Thursday, May 31, 2007

Summer Projects

We first saw our house on a house hunting trip last year. Our realtor understood that this was the house we were going to buy. As we drove away, discussing the information that we needed to find out before making an offer (restrictive covenants, etc.), Bruce said: "Of course, we'll have to replace the carpet."

My observant engineer--I had not even noticed the color of the carpet, being enamored by two (count 'em) pantries and a second master suite. I certainly did not notice that the sculpted Berber was worn in the hallways and fraying at the seams. Only 4 years old, it was definitely well used.

And the color was realtor neutral--very blah. But last year, we had bigger fish to fry. We needed to paint before we moved in. We had work to do to sell the old house, and we bought furniture. My very first--and probably last--good, matched furniture. So the carpet had to wait.

Not that I let it go. I showed Bruce the regular updates I got from Lumber Liquidators. I dreamed over flooring options on our many trips to Lowes and Home Depot. I got samples of wood flooring to show my mom when she came out for the Bar Mitzvah.

But I expected we'd be waiting another year or so.

When I was cleaning for Pesach, I accidently caught some unraveling carpet in the vacuum, making the hall look more rag-tag than before.

But last week I showed Bruce the latest sales flyers about flooring. And he said, "I suppose we ought to take care of this before the hallway carpet completely unravels." My astute husband! He noticed. "And before the prices go up due to cost of gas." My financial wizard! "Anyway, it will bring up the value of the house." My fine investor--as long as he doesn't want to sell this house!

So last Friday we went to Lumber Liquidators. There we saw some Brazilian Cherry that we really liked. And we shopped at FloorMart. Just to compare. There we also found a great sale on carpet and I brought home some samples. But we also learned that the cost of installation on the hardwood flooring would cost more than the materials cost per square foot. Ouch! I could see my dream of hardwood fading before my eyes.

When we woke up on Saturday morning, my intrepid mate said, "Last night I dreamed that we installed the flooring ourselves." And I said, "Funny, so did I." It was basheart*! Obviously, we are meant to do this. So on Sunday, we got out the house plans and did some calculating. We decided that we will have the master bedroom suite and the guest suite recarpeted. And we will put in the hardwood flooring--Brazilian Cherry--in the rest of the house. We are DIY people anyway. We painted our house ourselves, we put in the faux hardwood flooring in my son's room and the office of the old house, we have done landscaping and we have put in a bathtub.

Today, the carpet man came to measure the two rooms that will get carpet.

It is funny how that worked out. At FloorMart, I picked up a sample of carpet and said to Bruce, "This will not look as dark in our house." It was a sample of Stainmaster Manic series called Desert Pebble. I brought it home with two other samples, both lighter. On Monday, when we scheduled the measure, I took the other two back and came home with three that were darker. But it was Desert Pebble all along! It is a frieze, that has a very light pinkish-tan base with yarns of green and brown mixed in to give it texture.

Tomorrow, we pick up the wood. Putting that in is going to be a job! It is Bella wood, which is not engineered. That means we put it in plank by plank. But in this house we do not have any curved walls to deal with, as we did in the old house. (Picture from Lumber Liquidators page).

This weekend, I must finish my stonescaped steps out on the hill. Because the wood has to sit here for a week before we can begin. I expect we'll be very busy throughout the month of June!
Hurrah for sweat equity! I will have beautiful floors at less than half the cost. The sale price on the wood was incredible. And by installing it ourselves, we'll have lots of "togetherness."
It's gonna be fun!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hanging Out in Bed

One of our errands yesterday was to pick up a Site-to-Store order for N. at Walmart.

N.'s bedroom, though cozy, was a little too dark with the blue curtains and valences we had gotten last year. Also, his comforter was a little small for the bed and was getting rather raggedy because during the cold weather, N. liked to show up to breakfast draped in it, with Lily pulling on the corner like a page!

We couldn't find a comforter set we liked locally, but we found one on line and had it shipped for free to a local store. So we picked it up yesterday and found curtains that complimented it at the store.

The curtains are khaki material--called Navy/Vanilla--with smaller red, gold and khaki stripes. They are brighter than the plain light blue curtains, and they are tab top, so there is no need for valences. This brightens up the room considerably. N. says that they look more "rugged" and "masculine," than the gathered curtains and valences did. Maybe he has career in interior design ahead of him, should he ever get tired of naturalist and tracking vocations.

The comforter is the same material, and I ordered a Full/Queen, which is bigger than a Full size, so that it can be tucked in under the mattress. This keeps it on at night and also N. likes the tight wrapped feeling. It has the red, blue and khaki colors that are in the curtains.

N. and Lily are still hanging out in bed this morning, enjoying the new comforter.

N. says: "It's very comfortable! I guess that's why it's called a comforter.

He also learned that our friend Megan in Australia and her Boy call it a "Doona."

I think we're in for a laid-back day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Progress Not Perfection! Carnival of Homeschooling and Our Stonescape Project

The work goes slowly but surely!

On Sunday, I got myself a little dehydrated while I was working on the steps in the afternoon. I didn't realize it until I almost fainted getting out of the shower.

NOTE TO SELF: Always take a large container of water outside to the worksite!

I tend to get absorbed in what I am doing and do not think to go in to get a drink. It has been somewhat humid--relative to the usual climate here--and so I did not feel very thirsty. It was obvious, though, after drinking several glasses of water after my shower that I was very thirsty!

Even so, I got three steps done on Sunday afternoon.

Yesterday, I was trying to figure out what is going on with e-mail--certain messages are not coming through. We had some errands to do, also, so I did not end up working on the steps. Today, an appointment and more errands, so I am guessing I will not get back to the work until tomorrow.

When I get back from the appointment, I have some inside work to do. And then some pleasure!

The Carnival of Homeschooling Alaska edition is up over at About Homeschooling. There are a number of good articles there, so I will be spending some time over there in the next few days. The pictures of a trip to Alaska alone is worth the trip--how very different from our New Mexico surroundings! But I always enjoy finding new blogs to visit at the Carnival.

