Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Un-lesson un-plans

Things are feeling schooly around here in recent days, when we're not at the beach, fishing, or fighting giant beasts with our incredible weapons and magical powers.

Karl has taken an interest in math workbooks. He also loves to practice writing, so he has been burning through color markers writing anything we will spell for him. Karl's focus on his "schoolwork" gets the older boys interested, so quite often we have all three sitting at the dinette, bent over workbooks for roughly the duration of a class period.

Billy and Leo are practicing multiplication tables while taking walks. We've been watching Schoolhouse Rock. Okay, that probably doesn't seem schooly to schoolers, but when a week can go by without us doing anything that resembles a traditional lesson, Schoolhouse Rock is practically a lecture series.

Computer games are ever more popular. We don't have a gaming system, but we have PC, Mac, and iPhone platforms, with a fair number of free or cheap games for each. Chess is as popular as the fancy cinematic flying dinosaur (?) game. Specifically educational games are still in the mix, including a barebones typing tutor that they demand turns at -- it has no entertainment component, but they love it. Go figure.

The older boys are finally enjoying reading aloud and to themselves. This is huge for me. I was an early and eager reader. Joe was also a voracious reader as a child, but only after he learned to read fluently, which was "late" by the common standard. Although I am really happy with unschooling, I admit I've had some anxiety about reading acquisition.

Joe and I read plenty, for ourselves and aloud to the kids, but we don't insist that they do so. We keep books at all levels available to them. They read signs and cereal boxes. They navigate with the GPS and read instructions and backstory in their games. And we all listen to audiobooks.

Audiobooks are great because they allow them to hear language and story development that is beyond their reading level, building vocabulary and a natural sense of grammar and literary rhythm. We download audiobooks for free through the state library system. We also listen to podcasts, such as Stuff You Missed in History Class. There are also some excellent science podcasts out there.

But while listening builds some aspects of literacy, it doesn't replace reading and writing practice. So it's been fun to have them becoming more interested in reading the printed word. We have carefully selected books and random hand-me-downs in our tiny library. The ones they're currently excited about were gleaned from giveaways because I will never forget how much I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books (and similar series, like Twist-A-Plot).

The older two take turns reading and choosing, and they help each other with new or difficult words. They seem to process language in slightly different ways--Billy a bit more like Joe, Leo more like me, but not as far apart on the spectrum as Joe and I are. We all enjoy the anticipation and the discussion of the choices, and even Karl is consulted for his opinion as often as not.

It's really fun sharing their discovery of books with interactive plots. And it's kind of a relief to hear them read, to see that they love to read, and to know they will choose to read when there are other options available to them.

Finally, a shoutout to an unlikely unschooling tool: Google Voice Search (for iPhone). They are wild for it. The first thrill comes when they decide what words to use to search for something. The second comes from delivering the miniature "presentation" -- speaking clearly enough into the receiver to be properly interpreted. Then they get to read what Google "thought" they said (many, many giggles start here), and to view the pages or videos that their search turned up. This game requires close parental monitoring, which is fun and educational for us -- what would our 9-year-old selves have asked the global computer index?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Home, sweet Florida!

For the first time since choosing this as our state of legal domicile, we are here in Florida. We have registered our vehicles and picked up new drivers' licenses. We still need to transfer our health insurance, register as voters, and enroll in our chosen umbrella school for homeschooling. A few more hoops, but nothing difficult.

We spent the first nights in our new home state at Fort Clinch State Park, which is just across an inlet from Georgia. Our campsite was just a few feet from a beach with shells, nifty marine life (we found a tiny pipefish!), and a long fishing pier. A dredging operation was setting up and moving up and down the beach, and fishing boats motored by, dropping and hauling nets. For kids who love Dirty Jobs, dredging prep and fishing are good entertainment!

We didn't go see the fort, but there is one. And we also didn't take a native's suggestion to visit Big Talbot Island State Park on the way south. And that's okay. We're not out to "do it all" or to see everything possible -- we're just living.

After a few days there, we had to move on, as Fort Clinch had a full dance card for the weekend. We moved south to Faver-Dykes State Park where we booked a full two weeks. So far, we've spent time canoeing, playing computer games, bicycling, practicing math and reading, walking the nature trail, and "just" playing. We drove to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, and enjoyed the contrast of planned rose gardens and spring-fed carp ponds with nature trails through the wild hammock.

We've enjoyed learning the history of the parks we visit. I'll post a bit about that soon.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Approaching the holidays

So it's officially Christmas shopping season, and everyone is talking about how far along they are in their shopping and wrapping, what the kids want for Christmas, how this year's haul or celebration will size up to prior years, and the (choose one) moral repugnance or innocent thrill of the Black Friday greed stampede.

I'm feeling my inner humbug stir.

Joe and I have never celebrated Christmas in our shared home, though we appreciate the heartfelt presents that find their way to the kids, and we sometimes join our larger families when they're convened for the holidays. This year we'll be on our own through December.

I've tamed the inner humbug somewhat, and I'm planning to give a nod to the evergreen-and-eggnog days of winter (though we'll be in Florida). We might break out my foot-tall Christmas tree (complete with tiny gingerbread men!) and a wooden train. We might do some baking and crafts to invite in the warmth and celebrate the passing of midwinter. But the 25th won't be our holiday, and (as usual) we won't buy gifts.

Our kids don't salivate over annual goodie lists, and we prefer to avoid the prezzie frenzy of family celebrations. It's not just consumerism and its effect on society that bug me, it's much more the elevation of material goods to such importance in one's life, and the effect of that stuff-centricity on the self. There's something unsavory about the focus on quantity, on checklist motivation, on token presentation for the fulfillment of hollow expectation. We don't want our kids to experience any of that, or to see us modeling it.

We love nice things. But even nice things don't deserve their own holiday in our life, to be shared with the destructive pressure to buy, give, and be of good cheer even if the season puts you in debt. Or more deeply in debt.

We opted out of Christmas long before going on the road, but this new lifestyle certainly discourages the accumulation of stuff. If you got rid of almost everything and took your family on the road, what would change in your approach to the holidays? Would those changes be for the better?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

South Carolina

The state parks in South Carolina have been a good value for the money. We started out at Sesquicentennial State Park in Columbia, where the campsites were laid deep with fragrant pinestraw, and there was a pretty lake with good trails. The rangers in this park were always about and were uniformly friendly.

Next we moved to Givhans Ferry State Park, which is on the Edisto River (the longest freeflowing blackwater river in North America). We had family join us there for some weekend camping and visiting. Givhans has nice trails, but Joe and the boys (and their uncles and cousins) spent more time just off trail collecting firewood than doing anything else.

