Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Making Lemonade

So the thing I realized about snow storms is that they are very quiet.  In California, if you're in the middle of a storm, rain or hail is pounding on the windows, thunder is cracking, trees are blowing in the wind.  You know it's a storm.  But snow is quiet and gentle.  It lands silently.  Even if the winds are high, there are no leaves left on the trees to rustle and make noise.  So on Monday night after we were warned by our mayor to expect the worst, I could hardly sleep.  I kept waking up trying to hear the storm.  When I would look out my window there was definitely more and more snow piling up.  But because it was snow and not rain, and because the only cars allowed on the streets were emergency vehicles, it felt like we were out in the country.  Quiet as could be.

Exploring on Monday night as the storm began

When we all got up on Tuesday morning there was definitely snow out, but honestly, nothing worse than we've seen before.  Apparently, we were very lucky and the storm took a turn away from us and we didn't get nearly the hit that all were expecting.  But by then the mayor had already closed the subways so Kevin couldn't get to work in the morning.  Imagine what a 900 square foot apartment feels like with two homeschoolers, one teacher/mom, and one work-from-home dad.  Cramped, shall we say.

By early afternoon we all needed to get out of the dungeon apartment and get some fresh air.  As soon as we stepped outside we saw the line of kids dragging their sleds past our house towards Central Park.  They had the same idea we did.

Snow angels

Ella trying to snowboard on her sled

It was actually a gorgeous, sunny day out.  Snowmageddon only dropped about 6-9" of snow.  The temperatures weren't even that cold (high 20s) and very little wind.  Even Starbucks was open.  How bad could it be?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Before the Blizzard

Our Mayor just warned us to prepare for the worst blizzard in NY history, "something worse than we've ever seen before."  Most New Yorkers I know respond with a shoulder shrug and a "Meh".  It's the East Coast.  It snows.  Life goes on. 

Our week was busy but not blog-worthy.  The kids did a lot of schoolwork, some midterm tests, lots of reading.  We did get a small break from the routine by checking out an exhibit about Sesame Street at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  It's been going on for months and I kept thinking we'd make it someday.  But then I realized on Monday that this was the final week.  So even though we still had lots of work to catch up on, I made the kids pack up their school books and head to Lincoln Center.  They resisted.  They thought Sesame Street was for preschoolers.  But let me tell you, they loved it.  Real muppets, lots of history, and especially now that they live where the show is set, they were enthralled.

A photo of Big Bird at our subway stop

Saturday morning Kevin and the kids kindly let me stay in my pajamas a little too long and finish the newspaper in silence while they went climbing at a climbing wall down at Chelsea Piers.  I'm a little surprised how much they like rock climbing.

That's Ella up there.

Kevin took them through a few galleries in Chelsea and then we met up at The Morgan Library & Museum.  Even though the weather was a mix of rain and snow with slushy sidewalks, I really needed some fresh air and exercise so I decided to walk all the way down.  It's about a 3+ mile walk from our apartment but somehow at the end of the day my phone told me I had walked over 6 miles.  I must have taken the long way.

I've told you about The Morgan Library - it was the personal library of financier Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913).  He was a collector and had amassed a huge collection of books and documents and artwork.  They rotate the rare documents and books they have on display periodically, so each time we go we see different things.  The building and rooms themselves are worth a trip, but to see things like original music sheets written by Mozart, or a document signed by Elizabeth I, is pretty incredible.  This visit the highlight was seeing a letter from J.D. Salinger (signed Jerry) written to his friend Holden Bowler, the inspiration for Holden Caulfield (at least the name, perhaps not the character).  Our Holden was pretty excited about that.


We hopped on a guided tour and learned a lot more about the building and collections.  We even got to see a special exhibit on Abraham Lincoln, complete with manuscripts and documents hand written by him.

The docent showing the kids a secret passageway

Not enough snow to go sledding yet but we were still able to take advantage of winter on Sunday and meet our friends at the skating rink for some more ice skating.  I think we finally all got the hang of it - this was the first time that none of us had to cling to the wall.

