SAT—A Sporting Event

try to keep your muscles relaxed while filling circles….

Un-schooling—that crazy thing in which kids learn at their own pace.

Sometimes the pace is that of a turtle, and other times, that of a moon rocket. It varies kid to kid, and can have a lot to do with their age and what it is that they may be wanting or not wanting to do. While my oldest son bowed to his mother’s wishes and convention twice, by taking a “placement test” at the local community college to ascertain whether he was educated enough to fit into the community college classroom at age 16, the only test he would take after that was his driving test, and that was a fairly traumatic event also. He absolutely and categorically refused to submit to any form of college placement testing, even though it did become clear to him at age 17 that he was going to apply to college animation programs. It turned out that the two most competitive ones in the US did not require placement tests and he actually managed to get in off the waiting list to one of them where he is currently doing very well.

Son no. 2 has a very different approach. After spending his childhood playing and just like his older brother, not learning to read until he was 11 or 12, he is currently “training” for the SAT. He takes sample tests daily, timing himself and studying where his deficiencies in test taking lie. He knows a lot more about the SAT test strategy than I ever did when I took it as a matter of course many years ago. For example, he knows that once you get up into the high score area, getting one more answer correct gains the test taker a leap in points, whereas answering another question correctly further down the score ladder doesn’t make so much difference. This means that if you only got 4 answers wrong, your score may be well under 700, but if you get just one of those correct, you may break 700 with a margin to spare.

So what is my point? It is not to extoll the virtues of son no. 2. He is certainly not doing this because he is a good boy and knows that I want him to do this. No, not at all. He is a full fledged teen ager who does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it.  He is doing it because he  intends to apply to competitive colleges that require such. He is not even sure he wants to attend such colleges; it will depend on how involved he is with his own entrepreneurial projects and what the colleges offer him in terms of education and cost.  He is building his test taking muscles because he thinks it is interesting and he sees the competitive aspect of it for sure.  It is a game, and he is studying the rules and strategies as he does when he plays Risk.

There are certainly some twists here…a friend of my son’s who probably has had a more sophisticated math education and is continuing to actually “learn” advanced math rather than “train” for the SATs. He may not score as high in math simply because he has actually moved on beyond SAT math! What is actually getting tested here I wonder?

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter: “unschooling,” wherein children are allowed to play games to their heart’s content, may actually be just the very best training ground for a game like the SAT.


The Unfolding Painting

motorcyclist on helmet visor (in process)

I continue to paint portraits on cast off objects (see prior posts). My current portrait reminds me at every step of the way why I paint, and why I am an artist. For this portrait. a helmet visor was submitted and then a snapshot of the submitter’s husband on a motorcycle….I immediately asked if a “better” photo of the man was not available. I had in mind a photo of his face, as this was supposed to be a portrait of him that I was painting. His wife paid lip service to possibly being able to supply something else, but then could not come through as she explained to me that “He doesn’t photograph very well” and “he really liked this photo of himself on the motorcycle”. I resigned myself to dealing with the photo.

Lo and behold, as soon as I positioned my first brush stroke on the visor, I began experiencing a natural unfolding of “something meant to be”. One of those paintings where there is no false move, every thing just falls into place. This is not to say that I didn’t overshoot here or there and need to scrape away an errant bit of paint here and there, as one of the beautiful aspects of painting on found objects is the balance of painting versus unadulterated found object. In other words, there is not “painting over” an errant brushstroke as there would be on a traditional painting on canvas….I must remove errant brush strokes so as to allow the object underneath to show unimpaired. I’m always hoping that the final effect is somewhat akin to ink contour drawings by Matisse…no “mistakes”.

So this “natural unfolding” resulted through accepting someone else’s concept for the painting. It is expanding my sense of what this project is: the initial idea of this project was to encourage local residents in my area to identify “cast off objects” as potential painting surfaces, but now I see that the project is also about allowing me to let go of control and experience some accidental juxtapositions….this is so central to the experience of painting anyway; to be both directive in the sense of applying the paint to the surface, but simultaneously as receptive as possible to the painting as it unfolds. The painter must perform like a bus driver…steering the huge bus, but stopping for traffic lights, and delicately maneuvering around careless pedestrians, and other swerving vehicles.



