When Sarah and her family lived in our area (they moved to Florida a couple years ago, and then to Ohio), she was our homeschool evaluator. Each spring she’d come to our house and listen to me prattle on about my kids, and then she’d go home and write up a professional-looking statement certifying that they were, indeed, learning. I never felt like I had to prove myself to her. Her trust — of me and of my children, and of the learning process as a whole — allowed me to relax, trust myself, and, most importantly, try to do a better job of trusting my kids.
Hello, Sarah! Tell us about your family! We’re a family of four: Ben (43), Sarah (42), Sam (11), and Asher (3). We live in Northwest Ohio. Ben works in the information technology department of a local home store, and I’m home doing the gardening, cooking, and kid-watching.
Why did you decide to homeschool? I was unschooled (though it wasn’t called that back then) 1st-12th grade, and it was a great experience for me. Ben was homeschooled as well. So it was always sort of our default option. When Sam was five we visited a kindergarten open house, and after looking over their objectives and talking with some of the teachers we concluded that there wasn’t much for Sam there, academically or socially. We’ve always kind of taken it year by year. I’ve looked at some various options along the way, but none have been as good a fit as unschooling. Sam has never wanted to go to school, either.
What do you mean by “there wasn’t much for Sam there, academically or socially”? The kindergarten teachers gave us a list of objectives for the year that they would be teaching: things like learning letter sounds and a few sight words, counting to 100, following two step directions, etc. Sam was already reading on his own and doing multiplication. I think I found two things on the list that he didn’t already know: recite the Pledge of Allegiance and listen without interrupting during conversations.
Sam’s piano teacher that year was also an assistant in the preschool class at the elementary school. When she heard we were considering sending Sam there to kindergarten she told me that the incoming class she was working with was the absolute most challenging she had ever had—disruptive and needy to the point that she couldn’t recommend that we send Sam. Given all that and the fact that we had another option, we decided to give it a pass.
What does homeschooling actually look like for your family? We identify as unschoolers or life learners, which means Sam is largely in charge of his learning. He has some chores and responsibilities around the house, but other than that his days are his own. Before the pandemic he took part in a number of outside activities: choir, summer camps, homeschool classes at co-ops and homeschool centers, library activities, church stuff, and so on. Now all of that is on hold for us, just like everyone else.
I’m at home with him and Asher, so he does things with us or on his own: lots of reading, playing with Legos, programming things in Python, composing and playing music, playing outside, chatting online with friends, cooking things, etc. He also writes a weekly newspaper, a completely self-chosen activity that he’s maintained for a year and a half. He cleans up breakfast every weekday, makes supper on Tuesdays, and does other chores when I ask (usually without too much grumping!)
Tell us more about Sam’s newspaper! Sam writes about weekly happenings in our household. Some of the stories are about real-world events and some take place in one of his many fantasy worlds — he’ll write about his stuffed toys or similar. He takes photos, makes ads, thinks up jokes, and sometime interviews family members. He usually doesn’t seem to enjoy the actual writing very much, but he does it every week, nevertheless. Once in a while he’ll ask me to type while he dictates or give him advice on some part, but usually he does it on his own. It’s been interesting to me to see not only how his writing has developed, but how he’s handled having a weekly deadline. Sometimes he’ll spread out the work and do a few pages each day and sometimes he’ll put it all off until the end of the week and spend several hours working on it on Friday or Saturday. If he knows we’re going on vacation or something he’ll work ahead. Every once in a while the paper is very short, but there’s been one every week for about 18 months.
Has your homeschooling changed as the boys have gotten older? The truth is that with unschooling nothing really changes when your kid turns five or is ready for first grade or middle school or whatever. I get wound up when people talk about “homeschooling” their preschool age kids (I imagine kids in high chairs with worksheets in front of them), so most of this is focused on Sam, but Asher’s learning all day too: playing with toy vehicles, riding his bike, listening to books, singing songs, alternately playing with and fighting with Sam…all you’d expect from someone who is three.
