Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reviewing Online Personal Finance Tools

For a few months now I've been messing around with some of the online finance apps, mainly Yodlee, Mint, and, as of today Quicken Online, which is now free. I've also looked at Wesabe and Geezeo.

I've gotten fed up with the Quicken desktop application. They've forced me to upgrade to an inferior version which then corrupted my data, forcing me to do far more work than I'm willing to do to fix the data file. I'm a long-time user of Quicken, but it provides more features than I use, and I didn't always trust the results it gave me.

My main financial goal is to live within our means. I want to be able to enter recurring and other upcoming bills and find out what's left to spend. I want to be able to use this information as a decision-making tool when I have the gimmes for a new outfit, a GPS, or a trip to Aruba -- can we afford it this month? This is the tool that I've had tremendous difficulty finding, but today I discovered that Quicken Online does an adequate job. It doesn't seem to use the current credit card balance(s) to calculate it's Real Balance (R), but at least it's on the right track, showing me, on the first page What's Left. True, it's completely wrong, but if I look at the Checking account, it shows me upcoming bills and income and the balance at each date so if I input the amount of the upcoming credit card bill(s) I do see the checking account balance that includes all the bills that have to be paid.

Rudder seems to have an app that does what I'm looking for, that is, calculate What's Left based on balances and recurring bills input by the user. But I haven't tried it. It doesn't do much else (not even show you transactions, much less categorize them), and I've scattered our financial information over the web widely enough already. Still it does look like it has the one feature I think every other application is missing. Hopefully one of the other services will snap it up and include its features in their application.

No other online tool that I've found even attempts to show me if we're living within our means this month. Some of them (Yodlee, for instance) are happy to show me how my income and spending compare in past months, but to my knowledge I cannot enter recurring bills and paychecks to calculate something similar to Quicken's What's Left number. Mint doesn't even do a good job at comparing income and spending, showing me a chart where spending appears below the axis, and income appears above, making it visually difficult to compare the two numbers. Geezeo and Wesabe don't seem to have even a chart of spending vs. income over the past few months.

Quicken Online has a long way to go. For instance, it does a terrible job of importing transactions from my bank (same as the desktop version). There is absolutely no identifying information -- I have to open my bank's site and manually enter information for each transaction into Quicken Online. Yodlee manages much better, so clearly the information is available and Quicken is just not using it. Also, Quicken seems terribly slow.

Yodlee has some strengths compared to Quicken Online, which is the current but beatable frontrunner for me. It has a lot of good tools, charts, etc. and categorizes my data well. It also stores our investment information and gives some stats about it. Quicken Online does not appear to handle investments. At least that's what I've read, and so far I haven't been able to link to our modest Sharebuilder account.

I've played a little with the budgeting tools in Yodlee and Mint, and find them inadequate. For instance, Yodlee doesn't add up the various budget categories to give you a total. So if I want to know if I'm budgeting more than our actual income, I have to use a calculator! And I find Mint barely worth discussing. It's pretty, and it tells me what's in each account and gives me a list of transactions, but as for doing any analysis, fergetabowit. I don't understand the buzz about Mint at all -- it's not useful to me.

I looked at Mvelopes a while back, but hated the cost, and found it too labor intensive. I don't feel the need to allocate each dollar of income to a category of spending, although I can see how that would be useful. My needs are of a lower level.

So in the end I'm still looking for the right tool. And I'm willing to pay -- say what I'd pay for a new Quicken over three years. I think that works out to about a dollar a month.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Parenting though the storm

Last Friday, along with much of the rest of Central Massachusetts, we had no power. In retrospect, our emergency was minor compared to others, but our electricity was out for 10 hours and the house was cooling off. The radio news I was able to listen to warned that it might be days before the power was back on. For us that was not true, thank goodness, but some people are still without power a week later.

The hardest part of our own little disaster was parenting well through it. I was single parenting, by the way. My husband is on the fire department, and he left at midnight and worked for twenty-seven hours. However, he wasn’t far away, and I bothered him with phone calls a few times.

Mid-morning the house was getting cooler, and especially as we didn’t know when the power would come back on, I wanted to get some wood to burn in the fireplace. Despite all the ice on the trees, in our neighborhood at least, the ice and damage were minimal, and the roads were clear. Other parts of town were a drastically different story. It was a storm where a degree or so difference in temperature made a huge difference to the result of the weather.