I know there was a problem with COH in that some posts were not accepted and one was delted due to an overzealous host/editor. However, that problem has been resolved and a certain blog hosting site is no longer hosting COH, so the content will continue to be more diverse. So I have no problem recommending the COH again--although I refrained for a few weeks. This edition of COH is very balanced and diverse. Sometimes progress is made in fits and starts, just like my Three Hundred Million Year Stonescape project!

Being impatient by nature, I have to remind myself frequently that patience is sometimes rewarded! My motton for a long time has been:

"It is not up to us to complete the task but neither are we free to desist from it."
R. Tarphon in Pirke Avot 2:21.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The 300 Million Year Stonescape Garden: The Beginning

Today we began an important project. It is actually my project in that I will be doing most of the work for it. But this morning I needed some help getting started.

This is the hillside on the southwest side of our house--beyond the side garden.
It is pretty barren and has a steep slope. After watching arroyo downcutting happen on it last summer during the record monsoon rains, I decided that there ought to be no more delay in taking care of this problem. So last week I checked out five different books from the library about stonescaping. the idea is to build steps across the hillside and make a terraced garden on the slope in order to stop erosion. I am using rocks taken from our land. The Sandia Mountains are topped by Pennsylvanian limestone and there is plenty of this float on our hillsides. When I explained to N. that the stone we are going to use for our project is about 300 million years old, he thought that was pretty cool.
So we are now calling this the 300 Million Year Stonescape Garden. Pretty catchy, eh?

N. was eager to get right out there and begin moving big rocks around, proving his strength and manliness.

But before we could do that, we had some measuring to do. In order to determine the rise on the steps, we needed to know the slope of the hillside. To do that, we used a laser level laid on the ground on the top of the slope. I leveled it and pointed the laser at a plank that Bruce and N. were holding at the bottom of the slope.

The "rise" on the slope was 5 feet and three inches.
N. told us this was the same as 63". He divided 12 into sixty and then just added the three. All that mental math in Saxon is paying off!

Then it was time to measure the "run." N., being quite literal was ready to run up the hill. Bruce explained the run is actually the distance from the bottom of the slope to the top of the slope in a straight line. So N. did run up the slope, with the end of the tape measure in his hand. He held it straight above the laser while Bruce held it at the height of the laser mark on the plank at the bottom.

Here is N. just before lowering the tape measure so that it was even with the laser level.

The run turned out to measure in at 18 feet. N. told us that it was the same as 216". He said: "I even checked it on the calculator, Mom!" He was right.

So then I said: "Hey, N., we need to calculate the slope or percent grade of the hill. You do that by taking the rise over the run. He punched that out on the calculator:
"Let's see. 5.25 feet divided by 18 feet. That would be 0.291666 feet over...feet?"
So we showed how the problem looks by writing it out on the board.

"If you divide something by itself, what does it equal?" I asked him.
"One." N. answered.
"So if you divide feet by feet, then that equals one, too." Bruce said. "They cancel out. We can round off the 0.29 and change to O.3."
"Change?" N. asked in true Aspergian fashion. "Are we talking about money?"
"Figure of speech!" I said. "Bruce means all the numbers after the nine in your answer."
So N. rounded and we showed him how to multiply the slope of 0.3 in order to get a 30% grade for our slope. Pretty steep.

N. decided he was done with math for a while. He took the wheelbarrow off to get big flat rocks.

In the meantime, I calculated the number of steps we'd need if the riser is about 5" and there are about 18" between steps. The number is about 12 steps.

But N. was game for measuring for the cut and fill of the first step.

Since the steps are going to be far apart--more like a rising stepping stone path, and because they will be wide enough for one person, we used a garden trowel to begin the cut and fill.

We found that the soil on the hill was very loose and sandy and yet full of very friable (crumbly) shale that is native to the location, as well as small stones from the gravel in the side garden above, that were brought in by the previous owners of the house.

Of course, as I began the work of cut and full and placing the limestone "fieldstone" steps in earnest, N. got distracted by the sound of tree frogs peeping in the nearby woods. After helping lay the first stones, he was soon disappeared to investigate the frogs. And that was fine by me. The laying of the stones on a narrow path (about 18" wide) is really a one-woman job. And he did give about an hour and a half to the project on a sunny day.

Anyway, he learned a lot! he learned:
  • that the Pennsylvanian limestone that caps the Sandia fault block is more than 300 million years old.
  • that the notation for that is 3.0 exp 8 years b.p. (3.0 times ten to the eigth years before present)
  • to tell the difference between country rock and rock brought in
  • to tell the difference between limestone and shale
  • that the definition of friable rock is "crumbly" rock
  • that the definition of slope is rise over run
  • how to cancel out units in setting up a scientific calculation
  • that math can be really useful for accomplishing a worthwhile goal

And he was just helping for a "little while."

This is unschooling at its best!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Shabbat Walk in the High Meadow

We have been so very busy lately!

Because we had a major holy day this week, we packed a lot project planning and shopping into Friday afternoon.

We have three major projects planned for the summer. We are going to purchase and install--yes, we will install--hardwood floors in the dining room, hallways, living room and the offices. We are going purchase and have carpet installed in the two master suites. And I am planning a rock slope and steps for the hill at the edge of the side garden.

Today it was nice to take a Shabbat walk in the high meadow south of our house. This meadow will eventually be developed and we are hoping to buy a lot on its edge. In the meantime, it has such a beautiful view of the Sandia Mountain Fault Thrust.

Looking to the north, we can look down at our house--ours is the green roof that has the Ponderosa Pine growing in front of it. Our elevation (about 7300 feet) is the higher part of the Pinyon Juniper Woodland ecological zone. Since it is close to the ecotone (transition) with the higher Ponderosa Pine ecological zone, a few Poderosas tower about the rest of the trees. We have a living laboratory here for learning about the ecological zones and how they change with elevation from High Desert Shortgrass Prairie (in Albuquerque) all the way through to the Spruce-Fir Woodland at the top of the Sandias. At a little over 2 miles in elevation, at our latitude, the Sandias are not quite high enough to have an Alpine Tundra zone.

