a geeky Wednesday

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I spent Wednesday cleaning with the kids, doing some long overdue deep cleaning of the porch myself mostly while the kids put the living room and dining room back together. When that was done, Verdi put together his new motorized Lego set, Bear began Tuck Everlasting and Stephenson’s Reamde (which Verdi is still working on), Terran read a few picture books, Verdi set up our Wii to stream videos from Amazon Prime to our TV (which is cheaper than Netflix by over a hundred bucks, huzzah!), and all three of them worked on learning a new video game that Verdi just bought called Faster Than Light. It’s a very realistic (real time, real difficulty) space game in which you are the captain of the ship; it has won some awards. The kids had friends over briefly and ran through the taller-than-children weeds in the backyard chasing cats, and at one point I found Bear and Terran having a conversation about game development while working the elliptical in their unique way. Over dinner we talked about what an Arduino is, occasioned by Verdi’s new kit (for his Sunday class) arriving, and then what the difference is between electronics, robotics, mechanics, programming and mechatronics, and exactly what a computer is. Bear declared that statistics is his favorite math and we talked about jobs in sociology.

a picture of the shelf with the objects on topAfter dinner I crashed in my armchair with some chai and noticed a new display on top of the shelf that houses my father’s books about antique woodworking. Someone had stacked up the boxes for the Pi, MakeyMakey, SparkFun Arduino Inventors Kit, and MakerShed Ultimate Microcontroller Kit next to the soldering iron and a framed portrait of Fred Gauss. Apparently I’ve been making enticing activity-centers for so long that this is the way my kids think decorating works.Image

(This is what is in the frame. My camera stinks.)

Verdi’s proposal for the music credit NYS says he needs to do is to create a musical instrument. We tossed around the idea of using the Arduino and the Pi before settling on the brilliance of using the MakeyMakey. We then Googled that. Turns out they’re doing it at NYU. Verdi may use some of their ideas. I am psyched about the conductive paint; I wonder if I could get the little boys in on creating painted technomusic instruments. Even though I am eager for Verdi to finish his Rube Goldberg lemonade stand, and antsy about him devoting time to other projects before that’s done, I’m excited to see what he comes up with for a musical instrument.

We ended the day with a game of Little Dead Riding Hood, new to the boys. Verdi turns out to be a scarily efficient huntsman of zombie wolves. The game allows players to rearrange the board to suit them (to create a path to Grandmother’s House) and that element was just enough like chess that Verdi was on it. We all really like this game and have played it three times now, ignoring the other four new games (Munchin Axe Cop, Bushido, Dawn Under and Anasazi) that Robin and I got for our birthdays. Maybe I’ll get the kids into a game of Dawn Under if Verdi finishes his Lego Technic kit today.

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conversations

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Verdi is reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, a massive scifi novel. He was at a workshop on biodiesel this week. Bear is reading Groovy Greeks, which Verdi devoured in one half hour after it arrived. He hit the beach and got some good swimming time in this past week. Terran made his first pro/con list this week, about whether to go to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with his dad or downstate to visit Grammy with me. This morning in the car on the way to the free summer movies at the big fancy theater up in the mall (to see Coraline, which he then retold with people he knows in the main roles), Terran asked Robin how exactly evolution works. Robin has magic explaining skills and managed to keep Terran engaged and get the actual facts of it across. Wanting to record that reminded me to make note in this more permanent blog format of a couple of other good conversations we’ve had around here lately. As I recorded them at the time…

Bear: How can the elliptical machine tell what your heart rate is? Does it have sensors that hear your heartbeat?
Verdi: It uses an algorithm based on weight and speed, probably.
Bear: So you mean it makes a sci-assumption.
Verdi: It’s called an algorithm.
Bear: I prefer to call it science-umption. Sci-assumption.
Verdi: They actually do it with an algorithm.
Bear: SCIASSUMPTION.
Verdi: Algorithm.
Bear: ♪ SCIIIII! ASSUMPT! IOOOOON! ♪
Verdi: *closes eyes, begins deep breathing exercises*

Terran: Hey Mama, what happens in the brains of boys to make them suddenly start hating girls?
Me: That’s a good question. I don’t really know, but I think you’re right about that feeling being characteristic of a particular neurodevelopmental stage.
Terran: What happens to girls at that age? Do they start hating boys, hating other girls, or hating themselves?
Me: . . . Actually maybe it is social or cultural because at the same age boys are starting to call girls gross, girls suffer a loss of self-esteem. You could call it self-hatred.
Terran: *nods sagely* But that’s not likely to happen to me. First of all, I’m homeschooled, so I’m not being raised like other kids. But secondly, my best friend is a girl, my cousin who is my best-friend-I’m-related-to is a girl, and, DUH, my MAMA is a girl.