Two of my three kids didn’t want to get in the car when I was ready to try to find firewood. During the day I found there was a lot to do – I wanted to use the light to get ready to be in the dark, so I was getting candles ready, hauling wood, taking food out of the fridge and trying to plan no-cook meals, all in the midst of trivial interruptions. Part of me thought there should be no fighting because of the emergency. But kids don’t work that way.

Anyway, it left me with some insights about emergencies and parenting. An emergency is a lot of work, and parents don’t have a lot of slack in their days. So if you know a parent in an emergency and you want to help, you might offer to take care of their kids. Alternatively, you might offer to take care of some other part of their work, even a routine part, like laundry, meals, or dishes. If you can help call needed professionals or do other work, that is likely to be helpful also. Realize that they probably have a To Do list in their head and are running from one task to the next, and probably don’t have much time to chat. Hopefully they will have time to thank you, but sometimes embarrassment at even needing help make expressing gratitude more difficult. Give what you can; don’t expect much in return. Hopefully they will pay your help back or forward at a later date.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Get a better deal with Charter

We recently got a letter notifying us that our Charter TV rates were going up. The amount we pay for TV strikes me as ridiculous and I decided to see what we could do about it. I started with the online chat, and spent 40 minutes (time I don't have to spare, btw) trying to discover what channels I get for each plan at what cost. Really, pretty simple, right? I'm shopping -- what does this cost, what does that cost, is that a better deal, does this give me what I want.

Well good luck, 'cause Charter doesn't deal in information. And they won't tell you anything without knowing your account number. Well, I wouldn't give it to them. I said I was happy to tell them what market I was in, and eventually gave them an address where there is not actually a house. They quoted me a rate $25 less than what our new rate will be. Finally, I coughed up our account number and asked why we were being charged so much more. Oh, you are getting different channels, was the answer. Well, which different channels, I wanted to know. They wouldn't tell me, but instead transferred me to a different rep who also wouldn't give me the information I wanted. And I had to leave, but honestly, there wasn't a straight answer in sight. I could even show you the transcript, because I saved it.

When I got home, I looked into Dish TV. It's confusing too, but far more upfront about the channels provided at each level. I'd like to be able to put in the channels I want and be quoted a price. Even if they tease me with channels that I could get at the next higher lever, that would be okay.

Later, I called customer service to try to get the skinny. She says they have three tiers, the lower two separated by about $40. I tried to get info from her without coughing up my account number, but finally succumbed. She gave me a price, and I said it was too much, that I was looking into satellite. She said there was a promotion she could give me, adding HBO and Cinemax, adding more HD channels and lowering our monthly price by about $8 (from our current price, not the higher one). Really? More product for less price? Sure, for twelve months. Sounds good, I said. Sign me up. So we're still with Charter. But really, what's with that? Isn't it illegal to price discriminate?

The moral -- push them, ask for more for less $. I wish I'd done it earlier. I wonder if i could have done even better. I have to remember it to do it again this time next year.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Crafts and such for the Homeschool Fair

Our homeschool group had a holiday fair at the beginning of the month, and we all made things to sell. Mason made some earrings. He has a good eye for design, I think. Parker made some little bundt cakes which sold very well, and I made a variety of things.

These are some of Mason's earrings:

And I used the opportunity to use up small pieces of fabric. So here's a girl's poncho made with this tute. I hemmed the bottom edge because figuring out a fringe with the corners was beyond me.

My big seller was flannel hankies in a reversible drawstring bag. I made the bags reversible using this tute from Yarn Monster. I've struggled with drawstring bags, embarrassingly, and I love this approach, which I find easy and clear. It is lined, so it uses more fabric, but the little ones stand up even without interfacing, which is kind of cool. The hankies are 10x10 (or four across the width of the flannel), and serged with a three-thread rolled hem, which came out faboulously, if I do say so myself. The corners are curved to make the serging easier.

I also made some bags without the hankies.

I also used this tute from Dragon[knit]fly which makes a very cool zippered box bag. I recommend starting by sewing around the two pieces of fabric, right sides together, leaving a hole and turning them right side out. Then I eyeballed sewing on the zipper on an already finished edge, and didn't have any raw edges on the inside.

The purple batik tote is made with pre-quilted fabric. I used some awhile ago to make my niece a zippered lunch bag -- this bag used up all the leftovers.

Two no-sew projects: I made a fleece shawl by cutting a rectangular piece and fringing the short edges with a rotary cutter. I cut a ruana from lightweight fleece (used the directions here -- search the page for Dragonmama). I have one like this that I wear often.