This year, the wildflowers are coming out early, and are quite spectacular.

We took a nice picture of some Indian Paintbrush--a flower we usually see blooming later in the summer when the monsoon rains come in.

There are a lot of purple peaflowers and purple "pinks" growing the meadows around here, too. We can see the sunflowers coming up, but they won't be blooming for a while. N. was interested to learn that New Mexico has its very own sunflower, Helianthus neomexicanus, that blooms along our roadsides in mid-to-late summer.

I know I have said this a great many times, but look at how green our meadow is! We are just thrilled with the rains we have gotten here in central New Mexico this spring! It is so green that we actually got chlorophyll stains on our shoes and jeans! The fire danger is only moderate this year. Last year at this time it was extreme!

Zoey and Lily had a great time sniffing among the gopher holes in the meadow. No gophers in sight, though. They are smart enough to stay inside when they hear us walking the dogs above!

It's with great gratitude that we took a peaceful Shabbat walk on the meadow this morning.
Tonight, Bruce is the co-host for the first of the summer Star Parties at Oak Flat Picnic Ground further south in the Sandias. He is loading his telescope in the truck as we speak.

Tomorrow it's back to project planning and prep! I am hoping to get the slope on the small hill in the side garden. Bruce will be working on getting his garage workshop ready for hardwood floor project. He will also be determining the area to be floored and the number of boxes of Brazilian Cherry we'll need. N. will have a great opportunity to put his math into practice with both of us!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Unschooling Shavuot: A Lesson Plan in Experiential Learning

Often we think of cooking as a lesson plan only for the little ones. Food and dining, however, are very important experiential elements for human social intercourse and for the transfer of cultural memes from one generation to another.

Brain research has shown that people learn best when they are physically and emotionally comfortable. The sensory experiences involved in cooking and eating provide all of us, young and old alike, with these experiences. In all of our human traditions, we know this. When we want to teach something important, when we want to celebrate or commemorate something, we generally include food.

For our learning about Shavuot, we included a lesson on the preparation of the Erev Shavuot feast. N. and I planned the menu and researched the recipes. Our primary source was The Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan.

Those of you who cook a lot know that a good cookbook does more than list ingredients and give step-by-step instructions. Joan Nathan's book is a wonderful source for learning about the culinary customs for Jewish holidays and how they are derived from the religious imagination and practices of Jews over time. The practices of Judaism are derived from many different cultures that our people have lived in, giving us a rich background of experience to learn from. On Tuesday afternoon, N. was responsible for making Blintzes--a crepe wrapped around a cheese or fruit filling and baked or fried. It is a popular dish for the holiday of Shavuot--the Feast of Weeks.

When N. read the recipe aloud, we learned that Blintzes are derived from the Russian recipe for Blini, which are made from a risen bread dough. Blintzes, however, are made from crepes, so they are faster to make because you do not have to wait for the dough to rise.

The first step for Blintzes is to make the crepes. N. learned that crepes are small, thin pancakes that have more egg than flour. Since we chose to use the Grossinger's recipe, N. also learned about the Jewish kosher resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. These were originally founded to give Jews a place to get out of the city and have fresh air and abundant food. Many hotels, clubs and resorts on the east coast excluded Jews in the bad old days. History becomes a part of every Jewish cooking lesson!

In order to make crepes that really thin and light, so that they can be rolled up around the cheese filling in Grossinger's Blintzes, you have to beat the eggs well and then mix them into the other ingredients (milk, salt, flour and oil).
It is important to thouroughly beat the fat of the egg yolk into the protein of the whites. It is the protein that gives the crepes structure and the fat (and air mixed in by beating) that makes them light. A little salt brings out the other flavors in a baked dish.

Gaining an understanding of the physics and chemistry of food is important to successful cooking!

We fried the crepes on one side only in a small frying pan, and stacked them browned side up on a plate. We made a cheese filling from farmer's cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla.

Farmer's cheese is made without rennet (derived from the lining of a cow's stomach) that makes a cheese hard. Rennet would make a cheese unkosher and Jews cannot use hard cheeses made with it. Farmer's cheese is also commonly made in the spring, during calving season, when milk is plentiful. So it is perfect for Shavuot, which celebrates the waxing moon of early summer. Amazing what you learn from a cookbook!

Finally, we rolled a heaping tablespoon of the cheese onto the browned side of the crepe, and placed the newly-made blintz into a greased pan for baking. We baked them in a hot oven (425 F) until they were browned on the outside--about 15 minutes. MMMM! We wanted to eat right away!
But there was much more to do complete the feast!

When MLC came home from class, she decided to make a greens salad with strawberries and apples. N. said: "Strawberries and apples? In a vegetable salad?" MLC told him that since Shavuot is Chag haBikkurim, the holiday of first fruits, it makes sense to use spring fruits at the meal. She also told him that many people use fruits in salads. We discussed Waldorf salads, French country salads and other innovative salad recipes that use fruits.

I mentioned that I had read that one reason that Shavuot is the least celebrated Jewish holiday in North America is because we have not found a way to incorporate the celebration of the first fruits harvest in a meaningful home-based ritual.

MLC decided that she would even added some blueberries since I had gotten some for topping the blintzes. These salads are good with either a blush wine vinegarette or blue cheese dressings.

In the meantime, N. and I prepared some Wolfie's Borscht. As we made it we learned that Wolfies is a famous Jewish Deli in New York. We also learned that although Borscht is parve (neither milk nor meat) by itself, it is usually served cold with with sour cream as part of a milchlig (dairy) meal.

