Saturday, January 31, 2015

Working, homesteading, and full-time parenting

Last week I wrote a post about teaching the kids at home, which would be impossible if Eug wasn't spending half the day with the kids. It vaguely works because we split household tasks pretty evenly. Which is great. I think part of me is an evangelist for this kind of life, where we eschew cars and a rushed lifestyle, raise our kids together without institutions where possible, do meaningful work, and grow a lot of our own food in some idyllic future. I believe this stuff in a very deep way. But it's actually hard and full of contradictions, and one (I) can get caught up in the idea of it rather than the living of it.

I've recently been transitioning from being a PhD student to being a post-doc researcher. And it's really, really good. I have a badge that says Dr. on it. But I was sharing with friends recently that really, it's not super different from being a PhD student, because as a researcher-- but also just as a human-- I just tend to take on things until I reach that baseline level of stress, not unlike the stress of the PhD. It's been a bit startling to realise that, and seems to involve endlessly delaying gratification, to the point where I can't exactly remember what gratification looks like.

So my current take on How-To-Make-Your-Life-Work-Perfectly-In-the-Far-Distant-Future: DON'T TRY!!! Ok, I sortof take that back. I'm all for minimalism and early retirement and healthy food and doing good work, but those things can become pretty God-like and all consuming, and there's no way they can deliver on their promises, nor should they.

A lot of great blogs write about a version of life that makes me feel: Oh! One Day!! When the fruit trees are budding and the bees are buzzing and the chickens are clucking, then will I sit down and chill with my children, who will be playing [*cough* violin*] or building [*cough* tiny house]. IT WILL BE AWESOME. But that tends to undermine my experience of life in the present. Worse, when I'm after a lifestyle that I think I can carefully curate into reality, it's hard to be gracious or kind or generous.

I struggle with the urge to fix stuff that's difficult and genuinely needs attention ("how do we eat enough to have energy to ride two kids around the city!!??" or "Where should we live in April?!!, "how do we stop Eli from throwing stuff at Noah's head?!") and the reality that there will always be more stuff to fix. My task in this season of our lives is to recognize that probably there will always be bits of my life that will be a mess, but that mess does not demand all of my attention all of the time. So that's a long way of saying, Yay for goals (see previous post)!! But also, Yay for holding goals lightly, as we live beyond the mundane messes.

Friday, January 30, 2015

How we're doing home education right now...

Noah is four and Eli is two right now, which feels like a good time to document what we're doing during the day. I thought I'd try to update this every month or so, to keep a record of what we're up to.

This year, we're trying out some monthly goals for the kids, that feed into yearly goals. Eug's gotten all into goals, and you know me. Just call me the Supportive Wife... But seriously, we come up with the goals together and it feels... you know... team-ey. This month, we had a goal focused on helping Noah and Eli to greet people, helping the kids deal with conflict (which was mainly about our not freaking out about conflict), and teaching the kids to swim.

Swimming was the goal that took the most planning, as we tried to swim almost every day, but we don't have a swimming pool. By the end of the month, Eli became cautious and doesn't want to swim unless he's sure he can stand. So we leave him be and don't force it, hoping he'll eventually come around (hopefully this year, goals and all). Noah, on the other hand, swam the length of the tidal pool at St James-- without me near him! He has barely inflated water wings to help give him confidence, and he's pretty much filled with pride over being able to do something so objectively scary.

To help with greeting people, Noah and Eli learned to buy a piece of fruit when we go on the train, from the man who has a fruit stall by the stairs of the train station. Eli shoves the money in the man's hand, grabs a banana and runs away in a kind of dance. Noah tries to talk and make his requests, but he speaks pretty quietly and is not always understood. Still, it seemed like a good idea. We go out for pizza (Narona-- best pizza in Obs) once a week, not only because it gives us a break from cooking, but also because the kids get practice sitting and eating in a different environment. Once or twice a week, I take the kids to our farm plot, where they fend for themselves for an hour or two while my dad and I dig holes and water trees by hand (we invite them to join in, but it's been so hot that I can understand why they tend to play their own games).

The kids play together for some of the day (hence the conflict resolution), play with us, read with us, cook (sometimes). We're still trying violin for a few minutes every day, which Noah and Eli suddenly really enjoy. I've eased up on their bow hold being perfect, in favour of just having them try and gradually correcting them when I sense that'll be helpful.

The extent to which it all feels like "education" varies a lot from day to day. Which I think is fine given their ages. Sometimes we do great, sometimes we just survive. Which is maybe the same whether one goes to school outside or stays home. I imagine that the difference between spending the day with parents and going to school might not be so great until children start to be expected to sit down for long periods and get tested on their knowledge. It's noticeable that Noah has a kind of innocence, or lack of insider knowledge, when it comes to interactions with other kids- that can make these interactions difficult for him to navigate. It doesn't seem to bother him too much, so we're just slowly trying to find more places for him to interact with kids.

