vertices, edges and faces a 3-D triangle has? Hmm? Do you even know where all those things ARE on a triangle? Well, I thought I did, but obviously, I was wrong.
I did manage to guess my way to a score of 58, but most of that was pure luck and 70 is a passing grade, so I’m still stuck in first. I thought I’d just ignore that little section as a fluke that I could have pulled off if only my blind spot weren’t… well, vertices, edges, and faces, I guess. So, enough of the baby stuff, and I went on to logic problems in third grade. Crikey! Here’s the first question:
Lisa is 4 years younger than Gale. Suzanne is 36. Hiram is 2 years younger than Suzanne and 4 years older than Gale. How old is Lisa? I thought I was really hot stuff to figure out that Lisa is 26, but I really question whether the average 3rd grader would be able to solve this problem without considerable help from someone older. I couldn’t have figured it out in 3rd grade without someone giving me the answer or Lisa telling me, herself. Back then, I was still working on my multiplication facts up to 12, not figuring out logic problems that would have appeared in the NY Times at the time.
Daughter, of course, just sails through this stuff while I slog doggedly through it like I’m wading through treacle with Crocs on. I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that the little brat snickers up her sleeve every time we compare test scores. She’s probably going to be done with what she needs to review way before our month-long membership is up, but I’m not canceling it until I battle my way to the upper grades. Well, at least, to fourth grade. No! Make that 8th grade and I won’t stop until I get passing scores on every damned one of the practice areas.
Back in 8th grade, I failed algebra, but a kind teacher gave me a C- because I had A's in all my other subjects and he didn't want to ruin my report card. I floundered through math until I quit school to get married halfway through my junior year. I never "got" algebra ( the marriage didn’t last either) and only got a weak grasp on geometry until about five years later when I trained to be a welder and found that my lack of math smarts was holding me back. I could weld with the best of them, but when it came to the math part of the training, I was lost. So, like the stubborn eejit that I am, I went out and got a math tutorial on algebra and geometry and completed the course, along with two large workbooks, inside of 6 weeks. At that point, I "got" algebra and geometry with a vengeance. I also got my GED and aced the math portion, much to my surprise.
Since then, I’ve completed about 3 years of college classes, here and there and in no coherent fashion. I just took what I wanted for my own purposes. Creative writing, philosophy, science and women’s studies. I never took math again, which is no doubt why I’m shaky on vertices and other geometric wossnames. Starting tonight, however, while Daughter thinks that I’m playing games online, I’m going to do what I did lo those many years ago. I’m going to learn what the heck a vertice is when it’s at home, scope out geometry and logic until I’m blue in the face and burn through 8 grades of math at IXL. The fact that IXL costs 19 dollars and change a month is all the incentive I need. I may be a little slow at some numbers, but not the ones that tell me what something is costing me.
Somehow, without me even noticing, it’s time for our end-of-year review once again. This is where I tell our reviewer, a fellow homeschooler who holds a teaching certificate, what the kids have learned this year and how they’ve made progress, which is all that’s necessary for the state of Maine, thank goodness. This is also where I suddenly realize that they haven’t learned anything or made any progress since the last review, because all they’ve done for a solid year is play computer and video games, argue and goof off.
Of course, I could always call that becoming skilled at applied technology, rhetoric, and creative time-management. It’s true, but I’d like to think that I don’t have to fudge to satisfy the “making progress” requirement and I’d also like to reassure myself that this unschooling wheeze is working. So, I cast my mind back over the year and look for instances of learning experiences, but it’s really hard to pin them down and isolate them.
The trouble with trying to assess unschooling is that it’s such an organic process. Because we’ve gone to the extremely relaxed (practically boneless) end of the unschooling spectrum, I don’t assess the kids’ progress, except in the holistic way of being aware that they’re maturing and changing and gaining knowledge. Where some of my more “schooly” friends can tell you what reading or math level their kids are at, I have no idea if mine are ahead, behind or level with other same-age children. All I know is that they read a heck of a lot.
I can, however, tell you that they can figure out what they need and want to figure out when it comes to math. Sit my daughter down in front of a Beanie Baby page and she can instantly tell you how much the one she wants costs, complete with shipping and how long it will take for her to save up for it at $2/wk. She can also tell you how much more quickly she could get it if we increased that by fifty cents and how many months, weeks, days and minutes it is until her birthday if she has to wait until then because we won’t loan her what she needs to get it now.
Son uses math of all sorts in his drawing and has been responsible for several of my longer after-lunch naps, when he’s explained the Golden Mean of Art or some such and exactly which ratio he’s used for each of the ten drawings of heads and shoulders he’s working on at the moment. As my chin hits my sprouted rye with ham and Swiss sandwich, I see that there’s absolutely no reason to worry about his grasp of fractions and I also realize that after-lunch math is still putting me to sleep, just as it did back in 8th-grade algebra.
Unfortunately, or probably fortunately in cases where sanity is something the people involved value, none of the folks who evince concern about my kids’ academic prowess live with us, so they don’t experience the day-to-day evidence that unschooling is working on all levels for Daughter and Son. For some reason, almost every time we run into any of these doubters, my kids seem to come all over witless.
We’ll be at the park, having a good old time, when Daughter gets a piece of grass in her eye. As another mother, who’s a former science teacher, holds her, I try to get the grass out. Daughter shrieks that it’s going inside her head and will get into her brain, thereby showing a complete lack of knowledge vis a vis the structure of the eye, which all the other kids there learned when they were toddlers, and which Daughter knows, but forgets in times of trauma.
Or Son, who is trying to be more independent, with my blessing, tells the woman at the pharmacy that his birthdate is March 29th and she asks him, “what year is it?” and he looks at me in terrified appeal. Only after we leave the poor woman, who is valiantly trying not to laugh, does Son explain that he didn’t know whether she meant “what year is your birthday” or “what year is this” or something entirely different involving prescriptions and pharmacies that he didn’t understand. It doesn’t help that we’ve chatted to that particular clerk about how wonderful unschooling is, nor would it help to explain that it was a lack of confidence in successfully completing a new interaction, rather than a lack of IQ that was in play there.
Just to make myself feel better, I sat down the other night and made a stream-of-consciousness list of what I’m aware of that the kids learned this year. I know I didn’t catch everything because half the time I don’t know that they’ve learned something until they surprise me with it by telling me something I don’t know. Like the time Daughter said that Killer Whales aren’t whales; they’re Dolphins. Dolphins! Killer Whales can weigh up to 6 tons and they EAT whales. Good thing I didn’t put money on it, because she’s right. (I still maintain that they should rename them Giant Killer Dolphins, just to make things clearer.)
Anyhow, my list ran to several pages for each of them by the time I was done. It included books they’ve read, videos and TV shows they’ve watched, radio shows and podcasts we’ve listened to. Museum trips, field trips (although every time we leave the house it’s a field trip, I guess). Conversations with all kinds of people and the Democratic Caucus for Son, newscasts we watch together and then discuss and probably about a million or so questions that sent one or all of us off to the library, the computer or a friend who might know the answer.
Then there’s the stuff that they’ve learned from their friends such as the medieval dances and (in Son’s case) the fighting in armor from the Society for Creative Anachronism we belong to. Not to mention the feasts in costume and the other SCA events which include Medieval Arts and Sciences such as fiber arts, painting, and crafts. There’s the music they listen to and Son makes with his saxophone and Daughter makes with her guitar and beautiful voice. There’s drawing and (in Daughter’s case) photography and writing. Their blogs. The housework, cooking, personal care and chores they’ve learned to be responsible for, unlike most of their friends who are told that “school is your job” and who can’t cook a meal or do their own laundry without help.
I guess for people who are used to testing kids against other kids based on what a group of adults thinks they should know at a certain age, assessing my kids’ progress in life would be tough. It’s like the different results you get from painting freehand or painting by the numbers. You can get a masterpiece, either way, but my kids do much better when they create their own picture. They need more control over their lives and education than public school allows.
So, that’s why I’m temporarily flummoxed every spring, trying to put down on paper what I know in my heart. My kids are making progress, although maybe not the progress that they’d make in school where they were miserable. They’re learning all the time and as a friend of mine says, they’re human becomings just like all of us. That’s progress enough as far as I’m concerned.
Well, I don’t know if it’s really Instamatic Flu that I have, but I’m Sick. When I mentioned it in an email to a fellow homeschooler, she sympathized and said she understands how hard it is to be sick when your kids are at home, rather than at school. I started to agree and then I thought a minute and realized that it’s actually easier to be sick when you unschool. However, my friend’s homeschooling method depends on lesson plans that she sends in to some online company and there’s a schedule, so when she’s sick, she has a dilemma.
Should she drag herself off the couch, she wanted to know, to coach little Walford when he draws a blank while doing his times tables worksheet? Or should she just croak out the answers thereby staying on schedule, but teaching a collateral lesson about cheating and the goal of education and probably end up with a drugged out, coffee-brandy swilling, smash and grab man for a son, who blames it all on her when he’s older? (When she’s not feeling well, my friend is a tad apt to see the glass as half full… of hemlock.)
Anyhow, her email made me more aware – or as aware as I can be considering that my head aches, my lungs are creaking like the bellows on a hurdy-gurdy, my throat is so sore that the only thing I can swallow is my pride and the world seems to be a bit more swimmy than it usually is when I’m above-water… Where the heck was I going with this? Ah! So her email made me realize why unschooling beats schooling when Mom is sick.
For one thing, unschooling means that I don’t have to get up until I want to. That’s a huge deal nowadays. I mean, how many people can say that? If they don’t have a job, they have kids in school. Of course, when I’m not sick, I almost always want to get up when Geekdaddy gets up so that I can see him before he leaves and help him find all the things that went mysteriously missing overnight. Like his wallet, his keys, the top of the percolator.
(We found that in the cats’ food bowl. Evidently, the geek was making coffee, stopped to feed the cats, left the top in the bowl and got distracted somewhere between the kitchen and the mudroom so the cats never got their food. But it’s okay, they’re tubby cats anyway. The real tragedy here is that the geek had to wait an extra ten minutes for his first cup of coffee.)
But Geekdaddy is on a training trip out of state this week, so when I want to get up has changed to when I have to get up to use the bathroom. Same for the kids, evidently, because they usually get up just as their geekdaddy is leaving so they can hug and kiss him goodbye, but now they’re straggling downstairs just as I’m plopping down in my recliner after exhausting my physical reserves tottering the twelve feet from the bathroom to the living room. (Hey, I told you I was Sick.)
And this is why unschooling is much better than schooling for sick moms. They bring me tea. They bring me toast. They ask me if I’m warm enough. Son even takes my temperature and supplies me with vitamins, herbs and zinc lozenges. Then he hooks up the nebulizer for me so I can take the albuterol treatments the doctor prescribed to keep me from coughing while we watch funny videos together. (This afternoon, it’s going to be Arthur and Some Like It Hot and maybe an episode of The Irish R.M. if we’re not square-eyed before then.)
Son cooks. Daughter reminds me to nap and tucks me in with a kiss on the forehead, just like I do for her when she’s sick. Then they do something quiet so I can sleep and wake me up when it’s time for another round of medicaments or for chicken soup or because the cats had a fight and one is bleeding. (They’ve been trained. When Mom naps, there are only three reasons to wake her: flames, blood or someone giving away money.)
My doctor told me yesterday that what I have is rampant in our area and hangs on for weeks. He said I might find myself coughing, weak and tired for 3 months or more like he was. Tchah! Give me a week at the most of the kids taking up the slack and I’ll be right back in mid-season form. (Also, give me codeine cough syrup at night to stop the coughing, tons of herbals and my usual vitamins, aromatherapy, garlicky-oniony chicken soup and a daily shot of whiskey with lemon and honey. I may not get better any sooner, but I’ll sure as heck feel better.)
My kids are both artists. Son has already sold a portrait in colored pencil. Daughter spends about half her waking hours drawing little people and creatures and making up stories about them. I’m not an artist. As the old saying goes, I can hardly draw water. Words are my art form if art form is the phrase I want and it probably isn’t. However, I’m a great audience and enthusiastic supporter of their art.
That’s how we all wound up at an art class in an old building over a craft shop this week. Son was sitting in on the class to see if it was advanced enough for him. Daughter was there to see if it was too advanced for her. I was there to lend support – moral or otherwise – if either of them needed it. Daughter did.
We’d no more than sat down when the instructor introduced herself, whipped some paper and pencils down in front of everyone, taped a piece of paper to her easel and proceeded to draw a face. First, she drew a vertical line through the middle of the sheet. Then she drew four horizontal lines across the vertical line at regular intervals. By the time she started to draw two ovals for eyes, Daughter was frustrated, red-faced and lost and we had answered the “is it too advanced” question. She pushed her paper away and said, “I’m not doing this.”
However, both kids had agreed to stay for the whole class when they asked me if they could try this class, so I moved over next to her and pushed her paper back in front of her. “You can just do your best,” I said, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
But for Daughter, it does have to be perfect, which is why she erases until there are holes in the paper sometimes.
“I’m not doing it,” she said again, “It’s too hard and I can’t do it like the other kids.”
Since the other children were all, at least, two years older than her, that wasn’t surprising.
“Just do your best to follow the directions,” I said, “I’ll help you.”
Her look could have curdled milk.
“Mom, you’re a horrible artist. I have to help you draw. Please don’t embarrass me. Let’s just leave.”
I wasn’t leaving. The teacher, Kate, took pity on us at that point and came over and helped Daughter draw the lines. Daughter cooperated, albeit with bad grace, and Kate told her that the class wasn’t really for beginning artists.
“I’m not a beginner,” Daughter said, “I’ve been drawing for years. I just don’t draw your way.”
“Well,” Kate said, “If you want to get better at art, you might want to try to follow this method of drawing a face. Even great artists have to learn the basics.”
Daughter bent her head over her paper, but I could see a mulish glint in her eye and knew that she wasn’t buying this line of reasoning. Reasoning isn’t something she’s keen on anyway. Like a lot of very creative, sensitive little girls, she operates on feeling and impulse much more than on reason. I smiled at her, encouragingly, as Kate went back to the easel and continued the lesson.
Daughter did stay for the whole experience, but somewhere around the nose, she thumped her hand on the table and turned her paper over. As Son and the other four kids chewed their lips, frowned in concentration and tried earnestly to reproduce the face the teacher was drawing, Daughter doodled. At first, her face was drawn into an angry scowl. She huffed a few times, sighed and tapped her feet. But gradually, as her paper filled with little creatures and girls and words, her face relaxed. By the time she had almost filled the sheet; she was smiling to herself and humming.
When Kate was done drawing the face at the easel, she went around to everyone and commented on their drawing. When she got to Daughter, Daughter looked up with a defiant look, as if daring her to take her to task for doodling.
“Ah,” Kate said, “You’re doodling. I love to doodle. Can I see what you’ve done?”
Daughter passed the paper over to Kate, sat back and folded her arms.
“What a gift you have for drawing!” Kate said. “Your little creatures are so alive! They look like they could jump right off the page! You need to keep drawing like this and expressing yourself. You’re a very talented artist. I love your style.”
Daughter looked startled and then she grinned at Kate.
“I’m sorry I didn’t do the face,” she said, “It was just too hard.”
“It was too advanced for you right now,” Kate said, “Maybe when you’re older, you’ll want to try it again. But for right now, just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re fine just the way you are.”
Son decided the art class wasn’t advanced enough, so he’s opting for Kate’s adult painting class. Maybe Daughter will want to take the kid’s clay sculpture class someone told me about because she’s even better at clay sculpting than she is at drawing. We’re looking into it. With her, everything depends on the instructor. It takes a special person to see through the prickly surface to the little girl underneath who is always afraid that she’s not measuring up.
That’s why learning at home is such a good fit for her. Unlike her last teacher, I don’t think that learning under pressure is something everyone has to master, especially when they’re in second grade. Nor do I think that there’s only one way to learn or that every kid should learn the same things at the same age. Daughter may never learn to draw a face using vertical and horizontal lines to anchor the features. She may not make her living with art. She may decide to run a daycare for rescued elephants or become a forest ranger, two things she’s talked about doing later in life.
Whatever she does, she’ll do it with a unique touch and bring to it something that no one else can. Speaking of which, some of the little creatures she drew during class are labeled “moing moings.” They’re something like rabbits and people get upset with them a lot. They’re not bad, Daughter says. It’s just that they always have to do things their way and sometimes that gets them into trouble, but they don’t mean to cause trouble for other people. She says they’re really lovable and all they want is for people to let them be themselves. I think moing moings rock! I also believe I know one, personally.
We were all heading home from a grocery shopping expedition last weekend. Even the geek had been pried away from his beloved computer tweaking and was
only reading one book and talking on one of his cell phones giving us his full attention.
“What does ish mean?” Daughter said.
“Sorta,” Son said.
“Well, in a Dr. Who episode, -Ish was a sentient word which was trying to remove all meaning from language. But thanks to Dr. Who’s transgalactic babel masters, language is saved and -Ish is sent into conceptual space with the longest word in the world and the man who loves that word. And Dr. Who gets into trouble over money.” Geekdaddy said.
“It’s a suffix that means around or about or somewhat. Like if you’re going to meet someone, you might say that you’ll meet them around nine-ish. Or you might be just a little hungry, so you say you’re a tad peckish.” I said.
“So, if you’re starving, you’re peck?” Daughter asked.
“Maybe that’s not the best example. Can anyone think of a better one?”
“Butterdish,” Son said. “Like my toast is when you put the butter on it in that little thin layer that sinks into the bread and it’s like eating saltines. It’s not buttered; it’s buttered-ish.”
“Well,” the geek said, looking thoughtful, “That last VW van I had was so decrepit that it was just van-ish.”
I tried to get things back on track. I’ll never learn.
“How about new-ish? You know, not brand new, but pretty new.”
“I have one,” Daughter said, “How about sweet-ish?”
“Right,” I said, “Not really sweet, but sort of sweet. That’s a good one.”
“No,” she said, “I mean from Sweden. Swedish.”
“Well, that’s a word, Sweetie, but it’s not an ish word.”
“It has ish on the end.”
“But the ish isn’t the ish that means somewhat or about or reasonably. It’s the ish that means of a nationality or the language of that nationality.”
“You didn’t say that when I asked you what ish meant. That’s cheating.”
“It’s not cheating. I just didn’t mention that meaning, because I thought of the other meanings first. I would have gotten to it.”
“You didn’t mention the Dr. Who episode either,” Geekdaddy said, “I can’t believe you missed that one. It’s a classic. They almost found the transcendental word.”
“Is that something to do with braces?” Daughter asked him.
“It’s a ripoff,” Son told her, “It’s where they lock you in a room with hundreds of other people all weekend and take all your money and you can’t pee unless they let you. But they teach meditation so you don’t care.”
“There’s a little more than that to Transcendental Meditation,” I said, “True, it costs a lot of money, but some studies have shown that it can relieve stress and even lower blood pressure. There’s something to it.”
“What kind of medication do they give you?” Daughter wanted to know.
Before I could set her straight, the geek was off on a rambling discourse about some guy named Swami Sutureself, or something like that, that he met at a geek convention in Dallas. He said the guy was really impressive. Everyone at the convention was signing up for his courses.
