Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All I want for Chanukah is for someone to take all of my stuff

I wrote last week about my disappointment in a class for the boys I paid for, then reveled in my cheap acquisitions of felt and paint. Sorry, but I still need to talk about it.

I've been up since 5:30. I got to read what I needed to, work out, make pies and cornbread (Thanksgiving, go figure) and sort of interact with my children. But now, having been up for so long, I'm miserable. It's not just because my sons have been screaming, one daughter needs to sing very loudly and the other asks constant questions in the kitchen. It's also because the house is an explosion- yes, I did clean it yesterday and straightened it out this morning- and I cannot stop looking at my place and thinking how much stuff I have that I don't need.

I probably wouldn't be so demoralized if my sons hadn't dumped a box of their toys all over the room and semi-ripped apart the closet to get to an old toy of Jazmyn's. Too many clothes, too many toys, not enough space.

No, that's not what's getting me. It's the bleep- bleep- bleep- bleep- bleep- bleeping "holidays". (Holiday from what?) I am not going to be diplomatic, conciliatory, nice or anything less than a big jerk about this. DO NOT get presents for my children. I do not want toys, I do not want clothing. The boys' coats still fit them, and we just got them boots. They need new pants, but I'll take care of it. Jazmyn could use a coat, but I'm going to try and revive one I have in my closet before I buy anything. And she has new boots. And Sam's feet haven't grown in years. And Sam has too many clothes. And so do the boys.

There is one category of gift I will accept, but I don't think anyone will be able to give it to me. I want ideas for things to do with the excess cardboard, mismatched cards and fabric scraps I have. I've made alphabet tiles, and prototyped a book. There's a wall hanging I saw in a restaurant that I might be able to get to. And Jazmyn really likes to sew now. But something... else? Jacob loves to cut out "batarang" shapes out of the cardboard. Should I cut out a dinosaur? Does anyone have plans for a house? Or something else. And, of course, someone coming over and taking all of my stuff out. Yeah, that would be great.

Imaginary play is an important part of a child's life, but it shouldn't be dependent on plastic or stuff you buy at a store. And it shouldn't threaten a parent's sanity.

Deb in the City

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What do I really need?

I don't like to spend a lot of money on things. I'm cheap. We know this. But I do believe in museums- it's half the reason I wanted to stay in Boston- and the most cost-effective way of "doing" museums is through a membership.

When you get a membership, you don't just get free admission. You also get special deals on classes and talks. When I was younger, I always wished I could take an art class at the Museum of Fine Arts. When Sam was little, I really wished I could send her to one of the Museum of Science classes. Our income is even smaller now, but because we're homeschooling, it seems like I should prioritize the occasional class that comes up in their field of interest.

So how could I say no when I found out that the New England Aquarium was offering a series of Ocean Detectives classes for Simon and Jacob's age group? Usually $30 per class per child, if I bought as three classes at once at the member rate, I'd only pay $17 per class per child. The boys love the ocean and sea creatures- it's in their magical triumvirate, along with dinosaurs and bugs. And what do I know about sea creatures?

Enough to run the last two classes.

October's class was about Deep Sea creatures. Remember that really scary creature Marlin and Dory ran into in Finding Nemo? That kind. So I understood that they couldn't bring any of those things in- they didn't even have them at the Aquarium- and I sat silently as the kids were instructed to read books, write and draw a picture of something from the book, sat through a story and drew a picture with special glow in the dark paint. Oops- one more thing. An experiment with warm, red water and cold, blue water to show how hot water rises which demonstrated that the water at the deep sea was going to be cold (for the most part). I could have done all of those things, obviously. But again, because of the special issue, I wasn't going to be a big jerk about it.

November's class was this last weekend. This was in the middle of a really stressful period that included Michael prepping for a big trial and Jazmyn getting evaluated at her music program. So I was in a cranky mood and didn't want to have to cut up my day to go to the Aquarium, but the boys were looking forward to it. And it was turtles; surely it was going to be better than the Deep Sea class.

