Friday, September 18, 2020

7 Quick Takes about Magical Mint Snowflake, A Different Kind of School Year, and Household Explosions

It's 7 Quick Takes Friday! How was your week?


Phillip's team at work has been working really hard lately, so he planned a fun activity to say "thanks." He told them all to go buy a flavor of ice cream that they wouldn't ordinarily buy, and set up an online team game of some sort to play while they ate it.

And remember, the instructions were to buy a flavor you wouldn't ordinarily buy, so this is what Phillip got for himself:

The funny part was that Phillip bought this and only this at the store, and he was all by himself, so it looked pretty clear what was going on: a 39-year-old man had such an intense craving for Frozen II Magical Mint Snowflake ice cream, he'd gotten up and gone to the grocery store for the express purpose of buying an entire gallon of it.

Actually, it was pretty tasty. Now that I've had it, that would be understandable.


I visited my friend Casey's garden for some help with mine. She's got a beautiful garden that she's built little by little, learning by doing, and the best thing (in my opinion) is how she tries to do everything at low or no cost.

She built her vegetable garden fence with fallen branches from the yard, grows strawberries in some crates her husband found on the side of the road, and relocates plants from elsewhere on her property to live in her garden if she thinks they'll look good there.

"See those flowers?" she said, pointing to some blossoms I'd admired earlier. "I grow those from seeds I save from the previous year. I originally cut the dead flowers off some plants in a McDonald's parking lot."

When I grow up, I think I want to be Casey.


On my birthday, I got new laundry hampers for our master bathroom and just loved how they made the place look.

I loved it so much I took this picture and sent it to my mom. 

Fast-forward a few months, and this is how it looks now:

Not pictured: the gaping hole in the wall left over from a DIY emergency plumbing repair a few weeks ago.

To be perfectly honest, though, it probably looked like this almost immediately. I was just too frazzled to notice.


School started this week, and our first day of school pictures did not look at all like I'd imagined 6 months ago:

I have no idea why his iPad is propped up on a 20-lb bag of rice. I just live here.

Phillip works from home, my teenager is doing some online university courses while homeschooling, and 4 of my kids are doing remote learning three days a week with our public school, meaning that I'm in the background of someone's Zoom call literally all day.

As my 16-year-old put it, I'm like a Yeti but not rare.


Other than furtively getting dressed in the bathroom hoping one of my kids doesn't wander in with a tech issue and show me to their class half-naked, I'm actually really liking our current school setup.

I was really dreading how this was going to go, but the 4 younger kids doing the public school's hybrid learning plan seem to be learning and having fun, and I like that they're constantly popping in for lunch and on breaks (even though it means I get nothing else done.)

And my 16-year-old, who's homeschooling this year, is reveling in the freedom of determining her own schedule. When she got hungry at 11 yesterday and asked, "Can I eat lunch this early?" I just shrugged and said "You're homeschooled, you can do whatever you want." I think I heard the Hallelujah Chorus playing inside her brain.


Phillip has gotten into making fermented sodas. I try not to know too much about the process, but he makes a starter microbe mix out of ginger, adds juice to the bottle after a couple of days, and then in a few more days the "bug" has eaten the sugar and turned it into a sparkling carbonated kind of drink. 

Anyway, doing this is a learning curve, and there was a mishap where one of the glass bottles exploded while sitting on the counter.

Luckily, my 16-year-old and I who were in the room didn't get hit by any flying shards of glass, but we were picking them up in the mudroom 10 feet away and the room was basically covered in sticky juice residue.

When we called Phillip in to help with the cleanup effort, he took one look around and told me, "You're welcome for the Take."


My 14-year-old recently picked up The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook at the library.

Which is ironic, because the whole premise of the book is that they were, you know, hungry.

I've seen things like unofficial Harry Potter cookbooks before, which makes sense because they actually do mention lots of different kinds of foods, drinks, and desserts in the Harry Potter series. But what could be in here?

So I flipped open to a random recipe and saw this:

I've read the books and yes, this is something they probably would've made from the squirrels Katniss hunted in the woods. But surely the 'squirrel' part of the title was just for show, and the actual ingredients were normal things you can buy at the grocery store, right?

First ingredient: 2-3 pounds squirrel.

I have so many questions. Is this recipe assuming that you hunt your own squirrels, or that you somehow have a squirrel meat supplier somewhere? Is that a thing people have? How many squirrels is 2-3 pounds? Does that include the bones? How do you clean a squirrel, anyway? Why am I still reading this recipe??

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Friday, September 11, 2020

7 Quick Takes about Bad Concepts for Picture Books, Starting Up the Crazy Train, and the Secret to Looking Youthful

It's 7 Quick Takes Friday! How was your week?


The keypad on my phone is the worst. If I can't use speech-to-text, it takes me longer to fix all the spelling errors than it does to type the text. At first I thought it was just me, but other family members have commented on how impossible it is to text from my phone.

And now that I've spelled things wrong so many times, on the off-chance I spell it right then autocorrect changes it... to the misspelling.