Edisto Beach State Park is in a higher fee tier, but still only $25/night with standard hookups. The water has been warm enough for my polar bears, who enjoyed their first taste of ocean since February in Southern California. The beach is a short hike or ride from the inland (Live Oak) campground, through quickly changing live oak forest, palmetto hammock, and reedy salt marsh habitats. Joe was scouting for firewood when he surprised a venomous snake, so we stuck to the path after the first day.

Almost as good as the scenery in the park was the beauty of the drive to get there. Ancient live oaks reaching out across the road turned some bits of highway into romantic tunnels, with dramatic curtains of Spanish moss.

And now we're tucked in at my brother's for Thanksgiving week. The weather has gone from sunny and warm (shorts and sunblock) to grey and just chilly enough to enjoy a fire in the fireplace. It's a pleasant time of year to be here, and the South has its own special loveliness. Happy holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

North Carolina

In North Carolina we stayed in the driveway at Donna and Stony's house and played lots of video games, table games, and Legos! Donna made spider shirts with the boys. Aunt Jean was also visiting, and we took daytrips to Hanging Rock State Park, Sciworks (with our ASTC passport), and Pilot Mountain State Park. Here are some photos:

Hanging Rock State Park -- see if you can spot the northern water snake we saw!

SciWorks: Karl with the Van de Graaf generator, Billy and Karl getting hands-on with an argon tube, Leo in the air chair, and me inside a Kaleidoscope.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The rest of our Maryland visit

One of the reasons we raced to Maryland was to make a trip to The National Aquarium in Baltimore before our annual membership expired. We went the day after we arrived, and we applauded the dolphin show, stared at drifting jellies, and fed crickets to the archerfish.

The National Aquarium offers an independent membership, unaffiliated with any other zoos or aquariums. Normally this exclusivity would discourage us from purchasing a membership, but we make exceptions for the National Aquarium and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which I'm hoping we'll visit again early next year. These institutions do what they do extremely well, and they have enough exhibits that we usually take the time to visit them on consecutive days. If we manage to arrange our schedule to get back there just within the year we get even more out of the membership. Our NAIB card expired the day after this visit.

After all the stuff in Greenbelt that I already wrote about, we suddenly had only a week left in Maryland! We moved the camper north to Patapsco Valley State Park and tightly scheduled our last few days.

When I was a kid, my mom would take us car-and-tent camping in both Greenbelt and Patapsco parks, so I love them both. Patapsco has electrical hookups, nice trails and a river, although once again we spent little time in the park, what with all the visiting. One other difference between them is that Patapsco's campground closes for the winter, while Greenbelt remains open year-round.

While at Patapsco, we used one precious afternoon for a family bike ride on part of the BWI Trail, and we spent a little time with some relatives who live in nearby Catonsville.

This past Friday we met still more family in downtown Washington, DC and enjoyed very selective peeks into the National Archives, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Lincoln Memorial.

Saturday we enjoyed a festive family Oktoberfest with about 30 of my closest relatives. We filled up on weisswurst, sauerkraut, potatoes, beer and homemade pies, and we cooed at the new baby in the family. Sunday we enjoyed what felt like a very short day at the Maryland Renaissance Festival - the weather was perfect for wandering about munching turkey legs and drinking cider, laughing our heads off at the outdoor shows, and watching the thrilling action in the jousting arena.

We're exhausted, and we know we missed so much in Maryland this time around. But we'll be back next year, if we keep to our rough plans. For now we're heading south for the winter!


I'm finally getting around to writing about our four-week stay stay in my home state, and we've already moved on. We know so many people and have so many favorite places in Maryland that we were busy most days. We were also grounded by the flu as four out of five of us grappled with it (Joe was the lucky one).

Here's what greeted us when we pulled into Greenbelt National Park at the end of September:

Needless to say, we didn't use the hiking trails. But that was okay -- the days we stayed home were perfect for campfires or (on rainier days) games, reading, and drawing. Greenbelt doesn't have hookups of any kind, so Joe worked out a practical battery use-and-charging cycle for the new rig.

Joe and I bought new bicycles at Proteus Bicycles in College Park, and he rode his in the biking leg of the 4th Annual International Greenbelt Triathlon. This event involves running twice around Greenbelt Lake (2.6 miles total), riding 8 miles to Franklin's Brewery, and quaffing two pints of any carbonated beverage. We all cheered the participants and I got a t-shirt, because I loved them so.

If anyone's wondering, in the end Karl was the only one of us who fed the notorious chiggers and he also briefly hosted one nymphal deer tick. He has recovered.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Walking with Suzy

Last Sunday Billy and I walked with our friend Suzy in the Susan G. Komen Maryland Race for the Cure. Billy had gone to sleep before 6pm the night before, and I was afraid he was coming down with something and not likely to walk. But he woke up early, ready to go.

It was the coldest morning since we've been in Maryland, and we broke out the long sleeves, long underwear, hats, and umbrellas. We saw ice on some cars as we drove north to Hunt Valley for the walk!

It was easy to find registration and check in, despite the thousands of participants. Billy and I pinned on numbers, and Suzy added a sign to hers that said "I walk for my mom." Suzy and many of those people we were walking with never get a break from breast cancer -- its direct and indirect effects (and its looming threat) are felt every day. Optimism in the face of that was the overwhelming emotional climate on Sunday. We spotted lots of teams walking in memory of the deceased or in support of survivors. Survivors wore pink numbers, and it was heartening to see them surrounded by their families and friends.

We walked the 5k in just about an hour, moving ahead through the loose pack of walkers. We were cold, and our pants legs got wet up the back, but we kept each other smiling. Afterward we went to Caribou Coffee for coffee and hot cider.

Special thanks to those of you who donated to the Maryland Race for the Cure. Some of that money goes to the costs of the race, and some goes to national research grants and local education and outreach. We look forward to the advances that the scientific and medical communities will make to continue to reduce and possibly eliminate deaths from breast cancer in our time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Illinois to Maryland

(back to the trip journal)

The rest of the way to Maryland was relatively uneventful. We motored up a mountain in Kentucky to stay at Carter Caves State Resort Park. It was pouring down rain when we got there, and we buzzed past the visitor center. There seems to be plenty to do there if the weather's nice and you're in the mood for exploring.

We're still learning how the new rig combination works, as far as backing into campsites. We can't just drive up and park at any old campsite, unless we happen to find a long, unoccupied pull-through site (this hasn't happened yet -- these might be imaginary). The trailer itself is as long as our old motorhome, plus we have the long-bed crew-cab truck that pulls it. Only the longest sites accommodate the combination *and* leave a spot for the minivan. Reducing our selection still further is the maneuverability of the rig around pavement corners, trees and other obstacles.

This park was our biggest challenge yet, with the added quirk of water and electrical hookups being unpredictably placed among the campsites. Aside from the random setup, it was a well-groomed campground with very nicely graveled sites (the paved pull-throughs were all full).

