Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rain and more rain...

We've built a sukkah nearly every year for the past 10 years and have always invited guests on the Sunday that falls during the holiday. Typically mornings are brisk, afternoons warm and lovely, and as the sun sets everyone suddenly feels a chill and remembers that it is, after all, autumn. September and early October in Portland is usually gorgeous and how lucky we are that we have this lovely outdoor holiday during our golden season.

Last year we dropped the ball. The old sukkah had become unusable and, due to The Dark Lord's impending bar mitzvah, we had neither the time nor the money to come up with a new sukkah. We missed having our own, and my dear sweet husband worked that much harder to make sure we would have a beauty of a sukkah this year. I don't really believe that G-d pays all that much attention to me, but I'm kind of thinking maybe we're being punished for slacking off last year. We had one glorious day in the sukkah and it's been nothing but nonstop rain since.

To answer Molly's question about how the sukkah holds up--it's still standing but it isn't pretty. All our beautiful lanterns and paper chains? Hammered by pounding rain. Half of the sukkah's roof has blown away. I run out and shake my bedraggled lulav during a break in the rain and it's like standing next to a wet dog after a good full body shake. Somehow I don't envision this being the way it was back in the day and I'm thinking the desert is looking pretty good right now.

Shabbat dinner in the sukkah? Rained out. Breakfast in the sukkah? Rained out. And our customary drop in Sunday afternoon open sukkah gathering? Rained out as well. People came and I took them out to look at the sukkah from the comfort of our covered carport. Nice, but not really dwelling in the sukkah, is it? There were brief, wistful viewings and then we scampered back in to the house for warm drinks and snacks.

Sukkot allows us to live simply in a spare, rickety shelter symbolizing the bare necessities of life. But it is also a harvest festival and I couldn't help but think of our good fortune and abundance: a warm house full of good friends and tasty food. It wasn't the day I'd been hoping for, but it turned out to be a very good day indeed.

Sukkah Food

Sukkot is not a holiday that has its specific dishes in quite the way some of the other Jewish holidays have. Chanukah is for latkes and donuts, Rosh Hashana requires a round challah, and hamantaschen are essential for Purim. While Sukkot doesn't have quite the same associated foods, we've developed a few dishes that have become standards when we invite guests to come and dwell in the sukkah with us. Sadly, there wasn't a whole lot of dwelling going on in today's chilly nonstop rain, but there were guests and there was food, essential for any gathering.

Two dishes generated repeated recipe requests: the white bean and rosemary "sukkah soup" and the ginger squares.

The soup is so easy there's no real recipe (and homely enough that no photos made the cut). Soak a pound of small white beans overnight. Saute a couple of chopped onions and some chopped garlic in olive oil, add the soaked beans, and a quart of stock along with a couple of peeled potatoes cut in l chunks. Simmer until potato is cooked and beans are tender, then add lots and lots of minced fresh rosemary, chopped garlic, and freshly ground black pepper and simmer for a while longer until the garlic mellows a bit. Serve with a dusting of grated Parmesan cheese.

As for the ginger squares--don't even bother unless you really like the flavor of ginger which is very strong here and enhanced by a tart lemony glaze. Heaven for ginger lovers! I was given this recipe years ago by another Jewish homeschooling mama who thoughtfully shared both the original and her much healthier version which I confess I've never bothered to try. The original is delicious and I'm not going to go messing it up with applesauce and brown rice flour, thank you very much. Give these a try when you need a little something to spice up a gloomy day. The recipe is here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


As if we haven't been busy enough, another Jewish holiday is here. But in contrast to the grandeur of Rosh Hashana or the solemnity of Yom Kippur, Sukkot is known as The Time of Rejoicing.

Sukkot lasts for eight days, during which we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah, a temporary outdoor home. The sukkah is rickety and flimsy and provides only the slightest bit of shelter against the elements, with its roof of branches laid on sparsely enough that we can still see the stars shining through.