The other day I was running errands and realized there was no way I was going to be able to get home and feed everyone in a timely manner, so I shot Phillip a quick text:


On Saturday, we went to the beach and since we'd be in the car for a little while, I grabbed some picture books to dole out to the younger kids while Phillip drove.

"Can I have that one? What's it called?" a small person requested from the backseat, pointing at the one on top of the stack on my lap.

"Diary of a Worm," I replied, handing it back to the second row of seats.

Phillip eye's widened in horror. "DIARRHEA OR WORMS?!?"

I almost died laughing at what he thought he'd heard me say, especially since the novel I've been reading just had the main character suffering from a horrible stomach ailment in Cuba and wondering this exact thing. 

Diarrhea or Worms? really does sound like the title of the worst Choose Your Own Adventure book ever.

I will never read this the same way again.


After 6 months of quiet, this week started the wheels of the crazy train have started to roll again.

School starts next week, my daughter started riding lessons, and someone in our house has had soccer practice every night this week. I was trying to find a free evening when the missionaries from my church could come over for a visit and while I was scanning the calendar, unable to find a free night I suddenly realized: I remember this.

Not having time to cook dinner, letalone eat together. 

Feeling like I'm herding cats because everyone's got their own agenda. 

Just being home long enough to throw our crap in the door before we leave again, and the house looks like a bomb went off because I'm too busy to follow everyone around reminding them to clean up after themselves.

I miss quarantine already.


School starts next week, and our school is following a hybrid model. The student body is split into two halves and using the school on a rotating basis, so my kids will be doing "remote learning" on the days when other students are in the classroom, and vice versa.

I'm still fuzzy on the details (so I'm hoping I'm  just understanding them wrong,) but it sounds to me like there's going to be a webcam in the back of each classroom, and on remote days you sit on your computer for hours watching the teacher teach the group that's there that day. It sounds mind-numbingly boring.

After her high school orientation, I asked my 14-year-old what she thinks about how this school year is going to go. She said she's "optimistically sure this will never work."

Actually, I know exactly what she means, because that's how I feel. I mean, it sounds so impossibly awful, it's got to be better than that, right??

So anyway, we're both optimistically sure this will never work. Also known as "in denial."


I missed the entirety of this, but apparently we had a visitor while I was out (see Take #1.)

Photos courtesy of my 16-year-old.

When the missionaries came over later that evening and my kids told them "There was a bear in our yard!" the one from Utah was like, "WHAT!?!" and the one from Alaska was like, "Oh," just as serenely as if we'd been discussing the weather. (They have a lot of bears in Alaska.)

For those of you who don't know the bear poem ("if it's brown, lie down; if it's black, fight back,") black bears are pretty timid and not usually very dangerous. The mean kind are grizzlies, which don't live in New England. Black bears are generally scared of people and will go away if you make some noise.

(Obviously, everyone was indoors when this happened. When my kids are outside, they're so loud I'm sure every bear within 100 miles is cowering in fear.)

As much as we love our suet birdfeeder, though, we're going to have to take it down for a little while. Because that's why this bear decided to come pay us a visit.

The kids report that the bear then fell off the retaining wall he was perching on to do this, which I really wished I could have seen.


One summer project we're trying to finish is repainting the girls' bedroom. When we moved here ten years ago, I did it bubble-gum pink and apparently that's not cool when you're 16. Or whatever.

The girls chose a color scheme and we went to the paint store for a sample. I was standing at the counter with my two teenage daughters and the cashier asked, "Are you three sisters?"

I just laughed politely, figuring the guy was either joking or thinking "That's one exhausted-looking old lady, let's give her a thrill." 

But then he persisted. He gestured to me and said, "Are you mom, then?"

I was confused. He actually thought we were all sisters? Listen dude, I feel like I'm 150 years old most of the time. Surely that shows.

After we left, I asked my daughters what just happened, and one pointed out "Well, we are wearing masks so 70% of our faces are covered." 

Okay, I guess that makes more sense.


The other project we've been doing is clearing out the basement. Random stuff collects and possibly multiplies down there, and we need to get rid of it if this "finishing the basement" thing is really going to happen.

One item down there is an old ping-pong ball table, in such sad shape we can't really even give it away. I wanted to pay to dispose of it at the transfer station, but Phillip said he could take it apart and hack it up so we could just put it in trash bags for free.

A little while later, I went to check on his progress and he'd made a desk out of it.


He said he was going to cut it up and throw it away, but then got to thinking about how we probably needed another study desk for the kids, so he made this:

Waste not, want not.

I love that man.

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Friday, September 4, 2020

7 Quick Takes about Stadium Seating, Planning Ahead for Cheese Time, and Secretly Thinking Things Are a Little Weird

It's 7 Quick Takes Friday! How was your week?


I'm pleased to announce that we got our new couches out of the garage and moved them into their permanent home in the basement!

Our eventual goal is to finish the basement and make it into a comfortable family movie-watching area, and the couches are fitting nicely into the plan. 

Right now, they are both facing the TV, one up on cinder blocks behind the other to create stadium seating, and it's pretty awesome. 

