Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Rainbow Post

Slowly, very slowly, we are returning to off-crunch-mode season. The changes are subtle, and it can be hard to appreciate that fewer hours are being spent at the office and school... for one thing we are not totally out of the woods on either front, and secondly we are all so worn out and overextended from the last several months that the reprieve is a bit like too little, too late.

After many years of living with this kind of work pattern, when months of all nighters and 7 day work weeks are the norm, I have learned that the end of it is not the hard part. The hard part is re-entry.

Here, at Garage Mahal, we make do and find a rhythm that works when we are one parent shy of a family unit. There are hardships and challenges, there is lack of sleep and days on end without back-up, but we find ways to make it work and in some ways we just plain get used to it. Then, often quite suddenly, Geoff reappears at the dining table, in the car, next to us on the sofa.

Who is this exhausted stranger and why is he hogging the bed covers? And by the way, he gets cranky when he's worn out...

What's that?
Do I get cranky when I am worn out?
What do you mean?!
Aren't I entitled to be just a bit cranky?

Did I have a point?

Oh, yes. Look at the rainbow world Maria drew for me! Can you find the bird in the nest, at the top of the tree house. Even the sun is a rainbow. Sigh.

Yes, re-entry is not an easy transition, but soon enough we will make do and find a rhythm that works and we'll just plain get used to it, and life will be rainbow sunshines again.

I want to keep everyone interested in robotics up to date. The 6 week build season finished at 7:57 AM on Tuesday, when after another all nighter, the team managed to assemble the robot, reduce its over the limit weight and make the software operate the robot. They were seriously scrambling to accomplish all of this, and being locked out of one of the classrooms caused an unfortunate delay, but I think they are in a good place. Things kind of ease up a bit, but there are still parts to be built and things to do.

The cool thing is that Alex has had a couple of opportunities to get personal attention and some metal shop lessons from the club VP and the high school teacher, Mr. S. (Oh, and that is not Alex in the fez. That's the physics teacher, Mr. S. If you notice a festive, geeky fez trend sweeping the nation, remember Alex started it.) So, Alex is learning how to mill, and we're still hoping to get him in to this school so he can take metal shop and physics and Japanese and music and world history.

We miss Alex when he is away at robotics,and I am already anticipating, with a bit of trepidation, the long hours he'll be committed to when he participates again next year, and the next! It's all good. I am so happy he has a place to express his inventor self and people to share the process with.

He made this. It's milled. It's metal. It has holes in it. 12. Yeah, 12 holes. It's technical, technical stuff.

Seriously, I am beaming proud and happy about what he is gaining.

Meanwhile back at the ranch Garage Mahal, Maria and I like to break out the heavy machinery and make stuff too, like lunch.

Mmmmm lunch.

She really has about mastered the fine art of pressing the masa for corn tortillas, and like any true master she has found her signature touch. Her smiley faced tortillas toast nicely, are soft inside and taste delicious.

My Mommy has been in Canada, Ontario, the cold part, for about a month. She writes often, but lately I have been missing her regular calls, which bums me out. I miss her, which is funny, because she lives 20 hours away when she is home. It's not like I am any more likely to drop by and visit her when she is in Oregon, but still I feel the difference. Technically she is further away and in a foreign country too! What if she comes home speaking Canadian and I don't understand her? I kid.

I think of my Mom when Maria and I are cooking and chatting together. It's happy. It's a connection.

During this lunch Maria talked about trees. For at least a year she has been fascinated by the idea of planting trees, especially apple trees. She frequently asks when will we plant an apple tree? And now she is wondering about planting an avocado tree. I wonder... if I start a tree from this pit, will we be in a home in time to plant it in the ground?

Benjamin thinks he got a Valentine, but really it's mine.

The rose centered heart, the charming design and the playful kitty... all of it together, with the kindness and love of a thoughtful friend made it a dear and timely gift. Thank you, I needed that.

Friday, February 20, 2009

We Are 5 for 5: Big Finish

A couple of days ago I was enjoying a TED link put up by Turkey Feathers... it was a great talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Talk, Pray fame, which reminded me that I still haven't read the book my mom sent me, but happily I found it in my sewing room, and then it reminded me that I really do love TED, which is why I have their link in my sidebar; they have such brilliant and succinct speakers, none of whom would write a sentence like this. One thing led to another and I discovered Gever Tulley and 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do. I fancied myself a brilliant Mother, because I can roughly claim that I am letting my children do all 5 dangerous things. Don't Panic: Gever Tulley uses a provocative title to illustrate a point about safety. Denying that danger exists or fearfully avoiding it, does not protect us or our children.

