New, New, New

It’s been a busy two weeks here on our new adventure and we have several new things to share. One of the interesting things the changes have shown us is that Karma seems to be working for us.

The easiest addition was Vie’s new Kitty. Meet “MnM”!

MnM

MnM

But wait, how did we come to get a cat? After all, we are dog people and Deb is allergic to them? Well, a week ago we volunteered to help round up cats and dogs in Playa Potrero that needed to be spayed or neutered. It’s a huge problem here with the street dogs. Our friend Dawn has helped 11,000 cats and dogs over the last decade or so getting “fixed”, recovering from disease and injury, getting adopted and more. I was going to blog about our adventure last week, but the vet ended up getting sick right after we started so we had to delay a month.

On our first run, though, we went to pick up a mama cat and her litter of kittens. Vie really bonded to one and held it most of the time. Later that day Deb and I chatted and told Vie that we (Vie) could get a kitten. Of course, a ton of excitement followed along with preparations to get the kitty. We picked up MnM this morning and have been getting her settled in…along with the rest of us.

You see, the biggest addition was a new place to live! Take a look at Casa Mariposa Amarilla.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 1

Casa Mariposa Amarilla

Casa Dutry, our previous place, was ok but it had some challenges. First of all, it was really dark. There wasn’t enough light anywhere, which made it feel like living in a cave. It had a really small kitchen, which was difficult to work in, particularly with Aidan’s unschooling cooking projects. It also didn’t have a ton of living space. We are pretty much together all of the time, so that made it a bit difficult. There were other inconveniences, like the dust, but none of these were horrible.

Casa Dutry

Casa Dutry

What we realized though, was that we were only going to be here a little while longer. We either wanted to be on the beach or have a view. It really came down to the opportunity cost of not enjoying where we lived. Living on the beach has other challenges (flooding, sand fleas, etc.) and Deb has a real soft spot for sunset views.

We (well, Deb) had been looking for a few months now. I mentioned that we found an amazing place and got a good deal, only to find that the owner’s email had been hijacked and we were in the middle of a developing scam. We avoided the scam and helped the owner, but were sad about losing the place. We knew it wasn’t meant to be and so we kept looking.

Deb had been using online tools to find places. We are both pretty independent and figured that we could do anything we needed to if we worked hard enough. What we learned here is that the people network really helps immensely. We heard of a cool place in Flamingo from Colleen, our friend and yoga instructor. It was Casa Mariposa Amarilla (“yellow butterfly house”), and we fell in love with it.

Silvia, the owner, is an amazing woman. Unfortunately, she had some really bad trouble with previous renters and was very worried about who to rent to, even though she really needed to rent it and get back to New Hampshire. Here’s where the social network – and I don’t mean Facebook – came to our aid. We know a lot of folks here now and tend to like meeting, talking with, and helping folks. Colleen put in a good word of course. Then Silvia was at her chiropractor and mentioned she was on her way to show the house to us. Her chiropractor happens knows us from yoga and social connections and also put in a good word. Things just started opening up then. Within a few short days we got the house and despite what you see in the pictures, it was not a lot more than our combined costs at Casa Dutry. Silvia seems to be pretty excited and relieved as well.

Casa Mariposa Amarilla is incredible. I never actually expected we’d be living someplace like this.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 3

It sits on the hillside above Flamingo beach at the end of its street. The view is simply incredible, especially from the fourth floor!

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 4

It is known locally as the “birthday cake house” because it is bright yellow and has these tall white lamps that look like candles.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 2

It has 3 floors and a roof deck. It’s a four bedroom house and we have an office! I was excited about that in particular because when we have to do work, we don’t have to cart everything out to the kitchen table. The master bedroom is on floor two along with Jack and Jill young adult rooms, now occupied by Aidan and Vie. Surprisingly, neither opted for the bedroom on floor 3 all by itself with two decks. And of course, it has the fourth floor roof deck where sunsets are truly amazing.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 8

Casa Mariposa Amarillo Deb

Roof Deck at Sunset with Deb and Champagne

The house also has a palapa (roofed building with no walls) out in the back and an amazing infinity pool, complete with, of course, a mariposa amarilla.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 5

The Infinity Pool

Everywhere you look, and I mean everywhere – the metalwork on all of the railings, the pool, the carvings on the doors, the tiled welcome mat, the address tile, the stained glass lamp on the stairway post, and more – there are mariposas amarillas.