The kids are already calling it "the home theater," and while it's still got a long way to go, I'm starting to be able to see it, too.


My 4- and 6-year-olds have been a little out of control lately, so I felt like they needed more structure at home.

I made a little schedule I could stick on the fridge and rearrange with magnets, to help redirect their attention to activities that aren't running around screaming and throwing a wet Pull-up at each other. 

At first, both boys were enthusiastically following along (outside time! story time! clean up time!) and the new schedule seemed to be working like a charm. And after only a few days, they already seemed significantly less feral.

Then my older kids took it upon themselves to take words from our magnetic poetry set and edit the schedule, making sure that everyone in the house lost all respect for it immediately.
After "bad time" and "hard time," at least we can all look forward to "be a pig time."

It was nice while it lasted. 


My 14-year-old had a violin recital but because of COVID, it was held in the yard outside her teacher's house, and everybody wore masks. 

I enjoyed listening to everyone, but every few minutes I would sneak glances at the parents sitting 6 feet apart across the lawn and picture the following whispered conversation with another mom:

Me: This is real life, right?

Her: Oh, yes. We're all totally cool with... [gesturing around] ... this. 

Me: Me, too. Me, too. For sure. I just wanted to make sure you didn't think it was weird, because I absolutely do not.

Her: Of course! This is so not weird for me. It's almost weird how not-weird it is, you know?

Me: I mean, I could see how some people might think it was a little bizarre, sitting in the yard watching your kid play Mozart in a surgical mask, but this is totally normal.

Her: Obviously. That's why we're all just clapping like it's any old recital that isn't weird at all.

Me: Right. Because it is.

Her: It so is.

Does anyone else ever feel like they need to do a secret sanity check when they're out in public? 

We need a code word to signal each other, something that means "I still remember what normal life was like before COVID-19." Give me a secret handshake or something. Let me know I'm not the only one.


I'm in the process of getting the kids' fall clothes out of the attic and seeing who fits into what.

I brought down a box for my 4-year-old that I thought would be the right size, but most of the pants were already too short.

"How did you get so big?" I asked him jokingly.

"Uhh... because I eat all my food and I'm 4?"

Fair enough.


Once upon a time, I taught myself how to knit. I knitted like crazy for a year and a half, and stopped when I had a baby and never started again. That baby is 6 now.

My daughter recently wanted to knit a scarf so I showed her how to get started, and it turns out that knitting is kind of like riding a bike. 

I was actually pretty impressed that I remembered how to do it, and now I really want to knit something. I need a project idea.


I took my teenager shopping and while she was looking at shoes, I kept busy browsing through a nearby rack of clothes. 

I found an outfit that amused me and brought it to her, holding it up and proudly announcing, "Gumby!"

Halloween is coming, ladies.

In response, she just stared at me blankly. It was like I'd strung together two complete nonsense syllables.

"Do you not know who Gumby is?"

Blank stare.

Several days later, I searched for "Gumby" on YouTube and my daughter noticed. "Hey, is that the guy who looks like that outfit you saw at the mall?"

I nodded.

After a few minutes of watching the video in silence, she said, "But he doesn't have any clothes."


On a walk downtown, my three youngest kids and I passed a monument to fallen firefighters. They stopped to look at it, walking all around the bronze statue of a uniformed firefighter and taking it in.

"This to remember firefighters who died putting out fires and saving people," I said, seizing this oh-so-teachable moment to discuss our community helpers.

"Look at his eyes!" My 8-year-old squealed. "They're so... creepy!"

"That's not exactly what"

"Ooh, and he's got an axe to murder us!"

This was one of those times where you just sigh and wonder Should I even start to correct that or do I just accept it and move on?

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Thursday, September 3, 2020

In Which I Try Not to Complain about Pit Toilets

When we reserved a site for our family camping trip, we couldn't be picky. Thanks to COVID, everyone is camping right now (it's the only way we can get out of our houses) and we'd waited until the last minute. 

The weather forecast wasn't looking good as the weekend drew near. The entire weekend had a 50% chance of rain, but we decided to forge ahead. We have a massive rain shelter and we've already lived through this and this, so I guess we figured it would be okay in the end.

Luckily, it was more than okay. The place was GORGEOUS. 

Our neighbors, who technically had the waterfront campsite, chickened out because of the weather forecast and didn't show up. So we had the view all to ourselves and spent a lot of time over there.

My daughter enjoying the view from our (neighbors') campsite.

As Chandler Bing would say, "Could this BE any more beautiful?"

Oh, Nature. You're such a drama queen sometimes.

The kids fished, even though it was the wrong time of day and none of us know how to fish. (The tackle came from Phillip's other life, when he had things like leisure time and hobbies.)

Phillip spent some time relaxing by the water. Later that afternoon, he retired to this spot to read Old Man and the Sea and neither of us said so but I think we both appreciated the irony.

About that weather forecast, though.

After we'd checked out the scenery and gotten our tent and shelter set up, it started raining, and after 45 minutes, I was no longer sure we'd made a wise choice. 

Just how long can 8 people huddle under a 10x20 foot tarp before they start to turn on each other?

