Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A show of enthusiasm

At 16, almost 17, Jacob doesn’t get excited very often. He might show some enthusiasm over a sports car or electronic gadget, but not over things to do with animals or nature. Like many teens, he’d become a bit jaded. So when I suggested that he accompany me to the woods behind our house to at least see the taps on the maple trees, it didn’t surprise me that he declined.

Although Jacob initially showed no interest in the pots of water-like liquid that I started boiling on Sunday, by Wednesday, the sweet, golden fluid in the steaming pot had become more concentrated and tasted distinctly of maple syrup, just more diluted. Jacob loves maple syrup. Tasting that concoction seemed to awaken a tiny bit of interest in him.

“Wait, I’ll come with you,” he decided.

I was going to check the 20 or so buckets in the woods to see whether any were overflowing, and if so, I’d pour off a bit so as not to waste the precious sap. Since it was our neighbor who tapped the trees, I didn’t want to just help myself to large amounts of sap, but if they were overflowing, pouring some off the top would leave room for more to fill through the rest of the day. Besides, JD did tell me I could help myself to some.

Larissa ran ahead of me to show Jacob the tapped trees.

“Look, the bark’s wet. This one’s overflowing,” I said.

Larissa showed Jacob how to remove the cover from the metal bucket. He took the bucket off the hook and poured a bit of sap into our pail. There were so many buckets overflowing that we soon filled our small plastic pail. We went home and poured our find into some pots, then returned to the woods with two plastic pails.

At this point, Jacob was hooked. He sprinted from tree to tree checking how full the buckets were. Almost all were overflowing. He showed enthusiasm, and yes, even excitement over gathering so much sap. We brought home five pails of it.

How much maple syrup would we get? We did some calculations…


Concentration of maple sap to syrup is roughly 40 to 1 (if I start with 40 cups of sap, I’ll get one cup of maple syrup).

1 bucket = 2 gallons
We brought home 5 buckets = 10 gallons
At 16 cups per gallon = 160 cups sap
160 divided by 40 = 4 cups or 1 quart!

We don’t’ have the right equipment for collecting and boiling down sap into syrup. By the time we were done collecting sap, we had filled every pot in the house. I set four pots boiling on the kitchen stove in addition to the two on the wood-burning stove, and there was still more sap in our five-gallon water container we used for camping…

The house became a steam bath. Condensation covered every window, and by evening every wall. I understood why the cooking down was usually done outdoors.

We haven’t cooked down all the sap yet. (We had gathered some the day before, too.) But we decided to cook down our first batch of syrup. The syrup is ready when the temperature of the boiling liquid is 7.1 to 7.5 degrees F above boiling water, which we determined was 211.9 F this morning. Thus, when our candy thermometer read 219.0 F, we were done! Since Jacob is our most enthusiastic maple syrup lover, he was the one with the thermometer watching the pot.

So far, we got SIX cups of syrup! That was more than we expected. We hadn't realized we'd carried - and boiled - that much sap.

Can’t wait for the girls to make pancakes!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stomach flu all around

If we hadn’t visited Grandma on Friday, this wouldn’t have happened. After all, she said that she hadn’t felt well and had a bad case of diarrhea. (She failed to mention that she was nauseous, too.) But the kids really wanted to visit my parents and ask them what it was like to live through World War II, so I agreed to go. Halfway to my parents’ house – they live just a mile away – I mentioned that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to go over there. Maybe Grandma was sick with something (stomach flu did occur to me), but we were on the way, so I just told the kids to keep their distance and not kiss Grandma. We had a good visit, heard about my mother searching for her dad in Germany, how the Red Cross helped to reunite them, how my dad used to ignore air raid sirens because they went off daily at the same time and nothing ever happened, and then how his building was bombed soon after he left Dresden. Had he stayed in Dresden, he would have been in that building when it was destroyed...

On Sunday morning, 36 hours after our visit, Alexandra started throwing up. Larissa joined her a hour or two later. My mom called during the morning to tell me Dad was sick with the stomach flu so we shouldn’t come over.

“Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t come. I have my own two here with the stomach flu.”

While George and Jacob when to morning and evening church services, I spent the day at home with the girls. Sunday evening, Jacob retired to bed with a pail by his bedside.

Today classes were cancelled, the math tutor notified, and the kids had a low-key day hanging around the house sharing memories and looking at home videos of their childhoods.

Although I have a stomachache and I’m eating very little, I managed to function normally. I know that this is my body’s manifestation of the flu, and I thank God for not being truly sick (although I bet I’m contagious).

Since George didn’t go to my parents’ house, he was just exposed to the flu yesterday morning. The 36-hour point will come this evening…

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maple syrup from OUR backyard?!

When Larissa came in after a walk in our woods last week and told me that someone had tapped many trees, I was stunned. I’ve lived here over 20 years and no one had tapped trees before. I didn’t know that there were trees that could be tapped! Not that they were my trees; only a small part of the woods actually belongs to us. It’s just that no one seemed to use the woods at all other than our family. We have bonfires and cook over the fire. George cuts a tree now and then and Jacob chops it into firewood. I’ve dug up ferns to transplant into my garden. And the girls spend hours in the woods, hiking, stalking deer, spending time in nature. They know where the deer sleep, where the screech owl nests, and where the skunk has its den. We’ve always thought of the woods as “ours.”

So who was tapping “our” trees? We wanted to find who the mystery tapper was and considered leaving a note on a tree by the pails. But in the end, we didn’t have to. This Saturday, Larissa burst in.

“I think someone’s collecting the sap. Could you go with me and see?”

That’s how we met our new neighbor, JD. JD doesn’t live next to us; he lives w-a-y behind us in a house on the top of a hill overlooking our neighborhood. He owns the lion’s share of the woods that my daughters play in. And he had just moved in six months ago. Since JD works as a nature guide when he’s not working as a Language Arts teacher, he knows by the bark which are the sugar maples.

“But you can tap any maple. It’s just that sugar maples have the highest sugar content,” he said.

I learned all kinds of things about maple sugaring this weekend:

- That it takes about 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

- That you finish boiling sap when it reaches 7 to 7.5 degrees above the boiling point of the water (the water boils at different temperatures, depending on elevation and pressure).

- That I can make maple syrup from trees in my backyard!

JD was kind enough to allow me to take some sap. So this weekend for the first time ever, I made maple syrup by placing large pots of sap on our wood-burning stove. I suppose we can eat it later this summer when we’re eating our other wild foods. Mmm!

Tandem story #3

Perhaps you've had enough tandem stories by now, but I just to share this one. This is the story that when I read aloud, I realized my blunder and laughed so hard that tears were rolling down my cheeks and the words were coming out in gulps. Larissa had to take the paper away from me and read the rest of the story to the others. You see, after Larissa wrote that the horses had to walk, I immediately continued the story and had the horses canter, then gallop! And why was there a stream in the desert? I obviously had not been a careful reader as I bungled the story and blindly added on contadicting information.

Story #3

The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

Hannah stood already dressed looking out at the beautiful sunrise. Today would be an exciting day so she’d gotten up early to make it last as long as possible.

She hurried into the kitchen and grabbed an apple for her pet rabbits. Actually, they weren’t really pets because they were to be eaten. Soon she was done with all her chores and now she had nothing to do but wait for her parents to get up and take her to the BLM headquarters where the horse roundup would start.

- - -

Two hours later, Hannah was sitting astride her horse, Appy, with about twenty other riders. Everyone was to go out together as as soon as they spotted a herd, they would get around it and herd it towards a corral. Of course, most people here were amateurs, so who knew what could happen.

“Alright everyone,” said the leader. “Just a few rules. Stay within sight of other people and stay safe. Now let’s go.”

Hannah was riding with her brother Stephen. This was their first time and they didn’t really know what they were doing. They were just going for the fun of it.

