Sunday, August 31, 2008

Elul: Jews Prepare to Meet the Eternal

Living with two calendars is interesting.

Last night I dreamed that it was the beginning of the Month of Elul, the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar. In my dream, the Engineering Geek and I were wandering through what was clearly our synagogue--although not as I have ever seen it before--looking for an alternative entrance to attend S'lichot--the penitential service that precedes Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). In my dream, I was not feeling the least bit frustrated with our search. Patiently, my hand securely covered by the EG's, we tried unnoticed corridors, unused doors, and then a hatch that led to the offices. I remember thinking without amazement that I had never seen some of these places in the synagogue before. We were in no hurry; it seemed that we knew we would get there, and at the right time, too. Because it was time. Time for Jews to meet G-d. Somehow, in the dream, there was a sense of preparation in the atmosphere. Somehow, I got the sense that it was the same feel as when the EG and I were preparing for our wedding. I looked down and realized that I was dressed in voluminous, luminous white, just as I was when I stood under the Chuppah at our wedding. In my heart I felt a calm sense of joy. It was time for Jews to meet G-d.

When I awoke this morning, I realized that last night was the dark of the moon, though it was not obvious to us because the clouds had lowered over our mountain. When I checked the calendar I saw that today is Rosh Chodesh Elul--the New Moon that marks the head of the month of Elul. I was not surprised. After all, I already knew that, somewhere deep down in my subconscious mind. That knowledge had percolated up, a slow seep, to make itself known at the proper time, on the correct night, in my dreams.

Although I have taken them seriously for more than twenty years, I don't believe I really understood the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur until I was married to the Engineering Geek during the season of Shavuot. I always thought of Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of the Torah, as the joyous holy day when Israel meets G-d. Shavuot, coming at the end of the first harvest, bespeaks ripening promise; the symbols associated with it are those of marriage and fertility.

The High Holy Days, on the other hand, seemed to be about ashes and endings; my dreams, year after year, were filled with death and destruction. During the Une-taneh-tokef--the prayer about the nexus of life and death brought near during the Days of Awe--I would look up and see the round faces of children behind barbed wire, and behind them, smoke and ashes rising from the Nazi fires; and I would flee from the sanctuary, shaking, to warm myself in the sun and reassure myself that the world was still as ordinary as I had seen it upon awakening that morning.

As Elul began in the first year of our marriage, I expected the apocalyptic dreams to begin, the dread of life and death to come anew. And it didn't. Instead, I dreamed of comfort and trust, of great burdens cast aside amidst the chanting of Kol Nidre. I would wake up in the arms of my husband, my hand securely covered by his, the beating of his living heart against my cheek.

The month of Elul spelled in Hebrew recalls a verse from the Song of Songs: Ani l'dodi v'dodi li--I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine. Elul is the beginning of the season of return in which Jews consider the vows and the promises made during the previous year, a time of recounting one's successes and failures in the never-quite-completed process of becoming a mensch, a real human being. It is a time for taking responsibility for choices made, of opportunities taken and opportunities squandered. This is the process of t'shuvah, of returning again to the path of becoming the people we were born to be.
And further, Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the ten days leading up to the Day of Atonement--all of this is preparation for the great and joyous fast of Yom Kippur, the meeting day of Israel with the Eternal One, the Creator Space and Time.

For me, the change in understanding all goes back to preparing for my wedding. The preparations were all intended to help me bring my best self to my husband, and he to me. That is the purpose of the festive new and special clothes, the mikveh, the holy separation and the wedding day fast. That is the reason for the celebration afterwards. One wants the beloved to see and love that which is best within us.

So now, although I certainly understand that the awesome power of the High Holy Days is an evoking of the nexus of life and death, I also understand that the preparations that begin with Elul are about preparing to choose life as we read on Yom Kippur:

"See, I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse;
Choose life, that you and your children may live."
--Parashat Nitzavim

Being a real human being means having the capacity and the power to make choices between good and evil. A real human being knows that she has been endowed with free will--the knowledge of good and evil--so that we must make choices between them. The preparations of Elul--the turning again towards life--starts with self-examination. This self-examination is not intended to break us down; rather it is about sifting through our previous choices and identifying those that were made rightly. It is about seeing clearly the wrong choices so that we do not continue in those paths, but can turn towards the paths that are good.
It is about preparing to bring the best within ourselves forward to that Holy moment when Israel meets with her Beloved.

And ultimately it is about love. For in love, a person wants to give what is good, what is most holy, to the beloved. And to be received with the same.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alaska...Where Women Run for Vice-President

where men are real men
and women win the Iditarod.

This is the legend on a T-shirt I bought in Fairbanks on the Summer Solstice in 2002.

Picture Credit: Looking across towards Mendenhall from the Univ. of Alaska, Juneau; E. Levin, June 2002

It appears that this legend might change a bit in the next few months. Not only do women win the Iditerad, but they also run for VP of the United States!

Yesterday, John McCain, the Republican candidate for President of the United States announced that he has chosen Sarah Palin--Govenor of Alaska, fisherwoman, businesswoman, hunter and snowmobiler--to be his running mate in the November election.

This woman--yes, the one holding the salmon--could be the Vice-President of the United States!

Picture Credit: Alaska Seafood

This move by McCain says a few things about him. He is truly a maverick, and he doesn't seem to give a hoot what the press or the elite think about his candidacy. He picked the person he thought was best for the job of being on his team, should he win.

Of the two major party candidates, it also looks like it is McCain that is having the most fun. I mean, consider that he spent his birthday keeping the press buffoons guessing to the point where ABC was actually giving out the false information that Palin was not his pick. He kept Obama completely out of the paper yesterday.

Palin is an interesting person, herself, herself.