Mm hmm.

We watched a video. We put the names of the parts of the turtle on a handmade drawing of a turtle. We looked at examples of turtle shells. The teacher read from a handmade, laminated book. They put on shells and ran through a simulation of the sea turtle life cycle.

Do I need to admit here that my kids are "those kids" in this setting? That they want to talk, talk, talk, ask questions, tell stories and otherwise dominate the discussion? You knew that already. Only in their case it's not that they're attached to their identity of being the know-it-all (not *yet*). They are genuinely interested and have a lot to say. This is one of the primary reasons I'm glad I took them out of school. I cringed as I watched the teacher very nicely handle them and answer their questions. No teacher could satisfy them 6 or more hours per day and get done what was listed on the curriculum.

After I'd gotten up twice to tell Jacob to stop touching the table or computer, the "turtles" had moved to the beach where there were pictures of eggs. Jacob wanted to sit on eggs, but they were all taken. The teacher told him that they didn't need to sit on eggs, but Jacob wasn't having any of it. I said his name and he looked at me. There were tears in his eyes. I held out my arms and he ran to sit in my lap. He didn't want to pretend to be a turtle anymore, but he agreed to keep his turtle shell on. A few minutes later, Simon came to sit on my lap too.

When the class was over and we came home, Jazmyn explained what happened to Michael. "The class was boring, and Jacob was understimulated so he kept asking questions." Hmm. I did voice my displeasure to Jazmyn as the class was going on, but I didn't characterize it that way. But I don't think she's wrong.

My boys aren't ready to sit through a class yet. And I'm fine with that. But they love certain things, and I guess I can easily indulge them. I can make a cardboard model of a turtle- or a shark. I can make my own simple book about either, and Jaz can illustrate it. I can invite their friends over for a hot/cold water demonstration. I can set up "environments" in my home. I can read to them. I can ask them to draw. And I can take them to a museum to look at the real thing if they really want to.

There is a feeling among even the most unschooly homeschooling families that they have to provide some form of "enrichment", because we can't do it all. Woodworking, drama, music, math tutors. Whatever. Because our kids deserve it and we're depriving them if we don't.

I'm officially exhausted, and so are my kids. And that's from seeing friends two or three days per week, Hebrew School and orchestra. That's enough. I don't want or need anymore until my children genuinely want something else, and even then...

The $30 guitar that I had restrung for $10, and the free piano that I've tuned over the last decade for a total of $230 has provided Jazmyn with endless amusement. She had piano lessons three years ago, and my sister showed her a couple of chords a few months ago. And from that she's taught herself multiple songs and created her own pieces. I'm not getting her "trained" until she says she wants to.

I bought 4 big bottles of paint this week for $33, and Jaz and the boys have gone to town... on the brown paper bags I've taken apart. I bought 8 pieces of felt and two spools of thread for less than $5, and Jazmyn has been sewing when she doesn't want to write her NaNoWriMo novel. As I write, the boys are setting up an oceanic aquarium with their little sea toys. And Sam is just back from class, getting ready for the free lecture on solar energy that she's going to attend this evening at Harvard.

There are some things I have to pay for, and my children are going to make periodic requests. Some things I'm going to have to say yes to. But whatever they are, they're going to have to be things that I can't do myself and that will stay with them forever.

Deb in the City

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Touch and Feel *this*

In case you haven't noticed, there's a bit of a "Back to Nature" movement afoot. You've seen Radical Homemakers or the Backyard Homestead. If you're around my age, it probably reminds you of the Seventies and, indeed, some of the people who have been writing these things have been practicing what they're preaching since then. But a lot of it is written by people even younger.

We're instructed to live a more basic life. Make and grow our own food, clothing and furniture. There's even some encouragement to get into plumbing and electricity. There's a little bit of badassness combined with a desire to be more genuine (and I'm not making that up).