Hanna’s horse was grayish-white with a white diamond on the forehead while Stephen’s was all black.

Stephen liked riding horses, but he joked around that he’d much rather have a black Ford Mustang. He went with Hannah because their parents wouldn’t let her go otherwise.

The group trotted off into the desert where Hanna knew the wild herds roamed. She had often gone on trail rides on her own in this area, but she had never actually herded the wild horses.

Hanna looked around to the edge of the horizon. She thought she saw something moving far off in the safebrush. Then the leader had everyone halt.

“See way over there, by that lone tree,” he said, “there’re some horses. But it looks like they’re just stragglers from the rest of the herd. We have to walk now otherwise they will all gallop away.”

Slowly the group plodded over, spreading apart.

“You four,” the leader said to Hannah, Stephen, and two others, “ride over there around back to herd the horses over here.”

They headed over to the wild horses at a canter, but when the wild herd spooked, they took off after it at a gallop. Lucky thing her horse’s gait was so smooth. Hannah wasn’t comfortable racing through unknown territory at such a fast pace.

The wild horses saw the four riders heading their way and bolted. Soon it seemed like a race was underway. Over hills, down valleys, splashing through streams. It seemed that the wild horses could never be caught; they knew their territory well. Stephen secretly hoped they’d get away so he could go home sooner. Hannah wanted to catch them, but still, a small part of her cheered for the wild herd, hoping they could live free for at least another year until the next roundup.

As if they herd could read her thoughts, they suddenly disappeared from view.

“Where did they go?” shouted one of the riders. “I glanced down for a second and they’re gone.”

“But they were in that valley…” said Hannah.

Stephen smiled. He’d seen them walk into a cave, but he’d never tell.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tandem story #2

This is another tandem story that we wrote yesterday. The previous story had a great ending, thanks to Alexandra. Like the previous story, this one also included dialogue, which makes any story more interesting. Although this isn't publishable material, the children carried on the story line better than I'd expected.

Story #2

The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

Amanita stepped out from under the banana leaf where she’d been hiding during the storm. At this time of year, rains were common in Ghana. She was so tired of the mud, the humidity, the heat. Ever since her mother had died of AIDS, 13-year-old Amanita was the head of household, cooking, tending the goat, sweeping, wiping away tears of her three younger siblings who still didn’t understand that mother was gone, never to come back. But there was no one to wipe away Amanita’s tears as she cried herself to sleep, being careful that her three younger brothers did not see or hear her.

Amanita was so thankful that she had that one goat, a Nubian that she had received as a gift from a Christian man who had come to her village a few months before. The dark goat, whom she named Bella, provided enough milk for all of them, enough to ward away the hunger pains that she had learned to live with most of her life. And now Bella was pregnant. Amanita could not wait for the little kid to be born.

Where was Bella hiding? Amanita wondered as she searched her muddy compound by the thatch hut. She saw movement under a bush.

Unsure, Amanita started towards the bush. It rustled again, but now Amanita could hear a dog barking. Village dogs didn’t bark at goats. What could be hiding here?

All of a sudden someone jumped out from behind the bush. Amanita screamed and turned to run. Then she heard laughing as the village troublemaker fell to the ground cracking up. Amanita turned away in disgust. She had plenty of work to do today and she had to find the goat so her younger brothers could have milk for breakfast.

She headed out to look behind other houses, thinking maybe the goat had wandered into someone else’s yard. Indeed, that’s where she found it, chomping away at a neighbor’s garden. She quickly took her away, making sure nobody saw. The neighbor never said anything anyway so she thought she was fine.

She sat down to milk the goat. She used a plastic bucket the same one she used to get water from the well. When they had drunk most of the milk, she then put it in a plastic water bottle she had found. That way she could get water from the well for the goat. Her village was lucky because they had a well; most villages didn’t. In the day she and her brothers went to the forest. They had to gather firewood for cooking. While they were away, Amanita’s youngest brother stayed home in the hut to make sure Bella didn’t get tangled in the picket line and to be there when Bella started kidding.