She is considered to be a maverick who has opposed her own party in Alaska when she thought it necessary. She sold the previous govenor's pork-barrel private jet on e-bay.

And she was Miss Congeniality and first runner-up in the Miss Alaska contest when she was a young woman. Alaskans call her "the hottest governor of the coldest state."

As the Chem Geek Princess put it: She proves that you can have beauty, brains and guts.

From now until November, this is going to be an interesting ride!

Picture Credit: Alaska Magazine

Alaska! Where men are real men, women win the Iditarod, and run for Vice President.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Merely Difficult

"The merely difficult we do at once,
the impossible takes a little longer,
miracles by appointment only!"
--unofficial Seabees Motto

Today marks the end of the first week of the fall semester at UNM.
Getting into a routine this week has been remarkably hard because each evening of the week we have had some reason to go to a meeting. Monday was Scouts--which was expected. Tuesday was the Scout troop council, which was not. I work late on Wednesday, and last night was East Mountain High School's Open House. The good thing is that the Boychick was a good sport through all of this and did his homework--including math--with no complaint. The strain on all of our routines has been exacerbated by the chaos in the hallway and the fact that the Boychick is currently sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the Chem Geek Princess's room.

But we are managing.
Even though all of us--proud carriers of the Broader Autistic Phenotype--get mighty cranky when our routines get disrupted. When there is no routine we snarl a lot.

Dealing with UNM Bureaucracy makes me positively grumpy.
On Monday, as I was leaving the COE Graduate Writing Center for lunch, my supervisor stopped me at the door to Tireman Library. "You've got to go to OGS (Office of Graduate Studies) right away!" she informed me. "'The Platform' is saying that you are not eligible to place for your GA."

In any normal place, one might figure that it was a small snafu, but here at New Mexico's Flagship University--the same University that ceded territory temporarily to Mexico last September--students and faculty automatically assume the worst.

When I got to OGS--still unlunched--the work-study could not find me in the computer.
"You'll have to wait for Edwina to return from lunch," she said, snapping her bright blue bubble gum. "Please have a seat right over there."

Oh, no! Not Edwina. When you have to see Edwina it's really bad. I remember that much from my TA and RA days in the biology department. Edwina is the administrative assistant of last resort.
Being a Nervous Nelly, I was certain that I was headed for a disaster of biblical proportions. Or worse. I mean, it's bad enough if G-d forgets your name, but when the UNM computer doesn't know who you are do you even exist? Now there was an existential question for me to ponder as I waited for Edwina for return from lunch.

Fortunately, before Edwina returned from fortifying herself for an afternoon of unsnarling gnarly bureaucratic messes, another COE Graduate Writing Studio GA came in with her passport. While putting the GA's info into the computer, the work-study looked at me and said, " I found you!" And she was able to tell me that I had not submitted my demographic data form. (That's the really important form that lets UNM reassure itself that I am " female" and "other" and that UNM is therefore "inclusive"). For this reason, they had discarded --shredded, I fervently hope!--all my other hiring paper work. Could I please submit it again? Post-haste? Of course I could. But not being in the habit of carrying around my passport (needed for the I-9), I took custody of a bunch of forms to "bring back tomorrow."

Which is why I was at UNM on Tuesday normally a day I am scheduled to study at home.
Since I had driven to campus suffering from sinus pressure due to the drop in altitude anyway, I decided to find out how to do a dual-disciplinary Ph.D. I had sent an inquiry to OGS last week, and received a response on Monday. Bill at OGS wrote that I needed to talk to the Psychology department head and their Grad adviser about requirements.

That was easy.
The department head e-mailed separately to tell me that she was very interested in my work and that I should talk to the adviser so that I could get started. The adviser started by telling me that I am crazy. We laughed. Everyone on campus is certifiable, after all, and here we were sitting in the Psychology building. Oh, she continued, and had I taken the GRE in the past five years? Since it was longer ago than that, I'd have to take it again. It's not the the Psychology Department wouldn't accept old scores--they tend to be remarkably stable for people my age--it's that ETS would not release them. A money-making ploy, no doubt. Sigh.

Then it was back to OGS to see how to inform the university of dual status.
I waited to see Doug. When I sat down in front of his desk, I briefly told him what I wanted to do.
He said, "You can't do that. There's a policy in place because at the Ph.D. level we don't want students to become scattered."

Or think outside the box.
Innovation, thy name is not the Ivory Tower.

I smiled, and leaned forward. I said, "So you're telling me this may be more than 'merely difficult?'"
He got the reference. He asked for my ID number.
I couldn't see what came up on the computer--it had one of those privacy screens--but I was fairly confident of what it would show.
He asked me to describe to him how my research would require the bringing together of two disciplines. I began talking and waving my hands. (I can't help it, it's genetic).
I told him about my background in the biological sciences.
I told him about the brain research that I want to do.
I told him about the gap between what we know about genetics, epigenetics, development and interventions for very high functioning kids with ASD.
I asked for a pen. He handed me a blank piece of paper as well.
I drew a diagram showing how the two disciplines come together.
Finally, he handed me a form for petitioning the Dean of Graduate Studies for a variance from policy.
He said: "You have my interest. Anyone can petition the Dean. If you succeed, you will be breaking new ground. Things change slowly in universities. But they can change."
And he told me what I'd need to do in order for the Dean to take my petition seriously.

I am going to have to rethink some of my other commitments.
I have scheduled the GRE.
I have a 0.5 FTE GA.
I have 3 research hours.
I have 3 seminar hours.
I am a mom.

Everything else will have to wait.

This is going to take a little longer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

One Hundred Species Challenge!