Still in good spirits.

Since roasting hot dogs over the fire wasn't happening because of the rain, we made do with the camp stove.

Looks like a neighborhood barbecue but no, that's just dinner on a Tuesday for us.

It stopped raining an hour later and we explored more of the campground. The older kids and I walked down the road to the "remote sites," where we were met with another beautiful landscape.

Seriously. This is getting ridiculous.

Around this time, though, I made an unpleasant discovery.

The only bathroom facilities for miles around were pit toilets. The super-smelly kind with flies and a TMI visual overview of your fellow campers' digestive activity.

This information had not been shared with me beforehand. 

Whether it slipped Phillip's mind or it was deliberately withheld from me, I'm not sure. And it's probably better that I didn't know, because if I did I wouldn't have gone.

After S'mores and roasted Starburst that night (for the life of me I don't get the appeal of roasted Starburst, they taste the exact same to me but the kids swear they are amazing) we retired to our gigantic tent.

Nighttime was dicey, both because the 6-year-old was scared of the loons calling on the lake and also because of the Pull-ups. The two younger boys still wear them to bed at night and we'd forgotten to bring enough, so I lined them with paper towels and a prayer and hoped they'd last for both nights.

Someday, I'm going to miss coming up with ridiculous diaper improvisations in emergency situations. I've gotten so good at it over the last 16 years.

Hanging out in a rain jacket after the sun came out.

The next day, it rained again for about an hour while we played games under the picnic shelter, then we went for a hike.

Much ado was made about the rock balanced on another slab of rock at the end of the hike. Perhaps the trail guide talked it up too much and our expectations were too high. At any rate, the kids were thoroughly unimpressed and instead preferred the salamanders on the trail.

These guys were bright orange.

After the hike I went to nap in the tent (and by 'nap' I mean 'listen to the kids running around the campsite yelling with my eyes closed for 20 minutes,') and then we rented out a small fleet of kayaks and paddleboards. 

I was doubling in a kayak with the 4-year-old, who, let's be honest, was not the powerhouse rower between the two of us but he sure was cute.

The kids had fun navigating around interesting outcroppings of rocks in the water and jumping off their paddleboards. We could've stayed for longer, but renting out the equivalent of half the Spanish armada for an extra hour ain't cheap, so we headed back to shore.

Clear skies for the rest of the day. BBQ chicken and S'mores for dinner. The 6-year-old was even getting used to the sound of the loons at night. This trip was shaping up to be pretty good.

In the morning, we ate breakfast at our absent neighbor's campsite because it was prettier and we could, and instead of a tablecloth we had Baby Yoda drawn in the dew on the picnic table:

Packing up was the only part that didn't go so smoothly. It took forever. I watched our neighbors on the other side wake up, make a fire, cook breakfast, pack up, leave, and then the park ranger came to clean up their site for the next person... all while we were still packing up.

After we finally got everything in the van, we went on one last hike before leaving. This campground didn't have a beach for swimming but we'd discovered a secret one hidden off the side of a trail last night, just the perfect size for our family:

Having hiked 15 minutes to the beach, my 6-year-old felt that now it was the perfect time to inform me he needed to use the bathroom.

"Pee or poop?" I asked (because I learned a long time ago that saying "just go in the water" without clarifying whether it's #1 or #2 first can be a total disaster.)


Of course.

So I walked 15 minutes with him all the way back to the pit toilet at the trailhead, where he decided he didn't have to go, after all.

Back at the beach, my 16-year-old made a rainbow out of the rocks she found:

My 4-year-old played with a piece of driftwood he found shaped like a club, and my 6-year-old practiced his backfloat: 

Swimming lessons this summer were cancelled due to COVID but thanks to my supbar tutelage, he's been been making nearly perceptible improvements!

As we changed back into our clothes behind towels held by a family member and stopped for a snack break, my daughter picked up the box and said, "Wait, what are these people doing with their granola bars?"

Predicting the future and recording a Britney Spears cover? Applying pressure to a head would and radioing for help? These granola bars are so versatile!

Our best guess is that this is a stock image and for some reason, they decided to use their Photoshop skillz to replace the sunglasses and cell phone with Nature Valley bars. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

On the drive home it started pouring rain. We were hoping that our bedding, which was tied to the roof, would stay moderately dry until we got home (we couldn't find our car topper and improvised with a plastic mattress bag and duct tape) and miraculously, it did.

Even with the weather and the pit toilets, it was a great time and we all agreed we could have stayed an extra day. 

Although I will say that I've never enjoyed flushing a toilet so much as when we finally came home.

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Somalia

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Every year, my kids choose a bunch of countries and we devote our summer vacation to learning all about them: the history, the food, the language, the religion, the culture... everything and anything. 

This week is the last week of what I like to call The Educational Summer Vacation (mostly because it annoys my kids and makes us sound like a super-smart family,) and the kids wanted to spend it in Somalia.

I checked out Somalia from the Enchantment of the World series and Africa from the Eyewitness book series, and got a few novels for the 16-year-old and I to read, including City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence and Call Me American by Adbi Nor Iftin.