“They had Transcendental Meditation courses at a computer convention?” I asked him.
“No, he was a Skype tech. Or maybe he worked for Google Adwords. I dunno. But he was good.”
“What does this have to do with Transcendental Meditation?” I asked.
“Or ish?” Son asked.
“Or the other ish?” Daughter asked. “And who is Dr. Who?”
Suddenly, I felt reality slipping out from underneath me, and I knew that the next sentence uttered was going to be -
“Who’s who?” the geek asked, looking up from his cell phone which he was programming to play lawnmower engine sounds as a ringtone.
“She wants to know about Dr. Who,” I said, “And you can tell her as soon as we get home.”
“Ha!” he cackled, as we pulled into the yard, “Tell her? I can do better than that. I’ll show her the -Ish Episodes. I’ll even let her wear my Dr. Who scarf while we watch. And you say I’m not into unschooling.”
He went off to find the Dr. Who episodes and I sat down on the back deck to do some Transcendental Medication with a glass of Riesling and ponder whether it’s possible for unschoolers to have substitute teachers. After a few sips, I decided that it’s not only possible but mandatory.
“Well, we got the first core loaded,” Geekdaddy said to someone on the phone, “But I dunno if the second one is gonna go as smoothly. If it starts to melt down, call me. Even if it’s midnight. If there’s gonna be an explosion; I need to know so we can warn people.”
As I slice olives onto a pizza, I wonder to myself if the geek has started a new career as a nuclear physicist or engineer at a nuclear power plant. He’s just a tad absentminded about telling me things like that. And everything else, come to think of it. His mind is usually somewhere in a galaxy far, far away or out on the Net.
This time, however, I learned later that his mind was right where it should be: focused on switching over a significant part of the state’s telephone system from one [insert appropriate telephony word here] to another [repeat the word in the first set of brackets]. This is apparently akin to going from a Mac to a PC and can have the same results i.e. crashes, loss of data, outages, and techs that gnaw their pocket protectors and yearn for the good old days when you picked up the phone and said, “Mabel, get me Central.” And she did.
Sometimes I think people go a little too far with this acronym stuff. For instance, the geek was explaining some esoteric operation that the new phone system was performing and said it could do things that you just couldn’t do with POTS. I know a lot of the terms he uses, but this was unfamiliar, so I wracked my brain (and missed the rest of his, no doubt, fascinating story) trying to come up with the words that POTS stood for.
Phone Over Transmission System? Pliable Outdoor Telephone Server? Pleasant Operators Telling Stories? I was stumped, so I gave up and asked the geek. “Plain Old Telephone System,” he said. Boy, I sure wouldn’t have thought of that one. Nope. No way. Why the hell he couldn’t just say “phone system” is beyond me. TSFG, I guess. Too Simple For Geeks.
Lingo is great if you’re on the inside, but might be inappropriate in some situations. When I dated a jockey, many years ago, he used to pray before a race. If he thought it was going to be a tight race, he’d say he was going to light a candle to the whole trifecta: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For an easy one, he’d say he was just gonna hit the quinella: Jesus and Mary. His mother went to early mass every morning and he’d tell her to put a deuce across the board on the favorite, meaning the saint whose day it was that day. He did win a lot and he always gave half of it to the church, “to make sure I’m in the photo at the last finish line” as he put it.
Even families have a lingo all their own. In our family, very young children are called, “bibbits,” which someone told us is a French-Canadian term for pesky little mosquitoes. My oldest son took it a step further by saying that little bibbits are always making noises, “Bibbita-bibbita-bibbita,” and that stuck too. He’s the one who used to say “beedfirder” for bird feeder and “swatflyer” for flyswatter and “ours” instead of our. We called him a Toon because he couldn’t resist cartoons on TV and he’s still “Ours Toon” in affectionate moments, even though he’s bigger than I am.
We try to keep this at home, though so that we don’t weird out too many friends and neighbors. Some of them, however, don’t return the favor. Our mailman leaves us cryptic notes about the legal requirements for mailboxes on rural routes, complete with diagrams with arrows and hash marks. Means nothing to us. Every once in a while, we move the mailbox a few inches forward or backward and repaint the number on it in a different color and size. We keep getting mail, so I guess we’re satisfying the requirements of the USPS.
When my kids went to school, I got daily missives covered with jargon that might as well have been Greek to me. I particularly liked the rubrics (isn’t that a great word?) that came home with the report cards. There was one for writing so that I could compare my daughter’s little stories with what she and every other second grader in the nation were supposed to be writing for stories. Like anyone can know that? Hello? And we wonder why our educational system isn’t working.
If Ma Hemingway had gotten little Ernie’s rubrics, he might have gone into remedial Ed for English and spent his life selling insurance or something. “Ernest needs to put more expression and depth into his writing. Please work with him on this list of adjectives that every second grader should use in his writing so that his stories are more interesting and not so one-dimensional. You may refer to the rubric for further information.”
The man won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for a novelette that could have been titled, “See the Old Man Catch a Big Fish”, and still without using all the adjectives from the second-grade list. Amazing! Warning: Digression ahead. Both the Republican’s educational program and the evangelicals’ favorite book series are focused on not being “Left Behind.” Coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe that it’s an ingenious plot to bring back mandatory school prayer. Hey, what else used to keep us from being left behind on tests, other than writing on our cuffs and looking at our neighbor’s paper?
You know, after reading this over, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of my writing, while possibly autotelic, also borders on pleonasm. (That’s writer lingo. You can look it up.) Instead of warning about digressions, I should alert my readers when I’m about to get back to the point, so they’re not too startled by the abrupt shift. Unfortunately, that would mean that I’d have to have a point and actually know what it is, myself. I guess I’ll just paddle around in the stream-of-consciousness for now.
Writing answers to the question, “Why aren’t you in school” in a previous essay got me thinking about the second most common question unschoolers get asked: “But what do you do all day if you don’t do school?” I’ve touched on that in other essays, but I guess maybe I should jot down some “scenes from a typical unschooling day” to pass out at the supermarket and restaurants we frequent. I could start with what we did today, so far.
We ate breakfast together while chewing the fat (ham and eggs, actually) with Geekdaddy before he went off to tweak something at work. Back in the Dark Ages when the kids went off to school, they’d have to rush through breakfast so that they’d be down at the bus stop for 7. Now, we often watch the birds while we eat or the cats (sometimes both, when the cats are chasing birds or vice versa), or we get into discussions and end up with more reference books than plates on the table and breakfast runs right into lunch.
This morning, dirty clothes were oozing from every hamper, so Son hauled them downstairs to the basement and I did the laundry. The laundry room is right around the corner from my basement lair, so that works just fine. Daughter took out the dog and threw tennis balls until they were both knackered and then settled down with her Pokémon figures, which she’s arranging into scenarios and then photographing with the old digital camera Geekdaddy gave her recently.
Son is working on a colored pencil drawing. He went upstairs to wrestle with reproducing blonde hair now that he knows that it’s actually not blonde, but many shades including brown, black, greenish brown and a caramel shade that eludes him and will probably mean a trip to pick up another handful of Prismacolor pencils soon. His cat went up to assist him. (Somebody has to keep the catnip mice under control and he doesn’t seem to have the knack in spite of her long hours of trying to teach him. The kid wastes way too much time on frivolous pursuits like Art and learning, in her opinion.)
By 9, we were all jonesing for a snack, so we hauled out the homemade goat cheese that my friend, Grace, who also creates beautiful jewelry, gave us yesterday and slathered it onto pita chips and chowed down. There’s something about eating cheese from goats whose noses you petted the day before that you just can’t get from a store. Not to mention that I sat there in Grace’s kitchen while she shaped the cheese into rounds and then rolled it in her own blend of herbs.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an HGTV Network camera rolling in the background; a little segment on Artisan Cheesemakers of Maine Who Also Create Jewelry, Raise Goats, Chickens, and a Huge Garden While Homeschooling Children and Making the Rest of Us Feel Like Slouches. Martha could take her correspondence course, let me tell you.
So, what are we going to do with the rest of the day? Well, that depends. We’ve emailed Uncle Wil to see if he wants to do some more work on the art kit he brought over last week. It’s a nifty set of posters of famous artwork for coloring, a mobile to put together, a deck of art cards to color and a bunch of other stuff. Daughter opted for the Mona Lisa and did a really nice job using some colors that Da Vinci might not have had in his palette, but it’s all good. I’m doing what look like acorns around the outside of the frame because that’s as much art as my kids trust me with. Even then, Daughter did the first one and only gave me one colored pencil so that I won’t get confused and use the wrong color.
I’ll probably drive down to get the mail, because the black flies are voracious right now, and Daughter will probably go with me. We always see something interesting when we go. Last week, we saw an osprey with a fish in its talons, the ever-present turkeys, frog’s eggs in the ditch and in a vernal pool beside the road, coyote poop, a dead log where something had been scratching for bugs – we figure it was a skunk – and a newt that scurried under another rock when we turned over the rock it was under.
There’s usually a chipmunk that crosses the road in front of us at the same place, a pileated woodpecker that we hear but never see and sometimes a raven that flies in front of us almost all the way down to the mailbox. My daughter likes to think that the raven is there to remind us of her late brother because his Native American birth sign was the raven. I’m not a spiritual person, but I don’t tell my kids what they can believe. However, if she expects to see my Native American birth sign animal hanging around after I stick my spoon in the wall, she’ll have to boogie on over to the nearest beaver pond, because I’m a beaver. (Well, at least, I have the teeth for it.)
Daughter will no doubt post to her blog while I take my daily nap. Sometimes I actually doze, but mostly I let my mind wander and then reel it back in to see what it gathered out there. I’ve gotten some of my best inspirations during naps. We may watch a Standard Deviants Biology video or we may not, depending on how we feel. We might play Mario Brothers Tennis on the game cube or not. Reading is always an option, as is cooking something new.
Tomorrow, we’ll probably venture forth to the library, the art supply store, maybe the university museum if they have anything new on display. There’s an art gallery downtown that we’ve wanted to check out and someday soon we’re going to go to Portland to spend the day. Maybe hit the art museums and wander around the waterfront gawking like “people from away.” Another day, we’ll go to the Mid-Coast area, walk on the beaches, eat some seafood, maybe take the ferry to Isleboro and walk around there.
Our days probably sound pretty humdrum to people with kids in AP classes, sports, dance, and gymnastics. When you come right down to it, we don’t do an awful lot. To me, though, it’s more what we don’t do. We don’t have rigid schedules. We don’t march to someone else’s drummer. We don’t learn things because they’ll look good on a resume or because some authority thinks everyone should know it.
My kids follow their interests and I follow mine. Sometimes, they’re the same. Sometimes, mostly with art, they’re not the same, but I’m an appreciative audience. In spite of the fact that they almost never crack a textbook or workbook, my kids are also picking up the practical things they need to know such as math skills, science, spelling and grammar. Sometimes, it seems almost like osmosis, the way they soak up something in minutes that takes weeks to learn in school. And that’s what we do all day.
(Warning: This is
slightly a little bit A LOT racier than my usual stuff, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Has anyone ever asked you how your kid is going to learn about sex if they don’t go to school? Well, several people have asked me that and now they’ll get an answer. Mind you, I think it’s a pretty stupid question, because the human race managed to keep itself stocked just fine way before there were schools, so the little nippers must have been learning about the birds and the bees somehow. But now, apparently, we don’t feel that parents are capable of explaining how to reproduce and, more importantly, how not to reproduce, and also what all of that has to do with love, respect, responsibility and all like that.
Well, at least in my case, my restaurant karma, which you may remember from a couple of other articles, brought sex education right into the dinner table conversation, just like they tell you to do in those public service announcements on TV. By the time we were done, we just about had to hide our heads under the tablecloth. My tendency to snicker when served with breadsticks, which I acquired during my other restaurant visit with the two drug salesmen who were discussing how to “enlarge your proboscis naturally” with diagrams they drew on napkins, had progressed to any “stick” shaped food. But back to the lesson.
We were sitting in a local restaurant, right next to a table where four Canadian women were just being seated as we ordered. Daughter was trying to decide whether she wanted an iced tea or a raspberry iced tea, which seemed to be on par with China deciding whether or not to devalue its currency, only a little more complicated. I was trying to find something that didn’t have a nickname like “Bunyan-sized” or “Belly-buster.” Our neighbors to the North (do they still call Canadians that in social studies? do they even HAVE social studies anymore?) were discussing the relative merits of drinks before dinner or drinks with dinner or, maybe even, drinks with dessert, one of them said boldly. There was much snickering and trips down memory lane to other occasions when “Barb had that coconut drink and we didn’t know it was triple strength and the waiter was so nice about his mustache getting singed and his zipper getting stuck halfway with his shirt in it.”
Finally, they all agreed that they’d just start with a couple of shots before dinner, go with beer with their meals and maybe have a little sweet wine with dessert. I should have left at that point, but Daughter had finally decided she’d just have water and I had found a menu item in the “good for you” category, which meant that it had fewer than 600 calories. Actually, it said, “less than 600 calories” but I automatically translate “less” into “fewer” thanks to my 4th grade English teacher, who drummed the whole “fewer if you can count it” and “less if you can weigh it” mantra into my head. It’s now stuck there and won’t get out unlike other more useful mantras like “don’t put the kettle on and go outside just for a minute” or “check your bank statement before you write that check”. But I digress.
Daughter and I were having our usual restaurant conversation which consists mostly of her saying how hungry she is and me saying why don’t you eat a roll. Then she says that she’d be too full to eat her food if she ate a roll, which is when the ladies next to us all let out a great bray of laughter that made us look over at them. They were all very red in the face, so I figured the shots had done their work. Barb, who seemed to be the most highly charged of this group of live wires, said, “But how do you BOTH use it? Don’t you kind of have to hook up to it?”
I was starting to have a suspicion that they weren’t talking about installing software and the next round of conversation proved it when they went into very graphic detail about what we’ll euphemistically call a very advanced marital aid with, er, how shall I put this? Well, let’s just say that if it was a video game, and there probably will be one of these out at some point if there isn’t already, it would be a two-player game with dual controllers.
By this time, Daughter and I were both very red in the face and hardly knew where to look. Every time I looked over at her, she burst into wild laughter and the same thing happened to me when she looked at me. Now, we’re not prudes, either one of us. But she IS 13 and says “eeeuuww” whenever things get too racy in movies or on TV or at the mall. She doesn’t like “people who are falling out of their clothes” or “people mauling each other in public” either. And, I guess we could add “people talking about sex toys in restaurants” to that list, at least for her. Me, I was getting an education. I’m 59, but my motto is that you’re never too old to learn. I’m an auto-didact, which has nothing to do with anything kinky, by the way. Well, unless you’re learning something kinky. Oh, just look it up.
We got our food and started to eat, although we were thinking maybe that was a risky thing to do given the choking issue when you’re laughing like two hyenas. The ladies, who all looked like either school teachers or librarians or maybe school librarians, got their food and one of them, probably Barb, but I didn’t quite catch which one it was, motioned to her plate of spaghetti and they were all off into gales of laughter again. I was hoping Daughter wouldn’t look over at the arrangement of meatballs and a sausage, but she did and then we were off again. I was starting to feel like an 8th grader, back when anything to do with sex or bodily functions was hilarious because it was so scary and unlikely sounding and forbidden. Then I realized that – if anything like this had happened to my mother and me when I was 13 – she probably would have gone over and whacked Barb with her purse, given her a Bible tract and then come back and whacked me upside the head for listening.
Lucky for my daughter, I’m not that kind of mom. I did kind of try to distract her when the conversation next door got even more X-rated as the drinks kicked in. By the time they got to dessert and the wine that went with it, even the waiter was blushing and she had tattoos, a green Mohawk and a shirt that would have made a nice belt if there had been a little more of it. Daughter was jotting down terms to look up when she got home … Oh no wait; that was me!
We decided to forego dessert and left just as Barb was getting up to show the folks at the next table “the flamenco dance I did in Barcelona last winter when I fell on top of that drummer and just about busted his c******… “I won’t tell you what Daughter and I thought Barb said, but I will say that the term for a small drum used in flamenco music is spelled “cajon” in case you’re wondering, and Barb pronounced it plurally, so I guess she broke, at least, two of them. The poor man. I wonder if it ended his musical career. It’s hard to make beautiful music with busted cajones, I would imagine.
Anyway, believe me; I’ve only touched the surface of the conversation we overheard here. There was much more about how to get pregnant, how not to get pregnant, how to seduce husbands away from their Blackberries at 3 a.m. (yeah, there’s an app for that and Barb has it) and how to avoid sleeping on, um, damp sheets and how they get damp. (Pouring a glass of water over an unresponsive mate will do it every time. Ask Barb.) Daughter and I are considering giving up restaurants for a while, or maybe just picking up takeout for our once-a-week treats. Which reminds me of something Barb said about her sex life, but I promised I won’t digress anymore and I won’t.
Unschooling is tricky to do, especially if you’re a nudger. I confess that I nudge my two kids too often, trying to steer them in the direction I think they should go in. Even worse, once in a while, I say something that just isn’t so, with absolutely nothing to back it up and sound like I really know what I’m talking about when I don’t. (I blame it on growing up during the Nixon administration, but it could be the current political climate also. It all filters down.)
I had one of those lapses last weekend when I flat-out told my daughter that she’ll never get a good grasp of math if she always uses a calculator. “You have to learn the processes first,” I pontificated, “Using a calculator is fine once you know how to do math without one, but you shouldn’t need it to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I want to see you using a pencil and paper or we may have to re-think this whole unschooling thing.” (Boy, I’m a jerk, sometimes, especially before I’ve had my coffee on Saturday morning.)
Well, I had my coffee and brightened up and reminded myself and my daughter that Unschooling is a philosophy and not a method and we’re not going to just drop it because I get crabby and everything was okie-fine again. But in the back of my mind, the worry that Daughter will always be math-challenged niggled like when you think you’ve left the coffeepot on and you’re at work. You don’t want to leave and check and look silly, but you wonder if your house will burn down if you don’t and then you’ll look ridiculous for ignoring your worries.
Yesterday morning, Daughter was using the laptop and I came upstairs to have lunch to find the table covered with sheets of paper. The papers were covered with calculations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. I think there may even have been a fraction or two in there and maybe a percent sign, looking more like a smiley face, but a percent sign nonetheless.
Daughter had decided that she wants to get some stuffed animals at a local toy store, whose flyer was in front of her. She wanted to know how long it would take her to save up for them and couldn’t find the calculator. She knew I was working and didn’t want to disturb me and her brother didn’t know where it was either, so she was forced to figure it out on paper or wait. She’s not a waiter. Hummingbirds could take her correspondence course if they find themselves slowing down. So she figured it out on paper, including shipping if she got it from their website and how many weeks allowance it would take to get each stuffie that was offered.
I was impressed. I was also aware of how stupid it had been to tell her that she needed to stop using a calculator. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using tools, which is why I’m typing this on a keyboard instead of on a typewriter, or chipping it into a stone tablet or cutting reeds to make a papyrus scroll with. Although, actually, those are all writing tools also, just not as efficient or fast or as conducive to reaching a broad audience as a computer hooked to the Internet is.