Somehow we managed to keep from arguing through this difficult parking job in the cold rain. As soon as we were parked, connected, and ready to get cozy inside, the rain stopped. We congratulated ourselves, took a walk, and crashed for the night.

In the morning, the sun was shining through the trees, and we couldn't really ask for a more beautiful mountain forest to wake up in. But this time our eagerness to get back on the road trumped the tug of nature. We left this park relatively unexplored and made a beeline for Maryland, stopping overnight at a Wal*mart in Virginia.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One of many teachers

A little over a year ago the boys visited their aunt Gina in her pottery studio. She showed us around and we admired her work and that of others who work and learn at the pottery studio in the Greenbelt Community Center.

She got out some clay and quickly "threw" a pot to show them all the steps.

Then she helped them make a bowl together, working for a few minutes with each of the boys at the wheel.

She also gave each of them an extra little bit of clay to work with, and they eventually took turns at the wheel with their little blobs.

I had never seen Gina teach. I was quite impressed with her patience and the way she chose words and actions that were particularly helpful while still giving each child the satisfaction of doing it himself. I had heard from others that she is a really good teacher -- I can see why they say that.

The bowl they made was set up to dry, and Gina later glazed and fired it. We're back in Greenbelt for a few weeks, so Gina presented to the boys the final product, the work of their eight hands. It's a lovely little bowl.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A few steps, a few dollars, a new experience

My best friend walks each year in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Baltimore, Maryland. She lost her mom to breast cancer when we were in high school, so this disease has had a huge impact on her life, as it has on the lives of many women and their daughters.

This year I decided to walk with her, since I'll be in town when it's going on. While I was discussing the family schedule with Joe, Billy asked if he could go with me. After I explained to him what it's about and what it involves, he was enthusiastic about participating.

We don't plan on making a big deal out of raising a lot of money, but we'd be happy to be the conduit for a few dollars toward breast cancer research and education in Maryland. I hope it'll be a positive experience for Billy, and that he'll want to do more charity awareness, outreach and/or fundraising events in the future.

If you'd like to sponsor Billy with any small amount, you can go to his personal donation page.

We'll be sure to report back here about the event.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bumps in the road

Within weeks of buying our new rig (a lightly used fifth-wheel trailer and a significantly used diesel pickup) we enjoyed a couple of impressive but ultimately harmless mishaps. Heavy rains produced an indoor waterfall when water pooled on the roof of the slide and breached a defect in the weatherstripping. And then a nasty hailstorm left its indelible signature on two sides of the unit, also breaking a window, roof vents, and the exterior speakers.

Joe made the necessary repairs and the insurance company paid us something to acknowledge its near-worthlessness for resale. The replacement window frame and speakers look significantly fresher than the yellowed originals, so overall we weren't too fussed once we accepted the dents.

The next issue was a little more alarming, being the first one involving roadworthiness. Somehow the safety chain came into conflict with the gooseneck adapter. (This is an extension which allows one to pull a fifth wheel trailer with a ball hitch mounted in the bed of the pickup. We purchased them separately, and they happened to be set up to accommodate each other, so we had kept that configuration.)

Something about the interference between safety chain and adapter caused an important bolt to shear off. Joe, doubting the integrity of the system, decided to immediately unhitch the truck and have the ball hitch replaced with a fifth wheel hitch. The delay was only half a day, and we were on the road the very next evening, feeling a bit more secure with the more robust connection.

Three days and three states later a tire blew out.

Joe is pretty good at checking things over, and air pressure and fluid levels are regular checks for him. He drives the speed limit or slower, and is careful about road hazards. But shit happens. So he changed the tire, caught up with us and bought a replacement for the spare the same night.

We used to be slow about the follow-through on these kinds of repairs. There was always a spare vehicle, or a project with higher priority. Having such a short list of "stuff" to maintain (and rely on) means we resolve them right away. This reduces stress and conflict in our family. We're getting plumb philosophical about bumps in the road.

I started this post before this latest little bump:

We returned to a city parking garage yesterday to find a window of our minivan smashed, but most of our random stuff still there (we don't have much that's worth taking). We went quickly from "Oh, crap!" to "Bet we can get this fixed tomorrow," and then "I'm glad this happened to us and not some actual tourists from Kansas -- it would've ruined their trip!"

We had a new window by noon this morning. In fact, the glass folks installed a new regulator (bought by Joe at the auto parts store) so the power window that hasn't worked right for a year is completely functional again.

Somehow everything that happens to us leaves us a little better off for a few dollars and some inconvenience. And maybe that's just the way our road is gonna be.

Shit happens. How great is that?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kansas to Illinois

Our first stop outside of Kansas was a disappointment. Katy Roundhouse Campground and RV park in New Franklin, Missouri is a private accommodation on the Katy Trail, which is part of the Missouri State Park system.

While we highly recommend the Katy Trail for hiking and biking (we've hiked on it before), we don't recommend this private campground. It's better than nothing for people on the trail who just need a place to pitch tent for the night, and aren't particular about the condition of the bathhouses. Half the sites were overgrown and poorly identified, and rampant poison ivy in the open space made it off-limits for play. In our experience it was overpriced and under-maintained. We've had much better luck with state parks in Missouri and surrounding states. We didn't stay long in the morning.

Karl, Leo, and I took off for the St. Louis Zoo, and Joe and Billy, at their slower pace with the trailer, headed straight for our next campground.

The St. Louis Zoo is a gem. There's no entry fee, which makes it worthwhile even for a short break from driving. Parking is steep -- $11 -- but the zoo is located at the end of a road that winds through a public park, and there is free parking along that road. Visiting on a cloudy afternoon, we found nearby parking and had perfect zoo weather.

We were treated to a much larger version of the snake-eats-a-rodent show, as a Dumeril's boa was just starting on a huge white rat when we arrived in the reptile house. We wandered about one-third of the zoo, then got back on the road with time to get to our destination before dark.

Joe found Washington County Conservation Area in Nashville, Illinois by centering the iPhone Google maps search window in his target area and typing "camping" (sometimes there's nowhere else to start). He and Billy were ahead of us with the rig and had started a campfire by the time we got there.

As we pulled into the campground, Leo exclaimed "Oh, it's beautiful!" Our loop was well-shaded with oak and hickory, and had a groundcover of grass, moss, leaf mould and wood chips. Our two days and nights here were rather drippy and damp, but the place didn't run with mud as some campgrounds do. There was plenty of fallen wood not too distant from the campsites, and the menfolk made firewood with the pruning saw.

For other entertainment there was a nice playground, as well as fishing a short walk through the woods at the swampy little lake. The kids caught and threw back a few too-small bass, and watched strange "footprints" move across the water. They later reported that they saw a muskrat jump into the water, so perhaps that was the source of the surface ripples.

