Autumn break by the numbers

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The Foo Dog Garden at Allerton Park. It was 56 degrees when we arrived.
Hello, autumn? Please come back.

9
Days together.

1,100-plus
Miles driven in those nine days.

2
Films seen: Lola rennt (1998) and Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004).

2
Plays seen: The Book of Will at Northlight and Hard Times at Lookingglass.

2
Geocaches found, the first of which represented 8 of 15 in the challenge on which we are working and the second of which marked the nineteenth find since beginning this pursuit. (Yes, we are doing this quite slowly.)

3
Parks visited.

0
Games played. We worked on a puzzle, instead.

1,000
Pieces in the puzzle.

1
Zoo visited — our holiday tradition.

9
Chapters in our latest podcast obsession, Accused. We finished eight of those chapters while on break.

7.75
Books finished. I will finish the final one hundred pages of The Road to Jonestown (Jeff Guinness) today.

5.25
Hours slept last night. I sleep better when they’re home. Sigh.

From the archives

The following was originally written more than a decade ago in response to a post on a homeschooling board; it was then reshaped and published to my old site. The original poster asked about managing her child’s attitude toward schoolwork. She was having difficulty finishing lessons each week and felt they were falling behind. This repost (with minor edits) is provided at A.K.’s request.

It all begins with me.
Most of the time when things “break bad” here (and they do; not often, but they do), it’s more about me than about anyone else. When the work is taking forever to complete, when the quality is less than expected, when enthusiasm has waned, etc., I don’t need to look much further than the example I’ve been setting. Have I been on-task? Have I been doing my job(s) with attention to detail? Have I conveyed my love of the subject and of the family-centered learning project? Or have I been dealing with our accountant in a series of longwinded telephone calls? Spending twenty extra minutes on the treadmill? Checking email or blogging? Planning activities for next week, month, or year when we haven’t completed the activities for this week, month, or year? (Actually, I gave up that last bit during year one of this adventure. One of the first hard lessons I learned about home education is that my time is best spent not on elaborate lesson plans (no matter how ingenious, inventive, or inspiring to other hs-ing mothers), thumbing through catalogues, drafting curriculum wishlists, or bouncing from one resource to another but on the simple task of focusing on the moment we’re in. It has saved me years of angst and wasted time, talent, and treasure, that lesson has.)

Don’t misunderstand. I think that it’s important that we parent-educators tend to our needs, but I also think it’s critical that we do it on our own time. (For me, that’s in the wee, small hours of the morn’ or the late evening hours after they head to bed or, sometimes, during the day on “free” days (one benefit of year-round studies).) When I forget this self-mandate (e.g., when I take a call during lesson time or blog while the kids are laboring over math sheets), I send the following mixed message: Leading the family-centered learning project is my first and most important job — except when I want to do something else. Make that mistake too many times, and it’s really no wonder when the youngest dallies over a sheet she previously needed only thirty minutes to complete for three, four times longer than that; no wonder that they’re feeling recalcitrant, unmotivated; no wonder our interactions are laced with discontent.

Lest you or someone else click away in anger, note that this is not a criticism of any sort. I don’t know how you approach your work. You asked how to reach your child’s heart, though; I can only tell you how I reach my own children’s hearts and minds:

With as much consistency as possible, I model the behavior and standards I want the kids to maintain.

And I’ve been doing that since we began this adventure.

By necessity, this means I haven’t adopted then abandoned multiple approaches to parenting or learning. It means that I decided on a fairly certain course early on, a course chosen to match my personality and goals well.

And I’ve stuck with it.

There is an unmistakable rhythm to our days, a dance of daily routines and rituals that guide this family’s life, and everyone sways to the silent music

…because it has been playing since they they arrived.

Sure, there’s spontaneity. And fun. Lots of it. Surprise. Humor. Laughter. But that’s the harmony. The melody is one of clearly stated goals and plenty of examples of how to achieve them.

We parent-educators love to point out that the benefit of homeschooling is that we can tailor the curriculum and our approach to our students’ needs. I suspect, however, that there is a point at which this becomes too much of a good thing. Clearly, when an elementary school student fails to understand that his or her job is to play and learn and study and grow (and to do so without a big fuss), he or she needs less “heart talk” and more “stern talk” — mixed with a healthy dose of the teacher modeling the same level of commitment to task.

What is “stern talk”? It might look something like this: Quite simply, education is the law here; as in, parents must provide their children with an education. If my child isn’t learning (barring some sort of organic issue), we are not complying with the law. If I am doing my part (check), that leaves you, the child. You must do your part. In this house, that means that the following activities must be completed on a daily (weekly, monthly, annual) basis. Until we’re in compliance, we will skip the following activities: [insert favorite programs, extracurriculars here].