Lucy and mariposa

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 7

Muchas Mariposas Amarillas

The structure to the left of the house isn’t part of what we rented. It has one floor for Silvia and her family when they come down. The bottom floor of that structure is where our caretakers, Sandra and William, live with their family.

You can probably tell we are excited. We can’t wait to finally have some dinner parties and other events here. Our old place was just too small and dark. Aidan has already made friends with JJ, Silvia’s son, and Hairo, William’s son. We expect his Spanish to take a dramatic upturn shortly! J

The final addition was the hardest. While we love Moose, Deb was not so comfortable with his reliability. Now that the tourist “high season” is pretty much over, we want to start travelling and see more of Costa Rica. Moose is great for local runs but we didn’t relish the thought of being stranded hours out of the nearest big town with a dead car.

moose

Moose

Our friend, Dusty, happened to be leaving for Argentina to work for an NGO there and he was selling his SUV. It’s 1986 Toyota 4Runner. While it is older than Moose, it is in better condition because it has spent 99.8% of its “life” in San Jose rather than out here on the beach and dirt roads. Dusty has successfully taking this vehicle on numerous trips to San Jose and around the country. He’s done all the road testing for us and we know from our new mechanic that it is in great shape. So, welcome “Fanta.” Aidan named it J

Fanta

Fanta

Fanta was only a little more than Moose, but now we don’t have to rent a car to travel long distances. He has his own quirks, but he will serve us well. And who could beat an orange car! We’ll find a good home for Moose as soon as all the paperwork is done. Anyone need a car with tons of personality?

It didn’t really surprise us that we found a kitten who needed a home, an amazing place, or a more reliable car. Things like that happen down here far more than you might expect. Our yogi friends tell us it’s the power of meditation and positive thoughts and we are inclined to believe them.

We are not very religious people at all, in fact, quite the opposite. We are somewhat spiritual in a really open-minded way. We do believe in Karma.

Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. (Wikipedia)

You might look at it as another form of “do unto others…” or “what goes around comes around.” It is very people-focused, like us. We’ve always enjoyed helping people throughout our lives. And that seems to come back to us at times. This is likely one of them.

Of course, it might also just be pura vida. That might be stretching things, but who’s to say? After a few weeks, it does tend to take hold. It’s even great for detoxifying type-A habits. Any way you look at it, we have some new things to keep us busy in new ways now. Speaking of which, we still have unpacking to do! Pura vida!

More Updates

It’s been a little while since I posted some general updates about our life on our our new adventure. A lot has actually been going on despite the fact that we now don’t have jobs (mostly) and we live in a tropical paradise. We are definitely acclimating to tropical life, the slower pace, and pura vida. At the same time, we are who we are(!) and we are not sitting still much. We are finding lots of things to keep us busy.

I mentioned a few things in recent posts:  Deb finished working remotely for her job in Seattle at the beginning of February. She went back to Seattle to complete everything and brought us back more supplies. Around that that time she also took over a lot of the unschooling, giving me a little break.

Deb has added back more structure in Vie and Aidan’s unschooling and despite a little resistance, that seems to have helped a lot. She’s also brought in more structured/planned physical activity – “PE” if you will – so the young adults are getting out more and using technology less. We are also planning, with them, some excursions around Costa Rica now that the “high season” of tourists is winding down. One fun event we are working on this week is doing paintball. There is a course by Liberia airport and so we’ll all go out and try a “real-world” video game.