Here is our beautiful borscht served as the first course of our holiday meal. Egg is added to the beet base, and it is garnished with a dollop of sour cream topped by fresh dill.
Bruce insisted that we add boiled potatoes as that is how his grandmother Fanny made her Borscht! Tradition! Tradition!

The holy day candles have been lit, the wine for kiddush (sanctification of the day) is poured, and the table is decorated with greens (chive flowers) from our own garden.

During the soup and salad courses, we discussed Torah, Mishnah and Gemara portions related to the commandment to bring first fruits to the temple and to be happy at Shavuot. Our study was based on Deuteronomy 26: 10 - 11, and the study questions were taken from Torah & Company by Rabbi Judith Abrams. (Teen Tested. Teen Approved!).

But of course, everyone was waiting for the main course.

Poached salmon with lemon pepper and fresh dill.

And blintzes with sour cream and fresh fruit!

Ah! Now that's experiential learning!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Making an A-S-S Out of U and M-E

The plot thickens.

And I don't mean the plot where the weeds are growing thicker by the day, either.
Although that plot is thickening, too. More rain is on the menu today.

No. I am talking about the Great American N.'s Jewish Education Controversy.
For those who do not want to go plowing through my archives, the short version is that the teaching methodology in N.'s 7th grade religious class at our synagogue was inappropriate. Frustration was mounting. Attempts to communicate with the teacher were ineffective. I made other plans and I took him out in order to use a variety of sources and methods in a number of places to "unschool" N.'s Jewish education. I have have attended meetings, met with the rabbi and met with an education sub-committee. (For the full story follow the two links above sequentially).

The point being that I have withdrawn N. from the Machon (religious education) program.
Tonight I got a progress report for N. from the teacher. You know, the teacher of the program that N. no longer atttends. The one who could not possibly make any accomodations for him.

In the comments section it said in part:

" It is unfortunate that (N.) was unable to take advantage of the Machon experience and live up to the Brit* (contract) of his Bar Mitzvah. Hopefully there will be a method by which (N.) will be able to be be part of the Machon experience through Confirmation. I have no doubt that (N.) will very much enjoy learning about Torah (the Jewish canon) and Mishnah (part of the Talmud)..." (Parenthetical statements mine).

(*The agreement that N. signed was that he would observe Shabbat, Holy Days and Life Cycle events, continue to study Torah and participate in the life of the community and engage himself in the holy task of Tikkun Olam--Repair of the World.)

As homeschoolers and unschoolers, gentle readers, no doubt you recognize the incredible depth of assumption made in a very short bit of writing! Most likely, you have also developed the sensitivity to see it yourself having been the target of such assumptions in other contexts related to your homeschooler's education.

But bear with me, please. It is very therapeutic for me to dissect this out for myself and thus have a good laugh instead of going to bed angry--G-d forbid!
Teacher comments in teacher red and my (wishful) responses in good old-fashioned black.

Warning: The "Nice Gene" on my X chromosome has an inexplicable point mutation tonight.

1. "It is unfortunate..." --From the passive voice used here one might think that it was an act of G-d rather than a pedagogical decision that you made that there is only one way to reach a kid and if you don't, well, it must be his fault. This has "evasion of personal responsibility for your teaching" written all over it.

2. "...N. was unable to take advantage of the Machon experience..." --You mean that you were unwilling to make any accomodations for N.'s disabilities and thus there was no advantage to him being in your class.

3. "... live up to the Brit of his Bar Mitzvah." --Of course, NOW I GET IT! You are the only person in the only program that can possibly teach N. Judaism. Experiential learning, informal learning, the use of innovative texts and programs, the fact that I am quite conversant with Hebrew language, Aramaic, and Judaica count for nothing without exposure to your "Mavenship". Neither does the learning and understanding of other teachers, one of whom has rabbinical ordination and who speaks Yiddish as well! How, well, totally IGNORANT of me, to think I could (gasp!) teach my own child. And to think that N. might really learn something through the actual practice of Judaism! And to think those benighted Chasids might actually know something. What was I thinking? My mistakes in this regard are too numerous to count! S'licha. So sue me.
Or maybe I should sue you? I'm the one who's out the $500 tuition.

4. "Hopefully there will be a method..." --You do mean "I hope there will be a method" don't you? I mean, you are an English teacher for your day job, aren't you? Grammar aside, there are a lot of methods. You refused to use any of them. And the future tense is entirely out of place in this statement. N. has not stopped learning Judaism just because he has stopped attending your class.

5. "I have no doubt that N. will very much enjoy learning about Torah and Mishnah..."
--Ditto the last two sentences above.

Incredible assumptions. Only one assumption is missing. This teacher does not assume responsibility for his failure to meet different learning styles in order to reach all his students.

Sound familiar?

You know what they say about making assumptions: It makes an A-S-S out of U and M-E.

I've had my laugh. Tomorrow I will post some great pictures of N. not learning about Shavuot.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shavuot: First Fruits in Early Summer

Last night I dreamed that I wandered in the mountains in the fog. I was looking for something. Something important. And then I heard a shofar blowing and oriented myself to the sound. Suddenly, I was sitting at a stone chamber in a round tower with a chasidic rebbe, Hillel, and Akiba. Spread before us was a Torah scroll completely unrolled, encircling the chamber. The scroll was open to my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion, which began:

...וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל־לְךָ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִֽאשֹׁנִ
"And Adonai spoke to Moshe, saying: Carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones..." (Exodus 34:1).
When I woke up, I realized that tonight is the beginning of the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, known to the Koine Greek speaking Jews of old as Pentecost (the 50 days). It occurs 50 days after the Passover Seder, thus the the Greek name. Dreams are interesting! My Torah portion contains Exodus chapter 34, which also has the commandments for celebrating the pilgrimage festivals:
"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the festival of the Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males shall appear before Adonai who is sovereign...the choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of Adonai your G-d. You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Exodus 34: 22-23, 26).

