A Glimpse Into My Experience of Sound

I am sound sensitive.  I have recently come to the realization that I am probably autistic. But whether I am autistic or not, the fact remains that my interaction with sound is a major force in my life. 

One of my favorite things to do is to rest my right ear on the top of the body of my guitar and play one note, and fully listen to the entire sound of the note.  From the beginning of the tone out to the very end.  I love to be able to fully listen to the resonance of the wood. 

And lately, because of a general onslaught of noises and sounds, most sounds have felt way too loud, including the ones that I like.  I can only handle striking the strings of my guitar gently now. A normal volume of playing feels painful and overwhelming. I can only listen to shows or music on the lowest two volume settings.

The first time I tried noise cancelling earbuds I had an immediate release of tension. The word that came to mind was “eargasm.”  Activating the noise cancellation made me realize just how sensitive I am to sound. So much tension is created in my body and my mind just by everyday ambient noise.  I hear EVERYTHING, all the time. The factory a mile away from our house runs at a low hum 24 hours a day, but there is a certain cycle in their production that occurs at four in the morning where the pitch and tone of the hum changes, and gets just a bit louder. Imperceptibly louder to everyone else I know, but I know about this cycle at the factory because it often wakes me up.  I hear all the everyday sounds in my house, or anywhere I go. The hum of the refrigerator, its different cycles, the fan blowing in the heater, the other fan blowing in the other heater in the other room, each with a motor that produces a different pitch.  The hum of various electronics in the house, and the occasional phenomena of one of the USB chargers “screaming” with its high pitched electronic voice. The tea kettle heating up the tea. The gas range combusting natural gas under a pot of water, or inside the oven.  All the different species of birds outside, each vehicle that passes the house, with its own decibel and pitch of rumbling motor.  Every creak of my wife’s chair as she works from home in another room, with the door closed.  The clicking of the baseboard heater in that room, with the door closed.  The swish and scritch of textiles as my kids fidget and bounce their little active bodies on the couch.  Every footstep and floor board creak from the second floor of our house as the dog or family members move around the house.  Every time a faucet is turned on, the laundry machine runs, or a toilet is flushed and refills.  I know whether the hose is on outside, from the sound inside the house. I hear every one of these sounds, but when a new sound starts, it distracts me from my train of thought, the sentence I’m in the middle of speaking, or my ability to process the words being spoken to me by the person sitting right in front of me.  

All of that is on top of my awareness of my own body noises.  Flatulences and burps aside, I’m talking about how the swish of my hair sliding on the fabric of my raincoat, which is often unbearably loud to me.  I can’t wear puffer vests or jackets because of the swish sound that slippery kind of fabric makes when I turn my head and my neck or cheek rubs against the fabric. It’s so loud to me, I can’t hear other people or myself talking over it.  The scrafe of my dry skin when my fingers rub together.  The sound inside my skull of myself chewing, or drinking, brushing my teeth, swallowing.  

Then there is a whole other category of sound: the vibration inside my ears when I take steps on different surfaces, in various shoes. There’s the vibration in my skull and ear canals from the physical movement, and then on top of that there is also the sound itself of the steps I take.  Some of those steps, depending on the surface, are lovely and some of my favorite sounds. Walking in boots through dry leaves in autumn is so enjoyable. Others are a bit annoying and I try to lighten my footsteps while on that surface or in those shoes to mitigate the irritation.  For the future, I try not to repeat that combination of shoe and walking surface.

If there is other strong sensory input happening, like an unpleasant smell, sounds get louder for me, as does the smell.  The two senses receiving input to process at the same time is a challenge for me.  A whole mug of hot cocoa spilled on the living room rug yesterday. We cleaned it up with a cleaner and enzymatic odor remover. The cleaner itself had a particular scent.  This morning when I walked into that room, I immediately experienced a very strong smell of vomit– the combination of the cleaner and whatever remains of the milky cocoa (even though we definitely thoroughly cleaned the spill).  So when I walked into that room because my son wanted to speak to me, I couldn’t process the words he was saying. The volume of the video he was watching seemed very loud to me, due to the sharp smell I was smelling.  The volume wasn’t actually loud– it was a completely reasonable and normal volume.  I just couldn’t attend to the sound of his words with the competing sensory input of the smell and the din of the video sound.  The smell made the sound louder.

Noise cancellation isn’t getting rid of every sound.  I have the earbuds in right now, and I can hear the clicking of the keyboard as I type, and I can hear an occasional sound coming from my son’s iPad in the other room.  But it’s at a very low decibel, so it is not distracting me like it would without the active noise reduction.  I’m not hearing the four or more motor sounds that I normally am acutely aware of all day long.

I don’t know what the waves of bluetooth technology might do to my brain in the long run; maybe I’ll get cancer.  But in the meantime, daily life just got a whole lot more doable for me.

Homesick for the Future

I wrote the following in 2014 or 2015–about five years ago–as part of a Unitarian Universalist service based on the following quote by Kendyl Gibbons. In the midst of this global COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from it, I think some of the future I was preparing myself and my children for has arrived. I hope you enjoy reading.

“We are all, at some level, homesick for the future – for the larger and more loving community that we are working to build; for the more just and sustainable world that we envision together; for the difference that we might make as a force for good in our own lives and the lives of others. That homesickness testifies that our most important and exhilarating days lie ahead of us, and that it is in our power, through our investment of hope and determination and resources, to bring them to life.”

Kendyl Gibbons

What if the future is not “ok?”