I am older now. I have started recognizing an increased vulnerability to exhaustion after for example scavenging for fire wood in our barn demolition rubble…the repeated bending and pulling, staggering alone under the weight of heavy water sodden boards some of which are coated in questionable muck….It makes an old person tired.

So I was quite surprised to find in Susun Weed’s New Menopausal Years the Wise Woman Way, the advice to “not get enough sleep” when depression hovers. Weed states that sleeping too much can feed a depressive tendency, and that it can be quite a help to actually get too little sleep upon occasion. After I read that, I felt licensed to give it a try.

One of the constant facts in my life is that there are too few hours in the day. Ever since I can remember, the day ended too soon. When I was twelve, I had more planned to do each day than could possibly happen and I anxiously waited for the school day to end so I could get down to my to-do list of art projects, letter-writing, reading, and just thinking; and that has continued to be my modus operandi.

So last night, first, I worked on some story board drawings with my twenty year old son in Florida. He periodically engages my somewhat remedial help. (I am happy to report actually that in the end, my 3 hours of drawing were not good enough as his own story-boarding has obviously improved as that is what he is in school learning to do!) Then, my sixteen year old son wanted some small vector drawings for a web-site he was building, so I again cosied up to the computer now with my thirteen year old son who turns out to be a precocious student of the Adobe Illustrator program. Together we worked for about two more hours making a net, a spinning coin, and auction tickets. It was suddenly 3:20 AM. Yes,  3:20 AM. I was now tired. I went to bed as quickly as I could, but not before remembering that we had to order cello strings. (see what I mean? the day is never long enough…) which of course we did right then at 3:25 AM.

I woke at 8AM to give my twenty year old in Florida a wake-up call that I had promised. And then, I saw that it wasn’t raining and my curiosity about whether the sap had frozen last night got strong enough along with my recollection that one sap bucket had been over flowing the evening before…and I got up.

It is now 10 PM or so. I am tired, but at no time today did I feel overwhelmed with exhaustion. Just a little worn feeling around my eyes I would say. That’s all. I rebuilt the maple fire and tended it for 2 hours, gathered more wood in the demolition heap, taught 2 classes in a row, drove about 40 miles, was kind and loving to my family, and now am almost ready for bed. Though, as there are never enough hours in the day, it is occurring to my 13 year old and I that we might want to work on one of the Illustrator drawings from last night just a little bit more.

We streamed this video on Netflix a few evenings ago. In brief, it is a documentary following the search for the reincarnation of a religious leader in Nepal. Specifically, it trails a young monk who had devoted his life to following an older leader and being his constant companion. WHen the older man dies, the younger one gets assigned the task of locating his reincarnation. This means that the younger man travels on foot to village after village sitting with baby boys between the age of 1 and one and half. He does finally locate a baby who grabs and manages to put on the former religious leader’s pink stone prayer  necklace. When he will not let anyone take it off his neck, it is taken as a sign that he is the reincarnation.

It is later in the film when the parents tearfully say good-bye to their  toddler, that it becomes clear that the young man has found a new focus for his devotion. This devotion is of course based in religion, but the film shows the young monk’s grappling with the whims and vagaries of caring for a two year old.  Through his belief and devotion to his religion, he has become a parent. I was struck by how this strange “adoption’ was sanctioned by the beliefs of the religion

Portrait Update

The foil wrapped box has held up to the paint…I was worried about this one!

This placemat surface is actually a wonderfully coarse version of canvas!

Still might smooth out the young man’s face a bit further, but it looks so much like him that I”m almost satisfied…

I have 4 more portraits to start and complete by April 20th, which is when I will hold a “Givening” at the local Community Center to both display and give the portraits away to their owners. I must create an announcement for this, and make sure I get it to all the participants. I hope some of them are forewarned by reading about it here!

