Friday, August 15, 2014

Summer "School" for the Whole Year

I don't know about your area, but around here the Back-to-School frenzy has already started. The newspaper is full of ideas for "what to do" with your kids while you are waiting for school to start. There are also suggestions for getting your child back into "school" mode. Parents and teachers worry about students getting back into a "normal" sleeping routine and fret over summer brain leakage. One parent in the article talked about how she had gathered her children's school clothes and summer assignments together to prepare for the start of school.

Wait a minute...Summer assignments? I thought one of the joys of summer vacation was the lack of homework? Sad but true, I've heard this from parents at the library. Some schools assigned four summer reading book reports. And just to make certain kids are well rounded from the experience, the schools specified two reports on works of fiction, one on a biography, one on a work of non-fiction.

I shake my head over it all. 

How I loved summer! I spent most of it wandering around our backyard. I remember lounging in the hammock reading "The Wind in the Willows," not because someone told me to, but because I wanted to. I watched TV. Sometimes I played with other kids, but not usually. Other kids complicated my quiet world and most of the time with my two older siblings usually ended in fights or tears or both. I preferred sitting with our chickens and in later years, our pigeons. I set up my plastic animals and used my Matchbox cars to play safari. I would peel the bark away from sticks to use as toys. I collected morning glory seeds and pretended they were coffee beans. I had unlimited time to draw. Most of the time I simply moved dreamily about the yard making up stories in my head. I'm sure it looked like I was bored, but I wasn't. The things I did and learned during the summer always stayed with me.

It makes me wonder: Why are we surprised children forget so much school learning over the summer? Schools try to cram a myriad of information into kids during the school year with the main goal of a passing grade on a test. For what purpose? To move up to the next grade and do it again? How is that incentive? I never got the hang of school math when I was little because, to me, it was all endless numbers on a page. In summer I built a dollhouse (geometry) and learned how to make miniatures to scale. I didn't consider it math, and so I decided I was terrible at math. For me, history was wars and dates in school. In summer, it was trips to places like Colonial Williamsburg or the Cloisters. I didn't consider this history, so I decided I was terrible at history.

I'm grateful I had the opportunity to homeschool/unschool my kids. I'm glad I gave them the room to be creative and spend their days like I spent summer. Learning should not be an "old grind". Learning should be endless days of summer--thinking, doing, exploring the world around you and within you.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Update on our Life

Some of my readers wondered how my family is doing. I figured I would post an update.

My husband has work! It is temporary for now, through September, but hopefully they will hire him for longer term. We will take any well wishes, thoughts, prayers, or crossed fingers that they keep him on. He is also working from home. This is good and bad. On the bad side, I've had to give up part of my bedroom to the home office. We have little room to spare. On the plus side, having him home gives me an easy answer for those awkward questions of "How will you continue to homeschool while working?" Much easier to say someone is home with my youngest than try to explain that we don't really follow school hours.

Marina and I are working regularly at the library. It's neat to carpool with my daughter. I'll miss this when she heads back to university the end of the month. I am getting the hang of clerking, although the circulation desk is still anxiety-provoking for me. Every time I'm at the desk, there seems to be a new and unusual problem. It keeps me on my toes. Which is why I prefer working in the back, checking in library materials. I like knowing I can handle things without asking my supervisor for help every five minutes. I also enjoy the children's room. Kids make me smile.

My son continues interning at the Digital Arts Experience. He also helped me run a few workshops this summer teaching juggling and balloon sculpture. And I think he is now my height or a little taller. I'm not sure. He slouches.

Sierra has been volunteering at the nature center. I help her to clean cages and feed the menagerie there. She's become adept at handling the hedgehog, doves, turtles, and chinchillas. We haven't lost one yet. She is also really good at giving food and water to the hissing cockroaches, a task that turns my stomach every time. I'm afraid one of them might crawl up my arm when I take their dishes out. She doesn't even flinch when they hiss because she needs to push them aside to set the bowls down. She's a brave girl, that one.

That's about it for now. We are really grateful for all the support everyone has given us, in our solid and virtual lives. Your positive vibes kept us on track through the uncertainty, and I feel honored--blessed--to know so many kind and caring people. I have some posts in my head, and as soon as I have some time and energy I plan to write them down.

Please forgive any errors as the cat has taken to laying in front of my screen when I sit at the computer. This makes proofreading a challenge.

