Archive for August, 2008

What Kind of Homeschoolers Are We?

Sharon August 8th, 2008

Someone asked me recently if I’d do a post on what kind of homeschoolers we are.  It was someone I know well and like a lot, so I couldn’t do what I normally do with requests for posts I really don’t especially want to write, which is ignore it ;-).  So I said I would, and then sort of intentionally forgot about it.  Except that my friend didn’t forget.  And now I’m feeling guilty, and it is time to start getting my act together for the new school year, so I might as well do it. 

 Why don’t I want to answer this question?  Because in a world of homeschoolers who can put neat labels on themselves “We’re Christian Classical Educators” “Unschoolers here!” “We do a combination of Waldorf and Montessori” we don’t really have a good label.  Or rather, there is a good way to describe our kind of homeschooling, but it isn’t the kind of label you revel in - we’re slacker homeschoolers.  This is not a recognized curriculum model ;-).

Now we could probably get away with saying we are unschoolers, except that we aren’t.  There are definitely things I like about unschooling, but I’m actually pretty firm about the fact that my kids have to learn multiplication tables and practice piano, even if they don’t particularly want to.  A lot of the time we let our kids follow their own interests and pursue ideas their own way - except well, when we don’t. 

 We currently have a Waldorf curriculum, Oak Meadow, for every year, K-5, but that’s because we got it cheap from someone else.  We use parts of this, and really like it, but the whole sitting in a circle with a lighted candle thing, or the no pressure, learn to read when you feel like it thing we’re not so into. 

 We have a lot of cool Montessori stuff, but since pure Montessori isn’t into fairy tales and imaginative stuff, we ignore that part.  I like some of the elements of classical homeschooling, including its emphasis on going through ideas at three seperate levels, and we do this - when we remember to, but my kids aren’t taking Latin, they are doing Hebrew and Russian, and we’re not really doing the whole “western civ” is the world thing.

 We do the Jewish thing at home, but unlike a friend of mine who integrates her Christian faith into everything, we don’t do the “If four Leviites meet 3Kohain, what do you…”  thing.  Unlike friends of ours who afterschool (that is, they send their kids to school and then work with them constantly afterwards), we’re well, kind of lazy, and we miss a lot of teachable moments.

 We also don’t do the homeschooling thing that doesn’t have a name, but seems to be the dominant motif of homeschooling - that is, the “take them everywhere and do everything” thing.  A lot of the homeschooling parents I know are constantly off to this class and that one, this event and that.  Our adventures tend to be lower key - see the local community theater production of The Wizard of Oz, to meet the worm lady at the public library story hour, or back out into the woods to look for salamanders.    Some of this is principled, of course, but some of it is just plain disorganization - we often hear about amazing things afterwards, since we haven’t read the local homeschool newsletter.

Basically, we pick and choose.  And in real life, I’d say that our dominant motif is - inconsistency and slacking off.  That is, we do formal lessons, we do some workbook things (because the kids love them), we do go to see things, we do structure, we do no structure, we follow Simon and Isaiah’s enthusiasms - the shift from The Wizard of Oz to Robin Hood, for example.  We make up projects, like our current trip through time.

 But just as often our plans to do some elaborate thing get sidetracked by our attempts to do other things, and instead of an exciting science project we’re back to “who wants to help Mommy mix the dough” - and that’s ok too.  The thing is, I don’t feel any particular guilt about this one.  The kids are learning - Simon is way ahead in most stuff, still catching up on handwriting and manual dexterity, while he reads Shakespeare for children and chapter books for kids 5 years older than him (and Mommy hides some of the other ones we don’t want him reading yet), and we bug him to look up from the book occasionally. Isaiah is a math whiz at 4 and a junior naturalist who corrects Dad on plant identification all the time. He already grasps multiplication, but still isn’t clear on some of those middle letters, the l-m-n section of the alphabet we now refer to as the ”flyover letters.”  Asher is, well, a hindrance, who mostly likes it when we do froot loop math (yes, we buy bulk froot loops for this and potty bribes - so shoot me ;-)), where after a bit of counting, he gets to eat them.  They seem pretty normal - ahead in some things, behind a bit in others, but nothing we worry about.

