Monday, December 30, 2013

Free to Learn

Peter Gray is a psychology researcher and blogger on Psychology Today. In 2013, he published a book called Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I even found it a bit mind-bending, which is surprising, since in many ways he's preaching to the converted. We've already pulled Eldest from school and are pursuing an unschooling life for our family. But one keen insight I had while reading the book is that while my definition and use of the word 'work' has expanded far beyond the notion of paid work, I still use it as a way to show value. I have described Eldest's activities, more than once, as his work, to show that I place value on it and take it seriously as an endeavour of his. I still see 'play' as something that is optional and not particularly valuable. In Free to Learn, Gray shows that play is truly essential to children's development.

He looks at how our expectations of children and approaches to parenting reflect the wider culture. His main tenet is that our bodies and brains evolved in a hunter-gather context and so we can learn about child development from hunter-gatherer cultures, where children are given a lot of freedom to play with other children, handle dangerous tools to learn how to use them and to observe adults.

Given my interest in agriculture, I found this passage more than a little chilling:
"Agriculture offered many improvements to people's lives. It provided a steadier food supply and thereby reduced, at least initially, the threat of starvation. It eliminated the need to keep moving in search of food and allowed people to settle down and build sturdy houses to protect themselves from predators and storms. But agriculture also came with a big price tag, which could not have been foreseen by those who took the first, irreversible steps away from hunting and gathering. It altered the conditions of human life in ways that led to the decline of freedom, equality, sharing, and play. When we bit the apple of agriculture, as it were, we left the Garden of Eden and entered a world in which we had to do the gardening ourselves, in which toil, not play, was king.
"The hunter-gatherer way of life was knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, but not labor-intensive. " 
He opens the book with some startling figures on the mental health of young people today. He shows how on a number of scales, young people's stress, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed over the last fifty-plus years. About "85 percent of young people today have scores [for anxiety and depression] than the average for the same age group in the 1950's. Looked at in another way, five to eight times as many young people today have scores above the cutoff for likely diagnosis of a clinically significant anxiety disorder or major depression than fifty or more years ago." Since 1950, the US suicide rate for children under age fifteen has quadrupled, and that for people age fifty to twenty-four has more than doubled. Gray correlates the rising anxiety, depression and suicide in young people to the reduction of independence and free play, and the rising pressures of school work.

I have been pondering why adolescence is so painful. I don't believe that it is inevitable; I believe some people have come through adolescence without pain, although I don't personally know any of them. I suspect that it has to do with the fact that teenagers generally don't get to be part of the adult world until their twenties. I had absolutely know idea what the professional adult working world was like until I started working as a temp. Teenagers don't get much real responsibility; they don't get to contribute in any real way. After reading Gray's book, I'm even more convinced that a lot of adolescent pain is related to age segregation in schools and the segregation of children from adults. Of course, I have no way of proving or disproving my theory. But I have to hope that there is some way for my kids to come through their adolescence unscathed.

My favourite part of Gray's book had to be his descriptions of the Sudbury Valley School, which I'd heard of but not in any detail. Not only are its students free to spend their time however they choose while at school, they can explore the campus and even go off-campus whenever they want. And all students have a vote in the hiring and firing of the adult staff members, who are not referred to as teachers, since their roles are more responsive and supportive than the average teacher. Truth be told, I think this would be a better environment for Eldest than the way we're currently homeschooling. But the nearest democratic school is in Toronto, one of the most expensive places to live in Canada, so it doesn't feel very possible. That said, I'm committed to finding ways for Eldest to get more free play time with other children and to relax our hovering.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

on money and stuff

I've been reading Ben Hewitt's blog for a while, ever since Shannon Hayes (author of Radical Homemakers, which kicked me off on the activities I try to document here) linked to it, probably late last spring. He has two unschooling boys, and I'm fascinated by his accounts of their life, which in many ways looks like my fantasy life -- except they have the actual skills to carry it off.

A couple of months ago, I finally asked my library to buy a copy of his latest book, Saved: How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In a lot of ways, it's exactly the kind of book I enjoy. Some parts memoir or personal anecdote, some parts historical examination and some parts inspiration. The most memorable part of the book, for me, was his examination of how money is made. I've been able to avoid debts other than our mortgage since 2008 and I remain committed to doing everything I can to avoid it going forward. I was already aware that money has no intrinsic value; you can't eat it or burn it to keep you warm (oh sure, you could burn paper money but it would take a lot to cook a whole meal). Its value comes solely from everyone agreeing that it has value. But did you know that money is essentially debt itself? When money is created, it's created by borrowing. 

The other part of the book I really enjoyed was how he and and his protagonist, Eric, acknowledge their privilege. I've been increasingly aware of how much privilege is involved in farming, especially if you can do it without debt. (Eric is not a farmer but he has tremendous skills for foraging and building things and clearly for making friends and building community -- all skills I am aware that I am decidedly lacking in right now.) I enjoyed Forrest Pritchard's book, Gaining Ground, as a fun sort of read, but I continually struggled with his unawareness of his privilege. He tells his story like a pulling up by the bootstraps kind of story, where he's pulling up his whole family with his hard work. I have no doubt he worked very hard and went without spending money for a long time. But he inherited a 300-acre farm full of old machinery and a beef herd already in place. The farm also had an unused home he lived in so he didn't need to leave with his parents. And when his grandfather's 50-year-old livestock trailer proved un-roadworthy, his dad bought him a new, albeit smaller one. Of course that doesn't take away from his commitment to pasture-based foods, the truth of his arguments for farmers' markets or the depth of his struggles and hard work. But as someone for whom the main barrier to pursuing a farming life is access to affordable land, it was at times hard to swallow.