We started by finding Somalia on the big wall map, which my 6-year-old pointed out was super-easy because Somalia is shaped like a 7.

There it is, right on the horn of Africa.

They filled their last passport page of the year (free for download here,) although I'll add new pages next year and keep them from year to year so I can look back and see their cute little elementary school handwriting.

While the kids were coloring the Somali flag, we looked up its symbolism and then I read Somalia from the Exploring Countries series out loud.

Light blue for the U.N., 5-pointed star for the 5 clans of Somalia.

Did you know that the song "Wavin' Flag" was written by a Somali rapper about his home country? I didn't, but we read it in the book about Somalia, and since it was one of my favorite songs back in the day when I went to Zumba class, we watched the music video and I gained a new appreciation for it (a version with the lyrics is here.)

We watched Part 1 of this documentary on Somalia, but it was a little too boring for the younger kids so we didn't make it to Part 2.

Instead, we decided to talk about leopards. The leopard is the national animal of Somalia, which you can see on the country's coat of arms.

We watched this 5-minute documentary about leopards and then we talked about how a leopard's "spots" are actually called rosettes. If you look at them closely, they aren't spots at all but a brown dot with smaller black blotches all around it.

The younger kids looked at a picture of a leopard and decorated this paper plate, replicating the rosettes as accurately as they could. My boys wanted to use googly eyes, but my 8-year-old was fully committed to realism and wanted to make her eyes green just like a real leopard.

While they were doing that, the big kids made a map of where leopards live in the world and told us some facts about them.

Green is where leopards live today; red is where they used to live but don't anymore.

(At dinner, my 6-year-old announced to my husband "I painted a cheetah!" so it's clear that we all learned a lot today.)

For dinner we ate bariis, which is literally translated "rice." As you can guess, it's a rice dish.

I had the kids watch the video included in this recipe over dinner because the recipe creator talks about the role of bariis in Somali culture. You even see her eating it with her hands at the end, as is tradition.


Somalia's two official languages are Somali and Arabic. We've already covered two other Arabic-speaking countries this summer, so we decided to focus on learning some Somali words today.

We practiced counting 1 to 10 in Somali with this cute little girl (I'm not sure if the kids remembered the numbers, but they sure do remember the cute inflection in her voice because they've been copying it all day.)

We looked at this helpful list of Somali phrases and learned how to say "please" (fadlan,) "thank you" (mahadsanid,) and "my hovercraft is full of eels" (huufarkarafkayga waxaa ka buuxa eels.)

My daughter looked the last one up and apparently it's a Monty Python thing.

Somali has used a variety of writing systems throughout the years as shown here, but in 1973 the Somali Latin script was made official. That means my kids all recognized the letters, but they were in a different order and some were actually two of our letters grouped together, which blew my 4-year-old's mind.

We watched yet another cute Somali kid teaching us the alphabet, then divided up for the next activity. The older kids went to watch this YouTube video about the written language, while the younger kids made some sequencing towers to put the Somali alphabet in order.

The Somali ABCs... or, BTJs?

I cut out little rectangles of paper and the kids wrote the Somali letters on them (this was mostly a a way to trick my 6-year-old to practice his handwriting, because he hates writing lately,) then  we taped the papers to Duplos and watched the video in slow motion to stack them in the correct order.

My 4-year-old copied what everyone else did, but he was very confused. We watched another video that had the letter next to an object starting with that letter, and when he saw an apple next to the Somali letter T, he looked at me more confused than I've ever seen him and asked, "Tapple??"

I made beef suqaar for dinner, which was basically beef stew with fewer spices. We like beef stew, though, so that part was just fine.


For lunch, I made some Somali flat bread called lahooh. We ate it with butter and honey. My kids were not impressed.

I think because they resembled pancakes, the kids had the wrong expectations. The lahooh really weren't bad. They weren't good, either. I was totally neutral on the lahooh.

After cleaning up, we talked about the history of Somalia. It's kind of amazing that Somalia is even still standing, because for about 25 years, it had no national government. There were no federal institutions: schools, infrastructure, law enforcement. 

People got along by relying on the clan legal structures they'd used before, but without a coast guard, Somalia had no way to defend its own waters. Other countries could dump their waste or illegally fish off their coasts and no one did anything about it.

Enter Somali pirates. The started out just defending their country's coast, but some people realized how lucrative piracy could be and a whole new industry was born. It turns out this is actually pretty complicated:

After putting the younger kids to bed that night, Phillip and I and our teenagers watched the DVD Captain Phillips. Today Somali piracy has declined drastically, but this movie was based on a true story during its height in 2009. Super-intense.


Today, we learned about Somalia's fight to rebuild after so many years of civil war. 

This video featured a great vocabulary word for the kids to look up: diaspora. It means people who've been forced to remove from their homeland. 

I asked the kids if they knew what a refugee was. We talked about how people usually need a passport or visa to enter a foreign country but if they're escaping a country that's too dangerous for them to live in right now, they can leave as refugees.

My 8- and 12-year-old summarized When Stars are Scattered, a comic book-style story about Somali kids living in a refugee camp that I'd given them earlier that week. 