What we do that is different is that we emphasize manual skills, require a comparatively large number of chores, and keep the kids outside as much as possible.  My educational philosophy comes down, I think to a mix of ” Mean Moming” (ie, making kids do things I think are good for them that they don’t especially want to do, like practice music, do, chores,  memoriz some stuff or brush their teeth), “Nice Moming” (ie, supporting their interests, arranging ways to follow their dreams, seeking out materials to let them do what they love), actual teaching, in both the formal and “teachable moment” sense and  saying “Go out and play and find something to do.”  I figure they’ll explain what I did wrong eventually, probably in some detail.  Until then, I’m going with slacker education.


Holy Freakin’ Crap - Guess What I’m Holding?!?!?

Sharon August 7th, 2008

My book.

 I’m holding an actual copy of my book in my hand.   Holy Crap.

 It wasn’t supposed to arrive for at least a week.

 Holy crap.  There’s an actual book.  It has my name on it. 

People always say writing is like having a baby, and frankly, I’ve always thought that was complete and utter nonsense.  I hate being pregnant - hate it. I kind of like writing. 

 But this part is, actually, like my experience of having a baby - after all this time of abstractly knowing that there was this thing coming, but not really believing it (’cause I was too busy throwing up or trying to find some way to sit that wouldn’t create heartburn or writhing in labor in the one case, and writing other stuff and starting up crazy projects I have no time for in the other), I always found the actual arrival of the baby to be wonderful, but kind of mystifying.  How on earth was it connected to all that other unpleasantness again?  But…wow.  Look at that!  A baby

This is kind of like that.  Wow. Look at that.  A book.

I wish I could show it to you, but I don’t think it ships to bookstores for a few weeks.

 Ok, I have to go stare at it for a while.


Capturing Water

Sharon August 7th, 2008

I’ve talked before about storing water for emergencies - even the non-TEOTWAKI kind - you know, like the bad storms that contaminate your drinking water for an extended period.  But now I want to talk about how to get water off your roof, out of the ground or otherwise when things get difficult.  

 Why do you need to know this?  Isn’t it just crazy talk to imagine us not having *WATER*?   Well, how much is your water bill right now?  Are you sure you’ll always be able to pay it? Will you be able to pay for all the water you need for irrigating your garden?   Or do you have a well?  Are you certain you’ll be able to keep paying the electric bill?  If you live in a dry place, are you sure there will always be water coming out of the tap?  These are questions worth asking ahead of time, because water matters.  Some of us have no choice but to be aware of that already - those who live in very dry places may already be struggling with water issues. 

You need water.  You will be very unhappy without it.  And while we’re a long way from people dying from dehydration, not having it can be very tough on you and your body. So how do you get it if the normal routes get disrupted?  The very first step on this is to begin to research your local watershed.  Where does your water come from?  What are the long term planning issues facing your region or community in regards to water?  What impact does climate change seem to be having?  What projected impact might it have?  What issues are there with contamination? How safe is surface water?  Do you have problems with acid rain?  Pesticide runoff? PCB contamination?  Mercury?  What about your well?  What about the local reservoirs?  What are the legal issues of your water use?  Can you collect rain?  Can you make use of surface water?  These are things you need to know. 

 Basically, you have three choices - you can get water from under the ground, on top of the ground or the sky.  It is worth understanding fully where your water comes from and where you might get it.  This essay is necessarily an overview, rather than a complete resource - and if you are concerned about water, I recommend _The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store and Conserve It_ by Stu Campbell as the most complete source I’ve seen on this subject. 

Most of us can get some water from the sky - how much varies a lot.  Some cities do prohibit rainwater capture, and in those places it is worth working on the legal issues - more and more cities are recognizing that keep heavy storm rains from causing problems is a benefit, and more and more areas are seeing strong movements towards permitting rainwater collection.

