Test Scores and Tofu

the meal

I am required by NY state to submit end-of-year assessments for my homeschooled children. When I retrieved the tests for my youngest two from a fellow homeschooler’s mailbox (we had joined in on a bulk test order) I was relieved to see that the scores of my youngest son had risen slightly. He had earned “low average” and “low” and even a “high average” in various areas, but not a single “very low” like he had last year. I had just ascertained from a specialist that he does indeed have a vision problem, which explains his general inability to work academically. He had surprised me as took the test, with me reading him the questions, with a rudimentary understanding of grammar. How would a person who can’t read know to put a comma anywhere?

I was reflecting on how the vision specialist kept referring to the difficulties that my son must encounter as he tries to do his “assignments”. My husband and I hinted that he didn’t actually have assignments, but we could tell that the specialist was not ready to truly understand the freedom that our children enjoy to essentially educate themselves when they are younger. Because of his vision difficulties, my son’s “freedom” had stretched on longer than even we had expected.

Meanwhile, my oldest son had picked up a friend from the airport who had flown in from Bejing to return to the US early in the hopes of working the remainder of the summer before they both resume animation school. He spent several days at our house. He was visibly skeptical about most of the food that we put in front of him, undoubtedly scarred by the year of bad cafeteria food. It turned out that he is a very good cook and he made first a delicious egg and vegetable breakfast for us, and then the dinner that is pictured above. It was inspiring to watch him cook and to realize how many more vegetables they eat at all meals in China. Not too many bowls of cereal or sandwiches get consumed I guess.

 When my son returned from dropping him off at the airport for the last leg of his trip back to school, my son told me that his friend had been most astonished by watching the younger siblings “do nothing”. He explained to my son that in China, it is not OK for children to do nothing. As I went around doing my chores and activities the rest of the day, I pondered this. I knew this about China; my middle son even had studied cello with two separate Chinese instructors who shared memories of living in “music buildings” where everyone played instruments as much as possible so as to be the best that they could be at playing said instrument. Both instructors had parents who were musicians and drove the kids to practice many hours a day. Now though, I felt a bit like I had been plunged into icy cold water on a hot day. I was so accustomed to thinking of myself as a protector of my children’s freedom to learn at their own pace. “Doing nothing” is important in our house; important enough to warrant banning television and video watching when the children were younger. The internet had introduced a whole new challenge as far as allowing time for “nothing”. Something about the perspective from a different culture shook me up thoroughly. Maybe education in China was less about rote memorization and more about full engagement of the intellect? My son’s friend had stated that in China, people believed it was important to learn as much as was humanly possible; the idea was to acquire as much knowledge as possible. I had thought about this before; I had often wished that I had the resources to expose all four children to a second language when they were very young. And then, it had occurred to me that a rigorous study of classical subjects at a younger age might be beneficial. I had opted instead to essentially let them play until at 12 or 13 they began to want to study academic subjects like math and English. Does this encourage creative critical thinking?   My son’s friend apparently marveled that one of the younger brothers could “do nothing” for years, and then buckle down to study hard and perhaps gain entrance to a top University.

It’s good to have an ideological shake-up once in a while.

Promotional Transfats

The healthfood store was all out of Nasoya “Nayonaise” which we use in our house instead of Hellmans. But we all like Hellman’s too, so I stopped in to obtain it instead from Walmart. Ah, there it was, in one of those massive towering promotional displays at the end of the aisle. It was only as I actually grabbed it and put it in the cart as I careened toward the check-out area, that I realized it was more that just a jar of mayonaise. It had a sort of tumorous growth bulging off it’s backside. I looked at it closely as I waited on the register line; the plastic label was shrink-wrapped around the plastic jar of mayonaise AND the tumorous growth. It said “BONUS!” above  the Hellman’s logo on the front, and there was an image of Lipton’s Onion something. It turns out that they have included, for the discounted price of the mayonaise, a “free” packet of Lipton’s onion dip mix. I was immediately suspicious. Why? What is Lipton’s onion dip mix? Why do they want everyone to have it? An obvious answer might be that they hope that once people taste it, they will want to eat it all the time and then sales for onion dip mix will skyrocket. I do not ingest much Lipton onion dip mix in my social circles, but I am aware that it is already a key ingredient in maybe the majority of American homes where chips are served with dips….or at parties in those homes anyway. It seemed unlikely that Lipton’s could really hope for much of an increase in sales, as I believe they have already cornered the market so to speak. I do not event think there is a healthfood version of Lipton’s onion dip mix, though I am probably wrong here. But if there is, I do not think it is enjoying anything near the popularity of Lipton’s.