The general state of things was quiet, as campgrounds in the woods often are. There were no highway or airplane noises, and any little noise made by campers sort of echoed around the relatively cleared space of the loop. Cozy. We heard great nature noises here, too … red-bellied woodpeckers, plenty of other birds, and some unidentified bigger animals.

Nashville is a nice town, pop. 3200, with a little Kroger grocery, a worn but serviceable laundromat (we hear there is another in town), and the lovely little Coffeehouse Cafe, where we had coffee and nosh while the laundry finished.

We'll visit Nashville and Washington County Conservation Area again.

Next post … things start breaking on the way.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Chaos therapy

I realized today that in this smaller space I have developed some habits that are already so ingrained that it's stressful to know certain things are not in their proper place or state of completion. If I am distracted from making my bed as soon as I rise, then later I see it not made, my brain screams, "WRONG!" and it becomes very hard for me to tear myself away from the idea of making the bed *right now*.

What is a creature of habit? Is it good to be one?

I'm relatively new to the idea of household order. My childhood home and our family homes exhibited what I will call "benign chaos" in the placement of things and the routines of people. Though I was once teased that I'd decorated my home in the style of "nouveau crackhouse," we actually kept it above squalor, but well into "lived-in during construction" territory.

We now have islands of order in the chaos, as well as an underlying plan of what "order" looks like when it returns. There's a place for everything. And every once in a while, everything is in its place. This makes me happy. Maybe a little too happy.

I almost always notice deviation from the household plan. A toy left out, a pile of someone's clothes, a glass that will probably be used again before it's washed, but there it sits -- in plain sight, obviously not clean and put away, not dirty enough to offend, but in dish limbo!

I'm pretty sure this comes from a sense that I need to meet some ideal standard of housekeeping; a worry that I won't meet it; and the consequent guilt that I haven't. I identify too closely with the state of my home: I'm the MOM! I'm supposed to keep things shiny and faces smiling! (Especially mine! But that's another post.)

Most variances I can note and quickly discard as unimportant in the moment. I know it will be okay, and I don't worry about fixing it, cleaning it, putting it away right now, because if I did I'd do nothing but correct things all day long.

If I had a family that indulged my neuroses, I might approach the insanity of Petunia Dursley, or the mother in the novel Bee Season, who both have elaborate nightly rituals of sanitizing (if not sterilizing) every surface in their kitchens, among other signs of psychological maladjustment. Ever so grateful that my family is not so indulgent, I have only to choose between eternal frustration and lightening up a bit, letting go a bit, knowing it will be okay.

If you're wondering whether moving into a tiny home with a very manageable inventory of household goods and strictly defined stowage is going to be good or bad for my mental health, you've caught up to my point.

Is a creature of habit someone who lets absolutes of routine create who she is? Would I ever want to be that? Am I flirting with that possibility with this new lifestyle?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A trip to the fair

So, off we went to the Kansas State Fair on Monday -- a regional grocery store chain was sponsoring a freebie special.  We decided to focus on rides for an hour or so, then check out exhibits, food, and whatever else we could find on the cheap end of the scale. Joe took the older two boys to the far end of the midway and the bigger rides, while I watched Karl ride everything that interested him in kiddie land.

Something in me doesn't love a midway. We go to state and county ag fairs every year, but I prefer the events that omit the traveling rides and booths. The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is a perennial favorite, as is the expensive but very entertaining Maryland Renaissance Festival.

Carnival rides are always fun for the kids, but I am secretly suspicious of the soundness of their fly-by-night erection. I realize that the worry isn't completely rational, considering how we ride around on highways in cars all day long. So we do the rides. Well, they do.

I'm usually ambivalent about the hawkers trying to attract patrons with salutations, wolf whistles, and snarky comments aimed at passersby. Some are annoying, some are amusing. Some are entertaining for their sheer energy or the creativity of their spiel. 

This day there was one who stood out for us. His voice was slightly higher-pitched than Eeyore's, but the inflection and excitement was a great impression of the sawdust donkey, as the carnie intoned this unenthusiastic dirge: "whaaack-a-mole….. whaaack-a-mole……"

I saw a woman with the most delicious looking potato-chips, which actually looked like they were all connected. Suddenly starving, I asked her where she had bought the beautiful thing. She pointed me to the gator-on-a-stick shack, where they were selling this lovely, brown-edged, deep-fried potato ribbon, all curled back in upon itself. 

I bought a large one, bigger than my head, and offered to share it with the guys. But they were saving their stomachs for more rides and ultimately shared a funnelcake among the four of them. I ate most of the crispy, helical potato cloud, rushing to finish it before it got cold. It was being marketed as "gator taters". I don't think that name is adequately reflective of its glorious goodness, so I shall always think of it as The Tanglechip. 

We didn't end up spending much time at the animal exhibits. The poultry house, as usual, housed long rows of cages full of birds at kid's-eye level, sawdust and feathers in the air. It's neat to see all the breeds, from bantams to turkeys. But I might be happier perusing a poster from the hatchery.

The petting zoo (with dixie cups of feed for sale) was mostly exotic animals:  a kangaroo and a cavy, a young giraffe and a zebra foal, a lumbering giant tortoise. At least at the zoo they usually have some room and a bit of appropriate landscaping, maybe something to play with. It was equally exciting and depressing.

Bored with the animals, and noticing the after-school swell of visitors starting, we quickly used up the last of our tickets and ended our short fair day. We made some lovely memories, and every once in a while, we break out in a singsong drone: "whaaack-a-mole…."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Modern Medicine

We've been through a few "everyone-gets-it" viruses both at home and on the road. We've had injuries. We'll have more. Like most people, we've developed a bit of a routine around how we approach illness and trauma. And I had planned to give you an idea of our routine.

But as I started writing this, I felt the need to add a little context. So I'm going to start a little further back.

Before we had kids, Joe and I read quite a bit about pregnancy and childbirth, and decided to have our babies with a certified nurse-midwife at a freestanding birth center, instead of with an OB/GYN in a hospital. As I recall, certified nurse-midwives were our preferred practitioners for two big reasons: (1) a culture of non-intervention, allowing the natural birth process to happen, and (2) skill at identifying risk and recognizing emergencies, and then transferring women into the care of doctors and hospitals when the natural birth process needs help.

Through three pregnancies and uncomplicated births, I was able to stay under the care of the only independent midwifery practice within an hour of our home. I delivered all three of our babies in the very same bed. We went home within a few hours, each time. Wonderful experiences, as most births are.

As a family, we were committed to breastfeeding, which turned out to be quite easy for me and each of the babies. I nursed each child for at least two years, a practice called "extended breastfeeding". We adopted some other unconventional parenting practices, some of which are sometimes associated with "attachment" or "natural" parenting. Our babies slept in our bed (co-sleeping) and I "wore" my babies in a sling. We flirted with cloth diapering, off and on. Baby food? In a jar? Not for us.