Another brilliant addition is structured time for “unstructured” discussion; i.e., just talking with Aidan and Vie. We have already had several great discussions including microeconomics, although that’s not how Deb introduced it. It was about simple basics like supply and demand, cost of items, etc. Then that led to microeconomics videos on Khan Academy, write up of understandings and questions, followed by more discussion. These are all things we experience daily and yet we rarely look at them as learning opportunities. So far, the young adults have been really engaged in these discussions.

Deb is also working on developing some possibilities for a business in real estate. She has always been interested and took a class while she was in Seattle. Her instincts are incredible and, not surprisingly, she has some creative and innovative ideas for rental properties here or in Seattle. Right now we are looking at interesting properties here as she finds them. We’re taking it slowly as she does her research. It’s one of several things we have going on here on the “side burner.” She loves the idea of having rental properties and I am fully on-board – at least as long as she deals with the people aspects, which she loves. I am happy being the “numbers” guy behind the scenes. Besides, wouldn’t you want to buy or rent from Deb? J

Aidan’s new activity is swim team. There is a local school here – Country Day – that allows non-students to participate in sports and other activities. They have a great pool and great coaches who are friends of ours from Spanish classes (everything here is really two degrees of separation from everything else). He is an awesome natural swimmer and has Deb’s talent. Now he’s starting to discover a bit of a competitive streak! Doesn’t he look like a young Michael Phelps?

SONY DSC

Aidan is also still cooking and loving it, of course. He started positing his recipes up on Food.com. He has his famous steak recipe I’ve mentioned before as well as a host of new ones. You can find them all under “enderSpartan828 the chef”). You have to read a few of his descriptions. He has a fun, and goofy, sense of humor. You’ll definitely get that as you read his recipes. Here’s his latest creation: KFC Copycat Chicken. I think it tastes far better and is far less greasy than KFC.

SONY DSC

As an aside and for those of you who did not instantly get Aidan’s alias, it is not, as you might think, tied to Ender’s Game or the Spartans from antiquity. It’s a combination of an “enderman” from Minecraft and the modern version of Spartans from the Halo video game franchise.

Vie has been doing some pretty incredible digital Anime artwork using a tablet. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now on these. They really feel like you are drawing on paper with all of the subtly of hand drawing, plus digital capabilities that make it richer in many ways. Vie is way better than me on the tablet. I wish I could show some examples, but, well, Vie has an artist’s temperament and isn’t satisfied with anything enough to share it. Yet. News flash: Vie just sent me this and said I could show it!

friends forever

Vie is now starting to take the digital art the next step and work on animation. Vie is going down that long path of learning Adobe Flash. The first few weeks will likely be frustrating but it’s a tool that can take you from animation through coding to video game development. I’m still working on getting Vie to do a video game with me J .

Both Aidan and Vie have really taken to DIY.org, one of many cool resources on the web we use in unschooling (see our Resources page for others). It combines gamification with topics from DNA to crafts to game development to coding and lets learners earn achievements for various accomplishments. I’ll be talking more about this later in an upcoming post on gamifying unschooling. And for grammar geeks, I did just use gerunds in a row.

Deb and I added additional Spanish learning through duolingo now, at the invitation of some good friends who will be coming to visit in May. It is also a “gamified” learning site. Look for us there as “delyca” and me as the very unoriginal “andycargile.” The young adults are also extending their Spanish through StudyStack, another great online resource.

I’ve had a few interesting activities myself. I just returned from a trip to San Jose to give a colloquium to the brand new interaction design program at University Veritas. The Directora of the program, Ana Domb Krauskopf, has put together a wonderful and new curriculum and assembled a very talented set of students. This is the inaugural year. From everything I’ve seen, this looks to be a world class program and an excellent place to recruit interaction designers in the future.

I have to thank Mariana Lopez, one of the instructors at the University, for this serendipitous opportunity. She recently graduated from CMU’s program and happened to spot me on LinkedIn “on a family adventure in Costa Rica”. She invited me to lunch and we chatted about interaction design. She connected me to Ana and then things progressed from there. It’s pretty amazing how things just come together sometimes.

