Sunday, March 27, 2016

Growing up on Tolkien & Lewis (Literature appreciation the home school way)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Those are the first words of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, companion to his better known epic The Lord of the Rings. Even if you’ve never read these books, I’m sure you’ll have at least heard of them. I’ve done better than that, though. I’ve been familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings since I was about four. These books, along with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are the books I grew up on. I’ve revisited these stories so often I practically have them memorized by now.

And if that’s an exaggeration, it’s only stretching the truth a little bit. Seriously. I’ve heard them about twenty times apiece.

Of course, when I was four I obviously wasn’t reading The Lord of the Rings on my own. But that’s about when Dad started reading to us around the supper table, and the three stories he’s always read (and reread and reread!) are The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
A little wear and tear over the years, but still in pretty decent shape.
If you know even a little bit about these books, you should realize that they’re pretty unusual choices of reading material for a bunch of little kids. The Lord of the Rings especially has a reputation for being a long, winding, and relatively slow-moving story full of long words and longer place names—that’s on top of being an epic that cover about 1,200 pages! The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia aren’t quite that advanced, but they’re still not what you would expect to be riveting entertainment for a bunch of toddlers.

Despite that, at five and six David and Eli were pretending to be Frodo and Sam on the quest for Mount Doom. So there you go.

The first time Dad cracked the pages of The Hobbit and read to us about Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and his unlikely exploits as a burglar and adventurer, I don’t think any of us imagined he’d be reading that story every year from then on. That’s turned out to be the case, however, and now I’m on what I believe is my twentieth time hearing The Hobbit—my twentieth time through The Lord of the Rings isn’t too many chapters away. At least once a year Dad will send someone to grab one of the books from the bookshelf and we’ll start through the whole cycle again. Typically, that takes about three months of reading them back to back (to back to back to…well, you get the picture). But besides reading them at supper time and while we're doing KP, Dad also brings them on camping trips and reads them around the campfire.
In this way he's able to read them all in a remarkably short time. 2,250 pages in three months is nothing to sneeze at!

After fourteen years of hearing these stories over and over again, you can bet there are funny situations and private jokes I can think of. Probably one of my favorites is when we try to fool the little guys (who haven’t heard the stories 15+ times the way us older ones have) into believing the end of the book is something disastrous. For instance, we’re still claiming the end of The Hobbit is that Smaug (the dragon) comes down and eats Bilbo and all the dwarves.

If you say it with enough conviction, you can still get Becca to believe it.

I also find it amusing to watch the four youngest crowd around Dad to look at the illustrations—illustrations I’ve seen about a million times.
Pictures—so exciting!
Dad’s head-rubbing is another iconic part of his reading aloud. It’s about the closest he gets to being theatrical.
But what I find particularly interesting is that, although I’ve had the books read to me plenty of times, I’ve personally read them a grand total of one time apiece. I guess I’ve just never seen the point of reading them for myself when Dad will do all that for me, you know?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What's in the Clan's garden?

Spring has come. Now that the snow is gone and the grass is starting to get green again, many people are chafing to get their hands dirty and put some seeds in the ground. Gardening is a pretty big deal for the Clan, as I’m sure you can understand. But although gardening is a huge part of our lifestyle, I wouldn’t exactly say my siblings and I are “chafing” to get started on the garden. We’re not very keen on the idea of having no garden at all, but the weeding, planting, and other work associated with the garden isn’t our favorite thing either.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter how much we actually enjoy gardening, because it’s gonna happen anyway. Of course, mid-March is a little early to start putting things in the ground in Minnesota, but now is a good time to start planning. We have about 1,500 square feet in our main garden that we use for annual planting, and a whole list of things we’re intending to use that space for. Some kind of thought has to go into deciding what goes where and how everything will fit.

So what is “everything?” What does the Clan plant in our garden?

With a few exceptions, the things we plant in our garden stay the same from year to year. These are the things we can in large volumes for pulling off the shelf later and making an emergency meal with.

Green beans, for instance, are a garden regular. We plant them along both sides of our seventeen-foot arbor every year. It’s not a normal summer if we’re not heading out to pick green beans for half an hour every two or three days.