Does it every drive you crazy, being at home with the kids all the time? It’s gotten easier as they’ve gotten older. I’ve been very fortunate in a lot of ways: the first child was the one who most intensely needed my presence when he was little, and that was okay because he was the only child for eight years. I’m also fortunate to not need to have a job, and to find watching people learn fascinating. So usually we’re pretty content at home together.
But how do you ever get anything done? The kids play outside while I garden and hang out with me while I cook. I write while Asher naps. I try to enjoy or at least respect their interests and chosen activities (I’ve learned more about trains and cars since I’ve been a parent than I ever wanted to know). Now that we’re out of the baby stage I get grouchy if one of them needs me after 8:30PM or so when I want to be “off duty” for the night, but Ben is usually very kind about being the active parent at that point.
What’s most challenging about homeschooling? The most challenging things I can think of aren’t specific to homeschooling: the screamy times; so many interruptions to what I want to do; no childcare because it’s the pandemic. I think all parents are dealing with those things.
What have you learned through homeschooling your children? I’m often surprised by the things my kids know that I’m sure I never taught them. Sam identified iambic pentameter the other day, which, while I had heard of, would have no idea how to identify. When Asher was two he started spelling his last name and reciting my phone number, no prompting or coaching. (I finally caught on that it was from listening to me talk on the phone!)
I’m learning and re-learning how to model what I want to see. That’s a never-ending process. I love watching the different ways my two kids learn: Sam likes lists, explanations, and wants to know the right way; Asher likes to practice on his own, again and again. I’ve seen, especially from Sam (since he’s been around longer) how learning isn’t necessarily a linear process. He’ll work on something—music, math—intensely for several weeks, and then largely ignore it for months or even years. When he comes back to it he’s ready for the next level.
Do you ever get worried that Sam might ignore something for too long and then have trouble later? Not too often — having been unschooled myself I’ve experienced a lot of “learning it when I need it.” I did very little formal writing or math until I applied to college, and that was fine — when I decided I wanted to go to college I was extremely motivated to do whatever I needed to do to go.
Every year or so I’ll check grade-level objectives to see what Sam would be doing if he were in school, partly out of curiosity and partly to make sure he’d have the option to join if he wanted to. If there are things that I don’t think Sam knows already I’ll show him the list and ask him about it. Often that’s sparked an interest for him in learning about whatever it is. But generally if he doesn’t know the principal rivers of the US or what system of government was used in ancient China I’m not too concerned about it. He’s always been interested in learning pretty much everything and I can’t imagine that that will ever change.
There have been, and continue to be, certain social and self-care skills that I insist he learn, because I have to live with him and he’ll be interacting with people all his life. Everyone needs to know how to handle their anger and clean the bathroom!
You’ve moved a lot recently. How have you managed to get the support you need (assuming you’re getting it, of course)? I have a few friends with homeschooled kids who are older than mine. It’s always inspiring to see what that next stage might look like, especially on those days when I feel a little mired. Often I’m inspired just by observing what my kids are doing and learning. I have some favorite authors I turn to when I need words for what I’m seeing or feel like I need a course correction; Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting and Peter Gray’s Free to Learn are two favorites.
Do you have a homeschool philosophy? I sometimes describe my unschooling method as what you’d do with a toddler or preschooler: Let them participate in your activities, don’t disturb them if they’re happily occupied, answer their questions, and show them things you think are cool. The rest is just (“just,” hah!) parenting. If you can teach your child things like washing their hands and table manners and treating other people decently, academics will likely be the easy part.
I used to be a lot more of the opinion “Just leave them alone and they’ll learn.” There’s still a lot of that in my philosophy, but I’ve grown to place a lot more emphasis on relationships. Kids don’t need someone to tell them what to do, but they certainly need people in deep relationships with them, setting healthy boundaries, modeling respect, and reflecting together.
