My negotiated self thinks you don’t exist–wanna make something of it? (Week 15: Priorities and Opportunity)

in brief

Monday I spent in bed with a sick Ender, break for walk in the sunshine, reflections, the question—what do I want?

Tuesday, like a bolt of lightning on a bright sunny, a reward for kindness, I suppose—a chance to peer into my father’s soul 30 years ago. OMFG, what a gift, what a surprise.

What a price.

Worth it.

Wednesday, torture. Tequila.

Thursday, no sun, no spring, no hope, cruel clarity. But I worked.

Friday, I prepared the balcony for spring. It’s coming, it was in the air today, yes! I cooked love. I got love. Then missiles over Damascus; frantic texts to family. Everything’s different when you watch it from up close—nothing’s black and white.

Saturday, writer tribe, a cop who may or not be a sociopath—the question, really, was he born like this or did his job make him like that? I teeter on the edge of asking the question, come close. A few hours with my love and Frida. Then, an old friend in the sunshine; I think about buying a cigar. No. Instead, Japanese scotch—or do I mean whiskey? Sushi. Reflections on how we aged; how we changed… not at all.

Sunday… I think Sunday is going to be full of surprises. It’s not over yet.

knock, knock

Jane: Who’s there?

X: Opportunity.


Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!


Radical prioritization.


But today? YES.

negotiated self

William James (brother of Henry, the novelist, and Alice, the diarist, who would have been a novelist had she had a penis or been born even 50 years later) posited that in any interaction between two individuals, there were six persons present (six men, actually—not his fault, I asuppose, as Ursula K. Le Guin so sharply observed, women hadn’t been invented yet… anyway… I’m paraphrasing him to be more inclusive, because now I exist and so do you).

And so when we are together, you and I:

  1. You as you think you are
  2. You as I think you are
  3. You as you really are
  4. I as I think I am
  5. I as you think I am
  6. I as I really am

Currently, in the theory of the negotiated self, psychologists argue that there is no such thing as the self as it really is—that the self is always constantly negotiated in social interactions. Always negotiated. Never absolute.

I think they’ve just told us we don’t really exist.

Pinch me.

Kiss me.

Am I here?

turkish delight

I have a friend named Fatih, and there’s a neighbourhood called Fatih in Istanbul that’s now Syria away from Syria—and I’m writing about a woman named Matilda, and I give her an ex-husband called Fatih.

My friend is not impressed. Fatih the fictional character is not… well. He’s short, for one. And has many other flaws (and possibly, a very small penis, although we haven’t gotten to that part in the story yet).

Fatih: If you give Fatih a very small penis, our friendship is over.

Jane: Well, he’s comic relief.

Fatih: A small penis is not funny. Just change his fucking name!

But I have to call him Fatih, because, you see, Matilda is very fat, and there’s a scene with in a little convenience store in which the clerk calls her Fatih’s Fat Matilda, and OMFG, do you hear that cadence?

My friend is not impressed.

I shouldn’t have told him anything. Sigh.

(the above story, by the way, isn’t actually true, not exactly)

(but it’s a good story, and I will keep on telling it, until everyone believes it’s true)

unschooling looks like this

Jane: Ender-love-of-mine, please understand this. I have no desire to teach you to read until you really, really, really want to learn. When you are ready, when you want it—I will sit here with you for hours. But if you just want to go play Minecraft—go. I have nothing vested in this: I will not fight, make you, force you.

(I’m paraphrasing myself.)

Ender: I want to learn!

Jane: Then you have to look at the fucking letters and not make faces at the mirror.

Ender: How do you spell fucking?


Parenting fail, again.

Unschooling win. (This was on Thursday. In case you care. I don’t.)

why natives hate tourists

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg still—Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft this time—and still arguing with her in my head (in this book, she really admits to me her novel as shit, a thinly disguised memoir that took her nine years to write and that her New York editors, despite the phenomenal success of Writing Down the Bones, pushed to revise and revise, and kinda sounded reluctant to publish, and to be honest, I’m kind of gleefuly here, I whisper to her, “Ha, Natalie, //I//  know the difference between fiction and memoir, //I// know how to write a story that’s not about me and my neurosis, //I// know how to keep the reader up all night with events I’ve never experienced—only imagined… and I can take that from idea to clean draft in weeks not years, ha, ha, ha—okay, yes, I’m arguing with the Goddess of North American Freefall Writing, sorry, but despite all the voices in my head, sometimes it gets a little lonely inside the work…)

Anyway. I’m reading Natalie Goldberg and she’s quoting Jamaica Kincaid:

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the places where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when they natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

A few thoughts: I have spent much of this terrible winter wishing to be back in Cuba, occupying the responsibility-free role of tourist, not-native, not-of-this place person. Now I remember the shame and guilt that came along with the pleasure. Right.

And I remember how important it is for me to have a life, build a life from which I don’t want to escape—from which I don’t need a vacation.

(Can you think of anything worse—more banal, to use Kincaid’s word—than living your life FOR your vacation? Ugh. No, no, no. Not me.)

I also think—I must read everything Jamaica Kincaid has ever written. This is what I do when I suddenly, violently fall in love with a writer, a voice. I drink her, drown in her, until I’m sick of her. And then I leave her—but she never leaves me.

(This is  why we read, why I write. Why musicians compose and play, why artists create. It’s the only everlasting, unconditional love there is—falling in love with, using up art—giving yourself up to be loved, to be used.)

(That was either a profoundly deep thought, or a stupidly pretentious one, but I’ll let it stand.)

canadian spring

…is here. I think it’s here.

But I’m afraid to take the winter tires off my car just yet.

…good thing I didn’t…

and also, this

How I spent Sunday night. Existential angst notwithstanding, life is good.




The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

A moody story (Week 3: Ebb and Flow)

Do it full out (Week 4: Passions and Outcomes)

The Buddha was a psychopath and other heresies (Week 5: No Cohesion)

A good week (Week 6: Execute, Regroup)

Killing it (Week 7: Exhaustion and Adrenaline)

Tired, petty, tired, unimportant (Week 8: Disappointment and Perseverance)

Professionals do it like this: [insert key scene here] (Week 9: Battle, Fatigue, Reward)

Reading Nabokov, crying, whining, regrouping (Week 10: Tears and Dreams)

Shake the Disease (Week 11: Sickness and Health… well, mostly sickness)

Cremation, not embalming, but I think I might live after all (Week 12: Angst and Gratitude)

Let’s pretend it all does have meaning (Week 13: Convalescence and Rebirth)

The cage is will, the lock is discipline (Week 14: Up and Down)

My negotiated self thinks you don’t exist–wanna make something of it? (Week 15: Priorities and Opportunity)


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A passion for learning and for life: unschooling and worldschooling in practice (a NOT-BACK-TO-SCHOOL present)

Today… something extra special…

For everyone whose kids aren’t heading back to school today, in appreciation of the path you’ve chosen to walk. Never a dull moment, is there?

And, for everyone whose kids are heading back to school today, who, 10 years later, are still asking me, “But how do you do it? And what is it, exactly, that you do all day?”

I’ve finally decided to tell you. 😉


In gratitude to Inspired Calgary for the opportunity to get on the soapbox, and to sponsors Pandia Press, Bravewriter, Patterson Springs  Farm, Wild Child Alternative Education, Bean & Bear Media, and Mountain Reach Educators for making the event possible.

And an extra-special thank you for Sean Lindsay to capturing the event on video so that those of you who weren’t there can see me call Yo-Yo Ma a violin player.

(I was very nervous.)

The transcript of the speech I was supposed to give follows the video. Obviously, I departed from the script just a little…

Prepared speech

All right. Unschooling. Let’s have a quick poll. Who here is familiar with the concept, philosophy, whatever you wanna call it? Who thinks it’s the best idea ever and that’s what they’re going to do with their kids? Awesome. I love preaching to the choir… Who thinks it’s totally kooky and only crazy people would do it? Who equates it with unlearning and unparenting?

Don’t be shy to tell me so—when I first heard of unschooling, I was kind of appalled. And, here I am, 10 years later, its fourth biggest advocate.

Its first, second and third biggest advocates are my three children.

photo (71)

Unschooling, as most of you know, was the term coined by homeschool advocate John Holt—and I’m sure you’re all reading all of his books and Growing Without Schooling articles—they’re all archived on the web—if you’re not devouring them, do, they are absolutely inspirational.

John Holt used the term unschooling to refer to homeschooling in general. Holt thought that the best and most important thing about homeschooling was that it not duplicate school in the home environment.

Since then, the idea of unschooling, and the term itself, has acquired all sorts of definitions and sister terms, including delight-driven learning, free range learning, child-led learning, interest-led learning. There are as many ways, today, of defining unschooling as there are families who call themselves unschoolers.

(You can read how Flora defines unschooling here.)

The thing most people think we have in common is that we are curriculum-free—or at least curriculum-light. The actual, much more important thing that I believe all unschoolers have in common is that we love learning and we believe our kids love learning and we believe our kids will learn whatever they need to learn as they need to learn it.

This is both unbelievably easy and unbelievably hard.

It also starts, not with believing in your child, but with believing in yourself. To be an effective unschooling parent, you need to love, crave, delight in learning new things. All the time. And be confident that… you can do it. That when you need to learn Japanese—you will sit down, grit your teeth, do the work, and learn Japanese.

If you don’t have that trust and confidence in yourself, you will not have it in your children.


So I actually have an assignment for all of you who are thinking about unschooling. I want you to think about something you’ve always wanted to know how to do—and, starting tomorrow, I want you to start working on it. Japanese? Knitting? Car maintenance? Worm composting? It doesn’t matter what. Something.

It’s possible that you’re a little out of practice at chasing your passions and your interests. Before you start helping your children on their unschooling journey, launch yourself. Be passionate about your life, your interests, your learning.

I think that’s a critical prerequisite for being an unschooling family. The parents have to be committed life learners too.

My second assignment for you, if you are thinking about unschooling, is to commit a month to—are you ready for this?—doing nothing to actively shape your children’s education. Just… watch them. When you’re not setting the agenda—what do they do? When left to their own devices, when they are not interrupted, when they are not shuttled from activity to activity, playdate to playdate, what do they do?

Pay attention. Do it alongside them—or at least watch them. What do they love to do?

Then offer them a little more of it. But not too much. Make it findable, reachable, available—but don’t shove it down their throats.

nbtb-Ender running by river

So this is the point in the conversation when someone usually starts to hyperventilate a little and say,

“But if they want to be a world class violin player and I don’t get them in early child hood music education by three and practicing an hour a day by five, they’ll never get there!”

Or “But if they’re not reading by six they’ll be behind.”

Or “But suppose all they want to do is play video games?”

Here’s the thing: a child raised to love learning will never be behind. A child brought up in a family that values learning and who learns how to learn continuously, constantly—not to pass a test, not to get a certificate but to acquire a skill or knowledge they need and want to have—that child has an incredible leg up on kids who are forced to learn things they don’t care about.

How many of you had to take French as a second language in school? I did, through to grade 12. Languages are incredibly easy for me. I spoke five or six before I was 10. I learned Japanese and Korean in university. Spanish when I decided I wanted to travel in Latin America. I’m learning Farsi now. French? After being made to learn it when I didn’t care about it?

I think I can say Please and thank you in a horrible Western Canadian accent, and that’s about it.

What Went Right

Here’s another thing, though—if you can’t make yourself believe this—if you think your children will never want to learn to read unless you make them—if you think your children will never want to learn math unless you make them—unschooling is not for you. I’m not sure homeschooling is for you, either, but that’s a highly controversial statement and if you like, we can argue about that on Twitter sometime, but not here.

