Friday, October 31, 2008

Tipping the balance to unschool

It happened yesterday. The balance in our homeschool finally tipped from "eclectic schooling" to "unschooling." And, man, did it feel good.

After two days of trying to force the workbooks -- math, writing and Draw Write Now being the last vestiges of the crop from early September -- I finally gave in, gave up, gave over. At least for the moment, we are unschooling. Though I tend to shy away from labels, this on does seem to fit.

I think the addition of a 2-year-old dog to the mix is what finally did it. Between walking the dog, letting him in and out, keeping him away from the boys (who love him, but get him riled up), and stopping him from chewing every hat, mitten and sock in the house, all semblance of structure eroded.

When Brian came home from work Tuesday afternoon, I was fit to be tied. "This dog needs to be contained!" I yelled. (Actually, that's not what I yelled at all. It was more like, "We need to keep this fucking dog out of the playroom and living room or he's going back to the pound, so help me!").

Whatever it was I said - I only remember a day full of yelling -- it worked. I don't get easily worked up. Brian saw I was a mess. He said he could splice into the electric fence outside and run a wire through the middle of the house. But it would take a few days to figure out the path the wire would need to take underneath the floorboards and through the joists. (Brian has a lively working knowledge of the innards of the house, which I lack entirely.)

"Oh, no, no, NO!" I said. "You run the wire through the window and tape it to the freaking floor!"

Bless him, he did it. He brought the wire in through some duct work in the basement and taped it across the playroom and living room floors. It almost killed him aesthetically, but he did it.

So yesterday we had a dog-free day in half of the house, which made all the difference. We love the dog, lovely Eddie, but he simply cannot have run of the house.

The kids were so thrilled to be able to play with their toys in the living room and play room without fear of Eddie stealing them and chewing them that they more or less played all day. All three together. Not wanting to disturb that magic, I let them.

They built a city for the guinea pigs while I made whole wheat anadama bread. We all played a fractions game from Family Math (best book I've bought this year, which is really saying something). They created a town for their stuffed animals in the living room complete with houses, stores and a library. I went online to research unschooling on Sandra Dodd's wonderful site. I read to them from American Tall Tales while they painted and drew. We went apple picking in the afternoon (last time this season) and carved pumpkins when we got home. And Brian and Nell took Eddie to obedience school.

It was a great day. I did not feel like my head was going into orbit at sundown.

It seems to be a question of control and trust. Do I trust the kids have some (or all) control of their learning, or do I not. I am slowly giving over. I can plainly see that their instinct is to learn. Left to their own devices, they learn beautifully. And get along beautifully. Which is itself perhaps the best lesson of all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bimblers Bluff 50K

Much of this post is lifted from a blog I wrote for my newspaper.

Sitting around our tent site last summer the tense and unreal evening before the Vermont 100, local Connecticut runner Kerry Arsenault dropped over to tell Chuck and Grace and me that her husband, Jerry Turk, was planning to direct a 50K (31-mile) race called Bimblers Bluff on October 26th right here in Southeastern Connecticut.

I took a flier and kept the race in the back of my mind during the intervening months, knowing that I was planning to run a 50-miler just two weeks later, but thrillingly tempted by the possibility of running an ultra just 45 minutes from home. The race was to be run entirely on trails in and around Guilford and Madison, CT.

About a month ago I bit the bullet and signed up. Having just run a pair of races in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire I was feeling cocky. I thought to myself, “A 50K here in mountain-less, gently rolling shoreline Connecticut – piece of cake!”
Oh how wrong I was. I had failed to take into account just how narrow and rocky and rooty and twisty and oh, so difficult-to-find the trails in Guilford and Madison can be.

I talked my friend Susan into running with me, telling her that I was not planning to break any records, but merely to indulge in a long, leisurely training run in the woods. Had we known just how long we were going to be in the woods, I’m not sure we would have gone ahead. Ultimately I’m glad we did, and I had fabulous time. Susan, however, is terrified of getting lost and felt tortured for much of the run. She was a trooper (for the most part).

We arrived at a Guilford elementary school gym just in time for the pre-race meeting and joked with Stonington runner, Davnet, her husband, Paul, and our trail friend Nipmuck Dave about how slow we all were. We gathered for the start and took off comfortably in last place, where Susan and I stayed for most of the day.

I have never in my life gotten so lost on a course. It was confusing and poorly marked. We hadn’t run 2 miles when we got lost for the first time. We had run about half a mile off course before realizing that we hadn’t seen any of the pink ribbons that marked the course in quite a while. We backtracked with our new friend, Marv from Colorado, telling ourselves how lucky we were to have gotten lost so early in the race, and how we would all be much more careful to look for pink ribbons. We eventually found the trail, only to head off in the wrong direction, running half way back to the start before realizing that everything was looking a little too familiar.

Alas, it was to be a full day of losing the trail and searching for pink ribbons. But the weather was perfect – crystal blue and warm after a week of forecasted rain – and the forest was lovely with the yellow leaves backlit against the trees.

