Thursday, February 28, 2008

Life with little girls

You know you've got little girls in your house when you go to open the fridge and find that someone has fastened a diamante necklace with pink flower decoration to the handle:

And when you try to open a bolt and find you can't because it's been mysteriously adorned with a miniature pink handbag:

These little surprise discoveries always stop me in my tracks and bring a smile to my face.

As do the games we've been playing recently. We're going through a phase of playing guessing games - sometimes simple (like 'I spy') and sometimes more elaborate ("I'm in a room in a huge mansion and you have to guess which room it is but you can only ask three questions and I can only answer yes or no.")

But my favourite is 'Who am I?' which (sometimes) goes like this:

"Are you on TV?"


"Are you in a book?"


"A computer game?"


"Are you human?"

"Erm.... Yes."

"Do I know you in real life?"


"Oh! Er.. are you female?"


"Hmmm. Are you in this room?"


"Are you... me?"

"Oh Mum! How did you work it out so fast?"

We're playing these games so much and so often (at least an hour a day) that I think it must be fulfilling some essential cognitive development function at a five year old's level. Logical processing? Sequential.. something or other? I don't know.

Maybe it's just because they're fun.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


We had an earthquake here at about 1am last night. We were 90 miles away from the epicentre and it had a magnitude of 5.2. The younger children and I slept through it - in fact, everyone did except Ali (17) who said it felt like the house was going to collape. I wasn't comforted by the fact he didn't wake us up to tell us this!

This morning we were all chatting about it and Tom realised Lyddie didn't know about plate tectonics, so he explained the theory to her. This gave rise to the question that should have been obvious earlier, but wasn't: Why did it happen in Lincolnshire? Surely that's not on a fault line?

I think some of us are Googling, reading and learning to try and find out why. I hope they explain it to the rest of us when they have! Tom referred me to this page, but it doesn't really answer the question I don't think.

Also going on here this week is a serious question of stop taps - specifically the lack of an internal one in this house. We have to go outside and dig through mud and sludge to turn off our water supply. And, on a similar, related subject - have we got sufficient fall in the gradient of the hill to join up the new house to the main drains? It seems that we haven't, so we're learning about septic tanks.

Very appropriate for an off-grid house.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Don't swear at the table,"

... my brightspark teenage daughter was reprimanded by one of her brothers this evening.

"I wasn't," she said, quick as lightning. "I was swearing at Tom."

The really sad part was the full 30 seconds it took for me to get the joke.

Well, my first baby is 19 today. He says if one more person quotes him a line from those old Paul Hardcastle lyrics he might just scream. He's never even heard the song, and for quite a while he couldn't understand why everyone over the age of 32 inexplicably develops a stutter whenever they refer to his age today.

He's having a peaceful day, having spent yesterday plumbing in our new loo, which took from 9am until 1am and was not without glitches. He was glad he'd done it in the end though. We sat and shared a pot of tea in the middle of the night (as you do) and wondered how many nineteen year-olds have plumbed in a loo.

He was glad he'd done it in the end, because he can fix it now without trying to find a plumber. He can fix just about anything now without trying to find a plumber - he was even making little joints with flux and a blowtorch yesterday after some lessons from his grandfather. And I don't think anyone does that any more (except people's grandfathers).

He seems extremely grown-up now, my firstborn. So much so that I don't forget he's an adult any more, which I often did after he first turned 18. He really seems like one now.

His baby sister, on the other hand, is doing a less successful job of that, for all she's toddling around in my scarf right now, pretending to be me!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

We are, quite definitely, *learning*.

Hoar frost n. Radiation frost (also called hoar frost or hoarfrost) refers to the white ice crystals, loosely deposited on the ground or exposed objects, that form on cold clear nights when radiation losses into the open skies cause objects to become colder than the surrounding air. A related effect is flood frost which occurs when air cooled by ground-level radiation losses travels downhill to form pockets of very cold air in depressions, valleys, and hollows. Hoar frost can form in these areas even when the air temperature a few feet above ground is well above freezing. Nonetheless the frost itself will be at or below the freezing temperature of water.

That was the view from our SW-facing window this morning - much the same as it was yesterday. The frost hadn't dissipated, only thickened overnight. We wanted to go out and try to get some decent pics of the detail of it, but by the time we were ready to go the sun had done its job:

We did find a little sign of spring, one solitary dandelion sheltering against the house wall:

And a rather bigger sign of our current 'home ed project':

A new bathroom suite, patiently waiting out there in the garden room for us to learn how to plumb it into the bathroom. Sadly, we broke the car in the process of bringing it home, so that's two sort of major home ed projects on the go.

I'm starting with the Ladybird book there and hoping to work my way up to the Haynes Manual. The other book is a 'how to' guide to plumbing in a loo. Get a screwdriver... disconnect the pipe.. Oh. Switch the water off first. Hmmm. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Real maths?

I did maths for 14 years at school without ever really knowing why. At home, my chartered accountant stepdad involved me in some of his work and explained how basic arithmetic enables people to organise their financial affairs. This was pre-computers and even pre- the age of electronic calculators. Everything was done by pen and paper. My stepdad would buy new clients a huge red Cathedral Analysis book and teach them the basics of rudimentary double-entry bookkeeping. I was amazed by how easy this was and I still follow a similar system for our household accounts.