(I’m @NothingBTBook. Come fight–er, talk–with me.)

If all your kids want to do is play video games—awesome. There are so many studies coming out now about the advantages of video game playing on learners, that Sweden has made Minecraft mandatory in its schools. What you, as a parent, need to do in that case is—hang out beside your children while they’re playing their games. What are they doing, really? There’s more happening than just swiping at the screen in most of the games children gravitate to.

Talk to them about what they enjoy. And why. If you think the game they’re playing is idiotic—it’s okay to think that—try not to say it. Watch. Angry Birds is all about geometry. Minecraft is fabulous. Fruit Ninja, I’m not so sure about, but, you know, the lame games, kids burn out on—they binge for a while, and then move on to something more stimulating. Hate the game they’re playing? Do some research and offer a more interesting one.

(You might want to check out these posts too: How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games + space-that-is-me-my-heart-made-made-into-place, which is about the dangers of telling people you love that the things they love are stupid)

As for that world class violin player who’ll never fulfill her dreams unless you get her in lessons by age three…

One in a million three year olds has the kind of talent that will turn her into a violinist like Itzhak Perlman or a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma.

(Also, yes, I’m totally making up this statistic. I’m not actually a 100 per cent sure what instrument Yo-Yo Ma plays. Call me on it.)

And if she has that talent, there is very little you can do to extinguish it. Fail to sign her up for violin lessons—she will find a ukulele in a neighbour’s house and start strumming it. She will demand lessons. She will practice without you telling her to.

NBTB-Not An Artist

I feel a cynic in the audience, who says no child will practice violin—guitar—piano—unless you make her. Not even a talented child. Again, I say—if you unschool, you have to have that faith.

I agree with you that plenty of children can be turned into competent musicians if you force them to practice.

(Not everyone’s an artist. And that’s ok.)

What I’m saying is that the children who truly love music—art—science—math—for whom it is the interest and the passion—they will discover it and chase it and master it without you forcing them to sit down for an hour of practice every afternoon.

If you don’t believe me, you shouldn’t unschool. You will be miserable, and you will make your children miserable with your inconsistency and lack of confidence in themselves.


OK. Enough philosophy. What you all want to know is, what does unschooling look like on a daily basis? And I’ll give you a few examples from my family, but before I do I want to talk about scheduling, routines and rhythms.

For me, unschooling does not equal unscheduling. It does not mean not knowing what the hell we’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month in all aspects of our lives. It does not mean waking up Monday morning, rolling out of bed at 11 a.m.—that’s only in my fantasies, sigh—and saying, “Gee, I wonder what we’re going to do today?”

I work, my kids’ daddy works, our work demands introduce a fair bit of deadline-driven chaos into our lives, and all of my children do better in the context of some sort of predictable schedule. One of the things that worries me most when people first discover unschooling is that they turn it into this Religion of Freedom in which nothing is planned, all is chaos… and everyone is miserable. Some people do great when everything in their lives is unplanned and unpredictable.

I am not one of them, and neither are any of my children.

And so—no unscheduling in my life. Our life, and our unschooling practice, has a definite rhythm. It’s a responsive rhythm rather than a rigid one, but there’s a definite routine.

nbtb-thinking about laundry

The main anchors of our daily routine are, frankly, about me, and not the kids. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is write for 30 minutes. This is my meditation, my religious practice, my work, my everything—no matter what else happens in my day, this is what I must do. Then, I check in with the kids to make sure they’ve eaten—keep in mind my kids are 14, 11 and almost 7 now—and I make sure they’re settled into doing something—it’s summer still in our world  so that something generally involves being outside with their friends—and then I go back and try to wring at least another hour of time, sometimes two for my work.

Then I turn my attention back to the kids. Feed them second breakfast or first lunch—anyone else’s kids just never stop eating—and be available to them if they need me for something. This would be the time that I do math with 11 year old, or she’ll show me her latest modeling clay project or something, or my seven year old will want to show me his Lego project. Or we might read. Or we’ve made plans, or make plans to go somewhere interesting in the city, alone or with friends.

nbtb-munchkin manuscript mustard

I have a teenager now, and he sleeps until late, and when he wakes up, I try to be present and not distracted to just hang with him for a bit. He and I are trying to get into the habit of doing math each afternoon for 15-30 minutes—he’s very math/science/engineering focused, and he’ll probably want to do some on-line math courses soon, so we’re working on establishing those habits. How does this fit into an unschooling philosophy? See, this is something he wants to do—this awareness and desire came at an age at which it made sense to him that certain building blocks had to be in place first—and so, we’re doing it.

By the way, after not doing any math, at all, until my eldest was 11 or 12, we breezed through grade 2, 3 and 4 level math in 17 days—I kept track—and then grade 5 took a little longer, 21 days. And then we took a break for almost year, reviewed everything in a week, and he keeps on plugging away at it. And he’s the one who reminds me we’ve skipped too many days.

nbtb-gamers and jumpers

When he’s not doing that, by the way, all he does is play video games. And run. And listen to audiobooks. And watch Youtube vloggers. And run. And play video games. And Skype with friends. And make cookies from scratch. And run to the Y to go for a swim. And look up tutorials on how to set up servers, hack mods or optimize his computer to better play video games.

All he does is play video games… and I think he’s doing ok.

(But did you notice that… he doesn’t just play video games? I know this—because I watch and pay attention…)

The 11 year old is an artist, and she spends big chunks of her day drawing or making jewelery. Also writing stories about unicorns. Yesterday, she came to me and said she wanted to ramp up her math. So that might happen.

The not quite 7 year old mostly plays in dirt and with Lego.

So my afternoons focus on what the kids need and want, and might include going swimming, going to a thing—there are so many things happening in Calgary all the time! It’s awesome! An unschooler’s tip: I put all the things in my calendar as I hear about them. So, Beakerhead is coming up—if you don’t know what Beakerhead is, google it, and I’ve just taken care of all your science planning for the year, you’re welcome—as soon as the program guide came into my hands, I ran through it, marked all the stuff that looked cool, put it in my calendar, and so, when on that Wednesday in September, I’m not on deadline and we want to go do a thing—look! There’s a cool thing happening! Let’s go!

NBTB-beakerhead 2015 intrude

When we get back from a thing—or when I finish a bout of doing something with them at home—by late afternoon, we all take a break from each other. The kids either go to hang with friends—we live in a great neighbourhood for that—or chill with audiobooks or the little guy builds Lego—and I go to my writing space or to the balcony to be alone. I might work or inflict myself on social media… or I might just stare off into space for a while.

As an aside—self-care and taking time for yourself and to be alone is so critical as a homeschooling parent. Teachers have regular breaks. So do day care workers. Make sure you give them to yourself.

Then, supper. After supper, the kids can go on screens—so when I said my eldest plays video games all the time, I just meant all night. Except on binge days—that’s another part of our routine—I need two days a week when I can really hyper-focus on my work, and on those days, they have unlimited screen time.

Ironically, those days don’t look that much different for them than the other days, except that I’m not really available to them in any meaningful way.

A couple of nights a week, my daughter has martial arts class—the boys don’t do classes of any sort, it’s against their religion, my eldest informed me once—and a couple of nights a week, I take to myself and head out of the house almost as soon as my partner comes home.

Once or twice a month, I get us out of the city for most of the day—into the mountains, or to Drumheller or to a place like that.

And that’s sort of what unschooling looks like.

It looks like… life.


I’m going to give worldschooling just a few minutes before I close, because worldschooling is not complicated. You travel, you learn. You experience, you learn. That’s really not much else to it. And you will worldschool just the way you homeschool. So, as an unschooler talking about worldschooling, the perspective I offer is for goodness’ sake do not turn every museum-temple-whatever visit into a forced educational experience with pre-experience reading and post-experience worksheets! But, you know, if that kind of thing is a critical part of your personality, you will bring that to homeschooling and to worldschooling. And that’s okay. We have to be the people we are.

I think almost all of us dream about the possibility of worldschooling, right? Travel, exotic locales—it’s exciting. I’ve just spent three months with my kids witnessing a Cuba in a transition as intensive as the Communist revolution of 1959 and it was exhilarating.

17-Haunted House

I’ve taken my kids to Poland, France, London. To all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and to fishing villages in Mexico too.

This is a fabulous experience, and if you can afford to travel the world with your children, do it. It will be exhausting, and at times you will wonder why you ever bothered to leave—but in the end it will be worth it.

If you can’t afford to—and I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind as you go along on your homeschooling journey—everything is possible in theory, right, but practical considerations trump our dreams. Travel is expensive, even when you do it cheaply—especially if you are a family of five, six or eight, right? Your job, your partner’s job—and input into you taking your children off to Asia for six months, come on honey, you won’t miss us that much—your own level of comfort—these are all important considerations.

Trio on benches at laundry park2

If they keep you close to home—worldschool in your city and your community.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to look at your city and your province the way a tourist would. If I were a stranger here, where would I go? What would I see? Make a list of all of this area’s museums and tourist attractions—even the crappy ones. And explore them, even the crappy ones. The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is a one of a kind experience, and it’s only an hour away.

Walk the streets of your city—or the one that’s an hour’s drive away—with no agenda other than to experience it—learn it. Obviously—take your children along.

The second—we live in a multicultural city, and we live in the time of the Internet! Take advantage of both. Go to the city’s various cultural festivals. Go to ethnic markets. Take your kids out for some out-of-your-comfort-zone food—or get a cook book out of the library and prepare an Indonesian or Moroccan or whatever feast at home.

One of our favourite things to do is to go to the Asian supermarket and look at all the foods we don’t eat. And, sometimes, buy them and eat them. Often they’re delicious. Occasionally, they’re gross. Both experiences are fabulous.

NBTB-read my mind 2

I don’t have to tell you how the Internet brings the world to you—I’m just going to remind you not to forget it. A vicarious experience of the world is right there, at your fingertips. One of my kids favorite things that they’ve found on the Internet on their own and brought home to me is Universal Yums. Every month, a box of candies and snacks from a different country arrives in our mailbox, complete with a little booklet of facts and trivia about the region of the month, sometimes with links to music or movies—what a spring board for further exploration!

nbtb-UniversalYums, and yes, they ship to Canada.

The world is your classroom.

Your city is your classroom.

Your life is your classroom.



If you want to learn more about unschooling, I do have a legacy blog, Undogmatic Unschoolers, you are welcome to mine for information. I only update it twice a year now, with the children’s learning plans in September, and their progress reports in June–you may find these helpful as you consider your own un/home/learning journey. It also has all sorts of unschooling-in-calgary resources.


POSTCARDS FROM CUBA return with a teaser tomorrow. Are you ready?


If I’ve changed your life–I aim high ;)–consider buying me a cup of coffee ($5), a bottle of cheap wine ($20), or,  you know, a week’s worth of groceries ($350).*

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(Seriously. Those damn kids WILL. NOT. STOP. EATING.)




A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #12

A conversation:

Ender: Oooh, one more chocolate croissant, yum!

Jane: Oh, yeah, one more. Do you want to share it with Flora and Cinder?

Ender: No. I want to share it by myself.


September 12, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

How To Do Nothing With Nobody All By Yourself by Robert Paul Smith

and if you cannot get a hold of that, read In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds on (where else) BrainPickings.


A writing exercise to do instead of checking Facebook:

Pen. Notebook. Or, laptop. First four words: “I was bored, so…”


An explanation:

This is the final week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL! Actually, I’m back—home sweet home—but 12 seemed like a more… symmetrical? number than 11, and I thought I’d want a week to settle. The conversation + reading assignment + writing exercise + re-run wraps up today. Next week—something utterly new.