Any advice for someone who’s considering homeschooling? Know yourself and know your kids. Be flexible. Be okay with trying something and making a change if it’s not working. Let your relationship with your kids take top priority. Do some reading on how people learn — you might be surprised at how little it matches what happens in school.
I’ve been holding back telling you about this one, mostly because I’m not sure what I think. I mean, I watched all four of her video lectures before buying the book, and I appreciated her techniques: draining the fruit and reducing the juice to get a consistently saucy-yet-sliceable filling, parbaking the crust, admitting that the first slice of pie always looks like crap and is thus called “The Sacrificial Slice,” etc. Her clear instructions and contagious enthusiam encouraged me to make the switch to eyeballing the water when making pie dough (I KNOW), and now I roll the pastry out directly on a lightly-floured counter using my French rolling pin (which is a lot fancier sounding than it is) and it’s so, so easy.
Plus, I could see that all the pies in her videos had crisp, well-browned bottoms. Which is HUGE. All too many fancy pies made by so-called experts showcase pies with limp, pallid bottoms which is a dead giveaway that they haven’t a clue.
Since the lady, judging from her (pie) bottoms, clearly knew her way around a pie, I bought the book and straightaway read it from cover to cover. (And when I saw that her pretzel dough pie called for honest-to-goodness lye, I whooped out loud. This woman was serious.) But then I plunged in and promptly turned out a handful of truly dreadful pies: too sweet, too gummy, too salty. Were my tastebuds off? Were hers?
But I kept going and gradually I landed on some winners, including this crostata.
Which isn’t actually a pie pie — it’s more of a layered fruit crumble — but it’s still sliceable and baked in a round pan so: pie. (Never mind that cake is also sliceable and round. Whatever.)
Red raspberry and rhubarb, I think.
Freshly baked, the crumb topping is crunchy and the fruit sharp and saucy. But Day Two is where things get good. The oaty layers soften and the fruit looses a bit of its bite, and the whole things feels almost cakey. Actually, it reminds me of these blueberry bars that my aunt makes. I love these bars, but I rarely make them because the rolling feels finicky. This crostata, on the other hand, just gets wacked into the pan, free-form, and the fruit — you can use whatever you want: odd ends cluttering up the kitchen counter or bits of berries gathering freezer burn down cellar — is left raw. The whole thing is satisfying to make, and it ends up tasting almost nourishing.
In fact, it feels more like a fruit-packed coffee cake than a dessert. I eat it for breakfast, and if I’m not saving it for anything in particular, I let it sit out on the kitchen counter so the kids can cut off thick wedges to accompany their tall glasses of milk whenever they get hungry.
Of course, if you want it to be fancy, be my guest: served warm, with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cup of strong coffee, and everyone will be wowed.
When I made a red raspberry rhubarb version, I thought the filling was too tart at first, but by day two it had mellowed and sweetened and felt just right. Just something to consider….
Some of my plans for future crostatas incude: *stone fruit medley (plum, apricot, peach) *triple reds (strawberry, sour cherry, red raspberry) *rhubarb, straight up (with orange) *apple cranberry
for the crumbs: 1½ cups rolled oats 1½ cups flour ⅓ cup whole wheat flour ¾ cup brown sugar, packed ¾ teaspoon baking powder ¾ teaspoon salt ¾ teaspoon cinnamon 170 grams (1½ sticks) butter, chopped ½ cup chopped pecans, reserved
Toss together the oats, flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Using your fingers, cut in the butter until crumbly. Press two-thirds of the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a greased 9-(or 10)-inch springform pan. The crumbs should make half inch-high border. Add the pecans to the remaining crumbs and set aside.
for the fruit: 900 grams mixed berries (strawberry, red raspberry, blackberry, cranberry, blueberry, etc) juice of ½ lemon 2 teaspoons vanilla ½ cup sugar 3 tablespoons cornstarch ½ teaspoon salt
Add the lemon juice and vanilla to the berries. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients (so the cornstarch doesn’t get lumpy when it hits the fruit) and then toss with the berries.