In my case, rather than learning to print with a pencil when I discovered the alphabet at the age of 3-ish, I learned to write with a pen, because I really liked pens and manuscript, rather than print. However, when I went to first grade, my teacher took away my pen, told me to stop writing and made me print with a pencil, something I did very poorly and with much muttering under my breath. “You have to walk before you can crawl,” I remember her saying, “You have to learn to print correctly with a pencil before you can write with a pen.” A statement that was right up there with my “You have to learn to do the math before you can use a calculator” pronouncement and just as untrue. I already knew how to write, as she could plainly see, but she was willing to ignore that to prove a point. (Probably voted for Nixon, too.)
So what else do I know that isn’t true, I wonder? Well, I do remember telling my son that he had to get a real language course and stop fooling around trying to learn more than one language at a time. And I believe it was me who also said to him, “If you’d spend more time on learning and less time on computer games, you’ll be a lot more prepared for Real Life, which is where you’re going to be living in a few years, not on Silk Road.”
Silk Road for those of you, who don’t know, is a free multiplayer fantasy game where you can join guilds, fight other people and horrible creatures and interact with people from all over the world. (A bit like Wall Street, but not so cut-throat and more fun.) With a pair of headphones, a microphone, and a free X-Wire software download, you can actually talk to the other players. Maybe this is why my son now speaks much better Italian than his highly-touted Italian course taught him. He’s also learning basic Portuguese, French and Greek conversation and even some Chinese, Japanese and a language that we can’t figure out what it is, although it may be one of the Arabic languages. Or possibly a Norse dialect.
To play the game, he also uses his math skills, social skills, logic and reasoning, spatial skills, map and computer skills. Yesterday, he asked to borrow my book on HTML programming, something he’s never shown any interest in. He needs to figure out how to change the blog where he displays his art because someone on Silk Road told him what he could do to make it look better.
I guess the bottom line on unschooling is that it’s the unschooler who initiates learning, rather than a teacher or parent. That doesn’t mean that I can never offer a suggestion or tell my kids about something I think is really keen. But it does mean that I need to remember that they know more about what they want and need to learn than I do. That’s a really hard lesson to learn, especially when you’re a maven as I am. I love learning and researching and I get enthusiastic about things and want my kids and friends to get as involved as I am in things and that’s just not going to happen sometimes.
But, I’m a willow; I can bend. I’m unschooling right along with my kids and the rest of the world. (Some people don’t know that, but it’s what everyone does when they graduate or leave school. Unschoolers just do it instead of going to school, is all.) I will remind myself every day that learning is much easier when people are happy, rather than bored. I’ll try to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what method they use, as long as they accomplish what they want to do.
Most of all, I’ll try to remember that my kids can get where they wish to go in life without my heavy-handed steering. Gentle guidance and keeping them safe is okay. Thinking that I always know better than they do, because I’ve had more experience isn’t okay. It’s my experience that I’ve had, not theirs. Unschooling is “letting” them learn, not “making” them learn, as if you can make anyone learn if they don’t want to. I still can’t print and I don’t really care, but I love to write and I have a huge pen collection which gives me much joy.
“Come on. Come on. We don’t have all day,” someone says to their kid at the supermarket. The little girl is holding a piece of fruit and asking her mother what it is. “Is this a pomegranate, Mom?” she asks again. Her mother is throwing peppers into a bag and her patience is wearing very thin. “I guess so,” she says, “Now, let’s get going so we can get home and get supper over with. Dancing With the Stars is on tonight.”
I felt like whacking Mommy Dearest upside the head with a bunch of celery, but she’s more to be pitied than celeried. Yes, we DO have all day. Well, we have all day unless we keel over and she looked pretty healthy to me. Frazzled, but healthy. We have the same amount of time as gurus who spend all day gazing at their navels or multitasking CEO’s who jet back and forth to Europe while talking on two cell phones, typing on their laptops and ordering around minions. (By the way, I’d love a minion. But can I have only one? It always seems to be plural. I’ll have to look that up.)
Coincidentally, I was shopping with my daughter. She’s a flitterer and a chatterer and I’m… Well, I’m 56 and I’ve shopped a few times. Let’s just say that weighing veggies and comparing unit prices have kind of palled for me. Not for her, though. Even if we didn’t want any potatoes, they got weighed because she bet me that they weigh more, each, than sweet potatoes do. By golly, she was right too.
She’s not much of a fiction reader, but she likes to read about “real stuff”, so when she wants to read something, I’m all ears. That’s how we both learned more about fresh spices like cilantro and parsley than even Alton Brown knows. (They’re both Good Eats, by the way.) She read every word on the packages to me until I was afraid that our cheese might molder or our chocolate bread would go stale. I didn’t really need to hear about spices as we started our weekly shopping at 4:30 in the afternoon, but I listened.
If she had wanted to know about pomegranates, we would have picked up a couple, examined them, weighed them, checked out the produce dictionary that the store displays and then taken a couple home to experiment on. Buah-ha-ha! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Unschooling – which is what this is all leading to, of course, you know me – means never having to say you don’t have time to help your kids explore the world. It’s very hard for kids to learn and explore if you rush them through their days. It’s very hard for us to learn and explore if we rush through our days, also, but that’s what so many people do.
If your kids, like most kids, spend all day in school, I think it’s even more important that you connect with your kids whenever there’s a moment like the pomegranate one. Sure, there are times when we don’t have time for long explanations, but sometimes we do if we give other less important things a miss. I don’t think “getting through supper” is as nurturing as sitting around, sharing a stew you made in the crockpot so it was ready when you got home, and really listening to your kids and sharing yourself with them. (I share the cleanup with them too. I tell them it’s a bonding moment and say it with a straight face because I really think it is. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
Okay, I know homeschooling isn’t an option for everyone, much less unschooling. But I wish more parents would consider looking into it with an open mind. It would also be nice, I think if everyone would step back from their busy lives and take some time to think about what they really want to fill their days with. When a bunch of pixels making make-believe on a lightbox keep us too busy to identify a piece of fruit for our kid or relax over supper, we’re making a statement about what’s important to us. Whether we say it out loud or not, our children hear it and they take it to heart. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.
Whether you’re an unschooler, homeschooler, schooler or none of the above, there’s a series of books that you should add to your reading list. It’s Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About series. I’m reading Don’t Know Much About the Universe at the moment and I’ve just finished Don’t Know Much About Mythology and Don’t Know Much About the Bible, of all things. Kind of an odd choice for an atheist, but I thought I’d give it another go to see how Davis’s interpretation compares to the hard-shelled Baptist view that I grew up with.
Not surprisingly, he differs with them on many points, as he does with the Catholic and Hebrew bibles, although he doesn’t voice an opinion on the spiritual truth of any of the bibles. He merely presents facts and backs them up with archeological and historical evidence from Bible scholars and secular sources. He neither attacks nor defends, but simply illuminates the bible’s content.
In addition to the three I’ve mentioned, he’s written books on Geography, The Civil War, and History. (I’ve read the first and third, but the Civil War is still a closed book to me.) If this doesn’t cover everything you don’t know, which I have to confess is true for me, there’s Don’t Know Much About Anything and [_Don’t Know Much About Anything Else _]which cover people, places, and events you ought to know about, but don’t.
Davis’s website, (www.dontknowmuch.com) is a good place to go for ideas if you’re contemplating a unit study on the Pilgrims for November or you’re unschooling the history of the pioneers with your six-year-old. It’s also fine for older kids, for instance if you have a Middle Schooler, who needs to know the real story of Rosa Parks for that book report that’s due next Tuesday. He has picture books on mummies, dinosaurs, the 50 states, the presidents and the solar system for kids from 6-9 or for grownups like me who love picture books still. For older children, there are books on Martin Luther King Jr, World Myths, and much more. Even if you don’t read the books, there’s a lot of interesting information on the site and he presents it with his usual humor and just the right words to get his point across without being dry or boring.
Actually, whenever I want to learn something new, I go to the children’s section of our libraries and take out several books on the subject. Because children’s books are usually written to convey information more simply than adult books, I find it an excellent way to learn the basics of something. Then, after I’ve gotten the gist of whatever it is, I can go on to the more complicated adult books and not feel like an eejit.
Earlier this year, I developed a burning desire to get the birds-eye lowdown on Non-Newtonian Fluids, liquids that don’t behave according to Newton’s laws. (No, I don’t know why I wanted to know. I just did, okay? I’m like that.) Three of the ones I know about are ketchup, quicksand, and gelatin. I went to the library and found a nifty little book called Potato Radio and Dizzy Dice, a book in the Mad Scientist series by Joey Green. You can find it on Amazon.
It says it’s for Mad Scientists age 13 and up, so I definitely fit the reader profile. In it, there’s a recipe for Green Slime that demonstrates Non-Newtonian Fluids better than anything I could have read about them. (Not to mention that it’s perfect for Halloween, as is the Fake Blood recipe and the ones for a Homemade UFO, a Smoke Bomb, and the Human Light Bulb.)
Oh, and there’s also a recipe for Quicksand if the Green Slime doesn’t do it for you, although I don’t see how it wouldn’t. Green has also written several other books on using ordinary household things in unusual ways such as using dental floss for sewing a tent or using Jello to grow seeds in so that kids can watch them grow. There’s a list of his books on his Wacky Uses website. (If you’re not reading this in the Kindle version, it’s www.wackyuses.com.) There are also good scientific explanations for each of the experiments and tangential information sprinkled throughout the pages.
Oh yes, I just remembered why I was interested in Non-Newtonian Liquids. People are actually working on using them as body armor. They’d flex when the wearer moved, but when hit by a projectile, they’d act like a solid and repel the bullet or whatever. I read about it in a newspaper, realized I had forgotten what an NNL was and intended to look it up, but forgot about it again. Later that same week, I was at the library waiting for Daughter to pick out books when I leafed through the Mad Scientist book and the phrase Non-Newtonian Liquids caught my eye.
Apparently, Serendipity was smiling on me that day. Hmm. Serendipity. Strange word. I wonder where it comes from. Maybe I’ll look it up tomorrow in a book about word origins. I’m sure they have several in the children’s room at the library.
The newspaper headline read, “Uproar Over Student Dress Code.” I read on, ready to learn that students were up in arms over rules that outlawed nose studs or “Kill the Teachers” t-shirts. Nope. This time, it was the parents who were up in arms. Seems the dress code has been relaxed this year in that particular school so that kids can wear hats, hoodies and sunglasses in class. Quel horreur!
Am I missing something? How do hats, hooded sweatshirts, and sunglasses interfere with learning? Unless kids are pulling their hats and hoods down over their eyes so that they can’t read their books, I don’t see how it makes much difference what they wear. Of course, considering what my kids and I wear for “class” it’s no wonder that I don’t get this dress code business.
On Friday morning, Daughter announced that she wasn’t going to change out of her pajamas because we take Friday off. If someone wants to crack a workbook or do something serious, they can, but it’s not mandatory. Usually, Son and Daughter spend most of Friday in front of a screen of some sort and I goof off too. I’ve been known to finish two or three books by Friday afternoon. Sweats are probably our favorite outfits. However, we’ve been known to appear in ballet costumes (Daughter), cut-offs in January because we haven’t done our weekly wash (Son), Dad’s old flannel shirt because we have a cold and it’s comforting (me) or wrapped in a blanket with our jammies on because we’re having a rough day and it just feels better (all of us).
The article I read went on to say that students who wore sunglasses might not be maintaining eye contact, which is disrespectful and that’s why teachers want the dress code to outlaw sunglasses in well-lighted classrooms. Gee, have I been missing the boat all this time, thinking that eye contact with whatever they were learning was more important than looking at me? Son often wears a hat and Daughter wears a hoodie when it’s cold. In spite of this, they seem to be learning just fine. Are they atypical? Would they learn more without the hat and hoodie?
I guess this whole dress code thing reinforces one of the biggest beefs I have with schools: the emphasis on conformity. Kids are taught that there’s a right way to look, act, think and feel and – strangely enough – it’s the school’s way. Maybe that’s why schooled kids so often rebel and want to wear outlandish clothes or very few clothes? It reminds me of the kind of thing repressed populations have always done when outright rebellion isn’t an option.
I went to high school when mini-skirts were in fashion. I still remember the teacher measuring up from the floor to our hems to make sure our skirts didn’t exceed the sleaze limit and distract all those adolescent boys from The Scarlet Letter. Then we had to kneel on the floor and if our skirt didn’t touch the floor, we had to wear a towel around it or call home for another skirt. In my case, they could have avoided all this by letting us wear jeans, which I would have preferred to skirts and dresses.
We do have a dress code in our family, but it’s not something you can measure with a yardstick or write a list of rules for. If Dad raises his eyebrows at your outfit, you run it by Mom, who does one of two things. She says, “Your dad doesn’t understand fashion. I’ll talk to him”, or she says, “No kid of mine is gonna walk around looking like a hooker/bum” and you take it off and put something else on.
I can think of only two occasions since the kids have been picking out their own clothes that I’ve had to say the latter and that was because of a swimsuit that would have fit Barbie and a shirt that had something on it that would get my kid beat up in most of the places he goes. In both cases, we talked about why they weren’t good fashion choices. In both instances, after some time had passed, both kids thanked me for helping them avoid embarrassment and, maybe, a black eye.
My kids both have their own unique sense of style. Maybe it’s because they’re not with 20 other kids their own age every day. Maybe it’s because we very rarely shop at the chain stores. Goodwill and resale stores are our haunts. The kids have gotten really good at spotting excellent buys like designer or handmade clothes that have been gently worn and well cared for. Now that we’re drifting into the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), it’s even more important that we get a big bang for our fashion bucks. I mean, it’s not cheap to dress like a 13th century noble or even a peasant. (Have you seen the price of wimples nowadays? Unreal! And don’t even get me started on aumonieres.)
So here I sit at 10 in the morning, with my favorite old stained t-shirt, mismatched wool socks and stretched out sweatpants on. I feel sorry for all the kids who are sitting in a classroom somewhere in clothes they don’t want to wear, learning subjects that someone else thinks are important to them, at an hour when most of them would be much happier in bed. I contrast this with my kids, both of whom are wearing some of their favorite clothes. They’re studying history this morning with a showing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Earlier, Daughter did two pages of multiplication her way. The directions said: Make arrays of boxes to illustrate these multiplication problems. She got some graph paper and made the arrays but she didn’t make boxes. Instead, she used hearts, flowers, Pikachu faces and elephant heads. She really enjoyed doing it and got the math right, too. Son researched armor online to figure out what kind of helmet he wants to get for youth fighting, which meant that he had to think about which period his SCA persona is going to come from, which meant that he had to learn something about the whole spectrum of the Middle Ages.
Tomorrow, we’re all going to archery practice, even the geek who is still having trouble dealing with the lack of computers in the Middle Ages. He’s toying with the idea of having his persona be an inventor. (Did they even have geeks in the Middle Ages? Was Da Vinci a geek? I wouldn’t be surprised.) Much history will be learned, I’m sure, along with social skills, geometry, and math. (None of that “I shot an arrow into the air” stuff with the SCA. If you shoot an arrow, you’d better know where it’s headed or the marshal will cut your mead ration.)
My kids are willing to bow to dress rules because they want to participate in the SCA because they understand that it’s necessary to create the world of the Middle Ages (the best parts of it anyway, as the SCA says). They get to try on different personas with the various outfits they wear. I wonder what would happen if schooled kids went to school in costumes from various historical periods? Who knows, maybe it would boost history test scores. Or maybe they’d just get laughed at. Or, if they were studying the 1960’s, they might get their skirts measured.
It’s happening again. We’re finding it harder and harder to get together with our friends who don’t homeschool. Their afternoons are filled with homework and sports practice and their weekends are busy with shopping, football and soccer games and all the stuff they didn’t have time to do during the week. Recently, I called and invited a couple and their kids over for pizza and even over the phone, I could hear the daytimer pages flipping. ( My daytimer is a calendar we got from our oil company. It has nice big squares for each day and pictures of cute kittens on it. Works for me.)
It had to be either after school or on the weekend, of course, for them, and they both work so the weekend would be better. Except that Allen, their son, has soccer practice on Saturday at 11 and his sister, Susan, has soccer practice at 3, so Saturday is no good. Sunday doesn’t look too good either this week, because there’s an away game for Allen and next week, there’s a game for Susan. Hmm, maybe they could squeeze it in next Tuesday from 7 to 9 if the kids don’t have too much homework and Bob and Ruth don’t have to work late? But they kind of promised to attend that workshop that the PTA is putting on about building better families by doing things together. And then there’s the Open House at the school – is that Tuesday or Wednesday or next week – and what about the supplies for Susan’s art class that they have to get because the school doesn’t provide them?
My ear is numb by the time we get off the phone. We still haven’t figured out how to get together and I’m feeling less and less like I really want to, especially after Ruth says, “You know, it’d be a lot easier if you guys didn’t homeschool. Then we’d be on the same schedule. It’s really hard to coordinate things with you because you don’t have a routine like we do.” Thud!
Well, wrap me in a calendar and call me dated, but don’t tell me we don’t have a routine! We do so. As a matter of fact, we do better than that. We have several routines and sometimes they’re all playing at once. This week was a prime example, because – as so often happens in spite of my best-laid plans – things happened, but not the way I thought they’d happen.
The Monday that was supposed to be devoted to writing and learning from workbooks turned into the Monday morning spent trying to figure out, without taking out a second mortgage, how to get Son enough hockey equipment to keep him from getting dented or demolished at the SCA youth fighter practices he frequents now. By the time we had found the best buys on what he had needed, it was lunchtime and I hadn’t written a word.
Daughter had given up on trying to do her math without my help and had doodled girls glaring and tapping their little feet impatiently all over the 4 times table page. I offered to help her later, but she said she wouldn’t be able to think then because she’d be too tired from riding her bike and throwing tennis balls for the dog. I could see her point, so we moved the fours to Tuesday and I went out on the deck to watch her and throw a few tennis balls, myself.
I noticed that the chickadees have come back from the woods and are enjoying our sunflowers. Three of them were dee-dee-deeing and pecking the seeds. I pulled a few weeds so that the cats couldn’t sneak up on the birds as easily and sat on the garden bench, enjoying the sunshine. A huge dragonfly – looked like a Piper Cub for Barbie – swooped over the field, getting the last of the midge crop for this year. I hope. You can never tell with midges. I’ve seen them when I could also see my breath.
Somehow, without me noticing, our maple had decided that it was fall and time to lose the green coloring that masks the red and gold in its leaves. And also without me noticing, lunchtime had arrived, or at least, that’s what our stomachs were telling us. While we ate at the dining room table, we realized that our schedule was so out of whack that we might as well throw it away altogether and start on what we’d planned for Tuesday: shopping and libraries.
I took my usual short nap and we set off for two libraries, the craft store and the sporting goods store, where Son bought his hockey gear and Daughter and I embarrassed him by discussing the merits of each of the athletic supporters and cups they had. Who knew they had such a range? And what’s with the sizing based on waist size? Sure for the holder, but for the cup? What does waist size have to do with it? But I digress.