When Verdi was small I called him Justice Boy because everything absolutely had to be right and fair. He was worse than Clark Kent. He was so serious and solemn about all things in his determination to do what was good and right. Today I sent him off with his little brother to a situation I judged dangerous. Seeing my anxiety about it, he threw off his recent apathethic-adolescent coolness, looked me dead in the eye, and with a solemnity that brought that six-year-old Justice Boy rushing back from my memory, assured me he’d protect his brother. Words can not express how honored I am to be this young man’s mother.

Me: What are you doing?
Verdi: Walking in circles.
Me: Could you please take a penny, scrub it til it’s shiny, then put it in a ziploc baggie full of water, and tack that near the backdoor?
Verdi: Okay.
Terran: What?
Me: ♪ It was midnight on the ocean, not a streetcar was in sight, and the sun was shining brightly, for it rained all day that night. ‘Twas a summer night in winter and the rain was snowing fast and a barefoot boy with shoes on stood a-sitting in the grass.
Terran: . . . Oh.”
Bear: *squints at us with eyebrows furrowed

We have a weird new game and one card that was in play required all players to say “comic sans is awesome” before drawing a card. Terran, on his turn, could not abide this. He choked out, about to cry: “I’ll lose a life. I won’t say it is awesome against my will.” And he didn’t, and soon he realized he was going to lose all his lives this way right quick. Bear said, “He’s a paladin of Times New Roman.” Robin was able to console Terran by impressing upon him how valiant a choice that is and how rare it is for adults to be able to make it, but the look Terran gave Verdi next he heard him praise the font was so full of grown-up disappointment that I couldn’t hide my snicker.

busy is easy

At one point today I looked around me and thought, “Leave me with just one of my own kids = house a mess for a week. Leave me with four other peoples’ kids = inside an hour, the house is neater than it has been for ages.”

This morning a friend dropped off her four kids and I took them and mine to the sprinkler park for a couple of hours. That was hard; at one point I wondered what the heck I had been thinking. Supervise a toddler, my poky littlest son, a couple of grumpy pre-teens, and three active boys, all by myself in a giant park? GAH. When Terran was stung by a bee, I thought I was done in for. But he was fine, and everyone was fine, and we got through it and got home.

We walked home after that, and while the kids constructively occupied themselves I cleaned. 

My house is a wonderland of constructive ways for kids to occupy themselves and each of them found something to do: one designed and sewed a hat from scratch, two challenged each other on a multiplication game, and the baby wandered from trains to musical instruments to the watercoloring station. There was impromptu face painting as well. The microscope was popular today too, with random objects being looked at after I brought it out to show Terran his bee stinger. Oh and we talked about gender roles and childhood prejudices.

I kept myself apart from the kids, but close to them, deep-cleaning the kitchen and reorganizing the bathroom, the whole time all this went on. As long as I was bustling, I was a presence but not a distraction. I could step in to redirect and I knew exactly what was going on, but I wasn’t interfering; I was letting them follow their interests. It’s a zen kind of way to be and I like doing it.

Then they went home. Verdi and Bear had Dungeons & Dragons. Verdi made dinner. We roasted marshmallows on the stove. Bear designed a new game, Verdi attempted to organize his next week, and Terran lost it and got goofy and was sent to bed early.

It was a good day.

the mundane is the sacred

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Yesterday was full of errands, more Pippi Longstocking, the joyful discovery that Terran can tell back a chapter in vivid detail, and the playing of board games.