Until then…



A re-run:

Everyone Isn’t An Artist

first published March 25, 2012

There is a lovely quote attributed to Pablo Picasso along the lines that, “ “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” In Quest Theatre’s production of For Art’s Sake, the lovely children’s play that played last weekend at Y-Stage in Calgary, the playwright and authors draw attention a couple of times to another Picasso soundbyte on art: that the great master spend most of his adult life trying to paint (think?) like a child. The message of the play, delivered repeatedly by one of the characters and proudly parroted back at the actors at the end of the play by my own Flora? “Everyone is an artist.”

Except they’re not.

A caveat before I go any further: I enjoyed the play—the actors were terrific, the setting and its use of multi-media inspired, and the little people loved it. I love Quest Theatre. I support Y-Stage unreservedly and will be back for their offering next month (here’s a link to details about the show at FamilyFunCalgary).

But I disagree with its fundamental tenant. Everyone is not an artist… and I’m not sure why these days, artists are so darn determined to convince the rest of us that a) they’re not that special and b) if only we opened our minds / cleaned our chakras / freed our inner elves, we could do what they do.

I am a writer. I don’t think everyone is a writer. Nor that everyone should exert themselves to be a writer, to express themselves, fulfill themselves—earn a livelihood for themselves—in this particular way. If everyone is an artist, is everyone an engineer? A plumber? A mathematician?

My artist child is shining under the influence of the play. She’s an artist. And she loves the message that everyone is an artist. It’s reassuring to her fledgling confidence.

Her older brother? He laughed in all the funny spots. Clearly enjoyed himself. As we leave the theatre, however, he’s unforgiving. “It was kind of crappy,” he says. “Art this art that. I don’t like art. I don’t like drawing or painting very much. Or even looking at pictures. That’s just not my thing.”

He’s not an artist. Nor a thwarted artist—not an artist denied. Surrounded by paints, crayons, markers, pencils, chalks, in a house in which walls were prepped for painting and drawing on, he abandoned all that as soon as he grew into consciousness of choice. That is not how he expresses himself, fulfills himself, processes information, relaxes.

But it is what his sister turns to do all that. She draws when she’s overflowing with happiness. And when she’s sad. When she’s at a loss. It’s what she does when she listens to books on tape. Her handwriting practice sheets are works of art—an interplay of colour, patterns, creation. Will this love stay her lifelong passion, lead her to her livelihood, or remain a steadfast companion/form of release and expression throughout her life?

Maybe. And will she try to convince her brother that he’s an artist too? That everyone is an artist?

Frankly, I hope not. It’s a gift, a talent, a passion that not everyone shares or aspires to. And claiming that they do denigrates its meaning. Its value.

Everyone’s not an artist.

What do you think?

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A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #8

A conversation:

Flora to Cinder: Ex-boyfriend means your friend used to be a boy, but now he’s a girl.

December 16, 2010

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho Companion.

Also, Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho History and Willis Barnestone’s The Complete Sappho and Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap (the first three chapters; you can give up after that without guilt).

A writing exercise to do instead of washing the kitchen floor:

Sappho’s poems came down only in fragments—and they are still beautiful. These are two  of my favourites:





So now. Write a handful of sentences. Ordinary sentences about the things you’ve done today, yesterday, this week. Rip each sentence into… words.

And play with them.

Maybe something beautiful will happen…

An explanation:

This is the eighth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um… or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.


A re-run:

Cinder and Flora become Hellenic Pagans

first published October 25, 2011

It started in the Spring of 2011, and is still here. Ancient Greece. Now Ancient Rome. Cinder and Flora getting as thorough a grounding in Greek mythology and the foundation of Western civilization as the average first-year university Classics student. Here’s how it happened. Read the boring paragraph, please. You need it as a straw man to enjoy the rest of the piece.

D’Aulaires Greek Myths Study Guide (grade 3-6)

This program explores this classic of Greek mythology following the same in-depth approach used in other Memoria Press guides. Designed to be used for one year (although you may choose to go faster by combining days), each of the 30 lessons is broken down into five days. Students read the selected pages from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths on the first day. On the second day, students familiarize themselves with the “Facts to Know”―key people, places, and objects. The goal is for students to memorize these items and retain them through the end of the year, although there is no final test in this program. The third section holds vocabulary words for students to discuss and define with their teacher and may also be used as spelling words. The fourth day holds comprehensive questions, written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers. The final section uses the fantastic illustrations found in D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a springboard for further discussion questions. Review lessons appear after every fifth lesson; all vocabulary and facts from the preceding lessons are tested and recurring activities encourage children to draw a picture of their favourite god or story and work on a list of things from today which borrow the names or symbols of Greek gods and goddesses. A pronunciation guide in the back breaks down al the tricky Greek names for smoother reading. The teacher’s guide is identical to the student book except the answers are filled in.”

The above summary/review―titillating, was it? Enjoy reading it? Or did you stifle a yawn or two?―comes from the Rainbow Resource Center’s Homeschool Catalogue, and you can buy the D’Aulaires book, student and teacher guide for $40.50.

D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is a beautiful book. I have it on our bookshelf, in fact―a gift from my good friend Lisa, who passed it on to us after her kids were done grooving with the Greeks and mine were in full Greco mode. I was thrilled: we had just maxed the number of renewals on our library copy. Flora loved sitting down with the book and looking at the pictures, and we spent many evenings with it as our bedtime reading… or morning reading… or mid-day reading.

But we never did get the study guide. Because Cinder and Flora never studied Greek mythology―and I never taught it.

This is what we did instead.

It all started in the Texas Panhandle. That’s where Hank the Cowdog hails from. Hank the Cowdog is a wonderful series of books by John Ericsson about―who else―Hank the cowdog, his sidekick Drover, his enemy Pete the barn cat and an assortment of very fallible human characters. There are 50-plus books in the Hank series, and while extremely amusing and well-written, they do tend to be just a bit… repetitive. Formulaic. After months and months of reading and listening to Hank (the author’s produced a series of audio books as well, which accompanied us on every car ride and serenaded us pretty much anytime we were in the kitchen), I was very actively looking for another obsession with which to replace Hank. Harry Potter did it for a while―we read the first four books and watched (most of) the first four movies, but he didn’t have the repeatability of Hank: the kids didn’t want to read him again and again. Once―twice for book one―was enough. (They are pretty thick books for a six year old to listen to!)

Enter Percy Jackson. He was mentioned by another homeschooling family when we were swapping favourite book stories. I filed the name away to look into―and a few days later, Cinder and his friend K watched Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief on Netflix.

Usually, I’d have us read the book before watching the movie―but here, the Fates intervened. There’s nothing wrong with The Lightening Thief as a movie―it’s a perfectly good kids’ movie. “That guy playing Percy Jackson, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen,” said a star-struck Flora. “Luke is an awesome villain!” said Cinder. But if we had come to the movie after the books, it would have sucked. As it was, the kids enjoyed it, and were eager to

read the Percy Jackson books.

There are five of them, written by author Rick Riordan, whose first career was an an adult thriller writer, and who―like most great children’s writers seem to―invented Percy Jackson as a character about whom he spun bedtime stories for his sons. As The Lightening Thief opens, Percy is a 12 year old kid with ADHD and dyslexia―a really good kid who somehow or other keeps on getting into trouble in school after school. Weird things happen to him and around him, and not an awful lot in his life makes sense, until one day, his substitute teacher turns into a Fury and tries to kill him, his best friend turns into a satyr and tries to save him, his Latin teacher turns into a Centaur, a Minotaur appears out of nowhere and kidnaps his mother… and Percy finds out he’s the son of Poseidon.

And the adventures begin. Percy finds himself in a world where the Greek gods are real and still peopling the earth with godlings―or half-bloods or demigods in the Riordan vernacular. Percy finds a sanctuary of sorts at Camp Half-Blood―the place where demigods go for combat training―then a quest… and in the end, of course, saves the world, and Olympus. And, in the last book, when he’s 16, gets the girl.

Cinder and Flora were swept away by the story. We read the hefty Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief in three nights, and then read it again while we waited for the library to deliver the second book in the series, Sea of Monsters. They couldn’t get enough of Sea of Monsters―I took out the audio book of it as well, and when I wasn’t reading it to them, they were listening to the audio book in the kitchen, in the car―not wanting to get out of the car because they wanted to keep on listening. Battle of the Labyrinth, The Titan’s Curse and finally, The Last Olympian followed. They fell in love with the heroes of the books―Percy, the son of Poseidon, Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Niko, son of Hades. They met Zeus, Poseidon and Hades―the “Big Three”―as well as Hephasteus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, Hera and, of course, Dionysus―the god of wine who for his transgressions (he ticked off Zeus by going after the wrong nymph) was the cranky and totally inappropriate headmaster of Camp Half-blood. (“Maybe if you go on this quest, you’ll die and I’ll never have to deal with you again,” he tells Percy Jackson once.) They got to know all about the “real”

Perseus, Percy Jackson’s namesake, and Theseus, and Herakles, and Dadealus, and so many more.

When we’d go to the library for the new Percy book, we’d also come back with handfuls of other books on Greek myths. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths was a quick first favourite, as was Atticus the Storytellers 100 Greek Myths. So was Michael Townsend’s amazing Greek myths of wonder and blunders : welcome to the wonderful world of Greek mythology, a pun-filled, blood-filled comic book introduction to the world of “Greek gods, dumb sheep and people who hated pants.” George O’Connor’s amazing graphic novel series retelling first the story of Zeus, then Athena―we’re still on hold for Hera!―offered different, modern reinterpretations of the myths. The kids learned about source material and the fluidity of oral tradition. We read Homer for Children, and they got to know the heroes of Troy and the Odyssey. Flora adored the story of Persephone, so I found her all the versions of the story, including one in which Demeter is an over-bearing mother who won’t let her daughter marry and move on with life! Cinder really liked Odysseus and the dangerous sea voyages: we watched Kirk Douglas’ Ulysseus, and talked about what happened to the Greek gods―and the world―when the power of Rome rose. We watched the History Channel/A&E documentary Clash of the Gods―and we watched a few episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. I found them audio books of the various myths, including a BBC radio production of The Odyssey.

And we went back to the Percy Jackson books and read and re-read them, and re-listened to them.

Over… how long? Complete immersion lasted about two months―May and June of 2011 had them scorning anything and everything that didn’t have the taste of ancient Greece. It continued into the summer, capping with me organizing a Percy Jackson book club meeting, in which Cinder and Flora hosted a get-together for three other families also currently obsessed with Percy Jackson. They prepared a list of questions they wanted the kids to talk about (“If you were a demigod, who would you want your godly parent to be? What sort of weapon would you want? What monster would you most want to slay―and which one are you most afraid of?”). The kids all brought weapons to the meeting―and after the discussion, went out on our Common to sword fight. (“You know it’s a good book club if there’s a sword fight afterwards.”)

And then the obsession started to wane―just in time, because we were number 89 on the wait list at the library for Rick Riordan’s next book, Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero, and we had read pretty much every good book on Greek myths and Ancient Greece in the library by then―several times over. “I need something to get the Greek gods out of my mind,” Flora told me. But Percy Jackson set the bar high. For several weeks, everything I offered them was a dud. Chronicles of Narnia? Boring. Treasure Island? Nah. The Mysterious Benedict Society? All the other kids in our Percy Jackson book club had read it and loved? Boooooring. This really cool book about samurai? Warrior cats? Killer owls?

They were mythed-out… and it took me a while to figure out, also fictioned out. We went back to Horrible Science as bedtime reading. I got The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child out of the library as an audio book for in-car listening. Ancient Greece retreated into the background.