I have some wheat berries and since that is a bit unusual, I used them for some other products. I mixed up the grains for the Blender Pancake Mix from Urban Homemaker, and sold that with directions. I made some no-knead bread with some freshly ground whole wheat flour (and some All Purpose white flour also), and some 100% whole wheat bread with another Urban Homemaker recipe. I love this bread but have found it too crumbly for sandwiches. But with soup or as a snack, it's super, and I've had lots of compliments on it.

Some other good tutes that I thought about using but didn't are these:
Cute patchwork basket:


Tote Bag: http://www.sewmamasew.com/blog2/?p=514

Coasters: http://allsorts.typepad.com/allsorts/2006/11/crisscross_coas.html

(Please excuse the bizarre formatting. I have much to learn.)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dr. Wicked's Write or Die


Cool, huh? That means I could write my daily words in an hour, and yet I sit for many hours with my laptop in my lap. Well, we'll just call it research.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Blue Man Group, Homeschool update

We took the oldest two to Blue Man Group last Saturday as a birthday present for the oldest (who turned nine). The oldest adored it, and the six year-old wasn't so sure. There is some reading in the show, so I think it's better to take a child who can read.

Parker got books for his birthday, and managed to polish off 345 pages (The Lightning Thief) in three days. We were impressed. I found it hard to justify interrupting that with, say, a review of the seven times tables.

I've backed off academics a little. Life is much more fun this way, for everyone. That's no surprise to the unschoolers. Rethinking my materials is a lot of work, and its Novel Writing Month. And next month is the holidays. So our current priorities are having fun, novel writing, and preparing items to sell at our homeschool fair in December. After that, Christmas becomes a priority, starting with presents that need to be shipped. Then we'll see where we are. I think I'll stick with AO3 for the oldest (my loose version of it). I can see digressing lots for my first grader. Life is so much more pleasant when I'm not forcing the learning on him. Really -- a lot. You can't imagine.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Video Schooling

I found a flattering comment from Natalie on another blog, and it reminded me to post again. Thanks Natalie!

I've been feeling a bit burnt out this week, and trying to figure out how to work with it. We're doing a fair amount of video-schooling lately. I currently get one video at a time from both Blockbuster and Netflix (for a total of four a month). Blockbuster because my list is there, and Netflix because they have way more educational videos available than Blockbuster. For instance, I've had The Story of One on my Blockbuster list for years, right up near the top, and I got it immediatly from Netflix.

Our recent videos have included the Olivia Hussey/Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet (brief nudity), and then the movie version of West Side Story for comparison (and for the music). We introduced Romeo and Juliet with the Bruce Coville audio version which was a hit (which not all Shakespeare has been -- not by a long shot). We listened to the audio on the laptop while sitting outside on the swinging bench -- that might have helped!

We also watched a video on Columbus. Conveniently, it synced up with Columbus Day, but in fact Parker is reading about explorers for AO3, so it wasn't simply a Columbus Day thing. We watched Great Adventurers: Christopher Columbus which wasn't a complete success. There's a lot of talking by British professors, which, unsurprisingly, doesn't result in much information getting into my boys heads! There is also some reinactment, which is slightly more interesting. This video gives a pretty balanced view on Columbus importance in history in opening the Atlantic to travel and discovery, versus his rather coldblooded view of the people he discovered as slaves and the land as a font of resources to be robbed. Perhaps middle-school and up is a better audience. Let me know if you have any early explorer videos that you like.

Yesterday we watched The Story of 1 which I recommend. My eight-year old got the most out of it, I'd say. I'm getting some spontaneous narration right now, and it sounds like they really enjoyed it.

Mason (6) is going to Zoo School once a month, and September and October focused on primates, so I'm trying to supplement that a bit at home. We watched David Attenborough's The Life of Mammals: Vol. 4, which is wonderful. However, the monkey episode does have some disturbing scenes. We fast forwarded through the scene in the second episode on this disk where the chimps(?) turn on one of their own and kill him. This is followed by a long sequence where the monkeys hunt down a baby of another monkey species and eat it, sharing it with their tribe. This is a long sequence and we lived through it. There is interesting narration, but I could have done without the raw meat. We're getting Vol 1 next, to get ready for giraffe's, the next Zoo School topic.