I’d like to say a word about those errands. I remember my (single) mother dragging my younger brother and myself on a tour of all our suburb’s parking lots in the little black Pontiac Grand Am she’d inherited from her grandmother. We would sit in the car while she ran into the bank, follow her around mindlessly while she ran around the grocery, then sit in the waiting room while she was with a doctor. We had fun because we didn’t have Gameboys, just each other and our wild imaginations and the car radio station. (We sang along to Billy Joel and Elton John.) But that is not the kind of errand-running I mean when I report that I ran errands with my kids.

We don’t have a car or live in a suburb. We walk or bus or bike everywhere. Because of this, and because of our location, all our errands start with the state museum.

The museum is connected to a long complex of government buildings, including the state capitol, and by walking through these buildings it is possible to get across the city. Also, pretty much any bus you might want to take to anywhere in the capitol region comes to the capitol building, so you really can get anywhere from there. The museum door happens to be our closest entrance to this complex, so, every time we go out on an errand, the kids walk into the museum, past the rotating front-lobby display. This month it’s a history of soap box derby. They routinely wave hello to the now-familiar fossils permanently on display in the lobby, as well.

Then it’s a ride down an escalator and into an underground mall, which contains most of the paintings in the ninety-two works collection of modern art displayed in this complex. Just by the repetition of walking past these two or three times a week, the kids have many of the artists memorized.

In this underground mall, as well as all the modern art, we will pass by our bank, post office, stationary store, florist, YMCA branch, a bunch of government offices, the state university, a convention center, and on Wednesdays a farmer’s market.

If it is nice out and we decide to walk across the mall above ground, we’ll pass most of the sculptures in this collection, giant wind-animated things and loop-de-loops that would be a skateboarder’s dream.

ImageAt the end of the mall, we arrive at a security clearance. The guards know us by name. The boys’ favorite part of the walk is there: the portal. It’s meant to be an after-hours secure gateway for people holding passes that let them in after hours, but it lets anyone through during business hours if you just press a button. Here’s Terran going through it yesterday. Usually at this point he starts pretending he has walked into an alternative universe that is identical to ours, and he and Bear take delight in pointing out all the spooky differences from the world they know. Good thing we always come back home through the portal, too.

After this security clearance point, the building changes, and instead of the super-modern 1970s environment, we find ourselves looking at classical columns. Verdi once said it was like entering Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic, the transformation is that dramatic. Up an escalator and we’re in the capitol itself. There’s a cafe where we often stop for a cup of joe and to eavesdrop on government doings. You can see the underside of what they call the “million dollar staircase” from our favorite table in the cafe, with all the little intricate carvings that people travel from all over the state to take pictures of. There are always some portraits and displays of historical objects, too, itchy Civil War uniforms and whatlike. The Marquis de Lafayette in this portrait is making a ridiculous fish face and here Terran is yesterday, attempting to mimic it. 

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Then we’re out of the complex, through another security clearance (where, again, all the guards know us). Our bus stop is out there, a side door from the capitol.  The architecture once you step out here is amazing, classical-style buildings looming around us in every direction, and the park that hosted Occupy Albany right there as well, featuring a sculptural fountain and an age-old school building.

As often as not when we come out of the capitol onto the lawn, we’re in for a game of guess-the-protest. Once we were thoroughly stumped. Clearly it was something, because brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people in their fifties and sixties, all of whom looked very well-kept and conservative, had descended upon the lawn en masse. We couldn’t figure out what they were there for, though. We now refer to that protest as The Mysterious Abuelita Convention.

ImageHere is Terran, yesterday, climbing around while we wait. At lunch times the capitol is surrounded by food trucks offering gourmet ethnic stuff, crazy  good food, and men in very fancy suits scrambling away with paper dishes full of this food. We’ll stand and watch them (rarely do we indulge in food), wondering who they all are, until our bus comes to whisk us away on our errands.