I had barely put away my heavy tech gear (big monitor, keyboard, etc.) that I used to work on my colloquium deck when I got a ping from Mylene Yao, the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley who asked if I was interested in helping them with an Angel pitch deck. This turned into a really interesting and fast little creative project. Univfy is a remarkable startup that uses some hardcore predictive analytics to help women on their journey of in vitro fertilization make better decisions by giving them far more accurate assessments of their chances to conceive.

It was an interesting transition from my “normal” routine here to a fast-paced, focused project. It’s been awhile since I had the luxury of working on a creative project for 7-8 hours straight a day. I mean that in the best sense. Even before coming to Costa Rica, it was rare in my last few positions that I had even a few hours outside my days of mostly meetings to really focus on something creative. I either had to spread projects out over time or do them “after hours.”

This was refreshing. It was invigorating. It also made my brain hurt in a good way! Most importantly, this project went very smoothly even though I was completely remote. In fact, it was ahead of schedule. I’ve done a lot of decks like this working with execs and the remote nature didn’t create challenges at all. I firmly believe, contrary to conventional wisdom, that creative work, at least like this, can be done remotely without the work suffering. It’s happening more and more globally (see oDesk and Elance as growing examples). For me, it gives me the ability to balance everything better. I’m hoping more opportunities like this come up.

On the “home front”, we are still searching for a new place. Our current rental house isn’t terrible, but it’s a bit dark and the kitchen is small, especially when several of us are working on a project. We are also hoping that if we can find something closer to the beach that the young adults will be able to get to the beach more often on their own. Our search for a new place actually led us to a bit of an unlikely adventure.

Deb found an incredible place on the hill overlooking Playa Penca, a nearby beach. While we were willing to spend a bit more to get closer to the beach, this was out of our range. Deb, wanting to practice her negotiation skills offered a deal where we’d rent it for 8 months (through the low season) but for less than half the asking price. Surprisingly, they said yes! We went and looked at the place and fell in love. It was on 6 lots, had three large bedrooms and a lot more space. It had an outside palapa and a huge kitchen, along with a handyman who lived on site in a separate house. That’s when the adventure part kicked in.

The owner wanted us to pay for the whole rental up front, which was a lot of money, and sign a contract in 3 days. That wasn’t too odd for rentals here, but asking us to wire the money to London was. As Deb investigated this erratically-communicative owner, she learned that in fact this wasn’t the owner. The actual owner, who was quite nice, never got our emails; they were intercepted from the VRBO site. It seems someone hijacked his email and was looking to scam him, and us. Even follow up emails about this never made it to him. Sadly, he never got our proposal nor agreed to our negotiated price.

We had aspirations of tracking down the culprit, especially since we had his bank and routing information. I really wanted to set up a sting. Unfortunately, the owner didn’t seem to be terribly interested, so we dropped it, along with our hopes for renting that house.

Fortunately, we did not wire a lot of money to a scam artist.  Deb’s diligence and “spider sense”, along with good karma and pura vida, combined to keep us from that fate. We have one back-up plan but are still looking. We know something will come through. It always does when you least expect it. At least, it has consistently come through here for us.sche It might be a little metaphysical, but we really do think that if you contribute to the system of good karma it comes back at some point.  It probably sounds far more off the beaten path in Seattle than it does down here with all of the yoga, surfing and pura vida, but that’s okay. We are, after all, intentionally off path. Pura Vida.

Supply Run

One of the more interesting questions we’ve pondered in our three months on our new adventure is “what did we forget” or “what should we have brought but didn’t.” We’ve added to that along the way with “what do we need from the US.” We have actually been keeping a list of those things and this last week Deb returned from a week in Seattle (for work) and brought most of those back. We thought it would be fun to share what we couldn’t live without.