Eug sometimes finds cool experiments to do with the kids. I cook and bake with them and do painting and drawing (painting when I'm in a good mood...). We also read a bunch of children's Bibles most days. The version of the Bible that the kids and I like the most is The Jesus Storybook Bible, which was sent to me by my friend Meera (thank you Meera!). It has a subtle humour, beautiful illustrations and most importantly, it helps Noah and Eli hear and understand something about a bunch of the Bible. But we read a couple of other versions too-- my feeling is that God can break through in many different ways, and it's mainly our job to just facilitate that as best we can.

Anyway, all in all we read A LOT. It's our calming go-to activity (um, that and YouTube but I'm not going to talk about that because this is a whitewashed account of our days). These are some of our books for this month (I wrote down our books two out of the four weeks). I've starred the books that Noah and Eli really liked.

*Featherbrain by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake
Our Village by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake
*Mouse Trouble by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake
*Mr Nodd's Ark by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake
*Splat the Cat Storybook Collection Rob Scotton
Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Brilliant Boats by Tony Mittoon and Ant Parker
Homer and the Circus Train by Hardie Gramatky
Nicholas and the Fast Moving Diesel by Edward Ardizzone
*Jack and the Flumflum tree by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts
Look Out, Ladybird by Jack Tickle
*A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
How to be a Viking by Cressida Cowell
Restarted the Magic Treehouse books Mary Pope Osborne.

How do train your dragon by Cressida Cowell (the storyline is too complex for Noah, but he wants to keep going.)
365 Things to do with Paper and Cardboard Usborne Activities.
*The Firekeeper's Son Linda Sue Park
Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (Emma Chichester Clark version)
Primrose in Charge Alan MacDonald
Mabela the Clever margaret Read MacDonald
The Last Train by Kim Lewis
The Spirit of Steam: Locomotives in South Africa by A.W. Smith & D.E. Bourne.
*Snuff by Quentin Blake
Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake
Knight School Jane Clarke and Jane Massey
The Storm Whale by Benji Davies
Patrick by Quentin Blake
*Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave by Quentin Blake

Sunday, January 4, 2015


The past three days we stayed with my parents in Plumstead, to allow us to drive early in the morning down to Kommetjie, where we were pulling down our two timber cottages and an outhouse. It was a shame to pull down two standing, potentially useful structures, and we even wished we could live in them temporarily, but it would be worse to not to use an existing foundation. Demolition was pretty intense physical labour, and we so grateful on the third day when my dad, sister and some friends came to help us in the final push. 

We had big plans to rebuild the cottages as different outhouses for the farm, but almost immediately a neighbour came by to ask for them. We felt good about giving them to the neighbour, who promptly offered to build a henhouse for us. So we felt even better. He then offered us his male muscovy duck (yes, please!) and a few potbellied pigs (no, thank you!).

We got to meet a few more neighbours from further afield, as we'd offered the contents of the houses in exchange for help hauling trash, which turned out well. It felt a little like when we were getting rid of stuff in Boston- I wondered "do we need this?!" and was sometimes a little nervous to relinquish stuff, even "junk" ("Junk"=building materials for future projects!). The cottages were similarly hard for me. But it's likely they'd have rotted, rusted or been stolen before many of our plans came to fruition. Going through the stuff in the cottages was evidence of this: there were plenty of good clothes that had been left for so long that they'd gone moldy, been overgrown with grass (kikuyu grass is powerful stuff-- literally growing through clothing) and been rendered useless.

So we're now several steps closer to building. The engineer comes next week to assess the foundation, and make recommendations on how to make it good enough for the house we're building.

Demolition: Not as easy as it looks: this photo is taken from the southeast, where our house will be, and faces the Northwest area of the farm. Our house will face North, and the front of the foundation will be a porch/sun room. For some reason this corner of the foundation wasn't completed, and is just wood.
Opening up the view.

The kids did not miss us while they were their grandparents. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy 2015, A Guest Post by Eug!

Below is a guest post by Eug.  So I=Eug.  Not Jo.  Very important.  Eug kept begging me so I finally relented (despite Concrete Gardener's strict editorial guidelines/policy).  But Eug was lazy so he just copied and pasted from his January newsletter. So you might be wondering, why is he talking about books? Why is he making random lists?  It's just what he does for his newsletters... I told him, "Dude, I got standards." But he said, "No, this way your readers would get a taste of my awesome newsletter and will want to subscribe." I said, "Do people even read newsletters? Blogs are cooler."  He said, "It's more personal... Please!!!!" 


Happy 2015 to you!