Shavuot is the second of the shaloshim regalim--three Pilgrimage Festivals--described in Torah. The three are Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Passover, Weeks, and Booths). Each of these festivals has agricultural roots overlaid with religious meaning. In the land of Israel, in the day of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers were commanded to make pilgrimage to the Temple three times during the year, bringing specific sacrifices, hence the name "pilgrimage festivals."

Shavuot occurs at the first quarter (waxing moon) of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the first month of summer. It celebrates the ancient harvest of the first fruits of summer and is called Chag HaBikkurim, the holiday of Fruits. The timing of the harvest festival is interesting. Both Pesach and Sukkot occur at the full moon, the first full moon of spring and the first full moon of fall, respectively. But Shavuot occurs about a week before the full moon, during the waxing moon, which is the image of growth and ripening, and this it what is happening in the solar cycle as well: summer is waxing as we move from the cross-quarter day to the fullness of Midsummer later in June.

Shavuot is also called Zeman Matan Toratenu--the season of the giving of our Torah--because during Shavuot we remember when we stood at Sinai and accepted the revelation of Torah. The metaphor of first fruits works here, too, because the revelation of Torah at Sinai is the first fruit of our redemption from slavery by G-d's "strong hand and mighty arm" celebrated at Pesach.
The Giving of Torah: Based on Midrash
by N.

Once, when G-d wanted to give the Torah to humanity, G-d went first to the Egyptians and said: "Do you want my Torah?" And the Egyptians said, "Well, what's in it?" And G-d said, "It says 'You shall have no other gods before me.' " And the Egyptians said; "Well, we have a lot of other gods, so we don't want your Torah." Then G-d went to the Caananites and said, "Do you want my Torah?" And the Caananites, too, asked, "Well, what's in it?" And G-d said, "Well, it does say that
you shall make no graven images." And the Caananites, who liked their images of Ashera, said, "No, thanks." So G-d went to all of the nations of the earth, trying
to give them Torah, but all of the nations had reasons for not accepting it. Finally, G-d went to Israel, wandering alone in the desert, and said: "Do you want my Torah?" And Israel said, "We will do it and we will listen to it." And because Israel agreed to do it before even asking what was in it, G-d gave us Torah on Mount Sinai, with smoke and fire and the wild calling of the Shofar.
The End

Back to you, Mom!
Shavuot lasts for two days, this year the celebration goes from this evening (May 22) at sunset through Thursday evening at sunset. It is said to be the least observed of all the major Jewish festivals in North America, probably because no ritual was invented to replace the bringing of the first fruits. However, there are some rituals and customs that are being revived for the celebration of Shavuot.

Tikkun L'eil Shavuot--Restoration of Shavuot Eve: Among the mystics, it became the custom to study Torah all night on the first night of Shavuot, in order to prepare ourselves anew for receiving Torah. Because we receive Torah every week at Shabbat services, Shavuot is about the giving of Torah anew. We will light the festival candles tonight and sing the festival kiddush, but we will probably not stay up all night. Rather, we will study Torah with the festival meal. However, there will two organized study sessions at synagogues in Albuquerque for those who want to stay up and study past midnight.

Eretz zahav chalav u'd'vash--A land flowing with milk and honey: During Shavuot, it has become the custom to have sweets and dairy meals, such as cheesecake and blintzes. One reason is that we were promised that we would be given "a land flowing with milk and honey." Torah is something we were given freely and accepted freely. Milk and honey are foods given to us by others--mammals and bees. We do no work to earn them. So they symbolize the nourishment and sweetness of taking on the yoke of Torah. Another explanation is that the Jewish people were given the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) as part of the Torah on Shavuot. Specifically, in Chapter 34 of Exodus, we are told: "You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Exodus 34: 26b). So when they got the law, they ate only dairy until they had a chance to make their utensils and dishes kosher.
Today, N. and I will be making blintzes for dinner.

Bikkurim--A Jewish version of "hanging of the greens": Also, we bring greenery and flowers into the home and synagogue. Legend has it that when they came to Mount Sinai to receive Torah, Israel found the mountain lush with greenery and flowers. This harks back to the original import of Shavuot as Chag HaBikkurim--the festival of first fruits.
We will decorate our table with greens and purple chives from our garden. We will also serve a green salad with strawberries as part of our meal tonight.

Aseret Diburim--The Ten Words: On Shavuot, the ten commandments are read at the morning services on the first day. This gives us the chance to stand again at Sinai and celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth in the giving of the Torah. There is a Midrash that Israel did not so easily accept the Torah as told in the story above. Instead, G-d had to hold Mount Sinai over our heads and say: "Accept my Torah or I will drop the mountain on you, you stiffnecked people!" So we accepted, but we turned the mountain over our heads into a Chuppah--a wedding canopy--and envisioned G-d as our holy Chatan--bridegroom--and the Torah as our Ketubah--marriage covenant. Thus the Torah becomes a bridge between heaven and earth.
Chag Sameach! Have A Joyous Holiday!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lightning Leads to Productive Weekend

I suppose I might have got everything done anyway. But you never know.

On Friday evening, as we sat down for a late Shabbat dinner, a severe thunderstorm formed over Sedillo. The lightning was fierce, and seemed to come from all around us. One very close strike--we saw the lightning and heard the very loud crash of thunder almost simultaneously--tripped the circuit breakers and caused a power surge. We unplugged all of our surge protectors, and did not use the computers and television again until we replaced the surge protectors Sunday evening. And did we have a wonderfully productive weekend. It helped that N. was on a campout with the Boy Scouts and MLC was away in Dalles.

On Saturday morning, we took a long walk, enjoying the sunny morning with the dogs. Fog rolled in over the hills, due to the 0.54 inches of rain we received compliments of the previous evening thunderstorm.

We took our time, knowing that we'd have clear weather until late in the afternoon--fog usually indicates a clear day.

We are really enjoying the green!

I know it looks light green to the eyes of those who live in wet areas, but to us, this is really, really green.