Until… last week, we finally got The Lost Hero. And devoured the 550 page book in about a week. The library doesn’t have a copy of the next one, Son of Neptune, in yet… but Costco did. We’re reading it now. We can’t stop. Something weird’s happening: Gaea’s waking up and preparing to make war on her Olympian children again. And her Olympian children are shifting between their Greek and Roman aspects. Zeus is Zeus one minute and then he’s Jupiter. Hera’s becoming Juno… and they’re not precisely the same in those two aspects. Because Greece and Rome, well, each as a culture valued and focused on different things…

By the most fortuitous of coincidences―or was it the Fates intervening again?―The Story of the World volume we just finished covers the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. I need to check in with the library to see what they have in stock―on DVD, I think―covering the transition period. And next time we’re at the grandparents’ house, I should pull out our photo albums from Italy―standing in front of the Coliseum.

So… have Cinder and Flora explored Greek myths in depth? Hell―sorry, Hades―yeah. But they didn’t read a myth a week. They didn’t memorize “Facts to Know” with the goal of demonstrating that memorization at a test. They didn’t review vocabulary words nor endure spelling tests of the Greek gods’ names. Comprehensive questions “written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers”? Well―they talked at length about all the stories. They asked us questions, and of each other. We asked them. They offered interpretations and impressions to interested adults, and inflicted them on completely uninterested playmates. At one point Flora wanted to learn to speak Ancient Greek―so I got out a couple of books, and they looked at the Greek alphabet, and listened to the names of the letters―and memorized what Omega and Theta look like. Poseidon’s trident led to the triangle to geometry to Archimedes (“Hey, I know him―that’s from Mythbusters! The Archimedes’ Death Ray? Remember?”) to the Greek roots of English mathematical, and other, words. There was a brief segue into the planets even before Riordan started phasing the Greek gods into their Roman aspects (“I know why Pluto’s named Pluto! Because it’s dark and rocky and barren and kind of depressing, just like Hades!”).

Could I have asked for a more thorough exploration of Greek myths, as a teacher or as a learning facilitator? No way. Could I have designed this program? Nope, no way again. I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that if we had come to the Greek myths through the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths study guide, brought to the children by me because I thought we should study Greek myths now, our experience would have been, well, vastly different. They probably would have enjoyed the stories: it’s hard not to. But would we have managed to work our way through the entire 30-week study guide before they thought the project mostly drudgery? Would they have been inspired to delve as deeply into them as they did because they loved the Percy Jackson books and wanted to experience them as fully as possible?

Maybe. The Greek myths are powerful; they resonate. But having watched Cinder and Flora immerse themselves fully in the world of the Greeks―and now discover Ancient Roman with the same joy―I’m again ridiculously grateful that we’re able to let them do this. Take six months to read and re-read Percy Jackson. Take three years to obsess about dinosaurs. Play with baking soda and vinegar every day for 40 weeks, and then spend three weeks obsessing about nothing but the periodic table. Take a break from everything that looks like “work” because there’s important internal digestion happening and just colour and listen to books on tape and play video games for a while.

Gotta go. Cinder just came downstairs holding Son of Neptune. Percy, Frank and Hazel are on this quest to Alaska, because the giant Alcyoneus has imprisoned Thanatos, the god of death… Read the book. Come to our book club meeting. There’ll be a sword fight after.

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #4

A conversation:

3:30 a.m.

“Mama, wake up, I have a booger!”


“Should I eat it?”

“No… ah… here, give it to me, I’ll put it on the wall…”

3:56 a.m.

“Mama, I have another booger. Should I put it on the wall?”


(From Life’s Archives, July 9, 2005)


A reading assignment that will change your life:

Anything by Rumi. I recommend Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi, but you really can’t go wrong. Sample at The Poetry Chaikhana.


A writing exercise to do instead of asking “when do you find the time to write”:

Go to your bookshelf. Find a book you will never read again. Fill the front and end pages with first paragraphs of books you’d like to read, but nobody has written yet.


An explanation:

This is the fourth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.



A re-run:

How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games

(first published on May 19, 2012)

Cinder’s just shy of 10, and the big passion of his life is Minecraft. Or Terraria. Or both, but usually just one or the other. He loves them so much, he’s convinced his Mac-using parents to get him a PC laptop so he can play them more effectively. He loves them so much that his show of choice is watching Minecraft or Terraria videos on Youtube. (A digression for a Cinder recommendation: for Terraria, nothing beats Total Biscuit and Jesse Cox; for Minecraft, Antvenom is King, and Cavemanfilms is pretty good too. Now you know where to go.)

My boy loves video games. And this is a wonderful thing.

I never thought I’d find myself saying this. Video games were never a part of my childhood, and my experience of them as an on-looker—sister, girlfriend, wife—was, well, blah. Wasn’t interested. Didn’t understand the appeal. Could tell you one thing for sure: no kid of mine was going to waste his childhood playing video games. Could rattle of spades of research about how detrimental to the proper development of a child excessive (any) video game playing could be.

Well. What changed?

Simply this: My boy loves video games, and I love my boy. He started getting drawn to them about age eight, I suppose, meeting them at this friend’s house or that, telling us about them with excitement, in vivid detail. His game-playing father entered into his interest; his game-ignorant mother started to agonize. What to do? For what reason? With what consequences?

I spare you my internal angst, as first one online game and then another (“It’s educational, Mom!” Supported by Dad’s: “Really, Jane, it’s educational.”) got introduced. Then the X-box (“It’s Kinect, Jane—they’ll be exercising and moving while they play—isn’t that good?”). Then an iPad and all the apps and games that enabled. Here’s what steered me through it, though: I love my boy. He loves these things; he’s drawn to them. What’s he getting out of it? Why? How?

I love my boy, and if I love my boy, I can’t be dismissive and contemptuous of something he loves.

So, I’d sit beside him and watch him play. Listen to him talk about the games afterwards. In-between. Eavesdrop while he talked about with his friends. Watch while they acted out game scenes on the trampoline or on the Common.

I might tell you about all the things I’ve seen him learn from gaming another time (for one example, check out this piece about Minecraft ). Rattle of spades of research about how playing video games actually makes kids smarter (Here’s Gabe Zichermann talking about this on Ted Talks). But it really comes down to this:

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. His reasons for loving them are complex—but no less valid than my love for Jane Austen novels, or John Fluevog shoes. I do not have to love them just because he loves them—I do not have to make myself play them or enjoy them as he does, just because I love him. But because I love him, I can’t say—or think and believe—that what he loves and enjoys is a waste of time. Of no value. Stupid.

Flip it. Think of something you love. Knitting? Film noir? Shiny cars? Collecting porcelain miniatures? Whatever. Doesn’t matter what. I’m thinking of my Jane Austen novels, which I reread probably half-a-dozen times a year. Now think of how you feel when someone who’s supposed to love you and care about you—your partner, your best friend, your mother—thinks that hobby or activity is of no value. And takes every opportunity to tell you so. Do those interactions build your relationship? Inspire you with love and trust for the person showing such open contempt for something that brings you joy?

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. And I love that he loves them. I love that they bring him joy.

As I finish writing this up, Ender’s having the tail-end of his nap in my arms, and Flora’s listening to The Titan’s Curse. Cinder grabs his lap top, and sits down beside me on the couch. He pulls up an Antvenom video on Youtube. “I need to get this mod,” he says. “Cool one?” I ask. “Too cool,” he says. I watch him watching for a while.

I love my boy.

“Love you, Mom,” he says. “What do you want to do when my video’s over?”

Minecraft Castle

Minecraft Castle (Photo credit: Mike_Cooke)

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #3

A conversation:

Sean: Hurry! I need to pee and the baby is grabbing the camera, the box of nails and my beer!
Jane: Where are you?
Sean: In the bathroom! Hurry!
Jane: Your camera, box of nails, and beer are in the bathroom?
Sean: Now is not the time to discuss the inappropriateness of me putting all these things in the bathroom sink. Just save my beer… and the camera. He can have the box of nails.

September 9, 2011

 A reading assignment that will change your life:

Vera Pavlova’s If There Is Something To Desire: 100 Poems.

for a shot of Vera to convince you to devour her beautiful book of poetry, check out this article she wrote for Poetry magazine: Heaven is not verbose: a Notebook.


A writing exercise to do instead of wishing you were writing:

This is my favourite Vera Pavlova poem:

I walk a tightrope,

a kid on each arm for balance.

This is all a poem can be, this is all a poem should be. Now. Write your own. Two lines. That’s all.



An explanation:

This is the third week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.



A re-run:

In defence of routines

 (first published on September 21, 2011)

I wrote this essay in response to a long and heated thread called “Discipline for Young Children” on one of the yahoo groups I belong to. I’m not as active a participant in those discussions as I was when Cinder and Flora were little―partly because I no longer have napping kids, partly because I’ve become much more reluctant to offer advice, even when nominally asked for (because I’ve learnt most people don’t want advice and solutions: they just want to whinge, and get unconditional support for their whinging… but that’s food for another post), but mostly because I work and write for money so much more now than I did in those first years… and I’m kind of written out at the end of the day. But every once in a while, against my better judgement, I just can’t resist…
…I would like to offer a defence of―or the case for―rhythms and routines in an unschooled life, with young children and older ones too. [Another poster] wrote in one of her earlier posts “Whenever someone reaches for some additional form of external or arbitrary ‘structure’ I wonder, usually in my head, what is making them feel insecure this week and why they feel that will solve the problem…”

And I would like to answer that with, yes, actually, it can.

The stuff that you have a predictable routine/rhythm for―so long as it works for you in a positive way―is stuff you don’t have to expand energy thinking about and reacting to. (I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory episode in which Sheldon uses gaming dice to make all non-essential decisions to leave his precious brain cells free to do the important work of “the mind.”)

My partner and I are both self-employed, random-deadline driven people engaged in creative, chaotic work. That injects a great deal of surprise, unpredictability and “must make this decision Now!” and “must upset any and all plans made to date and respond to this Crisis Now!” into our professional―and because we are self-employed and work from home and see our lives as intertwined etc.―personal lives.

The counterbalance or anchor if you prefer that word to that chaos is predictability and simplicity wherever it makes sense. And we didn’t arrive at that conclusion/practice overnight: it slowly evolved as we kept on adding children and responsibilities to the chaos.

So we have a morning routine, for example, that I stick to even when there’s a deadline fire burning under me and what I want to do the second I wake up is start pounding away at the keyboard. It’s a routine that honours the fact that 3/5 of the members of this family suck at mornings, and 2/5 are ridiculous early birds, and it includes things like me sitting on the couch with a book ignoring the kids while I drink my first―and hopefully second―cup of coffee and my eldest not speaking or looking at anyone for 45 minutes or so after he wakes up and playing his X-box or just lying on the couch with a blanket over his head. (A routine, see, doesn’t have to be about “doing” stuff. It can also be about safeguarding time to just “be.”) It also includes things like getting dressed, brushing hair, recorder practice, tossing a load of laundry in, making the big bed, and culminates with a morning walk with the dog. But its most important thing is―the time for three of us to just wake up and hang for a bit. (Two of us starting playing and doing stuff as soon as they wake up. The bums.)
This is what we do 9 out of 10 mornings. And it’s not something that anyone complains about as rigid, boring, limiting―it’s a guarded part of our day that, on that 1 out of 10 mornings where we have to miss it―where we have to get into the car first thing in the morning for example―makes us appreciate it all the more on the morrow when we return to it.