For this year, I’m trying to draw and write a little bit each day. Get into a good habit and flow. Hopefully that’ll mean more books for you all!

Should we be teaching stuff?

Our kids are getting older. This year they’ll turn 5 and 3. Jo and I are scratching our heads, “Is Noah supposed to be grade R (kindergarden) this year?” hmm… “Should we be teaching him stuff?”

Teaching Noah to clean...

Despite all the books we read, we felt like newbie parents (still do) and now, despite all the books we read, we feel like newbie homeschoolers. We’ve talked and dreamed about a pedagogy that could be a blend of unschooling with bits of homeschooling structure. But on days when everything goes crazy at home and we end up vegging out on youtube… I start to panic.

So for this year, Jo and I came up with some goals for our children. But first, we’ll need to go into an area I love to explore… Productivity!

Parent Hacking for Productivity Nerds

So I used to be a GTD guy. Yes, I have Omnifocus on my Mac. If you’re a productivity nerd like me, then you know what I’m talking about, otherwise, sorry for the nerd talk. If you can make it through this section, it will all make sense. I promise.

Recently, I gave up on GTD (sorry David) for a lot of reasons. My current flavor is Agile Results which I picked up from Asian Efficiency.

Here’s the rough idea of Agile Results as I interpreted it: just think in threes (two is ok too.):
  • Write 3 big yearly goals.
  • Write 3 monthly goals.
  • Write 3 weekly goals.
  • Write 3 daily goals.

As you can guess, each daily goal is a small step hopefully in the direction of the bigger goals. They’re also the focus and priority for my day.

For me, I write the 3 yearly goals. The monthly, weekly and daily ones I write at the beginning of the month, week, or start of day. Keeps me agile you see.

I don’t think the daily, weekly or monthly goal has to really line with the yearly goal or with each other. They should to make progress, but life happens and because things come up all the time, I might have a weekly goal that has nothing to do with the monthly or yearly, I just need to get it done. Like fix that leaking sink!

Looking back on December, my 3 Monthly goals were:
  • Clean up the house to put on sale. Done
  • Make a video out of one of my books. Done: see it on Youtube
  • Write a crappy first draft of a new chapter book series. Done: Think— Magic Treehouse meets Doctor Who. 

It’s an easy system to grasp and tweak for yourself. One you can implement with just pen and paper or a fancy spreadsheet.

Whether you’re homeschooling or not, you can easily use the same framework for your children. For older kids, I think it’s a great way to talk about goals and helping them achieve things with small steps. Ken Watanabe’s book Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People would compliment this idea perfectly. By the way, Ken’s book is awesome. (Before you scream at me, “!t’s $13 for a tiny 100 page book with kiddie pictures!” Do what I did, use the library.)

For 2015, Jo and I are coming up with goals for our kids. Not just curriculum goals like reading or math, but skills like learning to bike or swim and social skills or even teaching them to pray.

One goal we have is to teach our kids to swim. So in our daily planning, we might stop by the public pool for an hour in the morning or remember to bring our swimming costumes if we visit the grandparents.
They're like ducks!

Book List: Old is New Books

To start the new year, why not pick up a new old book? I know, we all like new things don’t we? It’s easier to pick a new release film to watch rather than look for films that are decades old we haven’t seen. I think it’s just our natural prejudice for older things. But there’s something special about reading a book I enjoyed as a child and then reading it my own children. So here’s to great old stories:

Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry. The book I enjoyed as a child. And now our children enjoy. Before I could read, I remember pouring over the “busy” illustrations. Where’s Goldbug?

Riverboat Adventures by Lucy Kincaid. The book Jo enjoyed as a child. And now our children enjoy. You'll have to really search to find this out-of-print book, but it's worth it.

Stuart Little by E.B. White. This is the first book, I can remember reading in bed by myself. Charlotte’s Web is nice too, but I had a thing for rodents when I was little.

The Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton. Jo grew up reading Enid Blyton. Jo was shocked I never heard of her. But I think it's more of a British/South African cultural thing. Some of her works are a bit "colonial"... We got a copy of The Wishing Chair from the library to try it on Noah.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. Here’s a book your grandparents might have read as a child. But stay away from those Disney versions. Seriously, pick up the old 1929 one with the scratchy drawing by Ernest H. Shepard. Pooh bear might not look cartoony and fun like the cartoons, but the writing is so much nicer.

Frog and Toad are Friends. From my in-laws bookshelf. It’s two old amphibians being grumpy. Never gets old.

Amelia Bedelia series by Peggy Parish. There’s newer ones by Herman Parish that are just as good, but we’ve been checking out the olds one from the library. These books make Noah laugh, which makes me laugh.

For more, check out New York Public Library’s curated list. Notice the publishing date on many of these books. “Great stories never grow old.”

What books do you remember reading that you are now reading to your kids?

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