Monday, July 28, 2008

Much of a Yarn

Someone once said that, "education is what you get when you did not get what you want," and I have enjoyed using that bit of wit numerous times--particularly in reference to the times I received an education instead of what I had initially sought.

This weekend, two of my Sea Scouts and I met Steve Alexander to take our largest boat--a US Yachts 27--on her first cruise in 6 years. Except for the past month while we struggled to make her engine work, his boat had been on dry land all that time.

The weather was gorgeous for sailing, with a nice breeze...but we could not raise sails because the halyards had not been put back. Cap'n Alexander showed us how to fasten the "small stuff" that was a placeholder to the sheet, so we could use the thinner line to pull the thicker line into place in the pulley at the top of the mast, but we could not get the line through the pulley at the top of the mast.

We decided to take Amanda Grace out anyway, to put the engine through its paces, but
discovered in preparation that the thimble had been cut off the end of the anchor rode and the anchor wouldn't have worked without it. So, thanks to Cap'n Alexander's patient tutelage and skill, Caitlin and Rebecca learned some marlinespike. They also cleaned out the anchor locker, and laid the rode in neatly.

The Volvo Penta diesel engine started and sounded beautiful for a "one-lunger." Cap'n Alexander reviewed proper procedure for helm commands and responses, then we cast off with Rebecca at the wheel. Out in the main channel, Rebecca gave her half throttle, and in about a minute the engine
temperature alarm went off. Even though Mr. Schmoker cleared the clog in the salt water cooling system, there is apparently not enough water coming through. So, the Cap'n shut her down, turned the boat about, and we sailed back under Bimini power. A three-minute tour. Upon reaching our row in the dock, he turned us deftly, and then we used the boat hook and other boats' bows to crawl back to our slip.

The scouts and I did not get what we wanted--a glorious experience with sails raised and full in the wind--but we got a whole lot more. More experience we can use in future, and more to make a better story. Let's face it, if all had been uneventful, this post would read "we had a nice shakedown sail," and that wouldn't be much of a yarn, would it?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Good Stuff Off the Spoon

I love the markdown section at the back of the grocery store. I never know what I might find, and, often, when there is something good, it is very inexpensive—as in cheap enough that I will buy it, even if my kids and I don’t really need it. This is how I came home with a $1.00 squeeze bottle of crème de coco one day this spring. My kids and I are on a tight budget, and we didn’t need this treat, but I was pretty sure my children—now 18 and 15 years-old—had never tasted it, and, for the price, I thought it worth introducing.

It was a beautiful day, and I was in good spirits, chatting and joking with the cashier, appreciating the puffy clouds in the sky as I headed into the parking lot with my grocery-laden cart, and enjoying a quick, bumpy ride on the shopping cart as it rolled toward my car, which was strategically parked next to the “cart corral,” so I could have a longer coast, and easily stash the gravity-powered vehicle at ride’s end.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself I hop onto the back of a grocery shopping cart and ride it in the parking lot, unmindful of enviously gawking kids and adults. I seek and appreciate the little thrill that makes me smile. Whether in the mark-down section, at the register, or in the parking lot, I look for the lagniappe in every day, and find it in everyday opportunities and actions.

When I arrived home, my younger daughter, Laurel, came into the kitchen to help put away the groceries. As expected, she was curious about my bargain purchase. “Get a spoon,” I instructed as I opened the seal on the bottle. I squirted a pile of Crème de Coco onto her spoon, and onto another for myself. Doubtful eyebrow raised, Laurel lifted the spoon to her mouth, tasted, and smiled. It felt sinfully indulgent to be eating this sweet, creamy, high-fat treat before lunch, standing there at the kitchen counter, licking our utensils, with Laurel noting that, “Sometimes, you just have to eat the good stuff off the spoon.”

There are a lot of sad and angry people upon this earth. Many have survived terrible childhoods, and physical or psychic wounds. In our individual ways, we are all walking wounded, and how we choose to respond to that determines our level of happiness. I have often said that people need to know that happiness is mostly attitude and intention, that it takes the same amount of energy to be happy as it does to be miserable. I am no stranger to abuse, loss, injury, or challenge, and those who know me best say that I have experienced more than my fair share of these. However, by a path of many turns, I have come to a place where I have largely forgiven those who have hurt me, and recognized the self-empowerment that comes with choosing to use those experiences to make myself better and not allowing them to make me bitter. I recognize that a person always fashions his or her own life, unconsciously or consciously--and I choose the latter. I keep my mind and heart open to possibilities, thoughts, and experiences. I look life square in the eye, embrace the whole of it, am responsive to whatever it brings while avoiding the trap of victim and martyr roles, push beyond fear, and strive to hold onto trust in even the darkest hours. I embrace and savor the boundless goodness of life, consider it an adventure, and have a tendency to find and make fun and magic wherever I go. These are characteristics I wish for my children to gain from homeschooling, far above academic success.