Before I had children, I listened to an hour or more of news every day, I identified as a climate activist. I even wrote my Master’s thesis on women and climate change and the use of twitter for social activism. I stayed informed and engaged with what was happening in the world. I felt like it was my duty to stay up to date on the latest details of climate change, political collapse, injustice, violence and destruction. I felt like I needed to stay up-to-the-minute, or I wasn’t being a good activist, a good citizen, a good person. As many details as possible, the more the better so I could understand the big picture of what was happening in the world and do something about it.

I stopped following the news when I was pregnant with our youngest son. It was too much for me to be holding and growing a new life inside me and listen to the endless loop of conflicts and disasters and the news of how one system or another that was supposed to be supporting people was failing, again. In my pregnant state, I could not turn away from the fact that every single person involved in the tragedies and conflicts was someone’s baby, and I grieved for each of those babies as my own grew inside me. I discovered that it was affecting my mental health to listen to the news, so I had to stop. While I still care deeply about the world, I know that my sphere of greatest influence is with the people directly surrounding me; my wife, my children, my community. I can’t fix it all. I have to take care of my own emotional and mental wellbeing so that I can do the work here that needs to be done. I still know what is going on in the world, my head is not buried in the sand, but sometimes protecting one’s inner space by saying no, by accepting one’s own limits, and prioritizing how to best spend one’s resources of time, energy, and heart space, is as important as trying to save the whole world.

In 2080, my kids will be 69 and 67 years old. How often do you think about the year 2080? My brain cannot even conceive of what their life will be like in 2080–the materials and technologies that will be standard at that time, the state of the world’s economy, transportation, weather patterns and storms, the viruses, the war zones, who will be the refugees, and where they will try to go for safety and a better life. Will my children be among them? Someone’s children will. There will also be support networks, community, communications systems, culture, and spirituality. It is beyond the grasp of my imagination to see it, but what I’m certain of is that the contrast between 2016 and 2080 will be far greater than the contrast between 1952 and 2016, both time frames 64 years. What parents were planning and wishing for their children 64 years ago is not the same as what I’m wishing for for my children because the world will not be the same in 2080.

My main focus in raising our kids is not making sure they have the right skills for the job market, or the right grades to get into college. The changes in the world are too rapid now for me to feel confident that the traditional trajectory of the American Dream is what matters or is even attainable for the next generation. I’m focused on helping my children learn emotional literacy. Consent. Resilience. How to grow and preserve food. Humility.

The responsibility which comes with white privilege. How to work across differences. How to listen more than talk. Those are the things their future selves will need the most, and what the world will need from them.

The way I understand the future requires bravery and vulnerability every day of my life, in the present moment. It requires bravery to live in and bring up my sons within these systems of our lives that I know won’t last for their whole lifetime. I can’t fool myself into thinking that that future will be “good” in the way that we define a “good” life in terms of the American Dream or upward mobility. But I do feel hopeful that there will be beauty in the future, and there will be love. What we need to do now is quite simple. What we need now is to be good to each other. Allow ourselves to be vulnerable and give others the space to do the same. I need you to do this work with me so that we can model for my children what it looks like when a community cares for itself, and everyone in the community is cared for, at every age. We need to be able to say what we need, help other people get what they need, and resist jumping into assumptions about people. We have no idea what people are dealing with in their lives. It is always more complicated than we think it is.

The world as we know it is dying. Something will be built in the rubble, and I believe that more than trying to preserve the systems that are failing, our task at this time in history is to instill love into the world, into our children, into whatever systems promote and support love, and trust that we are not the ones who can come up with solutions for problems in a future we cannot see. We can’t fix it all. This is the end of the world as we know it. But, I believe that whatever the future of the human species looks like, love will still be at the root of what we need to survive.

I want us to work together to get past the fear of the unknown: the unknown about each other, and the unknown about the future. The world is not going to look like anything we would recognize. I hope that together we can get past the guilt that we made it that way.

When I think about the future that my children and grandchildren will be a part of, I think: “Yeah, it’s not going to be ok, but it’s going to be ok.”
My work is to hold both in my heart at the same time.

38,000 cases in Oregon within 30 days? Thoughts on COVID-19, March 4

My disclaimer: I’m not a healthcare worker, an epidemiologist, or a public health official. I am smart, educated person, measured in my thinking, a good researcher, and someone who can easily see things from a systems perspective. I have been following the COVID-19 developments closely since the middle of January. These are just my thoughts. I write to wrap my head around things that are big and important. Please do your own thinking, and listen to your local and state health officials.

Updated March 6, 2020 9:42am.

Today I read the WHO report from their visit to China. If you are science-literate, please read it. Several things that struck me, as I understand them (again, not a doctor, but I do understand health terminology and statistics to a large extent):

  • The “mild” cases that account for 80% of cases INCLUDES people who did not get pneumonia as well as moderate cases who did get pneumonia but did not move into the severe category. (so “mild” can still mean pretty darn sick…). The severe category (roughly 20% of cases, based on China numbers), are people who are needing medical intervention to keep their blood oxygenated at acceptable levels, or needing some similar level of intervention. 13% of those cases were the severe cases–things like septic shock and multiple organ failure (p. 12 of report). That’s a lot of sick people.
  • Another interesting note about asymptomatic confirmed cases: most of those people went on to develop symptoms. Truly asymptomatic cases were rare. (Translation: people can test positive for the disease before they start having symptoms, but most people will go on to develop symptoms). (p. 12 of report)
  • China’s response to the virus was big, quick, widespread, and severe. The WHO report determines that the severe measures and enormous governmental response was the only thing that has slowed down the spread of the virus in China. Just to trace contacts of confirmed cases, in Wuhan alone, they had 1800 teams of epidemiologists, with at least five members on each team (that’s a minimum of 9,000 epidemiologists, folks) working meticulously to find and follow through with contacts of confirmed cases. While China’s numbers have steadily decreased since the middle of February, the WHO report determines that the only way that decrease was possible was by the country using aggressive and drastic measures, including using state surveillance, big data, and AI to track potential cases (including tracking citizens who bought over the counter cold and flu medications online or at a pharmacy), locking down multiple cities, closing schools and businesses, restricting movement outside private residences, closing public transportation, limiting the number of people allowed to leave their home at a time, building multiple hospitals in just two weeks, etc. At this point, it is hard for me to imagine the US pulling off an effort anywhere close to that.