Amanita heard a yell. She looked up and saw her youngest brother running towards.

“Amanita, come quick, Belle is kidding, but there is something wrong with her!” he panted.

Dropping her sticks, Amanita hurried after her brother. When she arrived, she found Bella still on her picket straining in labor, her eyes rolling from the pain. The birth sac had emerged and burst but nothing was happening. Amanita knew what to do. She had been with several women when they had given birth.

After half an hour, everything was over. Surprisingly, the kid was light brown unlike her mother. After being licked clean and dry by Bella, the kid got up on wobbly legs and started suckling. Amanita was delighted and thanked God for the tiny female goat, which in time would provide more milk for them, maybe even enough to sell.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tandem story

For creative writing today, we wrote a tandem story. Actually four tandem stories.

Tandem means “a group of two or more arranged one behind the other.” Thus a tandem story is one that someone starts then passes off to someone else to continue. You can go back and forth in partners, but the four of us – Jacob, Alexandra, Larissa and I – sat in a circle around a table and passed the story to the right. We had 10 minutes to write (I set a timer), then wherever we were in the story, we had to pass it off. Each time we got a story, we read the story from the beginning, then continued adding to it for another 10 minutes. We did this four times. That fourth and last person had to end the story. No one got any story more than once and had no control over where the story went next.

It was a blast.

When we were done, I read all four stories out loud. I can’t think of when we had so much fun with our homeschooling.

If we read a story too quickly before adding on to it, we made humorous mistakes. As I was reading aloud, I caught one of my own mistakes – I had skimmed over a key detail and contradicted the previous writer – and was laughing so hard that I couldn’t read on. Larissa had to finish for me. In another story, a character introduced by the first writer was completely ignored for the rest of the story as if she didn’t exist. Oops!

We all had a good laugh and plan on doing it again someday, this time having the person who started a story write the ending to his own (now completely different) story.

If I gave everyone a blank sheet of paper to start with, I thought we might take too much time figuring out how to start. Thus, I wrote the same first sentence on each of the four sheets of paper, and we all had to use that sentence as a starting point: The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

One of the kids didn’t pay much attention to the first sentence and we had to make a small change in the beginning of that story. We had a good laugh about the sun peeking out in the middle of the night. You can take a story in a different direction, add characters, or simply “tread water” and add lots of details without saying much.

I’m going to share these stories. They probably won’t be as much fun to read as they were to write, but it’s a great exercise that I highly recommend.

(I changed the color of the font for each of the different writers.)

Story #1

The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the xxx moon peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

Even though it was the middle of the night and Josh had barely gotten any sleep, he decided it was a good night to take a ride.

He had just won the grand prize in a raffle and the prize was a brand new Shelby GT-720 Super Snake.

He put on his clothes, grabbed his keys and rushed downstairs. When he came into the garage, he stood a minute and just looked at his new car. He jumped in and twisted the key. The Mustang growled to life. He opened the garage and back out onto the road. Everything was quiet, no one was awake and there were no lights. Josh left his lights off; he could see everything anyway.

His tires hissed on the wet road and made a wet spray in the back. Josh swung the Mustang around a curve and headed the car along the smooth road that wove through the woods. Suddenly he saw a dark shape hurl itself in front of the car. Josh tried to swerve, heard a dull thud, the stopped. He switched on the headlights to see better and slowly got out of the car. Something lay unmoving by his front left tire. Josh crouched down and looked uncertainly at the wounded fox, wondering what to do. He didn’t know what he should do but he felt bad just leaving it there because it definitely was alive. The fox feebly lifted its head and looked painfully at Josh.

How would he explain the fox to his parents? Josh wondered as he delicately lifted the wounded animal. And the blood. Oh, how he didn’t want to stain the interior of his brand new car. But he couldn’t just leave the fox. He decided to take off his shirt and wrap the fox in that. He had many more shirts, but only one car.

