Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summer jobs leave us rich but anxious for rain

The Clan has long had a reputation for being a reliable source of kids willing to do manual labor in exchange for some spending money. Consider it a side effect of our family size and the flexible schedule home schooling has given us. Our neighbors have learned that we're the ones to call for odd jobs around the house, yard, or even on the farm.

Most of the time, I consider this a very good thing. If we're willing to put in the hours (and we usually are), people keep calling and asking for us. I used to have a lot of spending money for a twelve-year-old, and nowadays even Cob (12) and Pete (10) are rolling in the dough.

The variety of jobs we get is fairly endless as well. Although the majority of the work usually goes to the older kids (currently that ends up being Skinny), those who aren’t a big teenage boy, or even a teenager—or even a boy for that matter!—will get hired for something. I didn’t tear down old fences or haul hay bales as much as David and Eli did, but I still got those jobs.  And you’d be surprised how much lifting and hauling you can get done with two or three little boys. Besides that my sisters and I can always find someone looking for a babysitter, so as you can see there has never really been a shortage of opportunities for us to make money.

But by far the biggest job we do, the great money-making moment of the year, is rock-picking.

We start getting these calls in early May, after the fields have been planted. This is when farmers are looking for someone to drive up and down the rows and pick up the rocks that could later damage harvesting machinery. Usually anything the size of a golf ball has to go, so just imagine how many rocks you’ll be picking up across just one field.

In general figures, I would say a lot.

A more useful estimate puts things at eight tractor buckets per field, but that's not very accurate either because some fields are big and others are small, and some fields are pretty clean while in others it takes us half an hour to move ten yards. It all depends.

Either way, rock-pickers like my siblings and I can count on spending long hours in the sun bumping over clods while we crisscross a field at a crawling pace in a Gator, or alternatively, walking beside a tractor and wagon with five gallon buckets.

That's rock-picking. Sounds great, right?

Not so much.

Typically, three or four of us head out at a time. The farmers like to have us out there as early as possible for as long as we'll stick around, so seven o'clock in the field is the norm. That means we're getting up at six in the morning to eat a big breakfast and make sure lunch is packed. Food is a big deal when we're rock-picking, and newbies learn pretty quickly that more food is infinitely better than too little. Sandwich consumption goes way up this time of year and Mom makes sure to stock foods like carrots and apples as lunchbox fillers. If you should happen to drive by a field and see a bunch of kids sitting around gnawing on raw carrots, well, that would be us. Just wave and keep driving.

After food, water is the next most important thing. Keeping hydrated is a big deal out there, so we fill all the water coolers we own and bring extra water bottles for lunch.
Sunscreen is also a big deal. Oh, on the first day or two we think we’re tough enough to stand a little sunburn, but when we come home red as lobsters after seven hours in the sun, you can bet we slap the sunscreen on thick the next morning. Still, by the end of the first week or so, you can tell the difference between the rock-pickers in the family and the ones who stayed at home.
I'm not rock-picking this year, and you can definitely tell the difference between me and Skinny.
That tan comes from several seven-hour days in the field. That's a typical rock-picking day for us, and as long as there are still fields to pick and kids willing to do the work, the job goes on. We could be out there five days a week for four or five weeks. And because the farmers know how hard it can be to find someone willing to put in the hours and do the job, they're willing to pay us really well.

Like I said, it's a great money-making opportunity.

It’s also incredibly boring.

I picked rock for three years, and I still cringe whenever someone brings it up. I used to hate it so much, not just because working in the sun and wind and dirt isn't my ideal environment.
There's nothing to do while you're out there but watch the corn go by and count rocks. You can only talk to your rock-picking partner for so long, and singing loses it's appeal pretty quickly as well. The hours drag on and on—after one o'clock, we'll have exhausted all our options and want nothing more than to pack it up and go home right then and there.

All my siblings share my distaste for rock-picking and the boredom that goes with it, so during rock-picking season we’re unusually attentive to the weather forecast and especially for rain. If it's rainy or if the fields are wet, we don't have to go to work. These breaks are wonderful after a couple days of rock-picking. You'll probably never find a bunch of kinds more excited for rain during the months of May and June than us.

Still money is money, and it’s kept us coming back for five years, even though rock-picking isn’t anyone’s favorite job. I mean, how many other ways can a twelve-year-old make two hundred dollars in two weeks? All things considered, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lawn mowing an all day, whole family job

We’ve been mowing the lawn for two weeks now, and it’s getting just a little ridiculous.