Tomatoes are a big part of our garden as well. Besides being an important ingredient of our homemade canned chili and spaghetti sauce, Mom uses our canned tomatoes in soups and “Italian” crockpot meals. (Typically these consist of burger, tomato, and a couple quarts of different vegetables. Not very ethnic, but it eats.) To can enough tomatoes for all that, we end up planting about 65 square feet of tomatoes a year.

Those two things are actually planted in semi-permanent structures in the garden: the arbor and the “tomato panels.” They're the only vegetables that have space reserved for them, though. Everything else gets put into the ground wherever Mom can find space for them in the rest of that 1,500 square feet.

We (sort of) garden according to the square-foot gardening method outlined in Mel Bartholomew’s book. Mostly what we take from this book is a garden structure that doesn’t rely on long rows of plants but instead divides the garden up into 4x4 blocks with walkways between them. This is how we plant most of our main garden, working around the permanent structures and perennial plants like the raspberries and strawberries.
Good book. Pretty handy stuff. It created the whole "look" of our garden
The three big things we plant in those 4x4 blocks are yellow (wax) beans, beets, and carrots. These three are staples for us—if we don’t have them around to add to a meal, it really limits our options. Usually, depending on how many quarts from the previous year are left over, we’ll use up about twelve blocks of space planting these.

Another thing that gets a lot of space in our main garden is garlic. If you know my Mom at all well, this shouldn’t surprise you—in fact, you should totally be expecting it. When it comes to garlic, her rule of thumb is “more is always better,” so we probably have about 50 square feet of garlic every year.
You can never have too much garlic, right?
Other things that show up with (distressing) regularity in the main garden are brussels sprouts, eggplant, and zucchini—usually two or three blocks of each. The nice thing about the zucchini, though, is that when it gets ahead of us, we can always use the mongo-sized ones for target practice.
Hunting the wild Zucchini Monster.
We’ve had success with planting peppers as well. The green ones don’t always flourish, but our hot peppers have always survived pretty well. We make our own crushed red pepper from these, and Mom has also concocted a pretty potent hot sauce/salsa from them.
Warning: Extremely hot. Will burn your face off.
Lettuce doesn’t happen very often because we’d never grow enough, but if one of the littler guys wants to have a garden of their own, lettuce is tough enough to survive them. We do radishes sometimes, too, and Mom also grows a bunch of herbs. The oregano is kind of an annual thing—at this point I don’t think we could kill it off even if we wanted to. Parsley, cilantro, chives, and basil are other herbs Mom likes to grow, so that takes care of another four or five blocks.
Once we've got all that in the ground, the main garden here is full, just like this. So if we plant pumpkins, squash, or cucumbers, we have to find a different place to put them. Dad had to turn over more dirt on the far end of the garden and add another 400+ square feet so there would be room for those crawling vines. We put our eight or nine hills of cucumbers out in front of the beehives. They make a good "bee barrier" there so visitors know to stay back from the hives.
And that’s pretty much it. Yes, we have a giginormous garden. (That’s one step above ginormous and two steps above really enormous for you mathematically challenged folks out there). But we always manage to fill it with high volumes of the same bunch of plants. Our garden is huge mostly because it takes a lot of garden space to grow enough green beans and tomatoes for my family. And if we didn’t have the garden, I really don’t know what we’d do with ourselves all summer long.

Probably mow the lawn or throw knives or something.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lists and paper clips: the Clan's go-to organizational tools

One of the side effects of having as many brothers and sisters as I do is that finding your own clothes can be difficult.

Because we’re all so close together in age—only about sixteen months apart—there are times when two of us are in the same clothing size of a few months. Since none of us memorize each other’s clothing sizes, clothing gets swapped around pretty regularly. (I mean, please. I barely remember what size I wear! Next you’ll be expecting me to remember their ages and birthdays!) I'd say most of the time clothes do make it to the right shelf, but I still have to hunt down my jeans every so often because they end up on my sisters' shelves.

Let’s just say the laundry service at this house isn’t super reliable, even if it’s me and Skinny folding laundry and not Fro and Becca. Things happen.

Mom has tried several times to streamline the laundry process and ensure clothing ends up in the right places. There's been varied levels of success with this, but some of her ideas have been really helpful.