For fun, we're watching Young Indiana Jones. I didn't like episode 1 at all. It featured two stories that didn't hang together that well (even individually), and child slavery was a featured topic, which I'm not crazy about exposing my kids to. I wished I had previewed it. I previewed episode 2, and it was much better. The first story has Indy in Africa with President Roosevelt. There are hunted animals shown, (it does reflect the time period) but the message is fine, with some discussion of conservation. The second story has Indy in Paris, meeting the artists of the early 19th century (Degas, Picasso, and Rockwell, mainly). Parker has read all the Young Indy books that we've been able to find -- maybe two from the library maybe six that I bought from Ebay. They are scarce. The movies seem to have different stories from the books, in which Indy finds actual artifacts. So far he hasn't found artifacts in the videos.

We're using audio selections also. I'm only using Librivox when I'm very busy or my voice isn't strong because of a cold or allergies. The quality is so mixed. However, if I can find quality recordings from the library, I have better luck with them. A biography of Galileo is on our AO3 schedule, and I used a Jim Weiss recording: Galileo and the Stargazers. Parker enjoyed it, and also the other story about Archimedes (who appears in the Story of One also).

Our homeschool group of about twelve families and 25 kids meets every Thursday. Currently the kids are in three groups. The oldest (7-12) are doing five weeks on the election with me and an assistant (thanks Christy!) We have used a lot of material from Little Blue School (page down to see all the lessons Lydia's written). I'm very grateful to Lydia for this material, because I was having trouble finding anything else I wanted to use. The six year olds are doing a junior lego league, using the challenge on weather for this year. The youngest group (four and under) is doing a unit All About Me. I have a kid in each group! In the afternoon we have art and music, and the most popular subject, free play. This fills in some important subjects for me!

Monday, October 13, 2008

NaNoWriMo 2008

Are you ready? I've been researching since July, and the idea of November makes my stomach hurt! But it's all good. Try it -- if you can write 50,000 words in a month, imagine what else you can do!

Friday, September 19, 2008

My new Canon SX110

Here are some pictures I took on the first day with my new Canon SX110.

My hard to photograph black dog:

Here are some thoughts about my new Canon SX110.

I'm noticing some tendency toward yellowness, even when using the Tungsten setting inside. I'm quite disturbed by it's inability to focus at close distances. I called support, and was told that I cannot zoom and use the macro setting, however, even with that information I'm having trouble with close-up shots. I had to figure out that the macro button doesn't necessarily turn on the macro setting -- it offers choices, and I have to make sure to choose the Macro icon.

The speed between shots without the flash is fine for my uses, I think -- I'll give it more of a workout tomorrow at soccer.

First, with the flash:

The rest are without the flash.

A macro shot:

Update: The soccer pictures came out well. Out of about thirty, only one was out of focus, and I only missed a couple of shots that I wanted because off the speed (or lack thereof) of the camera. The movie quality is a bit noisy (visually), but fine, I think for us. I do realize that if I want good movies I should buy a movie camera. A viewfinder would be nice, but in general, I'm happy with this camera.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Choosing my new camera

I'm feeling a little crabby about digital cameras. First of all, I just bought my fourth one, and it's the only one that works. The first fell off a table, the second stopped working, and the third stopped extending its lens. The third is currently in pieces on my dining room table, because I was hoping that I could clean any sand out of the lens and perhaps fix the problem. I had nothing to lose -- it is two months past its warranty, and it costs a minimum of $160 to repair.

I did not jump on the digital camera bandwagon early. My first digital camera was a Christmas present in 2002. Four in six years seems like too many, especially when compared to the longevity of film cameras.

So when I went looking for a camera this time (and I knew I'd get an extended warranty, although we usually self-insure) here's what I wanted:

  • Good pictures. Although I mostly take pictures of my family, I used to dabble in photography, and can be a bit of snob about picture quality.
  • Quick pictures. I want to be able to take a number of pictures quickly, as my kids aren't known for staying still. I don't want to wait for the camera to actually shoot after I depress the shutter button.
  • At least 5x zoom.
  • Under $300
I also prefer AA batteries, wanted image stabilization, and a decent movie mode.
Totally unreasonable? Not really. However when I read reviews at
and other sources, one thing I notice is that none of the reviews for cameras I looked at said anything to the effect of "the quality of the pictures will knock your socks off." Last year when my Canon S1 IS died, I compromised because I couldn't afford what I thought I really wanted. This year I'm not even convinced that what I want is out there, because manufacturers seem to be "improving" cameras in ways that don't match my wish list.

I looked at a variety of cameras, but ended up focusing on the Canon SX110 and the Lumix TZ5. I saw multiple mentions of the TZ5 having trouble focusing in movie mode, and the sound quality of movies being poor. There is a work-around to the focus problem, but since my kids like to make movies, I'd like a camera that they can make movies with without my turning off the autofocus first. I'm still eyeing the Canon S5 IS, but am put off by the fact that the reviews mention that photo quality was better in earlier versions! And the price is really beyond my budget. Also, my kids will use it, and the S5 IS is a little bulky. I enjoyed my S1 IS, but I didn't always take it places because of its size.