Gever Tulley wants to remind us that we are safer when we learn how to handle sharp objects and responsibly explore the elements, tools and heavy machinery that exist in our world. Knowledge is power, yeah? I think so, and I've written about fire and then I covered sharp things.

To illustrate my story I went through lots of photo archives looking for examples of us playing with fire, knives, and throwing things, and I tried to find good examples of us taking stuff apart and handling heavy machinery, and I have to say it's been kind of hard to find pictures. The 3 boys have knives and they use them, but I haven't taken pictures. We did have campfire

4. Deconstruct Appliances

The children are welcome to take things apart. We haven't handed over any large appliances, yet, because we repair them or trade them in, but there are several VCRs and toasters that have been disassembled in their hands. Last year Geoff and William took apart 2 broken laptops swapped parts, added new ones and then gave my mom and Geoff's grandma functioning laptops. And there was the built from the ground up computer that the boys built with their dad in early 2004. But I don't have pictures of any of this. I love to capture "everyday" life, but somehow these activities seemed so blandly everyday I missed documenting them. One of Tulley's points is that children should be encouraged to explore, and with a hands on approach learn how things work, how they are made and perhaps they will discover how to make them work better.

I decided to include the picture of Maria stringing beads... very tiny, choking hazard, hard to manipulate beads. She sat on her daddy's lap and spent 2 hours patiently and deftly slipping beads over the string and marveling at how they stacked up. Discovery and perseverance, these experiences are super valuable, and I know this because of that look. I know, it's not exactly a scientific statement, but the look is valid, it's good. When children solve problems, unravel mysteries, accomplish new tasks... they enjoy a sense of self and an awareness of their own abilities. Maria was keenly aware that she was doing a big girl activity and she was devoted to meeting the challenge and responsibility.

I love the look. I just know there are serious neuron-synapse-muscle memory-motor function-eye-hand coordination, joy things going on, and that thrills me.

And I think the outdoors can provide a similar opportunity... taking things apart and figuring-out doesn't have to be limited to manufactured, material things. When Max asked to cross the creek and climb a fallen tree, I was aware that we were trying uncharted territory, that we were risking a fall, wet clothes, mud, maybe some scrapes; I considered the weather, the depth of the creek, the current, the height of the tree, and in 3 seconds I said, "Go for it!" We ought to spend more time taking nature apart, getting dirty, sweating on a trail and crossing creeks. I am a long way from hiking the back country with a compass and a stick, but I am willing to get wet at low tide, try a new trail, and discover new ways of relating to the world, and finding new bridges to cross.

5. Break The DMCA- Drive A Car

Years ago, again in Mexico, I let my boys drive our Big Blue Whale. No takers. I repeated the offer when we returned in 2003, and they were still not interested. Our family land in Mexico is ideal for underage driving... most days there is zero traffic and there are plenty of wide open, even cow-free, spaces. My boys have internalized values and a strong sense of right from wrong. They keep me honest and sometimes they say, "No." I love it when they say no, when they show their own resolve and willingness to express their internalized values. They have driven tractors and Alex tried his Grandpa Corm's riding mower, but they declined underage driving. Maybe this is why I am so comfortable about letting them do the 5 Dangerous Things... maybe it's because they instinctually want to be careful and safe, and I agree with Jennifer, that when we take away the mystery, then the allure-the unknown attraction is diminished.

Eva left an interesting comment on the first post, and she asks, "but do you think there (are) things in life everyone would be wise to be afraid of? like drugs, for one. or is fear inappropriate even here?"

Yes, we are wise to be fearful or aware, respectful.
Bungee jumping, driving under the influence of alcohol, sexu@l promiscuity, feeding bears, texting while driving... there are a lot of things that people choose to do that can have very dangerous consequences, that have risks not just to the one trying a behavior, but to others as well. Drunk driving and bear feeding are not included in my list of dangerous things I let my children try. The risks are too great.

I find that often times risky behaviors that are not worth pursuing have a natural way of weeding themselves out... let the bears feed themselves and never operate anything when your senses are impaired, because it is a foolish thing to do. Period. Other things are tempting or alluring when they are not understood. I am not afraid of drugs, but I have no interest in using drugs. I know they have good and bad effects, but on careful consideration, I believe the risks far outweigh the benefits. I could not limit myself to, "Just say no," when discussing drugs with my children, not as they mature and have an ability to reason, to be curious. Neither will I act as though they are free to experiment or imply that I am cool with whatever. I will not hesitate to show them what happens to cr@ck addicts, or calculate for them the cost of a smoking habit.