As the Sap Drips…

huge chucks of ice days after removal

 My industrious friend down the road has already made gallons and gallons of syrup…he taps close to 100 trees I think. He has shallow evaporating pans, and a very focused operation, but no “collection tubes” aside from himself! He usually is just about done making syrup by the time you hear about the Agroforestry syrup-making workshops and info sessions in March.

lifting out the ice from storage buckets

At our place, we are only tapping 8 trees, a couple of them with two taps each. We usually manage to make just enough syrup to last our family for the year, more or less. Like my friend down the road, I prefer to begin early, as then the chances of removing large chunks of ice from the collection buckets greatly increase. In March, one is battling warmer weather when the sap can easily spoil and often doesn’t run if the temperature stays above 32 at night….So here are some pictures of the sort of ice that can be removed after cold nights. These chucks of ice are entirely water as long as you let them drip for a minute before entirely removing. Then, what is left in the bucket is much more concentrated sap. . In other words, what is left in the bucket has already had maybe an hour’s worth of boiling time removed. Rumour has it that this is how the native Americans collected sap. My friend down the road claims that he has come close to producing actual syrup this way, by repeatedly removing the ice day after day when the weather cooperates. I am currently waiting eagerly for the  freezing temperatures predicted for this weekend as it will enable me to reduce my collected amount and shorten fire time. I am so minimally equipped, that two days of energetic dripping will max out our storage space. This means that on a day like today, I had better get out there and start the fire as  the temperature dropped below 32 last night, but only long enough to ensure that the trees will be dripping again today and there is no ice to speak of on the collected sap to remove, and all the buckets are full.

preventative measures…don’t let that water freeze up in the gutters….

 Meanwhile, sap collection and reduction is not the only labour going on around here. The snow on the roof had to be removed, and dogsleds had to be fashioned. My younger kids retrieved old skis from the attic and built two bobsleds for Lucy the dog to pull. Always eager to please, the dog gave it her full effort…..

sled fashioned from old skis

Iditerod, Here we come!

Erratic Consistancy

our kitchen table is our chalkboard

Succumbing to the occasional loss of confidence in “un-schooling” is par for the course. I have been somewhat consistently, in an erratic sort of way, trying to get my two younger children to do a bit of math every day. In part, it is the fact that they must take standardized tests every Spring in New York State. (Either that or present a portfolio of work and a report signed by an official teacher or something like that) I hate to think that they might miss getting a math problem right simply because they have never heard the word “dividend” for example. So we sit down at our slate kitchen table and pull out the Saxon math book. I crack it open to our marked place (which doesn’t necessarily change very often) and we each choose a color of chalk. Next, I present them with a concept or remind them of whatever we were struggling with last time. Recently, we were trying to grasp the concept of rates, as in ratios. Math is not my strongest suite, so part of our routine is to close the door to the office where my husband is working. If he overhears us, he often feels compelled to come sweeping in with “clearer” methods of explaining. The problem with that is that as soon as the two children are presented with the spectacle of two adults trying to get them to understand something, they sort of shut down and get tense and apprehensive about why this subject is suddenly so important.

So, the door shut, I do my best to explain rates. My daughter tries to follow along. My son is less trusting. His face looks almost resentful. Perhaps he is afraid of not understanding this? He has seemed deeply mathematical to me over the years, including figures and speeds and sizes in stories since he was tiny, He can quickly grasp math concepts and also will labor for a long time on calculations in his head and come up with the right answer. Yet, he insists that he hates math. Is it that he hates math if it has to be written down and read? Does it relate to his vision issue? We struggle on with rates, working out how to write the two rates implied by the statement: Marco Polo bought 40 skins for 8 liras. (Skins? liras?) I wonder about why the rates can be written with either number on top or bottom, but I try to keep this worry to myself. The one problem wears out all of our stamina, and we agree to desist. We all wander off to other things.

Later that afternoon, my son is engrossed at the computer working with a music editing program called Garage Band. I am working on planting seedlings in the next room. He calls out, “Mom, if  there are  60 seconds in a minute, how many seconds would there be in 5 minutes?” And before I can answer, he replies to himself out loud, “Oh, there would be …120…240, 300, right?” I assure him he is right. And I go back to planting thinking that maybe the un-schooling thing is more reliable after all.