Rainbarrels can be made or purchased.  Or you can put in either an above ground water tank or a cistern to catch larger quantities of rain.  A cistern can a large, premade tank, or you can build it yourself:  If you can put your rainwater capture close enough to the house, you may even be able to bring water into the house from the cistern or tank for doing dishes, laundry, etc…  I have not yet achieved this, however ;-).  

 From under the ground depends on where you live - generally water tables are higher in the east than the west.  You need to know how deep your well is if you are pumping directly from underground. 

If you have a well, and the power goes out, you have several choices.  The first is to put a manual pump on your well.  This is only feasible if you water table is less than 200 feet down, and it isn’t cheap - usually above $1000.  But it is a good system.  The following will also work, and work even a bit deeper than 200 feet.

If your water table is high enough, you may be able to hand dig a well - the difficulty being that most surface water isn’t that clean.  But if you have a good filtration system, you might find this useful - particularly if you have a source of drinking water and primarily need irrigation, laundry and livestock water.  Remember, most of the water we use does not need to be drinking quality - using drinking quality water only for drinking, rather than flushing, washing, etc…. and using either less perfect water or greywater for other things is one possible strategy.  Conservation is your first tool here, as it almost always is. Here’s information about hand-dug wells:  Do be careful doing this!

If you have a deep well, and are concerned about losing power to it, solar direct or windmill pumping is probably your best bet, but this is not cheap - if you are permitted to capture water from the sky and have sufficient rainfall, you might find the cistern option much less expensive.  Or you might not, depending on what you can put together.

If these options are too expensive, well, in much of the world, people rely on community wells.  This is something to consider proposing in your town - there have been enough natural disasters around that most towns, even if they are not preparing for peak oil and climate change may see the merit of central water access points - in public parks, at schools and community centers.  Consider asking your town to put in manual or solar powered water pumping stations so that community members can have water access in a crisis.  Or consider getting together with neighbors and putting in a neighborhood well. 

If you are lucky enough to have a spring, you can tap it - we have a bunch of them, and it is on my agenda  - we might even be able to pull off gravity fed water eventually here if we put in time and work enough - something we’ve thought about but not done much about. - many springs can be usefully developed, either for home us, irrigation or grazing.

If you are using surface water, you will need to have an extremely good filtration system - I’m a big fan of my British Berkefeld (which, among other sources, can be purchased from Sustainable Choice, advertising on the sidebar) and Kataydin, but there are other options out there.  You want something gravity fed, that doesn’t require electricity, and that handles as many contaminants as possible - since you don’t necessarily know what you will be dealing with.  Store filters are not sufficient.  You could also distill your water:

 Getting water from surface sources is pretty simple - you go there and bring some buckets.  If you have to carry a lot a long distance, you may want tanks that strap on your bicycle, or at a minimum a yoke and bucket set up (this is for illustration purposes - I don’t think those buckets are water tight, although you could probably substitute), which is far more comfortable than carrying them in your hands. In the winter, if you have one, you can melt snow, but it takes a lot more snow than you think to make a lot of water. 

I hope everyone will at least give some serious thought to water sources in the longer term.


Scenario Planning

Sharon August 7th, 2008

One of the things that is helpful when we talk about adaptation strategies is to do some scenario planning - that is, to consider what future we are actually planning for.  And because none of us has crystal balls, and none of us is perfect, it makes the most sense to plan for multiple possible scenarios, and thus to put our energies in the places that get us the most bang for our buck, the most resilience and best possible responses for a range of possible scenarios.  I’m going to list five scenarios that I think are possible, running from the most unlikely to the most likely, and then we can explore this question of what the future is going to look like, not from our single bet, but from the perspective of trying to maximize utility for multiple scenarios.

Now not only do I think we should be planning for multiple scenarios, but I think that different people at different times and places will EXPERIENCE different scenarios.   Some of this may be regional or national - different countries will certainly go different ways, and different regions may as well.  But it is perfectly possible for you and your neighbor to experience totally different realities in a time of collapse - think of the difference in the experience of ordinary Jews vs. ordinary Germans, or Hutu vs. Tutsi.  In the depths of the Depression there were still rich people.  Right now there are hungry people in most of our neighborhoods - the experience of the crisis will vary dramatically.  There will always be people who say “that wasn’t too bad” and those who are living unmitigated hell.  My hope is that part of coming to understand what we’re facing means that none of my readers will allow their neighbors to live in that hell if they can help - that instead of waiting for the collapse of society to be universal, people will recognize that even if they are insulated, they are part of a moment. 