While I was teaching reading this summer, Sarah over at Homeschooling the Doctorate, began the 100 -Species Challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to compile a list of 100 species of plants that can be found within walking distance of home. The rules to the challenge can be found at the link above.
I informally started my list a few Nearly Wordless Wednesdays ago, in a post called August Wildflowers at Sedillo, but I did not number the list, so I will do that first:
1. Helianthus neomexicanus, New Mexico Sunflowers
2. Erigeron compositus, Cutleaf Daisy
3. Physalis ixocarpa, Tomatilla
4. Melitotis Officialis, Sweet Clover
5. Bouteloua gracilis, Blue Grama Grass
6. Gilia aggregata, Scarlet Gilia
7. Sphaeralcea var., Globemallow
I am intending to do at least two Nearly Wordless Wednesday Posts per month that include pictures of the plants I have identified. This is going to be fun because although botany was the foundation of my field in my biological studies, it has been years since I have even opened my plant collections. Although I often identify plants by sight as I walk, many of them I remember only to the family or genus level.
8. Quercus gambelii--Gambel's Oak, often called Scrub Oak, it is often very difficult to tell scrub oak apart at the species level. Scrub oak is very promiscuous--that is the separately identified 'species' often cross, producing hybrids. Plants often refuse to obey the rules of species definition!

9. Pinus ponderosa var. scopularum, Ponderosa Pine. At our elevation of approximately 7500 feet, there are a few Ponderosa's scattered among the Pinyon and Juniper trees. In our mountains, we are at the ecotone, or transition zone, between the Pinyon-Juniper Woodland and Ponderosa Pine Forest. At the top of the ridge behind our house, Pondersa Pines are the dominant trees.

10. Juniperus scopulorum, Rocky Mountain Juniper. In this stand of Juniper, the Rocky Mountain Juniper spiecies is the one that is bluish in color. RM Juniper also has a weepy growth habit, and these are ways to tell it apart from...

11. Juniperus monosperma, One-seed Juniper. This is the green Juniper shrubs behind the Rocky Mountain Juniper. One-seed Juniper has a stiffer habit.

These two are different species and not merely varieties of Juniper, and are therefore legitimately counted separately. However, plants just don't obey the species definition rules very well at all! They are far more profligate than are animals.

12. Linum usitatissimum, Common Flax. Flax plants are considered to be the plants upon which civilization was built. Linum ssp. are found all over the world and have been used by human beings from prehistory to today.

13. Opuntia clavata, Devil Cholla or Club Cholla. There are actually 20 different species of Cholla (genus Opuntia) that grow in the Americas. Cacti are New World Plants, and plants that look like cacti but are native to the Old World are products of convergent evolution--they are not actually related to cacti. O. clavata is native to the Chihuahuan desert and surrounding mountains of central New Mexico.

It is the plant to the left in the picture. The Cholla is growing next to a young pine.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Household Turned Upside Down, Again!

Last week, as the Boychick started school, and I began orientation for my GA in the UNM College of Education Graduate Writing Studio, the Engineering Geek finished up an important project at work. This project had shifted some of the EG's plans for taking vacation time to finish putting in the wooden flooring.

Since the Boychick's room was part of the project, we had been hoping to do it while he was at "Camp Aunt Madge" in Illinois, and then at the Coyote Tracks camps in New Jersey. But the EG's work project made short shrift of those plans. So now, in the midst of things, we once again have a household turned upside down!

On Friday, the EG went to work on his 9/80 day off, specifically to finish his project.

Yesterday, we took Shabbat. It was the first real down-time day that EG and I have had on the same day. I took the Boychick to Taekwondo after we prayed, and then we spent the afternoon hanging out around the table in the breakfast nook, talking, drinking lemonade, eating cookies.

This morning after breakfast and the paper, the EG took the screen/storm doors--fancy, but a pain--apart to clean them. I did some housework. And this afternoon, the EG and the Boychick began moving everything out of the Boychick's room.

Although the Boychick had cleaned his room before leaving for Illinois, there were still more layers of stuff to excavate and clear out. Also, since he was gone for a month, and we only went into his room to take care of Fred Thompson, the fire-bellied toad, the relatively clean
room had a layer of dust all over everything.
Here, the Boychick excavates fossilized materials
where the dresser stood. The dresser and
the Boychick himself will be dwelling in the
Chem Geek Princess's suite for the duration.

Here, the Engineering Geek brushes out the dresser as it stands on the furniture dolly, prior to taking up residence down the hall.
I don't think that the Boychick is particularly happy about the chaos descending now--at the beginning of school. He had thought first that it would all be done by the time he arrived at the Sunport on August 2.

Then, he had hoped that the Chem Geek Princess would be getting settled in her townhouse before he moved into her room.

Unfortunately, the CGP's prospective townhouse is being purchased on a short sale. The current owner was in foreclosure, so the offer had to go to the mortage holder--one of the big ones currently in trouble--and they had to go to Fannie Mae. As you know, Fannie Mae is also in trouble. Still, the Princess is hoping that the offer will be accepted. In today's market the mortgage lender and Fannie Mae stand to lose more if they allow it to go to auction. But it all takes a very long time...

So now, the Boychick has to camp out in his sister's room. It's not the best of all possible worlds. But we need to get the work done before Rosh Hashanah, which is about five weeks away.

Once again, it's a household turned upside down just at the start of school.
Last year, the living room flooring was being installed just as we began homeschooling.

Now, we hope to get the last two rooms done, prior to 5769!
Things will work out. They always do.

Friday, August 22, 2008


'Beginnings are hard.'
--The Talmud

Several people--all homeschoolers--have asked me versions of this question:

"I'm more concerned about you. As a veteran homeschooler myself, I know what you mean about the feeling of loss. What are your plans? How do you feel about leaving your active role as a homeschool mom?" (Barbara Frank, August 19, 2008).