Maths made sense at home, but it didn't at school. There, it just seemed like one long stream of hoop-jumping to no end whatsoever. I think that's yet another reason why I prefer to educate my children at home. It wasn't until I was 25, having done A level maths, and stats as part of a business management college course (and I was shocked to learn that mathematically manipulating figures to fit political arguments has spawned its own professional field) that I finally found a maths course to inspire me. It was the Open University's Open Maths course, and I'm glad to see it's still running, because I'd recommend it to anyone who wanted to be excited about real maths, whatever their background in the subject.

In our house we had some real, applied mathematics taking place last night. I'd done some to help me decide whether we could afford to tax our car this month, or whether we'd need to make a SORN declaration and use public transport instead. I realised that if we could halve our usual spending at the supermarket for the next six shopping sessions, we could afford to tax the car.

Zara and Lyddie are the two who most want us to have a car to use. The boys and I don't mind either way, really. And the girls are the ones who love to come supermarket shopping with me and decide what we're buying. So I gave them the last three till receipts and told them that if they could find 50% of the bill total in items we didn't really need and could avoid buying for the next few weeks, we'd tax the car.

Quite a challenge, involving a lot of sums, calculator-stabbing, and peering at the abbreviated names of things to try and identify them, but they managed it in the end. If they really do save the money when we shop, I'll buy the tax disc at the end of the month.

Monday, February 11, 2008


... to Wikipedia.

Does anyone else have their web browser stuffed full of its pages? At least two of my offspring do, so it's not only me. One of them does quite a lot of editing and compiling for it too - a step I haven't taken yet, but might. I am tempted.

I love the linking system. I start reading a page (like this one on Liberalism,) and I can't help but to 'open in background tab' all the other linked articles I want to read. My eyes are too big for my brain and my free time though, because I've always got at least 10x more pages open than I could ever find time to read.

When I do find time to read the other articles, each one spawns at least 10 more background tabs until my whole browser is one long stream of Ws across the top. Sometimes I run out of space and go cold turkey - shut the lot and open a new browser window. That lasts for a couple of days maybe and then, before I know it, something takes me back to Wikipedia again and my browser is full.

There's a message in there for me somewhere. Psychoanalysis by web browsing habits.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Packaging and painting

In our mission to sell up and build an eco house, the staircase has now been painted (photos here), a new door has been hung and may need to be replaced again and various other jobs are underway. We're all working quite hard, in fits and starts, in between being overwhelmed by how much there is to do. Every now and again one or other of us (usually me, of course) can be found stumbling around muttering: "Where do I start?" or "What was I doing?" or "Where did I put - ?" and another one or other of us gently reassures the person and guides them back to the task in hand. Chips are being cooked a lot, and honey sandwiches made by way of sustenance for the workers. People keep turfing unused bits of furniture out of their bedrooms and magically unearthing baskets full of clothes we never knew we had.

In and amongst this hive of activity (by our standards), after the car tax reminder landed on the doormat (about which a tiny bit more here) and I'd seen the blog comments about plastic bags here, we got to thinking about packaging.

Because we don't do all that much with our car on the whole. It takes us to home ed meetings, but a taxi could do that (cheaper than a bus). It gets us to the supermarket, but we could shop online instead. And it takes us to the recycling centre. We were struggling to work out how we could do without this.

We are six people: we buy a lot of food. Most of this is packaged in the usual assortment of bits of plastic which are mostly what fills up our black bin bags. We used to persevere with the bin men, but their determined efforts to fill the bin with stagnant water mixed up with new black bags ground us down in the end. Also the people who collect things to recycle allow you one relatively tiny black boxful which must be stacked just so and we produce three times as much, even if we could be bothered to stack it just so. We have no wheely bins here. No litter fines either though.

So we take it all ourselves in the car. But the government wants to charge us £180 a year for running the car on top of all the other car-running costs and will probably soon start charging us for using the recycling centre too, so we've started wondering whether we can do without the packaging instead.

(Convoluted thinking? Nous?!)

This is a very long way of me asking: has anyone managed to cut down on the packaging they buy? For big families? And if so, how? I'm thinking about buying in bulk from somewhere like Suma, which is only a few miles away, though we'd still need a car to get there unless they do very cheap local deliveries. We could buy the boys' meat from the local butcher instead of the supermarket. More expensive maybe, but maybe not if it saves us from needing to keep the car on the road. I can't think what else we buy that's packaged, but I might collect it all in a pile and take photos sometime, so I can work it out. Or keep a list or something.

The ideal thing would be to take our own food containers somewhere to be filled. But that means driving.

Is there a gap in the market for mobile shops again? That would make sense.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Home ed off-grid

We're planning to move off the power grid, hopefully sometime this year and I've been wondering how this will affect our home education, most of which presently takes place on computers. We will still have computers, of course, and electricity but - and I haven't broken this to the children yet in so many words - I don't think this will be available absolutely all of the time. Our power supplies will no longer be limitless - they'll have to be thought about and planned for.

