August 28, 2008

Advice For The New Unschooler

We're coming up on our first homeschooling anniversary. And three days after that will be our first unschooling anniversary. Yes, we lasted a full three days in school at home mode before both Jerry and I were in separate rooms crying and I tossed my hands in the air (onto the computer keyboard, actually) and googled "unschooling."

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I would say to myself if I could travel back in time and give my new unschooler self a few words of advice from my not-so-new unschooler self.

The very first thing I would say is that she should throw the whole one month for every year in school thing out the window. You've heard that right? "It takes one month for every year a kid spends in school to rediscover his love of learning." Here's the thing about that: first of all, as the parent that puts you in a bit of a holding pattern. You're waiting for something to happen. You're looking for "learning" all the time. You can't wait for x number of months (it was five for us) to be over so the real unschooling can begin. But here's the thing about that: It's already begun. The unschooling started the day your child walked out of the classroom for good. It's going to look different as time passes and in the beginning it'll throw you off because either you might not see the value in what they're doing or it won't look anything like learning. But relax. Someday it will.

In fact, that's something else I'd tell my new unschooler self: Drop the word "learning" from your vocabulary. It might be different for other kids but my son came out of school with very strong feelings about learning--none of them good. So even when I insisted he was learning by sitting around playing video games and watching TV all day (even though I didn't have much faith in that at the time), I was still putting emphasis on something he didn't value. Now, I know Jerry does value learning. But when he is learning about something he enjoys (using Microsoft Paint to create new Pokemon, for example--that's what he's been up to lately) he doesn't consider it learning. To Jerry, learning is being forced to remember or do something that isn't interesting to him or has no relation to his life. To me, it's gathering information and creating a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit. But since our definitions are so different why not just lose the word altogether?

So what should my new unschooler self be doing while she's not talking about learning or looking for it in her son? Follow her bliss! This is one of the things I like best about homeschooling (and unschooling in particular because it seems to allow more time for this kind of thing). Have you always wished you'd paid attention in physics class? Get yourself a book and start reading about it. And when you get excited about something share it with your child. Don't share it in an "I want you to know this" way. Share in a "look what I just discovered--isn't it awesome!" way. Excitement is contagious. And though your child may never become excited about electrons moving from one atom to another or the second law of thermodynamics, he'll see that you're excited about learning (even though you won't call it that!) and that right there is a very important lesson!

Now, on to the big bad television and video games: In the last few months I've realized what a huge mistake it was to express my distaste for video games so loudly. Children are already bombarded with images of kids who like to play video games as losers. Compare this to kids who are obsessed with sports. How do we view those kids? We support their interest. We sign them up for team sports and encourage them to improve. But with video games we're just hoping they'll lose interest. So what message are we sending? Are we saying gamers really are losers? I think we might be. So I would tell my new unschooler self, right from the very beginning, to stop separating video game/computer time from other play time. In other words, try not to think of it as something "other" or bad.

I know this is really hard. My son was in a Waldorf school before we started this journey so we had serious restrictions on video game and computer use. We didn't ban them completely but they were not an option during the school week and on weekends he was only allowed a few hours of "screen time." But since the unschooling philosophy requires a parent to take her child's interests seriously, once we started unschooling I couldn't continue to look at Jerry's interest in video games as something that was worthless. By virtue of the fact that my son was interested in spending his time in front of the screen, the screen had worth.

For months I struggled with this. I was extremely uncomfortable with the amount of time he was spending in front of the tv, at the computer, or playing video games. I'm still not comfortable with the idea of spending all day in front of a screen but I keep my mouth shut--it's been a year now and he does it less and less. He finds interest in other things, seeks out my company and asks to play board games or draw or do things that I couldn't get him interested in when we began.

So I would also ask my new unschooler self--no, wait, I would insist--that she carefully consider the message she is sending to her child when she places negative judgments on the things that are near and dear to his heart.