Homeshoolers who are in the trenches, and those already 'retired,' are well aware of how much of a homeschool mom's time and identity have been given to the project, and how much empty space there will now be for me as the Boychick tests his wings.

For us, homeschooling was an important part of our lives, but it was not the whole of our lives. The Engineering Geek is busy as always, balancing his professional responsibilites--which are considerable--with his home improvement projects and his commitments to scouts and amateur astronomy. But this summer, as I took a paid job that had me away from home most weekends, he was a bit testy about me not being there and some of the complications this produced for him and for us. Change is difficult for the Engineering Geek, unless and until he can get it all mapped out in his mind. When he fills in the "here there be dragons" places at the edges of his maps, the change becomes routine and he resumes his normal and preoccupied ways. He can then wander around the house, humming idiosyncratic nigunim* under his breath.

*A nigun (pl. nigunim) is a Hassidic invention: songs without words, hummed to syllables--ay,dai-dai or bim-bom-bum. These can go on in on in contrapunctual rhythms with variations for hours. The EG's are often set to The Beatles, the Tijuana Brass, or Pink Floyd, and quickly become variations on a theme.

For me, change is also difficult; I react by filling in my time with all kinds of activity, complaining, often loudly, about how overscheduled I have gotten myself. Once I then settle into a routine and prune some of the wild first growth of activity, settling on some projects that can sustain my interest, I then alternate between my organized /organizing state (which drives the rest of my family nuts), and a state of intense preoccupation with whichever project has alternated to the front burner. I can sustain this for roughly a semester. Usually at winter break, and again at the end of May, I become languid and slow. I wander unproductively, I sit and watch the clouds and shadows pass across the mountains. In December, I hibernate; In May, I flit. These periods, timed as they are, make me the perfect academic.

Aside: One reason that I had such difficulty with the IRD training is that for me, those weeks at the end of May are what I call the Time for Mind Wandering and Wool Gathering. I don't want to be bothered by anything more important than what to make for dinner.

So what are my plans?
I have a tendency to live life backwards. I left classroom teaching at the beginning of my Educational Anarchist journey. Living homeschooling life with the Boychick, and the thinking that I have done as I dwelt on the gifted ed fringes of special education, have taken me further into educational iconoclasm. This has brought me 'round to a place where I have wanted to learn from educational mavericks about the pedagogy of reading and writing. I am interested in reading and writing specifically, because these are the basis of western thought and classical education; and here, if anywhere, can be found the reasons for the failure of public school as Education, with a capital E.

My primary research interest has not shifted: I am still passionate about the neuropsychology of twice-exceptional children, especially those on the autism spectrum and/or those with "maverick minds." But my interest has always been focussed on the gap between the neurology and the kinds of teaching required to bring these brilliant, quirky kids into our world enough so that they can contribute to it, live good lives by their own standards, and, perhaps, bring our world and their world closer together.

These are the theoretical underpinnings of my plans. They are goals towards which my activities are directed. This year, though, where does the rubber meet the road? How does all of this get expressed in a practical way? How do I meet my goals now that I do not have the endless fascination of being with and guiding The Boychick on such a journey?

This summer, I learned quite a bit about the pedagogy of reading, practically, and from people who know reading, rather than from the Ivory Tower. Of course, being me, I did flesh out my experience with some neuropsychological study about how reading affects the brain, and changes thinking patterns in literate people.

While I was teaching this summer, I also applied for and received a Graduate Assistantship (GA) as a writing tutor in the College of Education's Graduate Writing Workshop. This will not only provide me with a tuition waver and a small stipend; I will be learning about the pedagogy of the writing process from the coordinator of the GWW and from my students. The model here is not one of the trendy educationist movements that come and go; it is based on the practical experience that comes from developing what works for students whose previous educations have failed them in the area writing; they need to be able to write and they don't know how.

I also will be taking two doctoral-level seminars. One is a two credit-hour Seminar in Physiological Psychology and the other is a one credit-hour Neuroscience seminar. The first will be a critical examination of current empirical and theoretical research in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience. The second seminar is a weekly presentation of new research results in all aspects of neurobiology. These are both necessary and interesting areas of learning for the research I am contemplating.

I will be taking three hours of Graduate Problems in Behavioral Neuropsychology. Here I will be working with my neuropsych advisor (I have two, and getting both of these busy people plus a committee together is one of the trials and tribulations of a multi-disciplinary Ph.D.) on a paper for publication and a research proposal for my dissertation. Here we will be planning a pilot study, as well as beginning that study (probably in the spring), as well as doing data analysis and writing the paper for a study already in progress.

All of the above means that some time must also be spent wrangling with the Office of Graduate Studies about the multidisciplinary Ph.D. Bureaucracies don't like it when someone pushes the boundaries. There are no neat categories for it. But I am a 'retired' homeschooling mom--I am used to pushing the boundaries. I live in a family of boundary pushers, and anyway, being Jewish* means being a boundary crosser.

*Our name for ourselves, Ivri, Hebrew, means boundary-crosser. For more, see Rabbi Gershon Winkler's book, The Way of the Boundary Crosser.

And then there are the other areas of life: seeing the Boychick through high school, drivers ed (OY!), confirmation, and on into the goals he sets for himself. Helping out with scouts, Taekwondo, and Machon. Enjoying being married to the Engineering Geek.

These are the plans. This beginning is like planting a garden. I will get into the dirt up to my elbows, and wait to see what sprouts, what needs to be pruned, and what must be pulled up.

And through it all (see Lisa P.-- I've learned from you), I want to have fun with it all. There's something nice about approaching fifty; almost nothing is as dead serious as I thought it was when I was in my twenties and thirties. So...
...this is going to be FUN!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008



This past weekend, the weather was decidely un-New Mexico. We had morning fog Friday and Saturday morning, and on both days we had clouds and rain all day.