I encouraged the teenagers to read two other books I'd picked up about a town in Maine with an influx of Somali refugees: One Goal by Amy Bass and Home Now: How 6,000 Refugees Transformed an American Town by Cynthia Anderson. Haven't read either yet, but they sound fascinating.

For dinner that night we had baasto, which is how you say "pasta" in Somali because their alphabet doesn't include the letter "p."

What are we doing having spaghetti bolognese in Somalia? Well, Somalia used to be divided up into parts that were colonized by France, Britain, and Italy. Thanks to the Italians, Somalis apparently love pasta.


There are a large number of nomads in Somalia. So many, in fact, it's hard to get an accurate count of how many people live in Somalia because 3 out of 5 of them have no permanent address!

One popular type of nomadic tent in Somalia is the aqal. This video was really informative, and then we watched this one of a Somali college student building an aqal for a school project.

In the second video, the kids noticed the lady at 2:38 waggling her tongue back and forth and asked what she was doing. I explained she was ululating, which is kind of like Africa's version of yelling "Wooo!" when we're excited. 

I showed them this video and then wished I hadn't because they were doing it ALL DAY after that. Please do not tell any of this to your children. You'll be sorry.

It was a little hard to reign them back in after that detour, but as an activity I told them to go out and find some materials in the yard to build a small model of a Western-style tent for camping and a model of a Somali aqal.

They decided that Western-style tents were faster to put up if you're going camping for a weekend, but Somali aqals were sturdier, better at keeping out sand and wind, and fit more people. So probably better for nomads.


Most people in Somalia are Sunni Muslim, but there is a sizable subset who are Sufis. Sufi spiritualism is an interpretation of Islam that emphasizes the individual's mystic experience with God. You've probably heard of the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey? That's them. 

But in all the videos I watched of Somali Sufis, I didn't see any spinning. They were all sitting or standing in a line, rhythmically bobbing and swaying as they chanted or sang.

Islam has two major holidays, and they're both called Eid. 

I split the kids up into two groups and gave them a few minutes to research either Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha and report on what it was about and how it was celebrated.

We read the book Crayola Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr Colors and talked about some of the yummy foods they have at this giant Eid feast. We decided to make halwa, which is popular at Eid and also at Somali weddings.

Unfortunately, ours didn't look appetizing at any point during the cooking process and looked even less appetizing when it was finished.

I suspect I look like a witch stirring something bubbling in my cauldron right about now.

I'm supposed to be able to take this out and cut it but it's too... oozy.

I'm not sure what I did wrong, but my halwa didn't solidify. It just congealed into a jelly-like substance that tasted vaguely of gingerbread cookies.

What a way to end the week.

With the exception of the halwa, though, the kids and I had a good time on our trip to Somalia. We tried some new foods, gained appreciation for a new culture, and they learned there are new ear-splitting noises to discover all over this beautiful planet of ours. The Educational Summer Vacation is all about broadening horizons, after all.

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This Somalia unit study is packed with activities, crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Somalia in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #Somalia #homeschool

Building the perfect Somalia lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Somalia activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #Somalia #lessonplan

Learning about Somalia is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #Somalia #educational

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Friday, August 28, 2020

7 Quick Takes about Camping in Paradise, an Unexpected Visitor, and Why There's Nothing Worse than a Bad New England Accent

It's 7 Quick Takes Friday! How was your week?


We went camping over the weekend. It was pretty glorious.

Not only was it the first time in 5 months that we've been out of the house for more than a few hours, it was gorgeous there.

This view alone was worth having to crouch over a pit toilet all weekend.


We also got new (to us) couches! We found a good deal on Facebook Marketplace on two truly massive couches that will fit all 8 of us comfortably for family movie nights in the basement.

It was a lot of driving, because the guy lived half an hour away and we had to make two trips to ferry both couches home, but that's okay. It's not like we have anything better to do. 

The guy unexpectedly shook my hand before we left, which felt SUPER WEIRD. For 5 months I've been going out of my way to avoid even walking on the same side of the road as other people, much less touching them.

I honestly think I would've been less surprised if he'd reached out and goosed me.


Before we can move the new couches in to the basement, we have to get rid of our old couch. So while we're working on that, we put the new couches in the garage.

It's funny because there's also a fridge in there, waiting for Phillip to take it apart and (hopefully) fix it.

So basically, we're starting a new house in the garage. I think I'll start referring to it as "our second home" from now on. It sounds classy.


The other night, I was just about to go downstairs and clear some space in the basement for the couches. I hadn't gone more than four steps when my son yelled, "Mom! There's a dog!"

I was confused, because we don't own a dog. There's a stray cat that roams a circuit around our yard every few days (the kids named it 'Sir Sandpooper' because I'm always muttering about how it's going to use our sandbox as a giant litterbox.)

I went back upstairs to see a very happy black dog with its nose about an inch from our sliding door on the deck, wagging its tail at me.

Oh, hello.


The dog had obviously been someone's pet, but the phone number on the tag didn't work and the dog was pretty skinny and dirty, so I think she'd been lost for a while.