Snowball fight in Central Park

Ella & Luke

The kids will have no idea that our local public schools will likely be closed one or two days this week.  No snow days for homeschoolers.  But recess may involve sledding in Central Park.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The King

Saturday was another Divide and Conquer Day.  But rather than divide up along gender lines or even parent/child lines, Team Skaggs broke up into 3:1, leaving me to spend some much needed time alone.


Kevin took the kids to Central Park where they ice skated (which went a lot better this time for Ella since the rink in the park was much less crowded than when we attempted skating back in December in Bryant Park), met Betty and Veronica, the new Grizzly Bears at the Central Park Zoo, and even stopped in the Park Conservancy where they found tables with chess and checkers, ready and waiting.

Before meeting up with them at the Main Public Library in Bryant Park, I had a leisurely day having breakfast alone with my newspaper and book, and then went to see the movie Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and NSA spying (highly recommend it).

We had a great time on Sunday at the New York Historical Society.  The kids and I are there at least twice a week (cross-stitch and their homeschool history class) but Kevin hadn't been in a while.  They were having several activities and events related to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement.

After the kids did a scavenger hunt throughout the museum, we were lucky enough to get to attend a reading of a children's book about the march from Selma to Montgomery, written by the youngest official member of the march, Lynda Blackmon Lowry.  She read from her book Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March and told us stories of being jailed nine times before that march for other peaceful protests and even of being beaten and sprayed with tear gas as a child, by law enforcement.  Because she was telling her story of being a child involved in these protests, Ella and Holden were riveted. 


We showed Kevin the exhibits that I had previously seen - one of black and white photos taken at the Selma March, and one of an Annie Leibovitz exhibit, not of portraits but of landscapes and objects and interiors.  Holden even showed Kevin how to cross-stitch.

We realized a few weeks ago that Kevin was actually going to have MLK Day off of work for the first time since I've known him.  He rarely gets the Monday holidays off like MLK Day or Columbus Day.  And so far, the kids and I haven't taken any of them off of school because we've needed that time to catch up on Calvert work.  But for some reason, this year his officewas closed.  So I had the brilliant idea of signing the kids up for Science Teacher Sarah's all day camp and giving Kevin and I a day to hang out alone together.  It was our first since moving to New York.

Holden showing me the hissing cockroaches

The kids were so happy to spend the day making messes with crazy science experiments and exploring Science Teacher Sarah's wacky Greenwich Village apartment, and Kevin and I were thrilled to be able to go out to breakfast together and have a good, long conversation without being interrupted.  Like many people on Monday, we saw the film Selma which was very emotional.  Not for young kids, but I highly recommend seeing it.  We were both in tears.  After the movie we walked past Union Square where they were holding a Black Lives Matter protest against police violence.  It was a good reminder on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday that we still have a long way to go when it comes to civil rights.

We had a bit of time to spare before picking up the kids so we had lunch at Pete's Tavern, the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City.  We even happened to sit in the booth where O. Henry wrote the short story, Gift of the Magi.

Having gotten our fill of adult time, we picked up the kids and surprised them with something we rarely do - take them out for ice cream sundaes, in the 30 degree weather and all.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Homeschooling: Not for the Faint of Heart

On Monday we shlepped it all the way over to Brooklyn (over an hour by subway to Bed-Stuy) to our homeschool friend's house for a play date.  They own an entire house (albeit under heavy construction).  Four entire floors.  I had space envy.  It was very nice to get to know a fellow NYC homeschool mom better and we chatted over tea and cookies while the kids played 3 whole floors above us. 

It's been a challenging homeschool week for me.  Who am I kidding?  It's been a challenging homeschool year so far.  But not at all in the ways I had anticipated before I started.  And since I see this blog not only as a way to keep our family and friends updated but also as documentation for Grown-Up-Ella and Grown-Up-Holden to read one day, I want to give you a glimpse into how homeschooling is going so far.