As we stood in the kitchen with spoons poised, Laurel’s comment told me that over the years, my daughter had absorbed the lesson conveyed through my example of keeping oneself open to the possibilities, embracing joy and finding pleasure. Laurel understood the crème de coco moment and the concept at hand, the significance the value of spending a dollar on something needed only for its surprise luxury, and the importance of sharing a decadent moment eating the good stuff off the spoon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where Experts Fear to Tread

I collect quotes wherever I encounter insightful or amusing phrases. When I find a passage that is both insightful and amusing, I am doubly pleased. Therefore, I felt lucky when this gem came in an email: "Not being an expert on anything, I rush in where experts fear to tread." My immediate response was a gut recognition. I, jack-of-all-trades, or, as some of my more charitable friends say, "Renaissance woman," could relate. My delight with his concept caused me to ask the author, Robert Desmarais Sullivan, for permission to quote him, and he graciously agreed.

While my initial reaction to those words included a giggle, there is more to Sullivan's quote than meets the eye. Something deeper, perhaps even dangerous, is wrapped beneath its flippancy. That blithe remark flies in the face of expertise, and even questions the value of it. In our society, credentials validate one's experience or opinion, and experts have these; the titles and degrees to prove their claim of expertise.

The dangerous little quote also begs the question, "where do experts fear to tread?" I believe it is in the places where they feel they are not experts. You are either an expert, or you do not "go there”; your opinion and experience do not count or matter. If experts hold the trademark on a particular topic or issue, then who are the rest of us to tamper with that propriety? If we dare to question, to rush in, we are often discounted. Pointing out that "she is no expert," is a facile way to discount everything about a person, to minify her as a person, in one swift cut.

At a recent social gathering, I had a conversation with an intellectual property attorney named Bob. He said that in his experience, most people who own a trademark, URL, or other intellectual property believe their right to ownership is much greater than the reality. My reflexive response to Bob's observation was, "That makes them feel better, feel more powerful." It seems that tendency to over-extended ownership pertains to wider intellectual "property," as well.

Many experts seem to believe they have a lock on expertise beyond what they actually have. As a homeschooler, I have seen this attitude expressed by doctors, teachers, counselors, school administrators, and others who presume that their expertise extends to homeschooling, to the point that they may even be certain that they are experts on my children’s needs and lives.

Unfortunately, these are often people who know little about homeschooling, and may be set against it for some misconception they hold.

My second favorite thing to do—after homeschooling my kids—is to help other homeschoolers empower themselves, even though I lack an expert’s credentials. I am not a lawyer, but I can read the law, and so can anyone who has reasonable intelligence and interest. In eleven years as a registered homeschool parent, I have learned a great deal about my state’s Home Instruction statute, asserted myself and rallied others when my county asked for more than the legal requirement, and helped numerous parents find their courage to do the same.

When I began homeschooling in 1995, I was afraid that "they" would "come after" me, because I filed under an option that was not used by anyone I knew at the time. I was sure—for some nebulous reason—that I would be targeted and persecuted. Of course, as for the vast majority of us, that never came to pass.

Still, four years into official homeschooling, the county asked me to provide copies of the tables of contents from the books we would be using. Because the request was beyond what the law requires, I declined with a simple, civil letter that stated, "I have read the Home Instruction statute, and believe that I have met the legal requirements with the materials I have already provided.

However, if you will state the wording of the law, which requires that I provide the tables of contents, I will be happy to comply." A few days later, I received the so-called "approval" letter, and the county has not asked me for anything beyond law since. I encouraged my fellow homeschoolers to question the “experts” when the experts cross the line, and this attitude has spread. It is now common for seasoned homeschoolers in Virginia to advise frightened newbies to write the "show me" letter.

As I was wrapping up the original version of this article, I came across another pertinent quote, from Steve Kurtz of
Critical Art Ensemble, who said, “Amateurs can fully exercise their rights to free speech. They can function as watchdogs to a certain degree. They can keep an eye on what is in the public's interest. Experts are incredibly beholden to whoever's doing the investing."

Kurtz’s words struck a strong chord, and brought to mind the situation in June of 2005, when a national organization concerned with homeschooling knew that the Prince William County school division in Virginia had an extra-legal regulation on the books, but did nothing, because they didn’t know- or, it seems, care that local families were being harassed. When confronted with their lack of action, the organization’s representative indicated that the group had been hesitant to correct problem due to their fear of what might happen if they “opened up” the homeschool regulation. But I, "not being an expert on anything,” rushed in “where experts fear to tread,” spearheading a grassroots coalition that worked with the school board to resolve the erroneous regulation.

Unfortunately, this accomplishment also involved standing up to the national organization, which took issue with the idea of a local group of amateur moms who dared to initiate change in the school division’s regulations without prior consent from the organization’s experts. The result was that I not only questioned the school division’s regulations, going where the “experts” feared to tread, but also questioned the experts’ involvement and their planned course of action.

The situation was complicated and challenging, but my fellow coalition members and I were committed to riding it out, and the end result was a local homeschool regulation that does not stray beyond state law. This kind of personal action empowers individuals to stick up for themselves, and makes us each the authority of our own lives, rather than relegating it to the domain of "experts." We need to be our own experts. Doing so makes us stronger, better, more courageous people who feel good about ourselves- and about what we do. Through homeschooling, I am raising my kids to be the experts of their own lives, and, in the process, doing the same for myself. Perhaps I am also creating a place where experts fear to tread.