3. State health officials and epidemiologists in Oregon and Washington concur that there are at least 300-500 undetected cases in each state because community spread has been occurring for about six weeks, and testing criteria was too narrow for too long. Here is today’s update from Governor Kate Brown and Oregon Health Authority. While we still only have three confirmed cases in this state, I expect that to drastically change in the next few days. My wife and I did the math last night, playing out the numbers of how many cases could be in Oregon thirty days from now. If the testing issues continue, most of these cases would not be confirmed. We used the most conservative estimates based on what the research shows so far. These estimates are based on how things played out in China, so these predictions inherently assume that the measures taken by the federal and state government would somehow be as successful as China in slowing the spread of the virus through the population.

Assumption #1: There are currently 300 cases in Oregon (undetected)

Assumption #2: R0 (Reproductive number)= 2

Assumption #3: Incubation period= 5 days (every five days, each new case infects two new cases)

Assumption #4: 20% of cases are severe, requiring hospitalization

Assumption #5: 3.4% mortality rate

  • Projected Cases in Oregon
  • Day 0 (today): 300 cases, 60 severe
  • Day 5: 900 cases (300 original + 600 new infections), 180 severe
  • Day 10: 2,100 cases (900 + 1200 new infections), 420 severe
  • Day 15: 4,500 cases (2,100 + 2400 new infections), 900 severe
  • Day 20: 9,300 cases (4,500 + 4,800 new infections), 1,860 severe
  • Day 25: 18,900 cases (9,300 + 9,600 new infections) 3,780 severe
  • Day 30: 38,100 cases (18,900 + 19,200 new infections) 7,600 severe, 1,292 deaths

The numbers above are a quick and dirty estimate on the number of infections, not the number of cases that will be confirmed. Right now, Oregon only has the capacity to test 80 people a day, and 1,500 tests total. This scenario is just what might happen in one state, while the rest of the world deals with their own outbreaks, their own overwhelmed healthcare system, their own lack of beds and protective equipment. Obviously, I hope those numbers prove to be wrong. There are clearly lots of variables I did not factor in. This is just one possible scenario, based on the values we gave for the five assumptions above. I hope we can find a way to keep the virus from spreading at that rate. How many hospital beds are there in the state? Based on available data on Wikipedia, we did a rough estimate that there are about 17,000 beds in the entire state. I’m assuming that the majority of those beds are filled already, especially during flu season. If reality ends up being anywhere close to this projection, we’re in for a shit show. The impact of this on the healthcare system, how it will displace other needs and tie up local systems is the biggest threat to us.

4. I heard some people today in my community downplaying it as “it’s just a flu.” It’s not. Ignorance (both willful and unwillful) can be just as dangerous as panic and fear-mongering. Please educate yourself from reliable sources of information, and then please spread the information that this is not “just the flu.” Base reason: Basic biology–these are two different types of viruses. Reason one: As of right now, COVID-19 appears to have a higher mortality rate than the flu. Reason two: No one has immunity or has been vaccinated against it, so there is no benefit from ‘herd immunity.’ Reason Three: We’ve been studying influenza since 1933 when it was first identified. We know what flu does. The virus that causes COVID-19 is new and still largely unknown.

5. I’m waiting for the librarians to do some clever PSAs about the “novel” coronavirus. C’mon witty librarians, bring it.

6. In the back of my mind, I’m constantly thinking about what small steps I can do to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. It’s not just about protecting myself and my family, but also knowing that each person could unwittingly spread it to someone who will not be as resilient to the disease. Today, I took these steps:

  • I have a pack of disinfectant wipes in the car, and I wipe my hands every time I get in the car. Same for my kids. I wash my hands as soon as I get home, as well as many many other times per day. Here’s how many times you should wash your hands each day.
  • We’re being more insistent with hand washing with the kids at home before meals and after going to the bathroom. We talk about it in terms of keeping other people safe from germs, not just ourselves.
  • I went to the library and got two bags of books to read to the kids. I got home, put on some gloves, and wiped each book’s cover with disinfectant wipes.
  • I’m avoiding crowded places and going out in the public far less than normal. This is just good prevention for everyone right now. It doesn’t have to be full-on isolation, just try to reduce the amount of time you are in public spaces as much as you are able. Some people will not be able to remove themselves from the public sphere. Be kinds to bus drivers, healthcare and home health workers, teachers, front desk people, sanitation workers and cleaners, especially.

Let’s hope for the best, but it looks like we’ve missed our window of opportunity to slow this down. We have no choice but to just ride the wave now. Please do what you can to prepare yourselves, your family, and your community. Please do it, like, yesterday.

Facebook profited from my life for ten years, and I’m done now.

Facebook is likely to become the next company worth over a trillion dollars. The average Facebook user shares details on the platform from their personal life, providing more and more data points about who they are, who they are connected to in the real world, where they live, what they are likely to buy next, what they’re worried about, etc.