For instance, lists have been great. Mom's a big list-maker and makes lists of pretty much everything, from groceries to camping equipment to jobs for cranky kids. Clothing lists are no exception. Every six months when we do the seasonal clothing switch, Mom makes detailed lists of all the clothes we have on our shelves. These contain the size, brand and color of every piece of our clothing. It takes about a week to do a full clothing switch this way, but in the long run, it’s super worth it to have those lists to refer back to. We keep a copy in our rooms and in the laundry baskets so if there’s ever a question, we can refer to them.
That’s the idea, at least. Clothing still ends up in the wrong places, but the lists do help.

Mom doesn’t just make lists of our everyday clothing, however. She also makes lists of the outdoor gear we have: shoes, coats, sandals, and winter gear.

You see, you might have thought it was chaotic getting regular laundry to the right shelf, but coats, footwear, and winter gear are an even bigger mess. Our laundry room and garage are collective dumping spots for these outdoor clothes, and short people in a hurry rarely stop to put their shoes where they belong on the shelf. More often than not, footwear gets parked on the floor and never makes it any farther.
The annual winter gear pile.
I feel the boot-pile in the garage is pretty self-explanatory.
Yeah, tidiness and organization rarely rank high on the list of priorities as far as my siblings and I go. Might as well admit it.

But sometimes lists aren’t the best solution for us. They work great if you can read, but up until recently, we’ve always had a fair number of non-readers in the house and for toddler age kids, lists aren’t super helpful. Those littler guys still needed an older sibling to help them track down their shoes and coats—and I’ll be perfectly honest with you, us older siblings are rarely thrilled by this.

The Clan coat situation is a good example of something that lists don't help with. For as long as I can remember, the Clan has worn red coats and jackets. You could say it's an identification thing, because back when there were only five or six of us, Mom and Dad realized how difficult it is to keep track of so many kids in large crowds. Dressing us in identical coats helped, and choosing red helped even more because it's high visibility and easy to pick out. Red is also gender neutral, another perk that means coats can be passed down as many times as necessary without worrying about the boys ending up in an obviously “girl” color like pink or purple.

So we wore red. We had red hooded jackets for spring and fall and red coats for winter—thank you, Land’s End for stocking plain red jackets for so long! People got used to seeing us all trooping through church or the grocery store in our red coats—it was just another Clan thing, like the skinhead haircuts for the boys. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, however, there are a few drawbacks that go with wearing identical clothing.

If all the coats look alike and are from pretty much the same brand, really the only way to tell which is yours is to know your size. And if we have two red coats, one for play and one for town, you have to remember two sizes. Sometimes those sizes are different, depending on how a particular jacket fits you. Sometimes you have the same size as the sibling closest to you in age. Sometimes you’re five and can’t remember what size you have. And since coats were never hung up on the right hook or hanger, every time we went to put one on, it was luck of the draw. You might get your coat, you might get your brother’s coat, you might get your little sister’s coat. Having a list of sizes wasn’t going to be super helpful either, because many of us couldn’t read and needed help locating coats.

It was a mess. It wasn’t working. It was waaaay too complicated and required too much remembering from everyone.

Then Mom came up with a sorting system simple enough for the littlest kids that didn't detract from the usefulness or redness of the jackets.

Paper clips.

They’re not necessarily man’s best friend, but it’s a very close thing. And they were the perfect solution to our coat problem.

Mom assigned each of us a color of the rainbow and attached corresponding colored paper clips to the zippers of our jackets. Since David was the oldest, he got red, Eli got orange, I got yellow, and so on. Once we got to purple, Mom added a pink paper clip and started over at red again. She also used white paper clips to differentiate play coats from town. Then whenever we did clothing switch and rotated coats, she just swapped paper clips around so we always had the same color on our coats.
Paper clips on Pete's zipper - see 'em?
Crazy easy, in other words.

And it worked. It worked really, really well. The two-year-old could find his coat. The ten-year-old knew which coat was his town coat. There was much less confusion, and even if coats didn't get put away where they belonged, we could still sort them out.

We started wearing red coats somewhere around 2005 or 2006. In the ten years since then, we've continued to wear red coats and mark them with paper clips. The Clan paper clip system hasn't been patented yet, but it's definitely a useful tool that's helped us incredibly.