This has always been one of our family's favorite holidays. After long hours in shul, it's nice to hang out at home, sharing meals with family and friends in the sukkah. Apart from cooking and building the sukkah itself, there's not much to do other than the daily waving of the lulav and etrog. The lulav is a set of branches made of willow, myrtle, and palm and the etrog is a citrus fruit rather like a warty lemon, all shipped fmo Israel. I have mixed feelings about these as the expense and the environmental impact of air shipping from overseas doesn't make a lot of ecological or financial sense. One of my friends talks of using local greens and fruits and I think this is a fine idea, but I'm a sucker for tradition so we continue to make the purchase.

This year we have a lovely new sukkah. Our old 8x8' lattice covered cube had begun to disintegrate after years of outdoor storage. Yes, it's supposed to be a humble dwelling but it's not supposed to come crashing down on those dwelling inside and we had reached a point of danger. After studying numerous plans online, The Spouse designed his own and after only three trips to Home Depot and two to the hardware store down the street our beautiful new "double wide" 8x16' sukkah came to be. It's spacious and cozy, with an open corner so guest don't feel cramped. We spent much of today decorating and embellishing and it now makes a lovely termporary home. The kids made paper lanterns and hung fruit. We made an 18' paper chain entirely out of the colored sheets of paper making up the synagogue's high holiday mailing which I think must earn some points against shipping from Israel.

The big question, of course, is why? What is this dwelling in the sukkah all about anyway? As ever, there are so many interpretations. We are commanded to dwell in sukkot to remember the years of wandering in the desert without a home. Today I think that translates beautifully into awareness of the fragility of life and the transitory nature of physical possessions. Spending a week in a space that is sufficient--maybe chilly, maybe damp, but in the end enough is an important reminder of those who go without and our own desires for excess.

Except that it really isn't deprivation. It's a lovely festival and we enjoy visiting with friends and sharing tasty meals in our temporary home. Chag Sameach!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Breaking the Fast

Our congregation breaks the Yom Kippur fast together after the conclusion of the final service. Jewish law forbids eating or drinking anything from sundown to sundown on Yom Kippur and most Jews I know take this very seriously. It makes for a long and intense day and when we all descend upon the tables, we are ravenous.

I start, always, with a few glasses of water because my body feels that lack even more than the lack of food. The next need is for protein: cheese, egg salad, tuna, and hummous are always available with fresh challah and downing bit of this makes me feel considerably calmer. A bit of fruit, more protein, and then at last, the sweets tables.

I always volunteer to bake something. Honey cakes abound at this time of year so I stay away from those. We have a lot of fine bakers of cookies and brownies in our congregation and one lady who specializes in baklava, lucky us! In the rush of getting a pre-fast meal together, I hadn't really checked my baking supplies and ended up casting about online for a recipe using ingredients I had on hand. When the recipe for Sour Cream Chocolate Chip Cake appeared, I knew I was good to go. It has that perfect combination of chocolate and cinnamon which always makes me think of my great-grandmother even though, honestly, I'm not sure she mixed the two. I used toasted hazelnuts in place of the walnuts and pecans and never missed them. This is not a fussy recipe, you don't dirty too many bowls, but the result is delicious. With that first cup of coffee after the long fast, it's just about perfect.

Look What I Found!

I have at least two things I'm hoping to share with you soon but here's the thing--my photos are stinky and I don't want to use them. Stinky photos are pretty much the norm around here as most shots are taken at night in poor lighting with sticky hands. For every passable shot there are 40 that, well, stink. I'm still learning to use this marvel of a camera but slogging through the manual isn't an approach well suited for my learning style (which might best be defined as chaotic-experiential and yes, I did make that up).