At some point they will have to make choices and when that time comes, I hope they are educated, informed, and sure enough of their own beliefs and convictions that they will say "No" to those risks that jeopardize their dignity, health and intelligence. I agree, Eva, we can learn respect without fear, and I hope you can find a safe, comfortable opportunity to learn to start a fire...

This has been fun and interesting to ponder, and it has all been especially meaningful and interesting because of your comments. So, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Maybe the 6th dangerous thing would be "Saying what you think, out loud."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

We Are 5 for 5: Part 2

5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.

My first post on this topic covered fire. I really feel like I put myself in the line of fire, so to speak, by admitting that I let very young children hold hot sticks and burn leaves, but I think it's important to create an environment for safe danger, for careful risks. We learn when we go outside of our comfort zone, by experiencing physical actions and objects, so we know hot from cold, sharp from dull. I am not trying to preach... it's more like being defensive, because I believe in my methods, but I know some people will think I am nuts. I really cannot fathom parenting without carefully, rationally, attentively providing real life experiences for my children, and real life can be dangerous.

2. Own a Pocketknife

Knives are sharp. Good knives are very sharp. I have never met a single person who has not cut themselves. Young, old, expert, novice... who has not cut themselves? Even just a little bit. Hopefully not fatally. I worked in a bakery and cut myself at least twice when slicing bagels. Geoff worked in fast food and did nasty things while prepping food and cooking burgers... you don't even want to know. But before he was injuring himself in a professional setting he was a kid with knives and Exacto tools and he cut himself then too.

Hold on. Funny story: When my brothers and I were little squirts, we got to buy pocket knives in Mexico and they were mostly a novelty because they were ridiculously small. Closed, the knives were not bigger than 1"... they were seriously tiny and really kind of cute and we loved them. One day we were visiting the mall and the knife cutlery store was advertising free sharpening for all pocket knives. Cool! We stepped in to the very professional boutique, with the samurai swords, katana and coats of arms on the walls and presented the clerk with our pocketknives. He scoffed. He ridiculed and scoffed some more. He was so mocking and dismissive about our knives that he refused to sharpen them, but we insisted. He said they could not be sharpened, because they were 'just toys' and as he was saying this he opened one up and to demonstrate their toyness he dragged his thumb across the 1/2" blade. He would have done less damage if he had not dragged so much of his thumb, so vigorously, but he was evidently not that clever. He slit his thumb wide open and sent us away with one duller, bloody little knife. Incidentally, we never hurt ourselves with those knives.

So what to do? Banish all sharp things? No scissors, no pins? With some possible exceptions, I think children can be trusted to learn that sharp things must be used with care and respect. I think adults can take the time to instruct and observe, and facilitate opportunities to teach children how to use all kinds of tools, including knives and scissors. Maria has been sitting beside me and cutting fabric since she was 3 years old... no cuts. She has been loading and unloading the pincushion since she was 2 years old... not more than 2 pokes. And when we were camping at El Capitan State Beach 2 years ago, I let her help chop the veggies. When Max was 3, and showed an interest I taught him how to hold a knife and sat with him while he worked. He loved peeling and chopping garlic. LOVED it. I taught William. I taught Alex. They keep their fingers out of the way. They know to be attentive and patient. They know to use the right tool for the job. A dull dinner knife can do a lot more damage than a sharp paring knife; if the knife cannot slice efficiently it will slip and do damage. Sharp knives work.

I have to admit, this one, owning pocketknives got me in to trouble. It was 4 years ago when Alex says, "I was walking down the street when all of a sudden a bunch of Ninjas flipped out and tried to kill me, but then we realized that we were equally matched and we went our separate ways" and in the melee he cut something, a little bit. We cannot remember what he cut (finger?) I vividly recall how mad the doctor was, at me. Alex needed a tetanus shot, but no stitches or butterfly bandages. And apparently I needed a parenting lecture from the peds doctor about children and pocketknives. She told me to 'take the knife from him and to never let children play with knives, and that if I didn't take it away he was sure to get cut again, or worse.' She was very mad at me, very finger wagging-incredulous, you bad mother mad. He was almost 11 years old, extremely responsible and well-behaved, not in the least bit stupid, reckless, blind, ignorant, or self destructive. I imagined this small cut, the memory of it and all it entailed would make a suitable and instructive impression, so that I need not ever worry about his next cut. And, there will be a next cut, because we use tools.

