Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tree House

The kids have wanted a tree house since we first decided to buy our home. We have a maple tree in our back yard that is visible at the side of the house--it must be very old, for it is one of the biggest maples I've ever seen. It has a huge trunk that splits into four trunks about five feet from the ground. It makes a platform there that Julia has used for fairy games, but we have always wanted to put a tree house in. I was never quite sure how to broach the subject with Matt, because of course he would be the one doing all the work on it! After he built the chicken coop from his own plans, I knew he could actually do the job, but wasn't sure he'd want to. However, some time ago he promised the kids that the tree house would be the next warm weather project after painting the exterior of the house. (Privately, I think this was one of those promises that is designed to get kids off your back--but a promise to children is never forgotten, and we held him to it!)

I prepped him all winter--well, okay, nagged would be a better word for it, I guess. At least, Matt would say it was a better word! We planned a "staycation" in May, where Matt would take the week off of work, and we'd do all sorts of fun things we'd always wanted to but never had, AND he would work on the tree house. This past week was the week, and we have had all kinds of fun. Visiting family, a pool day, Fire Island, the Children's Museum of the East End, seeing "Up" in 3D, eating out...and working on the tree house. The first thing to understand about Matt and a project like this is that there is a lot of thinking involved. He is not one to dive in and build something--that is more like what I would do if left in charge--and believe me, if I built a tree house it would be very likely to fall out of the tree in a week! So his thinking is very important, very necessary, and worth it in the long run. In the short run, however, it made for a very boring "family project"....and so, it has become Matt's project. His original idea was to make a platform between the 4 trunks, about 15 feet up in the air. He was going to hem it in with railings, and a rope ladder tethered to the ground would take the kids up. No roof, no walls. Sounds simple.

Well. There was the hurdle of getting high enough to actually work in the tree. We have a wonderful ladder (ever seen the infomercials for the "Little Giant"?) but what with the root system of the tree, it was hard to get the ladder steady and close enough to the tree to work properly. He solved that by wedging a piece of scrap lumber into the tree that he could stand on. Very clever. Kind of scary, in my opinion! especially since he kind of fell a couple of times before he figured out the very safest way to wedge it! Then there was the problem of getting the supports into the tree--and don't underestimate this, because as I said it ceased to become much of a family project after a while. Simple logistics demanded this too--we can't both fit on his improvised work platform. So imagine him trying to hold the wood, the screws, and the drill all at once....I respect him very much for making it work! He rigged ropes to hold the board in place so he could drill effectively.

After hours and hours of labor, yesterday he was able to lay the platform, then climb up and drill it into the supports. Keep in mind that he also had to saw the platform to fit into the tree, with curved edges to fit the trunks into place! I get a headache just thinking of it. Once the platform was up, we realized with some dismay that it was...well... smaller than we might have hoped for. And once he made the railings it would be even smaller. I was trying not to sound disappointed, because I knew how very hard he'd been working. However, my dismay was real because I imagined only two kids fitting on that platform at one time. We have four kids. Not to mention their friends. So I was picturing the bickering about who got to go up, how long their turn was, when do I get to come up, etc. etc. etc. Something else to add stress to our days. Yay.

And then, my brilliant husband came up with a brilliant idea. He was at first going to extend the high platform, build it out from the tree to make it larger, with beams under it at an angle to the tree to hold it in place. That seemed like a great idea, and I left him to calculate how he would accomplish this. Then he called me back to the tree with his more elegant plan--two levels! I had thought about two levels myself, but my thought was to put a platform under the high platform, like bunk beds. I hadn't mentioned it to Matt because after that thought, I realized that a lower platform would be that much smaller than the higher one--because of the trunks of the tree. His idea was far better. And that was to make a platform about 6 or 8 feet lower than the original one, against the tree trunk with beams at an angle underneath to hold it up. This would make it like a pirate ship, with a deck and a crow's nest, and when we added a rope ladder from the ground to the first deck and another from the first deck to the high deck, would also solve the difficulty we've been having finding a rope ladder long enough! Did I mention brilliant?

So now, he is at Home Depot, buying some more hardware and lumber for the extra platform. He will work the rest of today and then goes back to work tomorrow--so very unfortunately, this is going to have to be relegated to a weekend (dare I hope evening??) project. Which means it will be a while before the kids can use the tree house. However, I think it will be worth the wait!


Daily Quote

All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.

--Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fire Island Lighthouse

Today we drove west on Sunrise Highway to the Robert Moses Causeway, over the bridges to Fire Island National Seashore. It always amazes me how many things can be right in your own backyard that you're too busy to see! The lighthouse is at the end of a 3/4 mile boardwalk, a lovely walk in and of itself--surrounded by dunes, the ocean, birds and plants. We saw many hoofprints in the sand, but no deer, though signs everywhere told us how many there are and not to feed them because it helps them overpopulate the area and destroy the ecosystem.

Here's a good shot of the beginning of the boardwalk path. You can see the lighthouse the whole time you're walking.

Emma brought binoculars, and here she is watching a red winged blackbird. Below, she is being quiet, hoping to see deer. We never did--probably midday is the worst time to spot them!

Just one of the views of the dunes as we walked.

Lighthouses have always seemed very romantic to me. I picture living in one a hundred years ago, working to keep the light burning for the ships, storms raging outside. However, on the tour I realized just how difficult it would actually be to live in one! This particular lighthouse has 192 steps to the top, and the keeper had to spend each night in the watch tower below the light in order to keep the light filled with whale oil. There was still a small opening where the stove's pipe vented, though it wasn't there to keep the man warm; rather, it was to keep the oil viscous enough to pour into the chamber of the light! The walls of the tower are 11 feet thick at the bottom, and when you get to the top they have dwindled to just a bit more than 2 feet thick. The steps are a dizzying spiral of wrought iron, through which you can see the floor below...and the top 2 flights of stairs are more like a ladder than a spiral. I was surprised that coming down was scarier than going up, because the holes in the steps tricked the eye and I kept feeling as if I would fall.

These are views from the top of the light. It was very windy up there!

The weather was a bit chilly--only around 60 degrees and cloudy much of the day. It made me wish we'd done this trip yesterday, but there was no way we wanted to go there on Memorial Day! However, we were fine dressed in layers; I just wished that we'd been able to spend some time on the beach. The top of the tower was wonderful--we were allowed to go out and walk all the way around the light, which was made a bit less fun by the fact that both Matt and Rachel were freaking out at how high we were and somehow seemed to think that the kids could ooze out between the chain links in the fencing! But the view was spectacular and I highly recommend the trip for anyone living here or long as you're up to the climb!


Daily Quote

All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.

--John Ruskin

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Murdering Cat No More

(this is not an especially great picture of Lila, but I think it emphasizes her ruthless side...)

Our cat Lila, who began life in a studio apartment in Manhattan with a working couple, then moved to Long Island to live in a house full of people and other pets, did fairly well for about four months. She was timid and wouldn't venture out of the basement family room, and I was the only person who could reliably get close to her, but for the changes she endured I'd say she was doing all right. Then, for reasons we never figured out, she stopped using the litter box--so she became an outdoor cat. That wasn't as harsh as it seemed, because when we moved in we inherited a dog house, and when she pulled this it was May (of 2007) and so it wasn't a shock to be put out. She also had ample time to get acclimated and grow a winter coat.

Surprisingly, she took to outdoor life beautifully, and to my great surprise, she became much friendlier. I was certain that once we put her out, she'd take off and we'd never see her again--something I was willing to have happen after what she did to our family room carpet! But instead, she stayed close to home and let the kids pet her almost every time they tried. She loved the flagstones on the patio when they warm from the sun, she loved her little house and would nest in the blankets and towels we put in for her comfort, and she knew where we kept the food and water. She spent her first year outside in perfect happiness.

This winter, it was unbearably cold around here. The eastern end of Long Island is generally quite mild; we always get less snow than the western end, and sometimes even the city gets more than we do. So this past winter was quite a shock, with frigid temperatures and snow that stayed on the ground from December till February. I pitied my now-favorite cat (think about it: she lives outside so there's no clawing at furniture, hairballs or shedding!) and brought one of our cat carriers up from storage and put it behind the front door. Lila still refuses a litter box, so she would come in and sleep by the radiator in her carrier, and when she meowed we'd let her back out till she would bang at the storm door to be let in again.

However, once it got to be April, she was spending most of her time outside again, and with that came the unfortunate influx of dead creatures. In her time outside, Lila has killed birds, mice and voles before--but this spring she turned into a serial killer of immense proportions. We were finding her offerings almost daily--which says nothing of how many there might have been in other people's yards or hidden among the ivy that blankets one side of our house. We found them in the grass, in the driveway, in her house and on our doorstep. We found them looking just like they were sleeping, gutted and bloody, and even headless. Aside from this being disgusting, it was getting traumatic for the kids. They got very upset at each fresh kill, especially when we would find robins. We love robins, for their cheery songs, their red feathers which the kids love to find, their exquisite blue eggs which are considered treasures, and for the simple fact that they herald spring. Emma cried at the thought of baby birds missing their mama, though Julia reassured her that daddy robins also care for the young, so at least they wouldn't starve (though she worried that only the mamas taught babies to fly....) The headless mice were a horror as well, and when a cat has ripped apart a bird on your doorstep, it's extremely hard to get rid of all the feathers, a grisly reminder of the crime scene.