As it often does with us when we’re out and about, one thing led to another and we didn’t get home until almost 8 pm. The geek, who is used to our ways, greeted us with the news that Ruth had called and left a message that Tuesday was out. Friday was a maybe if Allen didn’t have to stay after at school to make up a test he had missed because of a dental appointment and why, she wanted to know, weren’t we home at supper time?
I called to tell her that Friday was fine for us, but by then, she’d found out that Susan had too much homework to go out on Friday night because she’d decided to take the AP Latin course, after all, so maybe we’d be able to do something during Thanksgiving break. Right! I told her I’d put that on my calendar, but somehow I know it’ll never happen. By the time we’re basting turkeys, they’ll be deeply involved in football or the kids will have projects to complete and band practice or something.
I give up. I guess we’ll just have to look for some new friends who don’t have the school routine to get in the way of socializing. That way, if we feel like getting together, we can do it during the 40 extra hours a week we have that we wouldn’t have if the kids went to school. We may not have a routine, as such, but we do have a rhythm, which is even better. It’s the rhythm of life lived without artificial structure just for the sake of imposing structure.
We’re in tune with the seasons, but not necessarily with Hallmark holidays. The weather affects us, but learning is never canceled when there’s a snow day. We plan our days and are happy if they follow our plan, but we’re often delighted when they don’t. Except for math and writing, my kids are free to explore what they want to study for as long as they want to. Their learning isn’t broken up into hour-long units.
They spend at least half of their daytime hours outside as long as the weather permits and when it gets icy, they still go outside for an hour or two every day. They don’t have to ask permission to eat, drink or go to the bathroom, talk to a friend or leave the room. Most importantly, they’re always free to drop everything and say “yes” when a friend calls and wants to get together and have a chinwag. Would that our friends who go to school had that option. I worry that they’re not getting enough socialization, you know?
There are crossroads in life where we choose a path and the impact is felt throughout the rest of our life, even years later. Unknowingly, I reached one of these important crossroads many years ago and made the wrong choice. In the blink of an eye, I chose to take a road that seemed logical and promising but turned out to be a dead end. If only I had realized how my choice would trap me in a situation with a tremendous potential for tragedy.
I was at a weekend convention for foster and adoptive parents. Some courses would help me earn college credits and fulfill the licensing requirements for the state. Other workshops offered no credits, but some of them looked interesting. They covered everything from recipes for picky preschoolers to how to deal with out-of-control teenagers to relaxation exercises. The strangest workshop of all was How to Be a Cowboy, which was led by a therapist who was also a comedian. Apparently, learning to rope and yodel and twirl a toy six-gun was relaxing and therapeutic for some parents.
I was really attracted to the cowboy workshop, the relaxation exercises, and the recipe class, but they didn’t have much relevance to foster parenting, so with reluctance, I turned them down. Instead, I opted for a workshop called How to Integrate School and Home. In retrospect, there probably wasn’t a more inappropriate class I could have taken, considering my lifelong distrust of, dislike for and disillusionment with the public education system in this country. However, at the time I had five foster children and, in Maine at least, they had to attend school.
So off I went to listen to some childless guy drone on about how important it is to get foster children right back to school, the day after the social worker drops them off at your home after plucking them out of their birth family’s home or a previous foster home that didn’t work out. Yeah, that makes sense. You wouldn’t want to give them time to bond with their new family because then they’d feel even worse when they’re plucked out of that home and sent to another one with no warning a few months down the road. (You can ask me why I’m no longer a foster parent, but you’d better clear your appointment book first. It’ll take a while.)
I got my credits but wasted fifty perfectly good minutes that could have been spent on schmoozing with other foster parents who knew more than all of the presenters there or drinking coffee and eating those terribly fattening – but delicious – little Danishes that they always have at these events. I was depressed and tired on the two and a half hour drive home, and it felt like years since I’d seen my kids. It must have seemed that way to the kids too because all five of them jumped on me when I walked through the door and made it obvious that they thought I was a good enough foster mom even without all those workshops, so I figured that no harm was done.
Yesterday, though, I realized that a great deal of damage was done and a great amount of trouble came about because I had opted for that stupid seminar about education instead of one of the other ones. I was sitting out on the deck, pondering, as I so often do in the afternoon especially when I’m drinking my special cranberry drink when I heard hoof beats and Son’s cat bristled and ran up a nearby maple tree. There in the field, was a horse, whinnying, tossing its head and grazing on our grass. It was Deva, our neighbor Charlene’s two-year-old filly.
Now, Deva’s mother, Snapper, was a rescue who seemed fine until one day on a trail ride, she decided to throw Charlene off and stomp all over her. (Horses are prone to episodes like this. They’re fine and you’re getting along like a house afire and suddenly, they think, “Hey! Why don’t I try to kill my rider? Haven’t done that yet.”)
Charlene spent days in the hospital and hasn’t ridden since. She kept Snapper long enough to wean the baby, Deva but then gave Snapper back to the rescue farm she’d gotten her from. From time to time, she’d report to us on Deva’s progress. According to Charlene, Deva was a whole ‘nother kind of horse from her mother.
I took this with a box of salt because I’ve been around horses all my life. My grandfather trained them and raced them at harness tracks. We had four horses when I was a kid. I worked at a racetrack in RI, walking horses, mucking out stalls and exercising them. (I was a lot lighter then, needless to say.) I’ve been bitten, kicked, stepped on, leaned on until my eyes bulged, thrown and run over by horses and they’re not my favorite animal. To me, they’re like huge cats without any of the good points that cats have. You have to woo them to get them to “like you” and even then, they can turn on you in a heartbeat. Give me a dog any day.
So when Son, who is a fool for horses and has a way with them, couldn’t get Deva to take a carrot from his hand or let him put a leash on her halter, I took it as a bad sign. Even my brother, who is an old hossman and former racehorse owner couldn’t get her to let him touch her. As soon as either one of them put a hand on her, she’d shy away, toss her head and flare her nostrils. Finally, she turned around and kicked at Son and that was enough for me. I told him to leave her be until Charlene came home. We’d called her, but she was out.
The day wore on and it started to get dark, and the whole horse in the yard thing was beginning to get old. She had chased two of the cats already and we couldn’t let the dog out without a leash and even then, Deva charged at us. I decided that we needed to get rid of this horse, so I walked outside and yelled at her to go home. (This has worked for me with coyotes and – once – with a bear.) She just looked at me and went back to grazing.
I yelled louder and started walking toward her and she stopped grazing and started walking toward me. Her nostrils were flaring again and she was snorting. Not a good sign. I went back into the house and the geek decided to blow the horn in his car at her, but that just made her run around in circles like a circus horse on amphetamines, so he stopped before she broke a leg or crashed into the car. There was nothing to do but wait for Charlene to rescue us.
She showed up just after ten, but the horse was nowhere to be found. Apparently sometime after dark, she’d gone back to her barn as horses are so often wont to do. As the geek and I sat there going over the events of the day, it hit me. If I had only taken that danged How to Be a Cowboy course! I could have swaggered over (Cowboys always swagger over to horses), roped her and hogtied her or whatever it is cowboys do to wild cayuses! (My brother says they shoot them, but that can’t be right, can it?) Still, would Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers (or even Gabby Hayes) put up with being trapped in their ranch house by a filly? I don’t think so.
So, gentle readers, let this be a lesson to you. If you find yourself faced with a choice between a course of action that will teach you something that actually applies to your life and another course of action that is entirely frivolous but fun, opt for the road to fun and frivolity. I can almost guarantee that somewhere down the path of life, you’ll be glad you did.
Geekdaddy is an early adopter. If it’s technical and it’s available, even in Beta – especially in Beta – he’s gotta have it. So when compact fluorescent bulbs came out, the geek was first in line at the power company giveaway where you could get four bulbs free. He got ‘em and loved ‘em. I hated ‘em.
They buzzed. They flickered. I complained. “That’s a problem for you?” the geek said, not understanding why anyone would object to a buzz that he can’t hear anyway with his hearing or a flicker mighty like the one of his beloved computer monitor. After all, this is the man who willingly closes the door on a room that houses “The Smilodon”, a computer case that smells like Love Canal used to smell on a hot August day. It gives the rest of us a headache and we’re on a campaign to make him get rid of it, but in the meantime, we insist that he close the door.
He’s all right with that. Just like he was fine with the buzzing, flickering CFLs that he purchased in quantity and stuck into every light in the house. I thought it was ironic that I, the Green Maven chez Hawkins was asking him to stop using something that everyone from Al Gore to the EPA endorsed.
So, we compromised. We put them into some of the lights, but not the lamp next to my chair, the kitchen light or the bathroom. For them, we use long-lasting bulbs while we wait for LED technology to be ready for prime time. Apparently, that’ll be a very good thing because those environmentally-friendly CFLs contain mercury, a heavy metal group that I’m not a fan of.
Unfortunately, I DID get involved with mercury a few nights ago when the geek knocked over his bedside lamp, thereby breaking the compact fluorescent bulb which strewed mercury impregnated shards of glass all over our bedroom floor. I have to admit that Geekdaddy cleaned it up immediately and did a very thorough job of disposing of it in the approved manner, but I was still not sanguine about having mercury-bearing bulbs in my vicinity.
Then, yesterday, as I went to open a window so that I could lean out and shake my fist at the heat wave that is inflicting itself upon our usually-cool corner of Maine, I stepped on something very sharp. It was a u-shaped shard of CFL and it was wedged into my foot so tightly that I had trouble removing it and bled profusely even after it was out.
I washed my foot, applied antiseptic and then googled mercury to see if I should be worried. I found a fact sheet on Mercury and CFLs, but it didn’t say a mumbling word about what to do if you step on a piece of the glass. Deuced remiss of them, I think. Don’t they know any geeks?
So, I emailed a friend who’s up on scientific things and I also found a place where I can get a cheap test to determine how much mercury I have circulating in my blood and brain. Considering all the fish I’ve eaten over the years and the fact that my brother and I used to play with mercury “snakes” from broken thermometers when we were young, I’m afraid the results might be high.
You know, it’s interesting that when the planet Mercury is retrograde, as it is now, astrologers say that there will be communication difficulties, because Mercury is the planet of communication, writing and speaking. While, if you get too much mercury, you may have trouble communicating because of cognitive problems and mental confusion. I can understand that mercury, also known as quicksilver, was named for the swift messenger god, Mercury. But how is it that the effects of the planet appearing to stand still in the heavens have the same effect as ingesting or absorbing the metal that’s named after it?
I’m not dissing the geek’s attempts to be Green. At least, he’s not trying to be frugal like he was when he used old motorcycle batteries for a battery-backup for his computer. That time, they started to smoke and sizzle and spark after about a week and we were treated to the spectacle of the geek dashing madly back and forth from the eight heavy batteries to the back door until he’d thrown all of them out into the snow. This time, at least, there were no flames or smoke, only toxic chemicals, so I guess I should count my blessings.
When I was a kid, my Uncle Jerry used to show up at family gatherings with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of whiskey. He never went home with them. This is why Uncle Jerry was the hit of the party for the first part of it and a pain in the aspidistra for the second half. Jerry played guitar and wore Hawaiian shirts and had a hula girl doll on his dashboard. He was sexist and offensive, but he did have one redeeming feature. He could do a fantastic Jackie Gleason impression. Sometimes, when the six-pack had turned into a three-pack and the whiskey level in his glass was higher than the level in the whiskey bottle; he was more like Jackie than Jackie was.
One of his favorite shticks was also something he said even when he wasn’t channeling The Great One. “I have a condition,” he’d say when someone asked him why he didn’t mow the lawn or take out the trash or change a flat tire. The questioner would nod his head and look solemn while my Aunt Mildred glared daggers at Uncle Jerry because she didn’t have a condition, so she was the one who had to do all the things Uncle Jerry neglected.
Uncle Jerry is gone now, a victim of his “condition” and the millions of cigarettes he smoked while sipping his highballs, but I still think of him whenever I listen to Hawaiian steel guitar music or see a hula girl figurine on a dashboard. I got to ruminating about Uncle J the other day, when I just didn’t feel like getting up and leaving the deck, where I was having a very light beer, to take the clothes out of the dryer. I had actually started to get out of my chair to do it when Daughter appeared and told me that the dryer had stopped.
I started to say that I’d fold the clothes, but then I stopped myself and asked her if she’d mind doing it. She was in the middle of a Redwall book and obviously not crazy about breaking off to handle laundry, but she sighed and slouched off to fight the good fight with fitted sheets.
“That’s wicked nice of you, Sweetie,” I called to her as she left. “You know I don’t usually mind doing it, but what with my condition and all …” and I stopped there.
So I stayed out on the deck, had a second light beer (my limit nowadays and they have so little alcohol that they’re labeled “Near Beer” in TX and mouthwash in some counties in Maine), and thought about Uncle Jerry. You might want to try his ploy whenever someone asks you to do something you really don’t want to do. No one under the age of sixty remembers Jackie Gleason anymore, so you’ll probably be able to get away with it. And, let’s face it; we all have conditions that make us want to do what we want to do, rather than what needs to be done. (I believe that’s known as the human condition.)
So, if you can find someone else to do it, it still gets done and you get to sit on the deck and have another beer or a highball or a double latte with extra froth or whatever your particular “condition” calls for. If anyone questions you too closely about what your condition is, tell them that it’s one of those conditions that you just have to live with and ask them if they’d like to donate to finding a cure for it. They’ll change the subject and you can get back to loafing.
I believe I’ve mentioned before that Geekdaddy works at a mental health institution. He has a very nice, sunny office in the basement where he keeps the phones and computers humming. He also has a small farm of tomato plants, flowers, and greenery that he tends with loving care. He’s the go-to guy for Mainers who want a fresh cherry tomato in January, and you don’t have to worry about salmonella either. Glasses cleaner, maybe, but no germs.
Geekdaddy subscribes to the theory that if one pair of glasses is good, two or three are better. This is why you sometimes see him with one pair on his nose, and another pair pushed up on his head and a third pair hanging around his neck. I don’t believe I’m letting any cats out of bags here when I tell you that, sometimes, he even puts one pair over the other pair to read. This is all because of less than successful laser cataract surgery and a tiny little buckle inserted into his eye.
No, before you ask, there’s no tiny little belt. Just the buckle. It holds the cornea or lens in place or something like that. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I know that it makes seeing anything farther away than the end of his nose a less than optimal experience. Hence the glasses in triplicate.
The other day, there he was in his office, examining his favorite tomato plant and thinking that it looked a little peaked. That certain something was lacking in the luster of its leaves, and its flowers were drooping. The geek decided that what the tomato needed was a change of scene. Maybe, he thought, a walk out through the parking lot onto the lawn would perk it up. He could even leave it there for a while.
True, one of the clients who wander the grounds might trip over it or maybe try to roll up a few leaves and smoke them, but the odds were that it would be safe. So, off he went with the tomato plant held in front of him – did I mention that it’s a large patio tomato plant? As he walked, he tried to cheer it up by talking to it, something that’s a good idea or so he’d heard on one of his radio talk shows.
He was nattering away to it, describing the scenery they were passing when he realized that he wasn’t alone. One of the psychiatrists who are so useful when Client A is hearing those voices in his head again and they start arguing with the voices in Client B’s head, and one of the voices threatens to take it out to the parking lot, was walking beside him and peering at him through the tomato plant’s foliage.
Geekdaddy is always cordial, so even though he’d never met the man before, he greeted him with a smile and walked on, out into the parking lot and onto the lawn where he gently settled the tomato plant in the dappled shade of one of the huge maples that dot the grounds. It was about then that he realized that the doctor had almost certainly mistaken him for a client, and then he also realized that he was over-endowed with three pairs of glasses – one each on his nose, on his head and on a cord around his neck.
When he got home, he mentioned the incident to me and asked me if I thought the doctor had gotten the wrong impression. I assured him that I was sure the doctor almost certainly hadn’t gotten the wrong impression, and I think I eased his mind. What I’d really like to see, though, is what happens when he comes in and starts tweaking the doctor’s phone or computer the next time one of them breaks down. I just hope he leaves the tomato plant in his office.
Every time I read about Mary Cheney having a baby with her partner, I get this nursery rhyme in my head. You know, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary”? However, the only thing I can see that’s wrong with her having a baby is if its grandfather wants to take it quail hunting. Other than that, it’s her life, her relationship, and her decision. She didn’t ask me for advice and I bet she didn’t ask her dad either. But if she did, I bet he told her to do exactly the opposite of what she’s doing. Kids are like that, even when they grow up.
I remember one of my nephews back in the Reagan Era, debating with his father about how Ronnie was going to get this country back on its feet and make it better for everyone. If he’d been old enough to vote, we’d have had to drug him and roll him up in a rug until after election day, or we’d have had the first Republican in the family since Lincoln won the war. Luckily, he was only twelve.
Turns out we had nothing to worry about. By the time he was old enough to vote, he’d totally had it with Reaganomics and opted for a career working with the population that Reagan had “freed” from institutions so they could live in freedom (and poverty) on the street. I suppose there’s an off-chance that Mary Cheney will revert to her Republican roots when she’s a middle-aged soccer mom, but in her case, there’s a little more to overcome for her to subscribe to the style of conservatism her father’s party embodies. She’d have to get a lot meaner and more ruthless, for instance.
A lot of conservative parents have radical kids and vice versa. And a lot of “just plain folks” have children who seem to be trying to zig to their parents’ zags. One of my closest friends is a professional gambler, who plays the horses and dogs. His daughter is a PETA firebrand and plans to become a lawyer and put him out of business. They get along fine, though, in the meantime, although she doesn’t go to the track with him and he doesn’t have PETA stickers on his bumper.
My daughter is a fashionista with her own distinctive style. My fashion style is more eclectic as in “it was the first thing I came to in the closet”. If I find something I like that fits, I buy several of them, which really bugs my daughter, because it means I wear gray T-shirts and blue jeans a lot. She says it’s why she doesn’t notice when I ask her to do something. She insists that her mind is just so bored with my outfit that it makes her yawn and she misses what I’m saying.
Her outfits, on the other hand, are never dull. Back before we started homeschooling, her teachers got very upset with me for “allowing” her to come to school with mismatched socks. (I think it may have had something to do with Homeland Security or maybe Channel One didn’t allow it because they only advertised matched socks.) I never could figure out why I should care, but it turns out that she was just ahead of her time. Now, it’s a fashion trend and there’s even a company that only sells mismatched items! I just discovered them yesterday and had one of those, “Now, why didn’t I do something like that?” moments.
I can’t wait to see what my daughter’s kids want to wear. I’m thinking dark blue tees and sweatpants. They’ll probably grow up to be CPAs and importers of endangered species, just to annoy my artistic, animal-loving daughter. But, you know what? She’ll love them anyway. Just like I love her and love her brother, who is working on becoming a weapons expert, which isn’t something I envisioned when I took him to his first peace vigil many years ago.
Maybe it’s how the human race makes sure that it won’t die out from lack of diversity, I dunno. It sure makes for a lot of work for lawyers, though, when wealthy parents keep changing their wills because their kids won’t toe the line. Not a problem in my case, because I’m a spendthrift and intend to get through every penny I own before I die. Luckily for my theoretical grandchildren, my kids are the exact opposite and will probably leave them oodles of dough that they can spend on things their parents would never buy. Like matching socks and polyester pants.