Our green roof still stands out across the meadow, but last year at this time, our meadow was totally brown.

Starting Friday afternoon, I got out into the side garden. It was critical.

The amazingly regular spring rains had caused weeds to spring up and grow a foot overnight!

Here are the abundant weeds--some clover, some other stuff--as they looked Friday afternoon. On the left, the Aspen trees are totally out of control.

When we moved in a year ago, I spent six weeks just getting us settled. That, combined with the necessity of taking care of the old house in town until it sold in September, and the early record-breaking monsoon precipitation we got last summer meant that I did almost nothing with this yard!

Finally, I had good weeding weather this weekend and I hit the side garden. I weeded on Friday afternoon. On Saturday afternoon, I pruned the the Aspens and weeded the raised beds behind them. It is amazing, the previous owner had a herb garden in one of them,last planted in 2005, and there is volunteer parsley and purple onion flowers growing there. She had also put a rosemary bush in one corner. I left it for now, but I am thinking of transplanting it to the slope after I finish that project.

Here is the side garden as it appears now!

What a difference, huh? The Aspens look like trees rather than uncontrolled jungle growth.

I got rid of the Aspen suckers growing through the gravel and even in the raised beds.

That is a temporary solution--Aspens are weedy trees. We'll probably have to take them out completely.

Although I removed the large clover and other weeds, I left the clumps of ornamental grass, may they increase and prosper! There are also some wildflowers that I left. They are beautiful this year!

Yesterday, I had been called to do a tahara (ritual care of the dead) in the morning, and then we went to the funeral in the afternoon. In between, I came home and planted the raised beds. I put in dill, more parsley, Italian Sage, and Feverfew in the two beds. Planting is a life-affirming action that brought me balance after the tahara.

Today, I am taking a non-gardening day to complete some indoor chores, like laundry! N. is taking a rest-day after his two-night camp-out. He finished up his "toting chip" (use of knife and axe) requirements. He is ready to start on Kemana II tomorrow.
Our next outdoor project is to deal with the steep slope to the left of the side garden. It began eroding badly last summer. So we are going to put steps diagonally across the slope and terrace it for planting. I want to put a mixed meadow of blue gramma grass and wildflowers on the terraces. I need to find my New Mexico gardening books as well as the hardscaping book to figure out exactly how to do that!
Summer goes by more quickly every year and I have so much I want to accomplish!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How Green Was My Desert

Oh, all right. Actually, the title should be "How Green Were My Desert Mountains."
Call it poetic liscense.

The point is...well, look at the meadow in the picture to the right.

That's the point. Look at how green that meadow is! Look at the fog hiding the Sandias!
That's the point.

May in New Mexico is usually dry and sunny.

The Monsoons bring rain in July and August. For a few hours most evenings. Between about 4 PM and 7 PM. New Mexico gets a unimodal rain-fall pattern. Summer monsoons. Sparse precipitation the rest of the year.

But this May the weather is weird! Last night we got another 0.21 of an inch. And today it was foggy and cloudy and sprinkly. All day.

See the picture above? You should be looking at South Mountain. South Mountain is missing. Has been all day. I am thinking about putting an APB out for South Mountain. Heh, Heh.

I know we shouldn't complain. And really, I am not. But as soon as I get the weeds pulled, new ones spring up and grow a foot. Overnight. It's just really weird weather.

But it does have compensations.

This evening as we sat down to a late supper, N., speaking very quietly, said, "Look!" The quiet excitement in his voice made me go for the camera.

Three deer were feeding in the yard. My first two shots through the window were no good.

So I ever so slowly and quietly opened the French doors. I padded out on the patio in my stocking feet, and moving deliberately, took this shot from among the aspen leaves.

There was a buck, a doe and a yearling. I think they are the same group I saw around last fall. Once they crossed the road just ahead of me as I was taking my morning walk. At that time the white spots on the young one were just fading. Now that one looks to be the almost the size of the doe.

I got reasonably close to them. At one point, the doe looked up right at me and blinked when I took a picture. I think she heard the shutter click, as did the yearling. Both of them moved behind the scrub oak and continued feeding. The buck kept an eye on me, but continued munching--I could hear him feeding--for a little while longer.

I went back to my dinner. We watched the deer move northward past the scrub oak and then westward across the meadow. Finally, the disappeared into the forest.

Bruce said. "How very blessed we are to live here. We stop to see great sights on an almost daily basis."

That's right. It is a magical year here in our green desert mountains.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Joy of Having a Big Sister

When N. was little he called her "Sissie." Eight years older than he, she has been equal parts sister and mother.

When he was small, MLC noticed before I did that there was something peculiar about N.'s communication skills. She was quite vocal about it and also insisted that he look at her when he talked. He accompanied her on many a doll picnic, and she insisted that he call her friends by name. He did. "Woosty" (Mystie) and "Wissa" (Melissa) became secondary sisters, who delighted in hauling around a real, live kid. Together with MLC, they did more for his communication skills than all of his therapists combined. They expected him to act like a normal kid--and he complied. The power of good women cannot be easily dismissed!

MLC has always been fiercely protective of her little brother. When the fire alarm went off at a screening of the first Harry Potter, she elbowed me and Bruce out of the way in order to get N. out first. When N. was in third grade, he complained about his teacher (that was the year of the ditto queen). MLC went to "pick him up" the very next day, leaving the university a little early to scope out the situation. She not only reported to me on what she saw (N. being punished for writing slowly by being deprived of group interaction--against the IEP), she told the teacher in no uncertain terms that she had seen the situation and she intended to take action.

Now she is taking N. in hand again. Kids with AS often have difficulty understanding the need for the finer points of hygeine. I, as N.'s mother, do a lot of reminding...and reminding...and reminding... about appropriate clothing, deoderant, combing hair, tooth brushing, etc. (Yes--N. has entered adolescence--slowly but surely--"boy funk" has entered our house).
But when MLC speaks, it is final. Change that shirt, she'll say. And he does.

