Category Archives: science

Food science & history with crappy camera-phone photos

Started the food history lecture today (we spent the first week getting hung up on math assessments). Good enjoyable stuff–PK making connections between what Professor Albala was saying about prehistoric cooking practices and things he already knows about prehistory*–and it turns out that there is a downloadable course booklet that comes with each of the Great Courses. In the one for this course, the professor specifically mentioned, there are accompanying cooking activities. So I went and looked, and the first activity was a perfect hands on, homeschool type of science/anthropology experiment. Here ’tis.

Boiling Water in A “Skin” Bowl Made of Paper


Yes, that’s a Trader Joe’s bag

Make a cup out of a large, flat piece of paper (not one that’s been cut and glued into a cup, b/c the seams will leak)–an 8″x8″ square cut from the side of a grocery bag will work well for this, as the paper is thick enough to hold the water without soaking through and 8″ is large enough that you can hold the corners without burning your fingers.

Light a candle in a holder so it’s ready to go (or just hold it in your hand and have the kiddo do the next part, assuming kiddo is old enough to have sufficient motor control). We burned a whole taper down and were just short of boiling when we finished, so I’d suggest using either a high-quality taper or a larger candle.


No, the sink is not clean. This is not one of those blogs that pretends to perfection.

The cup may drip a tiny bit (ours did), though, so if you are using a pillar candle there’s the possibility that accumulated water will put

it out; I recommend a good taper held sideways–or just laid down with the burning end over an open area.

The kitchen sink is perfect since it’ll contain any spills and there’s water just in case something does catch fire….

Fill the paper cup halfway with water. Hold it over the candle flame. In a few minutes, the water will start to steam and then, to boil.

Stuff you can talk about while you’re waiting:

  • Why isn’t the paper burning? (It will probably smoke, and if you pay attention you may see little ember glows within it right above the flame.) You can point out that an animal skin (leather) would be even less flammable than paper, of course, and therefore better able to stand up to an actual campfire as opposed to a tiny candle flame. Plus it’ll hold more water.
  • Do you think cooking this way would be something that would be more characteristic of settled agrarian people or hunter-gatherers who had to move around a lot to find food?

We did ours, as I said, in the kitchen sink; initially I held the candle sideways and PK held the cup, but once he realized that this was going to take a while, we decided to just rest the candle on the side of the sink while I held the cup and PK did his job of cleaning the kitchen. :-) It’s fun to watch, though, especially if you look for the tiny embers that you can occasionally see through the water. Because I am a klutz, I twice spilled some water while adjusting the candle as it burned down, which means that by the end we had very little water in the “cup,” and the candle burned all the way down before the water actually started to boil–but there was quite a bit of steam by that point and the water was quite hot to the touch, so we deemed the experiment successful.

*Including the interesting fact, so PK says, that the sword was the first weapon built exclusively for fighting and killing other humans. Other weapons used for that purpose (spears, slingshots, clubs) can also be used against animals, and axes and knives can be used as tools, but swords are too big and unwieldy for either hunting or even to cut up an animal carcass; they are weapons built to be used in a situation where your opponent will not run away, but will stand and fight. i.e. there is a “rule” about the fight. He did not, however appreciate my thought that this fact suggested that the laws in pre-modern Europe and Japan (and for all I know, other places as well) that actually forbade commoners from owning or wearing swords, along with accompanying ideas about sword-carrying being a mark of nobility, effectively meant that the idea of status in complicated modernizing societies basically amounts to being able and willing to kill other humans (and therefore, to forbid others from having this power), since he is a 12yo boy and still really wants to believe in the idea of knights, soldiers, etc as protectors….

Unschooling the Intensely Gifted: A Cautionary Tale

So you’re supposed to “follow your child’s interests.” Which for gifted kids can include “overexcitabilities” (aka “intensities,” which is a better descriptor imo) like “intellectual intensity” (the need to explore an idea RIGHT NOW) and “psychomotor intensity” (the need to do something physical) and “emotional intensity.”

Here is what that looked like today.