Tumble the berries into the crust-lined pan. Top with the remaining pecan crumbs. Bake the crostata at 375 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until golden brown all over and the fruit is bubbly. Note: I usually end up baking it another thirty minutes or so, reducing the heat to 350 and slipping a tray under the pan (and covering the top with some foil) to protect the crostata from burning; I like the middle to be bubbling and the whole thing to be quite toasty.
Cool completely (or mostly completely) before slicing and serving. Store any leftovers at room temp, covered with plastic.
I’ve had a rough couple weeks. For whatever reason, I’ve felt emotionally raw, like my fortitude is running thin and I’m extra susceptible to every little negative vibe and thought. I think I’m coming out of it, but man, down spells really do take it out of a person. To those who live under the relentless cloud of depression, my heart goes out.
Celebrating… that I’ve finally finished this book. It was super good, but it sure wasn’t easy to read. Alcoholism is a true beast. Do I recommend the book? Yes. . . maybe. It certainly is incredibly well-written, but it may have been part of the reason I’ve been in a funk.
Obsessively hitting refresh… on the CaringBridge page of our friends whose nineteen-year-old son has been, quite terrifyingly suddenly, diagnosed with a brain tumor. These friends are not close close friends, but we have enough parallel big life experiences (several years in Central America, church, school, children of similar ages, etc), that their pain hits a nerve. I’ve had trouble sleeping for thinking about them. The heartbreak is incomprehensible. This is also part of the reason I’ve been feeling so down, I think.
Wondering… why we don’t make tamales more often? We had them for my daughter’s birthday meal and they are so easy to make, and cheap, and soooo delicious and the whole family eats themselves silly on them, so why not make them on a regular basis?
Luxuriating… in my partially renovated bedroom. The first couple steps — tearing out the closet and repainting the whole room — have been completed and the extra space and light and brightness are just wonderful. But I’m kinda worried, too, because since it’s so nice and all right now, maybe my husband will lose steam and forgo steps three, four, and five?
Lecturing… my younger son about the dangers of listening to NPR 24/7. A couple hours a day is fine, I say, but there is such a thing as too much news. It’s an industry, feeding you highly curated material — material that sells — and you are the consumer. Limits and boundaries, my boy. Leave some space for your own thoughts, ‘kay?
Delighting… over all the leftover grocery money at the end of the month. Having two less mouths to feed really does make a difference.
Eating… stale popcorn. It’s leftover from our Sunday movie night (we also had piña coladas and apples) and still surprisingly good. We are such popcorn freaks. I ordered fifty pounds from a place in PA and am now wondering if I should’ve gotten a hundred.
Listening… to the tinny sounds of my kids’ choir zoom call, the first rehearsal of the season. My kids had stopped participating because of Covid, but this semester, with the promise of outdoor rehearsals and concerts (and only two of the rehearsals over zoom), they’ve both decided to rejoin. And I am so glad, for the structure and instruction, the outside involvement, and the music, but most of all for what this means: the end of Covid is in sight, GLORY BE.
Relishing… the fact that I went on a run this morning after thinking that I couldn’t because it was raining, After stomping around the house for a bit, sighing mightily, repeatedly opening the door to stare at the rain clouds and to gauge the speed and density of the falling droplets, and after playing the weather radar over and over, I finally decided that it wasn’t raining that hard, and that the radar’s solid mass of rainclouds was probably a fabrication (because I am a weather expert), and fled the house. And you know what?!! It didn’t rain!!! Maybe I’ll take up poker next.
Considering… overalls. We got a pair for my daughter for her birthday and she looks so stinkin’ cute in them that now I’m thinking I might want some for myself. But don’t they make it difficult to go to the bathroom?
Remembering… that my husband had said that, since there’s probably going to be a seed shortage this year, I should pick up seeds when I go into town this morning. Oops. Tomorrow, I guess?