The other factor this time around for me was extended warranties. I want one that's bulletproof. I hope to have and use this camera for more than a single year! I discovered that Ritz Camera has a good warranty, but it's really expensive -- over a hundred dollars. Best Buy's warranty also seems good, and it's much cheaper, although their prices on the cameras are more expensive. I didn't get into a search for a good warranty from a mail order company, but at this point the convenience of being able to drop off the broken camera is a big selling point. As is the option to say "my kid dropped it, and it doesn't work." Best Buy told me that if I can bring them the camera, they will fix or replace it. Many warranties cover only defects, not accidents, so read carefully, and decide what you want.

I now own a Canon SX 110, however, it's still sealed in the box. I'll be thinking about it for a few more days, and seeing if the next Depression starts before I open it. I'll let you know what I think.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Homeschool scheduling

I was worried about folding my second son into our homeschool this year, but so far, the workload at least has not been a problem. We are doing secularized Ambleside Online, Year 3 for Parker, who is turning nine, and Year 1 for Mason, who is six. I thought about trying to combine years by finding other things to do with Mason for a year or more until my youngest, two years younger than Mason, might be ready for AO1. But I decided against it. I like Ambleside too much to not have each child do as much of it as they can. At least that is my view from this point!

Today was better than most in the past two weeks. We started with a brief meditation (at least I meditated, and maybe Parker). Perhaps that helped the day, along with my intent to have a different kind of day. Starting with a quiet time followed by a group activity of some sort (poetry or another read-aloud, for instance) rather than jumping right into the least popular tablework (handwriting and math) seems like it might be a more successful approach.

We are on the third week of Ambleside (both years), and the schedule has already been tweaked. To be honest, my biggest problem is six-year old moodiness. Even before we start any work, the squeaking has begun, so already I'm retooling. His math today, for instance, was mental, and in the car, and his handwriting was tracing a word that he wants to be able to write rather than a page in HWT. I supervised closely – I learned that lesson with my oldest, whose handwriting currently leaves a lot to be desired. I want him to have the skills of writing and computing, but I don’t believe that at the first grade level curricula in those subjects are necessary, although it can be useful as a guide. Later in the morning, when he came to find me when I reading my e-mail, I read half a fairy tale to him – just him on my lap in the office, neither other boy in sight. When he started squirming, we ended for the day, and we'll finish it up another day this week.

Parker is a little more compliant than Mason, although he definitely went through a similar moodiness that he seems to have currently outgrown. He's learned that he often (although not always) finds the readings interesting. He'll sometimes slip away without doing what I've asked him to do, but he will generally do it without much complaint in the end. That's a habit to work on, though.

We ate lunch outside, and I moved to a hammock swing before they were done. Mason came to join me, and we looked at the trees in sight, talking about leaf shapes (he's named oak "antlers" and maple "king's crown") and the difference in the bark, and whether there were matching trees around.

Later this afternoon the four of us listened to a Bruce Coville recording of Romeo and Juliet, because there is some sort of Romeo and Juliet quest that Parker had been working on in Runescape, which the two oldest are heavily into right now. They all listened, even the four-year old (at least, he was quiet).

I set up the wheat mill, and we each took a turn grinding (totally voluntarily). I mixed up some scones with a little help from Evan. I asked Parker to make a dated drawing for his history notebook (we tried a timeline, but he wanted to draw pictures of the stories and we store them in chronological order in the loose leaf notebook). His picture is of Columbus' Nina, with the red cross on the sail as it's shown in one of our books.

We listened to the second half of Romeo and Juliet, with chocolate chip scones and tea, and the middle son managed to miss the ending. Narration consisted of telling me how the story differed from the version in Runescape. This was our first tea time this term, although it's on the schedule several times a week. We may try a movie version of Romeo and Juliet, also.

While my written schedule has homeschool done before lunch, today's more relaxed all day version may work better, at least until October, when some of our other activities start. I've tried to schedule some time for myself in the afternoon – both quiet time and project time. It's harder to make it happen that I expected, but I'm really not good at schedules. this afternoon, for instance, I used some of my time when I agreed to my youngest's request to play Go Fish. Still, it's better to have a plan and deviate from it than to not have a plan at all, I suppose. (As long as there's not too much guilt involved.)