But more practically, I hope people will recognize that there is very limited certainty about how each family or community will experience things.  That is, it isn’t sufficient to look at the world scale and say “this is how it will play out” - because it will play out differently for different people in different circumstances. A single woman living alone with her kids in a neighborhood that experiences a lot of violence, or a member of an ethnic group that gets targetted may well find themselves cursing me for saying Mad Max wouldn’t happen.  It probably won’t on a world scale, but that doesn’t mean no one will feel like they are living in a disaster - at the same time, there will probably be people out there doing great who are cursing me for wasting their time on food storage and preparation ;-).  There will be no one, universal experience, and it is a huge mistake to imagine that there will be.

 Ok, here’s my list - yours may be different.  I’ve named each scenario, a bit tongue in cheek, and discussed why I think them likely/not likely and what parts of them you really might want to think about.

1. “Fluffy bunnies, Utopia and the new Green Economy”  Ok, there are two versions of this.  The first one is the one where we find a magic new technology, implement it rapidly and head on down the street of the perfection of the human race, rolling our eyes at those stupid people who thought peak oil was a problem, and things just get better and better.  This one is straight out impossible - it will not happen and we might as well get over it.

The scenario that is remotely possible is that the some new energy or combination of resources comes along and it turns out that climate sensitivity isn’t quite as acute as it looks like, and we get to grind along, destroying the earth a little more (because even if we had more wind turbines, we’d still be an environmental disaster - we tend to forget this), and then get to defer the crisis for 10-20 years until the disastrous unintended consequences of *that* technology come home to roost, whatever they are - and there will be some - we have never yet had a large scale techno-solution that didn’t create more problems than it generated, and while one is technically possible, I wouldn’t put my money on it in Vegas. 

 IMHO, the problem with this option is that it is a. unlikely and b. immoral - it puts the problem off on our kids.  But it is technically possible, and I include it.   

2. “Zombies with Uzis” -  the next most unlikely possible scenario I can think of is the Mad Max, complete unravelling of society with massive die-off.  I find this unlikely for a host of reasons, which I’ve discussed many times before - among other things, the universal world crisis, in which billions die quite rapidly and everyone who survives retreats to their bunker to fight it out with the zombies.   What is flat-out impossible, barring massive meteor strikes or something is the idea that everyone might have this experience uniformly.  On the other hand, a government that authorizes the zombies (not literally of course) and gives them uzis is not so terribly improbable, I’m afraid.

There are plenty of non-zombie versions of this scenario out there - societies that have descended into violent chaos for a time - often an extended time.  And there are plenty of examples of societies in which targetted groups have this experience for a very long and terrible time.  I think it is foolish to deny the possibility that your world could descend for a time into chaos and violence, or to avoid commonsense preparations for such a scenario - including community organizing, basic self-defence and security measures and political organizing to resist pressures to target victim groups.  What I think is most likely, however, is that these problems will be local, regional or national, but not world-scale.

3. “Wait a Minute, Weren’t Things a Lot Better Once?” - I actually consider this one fairly unlikely, simply because we already seem to have skipped over slow grind.  Had you asked me a few years ago, this probably would have been my most likely scenario, but I think while present trends may not be the best possible predictor of the future, they are probably better than many other tools we use to predict the unpredictable.  And many of those tools - for example Jeffrey Brown’s export-land model - suggest that the rapidity of our decline may be greater than we expected.

This scenario would involve us slowly and steadily getting poorer, having less energy, and getting warmer, and potentially losing political power as well.  Instead of dramatic single events, there would never be one thing that we could point to as “the” moment it all went to hell.  We just woke up one day and realized things were bad, and getting worse. 