I think that's it for now. I'm sure I'll come up with other ideas. In fact, if anyone else wants to put a similar post up at their own blog, I'd be happy to put a link to it here. I figure the new unschoolers need all the help and encouragement they can get. It's a rough few months when you're first starting out, questioning everything you ever believed about learning and parenting and trying to wrap your head around a style of learning that looks suspiciously like doing nothing. But once you make that paradigm shift "doing nothing" suddenly becomes "living joyfully" and things start to fall into place.

August 25, 2008


We built a computer!We spent a few hours each day last week assembling the components we had purchased before Jerry left for camp.I tried to follow the instructions in our book, Building the Perfect PC, but since we were using different components than they used in the book it was a little tricky.
We ended up using a combination of the book, the manuals that came with the components, and various You Tube videos.
Basically, I read the instructions and Jerry did all the assembly.
During the building process we discovered that one of the architects that's been working on our deck started out as a computer engineer so we asked him to take a look at what we had done before we plugged in the PC. He said it all looked good but I was still worried.

I hemmed and hawed and checked connections and re-read manuals until Jerry finally said "Mom! Quit stalling! Let's just turn it on!"

So I held my breath as he hit the power switch. I was waiting for a small explosion but nothing happened. Nothing at all. Then Jerry remembered to hit the power switch on the back of the tower as well and I held my breath again, still waiting for the little sizzle and spark that would end our PC building project. But instead I heard the gentle whir of a fan and saw blue lights illuminate the sides of the PC tower and the screen came to life. It worked!

We jumped up and down and watched the screen, then realized we didn't know what to do next. The windows disc was in the CD/DVD drive but nothing was happening. I spent some time trying to solve the problem on my own while Jerry kept saying "Let's just ask Shawn" (he's the architect/computer guy). But we had come this far on our own and I didn't want to ask for assistance just yet. In the end we went out for a scone and coffee to settle my nerves and came back and asked for help. Shawn adjusted some settings in the BIOS and the computer was up and running in about two seconds. It was amazing.

Once Windows had loaded Jerry was busily clicking through screens and setting things up while I stood behind him saying "Wait! Did you read that? What did that screen say? Don't go so fast! What did you just put in the trash? You might need that!" He finally stopped what he was doing and said "Mom, you're ruining all the excitement. You need to calm down. Come sit in the living room."

"I can't," I said. "I have to make lunch." And I went back to stirring the pasta that had been cooking on the stove.

Jerry sighed and shook his head. He came over and started massaging my shoulders as I stirred. Then, in a very relaxed and mature voice he said, "Calm down, Mom. You're really taking the fun out of it. It's going to be fine." And it was fine. Until Jerry threw something in the trash that shouldn't have been trashed and Windows didn't work any more and nothing we did would make it work again. But that didn't happen until Sunday. I'm talking about Friday right now.

So Jerry stopped me from outwardly freaking out and I patted myself on the back because in spite of the fact that I'm a complete spaz, I must be doing something right in the parenting department because that was a very impressive display of maturity coming from a 12-year-old.

Of course, when Sunday came around and windows wouldn't open and we kept getting the same cryptic message over and over again I started freaking out all over again. I really, really, really had to work hard to keep myself from shouting "I TOLD YOU SO!" Though I'm sure I said a few things that imparted a similar message. In the end though we thanked our lucky stars for our new housemate because when Xi Quan came over to pick up his keys Jerry asked him to take a look at the computer and he fixed the problem in no time at all. Having and electrical engineer in the house is already making our lives easier!

August 21, 2008

The Guy

We have an extra bedroom that we sometimes rent out to college students. It brings in a little extra money, keeps us in touch with the younger crowd, and provides Jerry with a surrogate big sister. I say sister because we've always rented to girls. Somehow it's always felt more comfortable inviting a strange girl to live with us, than a strange guy.