Some of these works have spoken to me. I remember feeling so inferior when my aunt told me how well my Korean grandmother's garden was growing into her seventied, and I've always watched my sisters' work at the sewing machine with envy. I'm just the person who likes to play with numbers, make geneaologies of Greek gods and unlock the mysteries of history. Those are interesting things, but do they feed or clothe anyone?

But some of these books and ideas have fallen flat with me. It's one thing to talk about milking your own cows. It's not what I'm about, but fine. And, okay, making cheese, that's useful. But making ice cream? Massage oils? And though I have great respect for many of the traditions and practices of yoga, a homesteading guide that includes an admonition to practice yoga for stress release loses me.

There is a special kind of satisfaction I get when I make my own food from scratch or when I figure out how to put slipcovers on my couch pillows, however loose they might be. I like it- it's called satisfaction for a reason- but when I read these books or websites, I feel like they're selling something else. I just didn't know what it was.

But today I do.

I've been taking a class at my temple called "Back to the Sources". Today, the last class of this section, we were discussing the importance of land- specifically Israel- in the context of the Covenant. Of course, you can't discuss that without also discussing the Diaspora. And Zionism. And because we are a Reform Temple, the different feelings about Zionism.

[Side note: this really isn't the time or place to discuss how you feel about modern Israel. But if you want to, we will, and I will make your eyes glaze over with complex historical minutiae. You will run for Ezekiel's Valley of the Bones just to get me to stop.]

Exile. Diaspora. Holiness. Romanticism. Mysticism. Sometimes it's The Land, and sometimes it's just land. Then what else? Come on- we're talking about land. Not far behind must be... wait for it!... Labor.

Aaron David Gordon- or, as he is better known, Aleph Daled Gordon- wrote these words in 1911:

"The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls these two thousand years. We have become accustomed to every form of life, except to a life of labor- of labor done at our own behest and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again."

Replace "The Jewish people" with "modern people" or "Americans" or "People in Western Civilization", and this could have been published in one of the homesteading books.

Let's continue.

"In Palestine we must do with our own hands all the things that make up the sum total of life. We must ourselves do all the work, from the least strenuous, cleanest, and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult. In our own way, we must feel what a worker feels and think what a worker things- then, and only then, shall we have a culture of our own, for then we shall have a life of our own."

Oh. Is that all?

With all due respect to those who have fought for laborers of all stripes to get the benefits they deserve, there is nothing that is going to make me want to throw my arms around a machine and cry out my thanks than words like these.

Why don't we ask the Korean, Chinese or Russian farmers of the 18th century how much they clung to their labor, or how much pride they took in it? Why don't we ask the millions of Indians who have not significantly benefitted from technological innovations for over two centuries? Or how glad they are that in some ways their labor is a defining characteristic of their culture? It is when I reflect on them that I understand why people would crave machines in the first place.

Let's be clear- then as now, many problems were more political than technological. A civilization that is organized enough to store grain for rainy days- or really bad harvests- and doesn't penalize you for using it- is going to be more successful than the one who gives everyone the latest and greatest technology and then tells them they're on their own. But while technological innovation can be too much of a good thing, where and when do we draw the line? Wheat thresher? Water table ruler? Really, are we not allowed to derive satisfaction from our lives until we've personally ground our own grain, picked our own cotton and chopped down our own wood?

I'm not an apologist for technological progress, but when I read a book I want information and when I go to a farmer's market I want produce. I've never felt that I should also be able to purchase spiritual salvation at either of those places.

I should note that there is one book I approve of: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide It has a thesis: our ecosystems are polluted, and we're not going to be able to afford to transport as much due to a rise in fuel prices. And then it gives a lot of unmystical, unromantic, downright dirty details about how to purify water, set up some low-level permaculture systems, raise fish, compost and set up composting toilets. This is for when you're serious, and it's not for everyone.