How many times is there a fire, four people burn to death, one child is saved and someone invariably says, “God must have had his hand on her.”
What I always want to know is what the heck did the other people do to make God mad enough to incinerate them? Aren’t his hands big enough to grab the other people too? (I refer here to the old spiritual, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, which we used to sing with so much gusto at Sunday School and then at coffeehouses and during peace marches. More to the point, I could also refer to the Wood Brother’s song, Lovin’ Arms, with the lyric that asks, “But what if he’s got slippery hands?”)
Admittedly, my agnostic perspective has a lot to do with this kind of thinking. And I’m an Earth Sign if you’re into astrology. A down-to-earth Taurus, although, after a long Maine winter of carb stuffing, I resemble a fatted calf, more than I do a bull. But I digress. Back to the metaphysical musings.
I know I’m out of the mainstream in thinking that Divine Intervention isn’t a Good Thing, but I’ve never figured out why so many people believe it is. It seems very presumptuous to me to think that my life is worth more than someone else’s. (Of course, it goes without saying that this doesn’t include right-wing radio talk show hosts, the man who invented those ads that shimmer into view like a phantom when you’re in the middle of a good blog thereby obscuring the details of some big star’s rehab ordeal, or anyone I don’t like.) There are limits.
It seems obvious to me, but not to many other people apparently, judging by the number of individuals who remove the batteries from their smoke alarms because they go off when they cook, that Divine Intervention is just dumb luck most of the time. Well, luck and smoke alarms with batteries or cars with brake jobs or cells that did what they were supposed to do, or an immune system that is strong enough to fight off invading bacteria and viruses.
My viewpoint doesn’t leave me without moments when I shake my puny fist at the Universe and demand to know the meaning of a personal tragedy. I’m only human, after all. When something bad happens to someone good or life gets cut off way too soon, I find myself looking for meaning, for the purpose, in this cruel world. After all, what is more horrible than feeling that life is just a series of random events, with no meaning other than the meaning we give it?
Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? If life IS a series of random events, with no one, or No One, I guess I should say, orchestrating it, then it’s not personal, even though it sure feels like it sometimes. There’s Nothing that’s going to save us if we’re good, but better yet, there’s Nothing that’s going to punish us if we’re bad. Of course, this is just my personal belief system, but it’s no wackier than any of the other nine million One True Religions out there.
When I find myself asking, “Why me?” when something bad happens to me, I try to remind myself that a lot of bad things didn’t happen to me, but happened to other people instead. I don’t live in Darfur or Iraq. I wasn’t born conjoined to someone by a major organ. Childhood diabetes skipped me entirely and I have two more surviving children than many families in Third World countries have. My house is not on fire, but if it were, my smoke detectors would go off, because the geek is obsessed with replacing batteries. (Of course, that means he’s always recharging them, so if we ever DO have a fire, it’ll be a battery charger overheating. Trust me.)
My late mother, a devout Christian, often asked me how agnostics and atheists can go through life without believing in anything. In spite of my explanations, she never understood that the only thing that we don’t believe in or that we question, in the case of agnostics, is a Divine Being. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that – out of all the gods that people believe in worldwide – I just believed in one less god than she did, although it was true.) Of course, from a Christian perspective, that’s a biggie, seeing as how God is the central tenet of most religions. But it’s not everything.
What about the physical laws of the Universe? I believe that the sun will show up in the morning, go down in the evening and we’ll have some kind of weather in between those two events. Bees buzz, birds chirp, dogs love us and cats … Well, as Death says in Terry Pratchett books, “CATS ARE NICE.”
Like true believers of all stripes, there are some things I don’t just believe. I know them. I know that family and friends love me and I know I love them. I know that life is full of beautiful music, moments of humor, food that smells and tastes wonderful, spicy berry-flavored wine, warm garden soil and home-grown tomatoes. Sometimes, in the midst of grief and great loss, it’s hard to believe that we’ll ever look forward to the first bite of the first tomato of the season, but we will.
I guess if I have to find Reason in the Universe, it’d have a lot to do with things like homegrown tomatoes, books, music, friends and family, and all of the good things that have happened and are going on in the world. I have no quarrel with folks who prefer to rely on Divine Intervention. But, me, I’m going to keep checking those batteries in the smoke detector and unplugging the charger at night.
Things are a bit fraught around here right now. I guess it’s a good thing the geek is away for yet another round of union negotiations. He left this morning with enough donuts in his backseat to sustain the local Red Cross chapter for a month. This seems to be a central part of union bargaining. Maybe they’re bribing management, I dunno.
All week, we argued about who is going to find us another house. He found this one. I found the one before that and the one before that and he found our first house back in RI. Admittedly, each one was better than the one before it and this one is a private empire if you believe our realtor’s PR, but all of them were lacking, and we’d like to find one that isn’t.
(The private empire also has a private dirt road that has ruts so deep that they hide the wild turkeys feeding in them. And frost heaves that, I swear, rear up in front of the car while we’re driving. Hey, this is Stephen King country, after all. I’m not positive that there’s only frost down there. There could be anything. But I digress.)
The reason DH and I are arguing is because neither of us wants to be the one to pick out a house. I suppose we could do it together and share the blame when we find out that it was built on top of an old lead mine and we all have to be chelated or unleaded or whatever the heck one does in that situation. But that would mean that we’d have to find a piece of real estate where we both liked the house, location, property, and price. Trust me, that’s not gonna happen in this lifetime.
Nope, invariably, one of us likes the house and the other likes the property. I hated this house from the moment I set foot in it, which wasn’t until after we bought it because the former (somewhat eccentric) owner would only let one of us see the inside before the sale. Why you might ask, would I buy a house without seeing the inside? Because, Gentle Reader, I loved the land and the location. And I’m an idiot.
Actually, I hated the house before I saw it because the geek took photos of it. I thought it looked like someone had blenderized a fabric store, a greenhouse, and an airport gift shop and sprayed the rooms with it. There were so many frilly curtains and plants and objets you wanted to throw d’arts at that there was no room for rooms if you know what I mean.
So, of course, we bought it and for the last few years, I’ve ignored the house as much as possible by spending a lot of time outside. When I’m inside, I try to position myself in front of a window, so that I don’t have to look at the room I’m in. Sometimes, I take my glasses off and then the place doesn’t look bad at all, although I bump into things. I’ve lived in worse places.
One of those places was a house that I picked out, many years ago, where I did the inspection and didn’t notice until after the closing that there was no septic system. The geek is always needling me about the outhouse there, but he has to admit that it’s not every day when you can look up from your Computer Shopper and see a lynx walking across your lawn. That was the same outhouse window I looked out of and saw a mother fox carrying a rabbit in her mouth and leading two kits back to their den. Of course, it was also the outhouse where we had to spray paint the back wall orange so that hunters wouldn’t shoot it. Again. How the heck was I supposed to know that the toilet in the house was a chemical toilet? It had a flush.
In my defense, I’m not the one who picked out the house that had a rock coming up through the floor and 6’2” high ceilings with light fixtures hanging down six inches in the living room. And, speaking of septic systems, that place had one that consisted of a fifty-gallon drum, half of the front lawn and a very healthy patch of Japanese Knotweed, which apparently thrives on effluents. (I won’t even mention the cast iron bathtub painted dayglo orange or the very dark purple walls in the bedroom. Why bring them up?)
We can only remember one house that we both saw before the closing and that was our mobile home, which was parked on a lot and tilted at such an angle that we could hardly stand up in it. I was toting a crabby 9-month-old who had an ear infection.The geek was trying to restrain our five-year-old, who was attempting to swing from a wagon-wheel chandelier, so we didn’t get a really comprehensive view of the inside, but we knew it was better than the house we lived in then, which was the one with the outhouse.
No, I guess we’ll just wing it, once again. Split up. Drive the back roads and read the little realtor books that flutter at us from racks in restaurant lobbies.That’s how we found our nicest house – the newly built raised ranch with absolutely no flaws. Except for the noise from the road that our cat got killed on and our kids kept trying to run into. And the noise from the planes that flew over from the nearby airport. And the lights from the cellphone tower that they built in a field right behind our house. I swear you could read by their light. And that was with the blinds closed.
Nope, this time, I just know we’re going to find a house that we all love. One that we can really settle down in and stay in. One that is big enough, but not too big. Private, but not isolated. Easy to heat and cool. With a yard that’s easy to maintain, but not too small. And, most important of all, one that is easy to sell, because I know that’s what we’ll be doing in about five years when we discover whatever it is that SOMEONE didn’t notice before the closing.
As I drove down to get the mail today and threw an apple core into the woods near a stone wall, I realized that I’ve probably thrown one somewhere into the woods beside our laneway, about three times a week for the five years that we’ve lived here. Even when you figure in the times I’ve been away camping, traveling or just not up for getting the mail that day, that’s upward of 700 apple cores.
I still remember the first time I threw one out. Daughter was four and she was horrified at my “littering”. “Mom!” She said, as sternly as only a four-year-old moralist can say it, “You go get that apple or the police will give you a ticket.” In her defense, we had recently gotten a handout from the supermarket that featured Kid TV characters preaching about citizenship. According to the handout’s attractive young man in a very revealing Lycra body suit with what looked like a strawberry on top of his head, littering is NOT good citizenship.
No amount of explaining on my part would convince the tot that I hadn’t littered. Strawby, or whatever the heck his name was said throwing things out of car windows was littering and that was that. Feeding the little forest creatures, which was what I called it, wasn’t gonna fly with her. Telling her that the apple was organic and that I left enough apple on the core to feed a sizeable field mouse family just got me the kind of look you see on a judge’s face when the defendant claims that he was just trying to help the old lady across the street, when she got the crazy idea that he was attempting to rip her purse off her arm.
After a couple of days of this, I got a brilliant idea. I packed up the kid and lunch, complete with two apples, and we went for a picnic. Down the laneway we strolled until we got to the stone wall – a pleasant place to sit and have our lunch I told her, feeling a lot like the Grinch explaining to Cindy Lou Who why he was taking the Christmas tree. So we sat on the wall and ate our lunch, including the apples and had a delightful conversation about the little creatures that no doubt lived in the wall and how hard it was for them to feed their families and how we could help them by leaving them some food.
I carefully positioned a little piece of bread crust and my apple core on a flat rock, next to a small hole in the wall. “I bet a chipmunk will come out as soon as we’re gone and have a nice little picnic with her family. Wouldn’t that be nice?” I asked my animal-loving daughter. “Oooh, can I feed them something?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said, “What do you have left?” as if I didn’t know that she’d eaten every crumb of her sandwich and only had an apple core left. Machiavelli could have taken notes on my cunning plan that day if he needed some fresh content for “The Prince”.
She put her apple core on another flat rock and then arranged some smaller rocks around it for chairs for the woodland creatures that were going to picnic there. She even found some acorn tops and filled them with water from our thermos and put a small leaf beside each cup, “in case the animals want to wipe their whiskers.” She would have put a lovely berry at each place until I realized that they were deadly nightshade and probably shouldn’t be on the menu, so we buried them under some leaves and went home to wash our hands thoroughly.
The next day, we drove down to get the mail and I opened the window to throw out my apple core. “Mom! You’re not gonna litter again, are you?” she said from the backseat. “But I’m not littering,” I protested, “I’m just feeding the animals like we did yesterday on our picnic.”
“No,” the Voice of Four Year Old Reason said, “You’re littering. We didn’t throw the food out the window yesterday. We put it carefully on a nice rock table and I even gave them “nakkins”. You’re just littering.”
“But if I don’t throw the apple core to the animals, how are they going to get it?”
“You can stop the car and go in the woods and put it on a rock table,” she said, very patiently considering my obtuseness, although she was tapping her right foot and she might have rolled her eyes a few times.
As a seasoned parent, I realized that this was a battle I couldn’t win, no matter what I did. Who is a four-year-old going to believe – her mother or a guy she’s never met who wears a pink suit and has a giant strawberry for garnish? I opened the window, threw out the apple core and resigned myself to listening to a lecture every time I did it until she was old enough to embrace the moral ambiguity that we all discover when we realize that sometimes following the rules just doesn’t make sense.
These days, she freely throws apple cores and anything else that’s biodegradable and edible by woodland creatures, out of car windows, off the deck and even from her bedroom window. She doesn’t throw them in town or onto people’s lawns or at their mailboxes, although she mentioned once that it’d be fun. She’s lightened up a lot from when she was four. And that’s a blessing.
If you grew up in the fifties and/or sixties like I did, you might remember a supermarket chain called – of all things – Piggly Wiggly. If not, bear with me, there’s a point to this. Piggly Wiggly supermarkets had a gimmick. To enter them, you had to go through this twisty-turny little fenced-in path, and through a turnstile. What this had to do with pigs escapes me. It did look kind of like the ramp slaughterhouses have, although I can’t believe that’s what it was supposed to be.
Anyhow, apparently Piggly Wiggly has gone out of the grocery business and into the banking business. At least, their store designer is designing ATM drive-up lanes now, like the two I drove through today.
My bank ATM used to be in a huge parking lot where the only impediments to drive-up banking were potholes the size of SUVs and the odd drunk mistaking the kiosk for a restroom. Then a new fast food restaurant sprang up and the ATM building was downsized and moved to a corner of the lot. The only way to get to it is by taking such a sharp left turn that you start thinking that maybe the designer had a hinged car.
Then there’s another sharp left turn to pull up to the thing, and barely enough room to fit both your outside mirrors between the ATM and two giant, yellow, metal poles that seem to lean further in every time I go there. I suspect that angry customers beat on them with tire irons after scraping their vehicle one too many times on them.
But the thing that really bounces my check is how they manage to make the lane so narrow, yet a person can hardly reach the buttons on the ATM. How the heck do they do that? How can I be too close to something if I can barely reach it? This paradox defies the laws of physics and possibly metaphysics if you ask me.
The second ATM I used today, at my credit union, is even worse. At the CU, there are three lanes: two for drive-up banking with an actual person, and one for the ATM. The ATM lane is at such a sharp angle that it takes most people two tries to get their car aimed at the thing. I feel like Luke Skywalker skimming through the Deathstar when I drive into it and wish I had his firepower. That’d take care of those damned yellow posts, which are at this ATM also. (Note to self: Buy some stock in the company that makes yellow posts for drive-up banking lanes.)
I did get my banking done though and I really shouldn’t complain. After all, I’m lucky to live in a world where I can bank on Sunday. Back when we went to Piggly Wiggly for groceries, banks were closed on Sunday and Saturday too. There were no ATMs or even drive-up tellers. You had to physically walk into a bank and interact with another human being to transact your business.
Of course, it was a lot easier to negotiate the walk from the parking lot to the bank, than it is to weave through these poorly designed cowpaths drive-up lanes. On the other hand, when you’ve sent out checks on Friday, and realize on Saturday that you wrote them on the bank account that has almost no money in it, instead of the credit union account, which you meant to write them on, it’s nice to be able to bank on Sunday. And I’m sure the yellow paint will wear off my car – if not my tire iron – sooner or later.
When I was about five, I developed an unfortunate habit of repeating the same word over and over again. I’d hear someone say “glowering” or “diesel” and the sound would appeal to me, so I’d say it to myself again and again as I went about my business. At the time, my business was playing in the yard and at my parent’s feet, so they got mighty tired of my little habit. One day, as I played near my mother’s rocker, I started to repeat the latest word to tickle my fancy: trollop.
I probably thought that it was a sea creature or a method of transportation, but whatever it was, I liked the way it sounded. My mother, however, did not. She picked me up by the shirt, put me over her knee and paddled me. Then she told me that she never wanted to hear me say that word again and sent me to my room, where I spent a few minutes with the large dictionary that I kept under my bed for just such exigencies as this. I learned a lot that day, although much of it went over my head until later.
Do we even have trollops anymore? How about buffleheads, knuckleheads, and dunderheads? Floozies, fleabags and flibbertigibbets? Back in the 50’s and 60’s when I grew up, all of these terms were pretty standard and so was scaring kids into behaving. But what term do modern mothers use to describe what people will think of their daughter, if she strays from the path of virtue by shaving her legs too soon, wearing her dresses too tight or wearing lipstick before she should? (Of course, nowadays, the age for all that is probably as soon as the kid is dry through the night, but still.)
If boys don’t play fast and loose with girls anymore, what do they do? Hooking up just isn’t the same thing because the girls are playing fast and loose too. Juvenile detention center just doesn’t have the same ring as a [bad boy _]or _bad girl school used to when my mother predicted that I’d end up there for sassing her. Bankruptcy laws and Ronald Reagan just about did away with poorhouses and madhouses, so they’re no longer destinations to threaten your offspring with.
Telling your kid she’d end up in the poorhouse if she kept spending her allowance on Almond Joys was a real threat to a kid who read Dickens like I did, believe me. When I saw The Snake Pit and saw what happened to women who weren’t content to just be wives, I really got worried. I wanted to be a writer but was disturbed by what I’d read about what happened to the Fitzgerald’s, Poe, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway and many others. Ending up in a madhouse wasn’t just a hollow threat when my mother held it over my head to get me to stop watching horror movies that would give me nightmares and drive me insane, according to her. Nowadays, three-year-olds watch Jurassic Park and cheer for the velociraptors.
So far, I haven’t come to a bad end, although some people would say I’m working on it, what with being an agnostic, an unschooling parent and someone who votes slightly to the left of Noam Chomsky. I guess this is what comes of buying Almond Joys instead of putting my quarters into my piggy bank, and reading Mad Magazine and watching Rocky and Bullwinkle instead of learning Latin and Algebra.
Mind you, I’ve found a lot more use for what I learned from the former two than from the latter. Who could read Spy vs. Spy and not see the stupidity of the Cold War, for instance? Latin and Algebra I can figure out with a dictionary and a calculator, although I rarely need to, but learning to see through propaganda and hypocrisy is much more useful. That’s why I was heartened the other day when my daughter, who was supposed to be cleaning her room, sat down with her brother’s latest Mad magazine and started chortling. I was beginning to think that I’d have to threaten her with growing up to be a Tea Party candidate or a Walmart greeter to get her to read a good book.
People often ask me why I write. Okay, so they phrase it a little differently but the answer to “Why do you keep writing?” is the same as the answer to “Why do you write?” Right? The answer is another question: What else would I do? Why did Shirley Jackson, Will Cuppy, Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr write? Why do millions of writers, like me, sit down at their keyboards and share their sometimes very personal life experiences with the world? Why don’t we put our time to better use by finding a cure for migraines or a way to stop global warming or a little alarm that goes off if you have spinach in your teeth in public or something worthwhile like that?
Well, in my case, at least, there is one compelling reason for sharing my life experiences. I have so many of them, and they’re so weird. I think I was about ten when I realized that I’m a magnet for strange people, odd coincidences, and bizarre events. If there’s one loony in the bin, wherever I am, the loony will sit down beside me and start to tell me her life story.