Sounds pretty crunchy, huh?

At this point, some readers might be guessing that the next words out of my mouth are going to promote some of these ideas: chiropractic, homeopathy, life energy, herbal medicine, vibrations, the "evils" of childhood vaccinations, the shortcomings of "western medicine". Perhaps you expect me to use the verb "to manifest" in an awkward way.


While we have veered from the mainstream by appreciating and promoting ideas like midwifery and extended breastfeeding, we don't do alternative medicine.

Maybe it's because we're so penny-pinching; maybe it's because we're lucky in our health; maybe it's because we're approaching it from a rational perspective, which is (I've been told) not the ideal way to come to enlightenment about everything. Whatever the reasons, we like to see credible evidence of efficacy before spending time, effort, and money on our medical care.

There are thousands of pseudo-scientific services and products exploiting the desire to feel better, feel healthy, feel right, gain balance, avoid illness, ensure longevity -- to do something to improve our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Marketing materials from the soft and sublime to the bright and screamy offer guaranteed treatments, forgotten techniques, breakthrough therapies, exclusive access to the newsletter that will tell us all the secrets that the doctors don't want us to know... Sure.

The health experts we consult are doctors, nurse practitioners, and others who use evidence-based medicine. We respect and value their advice. We know they can't fix everything and don't offer "maintenance" plans. We're okay with that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Science fandom

We were thrilled tonight to see scientists we recognized from The Sternberg and The McWane Center talking about mosasaurs on the Discovery Channel's Mega-Beasts: T-Rex of the Deep. I wrote about the the ASTC Passport Program just a couple of weeks ago, and these were two of the museums I mentioned among our favorites. 

We have spoken with these guys, and we love the institutions that they are an essential part of! They bring us so much, from a general appreciation of science to an ever-increasing body of knowledge about our world.

We're science fans! 

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Staying healthy

Staying healthy is probably easier for us with our lifestyle than it is for the average person. We don't have the stress of work, school, or a daily commute; we don't share a building with a crowd of colleagues or fellow students; we have time and the means to eat in a relaxed and nutritious way; we have the leisure to move our bodies and change activities throughout the day; and we don't have to take off work or school to take it easy when our bodies tell us to. We aren't health nuts, though. We like sendentary activities and junk food as much as the next family, so we try to make consciously healthy decisions, at least some of the time.
I'm the safety patrol in the family. I overdo the worry and nagging some. I occasionally deliver a pointy-fingered lecture. But even if my methods are fatiguing, my concern is justified. Accidents are easily the leading cause of death and severe injuries for children, and they're right up there for grown-ups, too. 
My kids wear seatbelts and ride in carseats or boosters appropriate to their age and size. They wear bicycle helmets when riding. They wear life vests when they are in boats. I do all these things, too. I am paranoid about the dangers of roads and parking lots. And we don't ride ATVs.
Without completely neglecting our kids, we do give them room to explore, and they spend more hours per day in unsupervised play than most kids do. We've talked about the dangers of animals, electricity, fire, firearms, germs, hard surfaces, heights, knives, motor vehicles, plants, poisoning, sticks, strangers, rocks, ropes, water ... and everything else in our local environment. 
I really do talk a lot about safety. But I also try to remember the wisdom of Dory, in Finding Nemo:
Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him. 
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise. 
Marlin: What? 
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
Diet and exercise
We know that the healthiest diet is a variety of primarily plant-based foods in moderation. We try to keep that in mind when we make our food purchases. Beyond that, our ideal is to simply let eating be a satisfying and enjoyable activity. 
In general, the kids are allowed to eat anything that we purchase, and we don't limit how much they can eat, or strictly delineate meal times. If I notice that they're eating seems unbalanced, we'll talk about it a little bit, and they tend to straighten it out for themselves. 
As a family, we often eat different foods at the same meal, and we're comfortable with that. In fact, if there's anything that guides our food choices, it's comfort -- we all try to eat the way that makes us feel best, and we encourage the kids to eat a variety and to pay attention to their bodies' needs. My breakfast is granola and yogurt, Joe's is oatmeal, and the kids like cereal and milk. Joe likes lettuce and garbanzo beans, I like spinach and cole vegetables. The menfolk eat a lot of bread, and if there's cheese in the house, it's only because I'm pacing myself. We all love fruit.
We spend a lot of time outdoors. If anyone in the family is at risk for Vitamin D deficiency, it would be me, but even I spend a good chunk of time in the sun, averaged over a week. We try to remember the sunblock, but we're not as diligent as we might be. We wear hats when we remember to, and the grown-ups wear sunglasses. But mostly we just try to avoid sunburn, and know the signs of skin cancer.
Joe and I try to cultivate habits of physical activity, taking the kids' energetic tempo as encouragement. We love walking and riding bikes, but neither of us likes to perform isolated exercises. The closest we come is doing a pull-up or two at the playground, and occasionally proving to ourselves that we can still do a dozen push-ups.  
Vaccinations are safe and effective and they prevent deadly diseases. Robust herd immunity protects the unvaccinated, such as neonates and those who can't be vaccinated because of allergy or other conditions. We stay current on our shots. 'Nuff said.
The kids are in dirt and who knows what-all, day in and day out. They don't consistently wash behind their ears or inside their belly buttons. Really none of that is of great concern to us. Germ-o-phobia is futile. We all carry millions of germs with us everywhere, and if we want to live in the world we just have to accept germs. Our bodies are great at dealing with the ho-hum everyday exposure to all sorts of stuff, and we live happily while harboring dozens of strains of this and that.
The question is not how to avoid germs, but how to reduce the chance of getting sick from the nastiest ones. Because we travel, we frequently move our starship-scale colonies of germs into new territories -- territories occupied by germs our bodies aren't ready to fight. We wash our hands to protect ourselves and others, especially before and after visiting places where lots of people touch the same things. We try not to touch our faces with unwashed fingers. We prefer plain soap and water but we keep hand sanitizer around for when it's not available.
I wrote about planning for health care in my last post, and this one was about prevention. Despite our habits and reasonable efforts, occasionally we get sick or injured. In my next post, I'll share some of what we've learned about getting better.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Healthcare on the Roam

People often ask how we handle healthcare while traveling for months at a time, and it's one of our largest expenses, so I thought I'd share our experience.

Individual Insurance

When we gave up the pursuit of the weekly paycheck, we also gave up access to group health plans. We purchased an individual family policy and a dental plan from a major insurer with a national presence. It's a PPO, or Preferred Provider Option, meaning that if we use a provider in the network, the provider will bill the insurance company a contracted amount, and we will pay a portion of that, as outlined in our policy.

We elected a higher deductible/lower premium option, and we have a co-pay for office visits, a different co-pay for accidents/ER visits, free vaccinations, and free routine dental care. There's a separate deductible for labs and imaging, and probably a hundred other cost details that I won't know until I come up against them.