[As far as schedules on paper go, I use the AO schedules that fit a twelve-week term on one page, front and back. I have both a paper version of this that I refer to, and an electronic version which has the readings I use online hyperlinked. I also have a rough "at home" daily schedule, that lists when the computer and TV are off and on, homeschool time in the morning and project and free time in the afternoon. This schedule is currently a little less reflective of what actually happens. The third paper lists days of the week across the top with three time slots morning, afternoon, and evening. This is where I list weekly activities like our coop, gymnastics class, soccer practice, and regular evening meetings. I've also used this sheet to try to slot in weekly activities like tea time composer or artist study, and some other things that I haven't actually gotten to.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Floor finishes

Our new pine floor is in, and I'm in the process of finishing it. I went with a penetrating oil finish rather than a polyurethane. Initially I looked at Osmo Hardwax and Bioshield as more ecological options, but in the end I wanted to use a finish without any petroleum distillates or metal dryers.
It turns out that oil finishes are widely used in Europe, and most of the options come from there. There is more information here:



There are actually many options of penetrating oil wood finishes. This is a list of the ones I've found:

Osmo Polyx Oil
Bioshield oil and wax products
Land Ark
Velvit (nice collection of stain colors)
Sutherland Welles
Tried and True Wood Finish
Tung oil
Weather Bos
AFM Naturals Oils

WOCA (previously Trip Trap)

None of these were easily available locally. Some were available 45 minutes or more away. I thought I would be ordering whatever I chose. The exception is Waterlox, which does tend to be more available, and it was my fallback.

My choice was driven by my desire to go domestic, and to avoid petroleum distillates. Although I worried about the length of time some finishes took to dry, as I researched I discovered that many of the other finishes also take a while (a week or more) to dry, and I imagine that quicker drying is due to drying chemicals. I also had a strong preference not to sand between coats. In the end I went with Land Ark. I make no claim to have tested or thought of everything – I haven't. But time was running short and I liked Land Ark.

I put on four coats over five days, and have just finished buffing the floor. In fact, I feel a little like this laptop is moving back and forth in an uncontrollable way just like the buffer! I think I'm done. If I paint the walls, the room will be unused for another week at least, allowing the oil to dry and floor to cure further. It is not perfect now, and as time passes, it will be less so. But my hope is that it develops a patina, rather than becoming shabby looking!

Here's a picture of my floor (before the final coat and buffing):

[Some safer poly-type products I came across: AFM Safecoat, Vermont Natural Coatings.]

It's now very clear that the walls need to be painted, which wasn't on the short-term to-do list. However, I think I'll go for it anyway. I'm going to try to pick up some Mythic paint on Friday on the way to Fenway Park. There are no dealers near me, but there are dealers in the Boston area. Mythic is non-toxic, which is a big step up from simply low- or even no-VOC, and it gets good reviews from people who have used it. I'll be looking to match the BM Honeywheat color that I used in our family room.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Heating Options for the Winter

For a few years now I've had in the back of my mind the thought that we needed to know how we would heat our house when oil became problematic. The time is here, and we're not ready. Our neighbor is converting from oil to natural gas. I'm not convinced that is right for us. For one thing, if we're spending a lot of money, I'd rather spend it on a system that taps into renewable energy sources, not simply a different non-renewable fossil fuel. For another, my understanding is that in the long run, gas and oil prices track each other.

The alternative heating market is not ready for all us New Englanders who heat with oil and are looking to switch now. I have friends using wood either in wood or pellet stoves. Although wood is renewable to some extent, it's not clean. We have a neighbor who uses wood, and although I enjoy the smell of the wood smoke, I think if my other six close neighbors were using wood, the neighborhood would be unpleasantly full of smoke. And what are those pellets really made of, anyway? And I suspect wood prices will rise as more people switch to it. We have a fireplace with heating rods and a blower, and we may use that more this winter, but wood is a lot of work – it has to be cut, split, stacked, carried, and swept up after. And the fire has to be tended. However, we have some uncut logs out back, and it might be time to put in that work and burn some wood this winter. I'm not sure I can use a chain saw and a splitter with my kids asking me questions and trying to help, though!