Monday, July 21, 2014

To Do: Make a Lounge Chair Appointment

One of our cats has a daily need to go outside. She follows me out when I tend to the garden. Her routine is pretty simple these days. I suppose her eleven years have slowed her down some. The first stop is at the tree, where she stretches up and digs her claws in, scratching with all her strength. Then she strolls onto the lawn and pulls at some grass until I take pity on her mostly toothless grip and break off some leaves for her to chew on. After that, it's time to head over to the lounge chair. Yes, lounge chair. I suppose when you reach a certain age, you want comfortable support under you, not the gritty, rocky surface of sidewalk or lawn. She lays there, alternating between sleep and nature watching, until she realizes we forgot about her and went inside. Then she begins to mew. Depending on her mood, that means she wants to come in, or she wants us to come out and enjoy the day with her.

My cat has a routine.

My own routines are scattered to the wind lately. I think it started last summer when my son got his internship and things have only gotten worse since I started working in June. My husband could at least pick up some of the pieces--grocery shopping, making dinner, driving the family around--but then he landed some temporary work the beginning of July (YAY!) and suddenly life became a whole lot more complicated. He works from home, but he can't always leave when he wants, or make time for cleaning dishes or making dinner.

It doesn't help that I don't yet have a regular schedule at the library. There are days when I feel like a Minuteman, ready at a moment's notice to head in. And I know that is a good thing. I must be doing well if they are calling me in so much. This month, I also had the stress of doing juggling and balloon workshops. The library asked me to add in some science facts to align the workshops with the summer reading game's theme for this year.

Some have asked me how I will manage homeschooling now. The fact is, that is the easiest part of my life. I only have my youngest to report, and she is always learning. Come September, I will need to check in with her to find out what she's been up to so I can write it down.

So much to do. I know some things must fall to the side or be given to others to do. I have trouble giving up control. I still handle the wash and I'm still hanging it all to dry since our dryer is useless. Honestly, I miss making dinner regularly. I also miss having a clear living room to exercise in. My hope is that once my workshops finish up this week, I will be able to establish some new routines in August.

Maybe I can even set aside some time for lounging.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Late and Last: Looking at Words

I believe that two of the most overused words in the English language are "late" and "last."

Think about it. So many ads in print and on TV blare out the importance of coming in to their stores before it's too late! It's your last chance to save big! These savings won't last! The sense of urgency spills over into other areas of life. These summer days won't last! Better enjoy them now before it's too late. We can't be late or we might miss the most important part of (fill in the blank)! And who ate the last cookie?

There is finality in these terms. It appears as if nothing will come after.

As a homeschooler, I try to remember that nothing is final. It's never too late to learn something new. There is not a last chance for anything unless I choose to give up. Just because a child doesn't read before kindergarten doesn't mean they are doomed to fall further and further behind. Just because a child doesn't grasp basic calculations the first time doesn't mean they are doomed to never do well in math. I learned to understand the beauty of math by teaching it to my oldest. I thought history was boring until I learned it alongside my children. There is not one good time to learn something, there are several opportunities over a lifetime!

There are last chances in schools only because there are fixed schedules there. You must learn x, y, and z in a particular year because the teachers for the next grade don't have time to go back and teach it. They must always move everyone forward on the assembly line. That is what it is: linear education.

As a homeschooler, I don't need to follow that straight and narrow path. I can allow my children to have a relaxed and more purposeful education. Learning is meandering. They can wander off after an interest, look back, jump ahead, and sometimes walk beside me. It doesn't make it easy for me in a state where I must report, but I knew what I was getting myself into. I chose this. It won't be the last time I choose to choose it.

And I can bake more cookies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Van Gogh Tardis Cake

June has been a month of learning new things for me, as I settle into my new position as a library clerk. Suddenly I was days away from my husband's birthday and half of the house was coughing from an icky cold. I almost let the day pass. I was too tired to come up with a theme for the cake.

I sat down in front of the computer Googling cakes based on various sci-fi shows he enjoyed. We are currently watching the fourth season of Babylon 5, and he loves shows like Star Trek, Supernatural, Grimm, and Dr. Who. Dr. Who finally gave me the inspiration I needed. I love that Van Gogh was featured on Dr. Who, not only because of my artistic background, but also because nothing is as forgiving in cake decorating as Post-Impressionism (edited for accuracy by art history minor daughter).

I admit, I was going for quick and somewhat easy. I made the square buttermilk chocolate cake from the Fannie Farmer cookbook the night before. One layer became the base, the other was cut into square sections, smeared with melted chocolate and stacked. Some slanted cuts created the roof of the police box. Whipped cream frosting in different colors painted the cake and box. In hindsight, I should have made the orange and yellow blast bigger. It looks like it landed on an octopus. Cocoa in the blue frosting might have helped to get a darker blue. It was a little too bright for universe and Tardis blue. Notice how close it matches the tablecloth. I used some sugar wafer cookies to create windows and to square off the edge of the roof. Then I put the whole thing in the freezer to let the frosting stiffen a bit.