Imagine my joy last night when I stumbled upon The Kitchen Wench, an Australian food blogger who is currently writing a very informative and comprehensible series of posts on making the most of one's digital camera for food photography, especially without the $900 camera setup. Her recipes look delightful, too, but the photography lessons were what really grabbed me. I'm already playing around using her information on white balance and looking forward to more. Most of you with digital cameras have likely already studied your manual and have this all figured out but if you're still baffled by all those settings and the manual isn't doing it for you, take a peek at these articles and see if you don't learn something.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sensitivity...or lack thereof

This morning when I read the daily email from the high school principal I began sputtering indignantly. It seems that this school, which is sorely lacking in extracurricular activities outside performing arts and sports, does have some sort of Christian Club who are asking everyone to join them for a "non-denominational morning of prayer and worship for our school, school district, community, city, nation and world". First of all, I don't like people praying for me and my family if I haven't asked for it, especially if it means praying that I find Jesus. Second of all, hello? It's a public school--what's up with praying around the flagpole? This just drives me crazy. I'm not very kind, am I?

This evening was the first class of fall term. I have a great group of kids who are bright and respectful and mostly quite charming. I was doing my usual first night of the term routine in which I try to act far more enthusiastic and energetic than I really am in the hopes of catching their interest and getting them to come back for day 2. I was working up quite a thirst and took frequent sips from my lovely new water bottle and at one point I noticed one boy looking anxiously at his watch and out the window. And then it dawned on me--I'd been merrily swigging away in front of a young man who'd had nothing to eat or drink since sunrise. I'd forgotten that we Jews aren't the only ones having major festivals these days and Ramadan is once again underway having started on Rosh Hashana. Just a wee bit insensitive, no?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Yom Kippur

I keep trying to write about Yom Kippur and the emotional ups and downs of the day, but nothing I write really captures what it was like, especially this year. Rather than try to compose something coherent, I'll just give you the following loose thoughts and I'll abandon hope of deftly stringing them together .

Moments before we sat down to our pre-fast meal, I received an email holiday greeting from someone who hasn't responded to me for the last nine months. I took it as a good sign.

Kol Nidrei was hot, crowded, and an emotional kick in the gut as expected. Another Jewish homeschooling mama does a far better job than I could explaining this beautiful service here. The past year has been hard in so many ways and I had plenty for which to feel regret.

My moral shortcomings, upon which I'd meditated all evening, were abruptly forgotten upon leaving the building as we walked to our car with a number of young women who were The Dark Lord's classmates for years. Their laughter was indescribably soothing. I couldn't help thinking how silly and somber we grownups must seem on Yom Kippur when you're fourteen and all your big mistakes lie in the future, unimagined.

A first: all my children got up and got dressed in suitable clothing without a fuss, allowing us plenty of time to arrive at morning services promptly. I was already deep into my fasting headache, so not having to struggle was a blessing.

I spent most of the morning not in prayer, but in the child care room fulfilling a promise I'd made to help out. There are both good and bad sides to a highly participatory congregation and I missed far less than many of my fellow congregants. My only complaint? I missed MonkeyBoy leading the Ashrei prayer (Psalm 145 if you're counting). It's something of an honor to asked to lead this, and I had worried about his panicking in front of the hundreds of folks who show up on Yom Kippur. Due to my obligations elsewhere in the building, I missed it, but I heard he was a star and I couldn't help but kvell just slightly when people came up to him throughout the day and praised him.

Yom Kippur is an all day deal, but there's a 2 hour break mid afternoon. I was feeling quite light headed by this point (no food will do that) and we went home for a quick nap. Sometimes I stick around as I find it easier to focus when I stay in the building, but the nap was just what I needed and I returned for the last few hours able to concentrate on the work at hand.

The last part of Yom Kippur services always feel just slightly hysterical to me: there's all the imagery of the closing of the gates, the last minute hopes for another year. Everyone is hungry, tired, hungry, hot, hungry and yes, even a bit hungry. But there's also an incredible sense of joy at the end of the day. On a personal level, I felt like I did the work I needed to do and getting through the fast always makes me feel strong. Being with a couple of hundred people who've been through the same thing is slightly euphoric. In the years when I haven't fasted (due to pregnancy, nursing, or health issues) I haven't had the same feeling. Maybe it's just a weird tribal thing, but I like it--it's deeply satisfying.