Realizing… that my younger son should probably be eating five meals a day. He’s basically a human version of a late-summer weed — obnoxious, enormous, persistent, and always in the way — and while he doesn’t say much about food, I’m beginning to notice that he’s randomly tucking into enormous bowls of granola or fixing himself yet another sandwich. I bet if I handed him a plate of real food every couple hours — a bowl of soup, say, or whatever leftovers are knocking about the fridge — he’d put it away, no problem.
Rolling my eyes… over the dumb dogs. They’re fine when they’re outside by themselves, but as soon as one of the kids goes out, Coco and Danny Boy start whaling on each other. I’m guessing it’s a possessiveness thing? Not sure how to fix it, though. Any dog whisperers out there?
Itching… to get my Covid vaccine. I’m just so done with this stupid pandemic. I want to read lips and hug people and go to church and sit down with friends around a table inside and wear lipstick and be normal. Now that the end — or some version of an end — is in sight, I almost can’t bear it anymore.
photo credit: my older daughter (back when she was training her brother to take over her job at the barn)
Written on Saturday when it was 20 degrees outside and our driveway was a sheet of snow-ice. Today it’s supposed to reach 60, and I’m celebrating by grilling hot dogs for supper.
Quick question: how many of you have a tube (bottle? jar?) of harissa paste banging around your fridge? This is not a rhetorical question. I am seriously itching to know how many of you have preceded me into the world of harissa.
Because, up until a couple weeks ago, I’d never even tasted the stuff. I’d heard of it, though, since for years now, food writers have been going on and on and on about harissa-this and harissa-that. Finally, after reading one harissa recipe too many (a.k.a this one), I sprang for some harissa of my own, therefore successfully propelling myself into the inner circle of harissa-owning food snobs.
I HAVE ARRIVED.
The harissa was good, I decided — thick and smokey, with a pleasant whammy of heat — but not exactly earth shattering.
And then I made this pasta dish from the NYTimes (twice) and I’ve come to the begrudging conclusion that yes — sigh — harissa does indeed deserve a place in my kitchen, if for nothing else than to get squirted into this dish.
But first. This recipe is a little weird.
One: it calls for eight ounces of pasta to two-and-a-half pounds (!) of meat. The first time, I left the recipe as is, but it was, as I’d expected it’d be, too meaty. I like a higher pasta-to-meat ratio, please and thank you.
Two: it calls for smashed manicotti. Seriously? Couldn’t I just use noodles instead? Yes, perhaps, but I agree that there is something satisfyingly toothsome about the thick bits of fragmented manicotti. I’m sticking with it.
Three: the recipe was written unnecessarily complicatedly. I kept getting confused and doubling back.
Four: the specified large roasting pan isn’t something that’s found in every kitchen (and the only reason I have one is because my aunt gifted one to my mom who is, in turn, loaning it to me). Even though I used the roaster both times, I think the whole thing could be just as easily — and maybe more easily? — baked in a large Dutch oven.
Five: the ingredient list felt fussy. This most recent time, I unthinkingly skipped the onion and used a stalk of celery instead, and I never even knew my mistake until I sat down to write up the recipe. I also got sloppy with measurements — using a cup of tomato sauce in place of paste, a hard sharp cheddar in place of the Parm, a bowlful of canned tomatoes instead of fresh, more chicken broth, etc. Conclusion: the recipe is much more forgiving than one might think. Treat it like a formula.
Since I have a colon thing going on, I might as well continue…
A note about flavors: this dish is Italian soul food but with a North African kiss. It’s comfort food with a touch of exotic. It’s familiar enough to feel homey and safe, but with a little something special. You get the picture.
And regarding the process: With its slow, languid bake-time, this is The Perfect Dish to make on a blustery, painfully cold Saturday (IT’S SO COLD), but take heart, m’friends. Winter’s nearing an end. Soon enough I’ll be yammering on and on about rhubarb and asparagus, Icannotwait.