I try in general to be more engaging than my mom was when I’m running errands with my kids. I look for the teachable moments. I had a very long conversation with Terran yesterday about dialect and race and his privileges and responsibilities as a white man, inspired by his reaction to two people on the bus, and I spent an extra forty minutes in Target so that he could figure out unit prices all on his own and get the most bang from the buck he’d earned working for his dad. But no matter where we’re going, or what we’re doing, just walking out of our neighborhood reinforces my sons’ education in art and in civics. I’m lucky to live in a place people consider a destination.

a day at a time

Verdi (13!) spent the day sorting through his birthday stash, playing the games he got (We Didn’t Playtest This at All and Cthulhu Dice) and trying the science stuff (a lemon clock, a model rocket, a solar hot air balloon, an optic fiber lamp). He also made us dinner. We had some good conversation over dinner about the Trayvon Martin case, comparing it to the case where a Florida mom got twenty years for firing a warning shot after slipping away from her husband, who had been just then brutally beating her, and for whom she had an order of protection. We mostly discussed race and language, though, comparing the implications of two ideas about “why poor black people talk that way.” Most of the social media response to the testimony of Trayvon’s young black friend assumes that she speaks “that” way because she is underprivileged and undereducated, but I asserted to Verdi some of the notions I’d picked up in anti-racism blogs, that these language structures are just as intelligent and deliberate as our own and represent a very wise way of hiding in plain sight, a necessity when your skin color is a crime.

Bear (10) did some artwork, careful grayscale sketches of weaponry. He spent much of the day managing the behavior of his kitten, who is quite the handful right now. He read some in an economics text (“the most important unit in economics is happiness,” he said) and read a bit in a theoretical physics book about the speed of light in a vacuum. He also ran an errand for me, going out to a grocery to get milk and butter. Oh, and he cleaned the living room. He would like it recorded that “I made an epic house in Minecraft.” He claims this should count as architecture.

Terran (7) swears that all he has done all day is play with the kitten and drink cool beverages. It’s pretty hot here today. I know he also built several spaceships from Lego, listened to me read Pippi Longstocking aloud, played more than one board game with Verdi, and cleaned the dining room.

I had a therapy appointment in the middle of the day, so I will have to take their word(s) for it, even though they always, always forget half the cool stuff they did and I have to find out about it later accidentally.

parent-directed unschooling: science

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Sometimes I direct the kids’ days with much parentally-imposed structure, helping them find resources and jump hurdles, and sometimes I let them do all the easy stuff they enjoy, redirecting them to something passive like watching a documentary if I see they’re getting into trouble or wasting time. This kind of ebb and flow has been named “tidal homeschooling” by Melissa Wiley. Since my goal is to do as little “high tide” (much parental structure) as possible, I coined a new phrase: parent-directed unschooling.

Unlike other unschoolers, I think a lot of parental control over the educational process is necessary before a kid can direct his or her own education successfully. I kept the term unschooling mostly to reflect that we are not planning ahead, setting out what we will learn each month and week. It’s also an accurate statement of our goal — kid-directed education. However, I also like the resonant sense of the word, because in my heart (just not necessarily in our lives) the kids are in charge.

We did parent-directed unschooling first, and still do it best, with science.

Verdi (8th grade, 13) does mechatronics projects from books for beginners, from Instructables and other blogs, and MAKE and other magazines. He gives me lists of supplies he needs. He just joined a local public laboratory so he could have access to tools and experienced help, because dog knows I can’t troubleshoot mechatronics. I do this: prompt him to schedule time to work on his projects (I have to do this daily — he’s poky); insist that he press through a problem when he wants to quit (because he always wants to quit when it’s hard, and always figures it out and is excited again four minutes later); bug him til he gets me his lists of supplies; follow links around the internet to geeky things and when I see certain key words (which he has taught me — Pi, Arduino, DIY animatronics, etc.) I ask him if he wants to subscribe to those blogs/get those books/try those projects. When we’re at low tide, he does the kind of easy tinkering and daydreaming and reading that he is motivated independently for; when we’re on high tide, he works on it every day and makes leaps and strides across the tricky bits.

Bear (almost 11, 6th grade) has decided to build a solar-powered clubhouse and I expect that this will absorb both of his brothers as well. I got him books on carpentry and fort-building for children, subscribed to some blogs about DIY solar (meant for third world countries), found a volunteer to help him with the power tools, and put a Home Depot line onto our monthly budget. I’ll sit down with him and the books, ask him what actions are our first steps, and then make a plan with him. When we’re on high tide, every time he works on it, I’ll be working on it with him, learning as much as him. When we’re on low tide, that will be his older brother’s job.