Here, the cloud has settled on our mountain, obscuring the distance, bringing the close objects nearer, and as we walked the familiar aspects of the landscape seemed different, closer, more intimate.

On Saturday afternoon the thunder rolled and the heavens opened up! In the first wave, 0.30 inches fell in about ten minutes.
Here, water cascades, a river, down the driveway.

Then the rain fell harder, and the drops were larger;
they made crown-like splashes in the rapidly forming puddles.

The stream in the drive became a river, and I could not help but wonder what it looked like in the culvert on the new road.

Following the storm, clear water ponded against the low wall of the door garden, and we could hear it dripping off the trees and shrubs, and splashing down the narrow beginning of Sedillo wash.
That afternoon's total rainfall was over an inch in an hour. Later that evening, while we were in town get recieved another half-inch for a grand total of 1.5 inches for the day!
It was spectacular!

The general geological principle of gradualism--that changes on the earth's surface happen by the slow and steady weathering of rock does not totally explain the changes wrought by our western cloudbursts. Here, at the southern end of the new road at Los Pecos Loop, this one cloudburst wore down the borrow ditch by about a foot, and spread rocks and silt on the roadway.

Water is very powerful, being a reasonably heavy compound in which the molecules a pulled together by polarity. It moves very fast downhill, so that about two feet of water on a slight incline can sweep away a grown man.

A desert mountain cloudburst can downcut an arroyo by three feet in half-an-hour!

Carnival of Homeschooling: Almost a Swan Song...

The Carnival of Homeschooling--More than Textbooks is up over at Janice Campbell's
Taking Time for Things that Matter.

Janice reminds us that education is more than textbooks. There are quite a few posts over at the COH this week, for those who are in "not back to school" mode.

My last regular post is also there, although I have been assured that as a homeschool advocate, I can still publish at the COH when I have something to say about what we learned from our homeschool experience. So this "last regular post" is not exactly a Swan Song.

Since I will be reading the COH on a regular basis, even if my posts there become more sporadic, I will still remind all of you about it every week!

Have a great week. We are!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Now That School is a Choice: A Homeschooling Legacy

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference."

--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, 1920

In the past few months, the Boychick has grown up a bit more.

He has added inches to his stature, his voice has deepened, and his interests have broadened to include socializing with girls. And he has taken more control of his education.

As I announced here, my Boychick has decided to choose schooling for high school.

As I go about the business of letting people know about the Boychick's decision, I am beginning to understand that most people outside the homeschooling world understand the decision as an indication of failure. The assumption seems to be that we are stepping back from homeschooling to a default position because N. was not learning or that homeschooling "didn't work."

Well, we all know that there are real problems with assumptions. First, I wonder how anyone can imagine a human being going for a whole twenty-four hours without learning anything? I cannot imagine it and I have been free from the clutches of compulsory education for thirty years. And as for the second assumption, that "it didn't work," nothing can be further from the truth.

In fact, I see the Boychick's choice as one that fits as well into the trajectory of our homeschooling journey as would homeschooling high school. As we progressed in homeschooling 'middle school,' we also progressed in handing over more and more of the decision making about his education to the Boychick. Over those years, we moved from being "sages on the stage to guides on the side" as our philosophy evolved from school-at-home to a certain kind of unschooling. The Boychick has become used to thinking of himself as the master of his education, as well as the learner. He has learned to take responsibility for his learning methods and goals. He did not decide to go to high school because homeschooling was a failure; rather, he was able to choose because homeschooling was a success.

Unlike most of the students who entered East Mountain High School this morning, the Boychick sees attending school not as something he must do, but as something he has chosen to do. He knows that the responsibility for his successes or failures lies on his shoulders, and that although there are people ready to help him and guide him, in the end, the secret to his education lies within. He has become a self-directed learner. I watched him in action last week at registration, when he took control of the meeting with his advisor and me. He spoke about what he needs to be successful and how he plans to accomplish his goals.

As a student, I was envious of my son in that moment, and as a mother I am proud.

I am envious because I realized that because I thought of education as compulsory during my own school-girl years, I did not reach such a state of self-direction until I was well into my first years of my first graduate degree. And for this reason, I wasted much of my time blindly following paths to goals that I had not set for myself, with no clear direction for how to accomplish what was only an inchoate idea of what I wanted for my future.

I am proud because I have come to understand how spectaculary successful our decision to take the road less traveled was for us.

It is not an easy decision to take "the road less traveled." Homeschoolers know that to defy the social givens means that a person must be prepared to articulate and defend their decisions in the face of ignorance, hostility, and assumption on a near daily basis.

Of course, as with all such decisions, the rewards are equal to the the risk taken.

Homeschooling, regardless of the individual's reasons for it, is a political act.

Making a choice against the received wisdom of the dominant culture forever changes how one views that received wisdom, as well as how one views the locus of control over individual decisions. In so doing, a person steps outside the herd mentality and lives liberty in reality. And succeeding in doing so means never being quite so willing to let others assert control over individual choices again. This is the legacy of homeschooling for us, just as it is the legacy of homebirthing, the legacy of living Judaism, and the legacy of growing up libertarian.

In a sense, one could say that we are no longer homeschoolers as of this morning.

Our last child has made a decision that has dissolved the Los Pecos Homeschool and he has gone forth into the world of organized schooling. And yet, there is a difference. Because the Boychick knows that his high schooled education is not, and cannot be, compulsory. It is a choice. When a person consciously makes a choice, he also consciously takes on the responsibility for it. The Boychick is no longer homeschooled, but he has developed an unschooled mind. He went to school today knowing that everything he learns is his own choice in his own hands.