This year, because of my new interest in science, I posted an ad for the room at California Institute of Technology hoping we might find a physics or engineering student that wanted to board with us. And guess what?! It worked! We're going to be renting the room out to a student in the fourth year of his Ph.D in electrical engineering!!! Yippee! And to make it even better he's from China! He came to California specifically to attend Caltech so he's only been here for three years. So not only will we have our own personal engineer in the house, but we'll learn all about China! And Jerry will have a surrogate big brother instead of a sister--something I think he'll really enjoy.

Of course, the fact that this person is a guy was a bit of a stumbling block. Warren wasn't quite comfortable with it. Eventually, though, he decided the educational benefits of having this particular guy live with us outweighed the worries (or maybe it was just that he couldn't take my begging anymore). Either way, the guy is moving in! Hooray! I'm going to buy a map of China this weekend and get some books from the library so I can brush up on Chinese history and geography. That way I won't seem like a complete ignoramus when I'm asking him about his native country. And I'm going to practice saying his name (and find out how to spell it) so I can stop referring to him as "The Guy."

August 20, 2008

Werid Al Rocks!

Weird Al was so cool! Even better, though, was watching Jerry watch Weird Al. Jerry sung along at the top of his lungs, waved his arms with the music and just radiated pure joy. We'd been rockin' out for about an hour when the Weasel Stomping Day video lit across the screens during a costume change and suddenly Jerry didn't feel so happy. He considers himself "anti-kill" and the video really offended him, so he was ready to leave. He didn't let it cast a shadow over the past hour though. As we walked toward the exit he said for the fiftieth time that night, "Weird Al is awesome!"

The whole day was terrific. We rode a roller coaster--the last roller coaster I will ever ride in my life. That's right. My days of roller coaster riding are over. I don't care if that makes me old and boring. I hate roller coasters. Especially when they're at a Fair and the whole point of the ride is to make you feel like you're going to fly out of the seat and go careening into the asphalt at any second. We also rode one of those swing rides that's usually very tame (which was why we chose it) and found out they'd made some upgrades. Instead of a nice peaceful spin through the air we were regularly tipped forward and backward so it felt like we might, you guessed it, go careening into the asphalt at any second. Still, the part before I thought my life and the life of my child (he was making the most awful noises every time it threatened to dump him!) was in danger was really fun.

We also saw the cutest little bat in one of the exhibits as well as the cars from Herbie and Back to the Future. We even stumbled upon the Peking Acrobats doing their thing. I handed the camera to Jerry and he took about 200 pictures of the show.

Aside from watching Jerry watch Weird Al the highlight for me was watching Jerry play Rock Band on stage. As soon as we entered the Fair Jerry saw a huge Rock Band set up. You could play in front of an audience or you could play backstage. Early in the day Jerry and I played a bunch of songs backstage (me on the drums, Jerry on guitar) and then as we were leaving after Weird Al Jerry said he wanted to play on stage. Since I get my fill of humiliation at Circus Class I really didn't think I could get up on stage and play Rock Band in front of a bunch of people but luckily there was a group of three kids that were about to go onstage so Jerry played Bass with them.

This is the kid who refused to be in the first grade play and spent the second grade play curled up under a desk in his classroom. And he was up onstage with three kids he didn't even know playing a song he'd never tried before on bass! I was so proud.

August 18, 2008

Great Advice For Talking To Relatives

There are so many things I want to tell you about the HSC Learning Without Limits Conference but I'm going to pace myself and tell you about it a little at a time. I will tell you that I was buzzing with excitement the entire weekend. I made some new friends, learned some new things, and my feeling that unschooling is the right path for us was absolutely, 100% confirmed (again and again).

Now I'm going to share the most important nugget of wisdom I found amidst the gold mine of information at the conference. It came from Pam Sorooshian.

On the last day of the conference I cornered Pam in the hallway outside the ballroom where we'd just watched a fabulous slide show of photos from the weekend. I'd been dying to ask here one particular question and hadn't found the opportunity yet.

What I wanted to know was this: "How should I respond to my mother-in-law when she says that if Jerry doesn't have to do some things he doesn't want to do now, he'll never learn to do the things in life that none of us really want to do, but need to get done nonetheless?"