But The Holidays, of course, are not yet over. Today was spent planning, shopping for parts, and starting to build a new sukkah. After all the pomp and formality of the last couple of weeks, it's time for Sukkot, one of the best holidays ever. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Thing I Love About Portland

There are, of course, many, many things I love about my city. It's beautiful and green and full of bike lanes and good coffee, beer, music, art, parks, libraries --I could go on and on. There are good reasons why people have relocated to Portland in droves.

But imagine this, if you will: twilight on a steep slope, tucked up against Portland's West Hills. Hundreds of people, young and old, families, couples, and babies with strollers, bikes, and dogs, all spread out on the grass. Many are having al fresco dinners ranging from gourmet feasts to cheap pizza. Everyone is chatting and laughing, kids are running around and rolling down an empty part of the slope. People squeeze in politely to place a blanket down and claim their tiny space before the show gets started. The sun sinks lower in the west and suddenly there's a buzz in the air as people start to exclaim "here they come!".
In parts of Portland on a late summer evening, you'd be expecting similar crowds for Shakespeare or the symphony, or perhaps some other type of live music. This is a show all right, but it's all about birds.

Tiny Vaux's Swifts roost by the thousands in a tall brick chimney which was formerly part of the heating system at Chapman Elementary School. During the month of September, the swifts arrive as part of their annual migration. The birds used to use cavities in old growth trees but apparently an old brick chimney is a workable modern day substitute because an astounding number of birds show up, year after year.

They begin coming in from all directions as the sun sets. The numbers aren't impressive initially and first-time visitors tend to wonder what all the fuss is about (and might be more firmly convinced that Portlanders are nuts). Before too long, however, the numbers increase dramatically and thousands of birds start to swirl around the chimney. Often a hungry raptor will show up for an easy meal but they must have been well fed this year because we saw no sign of any hawks. Sometimes the tiny swifts do manage to chase them off but last night it wasn't necessary.
Everyone's eyes are focused on the swirl of birds above the chimney when they all seem to receive some sort of signal and in they go, just like that. They just keep pouring in, hundreds at a time. Occasionally a few will pop back out, perhaps unable to find a space to settle on the first attempt. Before a few minutes have passed the sky will once again be clear as every one of the thousands of birds has tucked in together for the night, to keep warm and conserve strength for the long flight south.
As the last birds drop into the chimney, the humans watching the show began to clap and cheer. It's growing dark and already chilly, clearly not summer anymore but what a way to spend one of the year's last fine evenings.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

One More for the End of Summer

Years ago, we spent a year in rural Northern California. I was quite miserable there, for a variety of reasons, but a saving grace was the garden. California gardens and Oregon gardens are wildly different. Summer treasures that we coax along gently here in the Northwest grow like crazy down there. We had piles of peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes the likes of which I'd never be able to manage here in Portland. It wasn't just the climate, though that surely helped. The year we lived in California I had a toddler and a newborn and wasn't working, which is to say that I didn't have a paid job. We were miles from anywhere so we either went to town for the whole day or stayed put. Most often we stayed put. I had all the time in the world (in between constant nursing and diaper changes) to work in the garden and prepare meals. It was wonderful to be able to grow so much of our own food back then, but I never really adjusted to the garden's prolific output.