Terran (almost 8, 2nd grade) is into alternative medicine, so I’ve subscribed to a bunch of how-to blogs about making essential oils and growing medical teas. I read the blogs myself, decide what sounds doable, gather the supplies, and then say to my kid, “hey, come help me [plant these seeds/harvest these herbs/pick out bottles for this tincture/whatever].” I try to let him do as much of it as he reasonably can, and I seek out kid-friendly resources like the Herb Fairies novels, but at this age project-based science is mostly modelling. I am learning this stuff and he is tagging along, watching me learn it.

I am hoping this year that we will be able to adopt a parent-directed unschooling approach to literature and composition that feels just as sturdy and well-worn as doing this for science now feels. That’s a blog post for a different day, though.

new storytelling

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At Verdi’s party, one of the games asked him his favorite TV show. I’d never heard of it, so I just Googled. It’s not even technically a TV show. I’m not sure what type of media it actually is. Wikipedia describes it as a story presented via a video game but with minimal interaction, and it’s animated but much of the content is in a text box on the screen.

I thought his favorite things-like-TV-kids-do-these-days was Homestuck, which, aside from the labyrinthine plot, also has a weird structure: basically a comic but written partly by fans and with much media stuck into it.

This must be how the medieval rabbinic scholars’ moms felt when their kids started putting the Talmud into what would one day be called “website format”. “But words go on lines across a page! Oy, my poor head.”

I’m impressed, anyway. Verdi never did go in for simplicity. My mechanical engineer likes to construct his media.

a pitfall i always fall into

Tinkering supplies in hand for the big kid and tinkering shoppe membership arranged for the year. Essential oils and raw shea butter and such like alt-medicinal goodies mystically provided by the universe for the little kid. And once again, I have not managed to get anything in hand for the middle kid for science. He is the only kid I have who I could give a pre-printed 180-day lesson plan to, say, “do what it says,” and know at the end of the year the thing will be done. My science teaching style is so not like that, that I overlook this poor kid’s science education every year. I must come up with a plan for him. I am full of ideas for incorporating history via great books and awash in lists of great activities to integrate a sense of writer culture into our lifestyle but I must stop and make myself plan science for Bear before it gets forgotten for another year. Last year’s plan was that he’d tag along with both older and younger siblings, but Bear doesn’t do spontaneous or tagging along. He needed his own plan.

Maybe I can broaden this notion, even, and say that Bear does best when he is given a checklist and allowed to go to. If I can make him a 180-day plan, and hand it to him, and he’ll delightedly run off and do it… well, maybe that would be playing to his strengths.

imperfection and devotion

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In this post over at Curriculum of Love, a fellow second-generation homeschooler and Unitarian Universalist wrote about her routine and flexibility. As I read it, I found myself thinking I could have written that post.

I, too, fantasize about the monastic life. When I reflect on what I have loved most about homeschooling my children, what has been the greatest personal benefit to me, it’s clearly the opportunity to create a routine that consciously incorporates my values into my everyday life, translating my spiritual priorities into chunks of time on my calendar. How much magic is that? How good that feels! 


I was losing the actual homeschooling, though, in my attempt to stay rhythmic. Everything we did interconnected like clockwork in my grand plans, my consciously crafted routines. It was beautiful but a busted vehicle, a late paycheck, a friend who needed a sitter, even things I should have been able to plan for like dental appointments, all functioned like a wrench in the works, and I’d find myself frustrated, immobilized, unsure how to get back into the groove. This would happen five or six times each year and by  the end of the year I’d be frustrated at how often everything changed, feeling we had lost any power that would have been granted us by long-term practice of any one thing.

Another online homeschool-mom friend recently posted in a private discussion group that, homeschooling her youngest again, she had finally discovered the ability to do school despite the house being not-spotless. That, too, resonated with me. It’s tremendously hard to motivate myself to do schoolwork when the house needs to be picked up. It’s hard to concentrate on it. I’ve always felt that if my physical space was out of order, my mental space was, as well.

But real life is messy and unplanned. To be effective, to happen often enough, homeschooling sometimes has to go on in a room that needs to be vacuumed, in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, or in other less-than-ideal circumstances. Workbooks are easy to do like that, but the meaty discussions? The art projects? Just the idea of doing a science lab in a messy room makes my arms go goosebumpy with creepy-crawlies.