The drive home was short and slow. Josh turned off his headlights before he turned into the driveway. He decided to leave the car outside. He would have to confess about his night ride to his parents in the morning; no sense waking them up now.

Josh gingerly picked up the bundled, wounded fox and carried it to his bedroom. He would have to take it to a vet since he didn’t know what to do. He just hoped it would live. For now, all Josh could do is make it comfortable in a cardboard box and some rags that he fetched from his father’s shop area.

- - -

“Josh, what’s in that box of rags?” asked Jessica, Josh’s annoying little sister – at least he thought she was annoying – when she barged into his bedroom at 7:00 AM.

“It’s a long story…” he said.

Jessica knelt by the box and peeked inside. “Aww,” she said. “It’s a little fox. What happened?”

“Like I said,” Josh said crossly, “it’s a long story.”

“It’s hurt,” she announced. “Looks like its leg is broken. Why didn’t you fix it?”

“Fix it?” Josh asked, astonished. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Like this,” Jess said, and Josh heard a grinding noise as the two pieces of bone came back together.

“Now give me a stick so I can wrap it and splint it.”

Josh obeyed, surprised at how his sister was handling this. At least she was being helpful. Soon the fox was taken care of and Jessica sat by its box, watching it sleep. “…And we’ll keep it forever and its name will be Sir Benjamin, and all my friends will be jealous of my royal pet.”

“Yeah,” Josh said. “Right.” Then, after thinking a moment, he suggested, “Why don’t you go tell Mom and Dad about your new pet? I can hear them talking downstairs.” Josh grinned as his little sister hurried off to tell her news.

“I’m going to school,” he called out to his parents, and hurried out to the car.

“Bye, honey,” he heard his mother call out after him.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Every time my children finish – and pass – another Chemistry test, I breathe a sigh of relief. Today was such a day.

After studying for two whole days and not doing any other subjects, Jacob took the Module 11 test. I held my breath. I prayed. Then as time stretched out, I prayed some more. He even took a break from the test, walking around the house, finding a list of the dozen most populated cities in the US (“I know it’s kind of random, but I just wanted to know.”), even copying the list on a piece of paper. Last night Alexandra had baked a batch of cookies in the middle of taking her test to take a break. It was not an easy test.

Finally, Jacob handed in the test.

I had already corrected Alexandra’s test, so I knew some of the answers. I skimmed the page. As usual, Alexandra had written out entire answers for each question, but Jacob simply circled the correct answer within the question. For example:

If a solute’s solubility in a liquid solvent decreases when the temperature increases, is the solute most likely a solid, liquid, or gas?

Alexandra wrote out, “It is most likely a gas.” She underlined gas to help me find the answer. Jacob simply circled gas, the last word in the question.

Both got the same grades again, but missed different questions. Each got 94%.

Whew. On to the next module…

Monday, March 9, 2009

Oral reports

Every once in a while, I pull back and analyze what I’m teaching the children. Just how important are the subjects and assignments I give them in their future lives?

Chemistry is a valuable subject with important concepts – but most likely they won’t be balancing equations very often after this year. French may well come in handy – not here, but on a mission trip to West Africa. Trigonometry? After the SATs, I doubt they’ll use it much. I sure don’t. And while history is great general knowledge, it’s not a critical skill. Besides, you can always look up dates.

English, a subject I wasn’t wild about in school, comes out on top as the most important single subject we’re covering. Conveying your thoughts and ideas in grammatically correct sentences is a skill you use every day. English isn’t just literature or grammar exercises or vocabulary lists; it’s the way you write someone a note, even the way that you speak. So with that in mind, I came up with a new assignment:

In the magazine I gave you, read one article thoroughly. Take notes (a list of facts). Before devotions tonight, in your words, tell us what the article was about. You should speak at least two minutes.

I gave each child a different Christian magazine that I receive from various mission organizations: World Vision, Send, and The Voice of the Martyrs. I wasn’t expecting a formal report, just an account of the major points of interest, something one might convey in a conversation rather than a formal report. But it’s good practice for future public speaking.