Before we started, I worried that the kids wouldn't get enough time with other kids (the socialization myth of homeschooling).  Well, they're with kids every single day of the week.  Some classes are with other homeschoolers, some are after-school classes with kids from public or private schools.  Park meet-ups, play dates, and field trips.  And when the weather's better they're on sports teams on the weekends.  And they get to pick and choose who they want to play with.  None of the schoolyard drama we were dealing with last year.

I worried that I would feel too overwhelmed and trapped, not getting enough time to myself.  Happily, every time they're in one of their classes or with their Spanish tutor, I get at least an hour and a half to myself.  You can usually find me in the nearest coffee shop with my book or like today, checking out the latest museum exhibit with another mom.  Since I do all of my grocery shopping online, and I spend plenty of time at home to be able to get my laundry and housecleaning done, I don't need to spend that hour and a half doing chores or running errands.  I actually get a nice break every single day.  (Ella and Holden, on the other hand, are never away from each other.  Ever.  And I worry about the impact that's having on their relationship.)

I worried that the kids wouldn't get a good enough education.  Kevin and I are completely convinced that they are getting a far better education than they were previously.  Because homeschooling is so efficient, working one-on-one, we're able to get our basic Calvert work done in about 3-4 hours a day - all the work that they would have done in school in about 6-7 hours.  And we are very impressed with Calvert's curriculum.  They do such a great job of weaving together and overlapping subjects like reading/science/technology, so there's a lot of repetition and seeing the same idea over and over in different contexts.  Because the school basics take up less of their day, they have plenty of time to take all of these other fun and interesting classes like computer programming or world mythology or creative writing.  In addition to Spanish, they take 5 extra curricular classes a week.  And they're still done and home no later than 5.  With no homework.  Their late afternoons and evenings are theirs to play creatively alone in their room.  They have time to decompress again. 

Also, I'm able to go at their speed.  I'm able to adapt to meet them where they're at.  Holden is in second grade but we're able to have him do the third grade math curriculum because he was finding second grade math too easy (and thus too boring).  He tested into third grade math and it's been a good challenge for him.  We also skip a lot of the Calvert reading and spelling because again, he found it too easy.  That gives me more time to work with him on areas he finds more difficult, such as composition, and give him more time to go deeper in areas he's most interested in, like science. 

For Ella, the fourth grade curriculum all seems to be right at her level but what she's told me she likes is that she can take her time understanding a math concept, for example, and not feel rushed or intimidated by the rest of the class.  And she likes that after we cuddle up on the couch reading a history chapter we can take our time Googling images of the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome or find a movie about Julius Cesar to watch, instead of having to rush onto the next subject.  Holden's also able to join us on the couch for history time, even though it's not part of his curriculum.

So what's the problem then?  Well, it's still mentally and emotionally exhausting being entirely responsible for your child's education.  I worry constantly (and I'm already a notorious worrier) that I'm not doing a good enough job, that maybe they would be happier in a more "normal" situation. 

And I'm still struggling with the best way to teach Holden.  Ella is made for homeschooling.  She can log on to her Calvert site in the morning, see what lessons she needs to complete for the day, grab her books and get to work.  She'll call me over occasionally to ask a question and knows to hold off things like history or science that we do together, until I'm done working with Holden.  Holden on the other hand needs much more of my attention.  He's a seven-year-old boy, after all.  His attention span is nil.  And he's incredibly bright.  If I don't grab his attention and keep him interested, he's going to write me off really quickly.  I can't give him a few math problems to do and then walk away and expect that when I return he will have completed them.  Or ask him to write a paragraph about the story we just read unless I'm willing to sit at the table with him and remind him over and over to stay focused, keep working.  My patience is tried with him daily.  Hourly.  Every single second.  I'm surprised I never got bad feedback from his previous teachers.  I'm really seeing how boys and girls learn differently.  That may be a stereotype or just anecdotal in my case, but from what I've read, Holden and Ella aren't that different from most boys and girls.  Ella can sit and focus and get the work done quietly.  Holden needs to stand, sit, roll around.  He needs to hum - constantly.  He loves to read and can do that for hours on end, but anything that requires him to produce something - writing, math equations - forget it.  I need to hold his hand the entire time and continually bring him back to the task at hand.  I need to figure out how to best teach him while staying sane.