What about us? We have also made a choice. And a journey. We have gone from accepting the assumptions that are social givens to questioning them, as good Ragamuffin Students do. We are no longer homeschoolers--because we gave our son a choice. But we have become educational anarchists in the process. We have become social libertarians. And once you have lived the richness of liberty, there's no going back. Not even the occassional whiffs of the "fleshpots of Egypt" are enough to give up the joyous responsibility for one's own life.

This, then, is the legacy of homeschooling for us, as we stand at the ending of our direct involvement in Los Pecos Homeschool, and as we give Boychick the freedom to try his fledgeling wings.

Even as I feel a sense of loss for our homeschooling years, I recognize with joy it's legacy: our unschooled minds as we continue on the 'roads less taken' of our unschooled lives.

Getting Ready

This past weekend was spent getting ready.
Big changes and little changes, all require a certain amount of preparation.
We have both going on at our house this month.

Although the Boychick went camping--in the rain!--with his scout troop,
the Chem Geek Princess still launched her clothing initiative so that the Boychick would be fashionably ready for school.

The CGP is the only member of the family with any fashion consciousness whatsoever.
The rest of the household believes, along with most New Mexicans, that formal means ironing your jeans and putting on a bolo tie. Left to ourselves, we'd go everywhere in jeans, flannel shirts over t-shirts and hiking boots. Not the CGP. She refuses to even wear t-shirts, taking the free ones she gets for donating her rare O negative blood in extra large to give to the Engineering Geek. The CGP dresses for dinner (she actually owns dresses!) and does not leave the house without changing into designer jeans. "No one knows that I got these, originally $120.00 MSRP, for one tenth that price!" she says with great pride. "Never buy retail!"

So Saturday evening, after the cloudburst, CGP took off for town headed for Marshall's--a local seconds outlet--to find some "halfway-decent clothes" for her "baby brother."
"High school!" she said, on her way out the door. "Fashion becomes important in high school."
"Size fourteen?" she said, tapping her cell phone impatiently. "Oh, well. I guess he is fourteen, so that should not be hard to remember."

Yesterday, while I was assembling a backpack with a binder with the Boychick's schedule inserted on the front, pencils and extra paper, the CGP spent several hours teaching her little brother the ins and outs of teen hygeine and fashion.

I doubt any other freshman boy had his new t-shirts washed and ironed with spray starch!

I doubt that any other freshman, male or female, began his high school career learning about dryer cycles and proper iron temperatures for various fabrics.

If she hadn't been so set on chemistry, I believe that the CGP could have made a great career as a county extension agent, circa 1940. The first item on her list for going to college was not an I-POD, nor study materials--it was an ironing board. When she lived in the dorm for a semester, she requested a rice cooker for her birthday.

The Boychick seemed receptive to getting ironing lessons, as well as being told how he must shower each morning--"you have boy-funk, you know," carry a comb at all times, and keep his clothing hung neatly on hangers. "You may not under any circumstances wear a shirt without washing it in between to high school," the CGP lectured. "But jeans may be reworn as long as they are clean and pressed."

"Pressed? Jeans?" the Engineering Geek said. "I never press my jeans."

"That's obvious," the CGP sniffed. "Thank goodness I am here to get the Boychick started properly!"

"Hey, Mom," the Boychick enthused. "Look at this cool Elements t-shirt! It's starched."

I wonder how long that will last? I mean, once the CGP moves out?

Thursday, August 14, 2008



Although the days are still sunny and hot,

and the afternoons feature spectacular thunderheads building over the mountains, the mornings have been cool, foggy and misty in the Sandias. The sunflowers are blooming, and will soon become heavy with seed; the first harbingers of autumn wildflowers comes to us with mid-August.

This morning, I wore my 'hoodie,' on our morning constitutional--a sure sign of the approaching seasonal shift.

And this autumn is bringing changes to Los Pecos Homeschool.

Difficult and yet joyful changes, as our once small chicks take different steps towards leaving the nest.

The Chem Geek Princess is preparing to buy a townhouse in Albuquerque. She has already started her professional life as a chemist, starting paying her own health and car insurance, and acting like a responsible adult in many ways. Now, she will take that final step of moving out on her own, well-launched, if I do say so myself!

The Boychick has decided to attend high school. This decision was a full year in the making, and we did not take this step lightly. The decision was predicated on securing him a place in the freshman class of East Mountain High School, a small community charter high school. This school has a block schedule that reduces transitions, small class sizes, and a curriculum that includes many options in the natural sciences. The Boychick has gotten a place in the class of 2012, and yesterday we registered him for his classes.

It all started last fall, when the Boychick and I sat down to discuss his options for a high school education. These were: continue with homeschooling--which I was fully prepared to do--and add Central New Mexico Community College classes as needed, or try for a place at EMHS. There was no talk of returning to regular public schools in our area. The Albuquerque high schools are too big and far away for a homeschooled boy from the mountains, and the Moriarity school--we are technically in their district--is equally distant and does not have the academic emphasis we think is necessary. During our discussions, the Boychick floated the idea of going to school. My heart was heavy--I have invested quite a bit of my identity into being a homeschooler--but I heard him out objectively.

His reasoning was that he has developed confidence in his ability to learn, that his sister is moving out soon and our lives will change, and that there are certain subjects that he wants to learn in the company of friends; his friend A., for example, was planning to attend East Mountain. "Could we consider it?" he asked.

Yes, of course we could.

This spring, we entered Boychick's name in the lottery, and we attended both a parent meeting and a student open house. The school is indeed small and there is no possibility of Boychick becoming lost in "the system." The school has a reputation for academic excellence, parent involvement, and unique methods, such as discovery learning and project-based learning. These are all good for our young maverick mind .