The day I gave the oral report assignment, a friend came over. Leanne stayed late enough into the evening that we included her in our devotions. And part of devotions that day was the oral reports. I hadn’t intended the kids to deliver their reports in front of an audience outside the family, but this opportunity came to us. Despite some protests and embarrassment, I insisted that they present their reports. It seemed to me that God had orchestrated this audience. Perhaps Leanne needed to hear something in one of these reports.

The first report, which Jacob gave, was a touching account of how the president of World Vision, once a wealthy CEO of Lenox, became the president of World Vision and had his heart broken by a visit to a child-headed household in Uganda. He challenges us to renew our commitment to the gospel and offer yourself to God: “Use me; I want to change the world.”

The second article, which Larissa delivered, was about a man in India who went to live in a cave after his life fell apart. He came to accept Jesus through the compassion of a Christian who heard his cries of frustration echoing in the mountains.

The third story, which Alexandra hesitantly presented in front of our guests, was the most powerful. Leanne’s brother came to pick her up just in time to hear this last report. This The Voice of the Martyrs article was about Li Ying, a woman jailed for being an editor of an underground Christian newsletter. She is serving a 15-year sentence. Through Voice of the Martyrs, she has received 8300 letters of support. When asked whether things had changed for her after receiving the letters, her brother said that they had – they had gotten worse. The author asked whether people should stop sending letters, but the brother replied no, the loss of support of Christians worldwide would be more painful to his jailed sister that the beatings the prison officials inflict upon her.

We ended devotions with a prayer for Li Ying. Because of her faith in Christ, she’s enduring something that none of us in the room could imagine.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Creative writing: Describe a relative

Last Friday's writing assignment:

In your writing composition book, describe one of your relatives (aunt, grandparent, cousin…) Describe that person’s physical appearance, personality traits, sad or funny stories from their life, and convey through these descriptions either how much people like this person, avoid this person, think this person is funny, crabby, etc. so that the reader can really feel this person. You can use a situation to describe the person.

Alexandra's description:

I was 2 years old when my paternal grandfather came from Ukraine to visit us. I don’t remember much about him being here, but I’ve heard quite a few stories about it. And I know we used to always go on walks through Ellison Park. Grandpa would always carry me some of the way. Once when he put me down, I wanted him to keep carrying me I refused to go on and sat on the ground until he came back to pick me up.

I really love my grandpa. He reminds me a lot of my dad. When we went to Ukraine when I was 5 years old, we stayed at my grandparents’ house. Whenever we did something bad that we weren’t allowed to do, Grandpa would yell at us, and we quickly learned what to do and not to do. His anger flared quite easily, but then he’d always come back and try to apologize at the same time defending himself, explaining to us how we’d done wrong.

At night, he’d sometimes sit with us and tell us stories about when he was a little kid. We always enjoyed those. He’d tell us about World War II, and I think it’s pretty cool how he lived through it, although he was only a little boy back then.

Another thing about Grandpa is that he always tries to show off how tough he is. He went on a 15-mile trip to try out his new bike this winter, and ended up getting sick. He won’t even try to take care of himself, so he’s not getting better either, and is still coughing. Funny thing is, he’s always telling Dad not to show off. So he realizes he shouldn’t, but does it anyway, telling others not to act the same way.

If someone told me, “Imagine your grandfather, and what do you see?”, I have to say I’d either see him smiling at me or working at something. Usually his bees. He really likes to take care of them and the honey that he gets. He always sends a lot of it home with us. He enjoys showing us children how to take the honey out of the wax. He lets us help sometime, but always finishes it up for us, saying we can’t do it as well as he, because we don’t get all the honey out.

That’s pretty much what comes to mind when I think of my grandpa. And I miss him.

Comments: She used the word always too many times, and she did not describe his physical appearance. But I liked how she used snippets of interactions between them to describe his character.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)