I suspect that right now, things feel like a slow grind to many Americans who still don’t see the current situation as one whole problem - the confluence of our fossil fuel crises (too much (climate change) and not enough (depletion)) and our economic crises (in part driven by too much fossil fuels (our insane ideas of endless growth) and not enough (rising prices, housing collapse, etc…)).  But in fact, things are unravelling quite quickly - particularly in the poor world, but in the rich as well.  It all depends on how you look at it, of course, but I think we’ve moved past slow, and there are solid indications that change is accellerating at both the level of depletion, in the climate and in other situations.

4. “Certain Stars Shoot Madly from their Spheres”  I still consider this scenario substantially less likely than #5, but I’ve had to move up “an event of some magnitude occurs and things change fairly rapidly” to 4.   The scenario I’m most concerned about has to do with geopolitics - I can think of several things that could result in a very drastic reduction in energy availability.  Of course, you can go nuts listing all the crappy things that can possibly happen - meteor strike, bird flu, tsunami, currency collapse, megavolcano, the sun goes dark…but the thing is, it isn’t just that lots of things, some more probable than others can happen - we’re creating scenarios in which these things are enabled.  We are working hard at making them more likely with the government we’re stuck with, rapidly accellerating climate change, etc… etc….  Every statistical analysis suggests that disasters of every kind are striking more frequently - because we are enabling them.  And while comparatively few of these disasters affect everywhere at once, I am constantly reminded of the World 3 scenarios run The Limits to Growth team which pointed out that what happens isn’t that X factor causes a problem -what happens is that we run out of the ability to cope with new pressures.  I think it is possible that we are not very far from the ability of the system to cope. 

 It is worth noting that a major event will likely eventually subside into one of the other scenarios, but it is also worth giving this its own arena simply because very rapid changes that then subside into another scenario often mean that broken things don’t get fixed at all - so we imagine “X scenario with Y region still underwater” or “Z scenario, but with a vastly greater rate of depletion.”

 5. “Ordinary Human Poverty- The Great Depression, Plus Climate Change, Plus Peak Oil” - Kunstler has a better name for this of course, but my version doesn’t have asian pirates in it, and in my version, not all southerners are dumber than Jethro Clampett ;-).  Seriously, this is my bet.  And I don’t think I’m in the minority here - I think what we’re facing is a massive, probably worldwide economic depression, a very extended one from which the magic of fossil fuels will not lift us.  I think we are facing using a lot less energy without the money and resources to make that easy on anyone.  We are likely to see large scale unemployment, lots of poverty, people unable to meet very basic needs, and a very mixed level of response - some places doing better than others at helping people, some places essentially on their own, some places becoming very violent or unsafe, some places doing better - rather like the world we live in now, where some places are violent and some aren’t, hunger is increasing, access to basic necessities going down….

This is the scenario I believe in - the one where the grid may or may not go down, but you won’t notice anyway because the power company turned out the lights months ago, when you couldn’t pay, the one where you have two other families in your house, and 11 people sharing the bathroom.  That is, this is the reality for most of the world, and I think it will be our reality. 

Ok, what about y’all?  What are you planning for?


What Do You Plan to Be When You Grow Up…Post Peak?

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Ok, everyone who thinks that your job will still be there in five years raise your hands.  For those of you with your hands up, how sure are you?   How secure are you in a deep, systemic crisis?  70% of the economy survives on consumer spending - what happens if 50% or 80% of that dries up - if really all we’re buying is food and oil, and not that much of that? 

The truth is that the one thing that all of us should be planning for is a job loss - and by this I don’t mean a short term job change, but a job loss in a deep Depression with extended, widespread unemployment - where there is no unemployment insurance anymore and most of your neighbors can’t get work either.  Is this inevitable?  No, merely probable, I think.  But probable enough that we should be prepared for it to happen.

Now I realize this scares the hell out of most of us - and not much less me than you.  My family buys groceries too.  But that’s what happened in the Great Depression, and where more than a few people think we’re headed.  We can all be happy if we don’t go there, but we should be ready for the formal economy to stop feeding and housing us. 