Warren's mom has mentioned her concern about this a few times and I could never really answer her because I guess a small part of me wondered the same thing. I suspected that, just like the rest of us, he would do some things he didn't really want to do because he'd have a conflicting need that would trump his desire to avoid the unappealing chore. For example, even though I hate washing dishes, I do wash them because I hate having dishes piled on my counter even more than I hate washing dishes. Pam confirmed that this was true.

Then she asked, "Do you really want him doing things he doesn't want to do?"

Wow. When you put it that way I guess I'd have to say no. Not at all. Pam pointed out that she has three girls and she definitely does not want her girls feeling obliged to do things they aren't comfortable with. That put a whole new twist on the question.

She suggested asking my mother-in-law, "What is your real concern?"

"Not being capable of doing things he doesn't want to do" is very general. Is she worried that he won't wash his dishes or clean his house as an adult? That one I can handle.

Or is she worried that he won't have the tenacity to reach his goals? I have to admit, I've asked myself this question, too.

Pam pointed out that most of us want our children to find meaningful work that they love so they won't have to do things they don't want to do--like go to a job they hate. Yes, they may need to, say, take a job they aren't crazy about as a stepping stone to the job of their dreams, but that's about seeing the big picture and goal setting--it's not being able to do unappealing activities.

Does Jerry see the big picture? Yes, he does. Most of the time. And when he's unable to see the whole thing Warren and I are there to fill in the gaps. Is he able to set goals? Pam said he probably does it all the time with video games. And he does. That's what video games are, right? You set a goal to beat the game and you work at each level, beating them one by one, until you've reached it. Are video game goals the only goals he's interested in at the moment? No, but video games do feature prominently in most of them. He wants to design video games and thanks to a program we discovered this weekend (more about that later!) he's well on his way. He wants to build a gaming computer and we're darn close to reaching that one (we'll start as soon as we get back home). He wants to beat all four Guitar Heroes. He does know how to reach goals but they're his own goals for himself. Not mine.

So that tidbit was one of the best things about the conference. I'll get to the rest later.

On the homecoming front, Jerry and I were supposed to be driving home today but Weird Al Yankovic is playing tonight at the State Fair so it looks like we'll be staying one more night--Jerry can't stand the thought of missing it.

I never in my life expected to find myself at a Weird Al concert. Ever.

August 14, 2008

Curse The Heat!

This is what happens when you go to a chocolate boutique and buy six beautiful chocolate confections with names like "Fleur de Sel Caramel" and "Lychee Rose" and you gently put them in your purse where they will not get smashed so you can take them home and savor their hand-made goodness with your brother and his girlfriend in celebration of their impending child and then you walk onto the streets of Sacramento where it's 500 degress in the shade and stop in at a few more shops and wait patiently while your son gets the Chinese symbol for courage airbrushed onto his arm before you head home.

They melt.

And then, when you sample what should have been ambrosial goodness (because you couldn't just throw them away!), you are disappointed to discover, though you suspected it was true, that chocolate and caramel and mint and hazelnut and rose don't taste very good when they're all mashed up together. In fact, they taste bad. Very, very bad.

I just thought you should know.

