Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I just found this picture of my dad after a Google search. He's the one at the podium. My mom is seated, listening intently to his speech. Here's the description from the photo archive:

Description: middle age; suit; standing; talking at banquet, L-R A.V. Crewe, C. H. Townes, and Mrs Crewe. Dr. Crewe, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, was the speaker at the 'March' meeting banquet of the American Physical Society (APS) Wednesday evening, March 29, in the Grand Ballroom of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, Chicago.Date: March 29, 1967

My Dad was 40 when this picture was taken. Today he turned 82, a whole lifetime in between. I had just turned 3 a few days before this meeting. He was in constant demand as a speaker, traveled regularly to Japan and had yearly trips all over the world connected to his work.

His voice is mostly gone, he rarely gets above a hoarse whisper these days. Public speaking hasn't been part of his repertoire since Parkinson's' hit. A year ago he still had a voice, and was still a big man. Now his weight has stabilized, thanks largely to the g-tube that gives him his basic nutrition requirements. His physical movements are more difficult now, but his strength is good. His mind has not been affected, except for worry and anxiety, also brought on my Parkinson's.

Happy Birthday, Dad! I cherish my time with you more each day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about volunteering lately. Why do some people step up to the plate and others don't? Is there some inherited volunteering gene that compels a person to do more than they can? Is there a corresponding gene that compels a person to let others do the work?

Obviously, I have a bias, as I am part of the former group. I can't even pose a question about the other half without exposing my bias. I have a no-buddy, someone who helps me to say "no" when I cannot possibly do more. I am also her no-buddy, but in true over-volunteering style, I firmly believe my efforts to stop her volunteering are called into play more, because she does more. Which leads me to think I should be doing more, and then I have to call my no-buddy to stop me.

Every year, our fabulous InHome Conference reaches the point where half the required number of volunteers are doing all the work. This year, my no-buddy (some buddies we are, right?) decided we needed to map out the jobs and create a manual for the conference. This is to be a living, breathing, ever-changing document to help new recruits and seasoned veterans perform herculean tasks to create the event that is the highlight of our kids "school" year.

I worked for years in Human Resources hiring, firing, training, contract negotiating, performing labor relations, benefit evaluations, the whole gamut of people related jobs. I worked in the corporate world. We were lean and mean in the engineering profession, or so I thought. Even more lean in the trucking industry, and a quite bit more real. But I never encountered what I have seen in the past few days.

In surveying the current volunteer population, we've found that these 37 heroes are performing the jobs of possibly twice that many. In salary situations, jobs have functions that are secondary or tertiary. In the volunteer world, there are no such luxuries. What needs to be done gets done. What wants to get done is either a need or discarded. There is no cushion, no fall back, no support staff.

I want to believe that a lack of knowledge if fueling the lack of volunteers, both for the big jobs and the small, one or two hour jobs during the conference. We don't want to scare people or guilt them into working something they aren't comfortable with. We want to be a welcoming, warm environment to newcomers and long-term homeschoolers alike. We don't want to be pushy, so we don't tell anyone what, specifically we need. This leads to the few thanklessly performing for the many. And it leads to discontent and burn-out. It happens in places like this particular conference, in homeschooling groups, in habitat restoration, in situations requiring volunteers everywhere.

So what makes people shy away from volunteering? There is the fear of the unknown. This has happened to me. I have a child with severe eczema and was sleep deprived for four and a half years. When I couldn't get a clear picture of what was required in a volunteer opportunity, I said no, fearing it was more than I could handle. There is also a feeling of inadequacy. Others have been doing it so well for so long, how could anyone else measure up? There is also a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to orchestrate the event, group, class, etc. If a Girl Scouts troop, for example, runs like clockwork for a few years, there is a belief that it will always work that way. If a support group has been a safe harbor for a generation of parents, it should just continue after those kids have fledged. But without a fresh crop of volunteers in each of these situations, this wont happen.

And then there are the people who wont volunteer no matter what. They have a stronger "no" muscle than most of the people I know. They sign up, pay their fees, do what is asked and go home. They are one tree, not part of the forest.

I don't really want to know how many of these trees there are out there, I'm too busy meeting the forest. I have no answers to the whole volunteering conundrum, but I get to widen my circle of friends and acquaintances and learn from them. My world is richer. And now that my eczema baby is sleeping through the night, I have more time.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Light Bulb Moment

I had one of those rare moments of clarity recently where I just wanted to smack myself on the head. Now I'm happier with my new insight and more self-forgiving.

I like to make things hard on myself. Today I noticed something I have been walking past every day for the past five years or so. A piece of plywood painted white on one side. It's been on the landing of the stairs to the basement, by the house side door for years. Years. Hmmm, what could I use that for? Oh, I know. For the conference this year, I need to replace the message board we've been using the past few years and was thinking of a cork board with push pins. That way we could use recycled paper bits instead of sticky notes that never retain their stickiness as long as we want them to. A better system and green as a bonus! Except I don't have a cork bulletin board. Why not glue all the corks I've been saving onto the board and use that? I lay them out, determined a pattern and a border and then did a load of laundry.

In my chain reaction world, the laundry led me to want another octopus-shaped clothes dryer from Ikea. It has eight arms, each with two clothes pins attached and is perfect for hanging cloth pull ups, fleece, anything I don't want going into the dryer. It also has a face, which makes it fun for the kids to use. Mark had the kids at the zoo, so I decided to head off for a solo shopping trip - the height of luxury.