At some point, the Tardis became wibbly wobbly. I had no patience for another issue like the cupcake goblets, so I speared the entire police box with a wooden skewer and clipped off the excess. That succeeded in keeping it in place. Next came the finishing touch, the light on the top of the box:

Half of a blue candlestick, lit just before singing, gave it that old timey-wimey feel. Again, looks do not mean as much to me as taste, and this was tasty. The Tardis was like a Ring Ding with the cream filling on the outside, if Ring Dings were made with fresh ingredients.

And thankfully, everyone was healthy enough to eat cake on the big day.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Eaglets, I've Seen a Few

Have you ever heard the story of the sun and the wind? The sun and the wind make a bet to see who can make a man remove his coat. Wind blows and blows but all that happens is the man pulls his coat more tightly against his body. Sun, on the other hand, shines and shines until the man gets so warm, he takes off the coat.

When I do something outside on a windy day, it's a struggle. My hair blows into my face and I feel like the breath is being pulled out of me. I need to brace myself simply to walk around. By the time I come inside, I'm tired from fighting gusts.

Lately, we've been spending time watching the Decorah Eaglets. At this point, the eaglets are starting to spread their wings and practice flapping, preparing for flight. It's interesting to watch. Today was a windy day at the nest. Watching the wind flutter through their feathers, I noticed one and then another do something interesting:

They faced the wind and spread their wings.

The eaglets know the wind is nothing to fear. Someday, that wind will lift them up and they will soar.

Wind is not an obstacle to moving, it is a benefit for flying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

So How am I Doing?

May was hard. So, so, so hard. Trying to adjust to financial changes while at the same time trying to celebrate all of my miracles took an emotional toll on me. I still find myself avoiding quiet moments. Reflecting seems to bring out the depression and self-doubt in me and I start to panic and tear up. I don't have time for tears. I need to be action-oriented.

My action from the start was to let both libraries we go to know that I was available for work, any work really, so that I could at least slow the drain of finances. We've lived frugally, so we do have savings to help us through the short term, but without knowing when my husband will find work, I knew I had to do whatever was necessary to keep us in the black.

And that was scary. I haven't looked at my resume in twenty years. Since my last full time job, most of my work has been sporadic. I occasionally teach crafts or circus arts at schools and libraries. My main focus has been on my kids, homeschooling them and taking them where they needed to be.

Homeschooling has been a godsend for me. I know most of us do it because of what our kids get out of it, but we take for granted what we, as the educational facilitators, get out of it. I love learning as much as my children do. I know how to think creatively and out of the box to figure out how to accomplish things. I know how to seek advice and help from others who are more knowledgeable in areas where I feel uncertain.

One great piece of advice was to use my volunteer experience on my resume. You know us moms, we always downplay the things that we do purely out of love. But all of that time I've spent running the homeschooling storytelling workshops and helping out sorting book donations and helping run the bookstore for the library friends was valuable experience. I pass this advice to any homeschooling parent reading: if you have the time when your kids are older, you should definitely find some volunteer work for yourself doing things you love. That experience counts toward a future after children are grown and homeschooling is finished.

At the beginning of June, I started training as a library clerk. It's only part-time work, but at least we have some money coming in. I hope it won't be too much longer before my husband can find work as well. These changes happen for a reason. I know I'm blessed that I had as many years as I did being able to stay home with my kids, and let's face it, they don't need me as much as they did when they were younger, and not in the same way. I hope I'm showing them how to be resourceful and not just lay down and curl up when challenges come their way.

Full disclosure here, I did lay down and curl up a bit. In my defense, we've faced a lot lately. At least I waited until I had the job before I let everything get to me. I'm pushing it down again, because if it doesn't help, it needs to get out of the way. I'm trying to take care of my family here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The League of Legends Poro Cake

Hard to believe my son turned 18 last week. I was relieved when his cake request wasn't too complicated after trying to make cake goblets. Heck, this whole month has been complicated enough. He wanted a "Poro" cake, a character from League of Legends' Howling Abyss map. They are cute, fluffy creatures that look like a cross between Tribbles and Hyperbole and a Half's Alot.

Using my chocolate buttermilk cake recipe, I made a square cake and six cupcakes. Marina helped out by making the features--tongues, horns, feet and mustaches--out of almond cookies. I was tired of making buttercream frosting, so I did a simple whipped cream frosting for the cake and Poros. This was probably an error on my part. Buttercream would have held the pieces in place better. I had hoped to stack the six cupcakes in a pyramid, but I quickly realized there was no way they would hold their position. Without stacking them, only three cupcakes fit on the cake. The Poro on the right kept sliding off the side. I finally stuck a toothpick through it to hold it in place. That was my biggest problem with the cake, so I think I did alright. My final touch was a sprinkle of silver sugar over the Poros.