So I would say that while I think that the kids are getting an amazing education, and that homeschooling is the perfect fit for us right now in our current situation, I am really the one getting educated.  Not only am I relearning everything I learned in school (or did I ever learn at the French school about the California Missions?  Doubt it.), I am learning so much more about my kids.  About how they learn.  About teaching.  About patience. 

And about myself. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Grumpy Skaggs

I almost didn't post today.  Our weekend was not at all post-worthy.  And we're grumpy.  Real grumpy.

But then I read through old posts from early January last year and realized that we were grumpy then, too.  The post-holidays-winter-is-officially-here blues.  The skies are grey.  The air is too cold to spend much time outdoors.  We're all crawling all over each other in our tiny apartment.  And it's amplified this year being home all day homeschooling.  We're all pretty sick of each other.

So instead of planning some fun, exciting weekend, we sat around feeling sorry for ourselves.  Kevin took Ella with him to his dentist appointment on Saturday morning because at this point, Ella would rather stare at the wall of a doctor's office waiting room than spend another second with Holden.  We did play a couple rounds of cards in the afternoon, without much conversation and then headed to the movies to see Into The Woods so that again, we wouldn't need to see or talk to each other. 

By Sunday we needed to get out of the apartment and frankly, out of the city.  So we hopped in a trusty Zipcar and zipped north.  We explored some of the river towns just north of the Bronx along the Hudson, walked through their downtowns, grabbed lunch and coffee.  Man, the person who invented Zipcars is a genius.

We even walked past a magic shop that was closed only to be chased down the block by its owner asking us to come in and watch "Luke practice for his bar mitzvah next week."  Luke showed us some of his tricks that he plans to perform next week in front of 300 people.  Poor Luke wasn't half as excited about the show as his father and the owner of the magic shop were.  Good luck, Luke.


As long as we were so far north anyway, I really wanted to check out Usonia, a community in Pleasantville, New York, where a group of about 40 families got together in the '40s and bought 100 acres of land and hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design some houses for them.  He designed three and then his associates designed the rest, which he signed off on.  I happened to notice on Zillow that one of them is for sale (and under a million dollars, in case you're interested).  I wanted to see it for myself. 

House envy.

I almost convinced myself that a 49-minute train ride to/from Grand Central wasn't so bad.  But we walked around the house and peeked in all the windows and it is small.  Not New York City apartment small, but too small to justify spending a million dollars and living in the suburbs.  But just seeing it was enough to cheer us up.

We headed back to our hovel, ordered amazing pizza, and had Sunday Family Movie Night in front of our computer monitor.  So I guess this 200th blog post was worth writing after all.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Baby It's Cold Outside


Our first several days back home after returning from California were actually very pleasant.  We weren't even wearing hats and scarves yet.  Then some new atmospheric phenomenon happened and brought an Arctic freeze blowing down our way.  

So we've managed to spend most of the week indoors.

We visited Maeve's newest brother, Quinn Kane.  Ella was beyond thrilled to be able to hold a real live baby.  She and Maeve tried to put him in a doll dress before Sharon put a stop to it.

We had a very lovely dinner catching up with old San Francisco friends, Amy and Thor (who also coincidentally have a son named Quinn), who were visiting New York without children.  It was really nice to catch up with them and talk travel, education, living in New York.

We made a pit stop at The Museum of Natural History in between classes to check out the Nature's Fury exhibit for a second time now that both kids are studying geology and landforms.  And since it was the middle of a Tuesday and we had the museum to ourselves and we weren't in a hurry to get back out into the freezing cold, we also watched their newest 3D IMAX film, Tiny Giants, which "follows the titanic challenges that small animals face as they make their way in a much bigger world."  Beyond adorable.

I think we were all happy to get back to our regular routine this week, which for this semester in addition to our regular curriculum at home includes:

Mondays: Computer Programming class
Tuesdays: Creative Writing class and Spanish tutor
Wednesdays: Musical Theater class with Ella's summer camp teachers
Thursdays: Spanish tutor and Cross-Stitch
Fridays: New York History at New York Historical Society and World Mythology at The Met

I'm tired just thinking about it.

cross-stitch and kvetching

But at 7am this morning, I found them outside in their pajamas making a sledding ramp in the back yard.