I think this is a good thing. (Thinking about anything is a good thing, right?) Also, in recent weeks we've had the power off here to do various wiring jobs. It was off for hours on Sunday, and the children played a board game together.

There is, of course, no specific reason for a board game to have any more or less educational value than a computer game. In fact, I can think of many ways in which they don't. But the board games rarely come out when the computers are available, so maybe that in itself says something about their relative attractions.

The thing is - and yes, I did watch The Matrix again this week - there is a whole real world outside of computers. There really is. I keep mentioning it to the kids, but they just look at me doubtfully. And I keep asking them whether they want to take the blue pill, or the red pill? And they tell me to just go and get some more coffee, for goodness' sake Mum.

But I know what I mean. Hmmm, I can see this is a somewhat recurrent theme for me as well. I won't say all of that again here, since I said it there already.

So, are we going off-grid because I think it will be educationally good for the children? (It already has been that: we now know a lot more about electricity than we did 6 months ago. And I get the feeling this will be an exponential curve.) No, of course not. I am devoted to facilitating their learning 24/7, but not quite to that extent. And it's hardly self-directed learning, to be dragged away from your PC and forced to understand how a solar panel works so that you can fix it when it breaks.

No, it's a mutual decision the teens and I made when we were discussing how they wanted to start their adult lives, which is basically along the same lines as they've spend most of their pre-adult lives: free-range. No major financial commitments. They want to be able to earn money as and when they want to. They don't want to be slaves to the system. (At this point I said a quiet, internal "YES!" because I suddenly realised that had been my only ambition for them. Until then I didn't think I had any ambitions for them - them being separate people to me and all.. But maybe it's impossible to parent without hoping for something for one's children?)

Anyway, to achieve (perpetuate) this freedom they need to live mortgage-free and largely bill-free. I don't think it will be possible to eliminate all the bills and we'll certainly still need money for food, but we're planning to reduce our outgoings as much as possible. This, we think, will require a new house-build - hence me reading the Straw Bale book, and planning this in itself is raising a lot of problems learning opportunities.

I'm more than happy to sell our family home to achieve this. We'll all benefit from the change, not just the teens. And I don't subscribe to the theory that children become somehow less family members once they reach the age of 18.

But I draw the line at washing their dirty kitchenware for the rest of my life. They're having separate cooking areas, which will be out of my line of vision. Then I think we can live under the same roof without problems until they're good and ready to do something different.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Computer kids

I don't know where they get it from...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Happy flipping pancake day

We made some. I did the batter and the first few fryings, then Zara took over when the baby needed me:

And everyone enjoyed eating them:

And we worked out the origins of the feast.

(To use up the winter stores in preparation for the Lenten fast in the run up to Easter, when there would be more food available again. This tied in well with the thing about seasons of food.)

Shrove Tuesday was apparently also about an annual confession of sins, from the Old English verb scrifan - to prescribe [as in, a penance]. Hmm. I wonder why this time of year was deemed especially suitable for that?

It's probably all tied up with Imbolc, isn't it? Rosie's got me thinking about the origins of feast days again with this post about Groundhog Day.

PS: Any SIP readers who normally attend our home ed meetings, they've been cancelled indefinitely due to a collapsed floor. We'll keep you posted on that - we might try to find a new venue.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Vegetables, seasonal and otherwise

A couple of conversations to recount, which have happened here today.

I was chatting to Ali earlier. Tired out, been cleaning, shopping, painting all day and was therefore in 'open your mouth and random words come out' mode.

He said, "Nobody's eaten these spare chips?"

And I said: "No, you have them if you want. I need to eat something healthier. Vegetables. The older I get, the more I realise I really am what I eat."

So of course he comes back with: "A vegetable?" without even skipping a beat.

Ah, the truest ones are the funniest!

The other one was a home ed moment with Lyddie, in and amongst all the chaotic rushing-around, trying-to-get-everything-done.

We were in the supermarket and she asked for fruit, so we picked up a little punnet of assorted stuff. She eyed the big strawberries and said: "I'd really like some strawberries, but I know they're too expensive."

And I told her, "I'll be happy to buy them when they're in season."

And she said: "Ok," but I could just tell from her face that she didn't know what I meant, so I asked if she wanted me to explain and she did, so I did.

Have you ever tried explaining the concept of vegetables 'in season' to a five year-old? Everything I said led to an explanation about something else! The conversation lasted for the rest of the shopping trip.

She asked: "Why do they grow them under plastic? Why do people want to eat them all year round?" (I reminded her that she herself had wanted some, then she knew that one!) But she was genuinely a bit puzzled that people would ship fruit and vegetables around the world just so that someone could have 'fresh' produce in a place where it couldn't naturally grow.

We also got into discussing supply and demand, pricing components, overheads and budgeting. This was all mostly news to her and I was surprised that she was so interested, and that - vegetable as I am, today - I could keep her interest for so long.

We've got some planting to do tomorrow. I wonder if she'll remember today's conversation and make any connections.