Baked Pasta With Harissa Bolognese Adapted from the NYT Cooking.
The recipe calls for ¼ cup harissa paste. Three tablespoons was pushing my family’s comfort levels; two tablespoons was perfect.
My younger daughter said this would be good with beans, and I think she’s probably right. Actually, I can see the heart of this recipe (and its method) adapting to a wide range of ingredients: tossing in some lentils and kale and some cubes of sweet potato, or a can of white beans, or cracking in a few eggs a la shakshuka.
1-2 pound ground beef olive oil 1 cup tomato sauce 2-4 tablespoons harissa paste 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon ground cumin 1 tablespoon ground coriander 2 cups of a mix of grated hard white cheese (Parmesan, cheddar, Pecorino, etc), divided 1¾ teaspoon salt black pepper 2 cups chopped tomatoes with juice 1 carrot, peeled and chopped 1 small onion, peeled and chopped 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 1 stalk celery, chopped 3-4 cups chicken broth ½ cup heavy cream 8 ounces manicotti, bashed to bits with a rolling pin ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
Into a roasting pan (or a large Dutch oven) dump the following: ground beef, a big drizzle of olive oil, the tomato sauce and harissa paste, the Worcestershire sauce, the cumin and coriander, the chopped tomatoes, a few grinds of black pepper, and one cup of the grated cheese.
In a food processor, pulse the veggies — the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery (and I bet fresh fennel would go nicely here) — until finely ground. Add to the roasting pan.
Mix everything together roughly and pop into a 375 oven for 30 minutes, giving it a good stir every ten minutes or so, and breaking up the meat as you go.
Stir in the broth and heavy cream, and then add the pasta, pressing it down into the sauce to submerge it as much as possible. Bake another 30 minutes, stirring every ten minutes.
Sprinkle with most of the parsley and the remaining cheese, and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top. Return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes. Prior to serving, let rest at room temp for ten minutes or so to soak up the last of the liquid.
To finish, top with the last of the parsley and a grind of black pepper. Serve with more fresh Parm, if desired.
A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to do a quiche Lorraine for the diner (Monday, I make savory pies for them to sell during the week), except I wasn’t sure what, exactly, a quiche Lorraine was. It sounded classy to me — very French and very basic — so I did a little digging around for The Formula.
Turns out, there is none. Best I can tell “Quiche Lorraine” is just a fancy name for any old kind of quiche: meat, veggie, cheese, whatever.
So I consulted with a few good food writers on their versions, picked one that sounded classy, and then slapped it on the diner menu and called it Quiche Lorraine.
And now I make a mean, very basic, very French, and very, very delicious quiche Lorraine. It’s superbly creamy, like a custard almost, and full of all the best things: leeks, Gruyere, bacon, and fresh thyme.
It smells like heaven while it’s baking, and I always think to myself, “Of all the things in the bakery, this is what I want to eat the most.”
Layering in all the ingredients sounds nitpicky, but it keeps the fillings from sinking to the bottom, so do it.
Also, if you eat this quiche too warm, it’ll be so incredibly creamy soft that you may be fooled into thinking it’s underbaked. It’s not. Just let it set up a bit and try again.
1 9-inch disk all-butter pie pastry 8-10 pieces of bacon 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, or bacon fat ½ cup chopped leeks (just the lower half) ½ cup chopped onion ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper ¼ teaspoon salt 6 ounces Gruyere 1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried) 3 eggs 2 egg yolks 1 cup heavy cream ¾ cup milk
Parbake the crust: Line a 9-inch pie plate with the pie dough. Press a piece of parchment into the plate and fill it to the brim with dried beans or pie weights. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until the crust is beginning to brown around the edges. Remove the parchment and beans and bake another 5 minutes, or until it’s dry on the bottom and beginning to brown. Check for holes and tears: if any, patch them with a little extra pie dough thinned with water. Brush the edge of the crust with egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten together with a pinch of salt and splash of cream) and set aside.