When life hands you lemons...

Sunday, January 4, 2015


No TV + no internet + no phone service = heaven.

We just spent four days about two and half hours' drive north of the city, near the Massachusetts border, not far from the Berkshires.  We rented a tiny cabin in the woods and were completely cut off from any and all distractions.


After driving past lots of beautiful old homes, all very large and regal, we pulled up to our tiny cabin and Ella said in all seriousness, "Wait, is this a joke?"  It served our needs though and had a nice fireplace and sat on a large piece of land where the kids explored the nearby creek and did some lawn ice skating.

"Skating" on frozen lawn
Bird watching

We played games, did puzzles, read, and slept.  Basically, we recharged.


But since we don't sit still very well, we also explored the nearby areas.  The cabin was ideally situated.  We spent one day exploring the nearby town of Hudson, NY.  I had read about Hudson last year in the Times and have been wanting to visit it ever since.  It's an adorable small town on the Hudson River where Brooklyn hipsters come to unwind.  They have brought with them trendy foods, gourmet cheese shops, artisan beers and coffees, and very cool antique and housewares shops.  We didn't get enough shopping time but did get to hang out for a good spell in the awesome Spotty Dog Books and Ale - a bookstore with a bar in it.  We'll be returning to Hudson when the weather warms up.

On New Year's Eve we let the kids stay up until midnight (only one of them succeeded).  We reviewed 2014 and made a list of our accomplishments as a family and individually.  We made another list of goals for 2015.  Traveling and exploring new places was at the top of both lists.

We crossed over the Massachusetts border on New Year's morning and hiked to the top of Monument Mountain.  New Year's Day hikes is a tradition we had in California and we were happy to continue it this year.  My phone happily alerted me after the hike that I had just climbed 44 flights of stairs!

Frozen waterfall

We also made our way through the nearby towns of Great Barrington and Stockbridge, MA.  Stockbridge is the home of Norman Rockwell but unfortunately since it was a holiday, his museum was closed.  We did have a nice lunch in the old Red Lion Inn Tavern though.


The next day the kids finally got to try snowboarding.  We found a small ski park a few minutes drive from the cabin and got them signed up for lessons.  They've been wanting to try it ever since surfing this summer.  I was secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) hoping they wouldn't like it.  Not only am I not a skier, and don't enjoy hanging out at ski resorts, but it's a really expensive sport to get into.  Their lessons and equipment rental cost more than what I would normally pay for a 6-week art or computer course in the city.  But as you can imagine, they loved it, fake snow and all.

Holden even went back for a second lesson in the afternoon and as I walked up to pick him up he shouted, "I wish I could do that every single day!"  Ella loved it just as much (although she says it's the exact opposite of surfing - apparently you lean forward instead of backward like on a surfboard) but was getting cold so she and I played some more cards and drank hot chocolate while Holden shredded the slopes in the afternoon.

After closing up the cabin we returned to Hudson.  On the banks of the Hudson River is a large estate built by one of the famous Hudson River painters of the mid-19th century, Frederic Church.  He had traveled extensively through the Middle East and built a beautiful Persian style castle he named Olana overlooking the river.  We got to tour the estate and see a lot of his paintings and paintings of his contemporaries.  It really is incredible to see.

As we were leaving we stopped in the gift shop and low and behold, we saw a box of cards for sale painted by none other than Uncle Jack!  Jack Stuppin grew up in the area and returned last year to paint the Hudson River Valley.  His paintings have apparently already been turned into cards.  We hadn't seen those paintings yet so it was pretty exciting to see his box sitting on the shelf.

After a delicious lunch back in Hudson (it's really become a favorite of ours), we made a very slow and long drive home.  The real snow was coming down.  By the time we made it into the city it was just rain though.  Still no snow in the back yard, much to the kids' chagrin.