At the top of my list was a solution to my “rose” problem. I had written before about how I could not find a red rose here in Costa Rica anywhere. I had been getting Deb one every week for 18+ years. I looked at all the wonderful ideas people had but none worked well enough. I tried looking for the guaria moria – the national flower of Costa Rica – as a substitute to get her, but no luck finding those either. I tried to make an origami rose. I really did. I looked on sites for step-by-step instructions, YouTube videos how to do it, etc. In the end they were all pretty hideous. Then I ran out of large origami paper. I could find digital replacements but, well, that was too easy and not terribly meaningful.

I found my answer in an “infinite rose.” Technology comes to the rescue. An infinite rose is a long-stemmed red rose picked at its peak and preserved with glycerine. I ordered one and had it waiting for Deb as a surprise. It had a bit of trouble with all the bouncing on the trip back, but it made it back, mostly, and now sites in our sunny Costa Rica home!

infinite rose

Cooking tools were a big category of items that we learned that we needed. We brought a few essentials such as my really nice knife, but we came up short on a bunch of things such as a microplane, good salt and pepper grinders, an ice cream scoop, a whisk, ramekins, an apron, and a mortar and pestle. Why the latter? Sometimes we can find the odd spices we need here but they are not ground. Sometimes we have to make our own blends such as Chinese 5 spice blend. I am tired of using a flat rock and a round rock from our yard. Really. We had all of these in storage and Deb got to go sort through boxes to get them.

We also had to get a bunch more technology to support the young adults in their unschooling. Some of it was pretty exotic. For example, Aidan and Vie want to create videos for YouTube showing how they play various parts of a video game on Xbox. To capture that sort of feed, you need a game capture device like the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro. Of course we also needed to get several cables to go with it and a 3 terabyte hard disk since they will be capturing and editing video. Add to that some replacement headsets, Xbox batteries and charger, headset splitter and talkback cables, printer cartridges and you get the picture. As I mentioned in Differences Part 2, you generally can’t find these types of things here, especially anything having to do with Xbox – at least where we are.

There were some other things that Deb brought back that were very hard to get here or very expensive. These included new windshield wiper blades for Moose and Revolution flea and tick control medicine and collars for the dogs. I needed some deodorant that doesn’t have the aluminum chlorohydrate, which is hard to find for some reason. Vie needed some new shoes (Vans) and mostly what we have a selection of here is flip flops. There were some odd house items that we could not find even in the big DIY store, such as those small rubber bumpers you put inside cabinet doors to make them not bang. Try describing those in Spanish! We also needed some cup hooks to hold up tube lighting under our counter cabinets to get rid of all the darkness in the kitchen.

We also had a category of guilty pleasures. These are things that we missed. We would have loved to have brought back a whole case of Jolly Roger Christmas Ale but it would be a tough fit. Instead, Deb brought things like a set of Cards Against Humanity, Brazilian cachaca, jelly beans, Nutella, our Sorry game, and Diva Coffee. I know, we are in Costa Rica and there is some fabulous coffee here…but the roast is not nearly as dark and intense as what we liked in Seattle.

Aidan and Vie had to get their gummy worm fix. They did not just have Deb bring back a few packages. Instead, they had her bring back the world’s largest gummy worm. I kid you not. It is more than 2 feet long, 3 pounds, and 4000 calories. Here’s a picture from Vat19 where we got it.

gummy worm

Now imagine Deb going through security at the airport with this thing, wrapped in plastic, in her luggage!

There were a number of things Deb brought back for friends here – things they could not easily, or cheaply, get here either. Some of these were expected. They were things like power drills, large computer microphones (tech), and a yoga mat.

She also brought back some lacrosse balls for Abriendo Mentes, a local non-profit working with locals in the areas of education and employment. They sponsor kids’ lacrosse here through Lacrosse the Borders.

The most surprising thing she brought back for friends was really nice sheets. Evidently, good ones here are very hard to find, even in Hotel supply stores, and very expensive if you can find them.