The premium has changed over the four years we've had it, actually edging down the first year, later bumping steadily up. It took a giant leap this year, we think because Joe turned 45, putting our policy into an older age-based risk pool. We might pay more for routine healthcare than if we self-insured, but having insurance makes the overall cost more predictable by reducing our upside risk if we incur major medical expenses.

Along with higher premiums and no employer subsidy, individual policies are less generous than group plans in other ways. There's no employer with the power to terminate hundreds or thousands of contracts negotiating benefits with the insurer. There's often a health questionnaire and physical exam as well as blanket exclusion of pre-existing conditions. In a typical group policy there's no waiting period for specified conditions, if you join as soon as you're eligible (or within a larger employer's annual "open season"). As soon as you sign up you can go to the ER and be fairly certain you're covered.

Our waiting period covered a specified group of bodily systems and diseases. Unfortunately, Joe had his most severe (and first clinically diagnosed) gall bladder attack within that waiting period. So we learned how much gall bladder removal costs, including the primary care clinic, the surgeon, the hospital (images, labs, OR, and patient room), and the anesthesiologist, all of whom billed us separately. It's enough to bankrupt a family that lives from paycheck to paycheck. And this was a minimally complicated case of a very common condition. That event confirmed my resolve never to attempt to self-insure for healthcare.

Rather than wait for the bills to start coming in, a week after Joe's surgery I went around to the various medical offices, asked what discount I would get for immediate payment, and made full and final payments then and there. I was so prompt that the hospital departments hadn't finished posting all their charges, but we settled on a figure and I wrote up a quick contract for the business manager to sign that showed my obligation as satisfied. The discounts were all 30-35%. Think of that. They spend so much trying to collect, and they write off so much bad debt, that the 30-35% was reasonable to them. Does this mean we're all being charged 30-35% more for healthcare because of the administrative cost of collection?


Because our insurance company has subsidiaries across the country, we have no problem finding in-network providers. So far all of our routine care has been close to our home base. Now that we have no home base and we're changing our state of legal domicile, we'll either return to our old stomping grounds for annual check-ups or we'll find providers on the road.

We've sought urgent care in Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, and California, and every facility we've contacted participates with our insurance company. Once or twice we've been to an ER at an in-network facility, but the doctors staffing the ER weren't in-network, so we had to pay them out-of-pocket. Again, not hard for us, but I feel for the folks who don't have a rainy-day fund for such things, or easy access to temporary credit. One healthcare resource we are just becoming acquainted with is Departments of Public Health, which offer various clinical services and health education. The clinics charge reasonable rates for routine services such as vaccination, and they also accept insurance.

We've been generally pleased with the quality of care we've received, from a small-town clinic in the Mississippi Delta to a large hospital in populous (and prosperous) Orange County, California.

Tomorrow I'll write about our approach to wellness and prevention.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A morning at the zoo

On Sunday morning we visited the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. We're members of another zoo that has a reciprocal agreement with them, but on Sunday they were having a corporate-sponsored drive to recycle phone books. Joe's sister (at whose home our home is currently parked) planned the trip and provided our admission, as well as increasing the adult-to-child ratio to one.

One adult for each child is an advantage on any outing, particularly when there are so many ways to go, and we're satisfied to go at their pace. Even when we all head in the same direction, we spread ourselves along a series of exhibits like a slinky, the tail catching up periodically, but sometimes leap-frogging past the head to become the advance party. No hurry, no waiting. A good way to do the zoo.

The boys each grabbed a map and started pointing out the animals they most wanted to see. Karl (the youngest, five years old) appointed himself leader and guide and showed us, on the map and by pointing, exactly how we were going to go to the petting zoo to feed the goats. I had no idea Karl could read a map, and at first I thought he was working completely from memory of the zoo's layout. But he seemed to be able to relate the map to the real world whenever we had a choice to make. Neat.

Our kids have always had a lot of interest in animals. I credit The Kratt Brothers with planting the seed of animal adventure. Drawn in by the Kratts' engaging personalities and informal style, the boys have watched hours of VHS and DVD copies of their PBS and National Geographic shows. Besides learning a respectful and curious attitude about animals, they've learned loads of facts about wild animals and pets, common species and endangered ones, and some animals I had never heard of. A stuffed genet in the Smithsonian was instantly recognizable to a then six-year-old Billy, while I struggled to classify it among animals I could name. My boys, they love the animals.

We were lucky to see two relatively rare sights on this zoo visit, both in the North American Prairie area. A beautiful white-tail buck was coming out of velvet, his antlers covered in blood with tatters of the nourishing skin still hanging off of them. I had never seen this phase of the antler cycle. Another patron told us that we were lucky to catch it because it takes only a day or two. It was an opportunity to note to the kids that bleeding isn't always a sign of weakness or trauma, and that vessels can be grown for a specific purpose then shut off when no longer needed. A specific bit of wonder illustrating a general concept. Double-neat.

Nearby in the reptile exhibit, we saw that the massasauga had an inert white rodent in its cage. We stalled there a few minutes, hoping this fresh kill was about to be eaten. Sure enough, after a false start on the wrong end, the snake worked its jaws around the rat's head and began to encase the rat, rather the way you would pull on a snug sweater. If you had no arms. And you were the sweater. I didn't take pictures -- I rarely do when I'm really interested in what's going on.

We contrasted how we get food into our bellies with how this snake was doing it. We speculated about how eating might affect the snake's breathing. (I just realized I'd forgotten to look this up.) Other patrons came, gaped, exclaimed, chatted, and went on as the meal progressed (maybe ten minutes). Billy and Leo had seen enough by the time the mammal was halfway inside the reptile, and ran on to the next exhibit. But Karl insisted on watching to the end.

Eventually the tip of the tail poked out like a long pink tongue alongside the narrower, flicking black tongue. Karl loved telling the folks just arriving exactly what that wormlike thing was! And then it was gone, the bolus a barely noticeable anomaly between the head and the thick body. I admired Karl's patience and I enjoyed watching the entire process. I probably would not have taken the time without his insistence. Sometimes, oftentimes, the kids are the teachers. Triple-neat.

The best thing about having a zoo membership is that you don't have to do the whole thing in one day. When tempers get short and appetites grow teeth ... you can be done with it. Even if it's only been a couple of hours, and you've only seen a third of the zoo. There's always next time. And there's always another zoo, or a movie, or a tidepool, or a forest ...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We're Not Camping, This Is Home - Part 2

We aren't very good at camping

Serious campers have the coolest stuff: camp stoves, lanterns, fancy folding tables, coolers full of goodies, space-age folding lawn furniture, citronella candles, that cast-iron dutch oven with the nifty tripod, the old-fashioned enameled coffeepot for the campfire. Yeah, we don't have any of that. We drive in, slide out, level up, throw out a welcome mat, and we're pretty much done settling in, on the outside. Eventually the bikes come out, and maybe a basic chair or two.