I’m going to circle back to my original premise: It all begins with the parent-educator. Anger and sadness are one response to a recalcitrant student. Humor is another approach. But, in the end, unwavering purposefulness may be the best choice, and that’s hard to achieve if we haven’t done the hard work of laying out our own courses. As I said, this is not a criticism but an observation based on my teaching and parenting experiences: Things work best when I work best.

Post-eclipse

IMG_2499Before pouring my first mug of coffee this morning, I caught a glimpse of a female ruby-throated hummingbird visiting the hanging plants in the front yard. I had time to whisper, “Hummingbird!” twice, to alert my daughters, before she darted away. Ordinarily, the hummingbirds are attracted to the plant pictured above. It hangs near a window in the back of the house and appeals to many backyard visitors, including spicebush swallowtail butterflies.

Did you watch?
My youngest fashioned pinhole projectors from recyclables, and we safely viewed the phenomena between lunch and shopping. Yesterday’s errand list filled a page, but we didn’t want to miss the event. I had purchased glasses for all of us from Celestron but, erring on the side of (extreme) caution, we contented ourselves with “science in a cereal box.” Pretty cool.

Not so cool? How (very, very) swiftly the last fifteen weeks passed: My daughters are preparing for their return to university, and I am wondering how my heart can feel as if it is both bursting with proud excitement and breaking into ten thousand shards.

In which another week passes

Musicians at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

We were able to tuck a ten-mile bike ride into each weekend morning, which is such a refreshing way to open a day. With neither plays nor museums on our calendar, we decided to visit the Bristol Renaissance Faire after yesterday’s ride. Because I skipped last year’s trip, I relished stops at favorite vendors like Seventh Sojourn, where I stocked up on scented soaps.

Today after our ride and a little yard work, my daughters headed out for lunch and a hike with a university friend, my husband settled in for a long study session, and I attended to some paperwork, banking, and writing. We still hope to wring a game or two and a family film out of the weekend before it concludes. We’ll see; we’ll see.

Speaking of seeing, I have finally shared the Lord of the Rings movies with my daughters. One thing and then another always kept us from getting around to the films, which may not have been such a bad thing. Apart from Andy Serkis’ brilliant portrayal of Gollum, the trilogy doesn’t really hold up for me, and they weren’t particularly impressed, either. This is heresy, I know, but it all felt so… abrupt and amateurish. In short, the books were better. (But not much.) And speaking of not holding up, while in the dentist’s chair (again!) mid-week, I heard Steve Perry earnestly crooning, “And here, I stand, with o, pen arms…” and thought, not for the first time, Oh, dear! This just does not hold up. So I texted my boyfriend of thirty-five years, husband of thirty-one:

They’re playing “Open Arms” at the dentist.
Our song doesn’t hold up.
LOL.
But I love you anyway.
So eighties. So la, la la, la la, la laaaa.
Guess you can’t dance to NPR, though.
[“Open Arms” was our first dance at our wedding reception.]

To which he sagely replied:

Can’t dance to anything.

In reading news… Today begins Week 5 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks. Here are my Week Four commonplace book entries:

p. 448
There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’ But dying was also dreadful.

p. 451
Your view of life is a regrettable delusion.

I continue to progress in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project, too, making adjustments that suit my interests and scheduling needs. For example, I have read one hundred of the Sonnets and Don Patterson’s related commentary, which is a bit ahead of the plan, but I will read As You Like It this week, which is a tiny bit behind schedule.

In other reading, I finished Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea last night. As others have pointed out, the first-person plural viewpoint contributes to the mythic quality of the narrative, but it also obscures the protagonist a bit, which may frustrate some readers. That said, I think others who share my enthusiasm for Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) will appreciate this beautifully written novel.

p. 215
It’s our common character on display, which is why we invest so much of ourselves — often totally beyond reason — in particular figures and performers, both fictive and of flesh. And when that display is unsettling or notorious, we can collectively wring our hands and wail and then try to assuage the disquiet in our hearts by more coolly interrogating its antecedents, the conditions and causes of its expression, and debate about how we might curb a future recurrence, none of this cynically posed but subtly servicing the final hopeful notion that This Is Not We.

p. 219
But if we calm ourselves and open our eyes and step back far enough, we have to admit that our society, if not fundamentally unwell, has been profoundly wounded.

Joyce Carol Oates’ recent short fiction collection, Dis Mem Ber, was on the porch when I returned from the Faire last night. I couldn’t help myself: I read four of the seven stories before setting it down to finish On Such a Full Sea. Quick, quintessential JCO, particularly the title story. I plan to finish tonight.