I found a recipe that made good use of all the tomatoes and eggplant: Midi Poche. The Bert Greene cookbook from which the recipe came years ago has mysteriously disappeared so I'm not even sure if I'm entirely faithful to the original but even in its evolution it's become a late summer requirement around here. Sadly, my own eggplants were tiny, woody specimens so the farmers market had to provide for us. The tomatoes, however, were my own.Midi Poche is an eggplant and rice casserole with Provencal flavors. The sauce is what makes the dish really distinctive: bright tomato flavors mix with a hint of allspice to make an unusual (and very tasty) sauce. It will take some time to make as the eggplant needs to be salted, drained and sauteed before layering with the rice and the sauce, but the baking time is short and it's truly worth the effort. Go out and grab a few eggplant while they're still around and give this dish a try. The recipe is here. Oh, and I redecorated a bit. I was hoping to make the text easier to read. Any better?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Goofing Around

See? See how tall he is? He grows and inch a day, I swear. I'm going to have to start some sort of investment fund just to keep his ankles covered this winter as he outgrows his pants mere minutes after I buy them!The Dark Lord and I had so much fun being silly in front of the bathroom mirror that the whole lot of them showed up. Sometimes we're grumpy and cranky around here, but sometimes it's just goofiness and I'm glad for that.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Depth of Field

So I've had this fancy new camera for months now. It has an awful lot of buttons and settings and those that weren't immediately clear to me have only been explored in the most haphazard fashion. I can do super closeups, and lots of good basic shots, but I was looking for the ability to have the foreground in sharp focus while blurring the background.

I learned there's a term called depth of field . Wikipedia gives mountains of information on the subject, not to mention mathematical formulas which make me twitch. Apparently I have a lot to learn as the term depth of field sounds more fitting to my ear as the title of a volume of poetry. But I've figured out the combination of buttons and numbers that allows me to take photos like this:
I love how the background recedes allowing the main image to take center stage.

I've been having the best time playing around with the camera this weekend. Some of my favorite shots taken in my yard and at the farmers market:
Note the green bee on the sunflower below. I started seeing them for the first time this summer and no one believed me for weeks . Now I have proof!

Friday, September 14, 2007


We've had two days of Rosh Hashana dinners, potlucks, and good food galore. And somehow I managed to come home with leftover apple challah. It was delicious but there was so much food at our friends' house that there was no way we could eat it all. With about a quarter of the whole giant loaf left, I figured it was destined for bread pudding greatness once I got around to cooking again.

We have a friend who says we eat more bread pudding than anyone he's ever known. But here's the thing--most Friday nights, at least when things are relatively calm, we have homemade challah with our Shabbat dinner. Admittedly, sometimes things get crazy and storebought is the only option, but we've never found anything that comes close to homemade in flavor or texture. We never eat all the challah and you'd think maybe we'd just make less each week, but two loaves are traditional and that's what we make. Leftovers are either made into French toast guessed it....bread pudding. So that's why you're getting my second bread pudding recipe in this here blog.

I actually made meat for tonight's dinner, which happens only a few times a year. My grandmother's famous beef brisket cooks for hours and hours in a sauce of deeply browned onions and stewed tomato until it becomes so tender that chewing is really just optional. The kids will hoover it down and sleep well, guaranteed.

Jewish dietary law forbids the mixing of meat and milk in the same meal and this is the sad truth of my mostly-vegetarian diet: I'd much rather forgo flesh than butter in my desserts and cream in my coffee. That's why I dithered around all day trying to decide on tonight's dessert. Without the option of butter, I feel cruelly limited. I keep a few sticks of non-hydrogenated nondairy margarine in my freezer for our rare meat meals, and it will do hidden in brownies, but I sure don't want to taste the stuff. Eventually my tired brain returned to the bread pudding option.

Bread pudding can easily be made without dairy with the use of almost-foods like rice milk but I thought it would be a little dull without at least a splash of cream. I wanted some kind of something extra and eventually I hit on butterscotch sauce. I took down a simple, dairy free sauce after a Google search and now I am embarrassed to say that I can't find it again to give credit for the recipe. But since I added a slug of dark Indian rum, can't I now just call it my own?It came out much better than I expected. The apples in the challah made the pudding nice and moist and the butterscotch sauce added just the perfect touch. Most people don't have apple challah on hand--ours normally disappears quickly. I'm thinking one could achieve something similar using regular challah and a couple of chopped tart apples that have been sauteed in butter(margarine if necessary) for a few minutes with a hefty dash of cinnamon. If you give this option a try, do drop me a line and let me know how it turns out. The recipe is here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

L'Shanah Tovah

As the sun goes down tonight, Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world. What better time than September to celebrate new beginnings? Maybe it's because I've never really left the academic world, but this time of year feels ripe with change in a way that I've never felt at midwinter. I'm not one for new year's resolutions made in the dark of December, but the sunny days of late summer and early autumn have always seemed the perfect time to reflect on the previous year and reexamine where I want to concentrate my focus.