We are thinking about building one or more of these solar window heaters (there are other versions around the web). Our south facing windows are on the back side of the house, and we have six double-hung windows back there. There are some trees, but in the winter there are no leaves, and I think the sunlight is still significant. We may build one and see if we think it works. We like this option because it's cheap and we can try it out without cutting holes in our house. They may require some babysitting when the sun is not shining (closing the vents), but it seems that it would be minimal, and nearly free heat would be worth it. The fireplace is in a different room, allowing us to heat two rooms without oil (and very possibly more if we can move the heat around) and paying more attention to heating only where we need it would allow us to save some oil. I'm also looking for more blankets for the beds. For now, we'll stick with our one year old oil hot water heater.

Solar heating seems to be the exception. Solar systems generally seem to be for electricity or hot water. Right now my primary interest is in heat. Our electricity bill is not overwhelming, and neither is our summer oil bill for hot water – our heating oil bills could be. We buy about six tanks of oil a year, and last year I had one bill of about $800.

I'm still looking for a long term solution. Perhaps a heat pump or geothermal system? I have a pipe dream of a few neighbors sharing a geothermal system, but the septic systems might get in the way. I don't generally look to the government for advice, but I wish someone would suggest the right way to jump.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Be happy, and get out of the way

I finished Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert on Mother's Day. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't feel any need to travel the world alone (which is just as well, considering my three children), but I am inspired to work a little on a meditation practice.

My favorite quote from the book is this:
As I focus on Diligent Joy I also keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once – that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-'n'-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level. Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people. (p. 261)

I find this quote makes perfect sense, and it sends me out to find my own happiness in the realization that my happiness is what is best for my family. It also helps me answer the question of whether I as a parent am responsible for my children's happiness – I think the answer is that I need to do my best to teach them how to figure out how to make themselves happy so that they, too, can get out of the way.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rushmore, a book review

We just read Rushmore by Lynn Curlee, and it's exactly the kind of book I look for to read with my children. Some interest in Mt. Rushmore had been generated by the second National Treasure movie, so I decided to follow up on that when I saw this book at a local library. The book is 48 pages with some of those pages being full page illustrations, and the text is medium sized with spacing between each line. The result is completely appropriate for the mid-elementary years – providing enough detail without getting bogged down. The story provides opportunities to talk about the time between the World Wars, the boom of the 20s, geography, immigration, art and sculpture, the Great Depression, politics and funding for federal projects, public works, the type of personalities needed to complete such a project, and engineering. And of course, adding biographies of the four presidents depicted, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the first Roosevelt, would make sense. It would make a fabulous spine for a unit study, and I'm not even into unit studies!

We followed up by looking at some photograps of the real Mt. Rushmore, since the illustrations in the book do not include photographs. I particularly liked these, which include some closups (look at the eyes!) and this one of the sculptures under construction.

A Nature Walk

I struggle with the nature walk aspect of the Charlotte Mason education. I agree with it completely philosophically. One of the reasons I want to homeschool is so that my children can see their connections to the world around them, and that definitely includes the natural world. It is when the rubber hits the road that I have problems. My kids whine. They would never choose to take a nature walk. And here in New England, it is extremely hard to motivate ourselves to get out in the winter. I did finally put up a bird feeder this year, though, and that has been a good addition to our days.

Last Friday I saw an opportunity to get them out -- we took a walk before I dropped them with Grandma. That way I didn't have to pack food, which made things easier. We went to a new place, too. I had one unhappy boy, but the other two were okay, and found things to see on our forty-five minute walk. We saw curled fiddleheads, a stream running next to a stone wall, a man made stone bridge, leaves and blossoms just emerging, birds (we heard a woodpecker making two distinct sounds, presumably on two different trees). We walked uphill to a pond and saw a little life in that, as well as a huge pile of logs on the other side of it. My four year old told me that beavers have their doors underwater and have long sharp teeth. He would also walk a few steps and then say with amazement, "Look, Mom, another part of the lake." And I would have to look before he would move on. On one stop we saw a pile of large branches under the water and he decided that it was the beavers' playground. My oldest was fairly observant also, and particularly drawn to the stream. About halfway through I did have to make a rule that there are no bad guys in the woods -- they are constantly building stories around bad guys! My middle guy was happier once we turned around. Strangely, he's the one who seems to like nature best, but not, apparently, on this day.

I hope to have more of a nature walk routine through the summer. We do have plenty of outdoor time, but not a whole lot of observation. I also have Wild Days, and would like to get them started with nature journals. My six-year old hasn't been much of a artist, but that is changing, and I think he could do a nature journal now.