I feel I should point out that this is highly unusual for us, but even under normal circumstances mowing the lawn is an all day job.

We’ve got about 4 acres to mow on a semi-weekly basis. Even with a lot of people capable of running mowers (and a number of mowers to choose from) it still takes time to get the whole job done.

Every Clan mower starts out on the push-mower, trimming around trees and mowing close to the house. You’re considered old enough to push-mow as soon as you’re stout enough to push the mower around without standing on tiptoe to keep it in the grass. It’s the kind of mower with a bag on the back that growls along only as fast as you push it and needs to be muscled up hills and reined in going down them. I can’t describe how strongly I used to dislike that mower. Pushing it around not only involved actual work (and who wants to do that?), but emptying the bag was a pain and had to happen pretty often.
The big kids (i.e. those heavy enough to keep the mower from stalling every time they bounced on the seat and who could actually reach the pedals) have the great privilege of driving the tractor mower. Mowing with this is a vast improvement on the push-mower. No more walking—you can cruise along at the incredible speed of five miles an hour and never have to worry about emptying the bag. I don’t have to tell you there have been a lot of twelve-year-olds who “thought heavy” when it came time to mow.
The rider mower sections are significantly larger than the ones we push-mow, so we can count on having between twenty and thirty minutes of just sitting and steering. I’ve always found this to be a great time for singing and/or storytelling. With the earmuffs on, I always had to crank up the volume to hear myself over the mower, so Mom could always tell when I was having a good time.

Those were the days, huh?

The last mower is reserved exclusively for Mom and Dad. A zero turn radius mower, it can really cover some ground—which is probably why Dad never lets us drive it. It comes in handy for mowing big chunks of lawn in a hurry and doing the windbreaks and around the beehives—both places where going fast and turning quickly are important.

We’re able to keep all three mowers running pretty much all day, us kids taking turns on the push- and rider mowers. And when we’re not mowing, we usually aren’t sitting around either. There are always flower gardens to weed or work to do on the hives.

Mom and Dad have always been really good about finding ways to keep the whole family involved in big jobs like this. When we garden there’s always some little task for the three or four kids who are a little to young for the really important jobs. Mowing is the same deal. Fro, Nah, and Becca might be too small to run the mowers as of yet, but they have another job: being Water Guys.

Water Guys are in charge of running water bottles out to the mowers so they can stay hydrated while working in the sun. Ever fifteen minutes or so (depending on whether they remembered to start a timer) the Water Guys and Girls will gather up their water bottles and run around the yard so everyone has a chance to get a drink. When they show up, the chance for a drink is welcome. When they don’t show up…well, that’s another story.
We've had Water Guys as long as we've had family mowing, as you can see in this picture of M and Dad.
Mowing isn’t the whole job though—after we’ve got everything mowed down, we hook the lawn sweeper to the rider mower and some lucky person gets to drive it around the yard at top speed, cleaning up the grass clippings. On the one hand, this is a fun job because with the deck and blades off, the mower can cover ground pretty fast. But on the other hand, there’s no suspension on that thing and you feel every single bump in the backyard (of which there are a great many).

Still, nine times out of ten, I’d prefer sweeping over mulching the garden with the grass clippings—which is what we always do with our clippings. They’re a great, inexpensive way to keep the walkways in the garden clearly defined and control weeds. Plus we can keep remulching spots that need it all summer long—can’t beat that.

Normally, we can go from firing up the mowers to putting away the sweeper over the course of one day. But the first mowing of the year is a little bit different, and that’s why, as I said before, we’ve been mowing for two weeks now.

This first spring mowing tends to remind me of haying because the grass is always at it’s longest on this first mow. We have to wait so long before starting because it’s constantly rainy and wet—terrible weather for mowing lawn. Dad also has to check all the mowers for issues before we get them out which can often cause delays for repairs. Most of the time the grass is long and the backyard will be full of thick tussocks before we get around to it.

This year is definitely like that, except it wasn’t just the backyard that was tussocky. Even in the front lawn, the grass was knee-high on a six-year-old and in the backyard it was close to even Dad’s knees. You could ride a bike through there and feel your feet swishing through the grass on every down-stroke.
High time for mowing.