Users don’t get paid for generating all this content and data. We’re not supposed to think of being on the platform and writing “what’s on our mind” as providing free labor for a trillion dollar company, but that’s what it is.

Each use (each post, like, photo upload, etc.) of a social platform increases the value of the platform and makes money for the platform company. For the average social media user, it feels like something other than work but it’s really “playbor” — play-labor. It’s consenting to letting a large corporation profit off of your personal life with no compensation. In The New Childhood, Jordan Shapiro explains that if no one posted anything on Facebook, Facebook would have no data to sell and no slot for customized advertising.  The performance of You online has a unique commercial value, a value proposition. But who is the one who gets paid? Not you!

Not only do we not get paid for creating those lovely little data points from our personal lives, Facebook then sells targeted ad space to companies who can deliver the things that might save us from our insecurities, our personal crises and triumphs, our fears and joys, our life transitions. I don’t need to provide an example, just take a look around your news feed and the ads on the side bar. You already know how this works. But have you thought about “being on Facebook” as unpaid work before?

Shapiro writes, “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with communicating a public identity narrative full of value propositions. It may just be part of living in a connected world. But we do need to…recognize that the online performance is only one part of the self — the part that fits into specific kinds of containers, pathways, and boxes designed to create profit for corporate media conglomerates.”

Facebook, and other social media, has creeped me out for a long time, almost as long as I’ve had an account (I joined in 2009). Every year since then, I’ve given serious thought to deactivating my account. However, Facebook’s role in my life has felt increasingly insidious over the last five years.

When I realized that 2019 would mark my tenth year on Facebook, I thought about how much data from my private life I had given away. Ten whole years of personal details. My kids’ whole lives. The idea of continuing on that trajectory made my stomach turn, and I could not stand the thought that one day I might look back and see that now fifteen, or twenty years of my personal data had been given for free to one of the most powerful companies in the world. So, about a year ago, I said goodbye to Facebook.

Instead of using Facebook, I didn’t. At first, I would open a tab and automatically type in facebook.com, totally on autopilot. I had a few months where I experienced some fear of missing out, and would start looking at my news feed. But, I noticed that after about 15-30 seconds, I felt awful, and numb, and was not enjoying myself at all. So, I would close the tab and get off the site. Gradually, those engrained habits faded, and it was easy to not use Facebook.

Now, I don’t comment, and I don’t post. I don’t have a tab open to Facebook all day. I don’t have the app on my phone. Instead of scrolling through my feed multiple times a day, everyday, posting pictures, and keeping tabs on my 200+ friends, I just don’t. And I have a lot more time in the day.

I’ve filled that time with the things I enjoyed before Facebook. Like painting, taking a walk (without my phone), reading a book, playing a game with my kids. I’ve drastically reduced all of my screen use. I go places without my phone. I don’t look at my phone when I’m standing in line somewhere. I listen to ten minutes of news a day, and that’s it. I’m writing a novel. I pay attention to the world around me, not the world on my screen. Since last January, I’ve hopped on Facebook a handful of times, to post a link to my blog or to look up a specific event. In all of 2019, I would estimate that I spent a total of one hour on Facebook.

When I think about a person, I text or email them directly, not just stalk their feed. When I run into someone around town, I ask how they are, and I really listen to their answer. I don’t see whatever they’ve been posting on Facebook, so I really don’t know what’s happening with them unless they tell me. I like that. There’s no layer of anonymity between us. They share with me what they want me to know, and vice versa. I don’t have to wonder whether or not they saw the post I wrote three days ago about my kid having the flu, because I didn’t write it. Information I share is more directed to the person who need the information, not diffusely broadcast to everyone from my mother to the two-times-removed acquaintance that I friended three years ago and haven’t seen since.

But aren’t you less socially connected? It depends how social connectivity is measured. Facebook is about quantity, not necessarily quality. More engagement, more clicks, more activity generates more profit for the company. The platform is set up to reward quick reactions– a like, a share, a yes/no, a zero or a one. It’s not set up to stimulate long, thought-out responses or deep digestion of an idea. When I was signing off, my last post was this: “Dear Friends, I am in the process of pruning back my social media presence, and will be probably deactivating my Facebook account altogether at some point soon. I have begun to unfollow as much as I can. The best way to get in contact with me is email or text. PM me if you’d like my info. Please pm me your email address and/or phone number if you haven’t already. Thanks!”

Only a handful of people messaged me to make sure I had their phone number or email, and there are a handful of people that I have been in contact with outside of Facebook. But, without Facebook, my social interactions with people local to me has dramatically decreased. It’s a bit eerie, really. But, it has shown me what’s really important in my life, and what’s not. What’s just noise, and what is an important relationship that both parties want to make an effort to cultivate.

The relationships that have survived this social pruning have grown deeper. The deepest growth has been with my wife and my kids, which tells me that my social media use was not deepening or enriching my relationships. Using social media– the thing that’s supposed to make us more socially connected (and we think that means happier)– was actually making me more stressed, and have shallower relationships. It was diffusing my energies onto a wide, level plain, and leaving me with lots of relationships, all of them with shallow roots, even the ones that are the most important.

I’ve lived this last year with what amounts to about an hour of Facebook use, and so much more of everything that is important to me. Plus, by opting out, I have prevented the use of countless free data points from my personal life by a company whose policies and values don’t align with my own. That’s one year of not giving Facebook my personal details to profit from, and that’s worth a lot to me.

I might totally deactivate my Facebook account. I haven’t yet, but I think I will soon. Considering deactivation feels like a Matrix-y thing. Like, I’ll no longer exist in the world if I don’t have a Facebook account. To some people, that might be pretty close to the truth.

