Thursday, February 25, 2010

Globetrotting with Grandma and Grandpa

They are having the time of their lives, my parents.

This first pic is the view from their deck in Paihia, New Zealand. Their trip has confirmed for me that New Zealand is one place I definitely want to go... living there wouldn't be out of the question, even, although I guess I'd better consult the family before making any big decisions. My Mom sent me some of the loveliest yarn I have ever laid my hands on from New Zealand. She reports:

The first thing you notice about New Zealand is how green and uncommercialized it is and after three weeks here that still holds. Plus! we haven't seen a single billboard and we've driven 3000 km, or 1800 miles. We've had perfect weather and I hope it doesn't change too drastically in the next few weeks. We've been told that the South Island is more beautiful than the North, but the rugged coastline and sandy beaches of the Coromandel and the green and gold pastoral, hilly interior will be awfully hard to beat. There are sheep on every hillside, but surprise - but there's a big bovine presence too.

Took the ferry to the South Island and stopped in Marlborough, where most NZ wines are produced. After extensive research, we can personally assure all our wino friends that there is wine in abundance. People here are so friendly - we dropped into a bar the other night and were adopted by half a dozen 20-somethings and had a great time with them for an hour!

Here, though is the piece de resistance: my folks went heli-hiking! Isn't that cool?

Mom writes: Unfortunately, it's a cloudy day so we didn't see the top of Mt. Cook but we were almost at the top of Mt. Tasman. The ice we're standing on is 400 metres deep (about 1200 feet I think!)

And then it was on to lovely Fiji.

Or, maybe not so lovely? My Dad writes: Much of Fiji looks like regular living is very hard. Wages are very low. Hard for me to really like a place when I'm living like a king, while riding on the back of the very low wages paid to the folks that work there. Life looks better than the Philippines and Mexico, but still a very hard life for the average person. Mom told you already about the school we visited. Very humbling experience. You would have loved both the teachers and the 70 students. (Here are some of the students, with my Dad:)

After Fiji, it was on to Australia. Here, my Mom is writing to my boys and their cousins:

We are in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. It's hot, hot, hot! About 110 degrees F! There are lots of flies here - so many that we had to wear a net. Don't we look funny!

And, they were all excited when they saw a wallabee:

I didn't know that wallabees looked anything like kangaroos, but evidently, they do. Here's the Wikipedia page about them, in case you'd like to know more.

And so, the great trip continues! I'll do another update soon, on the rest of their Aussie segment and then on into Asia.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cease and Desist

So, I have apparently knitted myself into a corner: my hands are killing me. They are numb and painful at the same time, something that came on very suddenly. I blame the socks; last week I started working on a totally cute pair, on size 2 (cold, metal) needles, and now I can't even make a second pot-holder on size 11 (warm, bamboo) needles. And the first one looks so lonely!

Keyboarding is a problem, too, which is why I haven't been my wordy, commenting self on my favorite blogs over the weekend.

I am an addict, denied my two key habits.

I've decided to give myself a few days to let the nerves settle down. Then, once I have some feeling back in my left hand, I will give knitting another try. It goes without saying that, while my blog may be less typing and more photos, I'll keep at it - I would miss my bloggy friends too much to stop!

Here are pics of two projects recently finished:

These slippers are the first project I've done on double-pointed needles. Once I got the hang of it, I enjoyed knitting them very much. The lower pic is them before felting. They looked like cozy slippers for Andre the Giant.

Finally, about a week ago I finished this vest, from 25 Gorgeous Sweaters for the Brand-New Knitter. While some of the projects in the book are dated, I still found a winter's worth of relatively easy things to make. Here's a close-up:

Anybody have advice to fix hands? I'd really appreciate it...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Life Gives You Apples...

... make apple cake!

For the past three or four autumns, we've collected at least two, sometimes three bushels of apples to store for winter. Our favorite storage apples include Crispins and Fujis; we love supporting the orchards right around us and enjoying the sweet, crisp deliciousness of these apples until right about now, when we need to return to supermarket fruit because we have eaten the very last one.