Typically, we’d approach the first mow like a regular mow and get it all done in one fell swoop. It might look pretty ugly by the end, but it would be cut. This spring has been incredibly busy for us, though, and we’ve had to stagger mowing out over the past two weeks, doing a chunk here and a chunk there, whatever we have time for when we’re not wrapped up in other jobs. The entire yard has been mowed once, but there are sections that we mowed two weeks ago that are ready for mowing again while we just hacked off—I mean, mowed the backyard for the first time.

And all that long grass has turned into incredible quantities of grass clippings. To much for the sweeper to cope with, so instead we’re having to use lawn rakes and a cart to clean it all up.
Definitely looks like we're haying.
This weekend we spent several hours of the afternoon loading all these piles and many more into carts and hauling them to the garden where they will wait in great heaps for the garden to be ready for mulching. Thank goodness that job is done for the year, but we’ve still got to remow and sweep the entire lawn so it looks less patchy and uneven.

Yay for mowing, right?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Home School High School Graduation

Some exciting news this week: in the next week or so I'll be graduating from high school.

And about time, too!

The Clan has done a couple of these graduation things before for my two older brothers, so although I’m not officially there yet, I know a lot of what to expect. Turns out graduation from home school high school isn’t too terribly different from how most people do it. There were a few steps we skip over, like prom and the cap and gown when we’re presented with our diploma, but Mom does order diplomas for us. My siblings and I all had front-row (dinner table) seats for the graduation ceremony of the graduating classes of 2013 and 2014.

In case you were wondering, yes, we’ve all graduated valedictorian in our classes. And no, thank goodness, we didn’t have to give a speech.

I never really considered my brothers graduated from  high school until they had their graduation open house, though. For the Clan, these affairs start with the invitations. Making them is the job of the graduate, and I and my brothers have all had different approaches to this job. As far as I can tell, David barely remembers making his, while Eli spent several days getting his just right. I was somewhere in the middle and threw mine together in a couple of hours, but most of that time was actually spent trying to outsmart the program I was using. Turns out the default photo-editing program on my laptop was free for a reason.

And getting them all printed and addressed was pretty tedious (not to mention costly in colored ink). Now I understand why people pay someone to do that job for them.

Another part of the job that Mom delegates out to the graduates is choosing the menu. She has the final say, but we get to weigh in on what food and beverages we’d like to have and any activities we’d want to have going on. This is another area where you can see the different approach my brothers and I have to these parties. David just wanted to wear his suit jacket and fedora.
Eli, on the other hand, wanted the piano and violin out in the garage so he could play some music if he wanted to, and he wanted to climb one of the big pine trees in the front yard at some point during the party. (See the video of that stunt HERE.)

As for myself, I intend to wear clean clothes but that’s about all the intricate planning I’ve got going on.

Outside of our individual additions or exhibitionism, however, a graduation open house at the Clan house isn’t anything too startling. We set up a bunch of tables on the driveway, put food on the counter, and set up lawn games for guests to play. Mom will put up lots of pictures as well, including the most embarrassing/cute selection of baby pictures she can dig up. (Trust me, there’s quite a few.)

One way to tell for sure that a Clan open house is going on is to look for the parking attendants. Two or three of the Melonheads will be out on the driveway wearing orange vests and holding colored flags when the guests start to show up. Their job is to direct traffic to appropriate parking spaces in the backyard.

(I feel really bad that we don't have any pictures of these guys, but at the graduation open houses Mom is usually otherwise occupied and she's usually the one taking pictures. You'll just have to use your imagination on this one.)

The Melonheads aren't too worried about getting this job, even though it means they have to eat in shifts and pay attention to their job. Apparently some of the relatives give tips.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dad's Making the Summer Switch and Shaving His Hair!

Y’all know the Clan haircut by now. You’ve seen the pictures, I’ve even written a post or two on the subject. Clan haircuts are now and always have been done one of two ways. Hair is either ON or OFF—there's no in between.
Time hasn't improved their camera-smiling skills too much.
All the boys in my family have been rocking the skinhead look since day one, and that includes Dad. But he's got the beard to contend with as well (something most of the Clan boys have never had to deal with), and sometimes he has reason to cut his hair a little differently.

During the summer, he gets a haircut as often as the boys do—every four weeks or so—and he generally shaves his beard at the same time so everything is even. Less hair is always a bonus during the summer, so for most of the year his hair stays pretty short.