Our pace was excruciatingly slow. We were running at a snail’s pace to begin with, and all of the route finding and rock dodging slowed us to a near crawl. Suffice it to say that it took us almost 3 hours to get to the second aid station at Mile 10.

The aid stations in this race were outstanding. All of the volunteers were cheerful and encouraging, especially to the pour souls in last place. Each time we came to an aid station (there were 5 on the course) I would stagger in gasping, “We’re alive!”. The volunteers joked with us, filled out bottles, and tried to feed us. I was eating only one piece of salted potato at each station, trying to run on a minimum amount of food to keep my poor stomach from getting sick. This strategy worked. During all of the 9 hours we were out on the trail, I only felt sick for about 10 minutes near the end, having finally indulged in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with 2 miles to go.

The climb up Bluff Head after Aid Station 2 was epic (at least by Southeastern CT standards). Once at the top we could see for miles into the lake and rolling hills below. The view was remarkably reminiscent of Vermont.

I was chomping at the bit by now to go faster. But this would have been dumb. I kept reminding myself that this was a training run. Stone Cat in 2 weeks! Stone Cat in 2 weeks! Susan's ankle brace was killing her and this, combined with lots of little climbs, was slowing us down to a walking pace for long stretches. Every inch of me wanted to go faster.

Around mile 20, I started to up the pace and Susan and I briefly parted ways. Half an hour later I got a call on my cell phone: Susan saying she had lost the trail and was hopelessly lost. I ran back as quickly as I could, maybe a mile, yelling SUSAN! into the woods over and over. She called me again to tell me she could hear me. She somehow followed my voice back to the trail.
I had meanwhile gotten a bit lost myself. In my crazed state of mind, I missed a critical turn and was now looping back, still on the course, but now in a section we had run hours ago. I backtracked, found the crossroads and thankfully got myself back on the green-dot trail I had left. I was now, however, several minutes behind Susan. She ran/walked slowly until I caught up and, hugely relieved to have found each other, we stayed together for the rest of the run.

She owed me her VERY LIFE! Though, on second thought, she wouldn't have been out there in the first place if I hadn't talked her into running with me.

The last 8 miles or so were a repeat (more or less) of the first 8, so we did not loose the trail nearly as often toward the end of the race. We found one guy at a road crossing wandering up and down looking for the way back into the woods and we ran with him for a while, figuring six eyes looking for pink were better than four.

A quarter mile from the finish we popped out onto another road, having missed a turn on the trail a few yards back. We spent about 10 desperate minutes asking neighbors and construction workers where the elementary school was. Finally a woman stepped out of her house and directed us back onto the trail.

The finish line was a glorious sight. Susan’s kids were there to cheer us on and seeing their smiling faces was absolutely delightful. We both received a cool Buff (kind of a headband-hat type thing) as a finisher’s award, as well as bags of bagels and cider (if you stay out long enough you get to take home the leftover aid station food!).

All in all, I probably ran between 35 and 37 miles. The course itself was long (32.5 miles) and I ran at least three extra miles off it. Even so, I had a great day in the woods. I loved the race and will definitely be back next year with the detailed course description (available on The Bimbler’s Sound Web Page) tucked into my pocket.

I have a year to convince Susan to join me. She says NO WAY.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I haven't written here for a while. Trying to adjust my schedule to our newest family addition: Eddie the 2-year old Treeing Walker Coon Hound. He has been with us for two weeks now and is just starting to setting into our family.

We found Eddie at the Humane Society. Nell had been begging us for a dog, and one afternoon Brian and I cracked and we made a family trip to the dog pound. We stayed for about an hour and didn't see any A-Ha! dogs. Just as we were about to leave, one of the workers walked in with Eddie and for Brian and me it was love at first sight. Nell had set her sights on a smaller dog, but once she saw we were serious about Eddie, she quickly changed her tune.

Eddie is about 50 pounds and he looks like a beagle on stilts. He has the same coloring and ears as a beagle, but longer legs. Brian calls him a beagle and a half. As I write this he is bouncing around the living room desperate for a romp and a play.

The day we brought him home he was painfully shy. He cowered in the basement and wouldn't eat. He had been at a different Humane Society location for months before coming to ours 2 weeks ago. Coon Hounds need lots of exercise, and he clearly wasn't getting enough. He was frightened and freaked out and depressed.

He gets tons of exercise here, which has endeared us to him forever I think. I take him for long runs early in the morning, the kids and I walk him around the block after breakfast, Brian plays with him in the yard in the afternoons, and Nell and one of us takes him around the block again in the evenings. If he would only stay inside the electric fence, his outdoor life would be complete.

I like having a running partner during my dark early morning runs. Eddie is mostly good on the leash, but he does get easily spooked. I tried to take him under the I95 bridge on River Road yesterday and he nearly had a heart attack with the trucks and police cars roaring overhead. He pulled me all the way home, Gentle Leader collar be damned.