3. Throw A Spear

I am claiming this on a technicality. We do not have spears, but if we did, we would totally throw them. We do have bows and arrows and I think the danger/learning opportunity is comparable to spear throwing. When we were Jolly Green Rancheros, living on our 2 acres of El Rancho goodness, I bought the boys a bow and arrows. 3 boys: 1 bow... a safe ratio, when the only target will be a straw bale. Hand-eye coordination... when I Googled this I mostly found articles on improving the connection between what we see and how we can physically control and guide our movements. I recall from university courses and reading about child development, language acquisition, and fine motor development... hand-eye coordination is important. Gever Tulley goes in to some of the specifics about how throwing things strengthens coordination, improves 3-D and structural problem solving. Brain stuff working in conjunction with body stuff... it's good stuff!

We never once had a single bad incident with the bow and arrows. Alex took great interest in the activity and it led to a deeper appreciation for Medieval history, a subject he is very well read on, and it greatly improved his coordination and visual acuity. I wonder if target practice with the bow and arrows is what gave him such remarkable skills in rendering his ideas into elaborate and detailed designs and illustrations... yeah, I think so. Max also embraced the activity and he spent hours a day practicing when we moved to the Treehouse. He had to develop strength and coordination to manage the sizable bow. He had to overcome the frustration of not being as skilled as his brothers, and he worked very hard to successfully close the gap. Somewhere in our garage is a book that Max made, papers stapled together, and it is full of numbers... hundreds and hundreds of numbers and tallies, reflecting Max's scorekeeping. He's a numbers guy. He logged every score made on their homemade targets, so that bow and arrow time was physical and academic for Max.

We miss having a yard big and safe enough for the bow and arrow. We look forward to being some place where we can take aim at a bulls-eye or straw bale, pull back on the string and hit the spot we aim for. I know from personal experience that hitting what we aim for is deeply satisfying. And, now that I have thought about it, I think we might see about making some spears.

Coming up:

4. Deconstruct Appliances
5. Break The DMCA- Drive A Car

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

We Are 5 for 5

5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.
Is this alarming? I wondered where we would stand, how our list of dangerous things would compare with Gever Tulley's list of dangerous things and I have to say I am pleasantly surprised. It's not that I relish the idea of implicating myself as a careless, reckless, negligent parent. On the contrary, incorporating these 5 dangerous things in to our lives, I believe, demonstrates our careful, rational, attentive parenting skills.

1. Play With Fire
It's primal. It's the gathering place. It's practical. Fire is good. As a grown-up I have never hesitated to build a backyard campfire... in a sandpit, in a tin can. I remember when I was about 10 years old my mother observed that I could not light a match and she made me learn. She really had to make me do it, because I had a fear of fire and heat and getting burned and I would not light a match. I think I was crying and protesting, but she broke through my fear and gave me a skill. It was a beautiful exchange of ignorance and anxiety, for knowledge and ability. I offer that same opportunity to my children as soon as they seek it. I do not withhold fire and they do not glorify it or fear it. They understand its virtues and its risks.

And they understand that I will let them experiment with fire and test it, under supervision. So, when we went camping Maria could not resist cooking the onions she chopped (see Dangerous thing #2) in the candle. She could feel the heat, and she observed that she needed a tool to extend her reach and she learned that candles have a weak flame, easily snuffed out by too many onions. The worst result of this experiment was a delayed dinner, because I was by her side and ready to intervene.

Fire takes patience. It takes practice and fire needs our full attention. Patience, practice, and full attention are also very helpful in raising children. I keep my expectations high and my patience higher. I accept that there will be injuries and there will be messes. Lots and lots of messes. I consider messes a certain indicator of intelligence and creativity. I consider cleaning messes a certain indicator of training, intelligence and maturity. I tend to value creativity more than training, but there is room for practice in all areas.

I wish I had photographs of the first trip I made with the boys to El Valle, Mexico. It was in February of 2001... so, William was almost 10, Alex was 6 and Max was 2. It was on this adventure to the remotest corner of Sonora that the boys fell in love with fire. We cooked with fire, we warmed the house and water with fire. We played with fire. Yes. I know "play" sounds so irresponsible and wrong. Playing with fire rocks. Too often we think that play is trivial and that it minimizes responsibility. Play is the work of explorers, of learners, and work is the play of the inspired, the motivated. We can play and work and it can be both responsible and fun.