What’s more, I probably won’t find that story terribly strange, because I’ve heard many similar stories before, at least once from a man who was wearing a plastic bowl for a hat and waiting next to me on a bus stop bench. If I remember correctly, he was also wearing roller blades and had a wooden cup on a string around his neck, but this was decades ago so I could be imagining the cup. It might have been a bowl. I do remember that he gave me a butterscotch toffee that was covered with lint from his pocket and I mimed putting it into my mouth so as not to hurt his feelings. Unfortunately, then I had to make sucking noises and poke my tongue up against my cheeks to make it look like I was eating it.
This week has been a veritable cornucopia of writing fodder. I suppose the strangest thing happened at my doctor’s office where I went to get my infected ears looked at and ended up sharing a bathroom stall with 3-yr old twin boys. This wouldn’t usually throw me, but I was supposed to be producing a urine sample at the time, which made it a little dicey.
They crawled under the door and into the stall while their mother was diapering their baby brother, who seemed to be having some sort of medical crisis which involved his diaper contents. At least, it smelled like that. Anyhow, Frick and Frack or Thing A and Thing B or whoever they were managed to escape their double stroller and popped up like little gophers right in front of my knees. Luckily, I had a long sweater on, so I just kind of pulled it over my lap and set the specimen cup on the toilet paper holder.
I smiled, and they smiled and one of them said, “We got lead poison.”
“We might die.” The other one said.
“Oh, dear,” I said, “That’s not good. But I don’t think you’ll die. I think you’ll probably be fine.”
“Nope,” Boy in Green said, “Mom says we’re in deep doo-doo.”
“Evan!” A horrified voice yelled. “Devan! You get out of there and leave that lady alone. Let her pee in peace.”
“She’s not peeing,” Evan or Devan said, “She’s talkin’ to us.”
“Well, actually,” I said, “I’d appreciate it if you guys could crawl back out. Can you do that?”
They wiggled backward, but somehow the stroller had gotten in the way, and that wasn’t going to work. The stroller was also in the way of the door that opened outward, so I couldn’t even open it to let them out. I was in the stall on the end, so they scooched down and into the next stall, and a loud voice said, “Hey! Get out of here!” and they fell back on my feet.
“There’s a mean old lady in there,” one of them said.
“And she doesn’t like kids,” the other one said.
The stroller moved, and a hand reached under the door into the stall and grabbed the nearest boy’s pants cuff. His astonished expression was so comical that I started laughing and so did his twin, as the first boy was dragged out of the stall backward.
Unfortunately, just as he was about to go under the door, he put his head up and banged it. His loud yowl of pain set off his brother, who also started yowling and my already painful ears began to hurt even more from the din. I think it was the acoustics, but it was a bit like being between two cymbals with the orchestra playing the 1812 Overture. The woman in the stall next to me left, banging the stall door as she went and I opened the door so that the second twin’s mother could reach in and grab him. The woman was evidently somewhat used to this kind of thing, because, by the time I finished doing what I had to do, the restroom was empty and very, very quiet.
For the rest of the day, I found myself wondering if they really do have lead poisoning, maybe from a recalled toy? Or maybe they ate paint chips on the windowsill of their decrepit apartment building that is all their mother can afford now that her husband is deployed or shacked up with a cocktail waitress. Or maybe they live in an old farmhouse with lead soldered pipes, and they’ll just keep getting dumber and dumber and grow up to be the kind of people who forward emails about disappearing hitchhikers and spiders in bananas. Or run for office. Or maybe, twenty years from now, they’ll be offering lint-covered Toffees to women who sit down next to them at bus stations.
Well anyway, this kind of weirdness is why I started writing way back in 1961. I started with little stories about horses and animals and fairy tale creatures, but only because that was what my teachers told me I should be writing. Then, a few years later, on our old black and white TV, I saw The Purple Avenger episode of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr, a humor writer. (Dom Deluise was the Purple Avenger so I got to discover him too.) I read my way through her books within a week and moved on to Shirley Jackson and Erma Bombeck.
Some writers are remembered for their inspiring love stories i.e. Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. Some, like Hemingway, for his style and some like Faulkner for his ability to evoke a place and a time and characters that people it so well that we feel as if we know them. Me? I suspect that I’ll always be that woman who writes about the weird things that happen to her, which means I’ll be writing for a long time.
Okay, so I’m up to my wimple in yellow brocade, hemming these sleeves that go down to the floor and look like batwings, when Mark, the pool guy, knocks on the door. Daughter starts wailing that there’s a hornet in her room, and Son clomps down the stairs and announces that he can’t get the blue lines off a stop sign, so he won’t have a shield for the next time he fights. And besides that, how the heck can he make a lobster tail without the material? Good question.
Yanno, according to the free horoscope that I get every day; we’ve entered the peace-loving sign of Libra, where balance is everything. Reflecting the fall equinox, which was yesterday according to my calendar, Libra ushers in a season of sharing, socializing and fairness in business and personal relationships. It’s time to get together with friends and family, try new things and party hearty. Oddly enough, that’s what we’re going to do, which is why I’m sewing, Son is making a shield, and we’ll be camping in a field in Maine in September at a re-enactment of a Middle Ages Hunt with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I ought to have my head examined.
The pool guy was here to close the pool, because it’s way too cold to swim, even though the daytime temps get up to 70-something. At night, it dips down into the 40s and even 30s, so the water is a tad nippy by morning. He was knocking on the door to let me know that there was a horse in my yard, so I called my neighbor, the horse’s owner, and she said she’d be right down to get the little dickens. Only a horse lover could call something that weighs as much as some cars a “little dickens” with a straight face. The horse lover’s face, not the horse’s.
The lobster tail, by the way, is layered pieces of leather which go on the back of a hockey helmet, which is what SCA youth fighters wear when they fight like knights used to fight if knights had worn hockey helmets and padding and carried road signs instead of shields. The stop sign is one that Geekdaddy got when the Department of Transportation threw it away, and it will be turned into Son’s shield if he can figure out how to cut it into a shield shape with the puny tools from our garage.
For tin snips, he’s using some clippers that are barely a threat to hydrangeas. Somehow, I don’t think they’re the stuff that Middle Ages’ ironmongers reached for when they needed something to shape a knight’s shield. What he needs are a huge, heavy mallet and some giant, razor sharp cutters that could rip his arm off if he slips while cutting the sign.
Believe me when I say how sorry I am that we couldn’t find anything like that in our garage or anywhere in the house either, even though I helped him look, so he’ll just have to use the hydrangea clippers until the geek gets home to help him. (Hey, call me a wimp in a wimple, but I’m not up for a trip to the ER and I’m a little hazy on tourniquet application for arterial wounds.) Oh, and I forgot to add that the reason helmets have lobster tails is to protect the fighters’ necks and the tops of their spinal columns from blows that might sever one or the other blows that they can receive even under the strict rules of youth fighting in the SCA.
Why the HELL can’t be young males, find something safe to do? Why do they always have to be doing something that can result in death if one little item is overlooked? And why is it that the list of what can’t be ignored is always the list that they hand to Mom? While the list they keep is the list of the [_other _]high-priced – but more fun – equipment that they need to play the game that will almost certainly result in death, dismemberment, bankruptcy or all of the above. But, what of that?
I paid the pool man and waved at our neighbor as she rattled a can of feed at the horse, which ignored her and peevishly kicked over our garden bench. Then I went upstairs and removed the errant hornet by trapping it with a water glass with a piece of paper that I slid between the ceiling and the glass, thus freeing Daughter from her room where the hornet had her and about a dozen beanie babies cornered. (Beanie babies are notoriously wimpy about hornets, Daughter says, so she stayed behind them to protect them.)
Downstairs, Daughter’s Renaissance gown leered at me from my chair, so I glared back at it and went out onto the deck to sit in my rocker for a while. It was very peaceful out there with nary a sign of the horse, my neighbor, hornets or pillaging knights. However, a lot of the leaves have gone over to the Dark Side and are turning colors much faster than they need to. It’s only September, after all, not December.
This is the fall equinox when we start the long, slow slide into cold and grayness that is winter in Maine and New England. We can camp out this weekend. Sure, we can. (I’m channeling Mr. Rogers here.) So what if it’s cold and damp and we wake up feeling as clammy as clamworms in a bait box? That’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? We’ll warm up, just like the temperature warms up and the mist burns off when the sun comes out.
In September, you can get away with camping in Maine, as long as you have a sleeping bag that’s good to 30 below. Not that it gets to 30 below, but that’s what it takes to keep warm in September in Maine, no matter what the tag says. Trust me on this. If you need more information; for instance if you can’t get your lobster tail layered right or if your snood is too snug, look me up. I’ll be the one in the wool cloak, wool tabard, wool skirt, thick cotton tunic and voluminous chemise, wrapped in the “good to 30 below” sleeping bag and wrapped around a half a quart of authentic Middle Ages Mead.
Sometimes, on a beautiful warm night like tonight in Maine, I sit here listening to the crickets, smelling the lilacs and the balsam, and looking out over the field, which is still lit by the last remnants of our long twilight. I remember summers past and winters yet to come as I admire the twinkling fireflies that look like fairy lights and think of all the many things that make up our Maine life, and I wonder to myself, “How can I get out of this hellhole before next January?”
I hate Maine. I’m basically here because we were looking for a place to live in VT or NH, took a wrong turn in Brattleboro, went north and decided that we’d explore Rt2. We followed it to Rumford, where the air didn’t smell like paper mill only because it was Sunday and the geek found a job listing in the Bangor newspaper that some fool had left in a restaurant booth.
He started with phones at a phone company that was so small that the owner’s wife, who knew nothing about phone systems, helped out while breastfeeding an infant and toilet training a toddler with a little portable potty that she brought with her. Talk about multi-tasking. Didn’t faze the geek, though. He just kept his head down and made sure his butt set didn’t hit her
in the anywhere. (Butt sets are those big phone handsets that phone guys have hanging from their belts. Whatever did you think they were?)
That job lasted long enough for the geek to get enough experience and training to apply for a state job, which he’s had ever since. While he was learning the ropes – or I guess I should say the wires – of the phone and computer biz, we were also training to be foster parents, something we did for 11 years. Fifteen kids passed through our home, and three stayed through adoption. It’s one of the reasons I love Maine. Maine gave us our children.
Okay, I know I said I hate Maine. I do. But I also love Maine. The people are wicked nice. The foothills of the mountains, where we live, are beautiful. If we had stayed in southern New England, we never would have been able to afford the amount of land we have here. (Of course, thanks to Maine’s tax system, we can’t afford the land we have here anymore either, but we [_could _]afford it when we bought it until our taxes doubled in three years. I hate Maine.)
If we ever hit Powerball or I sell enough books (which would be more likely if I’d write more books), we would be out of here so fast, that we’d leave contrails. I don’t know where we’d go, but it’d be warmer in the winter, have fewer bugs, less wind, less snow, fewer carcinogens in the air and less mercury in the water, fewer Republican congress critters and more community for secular unschoolers. Of course, the only drawback would be that we’d have to leave some good friends, good neighbors and good memories of the happy times we’ve had here in Maine.
Well, maybe we’d come back for a couple of months in the summer, but we’re definitely not spending any more than July and August here. Then again, fall is the best time of the year in Maine, after the bugs die and the summer complaints have all gone back to Boston or wherever they came from and before the hunters arrive to shoot at our horses and Black Labs and anything else that has four legs. (This is the only reason we take in the lawn furniture in late October.)
If we don’t hit Powerball, we’ll have to wait to leave until Geekdaddy retires. However, due to our late start at parenthood, we’ll still have a teenager who will probably yowl her head off if we tell her we’re moving away from her friends, so we may have to wait a few years until she’s launched. But right after that, no question about it, we’re out of here. I just can’t see living in a place I hate, even if I do love it.
“Well,” the tourist from Oregon said, “I think what I’ve enjoyed the most about my Maine vacation is being able to see a beautiful sunrise every morning. Oregon is on the West Coast, so we don’t get sunrises, only sunsets. There’s all of the rest of the country in the way of us seeing the sunrises, ya’ know?”
I know. During my vacation over the last week or so, I’ve come to know a lot of things. The woman from Oregon was browsing the self-help books at a local bookstore. Very appropriate, I thought if there’s a book titled, Getting a Grip on Reality for Dummies. How in the world can you believe that sunrises aren’t visible on the West Coast? Maybe she’s slept in every morning of her life in Oregon? I’m baffled.
I met another interesting woman at the auto supply store. She’s from Massachusetts and was shopping for wiper blades. “I only need the one,” she told me, as we both looked up our cars on the chart they have, “It’s the driver’s side wiper that wore out, as usual. I guess it’s because I drive alone most of the time.” Oddly enough, my own intelligent mother firmly believed that using her headlights would run down the battery, so she used her parking lights until it was really dark.
I see a lot of people driving with their parking lights on, which makes me wonder if they have that idea too. I mean, what’s the point of driving with just your parking lights on if you don’t think that it draws less power from the battery? It’s not dark enough for headlights, but it’s a little bit dark, so you need a little bit of light? Hey, we’re not rooting around in a closet here, holding a penlight and looking for that button that popped off your gray jacket. We’re driving.
Headlights are designed to light the road in front of us and to make us visible to other drivers. Parking lights are for – well – for parking. If your son yells that he’s going to throw up from eating two bags of Cheetos and a bag of marshmallows, you pull over and put on your parking lights, so that other cars don’t crash into you while he goes behind a bush and barfs. (You don’t keep your headlights on because then everyone would see him throwing up and he’d be embarrassed, which he should be after eating all that junk when you told him it’d make him sick.)
I didn’t spend all my vacation time talking to tourists. I also made some much-needed improvements around the old homestead. I weeded selectively so that our bright blue, wooden garden bench is now surrounded by wildflowers: Queen Anne’s Lace, Ox-Eye Daisies, Brown-Eyed Susans, Yarrow, a Swamp Honeysuckle Bush that smells so nice in spring and lots of Tansy and Comfrey to make the bees happy. One of the great things about wildflower gardens with native wildflowers is that they’re already here. I just have to encourage some and discourage others in order to get it looking the way I want it to look.
Daughter and I also planned our gardens for next year, figuring that we’ll do the digging and delving this fall when the weather cools off a bit. I asked her if she had any ideas for what to plant around the big rock that Son dug up and placed in the middle of the backyard.
“How about if we put crustaceans around it?” Daughter asked. “That way, we could still see most of the rock because crustaceans aren’t very tall. And they’re red, which would look beautiful against the stone.”
I shook my head to get rid of the mental image that filled it: a dozen boiled lobsters artfully arranged around the rock with seaweed for foliage.
“Uh, I think the smell would get to us after a while,” I said, “Maybe we could plant some pansies or geraniums or something a little more traditional?”
“I like crustaceans,” she said, “We could put some in baskets and hang them on the deck too. That way it’d be like a theme. You know, like we saw in that garden book we were looking at the other day. They had crustaceans in window boxes and hanging all over that big white house. It looked really pretty.”
I was getting dizzy. Admittedly, my memory isn’t too hot, but I think I’d remember lobsters in window boxes and hanging all over a house.
“Are you sure it’s not carnations or chrysanthemums you’re thinking of?” I asked her.
“Mom,” she said, “I know what carnations and chrysanthemums are. That’s not what I want around the rock. I want crustaceans.”
I know when not to pursue things, so I just let the subject languish. Later that night, though, I dug out the garden book and found the page with the big white house. It was gorgeous. However, unless lobsters lurked beneath the flowers, there were only nasturtiums in the window boxes and hanging planters.
“So,” I said to Daughter at breakfast the next morning, “It’s nasturtiums you want around the rock in the backyard.”
“Yup, red ones,” she said. “Like I told you yesterday. I’m surprised you remember.”
So am I.
I’m taking a little break from banging my head on my keyboard and howling because it’s not proving as therapeutic as I thought it might be when I started doing it about fifteen minutes ago. I’ll be darned if I can figure out why headbanging doesn’t work like it did when I was 4, but maybe I’ve forgotten the technique. Back then, I mostly did it out of frustration, I suppose. Hmm, come to think of it, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed.
The reasons I applied head to keyboard with feeling are several. Daughter’s narrow escape from Death by Art Form with art supplies that contained toxic materials (which I’ll probably write about at some point but not today) was the beginning. The US Postal Service changing our address from Hawkhill Acres to Hell thereby making it necessary for me to converse in Ham operator code over a bad phone connection was the second. I think the third was when I went to get the mail in the rental car and had to stick my head out the window to back up because the lack of visibility out of the windshield is exceeded only by the lack of it through the back window. It’s just been one of those weeks today.
The reason we seem to be living in Hell instead of at Hawkhill Acres is because a relative who spent the summer here moved out and changed his address. Unfortunately, the USPS decided that we all moved out and went with him. While that seems like an attractive idea to me today, it’s not what we did.
Apparently, though, our mail has moved to his address. This had an unfortunate domino effect on some important documents that I was expecting and also on the copy of Secular Homeschooling Magazine that has one of my articles in it. Neither showed up when they were supposed to. The first, the Important Documents – we’ll call them ID - were sent back to the company they had been sent from because they had marked them “Do Not Forward.” The second, the magazine, was probably thrown away because they don’t forward magazine class mail.
I can email about the magazine, but I had to call the mortgage company about the documents. I got a very nice gentleman, Hari, who even spelled his name for me. Throughout our call, his politeness and patience never wavered, even when the connection got so bad on his end that I was forced to resort to spelling out almost every word I said.
“I can see that you are changing your address only yesterday to a new address,” he began, “So you no longer exist at Hawkhill Acres, but now you have an existence at A Pseudonym For My Relative’s Address.”
I tried to explain about the relative’s move and how the postal service had misconstrued it as a mass migration and he seemed to grasp this right away.
“Ah,” he said, “This was not a movement of the completeness of your family. It was just the one person who exited to the new existence. We will change back your address and all will be well with the sending of the paperworks.”
That’s when the trouble started. I gave him my address, and he got the street part just fine. The town, however, gave him a problem.
“We are having quite an insincere connection with this phone of mine,” he said, “If you would spell this town of yours, perhaps I will better understand its lettering.”
I spelled it slowly: S-H-E-R-M-A-N.
“Okay,” he said, “So that is F as in Foxtrot, K as in Kilo, E as in Echo, R as in Roger, N as in November, K as in Kilo and M as in Mike?”
That’s when the first impulse to bang my head on the keyboard started.
“No,” I said, “That’s S as in Silly, H as in Human, E as in Edward – you got that one right – R as in Robert – you got that one right too – M as in Mud, A as in Alice and N as in Normal.”
There was a long pause, and I wondered if Hari was still there.
“I do not mean to be critical of your education,” he said, “But an unusual choice in your wording is making it very hard for me to figure what it is you are spelling out to me. Do you not know the NATO or Military Phonetic Alphabet Code ?”
I confessed that I didn’t. (I’m such a slacker.) Hari said we could try to go on anyway, but I could tell that he was very disappointed in me and my lazy-ass attitude toward training. So we soldiered on and after several minutes of this, we both cheered when he spelled my town the right way.
“Okay,” he said jubilantly, “Now there is only the matter of the ZIP code.”
I gave it to him, and he got it the first time, which is good because I don’t know the NATO-slash-Military Phonetic Alphabet Code for numbers. If there is one.