But this year has been a different story. We picked our three bushels as usual - and then we got six weeks of unexpected higher-than-normal temperatures, during which the apples wrinkled and softened. We gave up trying to eat them back in December, and since then have made two important discoveries:

1) They are not going bad.

2) They are great in apple cake.

Ever since, this treat has become kind of a staple around here. It is great to have on hand, it freezes well, and it makes a nice treat to bring to a party or to a friend's house, or just have for dessert.

So, here is the recipe in case you want to try it, too.

Fresh Apple Cake

2 cups sugar

½ cup butter, softened

½ cup applesauce

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3 cups flour

3 cups diced apples (about 4 whole apples)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

Powdered sugar (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 350; grease a bundt or tube pan.

2) Cream sugar, butter, and applesauce in a mixing bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, in order, mixing after each addition. Spoon batter into prepared pan.

3)Bake 60-65 minutes at 350; cake is done when a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Invert onto wire rack and cool completely. When cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Soooo good!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Valentine's Day

I detest Valentine's Day.

It's the sugar-coated sap, you see, and the Hallmark-cheesiness, and the pink hearts. They cause in me a knee-jerk reaction that I cannot help - until this year when, like Eliza Bennett with her Mr. Darcy, I find that my feelings have changed. They are not, as she puts it, 'quite the opposite,' but my heart has softened a bit towards the holiday of love.

And I think that Jane Austen has something to do with it.

This week, I felt surrounded by bad news. We receive mail, from time to time, sent by the political party that is not our own, we got on some list apparently, and reading the latest installment on Wednesday, I felt downright harassed. The language was so violent and aggressive and angry, it was like holding something lit on fire, or a howler from the Harry Potter universe. Seeing my principles turned into vitriol on the page really hurt. Why do political parties feel the need to trash each other so violently?

On that same morning, I read this in the Boston Globe, with the scary title "Home-Schooled in Ominous Isolation" (I know, online it's 'situation' but the paper uses the far scarier 'isolation'). It's about a mother who keeps her teenage daughters stuck at home, giving them no opportunity to be with others. It is not so much about homeschooling, but instead about a woman who abuses her children by separating them from the world. It depressed me because the conclusion that can be drawn - that will be drawn, by anyone outside of the homeschooling community - is that homeschooling equals ominous isolation, and that is simply not the case.

Also, looming in the near future is a doctor's appointment for Luke, a biggie that has to do with his left leg. The leg that's always given him trouble. The one he needed surgery on at age five. The one that keeps him back, despite the stretches and exercises he does every day. The one that causes him pain.

To counter the bad stuff that cannot be filtered out, I am lucky enough to have weapons of the highest quality: a lifelong friend who started a superb photography blog this week, who knows the value of a well-placed giggle, and who owns - and shares! - a copy of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Here is my favorite, favorite scene in the whole movie (I know, Shan, it's crazy, but this even beats out the lake scene):

I've also borrowed three Jane Austen books (one from another friend, I am so lucky in my friends), and reading her funny and insightful words helps. A lot. I started with Pride and Prejudice, because I just can't get enough of Darcy, I guess!

Also, we attended a Valentine's Day party on Friday that was quite the opposite of ominous isolation: seventy homeschoolers, and bowling, and crafts, and food, and storytelling, even a penny drive for Haiti. It wonderful.

(Thanks to Erica for the two best pics up there :-)

So this year, between Valentine's Day and Pride and Prejudice (and good friends, and good fun!), I am able to counter the forces of evil. I hope your day is a good one, whether you love the holiday of love - or detest it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Owen, at five, wants to read so badly. He's fascinated with letters - their formation, which ones make which sounds - but the poor kid can't make sense of them yet, try as he might.

We play rhyming games, read great books (two current favorites: Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies and the equally hilarious Way Out West with a Baby), and play games from another superb book, Games for Reading by Peggy Kaye.