But for the four months of the year where we have snow and bitter cold weather, short hair is not the best headgear. During that time, the other boys still get regular haircuts, but Dad lets his grow. By March, he has the woolly/shaggy thing going pretty well.
The Early-April Dad
This hair comes in very handy when he’s driving the tractor and pushing snow for several hours at a time. His fingers and toes might get numb, but his face always stays toasty warm. Sure, he might grow a few icicles while he’s at it, but even when we have blasting winds his face is well protected. It's perfect for a Minnesota winter.

Now that we're getting into spring, however, it's getting hot again and the full beard has reached the end of its usefulness. Plus now that he's beekeeping regularly again there's the danger of getting bees caught in his beard...not fun. So a couple nights ago, Mom got out the clipper and cut it all off.
The May Dad
Every year I find Dad’s complete transition from winter to summer haircut a little shocking. It’s one thing during the summer when he's trimming everything on a regular basis. I can handle that just fine, especially since all the boys get their haircuts at the same time. When all the male members of my family have their hair go from short to completely gone to short again at the same time, it's no big deal.

But to go from 3+ inches of curly hair and a full beard to a total shave of everything—well, that takes some getting used to. These past couple of days I’ve found myself doing a double take every time I see Dad out of the corner of my eyes, just to make sure I know who I’m looking at. I’ll get used to it eventually—I always do—but for the moment it’s a little strange to actually be able to see all of Dad’s face.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why We Don't Eat Waffles

I like to think that, in the overall grand scheme of things, the Clan doesn't eat too differently from everyone else.

Sure, all the canning, gardening, and other food preservation we do means we have zucchini in our spaghetti sauce, which I suppose is a little unusual. But for the most part, I believe the kinds of food Mom cooks for us are pretty much the same kind of thing other families are eating. We eat spaghetti, calico beans, chicken and potatoes, tortillas, salad–just about everything. Really the only difference is the quantities.

We need two more pounds of noodles to make spaghetti. We have to open five more quarts of applesauce than your average family, cook another whole chicken,  and throw five pounds more potatoes in the oven. We go through an incredible amount of peanut butter and jam, and we use three or four loaves of bread making toast for breakfast.

But seriously, beyond the high volume of our meals, the things we're eating are the same.

Now that I've said that, however, I do need to kind of take it back. Turns out that sometimes high volume cooking makes certain meals really impractical food options for us. Steak, for example, is a meal we only have once a year, right after we finish processing venison for the year. I can vouch of venison steak being really tasty, even though I'm really not a fan of steak in the first place. Seafood is another thing we have only rarely–luckily most of us aren't fond of fish or shrimp, so we don't miss it much. But something we only occasionally have and really do like is waffles. Unfortunately, they fall into the "impractical food options" category.

Here's why. First: volume.

Think about the number of waffles we'd have to make to go around for all of us. We like waffles (anything you can smear with butter and syrup and eat with a side of sausage is a good thing in our book), so I can guarantee all thirteen of us will be coming back for second, third, or even fourth helpings. That adds up pretty quickly.

Mom can handle the volume part, though. She's used to cooking for us and by now she knows how to come up with enough food to keep anyone from starving. The real issue with waffles is the time it takes to make that many waffles.

When we make pancakes, Mom can turn them out pretty quickly. She can cook six on our big griddle and have them coming off there every few minutes. Waffles, however, are different. Our waffle iron makes a grand total of two waffles at a time. It also takes about five minutes to cook those waffles, so start thinking about how long it would take to make enough waffles for thirteen starving children.

A really long time. Appliance manufacturers were obviously not prepared for the Clan version of "family size."

If we all ate at once, we'd spend most of our time standing in lines and hovering around Mom asking "Are they done yet?" I don't have to be a mom to tell you that would get irritating really quickly. So for this meal, we actually eat in shifts, usually two or three at a time. And of course we go in age order, so the older kids like myself have to wait a long time for our turns. Last time we had waffles, I was waiting for two hours.

The waffles were worth it when I eventually got my turn, but I was having supper at 7:30. Given our busy schedule, there aren't many days when dragging suppertime out for that long is really an option. Most of the time we need something we can finish in under an hour from start to finish.

Waffles is not that kind of meal for us. As much as we enjoy them, they're too time consuming to work out very often. Plus, Mom ends up standing behind the waffle iron for three or four hours doing nothing but cooking waffles. We have to give her some time to forget how tedious and boring that was before ask to have waffles again.

Around here, we know that if you want to have waffles, you have to be willing to wait for them. And sometimes that wait is a really long one.