2010 reminds me of 1911. Then as now, people sigh as they dream of a bucolic wonderland where, magically, everyone lived in peace and no one needed prosperity.

Keep dreaming people. I'm going to sit back in my urban condo (great for energy efficiency, by the way), pick mint off my windowsill plant, walk to public transportation, try to solve that math problem that's always bothered me, reflect upon the similarities between Norse and Hindu mythologies, worship Carl Sagan and dream of peace for Israel and Palestine. Sadly, none of this will make me superior, but neither will returning to an existence that never existed.

Deb in the City

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sometimes stress is clarifying.

I've had a bad case of eczema on my right hand for two months. It's annoying and sometimes painful.

My back hurts, and now I have a little bit of a stress headache. I can tell it's a stress headache because I can feel it starting at my shoulders.

But it wasn't until I yelled at my daughter this afternoon that I realized all of the other stuff was stress. (Update: I also just screamed at my husband, but though louder that bothers me a little less. There were dishes and laundry involved. See below.)

No one should get too excited- it's not the first time I've yelled at my children. And when I yell- really yell- I'm loud. It's probably part of the reason even my youngest have developed something of a "screw you" persona.

What would a stay-at-home, unschooling mom have to be stressed about? I'm not following any curriculum and I'm doing my best to follow my children's interests. I can sleep in, stay up late, and I'm not accountable to any administrators. And I get to be with the people I love the most. So what could possibly be wrong?


1) I'm in two cooperatives, and it's exhausting. I am fine with my children jumping and running around, beating each other up and making each other cry. I mean, not totally okay- see: yelling. I'm not okay with my kids doing that to other people, and I hate to have to mediate fights between other people's children. It's stressful, not the the least because I'm constantly worried that other parents, who aren't nearly as "eh" about structure, will disapprove.

2) In one co-op, I am the unschooliest of them all. The kids love me for it, but I don't think the parents do. They don't hate me because of it, but they're very concerned that their children aren't getting the structure they think they need. It's not just me, but I'm the one most likely to toss a plan if I look at a child and see boredom.

3) When a child doesn't listen to me, I don't know what to do. Whether it's walking away or persisting in denial, I'm at a loss. I think there's something about "firmness" in the usual recommendations, but that's kind of hard for me when there are mutliple children who start doing multiple different things that need my attention.

4) In another co-op, I need one day of care, but I end up usually putting in two days of supervision (one day I'm assisting, the other I'm in charge). The second day is optional, but I don't want to leave someone else with four, five or six children on their own, especially when they're small. The math is not in the adult's favor.

5) On the days I'm not on co-op duty, I'm taking someone to Hebrew School or music lessons. That includes Sunday, but I guess I get Saturday off. Unless I have a parent meeting.

6) My husband has agreed to help me out with Hebrew School and even music, and he does- unless he has one of the big non-negotiabe court deadlines. So he'll work all day while children jump all over me, then I'll leave with one of the children while he watches the rest, and then I'll get home and he'll resume work. And sometimes he hasn't been nice about it.

7) My children have all bitched, whined and yelled (I wonder where they got that from?) about doing things they don't think are "fun!". This is usually music or Hebrew School.

8) Getting children to all these places without a car. While they're complaining. Worse than taking public transportation is asking someone for a ride or taking someone up on their offer to help. Despite best intentions, things can come up, and then I'm on the hook.

9) Saying no to things that cost money when other people say yes.

10) Being required to do things that cut into my family time.

All of this is even more irritating/depressing/stressing because I am still the person primarily responsible for laundry, picking up and dishes. And when I'm not... let's just say that's why I coined the phrase "the help has to be helpful." And why I'm always motivated to throw stuff away. Which then makes my children feel self-conscious about stuff...

Oh yeah: I really like all of the kids and parents. It's kind of like that dream job you're willing to put 80 hours in for. Except that I don't want to put in 80 hours.

Deb in the City