I took PK out for a walk on the beach, because he and I have both observed that if he gets some fairly strenuous exercise every day, he is less anxious and argumentative. But because of his Intellectual and Emotional Intensities, he refuses to just, say, take a martial arts class; he has no patience for formal instruction or putting up with other people and is especially stressed and shy about doing anything in a group right now. We are still dealing with the fallout from middle school. So because I am a 45-year old woman, the compromise position is long nature walks rather than, say, sparring or footraces or some other shit like that that I am not going to do. Mostly this works pretty well.

After our exercise/p.e. regimen, we sat down to do a little bit of math. PK is working on finishing the Portfolio Assignment for the first chapter of IMP book one, which is as far as we have gotten this year; by way of Not Letting Him Off The Hook I am insisting that he finish the portfolio before we can call the un/homeschool year “over.” It asks him to collect some written work, write a cover letter showing that he gets the point of the first chapter (i.e., math is largely about figuring out patterns in things) and describe his own “learning” over the course of the unit, which mostly so far means him saying things like “math itself does not suck but schools make it suck and I used to love math but now I hate it.”

Needless to say, working on this triggered some of his Emotional Oversensitivites and he became pretty upset and angry, and we had a loooong talk about why I make him do math even though he now hates it. (The answer I gave him: because I am hoping to help him rediscover his enjoyment of it, because I want him to learn not to give up, and frankly because being able to do basic algebra is kind of a requirement for high school and college and although I cannot make him go to college or even finish high school I am still hoping that he will at least have those options available to him.)

This discussion, by the way, triggered my own Emotional Overexcitabilities, but luckily once he’d written a bit for the portfolio–which actually means he dictated it and I typed it up because he has some Motor Difficulties which make writing difficult for him (he is seeing an Occupational Therapist for this but for the time being I act as his scribe)–we were done with “school stuff” for the day. We were also done with his “non-computer-based free time” because it took us about an hour to process the ensuing discussion about why he hates school, how unhappy he is, etc., while I took the laundry off the line outside and he paced about, venting.

Since in addition to refusing formal classes of any type, he also refuses to do talk therapy for the time being (we have an appointment with his psychiatrist on Wednesday to talk about adjusting his meds, by the way), I am more or less also serving as his therapist. I am perhaps slightly less unqualified for this than one might expect, given that I’ve been in therapy myself for years (yeah, yeah, that might also make me even more unqualified, hardehar) and that I have been basically drinking this gifted/child psychology stuff from a firehose for the past year. At least I hope I am slightly less unqualified than one might expect, since it’s the only kind of semi-therapy the kid is getting these days other than the medication. In any case, I am pleased that he is starting to talk about not only how much he resents his middle school experience but also about his hopes to overcome and get past it–including, in this case, his hopes that some day he will enjoy math again. I am calling this progress.

In any case. So after p.e., math, and an informal nonofficial “therapy” session, kid was allowed to get on his laptop with the caveat that he would get off it and clean the kitchen when it was time for me to make dinner. I went out for a well-deserved beer on the porch, and did some more reading about Gifted Adolescents and their Overintensities for about half an hour, until he came to me with a request.

“Mama, I have two questions for you. The first is, will you give me permission to do something? The second is, will you supervise me so that it will be safe?”

“What is it you want to do?”

“Make and throw a Molotov cocktail.”

Now, before you think DUH THE ANSWER IS NO, you also need to know that because of his Psychomotor Intensities he has been getting in a lot of trouble lately for destroying things–breaking up terra cotta pots that held plants in the back yard, smashing pieces of scrap wood that his father had designs on, etc–and that I made him a deal that if he feels the need to destroy something, would he PLEASE come tell me and I will do what I can to accommodate that need in a way that is safe and will not get him in trouble. So instead of just saying HELL NO, I put down my book.

“Well, that could be pretty dangerous. Where do you want to do it?”

“I thought the driveway seemed the safest place. I don’t intend to really throw it hard, more like just a gentle toss.”

“The problem with the driveway is we’re going to end up with a lot of broken glass and possibly some fire. What if we went somewhere like a big empty parking lot? We could put the push broom and a dust pan into the back of the car…”

“No, I don’t want to have to go anywhere. I want to just do it in the driveway. I promise I’ll clean up.”