Then, in March, we heard that the Boychick had not made the lottery and that he was placed on a waiting list. Part of me was sad for my boy's high hopes, but part of me was already planning our homeschooling alternatives. However, in April, the school called and told us that a place had opened up for the Boychick, and so the round of planning and placement began.

At his interview, the Boychick wowed the committee with the reading he was doing, and there was some discussion of re-testing him for special education and gifted services. I wrote a up report about his previous IEP--which has expired. Then, there were questions about his AS and whether we needed LD services. I was not so thrilled because of the confusion engendered. I know, I know--I am a special educator--but I am also a homeschool mom, and the 'officialness' of the paperwork and labels that follow our kids is intimidating.

Until registration, there was a little part of me that wondered how this might all work out.

Yesterday, the registration was a little chaotic--I forgot to remind the Boychick's advisor (who is new) to give him a Student Planner, there were no supplies lists available, and the question of special education was brought up. More confusion, because this new special education teacher did not know that the interviewing committee thought that Boychick should be placed in gifted humanities; she was focused on remediation--which I do not believe we need. She had no paperwork, and wanted "a clear copy of his current IEP." He does not have one. The last one written for him was at the end of grade 4, and does not in any way describe the Boychick as he is now. She brought up the idea of re-testing. I demurred, but there was no time for discussion. They found the report I had written but there was no time for us to talk intelligently.

I was ready to take my son home and prepare to continue homeschooling. It just felt safer.

But then my son talked to her for a moment or two so intelligently about his strengths and weaknesses, that I thought better of it. He does not want to be tested again. He does not care to be is placed in the gifted humanities. He has very specific goals for himself. And he wants to go to East Mountain High School.

Deep. Breath. Okay.

Today, I am trying to make an appointment with his advisor, the special education teacher, to convey our goals and desires in a private, quiet setting as much unlike registration as possible.

I am trying not to panic. I am trying not to imagine the Pink Floyd Movie "Another Brick in the Wall" scene.

This is a small, alternative high school. We can work this out. I. Will. Breathe.

I have to remind myself that we made a good, reasoned decision.

That we researched this thoroughly.

That it is always hard to let them go into the big, big world with their big, big selves!

That this is hard for me. For me, and not for him. I'm a Jewish mother, I worry!

The Boychick, on the other hand, is having a marvelous time.
He is saying what he thinks.
He is being heard.

I need to change my tune from "The Wall" to John Denver:

"Its a sweet, sweet dream--

Sometimes I'm almost there,

Sometimes I fly like an eagle...

like an eagle, I go soaring high..."
---John Denver, Looking for Space

That's the Boychick. He is flexing his wings.
He is looking for space.

And I must have the grace to send him forth into the big, big world with my blessing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lughnasadh: The Third Cross-Quarter Day

...Wisdom's gift opens the gates of the heavens,
The gift of Divine understanding makes the ages pass and
the seasons come and go...
--Ma'ariv Aravim, A Poem by E. Levin

Sunrise over the meadow horizon,
August 8, 2008.

The Cross-Quarter came at 21:08 MDT, August 6, 2008. Unfortunately, so did the remnants of Tropical Storm Eduardo! This was the first sunrise I could photograph.

The August Cross-Quarter marks the time when the earth is exactly halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox in the northern hemisphere. It reminds us that summer is passing into fall, and that the days are getting shorter. In the Old European religion, this cross-quarter, called Lughnasadh was the beginning of the harvest season, and thus the beginning of autumn.

This was the approximate position of
sunrise on June 22, 2008.
Again, the weather made it difficult to photograph.
The sunrise was not visible.
This photograph was taken about
40 minutes after sunrise.
Sunrise on June 21 would have been the farthest north on the eastern horizon for the entire year. This sunrise would have been to the left of the solar position in the picture.

Sunrise on May 5, 2008--the second cross-quarter day of the year.

That sunrise was in approximately the same position as the August cross-quarter.
In May, the days were getting progressively longer and the sunrises appeared further and further north.
Now the days are getting shorter, and the sunrises appear further and further south.

The sunrise on March 20, 2008,

the day after the Vernal Equinox.

Human beings have used observations
of the sun's rising and setting to mark
the passage of the seasons as long as
we have understood our own mortality
and possessed the secret of planning for
the future--another gift of Wisdom.

Summer is passing, autumn is coming on. Wisdom recognizes the need to prepare for a new season.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Carnival of Homeschooling:Homeschool Memories Edition

The Carnival of Homeschooling --Homeschooling Memories is up over at Sprittibee's.

Somehow, that theme seems to be appropriate to me.
I am going through endings, changes and beginnings right now, and I am feeling vaguely "Septemberish" (in Chester the Cricket's words) even though it is not quite the middle of August. I have that post-intensity let-down that comes at the end of a completed term. I am glad--glad!--that the intensity is over, but I don't quite know what to do with myself yet.

I think a short reprieve from boxing up books and materials to ship back to IRD's Fulfillment center might be in order. A nice glass of lemonade and sit on the porch to read COH sounds like the perfect break!

Monday, August 11, 2008

IRD Term II Week V: Endings...


Yesterday, I finished my summer job with a spirited discussion of a William Sayoran short story, My Cousin Dikran, the Orator from the book My Name is Aram. The discussion was the last of my adult classes. Yesterday, I also did a final discussion of Banner in the Sky for young adults (mostly middle schoolers) and read The Cat in the Hat with 4-5 year-olds. The lessons were similar to ones that I have been teaching all summer, but I had those flashes of "teacher" moments; those times when a teacher realizes that the students have progressed about as far as each one can at that level and that they really don't need the instruction from me anymore. In other words, those moments that a teacher knows that the time has come to move on.