There are other anchors like that throughout the day and the week―I’m pretty protective of the last part of our evenings and bedtime, for example, so even though there’s no magic time by which everyone’s in bed or sleep, there sure is a rhythm to the last part of each evening. I have a built-in 3 p.m. tea break for me―that’s the magic time when I run out of steam and get cranky, so I plan for it: tea for me, snack for the kids, something to do (if just flopping on the couch to watch a DVD) so that I don’t become Evil Exhausted Mom (it took me six years to realize I consistently lost it at 3 p.m. Super-observant, I am.) We go swimming each Monday and Thursday―unless something else comes up, but that’s the “default” setting on each week, just as our girl’s music class mid-week is. But there was a time―when my eldest was four to six in particular―when the routines had to be perfectly predictable and inviolate, because that was what he needed at that time.

This last year, I’ve outsourced dinner to routines, a la Taco Tuesday, Slow Cooker Wednesday, Pizza Friday. (Also “What the Fuck’s for Dinner Thursday,” the day that reminds me to stick to the boring predictability of the rest of the week.) This is not my default setting: my default setting is―I’m getting hungry, what should we make for dinner, oh no, the fridge is empty, let’s go out―but this Taco Tuesday setting, although it makes me sound like the most boring person in the world, is better. It means we eat even when I’m on deadline, when my default setting is to not eat at all until the project is done―oh, crap, you mean you kids need to eat?

There are personalities, families, life cycles and individuals who don’t need any of this and don’t thrive on it. For sure. But there are very unschooled families who do. And hyper-organized people who need strict routines to have something to deviate from. And hyper-unorganized people who need some kind of even aspirational guideline to be fly-by-the-seat of-their-pants with.

I’m not sure which one I am, or my family is: we’re five individuals with very different personalities. But I do know that routines/rhythms/anchors―whatever you want to call them if the word schedule gives you the willies―make our family life more peaceful, our work life possible. Most of our days have plenty of spontaneity, go with the flow, live in the moment kinda stuff―too much, I would argue, on the days when work throws me a really unexpected curveball.

Does Slow Cooker Wednesday and 3 p.m. tea mean the baby getting sick, the washing machine flooding the basement, the 9 y o breaking an arm doesn’t throw us into chaos? Of course it doesn’t. But Slow Cooker Wednesday does mean we eat a good supper on Wednesday even if we spent most of the day at the ER (unless of course the broken arm happened before the chicken went into the slow cooker) or mopping up the basement and calling plumbers (see previous caveat).

Making my and my eldest’s morning incapacitation part of our morning routine respects our biological clocks and sets the stage for a good day―and it keeps me from unproductive feelings of guilt over being unproductive in the mornings. And that 3 p.m. tea break I give myself? I don’t like being Evil Exhausted Mommy. And it takes such a small act and such a small amount of planning to keep that from happening.

End of pro-routine pontification.

…but research shows…


The rather annoying thing about having me as a mother:

Flora: Mom? I made my bed yesterday.

Jane: And?

Flora: And what?

Jane: Is that the whole story? Did you find something, break something, think something, learn something?

Flora: No. That’s it. I made my bed.

Jane: That totally doesn’t work as story.

Flora: Does everything I tell you have to have a plot or a climax? And character development?

Jane: Yes.

What? I’m busy. And I like to be entertained.


The kinda awesome thing about having me as a mother:

My 10 year-old can define plot or climax. And character development.

So can the five-year-old.


The really annoying thing about having me as a mother:

Flora: Ok, let me do this again. Mom? I made my bed yesterday.

Jane: I’m waiting…

Flora: Did you know that studies show that people who make their beds are happier than people who don’t make their beds?

Jane: What studies?

Flora: You know. Studies.

Jane: Where did you hear about these studies?

Flora: You-tube?

Jane: Did you know that most people who say “studies show” or “research says” are just making shit up? Whenever someone says, “Studies show” without referencing the specific study, what they’re actually saying, “I read this article on the Internet once and I’m now passing it on to you as proven truth, assuming you’re just as lazy as I am and will not track this information to its source.”

Flora: Does everything I tell you have to be supported by evidence?

Jane: Yes. Except when we’re talking about unicorns. Where are you going?

Flora: I’m going to Google the fucking bed-making study.

Jane: Good.


The really awesome thing about having me as a mother is that I’m going to loom over her shoulder as she scrolls and tell her: “Not a real source. Not real science. This is a blog—this is a blog post, and that is not research. Yes, this looks like a journal article, but what does it say, right here? See? ‘Research shows…’ What research? Yeah, this one’s not worth anything either. Keep on going… OK, now that one’s better, but what institution is he professor at, exactly? Let’s check that out… ”

My kids are going to know that typing search terms into Google is not research.

Research shows that children whose parents take the time to explain this sort of thing to them make better researchers. ;P



nbtb-research shows

PS My original headline was “Research shows people who make their beds in the morning don’t understand climax is necessary to good story” but apparently it had subtext.


My kids are quitters. Wanna make something out of it?

My children quit activities they don’t like. Just like that. Guitar? Martial arts? Gymnastics? Music? Art? Naked hang-gliding?* They don’t like it, they don’t want to go, they quit. No fuss. We move on to something else. Or nothing.

I don’t say, “But I paid for it, so you have to finish it.” (Although I suggest—“We have six classes left. Can you give it a couple classes more before you really make up your mind?” And sometimes they say yes. And sometimes they say, “No, I know I hate this. I don’t need to go any more to find out.”)

I don’t say, “But you wanted to!” Because, seriously, when a five-year-old asks for—insert activity of choice here—she really doesn’t really understand what it entails, what it means. It sounded like fun, cool. But now she’s doing it. And it blows goats.

I don’t say, above all, “In this family, we finish what we started!” Because—I don’t finish unreadable books. I walk out of bad movies. I don’t finish that $40 entree at the fancy restaurant when it tastes foul.

You’re getting edgy, I can see. You’re going to say… but none of those are important things.

You know what? Neither is art class at four. Ballet at seven. Most if not all of the extra-curricular activities children are put in—at younger and younger ages—are thoroughly, completely unimportant and irrelevant. Or, to be less negative: they are as important and relevant as my enjoyment of a book, a movie, a meal. They are supposed to be pleasure. Fun. If they are—awesome. The child will want to go.

And when they’re not… why do you feel compelled to make them go?

I’m going to up the stakes a bit. Listen to this: I quit jobs that make me miserable. I stop working for clients who don’t respect or deserve my time. I withdraw my time and passion from causes that drain me. I don’t invest in relationships that don’t fill me.

If it’s making me miserable and I can let it go—I do. I quit. I walk. I stop.

And here’s the thing, beloved. I am incredibly successful. Obscenely self-disciplined. Really, despite the chaos I let you enjoy here, extremely organized. I get things done.

Important things.

Define important as you will…

I want my children to learn to value—their time. I want them to pursue their passions, talents, and skills. I don’t want them to confuse time wasters and schedule fillers with.. essentials. Because the older you get, the more you grow into adulthood, the more time wasters and schedule fillers are thrust at you by people who never learned the difference.

So. Take away this from my ramblings today. If your son** tells you he wants to quit violin-soccer-Mad Science-biathalon, ask—“Are you sure?” Ask, sure, “Why?” Listen to the answer. And let him quit without worrying that you’re failing to teach him a lesson.***

You’re teaching him this:

Your mother listens to you.

And this:

Your time is valuable. I honour where you choose to give it, even now.

And then, beloved… think about where you choose to give your time. And whether you are valuing it. Your time, talent, passion is precious. That thing you’re doing that’s sucking you dry, exhausting you, making you ill with anxiety? Is it important? Is it essential? Is the goal to which it leads worth it?

If it is—by all means, suck it up. Persevere. Get to the top, over the finish line.

If it falls in the category of Drama Start for Preschoolers? Quit.

Permission granted.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some things I want to finish…



photo (30)

Photo: Hard at play, hard at work.

*I put that in there to make sure you were reading, not skimming.

**It’s usually my son. 🙂

***Really listen to the answer. There’s always a subtext. Find it.

“Want to see how my mom writes?”

Ruined papers 3

I’m standing at the kitchen sink working my way through the dishes. Forks, knives, spoons—Kee-rist, how many spoons? For what? When was the last time I made soup or bought ice cream? What the hell are they eating with the spoons? I pick one up and look at it hyper-critically. Peanut butter? No… chocolate syrup? Chocolate syrup!?!*

And the sunlight manages to come in through the greasy kitchen window and reflects off the surface of the spoon, and there’s a very pretty pattern, and suddenly I start to think about the Strategy Session I have to write for tomorrow, and the interviews play back in my head as I play with quotes and structure and look for the perfect opening sentence and…


The cast iron pan gets dislodged from the mountain of dishes and makes another crater in the soft wood floor.

I’m still swearing when I hear the pitter-patter of footsteps up the stairs. Flora and her friend Moxie poke their heads into the kitchen; then pitter-patter into the living room. I hear whispering, giggling. Turn my attention back to the sink. Attack the cast iron pan with a stainless steel scrub pad. Back and forth, back and forth—and I start to think… the quarter’s almost over, and I will have to weave a story for a client on what the capital markets have done this quarter, I have a conference call on that very topic scheduled for the day after, actually, and what have they done? Back and forth I scrub, and I think about this deal and that, and I see an idea, a thread… will that work? I chase it, follow it… it dead-ends, no, fallacious, weak. What about… another dead-end… but maybe…

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Giggle.

“Want to see something weird?” I hear Flora whisper. And I smile. Our house is full of weird, and I wonder what she will want to show her friend. The pronghorn antelope skull wrapped in wire she found on our last beach outing? The snakeskin she found in Whiteshell? Maybe one of Cinder’s disgusting science experiments? Sean’s dead cat?**

I rinse. Make new suds. Stare at them as they grow and pop. Actually, the thing about the capital markets this quarter—oh, yes. I grab a plate and scrub it. Stop. Yeah, that will work. And I lose interest, immediately, the problem is solved and it will just play in the back of my head and refine itself for a while, and meanwhile, I go back to the Strategy Session, which can’t open the way I was going to open it, because… and oh, actually, now, THAT’s a great idea for a post for Nothing By The Book, and—oh, fuck, yes, that is exactly how I’m going to frame that pitch, yes, why didn’t I think of that before, and I stop, and the dish rag goes flying and I spin around and stare, glass-eyed, at Flora and Moxie.

Giggle, giggle, giggle.

Flora’s holding a piece of paper and a marker and offers them to me. I grab them with my wet hands and lunge for the table. Water drips as I write down the bullet points, one, two, three, quick, quick, before they disappear, before Ender needs something, before anyone says anything, before life distracts me—there’s stuff that will stay in my head forever, ever, ever, and then there are those sentences, phrases, moments of perfection, insight, that come only once, and you have to get them down NOW or they will be gone, all that will remain is a memory, ever-fainter, and I will only find pale, unsatisfying imitations that mock me, remind me of the way it was supposed to be, but fail, utterly fail…

And—done. The marker stops. My hands smear the writing, they’re wet. I blow on the paper.
Legible enough. And now it doesn’t even matter: I wrote it down, I turned the idea into an artifact and activity, and now I will remember. Not all of it—but that perfect phrase, the punchline around which I’ll build the rest of the pitch, and it will work, oh, it already works. I smile. Sigh with toe-curling satisfaction. Go back to the sink. Grab another plate.

Giggle, giggle.

I turn my head. Moxie is laughing behind her hand, and Flora’s bent over her ear.

“And that’s how my mom writes,” she says.
“Weird, hey?”



Three beautiful things from the Interwebs ya’ might want to read:

1. Apparently, Dutch kids are the happiest kids in the world. Want to know why? Check out this piece on Finding Dutchland

2. Most insightful thing about the meaning of three (years old that is) I’ve read in a long time: I help you Mummy on Secrets of the Sandpit

3. Eight of my favourite bloggers collaborated on this fun post on What we didn’t expect when we were expecting. Read. Laugh. Commiserate. If you’re expecting, be mildly terrified… 

…wait, one more: if you don’t follow my Undogmatic Unschoolers blog (and there’s no reason you should, unless you’re an unschooling family too, in which case, why not? Get your clicking fingers over there now!), last week’s “I could never do what you do!” post is a) very short and b) has some really fun photographs from the chaos that is life with Cinder, Flora and Ender, if you want a peek.