Sadly, Ikea no longer carries the octopus. The worker I asked was standing in front of a pile of framed cork boards the perfect size for my information table needs, for $4. Unbelievably, I had to wrestle with myself, weighing the pros and cons of the wasted $4 on an imported cork board with a huge carbon footprint or my spending hours gluing corks onto the scrap wood from my basement. I spent the money, picked up a few other items and headed home.

This little exercise in futility made me think of a larger one I've been spending nearly the last two years on. I've been using the Homeschool Tracker, which is a really wonderful free tool put out by some great homeschooling folks. I just needed a method of collecting attendance data to meet the state's requirements, but ended up laboriously plugging in all sorts of data each day. I typed in how long the kids did free reading, math, spelling, what science videos they watched, whether they wrote anything that day, the history curriculum, etc. Each book was entered as a resource and then checked off as having been read. My kids read a lot of books. It became a job in itself. I was diligent, purposeful.

Earlier this year I had my kids take over their schedules, believing this to be a life skill they should master (as I am struggling to master). So, during our almost daily planning meeting, we schedule what needs to be done, when we need to leave, etc and at the end of the day the kids write down what books they have read, what science projects they have done, etc. They are keeping track of their lives. I would then take their planner and copy this information into the Homeschool Tracker.

Double work. I like the format of the Homeschool Tracker, it translates everything into school format. The tracker lists their activities as "assignments" and gives them a check mark for having "completed" something. I printed the information monthly into a binder for a while and then fell behind and would print it out in great bunches. I enjoyed the possibility of having something to show doubting friends and relatives what my children have accomplished, how hard they work, how far they have come.

The fatal flaw in this thinking, of course, is that no one has ever asked for proof that my children are learning anything. They are smart kids, easy kids. They love to learn, spend hours reading, ask for museum memberships for their birthdays. I have no doubters in my life. But I still felt I needed something to prove to some nebulous someone that we are productive. The problem with this is that the only people who would ask for anything resembling proof would be people who don't know my children. State superintendents perhaps, truant officers maybe? And these are exactly the kinds of folks I would never present my nicely labeled binders! Too much information, they would find something wrong with it. All they get is what is required by law, attendance records and a letter of compliance signed by Mark and me.

So, it turns out the only person I was keeping these records for was myself. But even I wasn't reading the stuff. I printed it, punched holes and put it in the three ring binders. There, all done. It should have been a big clue to me how pointless the exercise was when my laptop blew up and I lost all of school year 2007 - 2008's records. But it wasn't.

I don't need to prove to myself that my children are learning, I witness their learning in all its glory each and every day. Some day we will need high school transcripts, I suppose. But Medium and Large are only 9 and 10 now. By the time we need transcripts, they will be able to control what information is recorded in any tracking system on their own.

So, just yesterday I printed out attendance records year to date on each of my three monsters, put them in a folder with our letter of compliance and stashed it by the front door. I have at hand whatever anyone could need, in the unlikely event someone asks for it.

Now I just need to figure out what to do with all those corks. Small used to play with them like blocks. I could drill a hole in them lengthwise and make a sun shade for our front porch, I could make them into trivets if we ever needed more trivets, or coasters, or ....

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about obsessions lately. Obsessing about it, even. Not compulsions, not addictive behavior, but the kind of intense interest in something that compels you to focus on little else.

Large has been obsessive about stop animation for the last few days. Brought on by the Flip digital video camera they received for Christmas and a desire to make movies with his Lego guys, he took 400 pictures of Lego scenes and has been working with Scratch to get them into a movie. It's slow going, he's figuring it all out himself. It's highly frustrating at times, but he gets a special joy when he figures something out - even when it means the past few hours worth of work was for naught - and rushes to tell me about it.

Medium has been obsessively baking for a couple of months. While this has the obvious negative effect on our collective waistlines, it's really a wonderful kitchen chemistry project. In fact, it has led to a request that we study chemistry. And the chain reaction searching through the library system and homeschooling resources to find suitable chemistry experiments for my clan. She wakes up in the morning and huddles with the cookbook her aunt gave her for Christmas. Hmm, muffins? Scones? Coconut cream cake? She's learned a lot about substitutions as she makes things our milk and egg allergic Small can eat, and how the different properties of these substitutes affect the outcome.

Small has been obsessed with all things knights and castles. He recently turned 5 (already!) and received many new knights and weapons of mass destruction from the middle ages. We have this set up in the living room, drawing in the older children to his world of imaginative play. His Nintendo DS has been in the car since Friday, probably not good for the device, but he has been unwilling to go out and get it. No need when you have a world full of guys with cross bows, axes, a catapult and siege tower to storm the castle.

As for me, my obsession runs along more predictable lines. I've started a new sweater for Mark. It's an interesting pattern full of cables, no two rows are alike. A fun knit, although I can tell the sleeves are going to be boring with just one mini-cable repeat running the length.

And I've been setting up grow boxes in the basement to reduce our rabbits' carbon footprint. I made them with LED puck lights inside of plastic tubs that came with baby wipes when the older two were babies. The lettuce and herbs are planted in yogurt cups and the water comes from the discharge from the house humidifyer. Very green. I have actual sprouts and plant to clear a shelf, put rope lights on there and grow it all in the basement. It's pretty cool and I hope it works. Now that we've cleaned out the basement and have room to use it as an actual, functioning part of the house, I'm filling it with a cool weather garden.

These healthy obsessions spark our collective desire to continue learning, to expand our horizons and stretch ourselves through frustration and disappointment to mastery of skills we value as individuals. It's a really good life.