The need to feel known is a deep human need, I think. Since I have used Facebook for ten years as the representation of my social capital and my “friend” network, removing my account completely from the platform feels a little bit like erasing my entire life. I’m “friends” with nearly everyone who has been important to me at one time or another. But really, my Facebook account is just one digital representation of my life, reduced to zeros and ones. It’s not the real me, not my real life, and the real connections I have with people are not housed inside Facebook. They never were. If I deactivate my account, some of the lines of connection that appear to be there might prove to be false. But I will know that whatever remains, is based on real connection, and that will be enough for me.

2020: The Year of Perfect Vision. Also Just Surviving.

If you’ve read past blogs of mine, you see that my wife and I choose a theme word for the year. This year we’re laughing at ourselves and how lofty our words in past years have seemed. “Breathing” and “Contentment” and “Joy” felt like really important and noble goals to focus on as parents of young children (and they are wonderful themes to focus on, don’t get me wrong.) Now we’re feeling surlier, more irreverent, and more seasoned as parents and as partners.

I love the poetic beauty of the year 2020. It’s a beautiful number, don’t you think? 20/20 is perfect vision*, so that could be a lovely theme to focus on this year. Plus, it’s the dawn of a new decade! Wouldn’t it be nice to choose a lofty theme, full of ideals and optimism for the future? Yes, that sure would be nice.

However, living through these last four years of stranger-than-fiction, House-of-Cards-seems-quaint-compared-to-this and, oh yeah, climate change, we’re just more focused on doing things that are manageable and simple. We want to focus on preserving our energy and focusing on things that leave us with emotional reserves, so we can respond to crises when they arise. Because they will. It’s an election year like no other. We will not be doing All The Things.

So, I want to share with you what our brainstorming session for a theme word looked like:

  • Dubbya! (Because George W. Bush seems like an awesome guy compared to Trump)
  • Bring Back the X-Files (90s nostalgia will be going strong in our household this year)
  • Low Expectations (because after striving for high achievement most of our lives, what’s the harm in setting the bar really low for a change?)
  • Stay Hydrated
  • Stay in School
  • Talk Nice
  • FTW! (alternately For The Win, and Fuck The World, whichever better fits the moment)
  • Life is Difficult, Get Over Yourself

Yeah….so, that’s where we are. We distilled the list down to three main foci that we are jazzed about: Survive, Hydrate, and Lower Expectations. Ta Da!!!

*Ok, optometrists, I am aware that 20/20 actually just means normal visual acuity, not perfect anything, but let’s just run with it.

2019 Theme Review: Build

I’ve share on this blog that every December/January my wife and I come up with a theme word for the new year. Examples: Breathe, Focus, Thaw, Prosperity, Contentment (we had to double-down on that one and use it a few years in a row before we felt like we were ready to move on…there’s a lot that goes into learning how to be content.)

Our theme for 2019 was Build, and it was interesting to see that, actually, 2019 had a lot of dismantling and deconstruction in it, and not the kinds of Building that we thought the year would bring. I ended up closing down my business, our kids left their school, my wife left her job. Things were ending suddenly and we were all in a flurry of transitions for most of the year.

Our big walnut tree in the backyard had to be cut down, and left the yard and the house feeling naked and bare. The emotional feel of the whole year was a lot like the removal of that eighty-year old tree. What’s left after an entire tree comes down is just a patch of muddy ground and a small mound of mulch, and a lot of open space. There’s nothing that will be able to immediately fill the space the same way as that tree. What was once defined by a large Thing (a tree) now is a place of possibility and opportunity. A building site. A ground zero. Sometimes coming back to square one helps illuminate what really is important (and what’s not), and it’s easier to see what it is you actually want to be building, instead of just throwing nails onto boards because they are already there. What also becomes clear is that however that space is going to be used, whatever the new Thing might be, it’s going to take time–lots of it– to make something as significant and beautiful as the tree that came down.

So, in many ways 2019 was a year of simplification and minimalism. A year of letting go and not knowing what the next right thing was going to be (see what I just did there, Frozen fans?) At times, it felt like a wrecking ball was crashing through the structure of our lives over and over again. But, the dust feels a bit more settled now, and we can see that what remains –our family and our relationships with each other–is really strong, and it’s what really matters. Things feel calmer and more settled now. I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that seasons like this don’t last indefinitely, and so I’m really soaking up and enjoying the peacefulness that permeates our family life these days. Now we get to build what we really want from here.

My Best Homeschool Teaching Tools (so far…)

We have been homeschooling for less than a month so far, but long enough to know that some things are definitely working, and some are not. We are not using a curriculum, at least for the rest of this school year. We’ll reassess for next year. In this post, I reflect on the tools I’ve used that have engaged my kids (5.5 and 7 years old) the most, and where I see them learning.