But sometimes, you just want to be entertained while learning to read, and that is when we turn to YouTube. Here are some of Owen's - and Luke's, and my - absolute favorite reading/silly skits, from PBS's Between the Lions; this first one is the best:

By the end of that video, I am wiping tears of laughter off my face. Every time.

Next up, the Monkey Pop-Up Theater:

Now, the Amazing Adventures of Cliff Hanger:

And finally, Gawain's Word:

This skit is based off of Wayne's World, the movie with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, which (due to my overly silly sense of humor) makes it all the more endearing to me. We have even been known to 'do' Gawain's Word in our pool in summer!

So, maybe these skits help Owen take in the principles behind decoding text. I can tell you, watching them with him on my lap at the computer, seeing his expression as each new goofy thing happens on-screen, breathing in his little-boy smell, laughing along with him - that is what I mostly like them for.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Chicken in Winter

I know I haven't written about them much recently, but the girls are a very large part of our lives. We've spent hours in the freezing cold hanging out, watching them poke around the semi-snowy yard, and collecting eggs from the nesting box.

They hate snow, so this last five weeks or so without it has been fun for the girls, who scratch around on the frozen grass and scrape into the pine needles behind their coop.

It sounds like their snow-free explorations will come to a halt, for a while at least, because we're expecting six inches or so in a few days. But they've had it good whether they know it or not.

You may remember, if you've been reading since we got them, that the chickens used to scare the bejabbers out of me. They don't anymore; when I am in the yard, lugging wood in for the stove or feeding them (or, more rarely, cleaning out their coop - which is SO not bad, Firefly Mom!), they follow me around and cluck adorably. The chickens just exude serenity, with their soft little voices and gentle mannerisms. We are so glad we added them to our family.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Below Average

This here post is a ticked-off, public-school-sucks kind of post; I just wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning. It's about a conversation we had tonight, over dinner.

We'd spent the better part of our meal discussing The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander's second book about Prydain, and the funniest Calvin and Hobbes comics, and favorite specific quotes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and how the 'big three' Greek Gods figured out who was going to be in charge of what realm, and... well, the conversation ranged, I guess, to sum up. All four of us took an equal part, and I was thinking how cool it was that the kids engage in conversation like they do, when Ben mentioned something about parents' perceptions that their schooled children who are of average ability get average teachers, and that kids with either learning issues, who are 'below average', or gifted kids, get the better teachers.

Now, this would have been an interesting thread to follow - but Luke heard the words 'below average' and suddenly said, "Yes, I'm below average."

Very matter-of-factly, mind you, no wistfulness or emotion of any kind. He was just stating a fact. My stomach churned, and I could see my worry reflected on Ben's face, too. One of us, or probably both of us, asked Luke: "Why do you say you're below average?"

"Well, that is what [Mrs. First Grade Teacher, who should probably remain anonymous] wrote in my report card - y'know, after I was doing bad when we got home from vacation?"

Luke was remembering his first-grade report card, in which the teacher took special care to mention how much worse his behavior was after we returned from a two-week vacation, that May, to Myrtle Beach. Luke spent those two weeks frolicking in the warm South Carolina ocean, finding clams and brine shrimp with his Dad, wave-surfing with his Grandpa, reading (memorizing, actually) the Magiquest manual, roasting marshmallows with his Grandma. His every moment was spent learning in some way, and so he didn't find the time to complete the sixty pages of worksheets that Mrs. First Grade Teacher had sent along. And, surprise surprise, he was not thrilled at the prospect of getting his nose back to the academic grindstone; agitation at school ensued.

Well, Ben and I hastened to correct Luke in his belief that he is 'below average.' We reminded him that it isn't up to Mrs. First Grade Teacher to make judgments like that, and also we helped him to remember all the things that he does do well. I hope that we convinced him - but I'm not entirely sure we did.

How do you counteract years of negative self-perception like that? Luke referred to himself as 'below average' and 'doing bad;' I fear that no amount of rock climbing, reading, role-playing or unconditional love can counteract something so ingrained.

Effing school! Still capable of hurting, more than two years later. Sigh.