The season is subtly changing here in Sedillo, and in the cool morning mists, one can read fall in the offing. It is time to move on. New adventures and challenges await for me, for Los Pecos Homeschool, and for the family. But more on that later. Now is the time to wrap-up the summer's work, take stock and do the necessary chores of closing down the summer's employment.

Today, as I am puttering about--filling out the exit evaluation for IRD, getting ready to ship books and materials back, thinking about the upcoming year of study--I have also been thinking about what I have learned and accomplished this summer. Although there are many areas where I might have done better at reaching the children and adults that I taught, I do think I have helped almost every student make progress in learning to read and in developing the skills at the right level to read with absorption for pleasure, and to use active reading skills to accomplish reading goals. I do think my summer has been fulfilling in the work I had chosen to do.

I also think I have learned a tremendous amount about teaching reading skills at every level, and I have seen that reading skills need to be taught at every level from beginner to adult, and I have learned how curriculum to teach these skills ought to be developed. I have also learned that many skills can be meaningfully acquired and enhanced in only five weeks (or approximately 10 hours) of direct instruction, with four to five hours of guided practice and independent practice to supplement. I believe that the skills acquired can be sustained and enhanced by continuing practice on the part of the student over the next year. That, of course, is up to the student.

All of what I learned only makes me wonder further at the resistance of government schools to providing such skills instruction at every level. As I have said before, American public education does bring almost every child through the skills instruction up to about the third grade level, which means successful decoding skills. After that, reading instruction as a skill shifts to the use of reading for acquiring content in the various subjects, as if the higher-order skills cannot be taught through direct instruction. But they can be taught, and in the talks I have had with my adult students, the students expressed quite clearly the need for such instruction so that reading becomes a critical skill for thinking, as well as a vehicle of absorption and pleasure.

When I taught high school science, I noticed when I attempted to discuss assigned textbook readings with my students, that although they can successfully decode the words, many of them did not appear to comprehend what they read. I used to say that what they read appeared to "go in one eye and out the other." My experience this summer has not only helped me to learn why this is so, but what to do about it.

I also have learned why certain popular remedies, such as summer reading lists, are not by themselves helpful to the problem. Certainly, a summer reading list seems to address the issue that students are not doing enough reading in school. Well, then, the logic goes, we must make them read in the summer. However, in the schools I have taught at, the summer reading assignment was followed up by a very short discussion and a quiz. There were no extensive book discussions, and no guidance was provided to enhance the reading skills of the students in order to make the summer reading productive. In the eyes of the students, it was simply another hoop to jump through in order to get points towards their grades. It had no other value. How could it be anything else to students who are not fundamentally "readers" in the rich sense?
And to be fair, none of the teachers involved had every really learned how to teach reading in our content fields--despite having paid for courses by that name in order to be certified. So we had no idea how to make the experience more than a hoop to jump through.

If I ever teach high school science again, I would not assign summer reading unless I was willing to gather students over the course of a summer month for skills instruction and book discussions. There I could model for them, and they could model for each other, the type of thinking needed to truly delve into the assigned book. Instead, I think I would assign a book to be read over the course of a semester, and devote one class period each week to reading instruction and discussion so that the assignment would have some meaning for the students.

Most likely, though, I will not be teaching high school science again. Instead I will be likely go on to do research and perhaps teach at the university level. Still, what I have learned this summer will enrich my thinking about the research I am planning. It will also alter how I would teach both undergraduate and graduate classes using the primary literature of the field.

This summer's work has indeed been fruitful on multiple levels for me. And it has provided me with more questions to consider, and more ways to think about my future as a teacher.

Oh! And I am so not from California! I forgot this goal! I did have a lot of fun teaching--especially during the second term, when the specifics of curriculum delivery became more natural to me, and I could focus on more of the meta-aspects of teaching.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

He's Not the Messiah...

So, he's not the Messiah.
No one has annointed his head with oil.
He doesn't walk on water.

But he's also not promising me that he's going to spend us into oblivion.
And he's not promising me government as Big Nanny...

And since Glenn Beck is unelectable...

and I don't want a Messianic Government...


Yeah, we'll see a third party win when the Cubs win the Pennant.
But, hey, I hear those bums are doing pretty well lately.
And it's after the 4th of July, too.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August Wildflowers at Sedillo


After a hot dry weekend during the new moon, when the Monsoons were interrupted by a high-pressure ridge, they have resumed in full force, with cloudbursts on Sunday and Monday evenings, and a long morning rain yesterday here at Sedillo in the Sandias.

The August wildflowers are beginning to open up and bring color to our muted pinyon-juniper woodland.

Helianthus neomexicanis
New Mexico Sunflower
Asteraceae --the Aster family (formerly called Composites)

Erigeron compositus
Cutleaf Daisy
aka Fleabane
Asteraceae--Aster family
(There has been some move to put
the erigerons in their own family.
I don't know what has happened with that).

Physalis ixocarpa
Tomatillo (Mexican Ground Cherry)
Solanaceae--Potato Family

This has flowers in which the calyx forms the chinese latern of green around the fruit.

Melilotus officialis
Sweet Clover
Leguminaceae--Pea Family

There is also a white variety, called M. albus.

Bouteloua gracilis
Blue Gramma Grass
Poeaceae--Grass family

Yes, grasses are flowering plants! Wind pollenated, they do not create showy flowers, though. The grass flower is quite small and unique. Here you can see the characteristic "eye-brow" of the flower. Black gramma is more robust and has a hairy root.

Gilia aggregata
Scarlet Gilia aka Foxfire
Polemoniaceae--Phlox family

Sphaeralcea var.
Globemallow aka Falsemallow
Malvaceae--Mallow family
The leaves and stems of these, crushed, make a fine poultice for muscle aches. Although the flowers are usually orange, I have seen pink and white and yellow, as well.