  1. The Outdoors. Anywhere, any weather. Something will be discovered, an interest will be sparked, a skill honed (social, practical, or both), and something will be learned. Check out Angela J. Hanscom’s book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unstructured Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children for the science behind how being outside in an unstructured (by adults) way benefits kids’ brains in a way that cannot be replicated through indoor play, or outdoor activities controlled and/or organized by adults. This is especially helpful for our kiddo dealing with sensory processing issues. Things we’ve done outside include: stream stomping in an ephemeral stream in our own neighborhood, identifying poison oak, trillium, blackberry, and other plants, checking out the flooded Willamette River, hunting for salamanders and rough-skinned newts in a creek, taking photos of blooming wildflowers, playing in our own yard, riding bikes to our neighborhood playground, gardening, swinging and/or reading together outside in our hammock, visiting city parks and playgrounds in the middle of the day when there is almost no one else there, kids playing in naturally formed tunnels in the underbrush at a park, talking to passers-by about their dogs, watching bees enjoy the flowers of spring, reading outside in our driveway, learning how to make polite social calls to our neighbors, etc.
  2. Elements of The Brave Writer Lifestyle. I really appreciate Julie Bogart’s approach to homeschooling. It’s a happy medium between structured academics with curriculum and free-for-all unschooling. It’s fairly similar to where we are with our own family’s educational philosophy. I’ve gleaned a lot of great inspiration and information from her book, The Brave Learner. We make time to enjoy Big Juicy Conversations, on whatever topic, when they come up (often they are juicier and last longer if there’s food present, if we are in the car, or it’s bedtime–see below). We’ve also done a lot of reading aloud, watched some movies and TV, and we use a lot of language games, one-on-one time, and Jot it Down (list-making is writing!). I want to move toward copywork and dictation, but we are not yet there.
  3. Podcasts. Some of the best ones for us have been: But Why?, Short and Curly, Ear Snacks, Highlights Hangout, Wow in the World, and Story Party on Audible (not a podcast, but recorded storytelling, so used in a similar way). We listen to them in the car, and sometimes during lunch. They expose the kids to science, humor, history, civics, and ethics, and they often spark lots of questions that we can then explore together.
  4. Hamilton (the musical). My kids have been listening to it non-stop for a month now and almost have all the words memorized, plus a deep grasp on a lot of the history it covers. We are taking advantage of that natural interest and exposing them to books about colonial and early U.S. history, slavery, forms of government, etc. Before we started listening to Hamilton, all I knew about Alexander Hamilton is what I could remember from this commercial from the 90s. Now, between the musical and all the supplemental reading we’ve been doing, I have a deeper grasp on that part of history than ever before. In addition to the musical teaching us about colonial U.S. history, it also brings up present-day racism and white supremacy, immigration, and careers related to music. AND, it has us learning about budgeting and money as we talk about out how we could make the dream of seeing Hamilton live in New York or San Francisco come true. We’re definitely going to use musicals as much as we can to study different subjects.

5. Food. If I put food in front of them at the table, I can usually keep their attention and interest on a topic for about 20 minutes or so. We’ve read chapters of What to do When It’s Not Fair: A Kid’s Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy this way, books about colonial times, the story and history of mathematics, and astronomy. During meals, we’ve also enjoyed listening to podcasts or stories, and had a lot of Big Juicy Conversations. Baking has also been a great educational tool– measuring, reading recipes, learning how to use the oven, stove, mixer, and other tools, not to mention the social and intellectual skills it takes to: a.) convince your mother that baking brownies at 9:30am is totally reasonable because it’s part of homeschool, b.) take turns with your brother using the mixer, and c.) discuss the risks of food-borne illness while licking the batter spoons.

6. Car rides. Something about being in the car, close together but not looking at each other, creates an alchemy just right for certain kinds of conversations.

7. Scavenger hunts. Reading clues is reading!

8. MadLibs and writing funny postcards. Both involve writing and part of speech, and they appeal to my silly, fun-loving five-year-old.

9. The library. We’ve visited the library about five times in the last two weeks, each time bringing home a huge bag of books, and going through most of them within a day or two.

10. Shopping. Reading a list, doing the math necessary for sticking to a budget, navigating a store, reading labels, and practicing appropriate behavior in a store. Such a rich educational experience!

11. Chess. I bought a chess board at a thrift store the weekend before we started homeschooling, and our seven-year-old has played at least one chess game every single day since then. He has also read books about chess independently, and watching videos on strategy and then implemented his new knowledge into his game play. Our five-year-old also knows the rules of the game and enjoys playing as well.

12. Bedtime. Education doesn’t only happen during normal “school” hours. It happens everyday, all day long. It starts the minute they wake up and start building a marble run or thinking about what to eat for breakfast. One of our boys talks to us about his goals and what he wants to learn about only during bedtime. We also read for about an hour with each boy, and sometimes we are reading about “serious” topics such as slavery, immigration, natural disasters, space, math, owning pets, etc.

What hasn’t really sparked much engagement or interest? Curriculum, parent-planned activities, workbooks, worksheets, structured classes outside of the home, structured Montessori-style lessons, or leveled readers. We do some of these things anyway, but there is a noticeable difference in the level of engagement and length of focused time for these activities. I believe that everything can be learned through anything. Rote skills in spelling, reading, and mathematics can be applied to any area of natural interest. I trust that my children can learn deeply when they follow their own interests, and I trust myself as a home educator that I can help guide those interests to also include the things that are important to me (and the State).

Homeschool Day in the Life

We are two weeks into our homeschool adventure now, and here’s a snapshot of a recent day when I didn’t have a specific plan in mind for the morning, other than to support their own interests in learning and offer a rich array of opportunities for discovery and exploration. This day followed a day that was rather tempestuous with emotions, so my main goal was to help them both feel supported and loved. There was plenty of learning going on, despite not having any formal lessons!

All of this happened before 8:30am-

-Upon waking, JRun played with a game called Equilogic, looking at numbers and patterns.

-Upon waking, ARun played a game of Mastermind with B before she went to work.

-We observed the chrysalides, and the boys hypothesized about why some of the chrysalides fell down. We wonder if the butterflies will still emerge if they are not hanging upside down.

-Boys looked at about 40 Word a Day pages. I read the word and the definition if they asked. It’s great to see them excited about words and language. We snuggled on the couch together while we did this.