I'm tempted to add the moral of the story, but in Charlotte Mason fashion, I'll hope that the writing itself makes it clear!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Living Room Floor

I've tossed around the choices for a new living room floor for about a year – carpet, tile, laminate, or wood. I'm looking for an option that is affordable and environmentally friendly. I'm fed up with carpet, and with the dog turning ten, older dog or future puppy accidents are all too likely. We love the tile in our family room – we never fuss at the boys about what they are doing on it -- but we can't quite picture it in our more traditional living room. Also, the floor isn't quite flat. Laminate just doesn't suit my style – I really prefer less processing. I'm not completely comfortable with the engineering of bamboo, and the fact that it doesn't have the ability to be refinished (or at least not multiple times). We don't really like the look of cork for our living room. So we're left with wood, and the concern that wood and boys may not go together.

We do not have a formal living room. In fact, the boys may spend more time playing in the living room than in the family room. The stairs , the office, the front door, and the downstairs bathroom all abut the living room. Our TV is in the living room. Keeping the boys out is not an option.

I'm not crazy about the look of oak (just a personal preference). I've been looking at pine and hickory. I love the look of pine, and my hope is that we could manage to distress it in an attractive way. Hickory is much harder, but also more expensive. It's attractive, but I prefer the look of pine. I worry that hickory would get damaged, but not in an all-over way as is more likely with the pine.

I'm looking at penetrating oil finishes rather than poly. I like that I could refinish any parts of the floor that needed it. My top picks are Osmo, Bioshield, Velvit, Waterlox, or Tung oil.

I'm leaning toward the pine. I prefer the look, and I can get very affordable pine from a mill about an hour away – it's local, the logging has to meet any environmental standards here. Also, our boiler recently needed a new motor, using some of the money earmarked for the floor. I will finish it myself, probably with Osmo or Bioshield. I'd like to lightly stain it, so that it coordinates with our trim. We'll see if we have the nerve to purposely distress it when put it in – we probably should! Our tax rebate is going to be funding this project!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Homeschool Coop Update

Our homeschool coop has had a good year. In the fall we did a six week Lego League, then a winter program of ancient Egypt, and currently we're in the middle of six weeks of this and that -- whatever people were willing to offer. We have 18-24 kids, from eleven families. We're finding that if we have two groups, each with a leader and a helper, it takes about 40% of the moms to run each homeschool day. The activities I've mentioned have been for the older kids, seven and up. For the younger kids (3-6) we've had a coop kindergarten going. In the afternoons we've had a music teacher come in and teach two music classes -- one for the older kids and one for the younger. In the current session, we also have an art teacher teaching art to the older kids when the youngers are in music, and vice versa. We meet in people's homes. This year we've had two hosts.

I led one group during Lego League, and during the current session I've led two sessions for the older kids. Despite the fact that I have two children in the younger group, I haven't led that group yet! A few weeks ago I co-led a session on Leonardo Da Vinci. We did a little history and geography, read Leonardo's Horse, did anatomy measurements to corroborate the ratios he found, did a perspective art project, and did a picture study of the Last Supper, including having the thirteen kids line up as if they were in the painting!

Then last week, in two hours flat, I ran a restaurant with the older kids. There are so many things we could have focused on with this -- it's so complex! I tried to keep it simple -- this was my approach:

I asked that every student be sent with at least a dollar. This included the younger group, who were slated to be our customers. I brought in a bag of groceries: bread, butter, peanut butter, and jam, and asked the if they wanted to buy these groceries for the restaurant for $5. Five kids put their dollar in, and we wrote down that we owed them for the loan. I told the kids that they would each earn a dollar working at the restaurant today. Then we worked on the menu, and set up the table and kitchen space we would be using. The kids writing the menu had to come up with prices, and I recommended that $1 be the highest price, so that our customers would be able to buy something. They decided that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be a dollar, and various versions of toast would be less. (We could have talked much more about setting prices, but our first customers were due about 45 minutes after they bought their first groceries.) Once the menu was established, I acted as their first customer. Our original idea (that is, my husband's, since he came up with the restaurant plan), was to distribute that first dollar to the whole staff to make the point that we had to sell a lot more to pay each of them their dollar, and also pay our other costs. But I was vetoed by the kids, who thought it would be easier to divvy everything up at the end.

We assigned each customer a server, who was responsible for taking their order, getting their food, and giving them their bill. The customer either paid at the register, or the server brought the money. We didn't focus on making change, although that would definitely make sense.

At the end we counted up our money and talked about profit, and what other expenses a real restaurant would have.

I hope the kids got a sense of how complex it all is! We certainly could have done more with it, but I didn't want to get bogged down. I can see doing this a few times a year and letting the kids take a bigger part in the design each time.