* They don’t eat cereal. Good guess, though.

** Dead cat. It’s a technical term for a piece of absolutely valid and non-gross filming equipment. Honest. Google it.

Photo: That’s one of my manuscripts, not ruined by kitchen dishwater, but a victim of the flood. And unsalvageable. I think it was a short story I wrote when I was in a Korea. Possibly a short-story-love-letter-fusion. Or a page of a journal. Yeah, it still hurts. Yeah, I still mourn.

It’ll be ok. I’m making more…


They live for these moments

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, is one of the most amazing places on Earth. It is now Ender’s favourite place to humiliate and shame his mother.

I don’t mind so much that he keeps on calling the dinosaurs dragons. Really. He’s the child of an anthropologist; he’ll understand the theory of evolution better than 98 per cent of the American adult population.

The penis obsession–“Is that the dragon’s penis, Mom? Wow!” “No, that’s the hip bone. See, that’s one of the really cool things about dinosaurs, how their hip bones…” “I think it’s a penis!”–is starting to wear a little thin.

Just a little. (Girls don’t do this, by the way. But as Flora is saying more and more often these days, “Girls are just better.” Sssh. Not in front of your brothers. To resume the narrative:)

So there we are. Rubbing shoulders with prehistoric giants, and then strolling down to the Cambrian Period, and experiencing the microlife of the Burgess Shale. Except the microlife is presented in 12x in its real size. And includes this:

English: Reconstruction of Ottoia, an extinct ...

and this:

English: Reconstruction of the fossil priapuli...

and as one group of high school Japanese tourists comes around from one corner, and a group of white-haired senior citizens from the rural Alberta Bible belt rounds the other one, Ender howls, at the top of his lungs:

“Penises! The most giant penises ever! Is this why they are in a museum, Mama? Because they are so big? Cinder! Cinder! Look! GIANT! PENISES!”

As his mother tries to decide whether this is a moment where you boldly meet the eyes of the 70-year-old grandma whose grandchildren would never ever ever say the P word in public (actually, they don’t know what it is, “We call it a wee-wee in our family, thank you very much”) or giggle with the 16-year-old Japanese boy who never thought he’d get to hear a native speaker pronounce penis (“So the ‘i’ is actually an ‘uh,’ why?” “Latin root word. Guess what the proper plural should be?”), his elder brother decides to do the only thing that could possibly make this situation  more embarrassing for her:

“That’s right, Ender. Giant, giant, giant penises. Aren’t they cool? Too bad yours will never get that big, eh?”

And then, to me:

“I suppose you’ll use this as another reason to not take us to the penis museum in Iceland. You’re so lame, Mom.”

You’d think I’m not that easily embarrassed. And you’d be right. Yet every once in a while, they manage to make me blush redder than… um, delete totally inappropriate metaphor here. Sigh.

More like this (God, there are so many more like this): And, of body parts again; and, on Undogmatic Unschoolers, Sometimes, what they know is embarrassing.

And a lovely thank you to Stephen Greene at Head of the Herd for naming Nothing By The Book for a Sunshine Award. I’m terrible at passing these on–I think I’m in two-digits-worth-of-arrears already–but it’s always lovely to get the nod from a fellow writer. Stephen writes a great blog about expat and bilingual parenting–and all sorts of other stuff–as he lives with his family in Curtiba, Brazil.

And if you’re leisurely strolling through the blogosphere today, these are my three favourite parenting posts from this week:

Don’t Get Upset When Your Five-Year-Old Acts Like a Five-Year-Old from Leah Vidal at Little Miss Wordy

Don’t Be a Judgy Wudgy from Stephanie at When Crazy Meets Exhaustion


Reassessing Happiness Research: Are New Parents Really That Miserable? by Jessica Smock at The Her Stories Project, part of the Evidence-Based Parenting Carnival

What is play?

Italian educationist Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

This isn’t so much a post, as an invitation to debate…

Pre-amble: One of my close friends and influential thinkers in my life is a Montessorian, both teacher and parenting coach, and generally speaking, there are many aspects of the Montessori perspective on early childhood and early childhood education that speak to me. (And I’m completely enamoured of The Michael Olaf catalogue. I want it all, my thing against stuff, and buying stuff, notwithstanding).

Point: Here’s what throws me every time I dance with Maria Montessori, and that is her “observation-conclusion” that play is what children do when they have nothing better to do.

Counterpoint: Let’s start with Johann Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens–Playing Man, who argued quite passionately and to me convincingly that play is what makes us human, what created civilization…

My children play—I play—not when we have nothing better to do, but when we are free to do the thing we really, really want to do. (In my case, “play” equals—writing, reading, biking around in circles and day-dreaming. In their case, “play” equals… well, everything. From video games to art to building forts out of ice or toilet paper rolls.)

So a big question to the brilliant minds visiting here: what is play? How do you define play (and I suppose by opposition work?) in your life, in your family?

BTW, this is where the Montessorian in my life expounds on her stuff: Full Circle Parenting. It’s, ultimately, a very different approach to life, parenting (and education) than I’ve chosen to chart for my family in the specifics… but the underlying foundation of respect and focus on the bonds between members of the family is the same.

Photo: Maria Montessori (1870-1952) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Involving children in our odd 21st century work lives

Hmm, I wonder who's face that is?

One of the goals I have for my little bums is for them to grow up connected to the world of “adult” work: to be witness to the work, to participate in it, to understand it. You know. All that stuff that as paleolithic and neolithic kids they’d just absorb as a matter of course. But in the twenty-first century, if you’re engaged in intellectual, creative or professional work… well, it’s tough. You’re just at the computer. (Occasionally, somewhere else, naked, writing with marker on your leg…)

Every once in a while, though, an opportunity presents itself. We’re both more actively seeking them out for our Cinder now. Here’s one of the first ones, from February 19, 2008, with a questionable moral. Enjoy.

2008. There is currently a plate of doggie doo drying in my kitchen. Not REAL–thank the gods! But Sean is shooting a commercial for a new type of pooper scooper on Saturday. One of the challenges we’ve both seen in the recent while is letting Cinder into our work world—Flora’s still not really interested, “housework” and neglecting our garden is more than enough. My work, unfortunately–hunched over the computer or glued to the telephone, not an awful lot of room for help from a six year old (although he answers the phone very professionally now and doesn’t always manage to hang up on the people before passing them on to me 🙂 ) Sean’s work–the same, although Cinder loves to and does help load and unload the car when they’re off to a shoot, etc.

Anyway—the pooper scooper commercial requires fake doggie doo, and so yesterday afternoon, Sean, Cinder and Flora set up a poop factory. Ingredients: instant coffee, corn syrup, and wetted cardboard. Damn realistic stuff.

At the end of the production, Cinder looked at Sean with big eyes and said, “I didn’t realize being a filmmaker was so gross, Daddy.”

Back to 2013: So what does a 21st century boy who’s got a filmmaker for a father choose to pursue as his first career? Making Youtube videos, of course. I’m pretty much equal parts proud and appalled.

How do you include/inform your kids about the adult workworld?

Of Dragons and Dinosaurs

We live near one of the most amazing places on earth, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. We’re at the Tyrrell almost every month. By the time Cinder was three, he could identify almost any dinosaur. Flora still thinks she might want to be a palaeontologist when she grows up. And here is Ender, who paid his first visit to the museum when he was six weeks old, and has spent the first three years of his life in a house full of dinosaur books, puzzles, and videos:

Ender to volunteer at Tyrrell Museum: “I like your dragons.”
Volunteer: “They’re dinosaurs.”
Ender: “I call them dragons, because that’s a cooler name. Where your dragons with wings?”
Volunteer: “Um… like the flying reptiles?”
Ender: “No, like my Lego dragon that blows fire.”
Volunteer: “Um… Would you like to hold some fossilized dino poop?”
Ender: “Yuck. No. I want to see real dragons, with wings. Blowing fire. Where are they?”

Albertosaurus and unidentified Ornithomimid at...

Ender, one year ago: A Bear By Any Other Name

Ender, two years ago: Matchmaking

This weekend I’m hopping here:

Quote this: A.S. Neill on parents and the yearnings of childhood

Parents who have forgotten the yearnings of their childhood—forgotten how to play and how to fantasize—make poor parents.

A.S. Neill, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993 [1960])


Discuss. Do you think your recollections of childhood, of how you felt, what you thought, as a child (and a teen) are accurate? Do they help you be the parent you want to be? Or is Neill off base here? What do you think?

P.S. Happy third birthday, my sweet Ender. xoxo Mom


My current favourite: The Authoritative New Parents’ Guide to Sex After Children (of course)

SeriousWhen toddlers attack (surviving “That Hitting Things”) • Searching for strategies for Sensitive Seven • Five is hard: can you attachment parent an older child • It’s not about balance: Creating your family’s harmony • 10 habits for a happy home from the house of chaos and permissiveness • The ultimate secret behind parenting: it’s evolution, baby

FunnyFloor peas • The rarest song of all • Sarcasm, lawn darts, and toilets  • What humanitarian really means  • The sacrifices mothers make for their children (Warning: grossness factor uber-high)  • It’s all about presentation  • Anatomy talk, now and forever  • Want to hear all the swear words I know?  • Of the apocalypse, euphemisms and (un)potty training  • Mom? Have you noticed I’ve stopped…  • Poisonous Volvo

How to ensure children think you’re a moron

Intentionally provocative headline. But this has been weighing on my mind lately―how adults tend to have one dominant mode of interaction with children, and that is … quizzing. “What’s two plus two?” “Do you know what kind of animal that is?” “How do you spell hippopotamus?”

I don’t think, in most cases, it’s meant to be disrespectful―and although we homeschooling parents tend to get particularly tense about this when the relatives do it to our children, I don’t think it’s meant to be a real check on our children’s knowledge. It is, quite simply, ignorance. Most adults don’t know how to talk to children: they don’t think they can just have a conversation with a child the way they would have it with a fellow grown-up. And asking questions to which they already know the answers is their default mode.

Do you do this? Stop. Do your parents, your friends do this to your kids? Tell them to stop. And here’s why. A while ago, we had a visitor in the house who was invited by Cinder and Flora to read their new book to them. They cuddled up on either side of him, and he started reading… but but instead of just reading, he started every second paragraph with a question to them, testing their knowledge of what he was about to read to them―before he read it to them. (“This next section is about atoms. What are atoms?”)

Two things happened. First, Cinder and Flora abandoned what was intended to be a really fun and bonding moment for them and our friend. They did not sign up for a test here: they wanted to read a book with someone they loved. Second, as soon as our visitor left, Cinder came to me, perplexed and thoughtful, struggling to get some complex thought out. Finally it came:

“I thought Hiero was really smart. But he sure doesn’t know much about science, does he?”

Hiero could have just read to them, and what they would have remembered is, “Yeah, last time Hiero came, we read Mad Science together, it was so cool, remember that experiment?” And instead…

Here’s the thing: our friend is pretty smart. AND he didn’t mean to be disrespectful of Cinder and Flora. But he doesn’t spend much time with children, and as he tried to find a way to interact with them, he used as a model… what? The way adults interacted with him when he was a child. And perpetuated the cycle.