-Both boys used “tempestuous” and “incessant” correctly in original sentences. I told them they would get “bonus points” if they used any of the Word a Day words during the day. (No actual rewards for doing it–just for the fun and satisfaction of it). ARun (five years old) used “incessant” again correctly at the pool later in the day. We talked about how storms can be tempestuous, as well as moods and emotions.

-After a minor incident, the boys discussed apologies with each other, and the ways in which they each like to receive an apology. I helped guide the conversation, but they were leading the communication with each other. Relationship building. This is the “real” focus of our education for them currently.

-I read a chapter of What to Do When It’s Not Fair: A Kid’s Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy while they ate breakfast. Great book! It held their interest and they engaged in thinking and talking about envy.

-JRun had a conversation with me about his new marble run creation, and his new plans for modifying the design to solve a problem he had with it, then he went upstairs to work on it.

-We discussed the plans for the day. I talked about what we had scheduled and what was important to me, and they chimed in with what was important to them. I grab a blank piece of paper for this daily conversation so I can jot down all their brilliant and creative ideas of what could happen in the day. Writing down all the “have tos” and the “we coulds” and the “I wants” on a list of Possibilities helps the day go a lot smoother. They know that I’ve heard what’s important to them, and considered it. I know they are aware of what I am expecting from them and for the day. They know how much space they have for freedom, and what to prepare for. I know we won’t get to everything on the list. Everyone feels more comfortable that what is important to them isn’t forgotten. Sometimes at bedtime they’ll have a great idea, and ask me to “put it on the list for tomorrow.”

8:45am- Kids wanted me to make them a “Breakfast Scavenger Hunt” so I did. I think ARun saw something like this on YouTube, and he loves it. I write clues on Post-Its, and hide food, and what he finds he gathers at the table and eats for breakfast (second breakfast, in this case). Both kids did it, and ate all the healthy food I hid for them! Reading the clues is one of the ways that reading is organically cropping up into their homeschool days.

9am- Over second breakfast, we started discussing pets, and together we made a pro/con list for all the different pet options we are interested in. James took the lead in making this list (and the pencil- WIN!!!!) and created a voting system for how to narrow down the choices. On the list of possible pets: Bunny, Parakeet, Dog, Puppy, Bald Eagle, Rattlesnake, Cat, Kitten, Chicken, Ferret. 🙂

9:30am- Boys dispersed to get dressed and brush teeth. I cleaned up the kitchen and table.

10:15am- I set the boys up on the computers for math time. ARun chose to work on Prodigy, and JRun wanted to be on ABCya. He picked games under the 5th Grade Math heading (he’s eight, in second grade). I showered while they worked.

10:30am- Our source for handmade tamales knocked on the door while I was in the shower, as she made her weekly neighborhood rounds. The boys answered the door, and successfully navigated that interaction, and asked her to wait a minute, in Spanish. I got our tamales and we all got to practice some Spanish conversation.

11:30am- We ate tamales for lunch and continued to play math and logic games on the computer.

12pm- While the kids were happily gaming (and learning math), I took some time to work in the garden (self-care for me, and homegrown veggies and beautiful flowers for all!) ARun came outside to join me, and found a lovely pile of mud. I think he was expecting a scolding and had a “tricky” look in his eye, but instead I invited him and encouraged him to fully play with the mud, with or without his clothes on, so he made “mud angels” and had a great time. Then we got a bath going and mopped up a few mud tracks in the house. No big deal, and lots of fun for him.

1pm- We read two books together– one about colonial jobs and skills, and one about engineering, with a female main character.

1:45pm- We got ready to go to the pool and I texted our homeschool friends that we were going swimming. We listened to Hamilton on the way there. (JRun is in love with it).

2pm- Swimming at the pool with friends! JRun went off the diving board for the first time, and ARun had a swimming revelation and finally “got” how to kick his feet and paddle his arms at the same time! Twice-weekly Open Rec swimming for about an hour, leading into a half hour lesson, is our “physical education” time. I swim with them during Open Rec, and then I shower and dress (alone!) while they are in their lesson (self-care time for me).

4pm- After 1.5 hours of swimming, we got frozen yogurt. We found Jenga at the yogurt place, and played two games. We also talked about how many states the US has, and how many countries there are in the world. I tried to recite all 50 states for them (they helped me keep count).

5pm- We got back home (listened to Hamilton in the car) and played outside as a family with B until it was time for me to take JRun to choir practice.

6pm- I dropped JRun off at choir practice (we listened to Hamilton on the way there). ARun stayed home with B and they took slow motion videos of ARun jumping off the porch, among other things. While JRun was in choir, I went grocery shopping.

7pm- JRun and I went out for a date at a local taco place while B did bedtime at home with ARun. We stayed there until almost 9pm, watching basketball, sipping limeade, and talking about everything. He repeatedly asked me to hug him at the table throughout our meal. I figured, I have no idea how long his comfort with public hugs is going to last, but I know it’s a finite amount of time, so I’ll take it! He got all the hugs he wanted.

9pm- Back home, B and I read some Harry Potter to JRun before he fell asleep.

On days like this, I spend a bit of time at the end of the day reflecting on the skills and subject matter we ended up covering. This helps me see the educational value of the day, and also helps me see where the gaps are, so they can be addressed another day.