“Okay, well, if you do it on our half of the driveway,” (we share part of the drive with the neighbor, who you will not be surprised to find thinks PK is an absolute spoiled brat and therefore I try really hard to rein him in when it comes to our shared space), and you don’t throw it near anything flammable, I suppose it might be okay. I will have to move the car, and we’ll have to make sure we have the cleanup stuff and safety gear ready to go.” Yes I realize that I am not being, perhaps, as firm as I might be about Safety, but a parent only has so much energy. So either hang on to your judgment and fuck off now, or suspend it and keep reading.

“Great!” he says, and starts to run off.

“Hang on!” He stops as I stand up. “We need to do this carefully, which means that we need to talk our way through each step. You can’t just go off and get started until I know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve prepared. How do you intend to make this thing?”

“I’m going to put some rum into a bottle and light it on fire.”

“Okay, first of all, you are not allowed to use the expensive rum. Let’s see if we can find some cheap alcohol.” We dig around in the bar and I come up with some Captain Morgan coconut rum that someone must have left after a party. “We can use this. Let me go get the shop vac out of the closet. You will have to help me carry it down stairs and into the back yard, but first let me move the car.”

When I’ve finished moving the car and return to the house, he is holding an empty ginger beer bottle filled with coconut rum, with a dishtowel stuffed into the neck.

“PK. I do not want you lighting one of my good dish towels. We will have to use paper for that,” I say, taking the bottle away from him and pulling the towel out. It is soaked with rum, of course, so I set it in the sink. “Now let’s get the shop vac.”

PK, meanwhile, is grabbing some printer paper. “HANG ON,” I say. “I’m not sure printer paper is going to work; if you twist it up it won’t have that much oxygen in the neck, and it’ll probably go out. Though it’ll be soaked with alcohol so maybe not. We can give it a try, I guess. BUT FIRST,” I raise my voice as he starts twisting the paper into the bottle’s neck, “you need to help me get this vacuum cleaner outside. We need to get everything set up beforehand.”

He sets the bottle and paper down and helps me with the vacuum cleaner. We get it back to the driveway and I instruct him to pull the cord towards the house to see if it will reach. It doesn’t, of course.

“Okay, now we need an extension cord.”

“There’s one right here!” he exclaims, and reaches down, unplugging the back yard freezer and starting to pull the extension cord it’s attached to–which the husband carefully ran up and over the door frame to reach between the freezer and the outlet–off its hooks.

“No, STOP. You just unplugged the freezer. We need a different extension cord.”

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry.” He plugs it back in.

“Let’s go see if we can find the blue outdoor cord,” I say. We look around in the house and fail to find it. “It’s probably in the garage. Let me find my keys,” I say. The garage, you see, is now locked in order to keep PK from getting into the tools unsupervised and smashing up more things like potted plants or, god forbid, windows.

I can’t find my keys in the house, so I tell PK I am going to go see if I left them in the car when I moved it out of the driveway. I’ve locked the car, since it’s now on the street, so I am peering through the windows trying to make sure the keys aren’t in it when I hear PK shouting for me from the house. Once I’ve figured out that the keys aren’t in the car, I walk up to the front door.

“WHAT, Pseudonymous Kid?” I probably sound a little exasperated.

“Mama, never mind. This is turning into way too much work,” he says.

So it’s true: unschooling will eventually teach your kid the lessons you want him to learn. Lessons that no matter how many times I have explained to him–“No, that will be way too much work,” I have said–he has never really internalized.

That said? I’m really not sure it was worth it.

This Anecdote Pretty Much Sums Up Everything Challenging about Teaching My Kid (In School or Out of it)

Scrolling through my FB newsfeed, I come across this image–

–which is from a page I subscribe to, obviously, in the hopes of finding stuff for Pseudonymous Kid, who likes science. Since this is day two of homeschooling and I find this information interesting and I am dutiful, I shout to him in the other room, where he is loudly “singing” the manamana song by substituting the phrase “banana cat!” for “manamana” as he chases Medusa around the living room, “Hey, PK, did you know that atoms emit light?”

“Yeah, of course. They do that whenever an electron gets charged up and then decays back down to its normal level. That’s how lasers work, you know.” Then he pauses. “You do know that, don’t you?” he asks, sounding a little worried.

Of course, the answer is no.