So the question becomes - what are you going to do to keep body and soul together?  What are you going to be when you grow up - how are you going to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head?  As the formal economy begins to tank, we have to look to the informal economy - that is, the economy made up of subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under-the-table work, domestic economics, and self employment in cottage industry.  That doesn’t mean none of us will work in the formal sector, but all of us need to be able to shift as much as we can to the informal economy - to save our precious cash for the house payment and thus provide food and heat by barter or subsistence work. 

If we do have formal sector work, it may be in businesses we set up for ourselves, as more and more employers begin making layoffs.  In many cases, we may want to (even though it is a Pain in the Ass when you are doing too many other things too) start the businesses now - begin doing a bit of extra work on the side in your potential cottage area so that you’ll have a customer base and experience when the time comes.

How do you decide what to do?  Well, it is possible you already have an obvious and marketable skill - either that the work you do now could be done for yourself, or that you have a useful skill set you aren’t using.  Maybe you used to buck trees and can set up a firewood business quickly, or your current skills as a nurse could be applied to a community clinic you set up.  In these cases, the solution may be obvious.

In other cases, it may seem hard to figure out - what will the job market for marketing professionals look like?  What will construction workers do in a housing bust?  Now might be the time to reorient yourself, gently or broadly - instead of building new houses, get in on some retrofits and start learning home reinsulation, instead of corporate marketing consider setting up a business providing something useful - bulk food, water filters, fishing worms and equipment, warm clothes, farm-direct products - or perhaps local marketing help for those products  - to your community.

The one thing I warn against is allowing your enthusiasm for some project to warp your perspective about its future.  I’ve met a number of people who blithely expect to make money marketing high-value organic produce or their exquisite hand knit objects or something like it.  And while there certainly will be markets for some knitted goods and food in the future, the truth is that what we are seeing is rapid economic deflation - money is disappearing.  That means people aren’t buying stuff - and those who have, up to now, been paying extra for quality may not have the spare cash to do so - so while it might make sense early on to rely on high value, high effort products, the idea that enough people will be going out to expensive restaurants to allow them to pay $25 lb for your basil or $40 to give you a fair living wage for knitted socks is unlikely.  The same is true if you do crafty cute stuff with no real use - funky beer mugs and wall hangings are lovely, but they are salable in an affluent society, not a poor one.  

Nor should you be duplicating immediately things we have a lot of - adult clothing, for example, may simply not be bought in many cases, since people have enough in their closets for a lifetime. Eventually making clothes may well be an important project again, but short term and long term may well be different, and we all need to be flexible.   Think *practical* and be adaptable - be able to produce not just a high value product, but an immediately useful one that people might need.

What might people need in the short term?  Food.  Warm blankets. Firewood for heating.  Insulation.  Childcare when both partners are working multiple jobs.  Elder care.  Medicine.  Distractions - theater, gambling, alcohol, sex, dance,  drugs, music, things to make them laugh, newspapers or the electronic equivalent,  cartoons (and yes, even struggling people will find some money for these things).  Shelter. Shoe repair.  Security help.  Toiletries - obvious ones like soap and toothpaste, and things to make them feel attractive - even under the Taliban, women used perfume.  Education - people will still want better for their kids, and training to get new jobs.  Tools. Anything that breaks and wears out easily.  Handymen, plumbers, midwives, doctors, nurses, ministers of every faith, anyone who can fix, mend and repair.  Livestock handlers and dog trainers.  Gardeners and people who can teach how to adapt to low energy life. 

You may need to do more than one of these things - in the short term, the money may be in helping those who can afford it retrofit their homes, for example, while in the long term it might be in growing food.  Or you may find yourself doing several seasonal things - cutting firewood, growing plant starts, building furniture or sewing in the winter, milking spring to fall.  The informal economy is going to require multiple skill sets, rather than the single job we’ve been used to - and our ability to get out of the mindset that says “I have this one job, and that is the only thing I can or should do” may be the thing that defines most how well we do in the coming difficult times.

It is worth thinking what you will do in this new economy - maybe only watch and thank G-d you got to keep your job.  But just in case, it is worth making plans, and perhaps putting a foot into the informal economy, testing its waters and building the beginnings of a new personal economy along with the old.


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