Prepare the ingredients: Chop the bacon and fry until crispy and brown and then set aside on a paper towel to drain. Saute the leeks and onion in the bacon grease, along with the salt, black pepper, and red pepper, until soft. Grate the Gruyere into a bowl and set aside. In a small bowl, beat together the eggs with the cream and milk.
Assemble the quiche: Scatter ⅔ of the onion mixture over the bottom of the pie, followed by ⅓ of the bacon pieces and ⅔ of the cheese. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the cheese and then gently pour the egg custard into the pan. Artfully arrange the remaining onion mixture, followed by the remaining bacon and then the cheese.
Bake the quiche at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until puffed, golden brown, and the center is set.
Cool the quiche almost to room temperature before cutting and serving.
For months now, my younger son has been begging for a dog. That’s all I want for my birthday, he said, and then to drive his point home, he left notes all over the house.
At first, I’d pooh-poohed him. There’s no way, I said. We don’t need more dogs. We already have two.
But then I started thinking. We had allowed each of the girls to get their own dog once they were able to financially support a pet (and while Francie was our family dog, she was my older son’s charge, more or less), and as the youngest child in a rapidly-emptying house — and semi-socially isolated, thanks to Covid — he, of all the kids, was perhaps the one most in need of a pet. Plus, he’s the one who actually plays with the dogs, racing around the yard with Coco, and then climbing trees when her back is turned for hide-and-seek (and seek — and find — she does!).
So I ran the idea by a couple friends. Am I crazy to consider another dog? I asked. Get it, they said.
And so I started shopping. Daily, I checked the classifieds and Craigslist. I put in an application to the SPCA. I contacted dog-owning friends. I messaged people who knew people who had dogs. But no luck.
For his birthday, we ended up just giving him a leash and some money — and the permission — to get a dog. It was a bummer, having the birthday without the gift, but he handled it well, and, birthday over, the search continued. His preferences were clear: a lab mix, female, and a puppy. But still, there was nothing. With each passing day, I grew more and more frustrated. Where were all the dogs?
And then I found an ad on craigslist for a chocolate lab mix. Problem was, it was six months old, and a he, but I contacted the owners anyway, just to see. They sent photos and explained that there’d been some changes in the family and a doubling up of jobs — they just couldn’t keep up with a puppy.
My son was interested, but hesitant. Look, I said. It’s a gorgeous dog. It’s sad to miss the first cuddly months, but they’d fly by anyway, and six-months old is still very much a puppy. Plus, he’s free and he’s fixed and he’s a lab.
Can I meet him first and then decide? He asked.
So Saturday afternoon in the middle of an ice storm, we hopped in the van and set off to see the puppy. Once he met him, of course he said yes.
My son considered keeping the pup’s original name but, after a number of prolonged discussions, he finally came up with one he liked: Danny Boy, from a book I recently read to him for the second time (and no, Schitt’s Creek fans, this has nothing to do with funerals and Moira).
Gangly and big — he’s bigger than Coco already — Danny Boy is still very much a pup. He doesn’t know his strength, plus he’s clumsy, so he occasionally crashes into walls and people. He tries to climb into our laps. He bounces and falls over, and he gets distracted while eating. He’s eager and rammy and enormously energetic and super people-friendly.
And because he’s a lab, he’s awfully much like Francie: the same gentle, intelligent eyes, the same heavy tail thump-thump-thump, the same wiggly eyebrows. He even sleeps in the same spot where Francie slept: curled up on the mat right outside the door.
I snapped a picture and sent it to the older kids. Does this remind you of anybody? I asked. FRANCIE, they both wrote back immediately.
Already he’s quite attached to my son. He slept on my younger son’s bed the first couple nights, but now he sleeps in the crate at the foot of the bed. (Once it’s warmer, he’ll join the other dogs in the kennel.)