Do your part to break the cycle. Don’t talk to children as if you’re administrating an oral exam. Or they’ll walk away from the experience thinking you’re, y’know, a bit dim.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

Growing scientists, or, why it rocks when kids love dinosaurs

Ender discovered dinosaurs a few months ago, and unlike revisiting potty training for the third time (yuck), revisiting dino-mania for the third time just really, really rocks. Regular trips to the amazing Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller are back on the family agenda. Our last trip had Cinder and Flora sharing a lot of “Remember when I was obsessed with dinosaur stories.” Here’s a few of my favourites, from when Cinder was six and Flora three-and-a-half.

On the couch, crawling out from under all the pillows and blankets:

Flora: Where am I?

Cinder: Congratulations! You made it through the mass-extinction!

Flora: But I don’t remember anything about it. Where are my mom and dad?

Cinder: Well, they’re all under the mud over there, see? They thought they were lucky because they survived the asteroid, but ah-ah―the mudslide got them.

Flora: So all my ancestors are dead?

Cinder: Everyone’s ancestors are dead. That’s what makes them ancestors. The important thing is you were born. And look, there are your cousins!

Flora: So some of my family survived!

Cinder: Don’t get comfortable yet―there may be more asteroids coming.

On the floor, playing with K’Nex:

Cinder: Here, Flora, build the Jeep so it can race with my dragster.

Flora: I don’t want to build a Jeep. (Flipping through instruction book.) Oooh! Look―a butterfly. It’s beautiful. Ooh! Stegosaurus. I’m going to make a stegosaurus.

Cinder: Make the Jeep, then we can race.

Flora: I want to make the stegosaurus, so he can play with me and be my friend.

Cinder: Why would you want to make a dinosaurs when you can make something with wheels? Look, see? It’s really cool.

Flora: I have an idea, Cinder―why don’t I make the stegosaurus, and you make two cars, and then my stegosaurus can watch you race? How about that?

Stegosaurus stenops, a stegosaur from the Late...

Back on the couch:

Flora: I forgot how I survived the mass extinction again.

Cinder: Stop asking that―I’ll tell you one more time. You were buried by some rocks during an earthquake. But you managed to crawl out. Now you have to search for food. It shouldn’t be too hard―because of the mass extinction, see?

From Life’s Archives, May 19, 2008, Mass Extinctions and Drag Races

Growing Readers, Writers & Learners, in their own way, at their own pace

Continuing to celebrate Not Back To School month here at Nothing By The Book with some reflections on Cinder and Flora’s learning adventure. Here’s a piece From Life’s Archives (Summer of 2008), when Cinder was six and Flora four.

I wrote the first draft of this essay sitting in the sunshine on our Common, scribbling with blue pencil crayon on scraps of drawing paper tucked inside a dollar store colouring book, as Cinder, Flora and their friend K raced around like mad, enacting a complex―and loud―re-enactment of the Star Wars saga.

Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy

The game is gorgeous and hilarious, made all the more so by the fact that Cinder & Flora haven’t actually seen any of the Star Wars oeuvre―bar a clip here and there―and get most of their information through the filter of Creeper, Star Wars products advertised on, and their daddy’s ancient The Empire Strikes Back bedspread. It doesn’t matter. They run, shout commands, engage in battle―occasionally forget which character they are or switch roles―return to base (the picnic table where I sit) to study the pictures on Creeper’s new Star Wars lego set―the inspiration for the game―and go back to running and shouting again.

Before this particular rambunctious game, Cinder and Creeper had spent a couple of hours wrestling, pillow fighting, fort-building and intermittently crafting funky lego creations. Meanwhile, Flora and I motored through 40 pages of “30-Minutes A Day Learning System Preschool Workbook,” tracing and matching letters and numbers, and unavoidably learning about colouring within the lines.

So, which do you think was time more valuably spent? Which is going to be featured in the notes I write up for the progress report required by our school board? And which constitutes reading and writing practice?

Both, without a doubt and without a question. Ditto, by the way, the Star Wars game. And not because Lego is nominally an educational toy. Can you follow me here? For some people, the connection is easy and self-evident; for others, it’s impossible. Flora was learning―she was doing work. Cinder was goofing off with his friend―and exactly how was he learning to read while pelting Creeper in the head with a pillow?

But this is the huge paradigm shift you have to make to understand the incredible power and potential of homeschooling―especially homeschooling the way we do it., inquiry-based, interest-driven, and curriculum-free, and rooted in the basic belief that children want to learn… and learn best, most effectively and most happily when they are free to learn what they need to and want to learn at that particular point in their individual development.

Nothing illustrates this principle better than the way Cinder and Flora are learning to read and write. You’ll recognize Flora’s way readily enough: it’s more or less the way you were probably taught at school. She pores over books, traces letters and words, laboriously writes out notes to her friends in crooked letters (To T Do You Want to Play Love Flora), sings alphabet and rhyming songs, makes list of words starting with the “f” sound, loves to watch old Sesame Street clips… And she’s been doing all this since she was three.

I’ve never had to, or been tempted to, sit her down and work on her letters and reading. She read her first little phonics book when she was three and a half. She was doing word searches when she was four. She doesn’t think she reads yet, because she can’t sit down with a full book and work her way through it, but all the building blocks are there, and it’s clearly only a matter of time.

The way Flora is pre-disposed to learn reading and writing virtually ensures no teacher, no matter how incompetent or how mired in “this is the one right way and timeline to teach ‘language arts’” dogma, could wreck her. In fact, he or she would probably take credit for the speed and ease with which Flora cracked the phonics code, mastered the alphabet, and progressed in reading fluency and writing skill.

And he’d be full of, pardon Flora’s mother’s unrefined language, crap. Much as I’d love to take credit for Flora’s aptitude in this area, none of it belongs to me (except insofar as I can take credit for passing on the relevant genes to her). I’ve done no “teaching”―she’s done all the learning. All I’ve done is give her time, space, and access to a variety of resources, some of which she needed (books, paper, crayons, stories, oral word games) and some of which she could perfectly well do without (alphabet blocks, ridiculously expensive Montessori sandpaper letters, the moveable alphabet).
The way I know―don’t suspect, believe or theorize, but really, really know―that the credit is all Flora’s and not mine is because of Cinder. And while Flora’s path to literacy is clearly discernible, trackable and understandable to most of us, Cinder’s is a mystery. Well, no, I should not say that―his clever parents think they’ve cracked some aspects of it. But it’s definitely vastly different from Flora’s path―and from the way most schools approach literacy. A bad teacher could do Flora no harm; even a competent teacher following a set timeline and curriculum could derail Cinder for years.

Flora learnt her letters from alphabet books. If there’s a book that deserves any credit for fostering Cinder’s interest in letters, it’s an ancient little Sesame Street book called Grover’s Alphabet, in which “furry, adorable, little Grover” contorts his poor little body into each letter of the alphabet. More credit probably goes to the plush set of giant alphabet letters Cinder got as a baby, which saw its first use when he hit five and we developed an assortment of games in which we pelted ourselves with them while calling out their names and sounds.

Flora learnt letter-sound association by humming, “The letter A makes tha ah-ah sound, ah-ah-ah-ah.” Cinder… I have no idea. Possibly he passively absorbed it at some point from either Flora or me―it was all around him―we never saw him working on it, one day, he just knew, and we knew that he knew, because when Flora would sit down with her electronic alphabet board (a present for Cinder, which he never showed any interest in), and be told by the machine to find the letter that makes the sound “fffff,” he’d shout out, from across the room―building Lego―“F!” (Ask Cinder to sing, ‘The letter A makes the ah-ah sound, ah-ah-ah-ah,” and he’ll give you a look―inherited, I freely confess, from me―that manages to convey that 1) he has better things to do with his time, larynx and lungs and 2) you’re an idiot for not recognizing this. And then he’ll go build with Lego. )

Flora loves workbooks, colouring books, and tracing books. When Babi brought a whole swack of them back from her trip to the US, Flora squealed with delight and asked which one we should do first. Cinder looked at them indifferently, and went to run outside. (Or play with Lego… or, best of both worlds in the summer, play outside with something built of Lego clasped in his hand.)

During his kindergarten and grade one years, all I knew for certain was that his body was not ready to slow down, sit and be still to “look” at letters or to “practice” letters. So we let him run; we worked that body, and every once in a while we did letter work with the body (“Can you make yourself into a K? It’s tricky… hey, that’s totally different from how I’d do it. Cool.”). When it came to writing, I wasn’t even sure if he had the micro-muscle control and development you need to have before you can effectively wield a pencil with control―and for long stretches of time. So on the latter, we worked via… lighting matches (over the sink and under supervision; relax, Dad!). Bead-work (where we incidentally covered off a lot of math requirements). Occasional sowing. And, of course, building with Lego.

Every once in a while, he’d want to write a card or note. Every day, after he got his dose of exercise, he’d spend some time, alone, with Calvin & Hobbes or some other such book. When he discovered there was such a thing as, he had to learn to read and write to get onto it.

After a summer of running, pillow-fighting with Creeper, building Lego, and studying Rock Monster/Power Miners merchandise and videos on the lego website (the Internet is a glorious but scary thing), Cinder celebrated the school kids’ first day back in class by writing a movie script. It unfolded in his head as he raced up and down the Common, a rock monster in one hand and a “rock wrecker” machine in the other, and then he came to me and asked for help writing it.

So we sat in the sunshine on the Common―meanwhile, Flora intermittently coloured, rode her bike, or played “vet” with her friend―and for two hours, word by word, letter by letter, Cinder hammered out his script. He asked me to spell out every word―no phonetic, “incorrect” writing for Cinder, that’s agony (Flora, on the other hand, is very happy to experiment); he asked for reminders about periods and exclamation points. Some of his letters were plain; others, embellished to resemble rocks, or to convey the feeling of tremours or loud noises. It was incredibly rewarding for me to be part of this.

The script started with a trailer. (“Every good movie has to have a good trailer,” said the film buff’s son.) “Rock Monster: Grrr! Grrr! Yum, yum, that was a delicious crystal.” Next, the titlee: “Collision in the Mine.” And then, immediately, action! “BOOM! Suddenly, a giant machine appears in the cave. Suddenly, the rock monsters swing into action! “

The exercise offered me unprecedented insight into how Cinder is going to attain full literacy―and also an added confidence that we are dead on in our approach with him on this, that it is not through workbook work and enforced reading drill that the doors will open, but through Lego playing and wrestling and all that stuff that doesn’t look like learning, but is, because unless you actively turn your mind off, all of life is learning.

Here’s the moment that, so to speak, “sold” me: We get to hour two and page five, and he writes “NEXT…” then turns to me and says,, “Hey, that’s the first time we used the letter X. It’s too bad; it’s just about the easiest one to write. And we’ve only used one V so far, and no Z at all. I’m going to write NEXT again so we have two Xs.”

He writes a few more words.

“You know what? The liney letters are way more common than the curvey letters. Like four times as common. I’m writing the most Es, and then Hs and Ts. But I think only two Fs, that’s weird. Actually that T-H-E word, what does that spell again? Yeah, that’s the one I’ve written the most. And I’ve only done two Us and two Cs.

“And I’ve done a bunch of Ss―maybe 10 or 12? (he had done 11; his anal-retentive mother went back and counted afterwards)―but most of them are at the end of words, I’ve only done two words that begin with S.”

My brain does not work like that. Does yours? If someone didn’t tell me, once upon a time, that E was the most common letter in English writing, I’d never have noticed. For Cinder, these facts jumped out, were self-evident, interesting. (How would Flora react if I asked her what the most common letter on a given page was? I’m not certain, but I think she would have given me that look―inherited from me―that manages to convey that 1) she has better things to do with her time and brain, and 2) I’m an idiot for not recognizing this. And then she’d go back to setting a list of “f” words to the music of a Beatles’ song.)