Here it is all lit up. The candles were extremely drippy.
The sad Poros that didn't make the (ahem) cut.
I dipped the mustache cookies in melted chocolate to color them. The eyes are just large chocolate chips.

I think it was a good end to cake baking season. If I don't get too busy in June, I hope to make a nice cake for my husband at the end of the month. I will see how things go. I'm awaiting official word on a part-time postiion. I should know that today or tomorrow.

I'm thankful I was able to give my kids nice birthdays in such a difficult month of changes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Battle of Wits Cake

My oldest child turned 21. This is a momentous occasion. I wanted an equally splendid cake to mark it. It's funny all the things you are allowed to do at 21 that she is not interested in doing, like drinking. I happen to be a teetotaler as well. I never liked the taste of alcohol because most alcohol smells icky to me.

But drinking is the theme I went for in the cake this year. I wanted to make cupcake goblets. The idea was in my brain, and it wouldn't leave unless I tried this out.

She originally gave me the idea because she was working on her own copy of The Robber Bridegroom for her Book Arts class. If you don't know it, this is one of the gorier of the Grimm fairy tales. There is a scene with poisoned wine and a heart exploding. But I didn't want gory, at least, not that much. My solution was to use The Princess Bride. We've always loved the battle of wits between Westley and Vizzini. And bonus, I get to make a vial for the iocane powder. Here is the cake:

I decided to make a cake book as the base. I used the Lady Baltimore cake from my Fannie Farmer cookbook and buttercream frosting again, since it is the most dependable for decorating. Unfortunately, after portioning out the batter in my square pans, I only had enough left for two cupcakes.Had it not been 11:30PM the night before her birthday, I might have mixed up extra batter, but I was tired from a long day and she had just gotten back from college so the living room was full of dorm room.

Anyway, all went well until the second cupcake. I used Pepperidge Farms Pirouette cookies for the wine stems and the iocane vial. The vial was simple. I spread chocolate and silver sugar over most of the cookie so that it looked like there was a cork in the bottle. I cut the tops off the cupcakes and used them as the bottoms of the wine goblets. Then I slit the bottoms of the cupcake liners to stick the cookie through and into the cupcakes. It worked fine for one, but the other crumbled. If I did this again, I would not have cut of the tops, since the frosting would have been enough to depict the base. It's such a simple design for a cake, but it took about two hours to decorate because of the issues I had.

I think I could have made this work if I had glued cookies to the Pirouettes with chocolate. That would have given the cupcakes a solid base to sit on. I try to always learn from these experiences. Here is a close up of the iocane powder vial and my happy family:

Still no luck for my husband in the job hunt. Thank you to all who have sent us their thoughts and prayers. I may have some part time work soon (fingers crossed). Every little bit helps!

Two cakes down, one to go.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Minecraft Cake

I admit, I have wanted to do a Minecraft cake since last year, so as soon as Sierra made this request for her birthday, my mind was turning about how to make it happen. After our bad news on Monday, I wanted to make it as special as I could. She had requested ocelots. Every time she builds anything on Minecraft, there a lot of cats.

This was probably one of the simpler cakes I've done. I used my dependable Buttermilk Chocolate Cake from the Fannie Farmer cookbook and froze it for an hour after baking to make cutting easier. If I did this again, I would level the tops. Even though the cakes are relatively flat, once you start stacking that third and fourth layer it starts looking tilted from even the smallest rounding. I asked Marina to make a brownie layer for the bottom to raise the cake up a little more. I think that gave more of a Minecraft feel. For frosting, I made chocolate whipped cream to use between the brownie and cake, then buttercream for the rest, since it has a flatter look and takes color easier.

I figured the best way to make the animals and tree would be to use sugar wafers. What I didn't know was that it is hard to find sugar wafers. Are customers that scared of sugar in our area? I finally found some in the international foods aisle after having no luck in the cookie aisle. These were Bauducco chocolate wafer cookies and Manner milk-vanilla sugar wafers. I used a sharp serrated steak knife to gently saw cookies to size and glued the pieces together with melted chocolate to form the cats. I applied eyes and noses using a toothpick dipped in the melted chocolate. For the ear, muzzle, and tail details, I split off layers of wafer so they wouldn't be as thick. I had limited success with the tails. I broke a lot of tails trying to cut out an angle, so some cats had shorter tails than others.

The tree was hard because it was top-heavy. I used buttercream frosting to glue it together and make the leaves green. Chocolate would have worked better. The buttercream would only stay solid for so long and then the tree started falling apart. I ended up keeping it in the refrigerator until I needed it and I used a toothpick to anchor it to the cake. A wooden skewer might have worked better.

In all, I think it was a success. Tricky figuring out how to cut it, but tasty.
After cake, Sierra and her friends played Twister. Dusty joined in for one round, but got bored.

It was nice to end the week on a happy note.
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