“Oh!” he said, sounding a little upset. “If only I had remembered that the ZIP brings forth the town name on my screen. That would have saved a little time, would it not?”
Yeah. Like fifteen minutes of conversation that made Abbot and Costello’s Who’s On First sound like Shakespeare.
I’m not bitter, though. At least, I know that the documents, which have to be here and signed and sent back by next Wednesday or my financial future will be akin to Enron’s, will be here in time. Or at my relative’s house. Or somewhere else entirely different. If you stumble across them, let me know.
Excuse me. I have to get back to my keyboard.
A couple of days ago, after taking a shower, I opened the bathroom drawer where we keep our toothpaste, and a huge spider was doing what looked like a buck-and-wing on the Tom’s of Maine Spearmint. Now you need to know that this spider was even bigger than Geoffrey, the spider that waves cheerfully at me from a corner overhead when I shower.
It was also bigger than Ariadne, the spider who lives under the shelf where I keep my clothes in my side of the bedroom closet. It was certainly bigger than tiny little Ethel who is sitting (can one actually sit with eight legs, I wonder?) next to me behind my incense burner on my desk. This new spider looks like an Audrey to me.
I always assume that spiders are harmless and will leave me alone. The geek always assumes they’re lethal and after him. Arachnophobia is one of those things that I didn’t know about Geekdaddy – or Geekhubby as he was then before we had kids. Of course, he didn’t know that I like spiders and encourage them to share my space, as it were. Hey, some people feed the birds because they like to watch them. I don’t squash spiders because I like to watch them. And I don’t have to go to a mart for Spider Chow or hang up a feeder.
I did move Audrey to the little gap behind the hamper where the geek isn’t as likely to grab her instead of the dental floss. I don’t have to worry about Geoffrey because Geekdaddy is blind without his glasses and doesn’t wear them to shower. Ethel is safe because I don’t let anyone near my desk. But Dennis, who hangs around (literally) on the ceiling over the geek’s side of the bed, may be pushing things. He’s a bit of a daredevil; I’m afraid.
Sometimes, when Geekdaddy is propped up on his pillows reading
a technical manual an uplifting book trash sci-fi, Dennis, laughing up every one of his eight sleeves, drops down until he’s almost skimming the geek’s head and then just kind of dangles there. That’s when I create a diversion by telling Geekdaddy that his computer, which is always running in the bat cave he calls a study next to the bedroom, is making a funny noise.
“Sounds like a rod knock to me,” I tell him.
Invariably, he leaps off the bed so fast that he produces a strobe effect and races to his cave, giving me a few minutes to give Dennis a good talking to and a trip to the back hall for the spider equivalent of ten minutes in the time-out chair. I think Dennis is pretty fly for a spider, but if he lands in Geekdaddy’s hair, he’ll be history.
So let this be a lesson to you, Gentle Reader. If you find yourselves in the heady throes – if heady throes is the phrase I want and I’m somewhat doubtful that it is… Well, anyway if you fall in love and start thinking about settling down with Mr. or Ms. Right, take my advice, sit down with a notebook and find out where they stand on the important things.
Does he like onions in his tuna? Does he even like tuna at all or does fish leave him cold? Does she tear the crusts off her toast and, if so, are you going to shoot her for doing it after fifteen years of breakfasts? Better to know now and avoid that long stretch in a federal pen, I say.
Luckily, in our case, I’ve managed to hide most of the spiders so well that the geek never even knows that they’re there. He’s happy. The spiders are happy. You look up simpatico in the dictionary, and you’ll see a photo of Geekdaddy and me with a spider peering out of his pocket protector and waving. (Probably Dennis.) The only problem I foresee is if we move to California as Geekdaddy would like to do when he retires.
A friend of mine, who lives in CA, recently told me that she found a tarantula and put it in a jar in the ER where she works. She and her coworkers admired it for the day and then released it at the helicopter pad in a field. The next day, there it was, crawling back to the ambulance entrance of the ER like a homing pigeon. Somehow, I think even Geekdaddy would notice huge, black hairy homing spiders crawling around our retirement hovel. I guess I’ll just have to get very creative if we head west in a few years.
T his has been one of those weeks where my email brings me the world, or, at least, the most interesting parts of the world. From my friend Margaret at the Secular Homeschooler's play group that Daughter and I attend, I got this neat link - Peter Callesen’s Paper Art. Click on A4 Papercuts and find the skeleton. (How’s that for a teaser?)
From Deborah Markus, editor of Secular Homeschooling Magazine, I got an email that kept me from bellowing at my
highly irritating completely disorganized ADD-afflicted beloved family. She said something about how her son was sick so she could just focus on him which simplified things for awhile and I started thinking about focus.
As a mother, I spend 90% of my time focused at least somewhat on my family, more specifically on my kids. Of course, the fact that my kids are unschoolers means that they learn a lot from our interaction. But even when I'm doing other things, there's a thread in the back of my mind (or my heart or my nervous system depending on what the kids are up to) that ties some of my attention to them. But just in case that thread gets a little frayed, there are other ways that my focus is forced to return to them, again and again throughout the day. Staying with the textile analogy here, our lives are so interwoven that when they warp, I woof.
Here’s a typical example of that. I’m sitting at my desk, where in a few minutes I’ll be writing a book of organic gardening tips. (Actually, it’s written. I’m just proofreading it for the last time.) But on top of the notes I’ve made of changes I might make, there’s a drawing of a very fashionable, slightly anime-ish young lady (with a tail) who’s ice skating with flowers falling all around her. True, the flowers are kind of a tie-in with the book I’m proofing, but still.
Daughter’s drawings are all over the place. This is in part because she draws – literally – scores a day, and also because of that old boundary problem that ADD people find so hard to resolve. Like gasses, they expand to fill the available space, taking over rooms like Sherman took Atlanta. I love her drawings, but I get
extremely pissed off just a little cross when I have to do an archeological dig to unearth the notes I took on carbon offsets. It doesn’t help when I discover that they’re mixed in with anime as expressed through the medium of peanut butter and jelly because Daughter was having a working lunch. It gets old.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have the least stuff of anyone in the house. Most of it is on my desk in the basement computer room, in my closet, on the table next to my living room chair or beside my bed. We live in an enormous old house that has either 9 or 11 rooms. (We disagree on whether two of the rooms are actual rooms or well, something other than rooms.) But anyhow, we have plenty of space for everyone’s stuff.
So, why is it that everyone else’s stuff keeps getting into the middle of my stuff? I pick up my Word for Dummies book to check out indexing, and there are little foam fashion items – high-heeled shoes, hats, and dresses – stuck to the pages. Daughter’s, of course, but why has she stuck them to the pages of a book about using a word processing program? Why not stick them into a junk mail ad for Kmart or something? Come to that, why stick them to anything at all? Why have them in the first place, if you’re going just to stick them all over other people’s stuff and then forget about them?
I settle down in my chair after dinner and pick up one of my half-knitted socks and find that I’m missing the needle I need to knit the socks off the needles they’re on. (I use the four-needle approach to sock knitting, which means that the sock is on three needles, and I knit it off with a fourth needle.) After a short search around my chair, I’m frisking Son’s cat, who is a fool for yarn and knitting needles, when the geek bursts into the room and says the stupid stick broke, and now his computer repair isn’t going to hold.
“Where did you get this stick?” I ask him.
He looks at me with his hair in points and a wild look in his eyes.
“Someone left it beside your chair,” he says, “I guess it was a lollipop stick or something.”
“No, it was a wooden knitting needle, and I needed it to knit my socks.”
“Well, maybe you could still use it,” he says, “If it’s a short sock.”
This illustrates the other side of the coin with mothers and families. What’s theirs is all over the place and what’s mine is theirs when they can’t find something of theirs that they need. I hate to sound like a selfish old termagant (which always sounds like a shorebird to me but is a term from the Crusades – you could look it up), but sometimes I’d like to have just one room that I could call my own. A room with a lock on the door and all my stuff inside. I’d go inside, lock the door, sit down all by myself… And be bored to tears and very, very lonely. But not right away.
We stopped getting the daily paper sometime last year shortly after we figured out that, if we didn’t cut expenses, we’d be using newspapers for fuel thanks to the rising cost of oil. Now, I buy one when the mood strikes me as it did yesterday. I’ve always read most of the paper, but now that I only get one once in a while, I find myself reading all of the paper, right down to the legal notices and police blotter. (But not, of course, The Phantom cartoon strip. Why is the racist thing still in the paper? But, I digress.)
Yesterday, two things struck me. In the police blotter, there was a paragraph about a young man who had held up a grocery store with a bloody syringe. Horrifying enough, but what the paragraph seemed to dwell on the most was the fact that he was also charged with “committing robbery while concealing his face from the victims.”
I don’t know what they tack on to your prison sentence for that charge, but to me, it smacks of penalizing someone for being intelligent. What? Is there a rule book somewhere that you can look up the rules of robbery in and see if it’s “cheating” to hide your face? To me, it’s right up there with “the rules of war” and “giving deer a sporting chance” by not using bait to toll them in.
I guess I’m just a simple soul because it seems obvious to me that it’s part and parcel of being a miscreant to hide your face. Just like it’s inherent with cats to sneak up on their prey, which we call sneaky, rather than rushing up with a lot of noises, which cats call starvation. To my mind, when humans feel that they have to resort to war, the rules of human interaction have already broken down, and the two sides should just get it over as soon as possible.
Making rules for killing people is ridiculous, except for the one that they used to have back in the good old days before guns when armies met away from civilians and fought it out with each other. A better rule for war would be that the people who want the wars (and Homeland Security will no doubt be calling me on this one), such as the Neocon chickenhawks in Washington, should fight the wars. They could bring their friends and the talk-show hosts who urged people to vote for them.
The other interesting item I saw in the newspaper – you remember the paper? – was a Notice of A Request For Permission To Enlarge a Suit. I mean this anti-obesity campaign is all very well and good, but really! Turns out it wasn’t what I thought at all but rather a bank trying to get more time to notify someone about a foreclosure. (I wonder if they’ve checked the homeless shelters?)
However, it did tie in with something I saw in a magazine. It’s the “S” diet, and it’s taking the weight-loss world by storm. Apparently, it’s so simple that a tubby child could do it. You just eat three meals a day with no seconds, snacks or sweets – except on days that start with s. That would be Saturday and Sunday so you can pig out on weekends.
I was on a similar diet this winter; only it was the “Y” diet. I could eat what I wanted, but only on days that end in y. For some reason, I didn’t lose an ounce, but rather gained about 15 pounds. I figured it was water weight, so I went on that diet where you drink a gallon of water every day. You know, the “P” diet, but that didn’t work either, although I drank water with every meal and snack. Must have been six or eight times a day and even with my midnight snack.
So then I figured I’d try another letter. I overheard someone talking about the “W” diet that I followed faithfully for almost two weeks until I googled it and realized that the diet was for skinny folks and guaranteed to “double you” in a year. Geez, that would explain why I needed a whole new wardrobe – including socks!
I’m no quitter, though (especially when eating is involved), so I continued to look for ways to cut down on the calories. I was overjoyed when I found “The Knitting Diet,” because I’m an avid knitter. The theory was that no one could knit and eat at the same time, so keeping your hands busy with knitting projects would just automatically cut out 250 calories a day. It’s a lovely theory, but it doesn’t explain how I ended up ten pounds heavier with 12 pairs of socks, all with large chocolate stains on them.
Nope, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go on the only weight-loss plan that’s ever worked for me. I’m going to have to eat Sensibly and Move around more. I call it the [*S *]and [*M *]diet. Anyhow, I’ve started using my gazelle exercise machine in the morning and planning what I’m going to eat for the day instead of just randomly grabbing whatever looks good and doesn’t take long to prepare
I figure inside of six months, I’ll be down ten pounds and maybe we can just let the last five pounds slide. I guess I’d better get going on losing weight. I don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to get me Permission to Enlarge Anything.
I’m not angry. Okay, so maybe I’m a little irritated, but who wouldn’t be? I have three ADHD people trying to drive me insane, and they’ve gotten so close that the car is in the driveway with the motor running. They seem to have spent the weekend eating, drinking and changing their clothes.
On Saturday morning, when I walked into the kitchen, there were two empty pizza boxes and dirty dishes up the yin-yang. Tomato sauce was pooling greasily on the stove and counters. Empty seltzer water cans jostled empty tuna cans. A loaf of bread with the wrapper open and a package of Swiss cheese had spent the night going bad. But I didn’t get angry.
Even when I walked into the living room and saw a line of ants marching toward the official Ants of Maine Annual Picnic on a forgotten piece of cookie that someone had left
ON THE ARM OF MY CHAIR on a piece of furniture, I didn’t get angry. I remembered that my daughter was very tired the night before when she finished watching a Hamtaro video, so it’s no wonder that she forgot to pick up her cookie. It happens.
Dirty clothes on the bathroom floor? I’ll just pick them up and put them in the hamper. I’m sure my son would do the same for me. Even if he did change into and out of half of the outfits he owns in the same day because a certain someone might be dropping in. (She didn’t.) And even if he then put wet towels on top of the clean clothes – the same wet towels he’d just wiped the dog with after she rolled in something – so that the clothes had to be washed again. Hey, at least, he was nice enough to wipe off the dog for me. How could I be angry with him after that?
I confess that I was mystified when I discovered that Geekdaddy had left half a bag of corn chips under the blankets at the foot of my side of the bed, but I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Hiding them from the dog? An attempt to “tweak” our love life and, if so, was there dip or salsa further under the blankets? I wasn’t angry, but I didn’t want to know.
So I wandered into the dining room, where everyone was eating breakfast, which seemed to consist entirely of maple syrup. Okay, this is Maine, but even in Maine, we usually have maple syrup ON something. Pancakes, waffles, French toast. They might as well have been eating maple soup.
“We poured the syrup before we realized that we don’t have anything to put under it,” my son said.
I walked out of the dining room and into the kitchen where I nuked some pancakes for them and delivered them in a matter of minutes. Then I retreated to the kitchen where I ate my toast in peace. I didn’t want to know whether they actually slid their pancakes under their syrup. I wasn’t angry. How can you get mad at people who pour syrup onto their pancakes before they know whether there are pancakes? Philosophers and physicists would have no friends at all.
It is a measure of my un-ADHD-ness that I seem to notice every little thing, while they notice almost nothing, except for what they’re interested in or what I don’t want them to notice. Did I forget to pluck my chin hairs? My daughter will mention it in the middle of a doctor’s visit, but not notice that she has her shirt on backward. My son’s drawing of his cousin looks more like her than she does in person, but he doesn’t know what color eyes his sister has.
Geekdaddy can tell you every computer he’s had since they were room-sized and has the union bylaws memorized, but don’t ask him where his pajamas are or what color they are. If they’re not under his pillow, it’s the old purple boxers (as I’ve mentioned before, these are the ones with “look for the union label” on the front) and the Led Zeppelin T-shirt with the holes under the arms. (Let me tell you, it’d take more than corn chips when he’s wearing that. Even with the dip.)
I wouldn’t trade my tribe for anything, although they irritate the bejesus out of me at times. But when that happens, I think to myself about how much I must irritate them almost all the time. They’re entirely comfortable with chaos, disorder, and dirt. Why I would want any order at all plumb evades them. So they vacuum almost cheerfully, humoring me because they love me until the frown lines disappear from my forehead, and then they go back to reading, playing video games, art and making messes.
It’s what they do. It doesn’t make me angry. How could I be angry at people who give me so much to write about?
I’m a bargain basement blogger. My PC sits on a nifty ergonomic desk, although the computer is unusable for the moment and awaiting the ministrations of the geek. Meantime, I hunch over my laptop that takes up most of the top of the card table it’s on because I’ve attached a keyboard. (The fantastically comfortable Wave keyboard I blogged about before. It’s so awesome my fingernail ridges flatten out every time they get near it.) This is all in the former family room, next to the laundry room that is at one end of the furnace room, next to my son’s weight room. Sounds a lot more palatial than it is, believe me.
The decor is Rambling Rural Rustic, which means mousetraps and Gazelle exercise machines coordinate well as accessories and the color scheme is off-white as in “patches of white are peeling off the walls and half the ceiling is white-ish and half is wallboard gray.” (Daughter calls it “off-color” instead of “off-white”, which may be more accurate.) The view, however, is gorgeous. If I look to my left, I can see a beautiful field with snow falling on pine trees and old, gnarled, apple trees. (Did you notice that the date on this is March 28th? And still with the snow!) Of course, if I keep looking to my left, I can type gibberish for ten minutes and not know it, so I don’t admire the view very often.
It was a few days ago that I sensed that I wasn’t alone in the basement. I didn’t see anyone, but I could hear them singing or humming in a high-pitched voice. At first, I thought it was a radio, TV or computer being used by Son or Daughter. But when I checked, they were playing a game of Uno in the dining room and arguing loudly, not singing or humming.
When I returned to the basement, everything was quiet, so I chalked up the whole thing to a vagrant wind gust and got back to work. Fifteen minutes later, the dadblamed ghostly chorus started up again. It was very faint, but I have excellent hearing, and I could almost make out the words the tinny little voice was singing. It seemed to change frequently, almost as if someone was turning the dial on a radio and switching stations. One minute, the words sounded liltingly Celtic, the next they had more of a French accent and then all of a sudden it was the Tuvan throat singing that Geekdaddy is so fond of, and I liken to gargling with razor blades – through your nose.
It was driving me mad, so I got up and moved around the basement, trying to track it down. As I approached the laundry room, it got louder, and then faded, but picked up again when I turned toward the furnace. I tried to remember if the legendary Phoenixes were fond of singing, but I’m a little shaky on the whole mythical beast pantheon, although I couldn’t think of anything else that could survive long enough to sing in a furnace, and that was definitely where the singing was coming from.
I’d heard of people picking up radio stations on their fillings, and I know you can get some fascinating airwave reception on one of those tinfoil hats if you put an antenna on it, but I’d never heard of anyone receiving Clear Channel or whatever it was on their oil furnace. Until now, of course, that is. I leaned down and gave the heater a long scrutiny and listened intently.
I finally tracked it down. It came from a valve on top of the water tank, and it was a little humming noise, high-pitched and varying enough to make it sound like distant singing. Why my furnace sings is a mystery. The furnace repair folk I called said it’s perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. They said almost no one noticed it or knew that their furnace did it. Does yours? If so, drop me a line, will you? I’d like to know that I don’t have the only singing heating appliance in the US. (Although if I have, maybe we could sell it on eBay, ya’ think?)
Now to the “seeing things” part of this post, which occurred very early this morning when Geekdaddy hit the bathroom. It was before the alarm went off and still very dark, so as usual, he used the bluish glow of his watch to light his way. On his way back to bed, his finger slipped off the watch button, so he was mystified when the glow continued. The odd thing was, though that now the light was coming from the bathtub drain, and it was orange rather than blue.
Regular readers of my writing can tell you that the geek is pretty oblivious and also pretty impervious to weird situations, but this was a bit much even for him. What got the’ pens jumping in his pajama pocket protector was the way the glow seemed to go all the way down the drain as far as he could see – which led him to wonder if it wasn’t some kind of bacterial reaction going on all the way back to the septic tank.