We tied her up in the yard and called animal control, and for the next half-hour the kids had the time of their lives playing with her in the yard. They were frolicking around in the dusk playing fetch with a tennis ball, and it was so Normal Rockwell-like I could hardly stand it.

But I really am not a pet person, and when the animal control lady came I was relieved to let her take over. Turns out that 30 minutes of dog ownership was just right for me. I'm good for another 10 years now, at least.


This is the last and final week of The Educational Summer Vacation. The amount of complete and utter exhaustion I feel after 8 weeks of doing this makes me doubt my ability to homeschool my 16-year-old all school year but I'm trying not to think about it.

We're learning about Somalia this week, so last night Phillip and I and the teenagers watched Captain Phillips, which is based on the true story of an American ship captain who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.

It was a good movie and I enjoyed it but OH MY GOSH THE ACCENT MAKE IT STOP. The ship captain was from Vermont and I don't know what Tom Hanks thought he was talking in or who he learned it from, but it was certainly not a New England accent.

After living in New England for 10 years, I feel personally attacked by the ear poison in this movie. And I say that as a native Minnesotan who didn't feel half as strongly about the accents in Fargo.


Overheard at my house:

12-year-old: What would you do if someone told you that you could eat a piece of pie but then you'd die, or you could not eat a piece of pie and you'd still die?

8-year-old: Eat pie.

12-year-old: Well, obviously.

8-year-old: Because dying with pie is better than dying without pie.

12-year-old: [nodding] Exactly. 

I'm not sure what the point was or what the moral of the story is, but I agree that if given those two options, you should probably take the pie.

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Cuba

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These days, every vacation you take has to happen in your imagination. But we've been doing it for years. Every summer, my kids and I take an imaginary trip around the world, picking a new country to learn about every week. 

This week we traveled to Cuba! 


To start the week, we put on some Cuban music (I like this and this,) found Cuba on the wall map, and colored the flag.

Flag is upside-down in this picture, FYI.

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island. Sometimes, it's called El Cocodrilo because it's the shape of a crocodile from an arial view. (Rumor has it there's a popular song about it, but I couldn't find it so it can't be that popular.)

Using our big wall map, the kids filled out a page of their passports. If you're interested in downloading the passport pages I use for free, here's the link:

Download the Passport Pages

We read a little bit from Cuba from the Enchantment of the World book series, and then we watched this 30-minute documentary about Cuba on Amazon Instant Video.

For dinner we had picadillo and tostones. I felt really fancy going and buying capers and pimientos in their fancy jars in the fancy aisle I never go in at the grocery store.

We actually make tostones (fried green plantains) all the time — Phillip fell in love with them when he served a religious mission in Venezuela  but the kids love helping make them because it involves smashing the plantain slices.

Kind of like playing with food, but allowed.


Today I thought we'd talk about the religion and the language in Cuba.

Most of Cuba is Catholic. We're Christian but not Catholic, so I picked up a book called What You Will See Inside a Catholic Church and read it with the kids over lunch.

Cuba was officially atheist under communism, but a constitutional amendment in 1992 gave Cubans freedom of religion. The pope even visited in '98.

The other uniquely Cuban religion is called Santeria, literally "way of the saints." If you're like me, the only thing you know about Santeria is that the 90's ska punk band Sublime doesn't practice it. (If you're younger than 30 and have no idea what I'm talking about, that's fine. It's not important.)

Santeria came from the Africans brought to Cuba as slaves in the 1800s. It centered on the orichas, dieties that frankly reminded me a little of the Greek gods. 

It's big on rituals meant to appease, appeal to, or summon various orichas. Frankly, it involves all kinds of stuff that is totally unfamiliar to us like animal sacrifice, curses and cleansing, charms, and fortune telling. I tried hard to find some kid-friendly videos about Santeria, and finally found this one and this one.

Then we talked about Spanish. The kids looked through a picture dictionary of 150 First Spanish Phrases and we reviewed how to count to 10 and how to say 'please' and 'thank you.'

We talked about a tradition observed in Cuba called quinceañera, the celebration of a girl's 15th birthday in a lot of Spanish-speaking cultures that probably came from ancient Mesoamerica.

After talking about quinceañera traditions, I asked my girls to make quiñcinera invitations.

This is the invitation my 16-year-old made.

If I'd thought of it earlier, I would've asked them to look up words in a Spanish-English dictionary and write the invitations in Spanish.

The national dish of Cuba is ropa vieja. Translated into English, the name means 'old clothes.' (Apparently the dish is supposed to look like a heap of colorful rags.)

I guess I... sort of see it?

I wanted to get a boxed mix to make flan for dessert, but my regular grocery store doesn't carry it anymore. So I did the next best thing and bought a can of sweetened condensed milk with a picture of flan on the label to make it at home.

For a flan recipe that was literally called "Easy Flan Recipe," we certainly had a hard time making this one. My daughter melted a spoon and I burned my hand.

At least it turned out pretty.

I usually dislike flan
because the taste and texture remind me of sucking on a wet dishrag, but I do have to admit that homemade flan was slightly better.