SO then I checked the ingredients. In tiny letters that I had trouble reading, it said “CONTAINS: SALT, CORN STARCH, ONION POWDER, SUGAR, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT (BARLEY), CARAMEL COLOR, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, CORN SYRUP, DISODIUM INSOMATE, DISODIUM GRANULATE, SULFUR DIOXIDE (USED TO PROTECT QUALITY)

Whew!  I’m ready to throw the gift tumour away. Monosodium glutamate is the stuff that gives people headaches isn’t it? Partially hydrogenated soybean oil is not food, it is used by food companies the same way I use damar varnish in my oil paint; to make a more manageable consistency. Give me my health and an unmanageable consistency any day. The fat in my arteries, not to mention on my thighs, needs no further coagulation thank-you very much.

A Feminist Approach to Lawn Care

I can remember vast tracts of fresh mown grass in even stripes when I was a kid. My grandfather would cut the lawn that led down to the water at the summer cottage on Shelter Island. It always seemed so effortless and organized.

 I now use a wonderful John Deere self propelled mower to mow about 2 acres around our house. The mower is truly wonderful, but still something of a mystery to me. As soon as it doesn’t just start, I feel completely forlorn and utterly mystified. Don’t get me wrong, it is a really good mower and often does “just start”. But it has a way of not “Just starting” when I am the most desperate to get the grass cut, like when we have not managed to mow for 2 weeks and we have just been through a hurricane and then 4 days of bright sun and the grass is over a foot tall. Then of course, if we do manage to start the mower, we stress it out as it really would require an industrial highway department machine to do the job properly. Other times, I finally get the mower to the repair place, and it turns out that mice have built a nest in some engine part. It all seems so mysterious when it just doesn’t “turn on” even when I get one of the teen age sons to pull the cord with all the force they can muster.  It runs through my mind that I really must take a small engine course. Must check the Continuing Education courses for that one.
It is a formidable task keeping that much grass short. Well-intentioned people say to me “I hope you have your sons mowing that lawn for you” or even, as Harry over at the horse farm would put it; “Get those boys off their ass and out there mowing the lawn”. I explain to those people. that the lawn mowing is my activity; the boys can unload the dishwasher, hang the laundry, and vacuum the downstairs while I mow. By claiming mowing, I avoid the need to buy a gym pass, attend exercise class, walk for an hour, etc. It is rigorous physical exercise mowing our lawn; I can tell you. It’s even a more demanding work out when this mower doesn’t “just start” and I have to push the back-up non-self-propelled mower. It is so hard to push up the rises in our lawn that sometimes I have to get a running start.  I definitely sleep well after those episodes. 

Spiral mowing

No matter how I start a given area of mowing, I end up mowing in a spiral, methodically eliminating corners as I mow round and round the perimeter. It is even more dizzying when I think I may be running low on gas and I am determined to complete the spiral before running out; then I mow really fast in tightening circles. I think about how spirals were claimed by feminist artists in the 70s, but then of course it took a male artist to get really famous off of one; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. My spirals are largely an outcome of how the lawnmower works; expelling the cut grass to  the right means that I always want to be steering to the left so as to avoid traveling over all the hunks of freshly cut grass to the right. So a spiral seems logical. I just don’t see so many other lawns cut in spirals.

Dr. Suess specials

When I am done mowing, I revel in the look in of the fresh cut grass leading up to the edge of my flower garden. I have weeded enough by now so that the paths through my garden are quite inviting. The pale pink peonies are the last color of peony to bloom,,,the long stalks weighted down with their opulent flowers. And my Doctor Suess specials are blooming right now…I must try to figure out what these are really called one day….

Before and After

Vegetable garden: BEFORE

So, yes, this is a picture of my so-called vegetable garden. As you can see, it is actually an exquisite document of about 25 different native plants that grow easily in the fertile farm soil of my garden. I am currently taking a “Native Plant” class with Dina Falconi and am starting to distinguish these weeds one from another. We enjoyed Cream of Stinging Nettle Soup last class a month ago. It was really really good, and (here I must review my notes) it helps with allergies, and is good for the circulatory system among other things.

Since I took this picture a few days ago, I have exercised my power as a decision-maker, and I have removed most of these plants to make way for my broccoli and celery seedlings. I have laid the huge weeds in piles along the pathways of the garden,so as to allow the minerals and nutrients to leach back into the soil. Again, not the neatest looking garden, but I have been cheered to find some role models for this sort of patchwork gardening in the likes of old lady gardener Ruth Stout’s gardening methods. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWz0-DznwSE

As soon as I finish establishing the vegetables in neat rows, I will publish an “After” picture. Ot course, there is always an “after” picture after that too, as the summer progresses and I either stay on top of the weeds or I don’t. Unlike Ruth, I mostly do my gardening clothed.