So yesterday, I bought Lila a collar. She hasn't worn a collar in a while because she lost the last one and all our neighbors know where she belongs anyway. But we had to have bells on her neck so she couldn't be a stealth bomber any longer. I chose a red collar, studded with jewels, with a silver bell on it. But I was dismayed that the bell just didn't seem to jingle very well, so I asked the girl behind the counter, and she had extra bells in bunches of two that can be slipped onto the ring of the collar. Lila didn't really enjoy the collar going around her neck, but she tolerated it when I held her and scratched behind her ears a while, and just like that, the serial killer is collared...hahaha.

Just a note: I came home last night from running errands and Lila came over for some love. While I trundled back and forth from the trunk of the van to the garage with my purchases, she ran into our neighbor's dark yard--I couldn't see her at all, but I could hear those bells the entire time!


Daily Quote

Why should we strive, with cynic frown, to knock their fairy castles down?

--Eliza Cook

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Winding Down the School Year

We have hit the point in the spring where the kids are just about done with all their texts. Not everything, but mostly everything. They keep asking how many more weeks of school we have left--I keep telling them we're playing it by ear. We are taking the week before Memorial Day off. Matt is staying out of the office and we are having a week of family bonding. We are planning several day trips--Fire Island Lighthouse, Children's Museum of the East End, a botanic garden (our National Aviary membership lets us in to the Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, NY--in the Bronx--and Old Westbury Botanical Gardens, so we have a plethora of options!), possibly the Staten Island Zoo. We plan to sleep in, eat out often, watch movies and play games. AND, to add to the fun--we'll see how fun it actually is--we plan to finally build the treehouse in the old maple for the kids. This is the part that could easily ruin the whole week, but I am trying to keep it positive!

Because I have virtually run out of materials, we are doing fun, creative projects. We are doing a lot of art, including making homemade stickers and painting pictures. We are doing science projects and Ben has been helping me cook all different meals and snacks. We are watching all the DVDs of "Planet Earth," which we have never watched all the way through. We have been getting science and math CD rom games from the library for review concepts, and the kids are reading good children's literature. Not that their taste in books is so bad, but somehow if I choose the book and tell them to read it, I can think of it as schoolwork! Julia has been enjoying "The Borrowers" series, Ben has been reading all kinds of nonfiction about animals, plants, dinosaurs and mummies, and Rachel--well, she has been reading classic after classic with her language arts curriculum. This week was Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and Clarence Day's "Life With Father." We are still working on history notebooking, but after our last (boring!) unit on world explorers--why are world explorers so dull, anyway? They did exciting things, but somehow the books are just never interesting!--I threw them a bone and chose pirates for this unit. Ben especially is loving that. Weapons, treasure, mayhem--what could be better to a boy? We are writing poetry and I took out a few issues of the teacher's magazine, "Mailbox," at the various age levels, which has given us some fun mini lessons. And Ben has been writing letters back and forth with his grandma and his cousin/godmother, Phoebe.

This is what makes homeschooling wonderful. Sure, I could give them tests on what they learned this year. I could make up review worksheets. I could even buy more materials and make them do more busywork, or buy next year's materials and get a head start. What we have been doing and will continue to do till I let us out for the summer is much closer to unschooling--though I am aware that as I am the one choosing what we do, and since there are still concrete, "schoolish" activities for them to get done each day, we are NOT actually unschooling--than what I usually do. And we are all enjoying it. If I were truly courageous, I might try to make all of next year like this. Unfortunately, since we live in New York and are bound by quarterly reports and rules, I probably won't do this, although I know that my kids are at the very least on par with their peers, and far above in most subjects. Besides, it takes a certain amount of energy to plan this sort of schoolwork--and next year a certain Emma I know will be starting Kindergarten! Which means our homeschool will finally be maxed out at four students, and I am going to have to learn to juggle the responsibility of teaching (well, officially teaching--Emma has done schoolwork this year with more enthusiasm than pretty much any schoolchild!) all of my kids rather than some of them. So I probably will fall back to the tried and true types of curricula. But at least I know that when the weather starts to warm up and we can practically taste summer vacation, I can switch things up a bit to give a push to the end of the year and make school fun for my family.


Daily Quote

Everybody has a heart. Except some people.

--Bette Davis