Now she has embarked on teaching him the finer points of social skills. Like opening doors for ladies of all ages.

At the Bat Mitzvah party, she undertook to teach him the fine points of impressing the fairer sex.

She showed him how to successfully ask a young lady to dance.
And she started teaching how to dance with a partner.

There's still a height difference, but N. was game.

There was only one problem. After dancing with the prettiest and most sophisticated young lady on the dance floor, why screw up your courage to ask anybody else?

I think he enjoyed the attention he was getting. All the other girls were imitating MLC. And the boys were watching---MLC.

Sometimes its a real joy to have a big sister. Even if she does remind you to change your boxers on a regular basis.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ahhh! Mother's Day

It was a very busy weekend. Saturday we had a Bat Mitzvah to attend, and breaking our usual pattern, we also went to the evening party. It was a family friend and we couldn't say no.

Yesterday I woke up tired and somewhat grumpy.
My mood improved when MLC took me to get my toes done--Ahhh!

And while we were away in town, Bruce put together my Mother's Day present. My mood improved considerably, when I saw him putting THIS out on the patio!

Of course, I had to try it out.

It was a beautiful evening to just sit on the patio and rock while watching the clouds come over the mountains.

I think I even closed my eyes for a few minutes.

The chair is very comfortable. (Today Bruce is putting primer on it and on the one that he bought himself for me to give him for father's day. Clever man. Tomorrow he will paint them both hunter green).

And I could sit and enjoy the evening because...

Bruce, N. and MLC did the cooking. (N. is behind the camera). Hmmm. At least, I think MLC was helping...

On Saturday evening--late--Bruce and N. left the Bat Mitzvah Party and drove past our home into Edgewood. They said the'd be late because they were taking A. home. Actually, A.'s mom met them at Smith's Grocery and Bruce and N. bought some steaks. They were planning the first outdoor BBQ of the year for Mother's Day.

Looking at the picture above, I do not think I actually NEED steak and potatoes--but, as they say, never, absolutely never, look a gift horse in the mouth!

MLC did do something, though, because this beautiful table was set up on the patio.

I guess I really rate--she put on a tablecloth, the good silverware and crystal.

When MLC's boyfriend arrived, we all sat down to a lovely Mother's Day dinner al fresco.

It was a beautiful evening for it, too! Warm, with clouds moving across the Sandias, and no wind! So we ate steak and potatoes and a choice of Pinot Gregio or Merlot. Apple pie for dessert. I am so glad that it is against my religion to diet...

If I started out the day grumpy, I ended it feeling pretty mellow.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Making It Theirs

Yesterday, I had a meeting with our rabbi about N.'s religious education.

Since February, we have been unschooling Jewish education for N. The 7th grade class at the synagogue was long on sitting, notes, and tests, and short on hands-on activities and discussions. I discussed all of the reasons for our decision here. I had sent that blog directly to the rabbi, who, as far as I can tell, did not read it. On the last Sunday in April, I attended a parents meeting for the Religious Education Committee to hear what their plans are for the next year. The religious education program has been in some state of disarray for a long time. Two years ago, the educator that had been in place for a number of years resigned because her husband had gotten a new job in Colorado. She was a good educator, but over the years so much had been put on her plate that the core programs, the religious school, Hebrew school and the teen Machon program, were left to run themselves. Last year, we had a temporary educator on a one-year contract who made a number of recommendations to strengthen the core programs. She was a sharp lady and had a lot to say. This year, the congregation hired a new educator who, for various reasons that I do not know, was terminated within six months. As I understand it, the termination decision was based on performance rather than any egregious act. So, last week I attended that meeting for parents. And found out that after two-and-a-half-years of frustration, a promised special needs procedure was still not going to be put in place. GRRRR!

I know all of the reasons. We had set-backs due to all of the administrative changes. We are hiring a consultant to hold focus groups and make us look at ourselves--the good and bad--so that we can make constructive changes. They all sound reasonable--when it is not your kid who is losing out. So I made an appointment to talk to the rabbi about N.'s Jewish education. It was my plan to discuss an alternative program for N., mediated by me, composed of all of the components we have in place alreadly along with, hopefully, possibly,...some kind of service work at the synagogue. Please?

So I called the rabbi's secretary and made an appointment. And I began to think about what made my religious education a good one. (I can sum that up in three words: Camp and Sharon Kahn). And what we did that filled the sanctuary on holidays like Purim, when I was a young Hebrew teacher in the 1980's. I talked to MLC about the things that made it all fun and exciting when she was in the religious school. I talked to our "daughter of the heart," L, about what she remembered. And all of these ideas were jumbled in my head as I drove to my appointment with the rabbi yesterday.

Now, I actually, actively dread these kinds of appointments. I always resolve that I am going to appear professional and competent. I AM a teacher. I HAVE a master's in special education. But when it's about my baby, my own little boy, I always end up crying. It did not help that the rabbi was accusatory. The staccato tone of "So you did agreed to this...and then you just pulled him out," felt a bit like gun fire. At this point I realized that he had not read my e-mail.

No, that's not quite it, rabbi. I met with D. (the inflexible teacher) and S. (the educator) in September. D. dictated the terms and did not bother to read the information I gave him about Asperger Syndrome and Central Auditory Processing Disorder. I did attend class with N. for 6 weeks. I saw that my presence was isolating N. from his peers (I was not just in the room, I was expected to sit with N. and make sure he took notes, like a helicopter parent, rather than be a general presence in the class) and I saw that N. was too busy trying to write and spell correctly to actually understand the content of the lecture. So I told N. to focus on listening to what was being presented (pretty difficult anyway for a kid with CAPD) and try to tell me one thing he had learned. I stopped going to class with him so that he would interact with his peers. I waited outside in case there were problems. In late November or early December, D. accosted me and yelled at me that N. was not learning because I was not coming to class and N. was not taking notes. I countered that N. was not learning because the pedagogy was completely unsuited to any 7th grader, let alone one with learning disabilities. I asked D. if he would please use graphic organizers because N. learns best visually. The response was "No." I asked if he could e-mail the content of the lecture power point to me on Tuesday, so that I could make the graphic organizers. No, again. I met with the educator, who promised that she would talk to D. and agreed that it was not appropriate for me to be in the classroom. Then we got caught up with the Bar Mitzvah--where N. surprised them all!-- and then the educator resigned. Having no recourse, and facing increasingly clear evidence that D. did not want my son in his class, and that N. was increasingly frustrated with the situation, I made other plans. The plans discussed here.