The next day, Cinder, Flora and I paint and construct a movie set, and, a couple of days later, Cinder and Sean, with some help from friends Nate and Creeper, film Collision in the Mine. Daddy adds special effects. Cinder ponders episode two. Then, Creeper gets a Star Wars set, and the boys discover the Star Wars section on Rock monsters get supplanted by clones, droids and storm troopers. Cinder laboriously copies the model numbers and names of Star Wars sets he covets and wants to get for Christmas on scraps of paper.

He also tries to figure out how to apportion them amongst his family. Would Daddy and I want to each get him a set? Or just one? How about Babi and Dziadia? Or is there a dollar cap he should be working with? If he chooses the cheaper sets, would he get more sets? Of course, the biggest and most expensive ones are the most fun to build―but it might be better to have more smaller ones. That would be more interesting for the movie.
Because there’s a new movie in the works. No longer episode two of Collision in the Mine. No, a mega-Star Wars production. It will require a fog machine and, Cinder dreams, some dynamite. He hasn’t sat down to write the script yet. It’s unfolding in his head as he and Creeper grab some light sabers and go to pound on each other in the playground.

Meanwhile, Flora asks for my help with her new project: a book. It’s about MagicLand. She draws grass, a unicorn’s horn, a rainbow. She asks me to write the words above the pictures, very lightly, so she can trace them. And she asks if the words horn and corn are related, and why is it that little g and big G don’t look anything alike?

And so it goes. And so they learn.

List of Star Wars air, aquatic, and ground veh...

Quote this: John Holt on freedom of thought (and curiousity)

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take away from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

John Holt

Arrived in my in-box From The Unschool Bus  via Fishtank Mom.

Made me think of Cinder’s hatred of crafts and colouring books, love of Lego and Minecraft, Flora’s lack of interest in multiplication but obsession with shapes and symmetry.

Photo (Freedom) by Kliefi

Not Back To School: the short answer


We’re celebrating Not Back To School month at Nothing By The Book in September. Not buying school supplies. Not packing lunches. Not hurrying out the door by 8:17 every morning to catch the 8:24 bus…

It’ll be six years this year since Cinder didn’t go to kindergarten. It’s been a pretty awesome learning and life adventure. Throughout which I’ve gotten a great deal of experience in crafting different answers to the “But why on earth do you homeschool?” question.

I think I’ve got it down pat now, and it’s pretty short and sweet. But it sort of has three versions. Because, well, life’s complicated, even when it’s simple.

Version 1: Why did you start to homeschool?

Answer: Because at age five, Cinder wasn’t interested in learning what sounds letters made or how you put words together. Didn’t want to glue pasta to cardboard and sprinkle it with sparkles (still doesn’t; see Why Cinder doesn’t do crafts on Nothing By The Book Days. Could not bear to be within four walls for two hours altogether. Desperately needed to be outside, running, climbing, exploring.

That’s pretty much it.

Version 2: Why do you homeschool now?

Answer: Because it works for us. Because it means Cinder can follow his own asynchronous timetable—he’s 10, and reading is just now starting to fall into place for him, and slowly… but I bet he could pass a Physics 30 diploma exam, provided he could take it orally. Because it means Flora, who learned to read at three, was able to spend kindergarten, grade one and grade two drawing, drawing, and drawing, instead of filling out worksheets. Because it means freedom: freedom to travel mid-year and mid-week, freedom to sleep in and freedom to work and play late, freedom to create our own family and life rhythm. (Confession: The longer we homeschool, the more I suspect a defining reason behind the decision is my unabated hatred of early, rushed mornings… That’s certainly one of the reasons I freelance, instead of rolling into an office, bleary-eyed and de-caffeinated, at the crack of 9:25…)

(Sidenote: freedom doesn’t mean lack of discipline and structure. But that’s the topic for another post…)

Version 3: But, seriously, why do you homeschool?

Answer: Because we can.

English: Motivations regarded most important f...

English: Motivations regarded most important for homeschooling among parents in 2007. Source: 1.5 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2007 Issue Brief from Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. December 2008. NCES 2009–030 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. Welcome, September. The pools, parks, libraries and museums will be empty mid-week again. Stores stocked with school supplies will be humming, but we won’t be there. We’ll still be at the pools and parks, enjoying the beautiful fall days. And ridiculously, ridiculously grateful that this is what we can do.

June Lake is a small town south of Lee Vining,...

Note: Nothing By The Book isn’t a homeschooling/unschooling advocacy blog: our learning choices are just part of our life and most of my posts and stories simply take that particular life choice for granted—it’s part of the context and background, but I don’t expound on it too much. If you’re in research mode for homeschool-focused type of stuff, you might want to visit our other blog, Nothing By The Book Days. I keep that blog primarily as a daily record of what we do, to help me track activities and projects, but it also has a growing collection of resources, including a new Homeschooling in Calgary page and, perhaps most usefully, a collection of all of Cinder and Flora’s learning plans and progress reports, as submitted to our school board over the years.

Beyond The Magic School Bus: best science resources for pre-schoolers

Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and re-experience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences – “which is the mostest? which is the leastest?” They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.

R. Buckminster Fuller

My friend Sara has a budding scientist in the house, and she asked me how to continue feeding her preschooler’s burgeoning science enthusiasm–fueled in no small part by his love for The Magic School Bus books. Well–you can’t do better than to start with letting Ms. Frizzle be your preschooler’s guide. Cinder was three and Flora five or six months when we started reading Joanna Cole’s marvellous books together, and I don’t think we’ve ever stopped. Flora’s reading them on her own now–I’m reading them again to Ender–and even Cinder will drop what he’s doing for a while to peek over my shoulder when I’m magic school-bussing with Ender and sigh and say, “I used to love those books.”

I think if all you did in the preschool/early school years for science is groove on The Magic School Bus–the books, the television series (available on DVD if you still own a drive, iTunes for download if you don’t), the chapter books as they get older, the games on the Scholastic website–your kids would get a fabulous grounding in science–and develop a love and affinity for it to boot. But yes, there are other resources. Bulging bookshelves and ever-proliferating websites of resources. Here are the five best ones, at least according to Cinder, Flora and Ender.

The Magic School Bus (TV series)

1. The Magic School Bus. A word about the books: the original books, written by Joanne Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, are much more meaty and detailed than the books based on the television episodes. (Here’s a great video interview with Cole, by the way, as well as links to her other books.) But read both. The original books cover more ground; the tv-based books are shorter and punchier. Both are fun. The DVDs are marvellous. Watch them together, rewatch them and rewatch them. And when you’re ready for some hands-on follow up, get some Magic School bus science kits. You can do it subscription-style through The Magic School Bus Science Club (The Homeschool Buyers’ Co-op often has group-buy discounts on these), or you can pick up individual kits for a testdrive through Amazon or many toy/educational stores.

Note about science kits and ages The Magic School Bus kits, like most science kits, claim they are targeted at 5-12 year olds. You will not find a 12 year old interested in doing these activities. My 10 year-old is bored to tears. But 4-7–the perfect age. Yes, they will need your help with pretty much every step. But they will love the process and the result.

Cover of "See Inside Science"

2. Usborne Books’ See Inside series. These are sturdy (and accordingly expensive) flap books. I recommend them as much for their content as for their sturdiness: they are the only flap books in our library to have made it intact down to the third child. Our favourites are See under the ground, See inside your body, and See inside science. Additional titles include See under the sea, See inside your head, See inside the world of dinosaurs, See inside Planet Earth, See inside recycling and rubbish, See inside inventions, See inside how things work (as I’m compiling this list, I’m thinking–hey, we don’t have that one! I should go get it!). The series isn’t just about science–there’s also See inside famous buildings, See inside castles (an awesome, awesome book), See inside Ancient Egypt and See inside Ancient Rome, and, for the princess in your life, See inside fairyland. Lovely, lovely books, and such fun to explore and re-explore. (“Hey, Ender! Want to read a book with Mama?”)

Cover of "The Big Bug Search (Great Searc...

3. More Usborne books. While you’re checking out the Usborne See Inside series… Usborne books just rock. On the science-for-young-children front, check out The Great Search Series–we have them all, but The Big Bug Search is the best test-drive of whether your children will love this series. The 1001 Things To Spot series is intended for even young children (2+)–it’s good as well, but if it’s a question of one or the other for your budget, go straight to The Great Search books. They will enthrall your family for longer.

When you’re done with those, go on to the experiment books and the encyclopedias and the “First Book Of…” series.  And then… well. You get the picture. Usborne books. They rock.

Cover of "Stunning Science Of Everything&...

4. The Stunning Science of Everything, by Nick Arnold, illustrated by Tony De Saulles, the original Horrible Science team. Yes, I get that your three-year-old isn’t ready for the Horrible Science series (the best book series ever, if you’re an 8-10 year old boy or grossness-loving girl). But they will probably love this condensed, hard-cover, full-colour look at the science of, well, everything. Each topic is presented in a two-page spread, with comics, goofy characters, as well as big info. Cinder and Flora read and re-read this book for years. It still gets pulled out.

5. The Uncover It series from Silver Dolphin Books. These are great books with a three-dimensional model inside. Our favourites are Uncover: T Rex and Uncover: Tarantula. There’s also Uncover: The Human Body, Shark, Tiger, Dog, Horse (hmmm, Flora’s really into horses now, maybe I should get that one?). When I look at them with Ender, we don’t do much reading–we mostly look at the model, lift up parts, and I occasionally manage to name something before he turns the page. As Flora and Cinder got older, we’d read more and more of each page. Or, they’d pull the book off the shelf and just spend time looking at the model. You’ll get a lot of use of these books if you get them for your preschooler.

Tip: Because of the models, these books are pricey new. Scour used book stores for them. They’re recommended for ages 8+, which means well-meaning friends and relatives buy them as gifts for too-cool-for-school 10 and 12 year-olds. And then, you can pick them up for $5 at Fair’s Fair. (Usborne books end up in used bookstores much less frequently, alas.)


1. To stock your kitchen with baking soda, vinegar, corn starch, cheap salt, and either food colouring or powdered tempera paint. There are oodles of science-experiments-for-children books out; what it boils down to for the under-six crowd is a) Exploding Volcanoes, b) Oobleck, c) Growing Crystals. Also d) mixing random stuff together to see what happens (keep the ingredients down to vinegar, baking soda, salt, and powdered tempera paint and you won’t blow up the house, although they will make a mess). Your preschooler will do these experiments over and over and over and over again.  The other 97 experiments in the 101 Best Science Experiments Ever Book? Maybe you’ll do another three or four of them once each. And then back again to vinegar and baking soda…

2. A box (Flora has a fish tackle box; Ender an old lunch box) your kid can collect cool stuff in. Rocks, feathers, shells, bones (score!). They’re gonna do it anyway, especially after they read the Magic School Bus book about rocks, so give them a place for it so they can begin their museum. (Egg cartons make great tiny sorters/display cases.)

3. A library card, so you can take out the Magic School Bus books you don’t own, and the various science experiment books you don’t want to bother buying, because none of them are really worth it. (I’m happy to be proven wrong here, by the way: if you find the ultimate science experiment book for kids, please let me know, K?) Also, most libraries have really stellar nature documentary collections. Show those to your preschooler instead of Blue’s Clues or Dora. (Cinder and Flora recommend: BBC’s Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Walking with Dinosaurs.)

4. A local science centre membership if you can swing it. If you can’t–stay on top of what programmes your public library offers. Ours puts on at least a couple of Mad Science workshops (free!) a year, as well as presentations from the area humane societies, wildlife conservation and rehabilitation folks, rock enthusiasts, rocket enthusiasts, and others.

Happy exploring!