August 13, 2008

Topic Overload

I'm suffering from post idea paralysis brought on by too many things going through my head at once. It's probably because Jerry and I are in a holding pattern here at my mom's as we wait for the HSC conference to begin, so we're not really doing anything other than hanging out and having fun. But that's not really a very interesting subject. I do have a bunch of other things I'd like to write about, but I can't pick one. So I'm just going to summarize all the things that have been going through my mind. Things I might have written an entire post about--but didn't.
  1. I should have been a race car driver. That's all I could think as I was sailing around the curves on the road to pick Jerry up at camp. It was awesome! But since everything I know about racing I learned from the Herbie movies I don't think I can even call myself a fan. I might become one, though.
  2. A sister should not pick up and move to Ireland with her husband and two young children indefinitely. If someone's sister says she is moving back home in two years she should move home in two years. When asked "Are you still coming home in June?" she should not pause for five long seconds before saying, in a very unconvincing tone of voice, "Um, yeah, we are...It's just so expensive." She should just say "YES!" (Grrrrrrrr! Can you see my mad face? I. Want. My. Sister. Back!)
  3. I'm giddy with excitement over the HSC conference because they have some of the coolest workshops ever (video game making, ukelele playing, and other great schooly and unschooly lectures) and because I'm going to meet Becky from Life Without School. It's so exciting when the blogging world and the real world collide!
  4. When Jerry and I were at the Exploratrorium in San Francisco (where we unexpectedly ran into some of our favorite people from our homeschool group in L.A.!) we got the coolest toy ever. It's called Stringthing Limbo. You can limbo with it but it's much more fun just to touch it while it's moving and see what happens to the string.
  5. My brother's girlfriend is pregnant! Yippee! We're going to have another person to love!!

August 12, 2008

Disorder Without Borders

The topic was physics, but I'm just self-centered enough to think maybe the author was describing my office.
"Order, by definition, has restrictions and limitations, while disorder knows no bounds."
-Natalie Angier, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

August 10, 2008

Together Again

I have my boy back! The drive to camp was long--I had to take a detour along a dirt road because of road construction--but I made it to camp around 3:00 Friday afternoon. The campers were having rest hour on their platforms so I waited on the tree swing just outside the boy's area while someone went to tell Jerry I'd arrived. I barely had time to take in my surroundings (huge oak trees, barn, horses grazing in the pasture, Gates Mountain in the distance) before Jerry came running up the hill with a huge smile on his face.

There were mosquito bites all over his face and legs; he was so covered in dirt his belly button might have sprouted something given seed and a bit of water; and an angry rash (courtesy of the California campers' nemesis, poison oak) ran up one arm and down the other. He didn't quite look like the Jerry I'd left three weeks earlier.

We did the standard sappy movie reunion: ran toward one another and threw our arms around each other then held on for dear life--we even stayed put while the sprinkler shot a blast of water straight at us (it was hot).

For the rest of the day we just hung out together. He took me down to his platform, we sat under the apple trees and talked, went to the wood shop where I watched him make a couple mini skateboard ramps. We ate dinner with the campers and went to the dance to celebrate the final night, then we sat around the campfire and sung while the stars slowly filled the sky above us. At bedtime we went off to our separate sleeping quarters (Jerry on his platform and me in one of the little cabins) but Jerry came up to see me bright and early the next morning after he'd waved good-bye to all the campers leaving on the bus and we had a nice cuddle before heading down for breakfast.

We could have left anytime but Jerry lingered. He didn't seem quite ready for camp to end. But eventually we said our goodbyes and headed down the road. We stopped for lunch in the nearest town, and stopped a few more times along the way because Jerry was carsick.

Finally, though, we made it back to my mom and dad's where the boy was reunited with his dog.
We'll be staying here for the week while we wait for the HSC Homeschooling Conference to begin. My parents have gone off to visit my sister in Ireland so it's kind of quiet. Since we got here we've gone to the movies, spent lots of time in the pool, listened to some Harry Potter on CD and done lots of lounging. Today we're heading down to the bay area to pick up Jerry's camp duffle bag (wouldn'tcha know it ended up on the bus?!), visit some friends and go to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. We're definitely enjoying being together again.

August 7, 2008

Lucky Squared

Warren and I met in 1989 when I was 20. A friend of his had offered to give me a ride up to Shoreline Amphitheater in Northern California to see the Grateful Dead. I had only just met the guy but he was a friend of a friend so I took him up on his offer. A couple weeks later I found myself in his tiny Hollywood apartment, just off the Sunset Strip, being introduced to my weekend traveling companions. Warren was one of them. Within two months we were engaged.

I'm just telling you this because one of the benefits of having no kids in the house is having your partner to yourself. It's not that we've done anything special--we haven't. But boy has it been nice to have time together, alone.