Sigh! I am getting all ferklempt just recounting this here! :( It's really embarrassing.
Like I said, when it's my kid...

So I got pretty passionate about what I think is needed. I was waving my arms a lot. Getting loud. Tears in the eyes. The whole ferklempt thing. And then it just came out of my mouth.
"If we want the kids to want to come, we have to make it theirs! They have to own it. They should be conducting services during religious school. They should be playing the guitar and leading the singing! They should be doing Judaism!"

Doing Judaism. Being Torah.

What a concept. Duh!

As I think about it, you know what the problem is with my generation? We do everything for our kids. No wonder the kids are disengaged. No wonder they roll their eyes when we talk at them about the wonders of Judaism, or of math, or of science, or of....anything. How would they know? They hear about it..from us. They watch a performance of us. But we do not engage them in it. We do not require them to be responsible for it. They are passive. They know, as kids do, that we are egoizing to the max. It's all about us.

I feel a diatribe coming on:

Why was my Jewish education--gotten on the sly as my parents were not synagogue members--so exciting? Because we were drafted to lead services, play the music, sing the songs. We ran our own youth group meetings--sometimes badly. The advisor was just that--an advisor. A college student. We learned to be Jews by being Jews.

Why is N. so excited about Boy Scouts? Because his patrol works at being scouts. They follow a series of requirements--that is true. But those requirements require them to own scouting! Why does N. enjoy his Post-Bar Mitzvah class at Chabad? Because the rabbi who leads their discussions poses questions. He does not dictate answers. As the group struggles for answers, the concepts become theirs.

And why is homeschooling and unschooling so successful? Because we adults are stepping back. Relinquishing our places as "Sage on the Stage" to become "a guide on the side."

We are making it theirs.

End diatribe.

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I am from another planet. Too loud. Too big. Take up too much space. I don't think the rabbi "got it."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle...

Mother's Day in the United States will be celebrated this Sunday, May 13.

My mother used to say: "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

In my younger days, I thought that the statement was a bit overblown to say the least. Influenced by the second wave of the feminist movement, I wondered if the saying was simply an excuse to not venture out into the world to do great things. To stay on the pedestal and bow to patriarchy.

When I was growing up, I had two best girlfriends. The three of us had much in common, not the least of which was that we were all certified members of "geekdom." In those days, being geeks was not cool, but it did have its compensations. One of these was permission to read science fiction and watch Star Trek and dream of doing great things in the future. Together, we three girls dreamed of becoming scientists, engineers, physicians, philosophers. In short, we were to become builders of worlds. Our motto was: "To summon the future!"

As we left school and started our lives, we did realize some of those dreams. We did become scientists and engineers, philosophers and anthropologists. But we also became speakers of many languages, teachers, care-givers, and mothers. And, although it took a while, we began to realize that it was in our roles as mothers that we took on the title of "builders of worlds."

Our most enduring role models are the mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. Our mother Sarah, who laughed at the Eternal, and not only lived to tell the tale, but also named her son for that laughter. Rebekah, who wondered about the purpose of her existence and yet determined the leadership of Israel for all time. Leah, who, as the matriarch of the tribe, managed the family and brought her husband prosperity. And Rachel, who nurtured the gifts and dreams of her son Joseph, who saved an entire land from famine.

And more: Yocheved, mother of Moses, whose look was toward life in a dark time. Miriam, the prophet, whose well of sweet water gave life in the wilderness. Hannah, Deborah the Judge, Hulda the prophet, Esther the Queen. And all of the women and mothers whose names we do not know; a web of women that kept the Jewish people alive. The influence of the mothers of Israel lives down the centuries. Their legacy is affirmed every Shabbat when Jewish women light candles and bless and pray for their children.

When we were young, my intrepid girl friends and I, we dreamed of glory. We imagined a legacy of fame and fortune. Well, we are all fortunate. But although we have achieved much, none of us have won Nobel prizes or ruled countries. We are grateful that some women have done so. But I think that each of the three of us has, at one time or another, realized that our power to summon the future comes from our efforts to bring up our children to be menschen. To be on the path of the true human being. If we teach our children to be good, true, compassionate, just and loving, and if they, in their turn treat others this way, then imagine how far we can "pay it forward." Our names may not be known, but our influence on the future can be very great. It can endure down the generations.

How great is our power. There is a Jewish saying: "To save one life is to save a whole world." Here is our corollary: "To nurture one life is to nurture whole worlds." Our influence can determine if those worlds are healthy and loving, or not. If they are places of joy and compassion, or not. If the truth is spoken in those worlds and if justice is done.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

Like Esther, we can change the world. So this Mother's Day, I will be standing in order to begin to make a difference. Sometimes small acts, when done together, can lead to great changes. When Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote the Mother's Day Proclaimation in 1870, she meant it to be a call to action. She wrote:

"Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!Say firmly: 'We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.' "

I want to answer her call all these years later, and stand for a better world for our children. So I will joining the Standing Women all across the world at 1 PM (local time) on Mother's Day to renew my commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. I invite you to join me on that day. Go to the link above and let them know where you will stand. All across the world, we will make a wave of women, hour after hour, standing to commit themselves to the following pledge:

Remember: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

What kind of world do we want that to be?

Happy Mother's Day!