Since last Rosh Hashsana, I've gone through a lot. There's been strife and loss and really difficult choices. I've tried to act honorably and had my generosity returned with cold silence and that still hurts. Dear friends have left and more will be gone in the first weeks of the new year. They're not gone for good, but they leave empty spaces in our lives. I've been run ragged trying to meet all the commitments that marriage, family, work, parenting, and volunteering encompass. I've struggled with an illness that came out of nowhere and really messed me up for a time. And I've run up against the reality of my limitations in ways I'd never imagined possible. I've always known that sometimes the right choices are the hardest but I've never felt it like I have this year.

Despite all the challenges of the last year, I've also had the tremendous pleasure of watching my firstborn read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. I still get teary when I think of the love and pride that overwhelmed me that day. Watching him take himself out into the wider world as he begins high school fills me with pride at his courage and sure sense of himself. I've watched as my younger son has learned to control his tempestuous emotions and worked to manage his peculiar challenges. Through this process he has matured and grown stronger in ways that warm my heart. My youngest has fairly exploded with curiosity and learning in the last year and I am repeatedly stunned by her ability to make connections and explore the world.

We use a lot of imagery this time of year that talks about missing the mark and I love that because it assumes, first of all, that we have a target and that, I suppose, is the first step in making sense of how we will spend our days. I tend to make the same promises to myself year after year about seeing my kids for who they are today and not getting too wound up about who they'll be later, about cultivating patience, about listening. I always miss the mark, guaranteed. Or, to be honest, I just forget about it altogether.

So how lovely it is that we get an opportunity each year for a fresh start, like hitting a reset button. I find these holidays to be challenging, but also very rewarding. Writing this post has taken many attempts as there's just so much whirling through my brain right now. What I know, deep down and with perfect clarity, is that I crave that promise of renewal his year like no other.

So let it be that all who are seeking it find a new beginning and a sweet year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Apple Challah

Hi! Remember me? Given my absence from the food blog, you might think we haven't eaten in two weeks or that we've somehow managed to eat out every day. Neither is true. We're eating well enough but they've been old summer standbys, pastas and salads mostly--nothing exciting to write about. Yes, we all love summer's bounty and tomatoes and zucchini have been our constant companions. But just when it seems slightly dull, along comes yet another Jewish holiday, complete with lots of traditional foods.

Most of us get our traditional holiday foods through family and I do have a few of those though none are really strongly connected with holidays. I'll make my grandmother's brisket now and again but not for any particular occasion (though she would often make it for Rosh Hashanah). But my sheaf of go-to holiday recipes comes from another source altogether. Through the magic of the internet and, more specifically, a mailing list I've been a member of for 10 years, I've amassed a wonderful collection of recipes for all the Jewish holidays. When I start leafing through the smudgy pages, I'm always delighted when I realize I'm not doing so alone. There's a lovely group of women around the world who are making some of the very same dishes, year after year.

One of the best of these is apple challah, which is now essential at our Rosh Hashanah meals. Foods that are round and sweet are traditional for ushering the new year and this challah fits the bill perfectly. Because I am a bum, I make the dough in my bread machine. It took me a few tries to find the best method of baking and I've finally settled on a large, well oiled angel food cake pan which allows the dough to rise to impressive heights and pretty well eliminates sticking. You'll find the recipe here, along with my comments and suggestions.