In all, we sent over 30 different packages to our friend Wendy’s house, where Deb was staying. Most were from Amazon (you have to love two day shipping). They formed a really nice stack up of presents for Deb to pack up. Even after buying (yet) another suitcase, she couldn’t fit everything. On the chopping block were good tequila, more cachaca, and lots of creams and moisturizers for Deb. They were all too heavy. Deb really sacrificed the most with her creams.

The good news is that I and Vie get to go back in April for a week for SakuraCon. Vie will bring an arsenal of costumes (many made here with the sewing machine we brought!). We can bring down the left items as well as possibly more things we discover that we need in the next few months – though other than parts for Moose, I can’t imagine what new needs we’ll have. I really don’t want to be accumulating more stuff 🙂

Pura Vida!

Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.

Our First Unschooling “Period”

Aidan and Vie are motoring on their unschooling fronts as part of our new adventure. It’s been challenging for all of us in a few areas as we try to find an unschooling rhythm. It’s also been rewarding to see the young adults start to do some very interesting things.

There are so many things to write about as we get going. Here I think I’ll focus more on what the kids are doing. There are some higher level themes we are trying to engender, but I’ll go more deeply into those later.

I’m fortunate that I made my (over)scheduling mistake early and was able to correct it. Aidan and Vie have now mostly found their schedules and are getting into their respective rhythms. Aidan needs a little more structure so I developed a spreadsheet for him to track his unschooling hours, reading hours and technology use. I‘m secretly hoping he likes using Excel enough to use it for more planning activities as a tool.

Our primary goal for this first “period” (aka semester, quarter, etc.) of unschooling is really building confidence, engagement, and passion for learning more than mastery of any particular thing. We don’t think that mastery can come easily without the former. We are also using this first period to get the young adults familiar with some basic digital tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher and even some more specific ones.

Toward that end, Vie and Aidan both chose two projects to work on based on their interests. We added in some dedicated reading time and also learning Spanish. Learning Spanish was the one thing we asked them to add as a project because we’d like to get them starting to speak the native language here soon. We got a few grumbles from them over Spanish but they understood the importance and are working with it.

As I describe the projects Aidan and Vie are working on, you’ll see a gaming, or “gamification” theme influencing them. This is intentional on our part. I’ll speak more about this in another post soon, but gaming is a great way to foster engagement and really understand the core aspects of what they are learning – and they are both very interested in gaming.

Aidan chose two cooking related projects. He loves cooking, cooking shows, and trying new foods. We actually call him “Chef Aidan.” His first project is to create a cookbook of recipes that he’s created on an online site like Food.com. This is a big project that will require several big steps and a lot of learning about foods and cooking. His first step in this project is to get to know all about herbs and spices. As part of this, he is creating 20 flash cards that each describe one herb or spice. Here’s an example.

spice flash card

He’s nearly finished laying out all of the flash cards in Publisher and is working on tying them to the cuisines that they are used inn (the flags on the cards). Deb wants to get them printed and see if Aidan can sell them!

In the process of doing these flash cards, I gave Aidan a side “quest” of writing a description of the difference between herbs and spices such that it would definitively categorize something into one or the other (or not applicable). In other words, nothing would end up being both or somewhere in the middle. I can’t immediately do this, mind you. Aidan is working on it, but he started off with “something off the top of his head” he says: “hydration”. It was pretty brilliant. I’ve been throwing different spices and herbs at that one word and so far it is working pretty well to distinguish the two (notwithstanding the fact that one “could” dry herbs).

Step 2 in Aidan’s first project is to start cooking and getting to know some basic techniques and recipes. Clearly, this is a lifelong project, but we’ll just start cooking a variety of things in Aidan’s “test kitchen” so that he can begin to try some of his own creations.

As his final step, he’ll create and write up 10 recipes. He’ll need to perfect them in order to actually write up the recipe so this will get him very familiar with prototyping and iteration – part of a good design thinking process. We’re hoping that he can write up one of the recipes in Spanish to help compliment his learning of the language. Look forward to some updates, and fun stories, around “Chef Aidan’s” recipe project. I understand he wants to create “sour gummies” as one recipe. That will of course involve chemistry!