Don't get me wrong, we like to spend time outside, sometimes even sitting around our campsite. There's nothing like morning coffee out on the verandah, enjoying whatever view we've parked at. We love campfires, and the boys enjoy building and igniting them whenever they're legal and convenient. Joe occasionally cooks meat or corn over the coals. And of course we roast marshmallows. But most of our cooking happens on the stovetop in our little kitchen, with ingredients out of our pantry and refrigerator. We usually eat at our dinette, only occasionally ferrying the fixings for a meal out to the provided picnic table. If we're really planning ahead, we'll dig out the vinyl table cloth and the clips that hold it on in the wind. Then we practically look like campers.

Earlier this year Joe found a portable Weber grill next to the dumpster at a campground. (Craig's list curb alerts have a venerable heritage in good, old-fashioned trash-picking). This grill was apparently the victim of another camper's prejudice against the beginnings of rust, because that was the only thing keeping it from looking quite new. I imagine Joe will do a little more cooking out with his new grill, when a campfire isn't available or would take too long. If he happens to find a sale on chicken, or some discounted bratwurst, that is.

I'm consistently impressed with how my camping friends plan out the meals for the trip, shop for specific recipes and menus, and keep the ingredients cold on ice until they are needed. Joe has always been a "what's on sale?" shopper, so we continue to throw together meals as we always have ... starting with "what's in the pantry?" We're creative and forgiving. We don't starve, we don't waste a lot of food, and we try to be aware of what we're eating without overdoing the food guilt.

Ditto the eco-guilt. We drink a lot of bottled water. Although we're not opposed to drinking potable tap water, there are many potential points of contamination in an RV system, so we only drink from our faucet under specific, controlled conditions. We're still trying to find a system that uses less plastic than purchasing water in jugs and bottles (occasionally getting into a cycle of refilling, but not usually).

For a while we thought that paper plates and plastic cups and cutlery were easier than real dishes. We still keep some disposables around, but real dishes simply function better and make us feel at home. Washing up after a meal is one of the little pleasures I find in daily housekeeping. The added challenge of water conservation (to minimize the frequency of dumping our tanks) elevates it to an exercise in efficiency.

A good chunk of most days we spend away from camp -- exploring, playing, or shopping, on foot or with our bikes. We walk right past our "borrowed yard" on the way in or out. Relaxing at home in between outings and meals, we'll kick back on our beds or the couch, or play a game at the dinette table. We just don't manage to turn a campsite into an extra room the way all those fancy campers do. Maybe that's something to work on this year.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We're Not Camping, This Is Home - Part 1

Living full-time in an RV isn't just an extended version of weekend or vacation camping -- it's a completely different approach.

All we have is what we have

On a weekend camping trip, you might leave behind personal luxuries in favor of simplicity. The laptop, the kids' video games, your DVD collection are left at home in favor of family card games and horseshoes. You might even forgo daily essentials because you're "roughing it." The full suite of girlie makeup and hair products, the toaster and coffee maker are replaced with the natural look and campfire cooking appropriate to the setting.

Full-timing means we bring everything with us, or more accurately, all we have is what we have. There are a few luxuries others might appreciate that we don't bother with, and the rest we bring with us everywhere. We don't have dress clothes or fancy shoes. We have coffee and pint mugs, but not wine glasses. We did trade up to the silver cutlery, partly to get it out of storage and keep it in the family, and partly because it was more practical for small spaces than the chunky plastic-handled stuff we'd been using for years.

While we can't let sentiment completely undermine utility, we do have some useless things that we're just attached to. Such as every wooden sword, stuffed animal, and random action figure that was deemed indispensable. And a ceramic hand mold from a latex glove factory. A small wooden bowl, turned by a beloved relative. A pretty fishing creel inherited from another. A few cherished pottery vessels. Stuff that makes us feel "at home".

As we define the necessities and practical luxuries, the inevitable question for each is "how much" or "how many?". We don't have laundry machines, nor do we have room for a month's worth of clothes for five people in various warmth ratings. So we have a budget set aside for coin laundries, and our wardrobes are sparse. We wear things more than once, and we'll have to wear almost everything if the temperature drops to freezing.

Consumables like dry and canned food, tissues and toothpaste are tough ones for me. I've always been one to have a spare laid by of anything that won't spoil. And Joe tends to buy multiples of anything that's on sale, so we sometimes end up with a year's supply of something we rarely use. We've curbed those tendencies some, but we have a few places to stash an extra can of beans, a jar of peanut butter, or a few rolls of toilet paper.

We had to get rid of most of our books, although we made room for the pop-up books (lightweight and entertaining), several dear cookbooks, and some high-quality reference books. We kept most of our boardgames, cardgames, and dice, and enough art and office supplies to keep our hands busy and our papers in order. We kept our small collection of music and movies, some of them tinyized -- the CDs were transferred into iTunes; DVDs are with us, but consolidated into zippered cases. We have a small TV and a DVR, though we don't often tune in to broadcast or cable signals.

As I take inventory mentally, it seems that we still have way more stuff than we need. Time will tell, and ballast will be jettisoned.

So, it's as you might expect. We aren't as lean as campers, nor as indulgent as homemakers. We're somewhere in between. Tomorrow I'll tell you how our campground living differs from what we've seen of experienced casual campers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Passport

Although we are "on the road" all the time, we spend most of our days not traveling, but parked at a campground (or occasionally the home of a friend). Usually there is plenty to do outdoors wherever we are ... walking, hiking, exploring, biking, playgrounds, waterways, beaches, rocks. But sometimes we're looking for indoors fun. And sometimes we're traveling and want a break in the middle of the day that will stimulate but not leave us all needing showers. Our salvation in times like these is the ASTC passport program.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers includes hundreds of science and nature centers, museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, and planetariums. Membership at one center generally gets you free admission to the hundreds of others in the U.S. through the ASTC passport program. If there is any organization that caters more directly to the needs of a "roamschooling" family, we haven't found it.

We are members of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas. The Sternberg is a great example of the value of an ASTC membership. It's a relatively small museum with some fine fossil specimens, including the world-famous "fish-within-a-fish" and others from the time when Kansas was part of a great inland sea. Their animatronic dinosaur diorama always thrills the kids. My favorite part of the Sternberg is the well-stocked and well-maintained "Discovery Room" -- chock full of nature activities, books, toys, and specimens appropriate to all ages. If we lived in Hays, I'm sure we would visit weekly, and never run out of interest.