This morning, our last morning as a couple without Jerry, Warren said he felt like he was beyond lucky to have found me. Is there something beyond lucky? I asked. Lucky squared, he said.

This is the man who my mother only ever referred to as "Poor Warren" for the first fifteen years of our relationship. (She finally eased up when I started referring to my father as "Poor Dad".) This is the super organized, ultra prepared (if he were a super hero he'd be Ready Man), neat and orderly guy who somehow ended up with messy, disorganized, fly by the seat of her pants, always waiting until the very last minute to meet deadlines, me. It's amazing, really.

What's even more amazing is that we're still together. Between his long work weeks (the record is 106 hours in one week on Titanic) and our radically different lifestyle habits (I still maintain that living next door to each other--duplex, anyone?--might not be such a bad thing) we had a lot working against us. But a few years of heavy drugs--okay, it was marriage counseling but it cost just as much as a drug habit--and a more realistic definition of marriage (for me, anyway) helped us get through the rough patches.

What really saved us during the toughest years, though, was the fact that Warren never ever stopped believing we could make it work. No matter how much I kicked and screamed, no matter how despondent and infuriating I became, no matter how I wished we could just throw in the towel, he just wouldn't stop trying to make it work. It was pretty annoying, actually.

But now, here we are. Still together. Still driving each other crazy. Still in love. Can you guess what that makes me?

Lucky cubed.

August 6, 2008

Funny Stuff & Self-Control

Jerry's camp called me today to remind me to pick him up on Saturday. Like I could forget. Now that's funny!
What's not so funny is the fact that I cannot drive within a mile of a Krispy Creme Doughnuts without stopping in for a plain glazed creme-filled doughnut. This is a problem. Seriously. Where is my self-control!? I keep saying I want to lose the 15 pounds that's crept up on me in the last decade but then I do things like stop in at Krispy Kreme just because I'm "in the neighborhood," which loosely translates to anywhere in the city of Burbank. Thankfully I don't go to Burbank very often.

And, I keep saying I want to get stronger so I can show up all those talented teenagers in my circus class who make flipping upside down on a trapeze look as easy as breathing (actually, I'd settle for just not making a fool of myself) but do I do push ups? Sit ups? Have I installed the chin up bar I bought a month ago so I can actually lift myself more than a 1/32nd of an inch off the trapeze when I try to pull myself up? No. No. And no.

This has got to change! When I get back from picking Jerry up (which could be this Monday or next depending on if we go to the HSC homeschooling conference in Sacramento) I am going to start building up my strength. I'll probably still stop at Krispy Kreme, though, if I'm in Burbank. And Glendale really isn't too far from Burbank so maybe if I'm Glendale, too. Actually, Krispy Kreme is right off the 5 freeway so really anytime I have to get on the freeway it's just a hop skip and a jump to creme-filled bliss.

See what I mean about self-control?

August 5, 2008


I've talked to Jerry three times since I last wrote. He's doing fine. He's having fun. He misses home. He got poison oak on his arm, but he's glad he went to camp. What a relief!

I think finally talking to him made his absence much easier for me. I started to enjoy my time alone much more once I knew he was happy. I should rephrase that, actually, because I did enjoy it before, it's just that I was working most of the time--cleaning and organizing and stuff. But towards the end of last week I gave myself permission to relax and enjoy myself so I've been watching movies and reading and just enjoying the silence in our house. I've watched "In Bruges," "Into the Wild," lots of "Get Smart" and "Daily Show." I had lunch with a friend, which was great, and we had friends over on Saturday and stayed up late talking and drinking and playing games. Warren and I took the dog for a walk in Griffith Park on Sunday, went to see "American Teen," walked around old town Pasadena and went to a bookstore where I bought Eat, Pray, Love for a friend (I can't stop giving that book to people!) and Breaking Dawn, the final book in the Twilight trilogy, for me. So now I'm deep into the book (it's gooooooood!). I plan on finishing it today.

Things are looking up. It turns out I can survive without Jerry at home as long as I know he is happy. Phew!