A field guide to the birds

Roadside Silhouettes

The image above shows the inside cover of a fifty-five-year-old copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. One of the advantages of helping sort the thousands of books donated to our library’s sales is that one may find a treasure like this… for $1.

Speaking of birds, and treasures… The female rose-breasted grosbeak was at the feeder this morning — as fine a celebration of my daughters’ return as any.

Much of the girls’ first two days home involved unpacking their belongings and eating, in their words, “good food.” My younger daughter also joined me in the yard work Friday and Monday. We’ve planted and / or hung a number of bird- and butterfly-attracting plants this year and set up a new wasp-resistant hummingbird feeder. The male ruby-throated hummingbird has already put in a brief appearance, and all the usual suspects — robins, cardinals, goldfinches, blue jays, mourning doves, house finches, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, and more — join us regularly. Once the orioles and indigo buntings stop by, it can most certainly be called May in the forever home.

(When my daughters and I sit in companionable silence and watch the birds, I am reminded of the many hours over many years we have spent observing backyard visitors. How is it possible that they are college seniors already? Time bends and folds.)

In other news… Over the weekend, we headed into Chicago for the Court Theatre’s production of Harvey. Timothy Edward Kane’s turn as Elwood Dowd is reason enough to see the play. Recommended.

By the numbers

The 2.75-mile trail along which we logged five geocaches.

3
Number of weeks, more or less, since my last post.

10
Number of days in our daughters’ spring break, during which they studied, researched, and recharged at home.

5
Number of geocaches we logged during their break. What a delight to share this new pursuit with them!

2
Number of trips into Chicago during spring break: one for the Lyric Opera’s Eugene Onegin (review here) and one for Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (review here).

88
Number of hours I will have worked (early voting and Election Day) for the Consolidated Primary and the Consolidated Election. The turnout was much larger in October and November, which is both normal (Presidential Election) and puzzling (when you consider that local elections have an immediate impact on a voter’s life).

3
Number of weeks I’ve completed in my latest MOOC. (Three to go.) This one concerns reading in the digital age and has sent me to the shelves for my copies of The Shallows (Nicholas Carr) and The Gutenberg Elegies (Sven Birkerts).

44
Number of books I’ve already read this year. This is shaping up to be the first “Big (Reading) Year” I’ve posted since adopting a “reading slowly” approach. I haven’t moved away from that; rather, I simply have even more time to read. Book notes to follow.

Boxing with Death

This entry, which first appeared on my previous site five months after my son died, is posted here at the request of a former reader. There are no words, but please know that you have been in my thoughts.

Because he died the weekend before Thanksgiving, we were pummeled by the first of “the firsts” (i.e., the first Thanksgiving without him, the first Christmas without him, the first trip to the Brookfield Zoo without him, etc.) in quick succession — One! Two! Three! Left! Right! Another left! — before we had even risen to our knees from the near-knockout punch delivered by three grim-faced Marines at 5:10 on a gray Monday morning.

Know this: No referee can or will intercede. So raise the gloves; absorb the blows. Fall to the mat; rise again.

We’ve endured five months of firsts now, and we’re still standing. Sometimes we stagger. Sometimes we grip the ropes. But sometimes we deliver our own punches, too. One! Two! Three! Left! Right! Another left! It seems that humor — dark, silly, ribald, sophisticated, Seuss-inspired, or Shakespearean — is our best offense. Laughter has certainly prevented us from remaining down for the count.

It’s too early to say, I suppose, but our sense of humor may, in fact, cause a majority draw in this boxing match between Death and our family. Death has certainly beaten us up, make no mistake. But it won’t beat us. And if I’m right about humor’s role in our ability to stay on our feet during this fight, then it’s a damned shame that laughter, sardonic or otherwise, isn’t more thoroughly endorsed by those involved in the death-ritual business (e.g., funeral directors). A hundred times, nay, a thousand and a hundred, I have thought, Boy-boy would have thought this was hysterical! And he would have. Because it usually is. After all, so much of what we humans say and do — especially what we say and do in times of stress — is funny. Silly. Humorous. Ridiculous. Stupid. Clueless.

Laughable.

Tears are expected, but sometimes laughter feels like the much more appropriate — and the much more restorative, healing, even — response. Laughter mixed with tears works, too. And laughter takes the edge off those times when tears are, in fact, unavoidable.

I suppose I began thinking about all of this because I will celebrate my birthday soon. My first since he died. And then it’s Mother’s Day. The first since he died. And soon after that, summer swim season will begin. The first since….

And perhaps the only way I can make any sense of the days, the months, the years that will follow, that will have the balls to occur even though my son has died, is to remember how he laughed and how he made us laugh.

And to laugh, even if it’s through tears.