We’ve never gotten an older dog before, so it’s a bit of a learning curve. Danny Boy’s old enough that he’s got some habits that require retraining — barking to be let in, drinking from the toilet, jumping — but young enough that I don’t think it will be too terribly difficult to fix.
Complicating matters is the weather: it’s so icy and cold that it makes it hard to exercise the dogs. Plus, Danny Boy doesn’t know limits, or how to play with other dogs, and his persistent wrestling matches with Coco often threaten to devolve into a flat-out fight.
And then the kids bellow at the dogs to behave and I yell at the kids to mind the dogs and, well, it’s all a bit much.
But that’s okay, because once again we have a lab.
I’d never heard of The Great Courses (that I know of, anyway) until we got an ad for it in the mail. I glanced at it briefly, chalked it up as junk and made to throw it out — but my husband stopped me.
Have you looked at it? He asked. It could be worthwhile.
So I gave the glossy magazine a once-over, read about the discount — 25 dollars a course for 5 courses — and then thought, Why not? It might be fun and if not, it wouldn’t be too much money down the drain.
I told the kids to pick out the classes that interested them, and then we all sat down together and chose the ones with the greatest overlap: Spanish I, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Native Peoples of North America, Western Civilizations I, and Building a Better Vocabulary. (And then we opted to pay ten dollars more for each class to get the version that came with a DVD.)
I had my reservations. You can learn just about anything online (via YouTube and Khan Academy, etc) and there’s the public library and all sorts of fun TED talks and podcasts. Would this be any better than all that free stuff?
My older daughter took the Molecular Biology DVD with her up to Massachusetts, but my younger son sneaked in a few lessons before she left. He was glued to them — completely absorbed — and when I asked if he was understanding any of it, he laughed sheepishly and said, “Some.” (And then one night at supper he regaled us with a long tale of science-y information, the details of which I no longer recall except for the fact that he was so thoroughly excited about it that he was bubbling over.)
Biology, in her new digs.
The two younger kids are watching the Western Civilization lectures with my husband. My daughter takes notes (it helps her focus and retain), and my husband hits pause every now and then to summarize or elaborate or review, or he might pull out the atlas to help them get their bearings. But mostly they just watch. My husband says the class is good — comprehensive, engaging, and informative.
I’m doing the Spanish DVD with the two younger kids. Each lesson — there are thirty in all — takes us about four sessions (or days) to complete, and we break them down like so:
The lectures: we watch them together, with me hitting pause frequently to give them time to formulate answers or repeat phrases.
Speaking exercises: I hit pause constantly so it takes awhile.
Workbook: we photocopy the lessons and they each work their way through the written work, after which I check it and have them read everything out loud.
Practice, above and beyond (but necessary): I make flashcards and randomly yell at them to conjugate “ser,” or to rattle off the pronouns, or to tell me the present tense ending to -ar verbs.
It’s a lot of information, and excellently presented — like, really excellent (and I’m learning/relearning an awful lot) — but I do wonder what it’d be like to try to absorb all of it without any background in Spanish. Even though my kids’ knowledge of the language feels minimal, thanks to their months in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, they’re already familiar with the sounds and cadence, which has gotta be a big help. Plus, it helps that I know enough Spanish to be able to coach and correct. In any case, the kids are absorbing a tremendous amount of Spanish in a way that will stick with them better than any other language learning program I’ve seen (not counting their immersion experiences, of course).
Update: We just got a letter from The Great Courses with another discount (pricier than the first but it applies to all the courses, not just a select few) and my husband is urging me to buy more. Even though I like that the kids are being exposed to college-level lectures, that the material, like any college course, digs in deep enough to get a good taste for the subject matter, and that I don’t have to source the content (but can supplement as much as I want), I probably won’t. We’ve hardly made a dent in the courses we’ve already purchased, and I don’t want to take on too much right at the start and then stall out.
But I am tempted. There is that mental math course that my younger son wants to try…