“I think we’d better pour some bleach down the drain,” he said after he’d told me about it at breakfast, “Maybe using all this natural stuff isn’t such a hot idea. I think there’s something ALIVE down there!”
Son agreed, and Daughter was looking pretty apprehensive about taking her nightly bath with glowing tub fixtures, but I was skeptical. So, after Geekdaddy left, the kids and I went into the bathroom, shut the door and looked down into the drain. The only window is covered by dark blue drapes because it looks out on the mudroom, so it was pretty dark in there. Well, except for the eerie orange glow coming out of the tub drain. The geek hadn’t exaggerated. It was really weird.
I confess that I was stumped, but only for about a minute. Then I realized that the tub drain, which used to have a perforated metal cover over it until I removed it so that I could clean it more thoroughly, is made of opaque white plastic. Under our bathroom is the laundry room, where Daughter had gone just before bed the night before to retrieve some clothes. I suspected that she had left the light on, and that’s what was making the drain glow. When Son went to check, the light was on. When he shut it off, the light disappeared.
I reached for my phone to call the geek, but then I decided to wait and let him see that there’s no glow there anymore, turn the light on and see if he can figure it out. The kids want to tell him that we didn’t see a glow, but I think that would be mean. Funny, but mean.
The Groucho crouch? Well, that’s what we have to do so as not to disconnect my wireless connection. Geekdaddy set it up with the receiver as high up as he could, but when anyone walks up or down the stairs from the basement, including me, it evidently cuts off the connection because I have to click on the wi-fi icon and repair it. So I kind of crouch when I walk upstairs and I yell at everyone else to “crouch like Groucho!” when they open the basement door at the top of the stairs. (I did it to the furnace guy because I thought he was one of the kids when Son let him in to clean the furnace. Goodness knows what he thought.)
So, that’s the lowdown on the singing furnace, the glowing drain and why we have to walk like one of the Marx brothers whenever I’m on the Net. Those aren’t the strangest things that happened in our neck of the woods this week, but they’re interesting. However, I haven’t touched on the most interesting thing. That was the guy in the library telling one of the librarians about an alien invasion that he witnessed some time ago.
She was calmly saying things like, “Really? I didn’t know that” and “Well, isn’t that interesting” and “How true. You can never tell with aliens” and he was going on and on. At first, I thought he was telling her about a book he’d read, but as the story unfurled, it was obvious that he was talking about something that he’d actually witnessed, although possibly only in the private screening room in his mind. Maybe the librarians are good at these kinds of conversations partly because this is the library where Stephen King has a library card, and they’ve read all his books, so the definition of weird has been stretched already.
But who am I to talk? After all, I’m the woman crouching on the stairs in the house with the singing furnace and the glowing drain and mousetraps – albeit humane ones that don’t kill the mice – for office accessories in the room with the off-color walls.
I’m not a firefighter, but boy am I used to fire drills. Fire drills, around here, are those times when life gets interrupted by alarums and excursions and everyone involved runs around waving their arms, making a lot of noise and not accomplishing much of anything. They seem to come in waves, like tsunamis, and last Saturday was a beach day here.
The geek, as usual, was deeply involved in tweaking some computers, so he had them all laid out on the floor of his computer room. This is about the size of a refrigerator box and as dark as a cave because its only window looks out onto the mudroom. It’s crammed with file cabinets, cardboard boxes and piles of CDs which sprout from the floor like mushrooms. Wires lie in coils and loops, just waiting to trip the unwary, and the only light comes from the four computer monitors that are on constantly. If blind cave crickets built computers, this is where they’d build them.
Of course, this isn’t all the geek was up to this beautiful summer weekend. Nope. There was also lawn mowing to do (about ten acres), the pool to be drained enough so that we could add clean water to it and sundry other little chores that summer brings on. So he alternated between sitting cross-legged on the floor of his cave, racing madly around the fields on the lawn mower and dashing back and forth to the pool, which was draining. Basically, he was a blur punctuated by what looked like a geek doing yoga.
Meanwhile, my brother and my son and I were deeply involved in making my son’s business cards in MY computer room, which is in the basement, but has two windows looking east and south, so it’s sunny, pleasant and roomy. (The geek hates it because there’s always a glare on the computer screen, he says.) We had just gotten to the part where we were printing out the cards when there was a horrible roar of pain from the next room, where Geekdaddy was attaching the pool hose to the water pump.
We all raced in to find him rolling on the floor, clutching his right knee and swearing in Fortran. Finally, he lay still, his legs under the oil tank and his head against an old pool ladder. He could hardly talk because he was on the verge of passing out, but we managed to discover that he’d twisted his knee. Not recently, though. No, Geekdaddy being Geekdaddy, he’d twisted it and fallen a few minutes before that, thought nothing of it, walked over to the basement, bent down to attach the hose and felt a horrible rending tear in his knee.
We quickly realized that we couldn’t get him onto his feet or move him at all, so we called 911. We live in a very rural area, so the town rescue team appeared, gently extricated him from under the oil tank and stabilized him and put a splint on his leg while we waited for the “real” ambulance. Since the EMTs were our neighbors, the Geek chatted – between groans – about town politics and the deplorable condition of the roads until two men showed up at the door to the basement with a stretcher.
The door is very narrow and leads to the inground pool area, with hardly enough room for the geek to fit between the pool and the fence when he has his favorite “tire tube” floatie on, so we were apprehensive, as they maneuvered him out on the stretcher.
What if he fell into the pool? Could he swim with his knee like that? Would the stretcher float? Would one of the EMTs fall in and sue us or drown? Why couldn’t he have fallen right away, while he was out in the yard, where they could have just whisked him onto the stretcher, instead of waiting until he was down in the basement, half underneath an oil tank, with a pool and a chain-link fence in the way? Why does he always have to do things the hard way?
Well, while we held our collective breath, they did it. No one fell into the pool, off the stretcher or into the hollyhocks. I grabbed my keys, kissed the kids goodbye and drove to the hospital behind the ambulance. When I got there, he was in the hallway, but was soon wheeled to x-ray, and then into an exam room. It was a long wait for the doctor, but luckily for us, the hospital provided entertainment when Vomiting Woman entered the room to the left of us, and Coughing Man arrived at the room to our right. It’s impossible to be bored while listening to two complete strangers alternately dry-heaving and moaning and coughing lung particles up. Bilious, yes. Bored, no.
Finally, the doctor came in and assured us that there was nothing broken, just a bad sprain and Geekdaddy would have to keep off that leg for a while. No lawn mowing, pool filling or sitting on floors tweaking computers. They wrapped it with an ace bandage, gave him crutches and a prescription for a few pain pills and sent us home.
By the time we arrived, the kids had already eaten dinner, and we were all knackered. We got the geek settled into his recliner, resisted his pleas for a CPU to tweak, and before the local news was over, my daughter was yawning. After she had gone to bed, my son went up to his room and turned his light off before ten. The geek hobbled into the bedroom shortly after that, and I settled down to read “Good Grief” an excellent book by Lolly Winston. I was enthralled and starting to relax finally with a cup of tea after all of the Sturm und Drang of the day, when an unearthly howling arose, seemingly on three sides of the house at once.
It startled me so much that I threw up my arms, which was unfortunate because I was holding my tea at the time. Tea went all over my library book and onto the dog, which was sleeping at my feet. She began to bark ferociously and run from one side of the room to the other while I struggled out of my chair and went to the slider to the deck to look for the three cats. All three were right outside the sliding glass door, pawing at the glass and meowing pitifully. I opened it, and they ran in, their tails bristling like… Well, like cattails, I guess.
I turned on the outside light, stepped out onto the deck and yelled what I always yell at our local coyotes, “Bad dogs! Go home! Bad dogs!” Whether they leave because of the light or because they really think they’re bad dogs is a question we’ll never be able to answer, but they usually leave when I do that. I like to think the coydogs amongst them, at least, know what it means and are ashamed of themselves.
As I turned off the light and headed to bed, I couldn’t help but think of another fire drill, one that happened way back before Geekdaddy was a daddy or I was a mom. We lived in a summer cabin in a small beach community with our four dogs and two cats. Our neighbor was a nice guy we called “The Exterminator,” because he worked for a pest control company and told us when we first met that “every day is an adventure in the pest control business.” I’m sure it was.
Every morning, the geek would take our dogs out to their pen, which was behind the house and not accessible directly via a door. They were pretty rambunctious dogs, so it was always nip and tuck as to whether he’d get them all into the pen before they escaped. One morning in early fall, after a night when we’d stayed up too late reading, the geek groggily rolled out of bed, leashed the dogs and headed out while I made breakfast. I’d just filled the teakettle when I heard a terrific clatter from outside and saw the geek run by the window toward the front yard, chasing the dogs. They were all running straight at “The Exterminator”, who was waiting with his two young daughters for the school bus.
As the geek yelled imprecations at the canines, our neighbor looked more and more aghast. I wondered if he had a phobia of dogs or something. His daughters, on the other hand, seemed to think it was hilarious and were laughing their heads off. Finally, the geek captured the dogs and although he’s usually the mildest mannered of men, he turned to look at our neighbor and said, “What are [_you _]looking at?”
The man just sputtered and seemed unable to speak as the geek walked back to the house. That’s when I realized that my husband was completely naked. That fact just hadn’t clicked for me as the chase ensued because I was focusing on our neighbor’s reaction, rather than the geek. We moved a few months later to a more rural area and a house with a fenced-in yard. Now that we live in Maine, we still have fire drills But Maine is cold, so the geek always dresses for them.
Thank you for reading Life Without a Field Guide Book 1.
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Read on for excerpts from the next two books in the Life Without a Field Guide Series.
From Life Without a Field Guide Book 2, HUMOR ME:
In previous essays on the topic, I might have given the impression that I hate Maine winters more than anything. This is definitely not the case, although I must admit that I think they should come with a “best if used before date” sometime in March, and it should be strictly enforced. If we knew that the snow was going to be only up to our knees, the wind was going to be merely a mild gale and the ice was going to be off at least the deepest part of the lake by, say, March 21st, I’m sure we could all cope a little better with having our ayuhs frozen off every time we go outside.
If, for instance, I could write in red on the calendar on March 21st, First Crocus, or Golf Date with Freddie, I’d be euphoric. (And very surprised. I’ve never planted any crocuses in our yard. I don’t play golf. And I don’t know anyone named Freddie, come to think of it.) Well, anyway, it would be really nice to be able to put some spring things on the calendar before June, but it doesn’t usually work out that way in Maine. April may be the cruelest month, but May is Blackfly Season and please note the capital letters.
We have to crowd all the spring things into the first part of June, because if we didn’t, they’d run into summer, which is so short in Maine, that we can’t fit all the summer things into it without running smack dab into autumn. Since our first frost is usually sometime in August, this results in a good amount of overlap, as you can imagine.
That’s why, around here, you often see people out on their decks, hunched over a grill in a snowstorm, wearing shorts, a winter jacket and a hat with earflaps, with a beer in one hand and a cup of hot coffee in the other. (Grilling tip: If you find flipping your burgers difficult, omit the coffee and substitute hot buttered rum for the beer, thus freeing up a hand.)
To deal with this Seasonal Afflictive Disorder, Mainers have become adept at denial. Just today, I was making the bed and got all chuffed up because I realized it’s time to put on the summer quilt. Summer. Quilt. Two words that don’t even belong in the same sentence. That’s so sad. Worse, I didn’t see anything odd when my son came in to tell me that he had to stop digging the garden, because six inches down, the soil is frozen. This is in April on a day when it’s 78 degrees out.
This is a cruel joke that Maine pulls on us at least once every spring. It throws us a scorching hot day or two so that we’ll complain so that Ma Nature can feel justified in giving us another six weeks of winter weather afterward. (I always think that the hot April days that bring out the beautiful apple blossoms early are a nice contrast to the April blizzards that freeze them solid.)
No, in spite of what I’ve said about Maine winters, I don’t want to give the wrong impression and make you think they’re at the top of my hate list. I can take Maine winters when you balance them out against the many good things that Maine has to offer. Maine has nice, low key people who hardly ever shoot anyone over traffic incidents. There are town offices in people’s trailer homes where you can register your car and get laundry tips or even free kittens at the same time.
Several years ago, I scored a cute little stripy kitten, learned how to remove hard water stains, got some advice on soothing the colicky baby I had with me and registered a minivan, and the town clerk even held the baby while I signed the papers. Try to get that kind of service in a city.
I miss it now that we’ve moved to a town with a real town office, albeit it shares space with the volunteer fire department and our tiny library. When there’s a fire, the town clerk, her assistant and the two librarians and a janitor take off like bats out of hell, which is a tad unsettling. Not as disturbing as the fire siren, which is on top of the roof of the library part, though.
There are Annual Town Meetings where 34 people decide what to do with the town budget of $600,000 and the other 166 registered voters, who didn’t vote, show up to gripe about it at every Selectman’s meeting for the rest of the year. (It’s the local version of Reality TV.)
No, I want to make it clear that, while I dislike winter in Maine, I don’t hate it with a vengeance. Long, cold and snowy though it may be, there are worse places to be in winter, and I’ve lived in some of them. One of them is Washington State, where I learned that they tell you about the rain, but no one mentions the wind until you’ve moved there.
There’s upstate NY, where it’s so cold and dry that the snow squeaks underfoot, and trees explode every once in a while from ice trapped inside them. While we [do _]have the _occasional random exploding tree in Maine, our snow hardly ever squeaks, and you don’t have to worry about rain in the winter here. Nope, just snow and cold and the wind and … Have I ever mentioned how much I hate winter in Maine?
From Life Without a Field Guide Book 3, Seriously?:
Well, I should have known better than to diss Richard Dawkins in a previous essay, although I don’t think saying that I’m uncomfortable with his confrontational style of atheism is really dissing. I doubt very much that it would bother him if he knew that his style isn’t my style. But because one of my most trustworthy critics was upset by the comment, I’ll make
Geekdaddy the Nameless Critic happy by writing about a subject that is near and dear to Richard Dawkins’s heart – or maybe his mind.
Beards. Well, to be more precise, green beards. And if I may take this a bit further, let’s slide right into slime molds with green beards. Daughter and Son and I have recently been exploring this subject because it’s slime mold season in Maine. (Other states get to have Cherry Blossom season, Cheesemaking Month and Raspberry Festivals to celebrate spring. In Maine, we know it’s spring when we have to replace all the fly strips because they’re full. We can’t sleep for the caterwauling of lovesick porcupines in the tops of pine trees and can’t take three steps without slipping in what looks like dog vomit, but is, in fact, slime mold. Tra la la.)
I would like to say that our slime molds all have green beards, but that would be a lie. Richard Dawkins would probably come down on me like a load of bricks, followed by hate mail from E.O. Wilson (one of my favorite science writers, by the way) and the shades of W.D. Hamilton and Stephen Jay Gould. As I’m sure you know, only some slime molds have green beards and even those that do only have figurative green beards, so you may wonder why I even bring up the subject.
Actually, at this point in this article, I’m starting to ask myself why I brought up the subject, which seemed so straightforward when I started writing the darned thing. Well, let’s begin with altruism and its place in evolution, which is what my kids and I were delving into slime molds after, so to speak. We all know that altruism is that quality which makes parents run back into burning buildings to rescue their kids, turns bystanders into good Samaritans, and got David Crosby his liver transplant. (Well, being rich and famous probably didn’t hurt, but the person who donated the organ, or his or her family, was altruistic.)
It’s understandable that parents would save their children and that siblings would save their siblings because it would help ensure that their “kin,” people who contain their genetic material, their genes, would be more likely to survive. But why do strangers, the good Samaritans, and organ donors, help other people, often risking their lives to do so? How does that further the chances of their genes floating to the top of the gene pool?
That’s where the greenbeards come in. W. D. Hamilton, the British evolutionary theorist, originated the concept. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene used a hypothetical example in which having a green beard is a marker that lets individuals with a gene for cooperation recognize others with the same gene. So, to quote Dawkins, “ the greenbeard gene (or genes) must do three things: establish a signal (the green beard), enable recognition of others that share the signal, and promote cooperative behavior towards other greenbeards.”
What can this possibly have to do with slime molds, you ask? Plenty! The individual cells that make up slime molds usually just mooch around by themselves, digesting cellulose and minding their own business. But when a crisis arises, when their moisture source dries up or the supply of wood runs out, the individual slime mold cells that are cooperative and altruistic exude a protein (cAMP, if you must know) that other selfless slime mold cells can follow.
Gradually, as more and more slime mold cells follow this trail, a “slug” of slime molds forms and actually begins to move like a single organism, as it searches for a source of light. When it reaches it, the “slug” cells change to form a fruiting body that rises on a stalk to discharge spores into the new environment, where they will likely form new cells. Then the “stalk” dies.
If you’re not thoroughly knackered by reading this harrowing description of life and death at the cellular level, you may want to pursue the subject on a slightly higher plane on Google where lizards often get into it. I will warn you, though, that things get more complicated and several new colors are introduced when you bring reptiles into the equation. But the central tenet holds true. In lizards, slime molds, and probably in humans, nature tries to filter out the less-altruistic members of society with mixed success, as far as I can tell. I’d say that Nature needs to concentrate on the Washington, DC area a little more. Or at least on the human population in seats of power there. As for the Capitol-area slime molds, most of them are still giving each other a leg up (or I guess I should say, a pseudopod up) just like they’re supposed to.
So what did my kids learn from all this? Well, they didn’t write reports, but apparently it made a deep impression on them because they’ve both been talking about it and noticing examples of altruism in animals and people. It’s led to many a trip to the bookcase to check out something in our science reference books and Daughter was going to draw slime molds but gave up when they all came out looking like blobs. It did me no good to remind her that they are blobs. Artists are so temperamental.
Dawkins, Gould, and Hamilton all got looked up in Wikipedia and we’ll be taking out some of their books from the library tomorrow. We broadened our knowledge of evolution, cells and simple organisms and how nature recycles plant and animal material. We’ve had many lunchtime discussions about how belief or lack of it affects scientists and the way they look at the world. In short, we’ve wrung about as much out of slime molds as we can and will probably be leaving them behind for more evolved organisms like bacteria. (Heady stuff!)
And to think that it all started when Daughter slipped in the leaves and said, “Oh crap, the dog threw up and I just stepped in it.” It really is true. Every day is an adventure with Unschooling.
Painful medical procedures, embarrassing moments with toddlers, tweens, and teenagers? Times when my nearest and dearest try my patience beyond endurance, or I try theirs, and they let me know? It’s all a lot easier to bear if I can see the funny side, and there almost always is one. What I’m not, or, at least, try my best not to be is snarky and mean.I’m more of an Erma Bombeck/Phyllis Diller-type. Yeah, I mention a few times that my family is driving me crazy. So did Erma. But I go on to say that I know that I drive them crazy too. Most of the writing in my first three books came from the years that we unschooled. A few people have asked me if I’ll still write now that both of my kids are in college and mostly out of the house. (One wonders if they’ve forgotten that I’ve also had Geekdaddy to write about for 36 years. He hasn’t moved out. Yet.)