They observed the open fire where we were cooking meals, they watched their bisabuelo keep the fire lit for the water heater, and they became aware of this element as a tool and a resource, and a source of something to do in a place where there was no television, bookstore, theme parks, toy chests, or playgrounds. So they gathered wood and kindling to help keep the cooking fire going. Then they burned sticks and observed the transference of heat from wood to sticks, from coals to leaves, from stones to fingertips... and they learned about burns to skin... sufficiently to avoid serious injury.

An element of danger is present everywhere and I cannot see the point of avoiding experiences for the sake of avoiding pain, confusion or disorder. They learned, not from a book or cartoons, about what fire is and what it can do and why it matters and how it can behave. There is sufficient evidence that this kind of learning is hugely beneficial and lasting. Also, they learned that I trust them... I trust their intelligence and ability to gather information, I trust their judgment and sense of responsibility and fairness, I trust their intuition to act in accordance with sound principles... these are not experiences to be acquired from any book or video.

Coming up:

2. Own A Pocketknife
3. Throw A Spear
4. Deconstruct Appliances
5. Break The DMCA- Drive A Car

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Team To Cheer For

So, I realize that in the interest of privacy and discretion, I have been omitting the foremost subject-activity currently dominating our lives... especially Alex and Geoff's. Everyday since the start of the year, Alex has made his way over to robot club at a local high school, where he has been part of team preparing to compete in Regional Events, called "Lunacy." The high school club, founded and run by students, is part of FIRST.

FIRST was started by Dean Kamen, and his vision goes like this: "To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes." You might know who Dean Kamen is by what he has accomplished... have you heard of Segway or how about iBOT? Amazing guy, and an amazing phenomenon, FIRST.

Alex is not a student at the campus where he participates. We are trying to remedy this, and hopefully we will know, soon, whether his name has been drawn in their annual lottery (a small prayer, please!) When he joined the club in the Fall he learned that they were reluctant to include an outsider, and a freshman, but he has since proven himself to be a worthy, and dedicated team player. He is a designer, and along the way he has learned building skills, wiring and how to navigate the political waters of an experienced 50 member robotics team. It has been an extraordinary experience for him.

When I say "build" I mean actually make parts. Some teams purchase parts, or rely on adult mentors and sponsors to do the heavy lifting. Team PO has terrific mentors and parent volunteers, but direction, design, construction, programming and assembly falls mainly on the shoulders of those very creative and industrious students. They are welding, wiring, grinding, shaping, tooling and configuring the robot from their own plans and designs and with the specifications put to them by FIRST 6 weeks ago. So, while Alex came with his own robot building experience, he has definitely gained new skills and knowledge.

Besides making a robot, the teams have to demonstrate Gracious Professionalism. Awe inspiring stuff, truly. Here's what the link provided leads to...

Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the term "Gracious Professionalism."

Gracious Professionalism is part of the ethos of FIRST. It's a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.

With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended.

In the long run, Gracious Professionalism is part of pursuing a meaningful life. One can add to society and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing one has acted with integrity and sensitivity."

I love this. And from all I have witnessed the words are not empty sentimentality. Being in the company of these students, their teachers and mentors, the parent volunteers, is a pleasure. They are projecting enthusiasm and intelligence, and interest in cooperatively producing their best, in robotics, marketing and Gracious Professionalism and though the work is hard, they make it look easy, natural. This natural exuberance and intelligence energizes their space and inspires hope and optimism.

Speaking of energizing space... I think they could use a boost of energy right about now. They have not had a day off in 6 weeks and the nights are getting longer and l o n g e r. I know they worked all day yesterday and didn't quit until about 6:30 AM, and they are back at it now. Geoff is a parent volunteer and mentor. I think his day job has begun to go in to testing (industry talk for "the hard part is over,") but I cannot tell the difference since he has seamlessly (though exhaustedly) left one all consuming job for another. On Monday they have to pack and ship the finished robot and they will be reunited when they compete in San Diego, then again in Phoenix.

Okay. So time for me to go. Geoff is mentoring the programmers and Alex just woke up, so I gotta get him over there. Later today they may, hopefully-fingers crossed, get to test their robot in San Diego. Go Team Parrot-Ox!!