I am running a 50K on Sunday and it's tempting to take him along. I bet he could make it, especially at the pace I am planning to run. I wonder what the dog policy is for trail races? I've never seen a dog in a long race, but that may be because most dogs can't run that far. Eddie could! ("Treeing Walker Coon Hounds will run tirelessly in pursuit of game." I have no trouble believing that.)

Once we teach the boys not to act so bizarrely around Eddie, we'll be home free. They never pass up an opportunity to freak the dog out. They dance around him, fake wrestle, poke him, anything to get a rise out of him. Makes me a little nuts. Eddie too, I'd imagine. I give it another week until the novelty wears off.

But Eddie is a great homeschool project for Nell. She goes with Brian to his obedience classes and is learning how to handle him beautifully. She adores Eddie and the feeling is clearly mutual.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Protein, anyone?

I have been (relatively) wheat free and dairy free since Saturday. I did sneak a half spoonful of ice cream and a pretzel after dinner just now, and I had a peanut butter cracker on the playground yesterday because it was in my pocket and I was starving. But for all practical purposes, I have not let any wheat or dairy pass my lips for five days. In addition, I've cut way back on carbohydrates.

And I feel pretty good.


This is supposed to happen, but I didn't really believe it would.

The difference, as I was warned, is subtle. I don't have to fight to stay awake in the afternoons. I don't loll at the table after meals. I don't have steep sugar crashes just before lunch (scenes of some of my worst parenting moments).

Strange to say, my new diet is making me a better parent. I have more patience and more endurance. I am a peppier homeschooler, a more attentive co-learner, a more inventive teacher.

At least I think I am.

And the longer I stay away from the sweets, the less I crave them.

But even with all of these obvious benefits, I don't know if this diet is sustainable. I don't like thinking about what I can and cannot eat all the time. Perhaps if I stay with it, the whole thing will become second nature, but right now it all feels like a chore.

I made a lovely chicken salad for lunch today with cashews, avocado, grapes, apple and ginger. But it would have been a lot easier to throw together a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Onward and upward. I'll stay with it at least until I get through my next two races. I do, however, need to find something satisfying to snack on besides nuts and fruit. I am way too gassy for polite company....

Sunday, October 5, 2008

My poor old stomach

Every time I run an ultra, no matter the distance, I always end up sick during the last quarter of the race. It doesn't matter if its a 50K, 50-miler or (my one and only unsuccessful) 100-miler. The symptoms are almost always the same. Low grade nausea, leading to more acute nausea and then to real pain in the lower part of my intestine. Transitioning from walking uphill, which soothes the system, to running downhill, which pounds every interior organ I own, is excruciating. I never actually throw up -- I'd probably feel better if I did -- but the whole business is horribly unpleasant. I honestly don't know what keeps me coming back for more.

Anyhoo, I posted a question about Stomach Upset on the Yahoo Ultra running Group and I got a couple of informative responses. Ultrasteve said that he gets nauseous when he runs at a pace faster than his training has prepared him for. This makes sense to me. I think I may be upping my pace (subconsciously or not) as soon as I hit the half way point. I conserve energy all through the first half of the race, and then start running more of the uphills and pushing the pace all through the second half. And hence the belly trouble. I have a couple of races coming up in a few weeks (50K and 50-miler), so I am going to make a concerted effort to keep an even, comfortable pace from start to finish. Easier said than done, no doubt.

Peter from Vespa wrote to ask about my typical daily diet. His thought is that I am taking in way too many carbohydrates and not enough protein and fat. I have always been a carbo junkie. The Atkins dies flew right by me, as did all of the other no-carb alternatives that thinned-up so many of my friends about 5 years ago. (All of them have regained the weight, I might add, in the the intervening years.)

Peter ascribes to a version of the Paleo diet. I checked The Paleo Diet book out of the library and found the menu to be way too restrictive for me, especially since I must feed four growing people besides myself at every meal. Paleo is grain-free, wheat-free (obviously), dairy-free, sugar-free. Which basically leaves you with lean meat, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. The whole thing reminds me of a book I read earlier this year called Into the Forest: 2 teenage sisters survive in a post-apocalyptic world by eating acorn mush, wild berries and the odd shot rodent.

Just give me my Ben and Jerry's from time to time, for chrissake! This is the freaking 21st century.

I have decided to try a wheat-free and dairy-restricted diet for the next month and see if it makes any difference in my stomach's behavior at my next two races. And I will cut back on the carbs. Eat more nuts for snacks. Nuts and raisins. And I'll grow my hair down to my butt and paint my nails camo-pink.

I ordered Paleo for Athletes and the Maffetone Method (Ultrasteve's guy) from Amazon. The library does not stock these particular books. Shocking. Not enough ultra-running, hunter-gatherer types around here to justify the shelf space I guess. And I'll try the Vespa. Hell, I'll try anything.

We'll see where it all goes.