So Hewitt's awareness of and gratitude for his privilege is refreshing. He owns his 40 acres and 2000 square-foot home without debt and he and his wife have huge skills (they built their house and their farm's infrastructure themselves) to produce most of their food themselves. Eric, who at the start of the book lives in a 96 square-foot cabin he built himself, earns $10,000 a year and regularly dumpster dives for food and other goods, is the first to count his privilege: he has the same ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation as most of the people in power and could easily find waged work if and when he needs to. He has tremendous skill for finding food, building relationships and making things. So many of us are blind to these privileges.

The funny thing about my response to the book is that it's actually helped me make peace with money. Before I read the book, I dreamed about a day when my family could live without any need for money. I wasn't sure I'd personally be able to make it reality, but I thought it was possible. But the fact that Hewitt and his wife produce so much of their own food (his kids are also avid hunters and forages) and he still earns about $35,000 a year, makes me realize that there's probably no point in trying to avoid money entirely. As he points out, money itself isn't the problem. "The problem is intent; the problem is how we use money, and what we expect of it." The problem is that our idea of money as security is only an illusion, and our focus on accumulating it serves to make us poorer in true wealth.

"Over the past century or so, perhaps longer, we have been taught that to rely on others is to be weak and incapable. The notion that we should depend on one another is almost antithetical to contemporary American expectations of autonomy and independence. But in truth it is that autonomy that exploits, and, irony of ironies, turns us all into dependents of the very arrangements that profess to offer independence. It exploits our resource base, because it depends on each of us owning the raw materials that enable us to shun one another. But even more profoundly, it exploits us, because it deprives us of the opportunity to experience the richness of interconnectedness and the meaningful relationships it gives rise to. By striving to achieve the American ideal of personal independence, we wind up not just independent but isolated." (p. 151)

Hewitt distinguishes between the unconscious and conscious economies as a way to point to true wealth. "I call our society's way of life the 'unconscious economy' and the way of life life I'm striving for the 'conscious economy' because I fervently believe that the only sane way forward -- indeed the only possible way forward -- is to become conscious of both our actions and our intent, and to understand the ramifications of each."

He quotes from Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics, which I think I must read: "To give and receive, to owe and be owed, to depend on others and be depended upon -- this is being fully alive. To neither give nor receive, but to pay for everything; to never depend on any one, but to be financially independent; to not be bound to a community or place, but to be mobile … such is the illusory paradise of the discrete and separate self."

There are parts of the book and Hewitt's style that I find myself reacting to. As a plain language champion, I can't ignore that his sentences are often unnecessarily complex and long, getting in the way of his message. And his old-timey style is occasionally intrusive and distracting. And as someone for whom social media is often my only connection to people, I reacted to his dismissal of it and other new technology that I use as something we've been duped into. As much as I'd like it to be otherwise, for a number of reasons, at the moment I just don't have the time or energy resources to be reaching out to my neighbours and local friends.

But overall, it's definitely worth the read. I recommend it. And I also recommend Hewitt's blog

Monday, December 9, 2013

sourdough buckwheat pancakes

I've been making sourdough buckwheat pancakes at least once a week and often more frequently than that since I first started my gluten-free sourdough starter last March. These things are the bomb. I've been meaning to post the recipe here for ages, but somehow I haven't quite gotten to it. But now Kelly at Oh Lardy has asked for a good buckwheat pancake recipe, so it's time.

In the summer, we went to my parents' cottage for a few days and left the starter at home. My mom had bought a gluten-free pancake mix and even with good maple syrup, I couldn't believe how bland they were (compared to my sourdough buckwheat pancakes of course). If you're reading this, Mom, there was nothing wrong with the mix -- just my tastebuds.

So now I'm spoiled.

I've also found the pancakes work great as sandwich holders for ham and trout -- they're especially nice with dijon. Delightful. Although the other day I tried having one as part of a fried egg sandwich and it was not good.

I've mentioned my love for the rhythm of sourdough recipes before and it hasn't dampened in the eight months since. My favourite recipe is by far these pancakes. They alone make keeping the starter alive worth it. And it didn't take much to create the starter. I used this recipe.

Gluten-free Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes

The night before, I mix together:

1 cup buckwheat flour*
1 cup of starter
about 1 cup of water

Often I need a bit more water. It should be fairly thick batter, because the morning's ingredients are almost all wet, but not stiff at all. I mix them all together than put it in the oven with the light on.

In the morning, I turn the heat on under the griddle and pull out the batter. I mix in:

3 tbsp of melted butter
1 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 to 1 tsp sea salt

After those are mixed in, I add:
1 egg, beaten

I grab a quarter-cup measure and make sure I'm all ready to go with a hot griddle (I use pretty high heat on mine, but I've used medium-high heat and been fine too). Then, in a separate bowl, I mix together:

1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp water (if the batter is too thick, try 2 tbsp of water)

Once the baking soda and water is somewhat mixed in, I use a spatula to scrape it all out into the batter and fold it in thoroughly. Then I use the quarter-cup measure to pour out each pancake.

*if you need to be gluten-free, make sure the buckwheat flour wasn't milled in a mill that processes wheat. Either light or dark buckwheat works fine, although I find the whole-grain flour more flavourful.

Important note about cooking gluten-free pancakes:
They take longer to cook than gluten-y pancakes. When you're cooking gluten-free pancakes, you don't just wait until bubbles form to flip them. You wait until the very outer edges of just starting to dry a bit and then you flip them. They should also be puffy looking, although I've discovered that if I'm a bit late with the flipping they deflate a bit.

These are really very forgiving to cook. I've made them with thicker and thinner batter and they've been fine, I've made them on higher and lower heat, more and less done… they're always edible. Especially if you slather them with butter under the maple syrup.

So enjoy. If you make them, I'd love to hear how you like them.