Skills and Subjects from today:

Interpersonal communication

Building loving relationships

Learning strategies for dealing with envy


Physical activity and movement

Playing games with others, agreeing on rules

Strategy and logic

Problem-solving and improving upon a design

New vocabulary, use of adjectives


Weighing pros and cons of a choice


Spanish conversation

Sensory play with mud

Appropriate restaurant behavior

Computer skills


Playing with dogs- how to play with them, dog behavior

Listening to and appreciating music

Colonial history

Forms of government

Countries vs. states

Learning and memorizing lyrics

Singing in a choir

Trying new foods

Manners and politeness

Imagining a world without modern technologies

Scientific method- creating and testing a hypothesis

Planning for a big purchase

Decision-making process

Diving off the diving board


Holding and using a pencil

Goal setting and organization

Not bad for one day!

April 1 First Day of Homeschool (No Joke!)

We have made the plunge into homeschooling, and I am now home educating our two sons, ages 7 (“JRun” on this blog) and 5 (“ARun” on this blog). I’m sure I’ll write more about the backstory of our decision to homeschool at another time. At least for now, we are taking more of an unschooling approach, with a focus on plenty of unstructured free time for them to be active and engaged in their own ways. They need this time in order to “forget” about being jaded about and resistant to more structured school-like academics.

Our guiding educational philosophy at the moment is: Learning is happening all the time, and everything can be learned through anything. When there is trauma or emotional issues at play (we’ve dealt with bullying this year), learning cannot happen deeply until the person is feeling safe.

Here’s a Day in the Life log of how our first official homeschool day went.

7:40am- ARun got out breakfast for everyone of his own accord. We listened to Story Party while eating. The story was about tricksters like Coyote and Brer Rabbit.

8:30am- Boys started a chess game together while I paid bills and made a phone call. There was some breaking of pinky promises and hurt feelings, but since we are homeschooling, we now have all the time we need to deal with the feelings, and the time to do the work of building up the boys’ relationships with everyone in their family (especially their brother), instead of just rushing on to the next thing.

9:00am- We ordered our live Painted Lady butterflies together, and built 3D wooden butterfly puzzles. Talked about the three parts of the butterfly body: head, thorax, abdomen. Listened to “But Why?” podcast about amphibians (didn’t find one that talked about insects or butterflies in the moment, but we did find one later!)

10am- ARun served chocolate chips to us for table time. Aran wrote a few sentences for a thank you card to his grandma and drew a picture. Then he was thrilled to death about the fact that he could write “poop” and it counted as writing practice and he wasn’t getting in trouble for it. He even figured out how to write “poopoo” all by himself. (Sorry, Grandma, for so many “poops” on your thank you card!)

I was attempting to make table time last for awhile, and we made it until 10:50am. ARun was silly after the first ten minutes. JRun worked on writing an ad for a game partner to play Stratego and Chess with him. He’ll place the ad in a nearby Common House of an intentional co-housing community within walking distance of our house. He strongly resists writing, so we filled in the words of the ad where I had left blanks for him.

10:50am- They were ready to let loose and be free. They went upstairs together to make a blanket fort. I’ll let them play freely for up to an hour as long as they are peaceful with each other. They moved onto playing a game with a big yoga ball.

11:40am- Another conflict about physical safety came up between the boys. One boy has a heightened reaction to what he perceives as a physical threat. In reality, it’s something like Brother holding out his pinky for a pinky promise, halfway between their bodies, a good eight inches from the face. But, that action feels “like he was gonna jab me in the eye with his pinky, so I pinched his hand.” (That was the 8:30am conversation). This time, we talked about fight or flight reactions and heightened perceptions of danger, especially after someone has been bullied or hurt by people. I’m trying to give him language and an understanding of what is happening for him, while at the same reinforcing that it’s never ok to hurt someone on purpose, even if it’s because of a fight or flight reaction. Both at 8:30am and at 11:40am, both boys felt heard and like their feelings and experienced were important. Booyah.

11:50am- ARun did MathTango (addition and subtraction) on iPad so JRun and I could play Stratego, which he had been waiting for all morning.

12:30pm- iPad put away, we ate lunch and talked about hows dinosaurs died, the universe, black holes, meteors, and tornadoes.

12:50pm- I cleaned up the lunch things and kitchen while they did MathTango and LightBot Coding for a few minutes. JRun read for ARun inside the MathTango app.

1pm- Errands. Drive-thru bank deposits, grocery shopping with boys (they did awesome– I gave them each individual items to shop for one at a time as I went through the store). Listened to a But Why? podcast about astronomy in the car.

2:30pm- ARun pediatrician appointment. JRun did LightBot coding while he waited.

3:20pm- Unloaded groceries. While I did that, J and A unpacked a foot pump that had been delivered, and together figured out how it worked and how to blow up large pool inflatables that J had picked out at Costco the week before.

3:30-5:30pm- Went to the library. J talked to the librarian and got help looking up something he wanted to find. Then we enjoyed Minecraft Monday at the library from 4-5pm. JRun was his friends from school and had a good hour of social time with them doing what they love doing. ARun got to explore Minecraft and sit next to me, which is just what he wanted to do.

5:30- Back home, J and A spent more time figuring out on their own how to work the manual foot pump and get the inflatable pool loungers inflated. Good problem solving and teamwork happening. Zero involvement on my part! They got it working! I made dinner during that time.

6:00pm- Family dinner. Boys talked about things that happened in their day, which NEVER would happen after a day of public school.

6:30pm- ARun wanted to make sugar cookies in the shape of hearts (“for Mama”). Since the dough had to chill anyway, we had enough time to mix up the dough and clean up the kitchen before bedtime.

7pm- Bedtime. Reading aloud to boys until 8pm (for ARun) and 9pm (for JRun) is already part of our daily routine.

9pm- Both boys asleep.