We'll bring this challah tomorrow night when we have dinner with friends. We'll likely have it again in a few weeks when the sukkah goes up, but more on that later. L'shanah tovah (a good year) to all those who are celebrating this week and, for those of you who aren't, do give it a try anyway as apple season is certainly worthy of celebration.

Monday, September 10, 2007

When it works…..

The Dark Lord stumbled out the door bright and early for his another day of hell high school, leaving the house quiet until the other two woke up, which is happening earlier and earlier these days.

After big bowls of oatmeal, we got down to the day’s schooling which went remarkably smoothly, enough so that I wanted to take note of it.

Last year we dropped a ton of money on a big set of Zome which the boys have built with on and off. I also purchased a set of lesson plans to help me use them to the fullest for teaching math, science, art but because we'd enrolled in the Evil Charter School last year, I never got around to exploring the lessons. Given the hands on, multidisciplinary aspect of Zome I figured it might be perfect for MonkeyBoy this year and we started today with lesson one. We watched an introductory BrainPop movie on polygons and then got to work building shapes. We worked in a lot of new math terms and some Latin roots though I still don't understand why don't say quadragon. I loved that my 5 year old and my 12 year old were equally engaged, each exploring at his/her own speed.

Eventually we moved on to this week's Five in a Row book. I've long been intrigued with the Five in a Row model. The title refers to reading a classic picture book five days in a row and focusing each day on a different subject: art, literature, math, science, or social studies. The reading list includes books we already know and love along with titles that are new to us. Our first book was a total bust despite my assurances that it was one of my favorites as a kid. The Princess simply refused to hear it more than once. The next two books went over better and this week's book was lovely and engaging, even if it did require us to talk about slavery. Both kids listened as I read, admired the pictures and asked questions. So there they were for nearly two hours, completely engaged. It was like a homeschooling parent's dream!

Tonight we watched yet another great documentary. MonkeyBoy has his academic challenges but he will watch just about any movie we bring home. Not only has he seen far more documentaries that your average 12 year old, he's really learning things from them and his inevitable questions nearly always lead to great discussions. He's well versed on the problems of credit cards, the climate crisis, and the electric car, all due to recently watched documentaries. Tonight we watched Promises, a wonderful film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of kids from both sides. It was very well done and if you decide to watch it, make sure to watch the follow up material on the DVD.

The Dark Lord was gone all day and then had to spend the evening on homework so I haven't seen a whole lot of him. The whole schedule thing is still very challenging and he's currently not very thrilled about school. I still have no idea if this experiment is for the best but I do know that I miss having him around while we learn.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


The above called out to me from the recycling basket this morning and it kind of says it all. Many thanks to the folks at Willamette Week for putting words in my mouth.

So far, I am not impressed with high school. They've changed schedules on the kids enough times that The Dark Lord has already missed two classes simply because he can't figure out where he is supposed be.

There are no textbooks so far. None. Freshman don't get textbooks when everyone else does so there's been a whole lot of nothing going on in his classes so far. In fact, according to The Dark Lord, he hasn't even learned anything yet and it's been three days already. Hmmmmm......

No lockers. None. The kids have to drag everything around with them all day long. It's just as well he didn't get into the guitar class. Since they do alternating days of block scheduling, they only have to carry 4 classes worth of stuff around but how long will it be before days get mixed up and the wrong books are stuffed in the backpack? Oh wait, I forgot, they don't have books.

They need hall passes to pee. Hall passes. Because of block scheduling, classes are 90 minutes long which I think is great. But a kid is only allowed to pee during class times 5 times a semester after which their grade is affected. Of course they can earn extra points by not using their hall passes. Hmmm...grades or urinary tract infection?

And the real winner: every day everyone is required to read silently for 20 minutes. From freshman to senior, teachers to principal, they all stop what they are doing and read.

According to the guidance counselor:
All students in every class, every day do silent reading from 1:00-1:20. This is an all school policy to encourage and promote reading. It is not for homework time. Teachers are also reading at this time.