Since the first year we joined the Sternberg, we have visited at least a dozen other ASTC member institutions across the country, and we now plan our travel to include our favorites, such as The McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama; ¡explora! in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas, where yesterday we crawled through a model of a blue whale's heart in the traveling exhibit, Whales | Tohorā.
We have encountered exhibits which illustrate concepts in all the sciences, from anthropology through zoology. Music, art, civil engineering, history, robotics, weather ... I can't think of a subject that we haven't seen addressed in these centers. (Well, they may be light on literature, says the English major, with a wink.)

I highly recommend the ASTC passport program to anyone with children*, whether you expect to fly to a single destination in your year of membership, drive across the country and stop at several museums on the way, or even just take a few trips to your local science center.

* Note: Adults who are interested in enjoying the benefits of the ASTC passport program should be aware that some children's science centers will not admit adults without children during regular daily hours, so check the policies of the member centers you intend to visit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why and How We Homeschool

Joe and I were interested in homeschooling before we had kids, probably before we were married. There's a theme running through our life together of not being afraid to question the default settings, the social norms, the way our parents did it. We end up accepting and living some conventional ideas, tentatively continuing others until we are convinced one way or the other, and going completely the other way when we think something else might work better.

By many measures we both counted as "public school success" stories (Joe was even Valedictorian). But neither of us thought that public school, or institutional education at all, was a necessary part of a fulfilling life. In fact, both of us felt that a certain amount of our time and effort in school had been wasted, and some of it had been downright counterproductive. The more we thought, read, and learned about learning, the more convinced we became that the default in this case (a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society) was not for our family. In fact, the more we learned, the more we gravitated toward the most radical kind of homeschooling, an approach known as unschooling. (Google that if you don't understand my use of it by the end of this essay, or if you want to know more about the wide variety of approaches homeschoolers use.)

Once you break free from the institution, the division of learning into subject areas and step-wise, age-based development markers loses much of its practical value. "Educational standards" are created so that institutions can measure themselves and run quality testing on their output. They don't ensure that a child gets what he needs out of his schooling. They *should* ensure that the system is working as well as it can for the needs of society. Our mission as parents is far less daunting. We have to deliver our kids to adulthood ready to take care of themselves and share this world. Homeschooling doesn't suddenly confer on us the mission of the public schools. It merely expands our opportunity for pursuing our goals as parents. I don't usually think of what we do as homeschooling, although I use the term because it's familiar to people. We're living, and learning is what happens when you're living.

So what do our kids really need from these years? Well, they need to learn a lot of stuff. Humans are wired to learn -- to be curious and to try to fit into the tribe. Kids left to their own devices in a rich (not necessarily "enriched") environment will learn. Just try to stop them. They constantly watch, listen, absorb, ask questions, think, space out, poke things, and try new stuff. Do we need to focus on teaching them particular things at particular times? If we grown-ups need to know something, we go learn it. Why should we set the schedule for them? Do we have some special knowledge that they will need a particular skill or bit of knowledge to fulfill some goal later in life? No, we don't. More importantly, no manner of assessment will guarantee that they will learn (really learn) anything we decide to teach them. We learn best when what we're learning is interesting, entertaining, fulfilling for us. We learn best when curiosity drives exploration and study, not when a syllabus and a class bell announce the next subject. As long as Joe and I have the luxury of being responsible for our kids' education, the best things we can do to prepare them for adulthood are to (a) introduce them to our world by sharing our interests and our daily lives with them, and (b) listen to them and help them find answers, resources, and new ideas in whatever direction their curiosity pulls them.

That's right. We don't make our kids complete assignments. We don't require reading. We don't lecture (unless the time seems ripe -- health and safety learning sometimes comes in this format). We don't formally test them.

We trust.

If all sorts of bells, whistles, and screaming authority figures are going off in your head right now, you're not alone. Like I said, schooling is a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society. We like to have control of outcomes, and we fear what would happen outside of the controlled (but by no means universally successful) system of education that defined our own youth. We like to have control of children's lives (after all, we're responsible for them), and we worry what they'll get into if they're not constantly scheduled and corralled into planned experiences. What do kids get up to when they aren't dictated a daily agenda? What's to keep my kids from just playing games all day long? Well, certainly not me.

Play is a fabulous way to learn. It engages, focuses, and socializes us. Games require various grades of discipline and a balance between competition and community spirit. They provide a context for concepts that might otherwise be presented as isolated, sterile specimens in a subject/unit/lesson curriculum structure. Playing poker we practice memorizing and applying a rather arbitrary hierarchy (hand ranks), we touch on probability, and do simple money math (making change and bidding within our means). Spades and Pinochle are more of the same, with a more complex system of play and points in place of the money. Monopoly (our version has a Star Wars: The Clone Wars theme) involves oodles of reading and intensive money math. Battleship introduces a coordinate system and challenges us to innovate and test search strategies. Master Mind is a recent favorite which requires a very focused kind of logic. I Spy, Chess, Tic Tac Toe, Set, Fluxx, Aquarius, the zillions of online games available (Ragdoll Physics games are a recent favorite), video games, run-around-and-tag-people games, target-shooting with bows and arrows, imaginative role-playing -- ALL games require thinking and many games exercise specific, broadly applicable skills. Kids can never play too much.

My kids play a lot, and every minute of play is homeschooling. I could write more about the many places we've traveled, the interests the kids have developed, the times they've impressed me with their intuition, knowledge, skills. But I celebrate those things daily, and my friends hear me gush about them more than enough. Ultimately I don't own those successes, and my approval isn't the reward. Their growth and happiness is.

But what about penmanship? Long division? The branches and levels of government? Linnaean taxonomy? Moby Dick? These things, if they will be valuable to them, will all come in good time. If they want to go to college (and I sincerely hope they do), there will be time and opportunity for study, selection, and preparation. College prep has various avenues: high school, prep school, community college, and independent (but targeted) study. The admission process usually involves extra essay/interview steps for kids without transcripts, but I've read many times that admissions officers generally consider homescholars a good addition to the student community, and a decent bet for retention and academic success.

If our kids are interested in a college that myopically refuses a prepared student merely because he was homeschooled, then we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. As long as we treat learning as a way of life, as what we do every day as humans, our children will learn the most important lesson: that they can find answers and build skills as long as they are willing to ask questions and apply what they've learned. They will learn to trust themselves, as we have challenged ourselves to trust them.

The hardest part about unschooling, and parenting, is having this confidence. But it gets easier as the months go by and our kids share with us their understanding of the world and their undiminished hunger to learn more, more, more about it.

Meteor Crater
Karl with "Bernoulli balls" at ¡explora! in Albuquerque
Oklahoma. No adults aided in the production of this beautiful campfire.
Columbus, MS
Memphis Zoo
Karl hatching
Karl after the ice storm in El Dorado, KS.
How many nights did you fall asleep with a highlighter in your hand, only to find seemingly random highlights in your textbook the next morning? ;)
Astronomical low tide, San Elijo State Beach, CA