Cuba has a fascinating history. First it was a Spanish colony from whom the U.S. bought a lot of sugar. When a U.S. Navy ship exploded near Cuba, the Spanish were blamed, and that was the start of the Spanish-American War.

As a result of the war, Spain gave Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S. along with temporary control of Cuba. Cuba gained independence in 1902 but was still sort of controlled by the U.S.

When Fidel Castro came to power as a communist, the U.S. put a trade embargo on Cuba (that means no buying or selling between the two countries at all) that remains to this day. Cuba started getting aid and missiles from the then-USSR, (Cuban Missile Crisis, anyone?) and when the USSR fell apart Cuba was in dire straits. They're still recovering.

I gave a brief summary to the younger kids and then gave the following books to my older kids:
Because the U.S. trade embargo means no new American cars, and new car prices in Cuba are legitimately insane, the streets of Cuba are filled with sweet rides from the 1950s that are often used as taxis. Locals call the classic car taxis of Cuba "almendrones:"

Cuba has a double currency system: Cuban pesos (CUP) and convertible Cuban pesos (CUC.) $1USD always equals 1 CUC. But Cuban pesos are worth much less, and $1USD equals about 25 Cuban pesos.

I read an article that said some taxi drivers try to give tourists their change in Cuban pesos instead of convertible pesos. We talked about exchange rates and why that would work to the driver's advantage. We looked at pictures of the two kinds of money: would the kids be able to tell the difference?

I had the older kids do some math with different amounts to figure out how much a driver might make with this trick, and what percentage of the average Cuban's monthly salary it would be. (The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month, so a few cents for for us would be significant in Cuba!)

(I should note here that I'm not good at doing math and even worse at explaining it to someone else. While this post makes it sound like I know what I'm doing, in truth I had to have the 16-year-old check everyone's math and basically explain it to me when I got confused.)

Then I practiced currency conversions with my 8-year-old. When she was pretty good at figuring out how many pesos she could trade for $1, $5, or $13 dollars, I decided to have her make up her own currency and try it with a different conversion rate.

"Money can be in dollars, pesos, rupees, Euros..." I explained. "Let's make up our own. What imaginary monetary unit do you want to have?" 

Immediately, she answered "poopies."

Yes, she was being silly, but she was still sitting there so I went with it. We did some imaginary money conversions with "poopies," and then with her next currency, "farties." 8-year-olds. Sigh.

We had arroz con pollo for dinner tonight, and I started to get the sense that all Cuban meals were basically meat, rice, and some onion and peppers. Is that about right, or did I just happen to pick recipes that were all alike?


Son is a genre of music that originated in Cuba. Not only did the kids like seeing people dancing to son in this video, they liked seeing the fun and laid-back atmosphere.

Son is the predecessor of other musical styles like rumba (shown in this video) and salsa. My kids loved this clip of little kid salsa dancers:

With the help of the instructional videos here and here, we learned some basic salsa dance steps and practiced them with each other.

Some of us were more willing participants than others, and I won't name any names to protect their identities, but at least two of the kids realized that dancing is kind of fun. So I count it as a success.

I should have quit while I was ahead, because the next thing we did was a drawn-out disaster.

We tried to make some Cuban donuts called buñuelos. Sounds fun, right? Well, it took kind of a long time to make them. First I had to find some unfamiliar ingredients, then we had to boil and grind them up, and we hadn't even started making the dough yet!

Rolling them into Figure 8 shapes before frying.

The donuts themselves aren't sweet at all, the sweetness comes from a glaze you pour all over the top. I apparently overcooked the glaze, because as it cooled it got way too dark and hardened into an impenetrable cement-like coating. To top it off, it made the finished buñuelos pretty disgusting-looking.

My husband was the brave soul who bit into one of these first. I was worried his whole top row of teeth were going to pop out like dentures.

We added some more water to the glaze and it became... edible. But overall, still not a good experience. My children rated them "meh" and the house smelled funny afterward.

Sorry buñuelos, you are not our favorite.

The work-to-taste ratio was definitely not in the buñuelos' favor.

Friday and Saturday

We had family plans this weekend so there were no formal Cuba activities scheduled for Friday and Saturday, but we did bring along plenty of books set in Cuba for the kids to read. 

My kids will read anything if it's strategically placed within their reach, so it worked out pretty well.

Adult reads for the teenagers:
YA for my middle schooler:
Short chapter books for my elementary school kids:

We also brought along a biography of Ernest Hemingway and a copy of his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway loved Cuba and lived there for 20 years, and The Old Man and the Sea is based on an experience he had there catching a giant marlin. At some point, we'll have to watch this Oscar-winning animated version.

Overall, the kids enjoyed Cuba and had a really good time there. We learned so many cool things, from the history to the music to the currency. (We also learned that I should probably pursue a career other than math teacher or pastry chef, but that's beside the point.)

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Cuba crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Cuba in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #Cuba #homeschool

Building the perfect Cuba lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Cuba activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #Cuba #lessonplan
Learning about Cuba is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #Cuba #educational
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