Our house is an obstacle course of books, so it's not like I am anti-reading. But we took care of that skill when he was five. Even as lackadaisical homeschoolers, we made sure he could read and he does so given the slightest opportunity.

He can lie around on his bed at home and read. In his pajamas. I can understand silent reading time in elementary school when the skills are still kind of shaky, but in high school? Oy.

And here's the part that worries me: The Dark Lord himself is laughing it all off. Both as a teacher and a parent, I am appalled at the amount of wasted time I'm hearing about but he's shrugging, rolling his eyes, and wandering read!

Nothing for me to do but head down into my craft cave and whip up a quick tote bag for a friend's birthday. You just can't be grumpy working with fabrics covered in marigolds and Day of the Dead calaveras, now can you?

One more gripe: stupid Blogger is having a font freak out so if things look weird, well, they are!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

La Radiolina

The Spouse and I got up early with The Dark Lord for his first day of school. I made apple-cinnamon oatmeal and packed his lunch kit full of healthy foods. And then he left.

The other kids were blissfully sleeping so I had the experience of a quiet house. I was feeling quite blue until I remembered there was another reason today was special. How did Manu Chao know I would need his new album today? Such timing!

I briefly considered buying La Radiolina from iTunes but the liner notes in his CDs are always such fun so I made a point of buying the real CD in the real world. And I am enjoying it thoroughly. One thing I've always loved is that he's not afraid to revisit prior songs and recycle and reinvent so things can sound familiar yet fresh and exciting. The first listen has been great, like listening to new stories from an old friend. I hadn't expected to like it as much as earlier albums as I knew he was going for a heavier, guitar-focused sound this time around but I am loving it. Go listen here and see what you think.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Back to School

OK, it isn't really back to school because The Dark Lord hasn't been in a schoolroom since pre-school. When he finished up there, we tried getting him into a charter school kindergarten which fell apart. We decided then that we would homeschool him for kindergarten because we really didn't feel that he would thrive in a busy classroom all day long. He's always been a kid with the ability to focus deeply when he's interested and the need for lots of solitude. Being around too many people for too long and being required to switch from one task to another seemed to stress him out, so we saw no reason to push him into that kind of environment so early.

Our first year of homeschooling grew into many years. MonkeyBoy joined in as well. Over the years, both boys learned to read in completely different ways. They've explored topics in depth, tried out everything from fencing to yoga, worked at home and in lots of different groups, and have read hundreds of books. They've written stories, made movies, built bridges, dissected owl pellets, taken field trips, acted in Shakespeare plays, and had endless hours to dream and imagine and

But then one day last spring, The Dark Lord mentioned that he might like to give school a try. We set up a visit and off he went to see what high school was all about. He came home not exactly eager, but definitely willing to give it a try. This month we've turned in forms and worked on replenishing the wardrobe. We've bought binders and lunch kits and a fancy new backpack and all of this business has kept me from focusing on the real issue, which is that my child will be leaving our home and spending much of his day out there, in the land of TV and pop culture and drugs and promiscuity and fundamentalist Christians and racists and gangs and cheerleaders and all the things we've tried to keep him from. He's strong and he knows who he is and what's right and wrong and I am confident that he will make good choices, but I just can't begin to imagine what he will make of this experience.

It's a good enough school. We're outside the city's big school district and don't have to participate in the competitive struggle to get our kids into the best school. There's one high school in the district and all the kids have the same opportunities. The classes range from remedial to honors (and my homeschooling mama self is proud that the boy's writing was good enough that he was accepted into those honors classes). The school's population is diverse which, admittedly, can't be said of our city's homeschooling community which is mostly white and mostly at least middle class. The arts program surprised me in its variety--I thought they didn't have money for arts in public schools anymore.

So our whole family is just.....waiting. We all seem to understand that this is huge, for all of us. I will actually welcome the chance to pay more attention to his siblings who will continue to learn at home, but I am having a hard time getting used to the idea that he'll be missing from our home for hours and hours every week.