We homeschoolers so often prioritize curating our lives to be perfect learning environments, Charlotte Mason’s, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,” resonating in our hearts, Maria Montessori’s philosophy of letting the environment do the teaching so basic in our communities that we don’t even usually connect that idea to Montessori when we do it or talk about it. I love that. I adore us for living devotional, monastic lives where every move is intentional and connected to a goal that is consciously articulated out of our values.

But it is also problematic, this carefulness, this planning. It has been getting in my way more often than it has been helping. So this year I am working on adding scrappiness, a raw stubborn shameless blind stupid PERSISTENCE, to the list of values I live out. Make “do it anyway, do whatever it takes to get it done” a part of my practice.

This time of year is planning time. The individualized curriculum plans our state laws require us to send in, those are all due this week. This is the best time of year to get deals on used curriculum because everyone is selling to make money for buying next year’s stuff. All of my friends online are posting the lists of books and schedules they have worked up for next year. I want to plan. For as long as I have been a homeschooler June and July have been full of this ritual of looking at my goals for our lives, whittling those down into action plans, envisioning the days of our whole next year, imagining who we will be a year from then if we live like that every day between now and then.

But our whiteboard system, the do-the-next-thing model that I adopted late this last year as a survival tactic against health chaos, has helped me to do more homeschooling that I ever have fit into that period of time before. This whiteboard is a magic feather. I can school despite mess. I can school despite the car breaking down. I can get it all done! I can’t give up my magic whiteboard system.

The problem is, that system explicitly rejects planning more than a week ahead. How do I satiate, then, my desire to check our lives, methods and schedules against my priorities, and my priorities against my values?

I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s something I’ve got to learn to do, though. Someday I won’t have kids at home. I won’t be prompted to remember the joy of singing together by state regs that require me to teach music, won’t have an opportunity to sit in a zen state and observe the world every time “art – nature study” comes up on my schedule. I have to learn to live out my lifestyle goals with no mind paid to school at all.

So I must put school in its place. In a messy kitchen. In a calendar full of the mundane. I must make somehow life of all these goals and values, and I must make life too happen in a room that needs to be vacuumed and despite an old clunker of a car that doesn’t always want to get us where we’re going. The thought of it feels like a giant leap. I want to make it. I hope I can figure out how.

a personal goal

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I’m trying to create a writing culture in my household the way I once upon a time succeeded in creating a maker culture here and a math-y culture here. Hanging out with other writers, and doing writing work myself, is definitely an important part of creating an atmosphere. So I’m working on a new novel and I’ve jumped in on a writer’s challenge. Accountability is nice and writing with friends is useful. Or the other way around.

You all know about NaNoWriMo, I am sure, and they now have a bunch of spin-offs: a screenwriting challenge, a poetry challenge. Incidentally, their workbooks for kids are free and amazing. 

A Round of Words in 80 Days, or ROW80, is a challenge I’ve been kind of studying from a distance for awhile. It runs on blogs, it seems like, which makes it hard for me to follow, since I don’t really have a good blog-feed machine. It divides the year into several 80-day “rounds” and asks each blogger to set their own goals for that period, link them to a master list, and post check-ins every Wednesday and Sunday. Today is the first day of this round, but I find myself hesistating before joining the linky thingy. I don’t know if I can go a whole 80 days on this project.

Then there’s a small private Facebook group one of my homeschool-parent peers began, with the goal of doing 500 words every day for whatever period of time you desire. In the group, one person posts the date, and then everyone checks in about whether or not they managed to do their words that day. I joined that one without hesitation. It seems easier to create a habit if there’s a daily check-in. I’m likely to forget a Wedneday and Sunday routine. Also, most of my novels are just personal attempts to learn more about something by writing about it, so I don’t know if I’ll stick with this book for longer than a month.

The novel is based loosely on the story of Hephaestus, because I recently have begun to hear Him tugging on me, because I want to get steampunk-y, because I want to explore some aspects of Maker culture. Writing about technological themes pretty much guarantees I’ll have to ask my kids tons of questions, too, and I did set a goal of drawing them into writer culture.

If any of my readers knows of other writing challenges, or has any ideas for creating a wordplay culture at home, please comment and let me know.