Aidan’s second project, which he wants to start after his first one is complete, is very cool. It is a baking card game. It is similar to some of the more popular thematic card games like Munchkin. He’s thought a bit about the game mechanics and play as part of his prep work. It will not only help teach players baking concepts, including chemistry, but it will also be a lot of fun to play. More importantly, combining a constructivist (i.e., “making”) approach to learning with gamification principles, we expect that Aidan will learn a ton about how to learn in general.

If Aidan is our chef, Vie is our artist. Vie already has quite a following on Deviant Art. It was natural that one of the projects would involve digital art, and so it does. Vie is already very proficient with indirect digital drawing tools such as Wacom tablets, where you look at the screen while drawing on a small pad with a digital pen. Vie is now mastering direct digital drawing – drawing directly on the screen (of a tablet, for example).

Vie’s first project is to learn 3 different programs for digital drawing and then compare the three of them, possibly in a video format. Vie is already very gifted at drawing and is a master at SAI, a digital paint tool used in a lot of fan-based anime art. For some reason that “product loyalty” means that learning Adobe Photoshop is out. However, Adobe Illustrator is one of the chosen ones. Illustrator is a vector based (drawing) product vs. a raster based (painting) tool so that should provide some new skills and learnings. It may be useful in the second project as well. Vie is still working out what the other two tools will be. One might be a 3D tool such as Maya, which is a high-end tool for creating 3D animated characters. You’ve likely seen its results in most recent animated films.

These are all professional art and design tools, and they all have “professional” price tags. Vie is using the one month free trial period most have for this project and to see if they might be of future interest. Meanwhile, I’m trying to see how an “unschooler” can qualify for an educational discount given all of the institutional verification forms. Who said it would be easy J ?

Vie’s final result (“deliverable”) for this project will be the same character image drawn, painted, or rendered in 3 different programs, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and differences of each tool. It should be pretty awesome to see and we are hoping that vie does a simultaneous “speed painting” video of the three for YouTube. We haven’t seen that sort of comparison before.

This brings us to Vie’s second project. It is still getting defined but Vie is trying to bring together several interests, both near term and long term (i.e., career). Vie is very interested in being a professional game videographer, game tester or game designer. A “game videographer” (my term) is someone that creates videos showing how to play aspects of a particular game and then puts them on YouTube to make money. (It was a new one for me too.)

There are really 3-4 projects wrapped up here and we are working to separate them a bit so we can have a clear, focused project with some sort of deliverable. Vie is leaning toward learning how to make a video, in this case of someone showing how to play a sequence in a game. Vie is already working on learning video screen capture tools (TinyTake or Camtasia), audio tools for voice-overs (Audacity), and video editing tools. For now we are using Microsoft Movie Maker but if this interest grows, as I suspect it will, then we will move to Adobe Premiere – and that is a serious professional tool that will be great to learn early.

There is a lot of tool learning, and consequent frustration, going on right now. That is expected. Most of us who use these tools have gone through it too. I expect that this project will be more about learning the tools. I hope that Vie can then develop some deeper learning about the gaming industry in the next several projects. Those projects will likely involve things like gamification, coding, testing, designing, interviewing gaming professionals, and project management. An exciting possibility is that there are now online certifications you can get in gamification and Vie may pursue one. More on that soon.

On top of these projects, I am still sending Aidan and Vie links to TED talks, articles and resources that are relevant to what they are doing in order to get their juices flowing more. One which I’ll talk about more in a future post is the first 18 minutes of a Harvard Law School course on philosophy. It is surprisingly accessible and makes you think.

While I am still trying to figure out how to bring math more into the mix, these projects all involve reading, research, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and design skills above and beyond the specific subject matter knowledge and tool skills inherent in each project. Vie and Aidan are getting very digitally literate. Most importantly, they seem to be enjoying their projects and learning in general so far. And for us that is a key metric of success for this first “period” of unschooling.