A Harrowing Evening

With any adventure, there is always a bit of danger or risk – otherwise it wouldn’t really be an adventure. On our way to Rome as part of our new adventure we got a little more on the danger side than we expected.

You might have seen or heard about the flooding in Genoa or maybe saw images of it – at least it is all over the news here. Rightly so. We were caught in a flash flood there.

On our way to Rome from France we had a stop in Genoa. Our train was leaving at midnight and it was a sleeper train (something we were all looking forward to). When we arrived, it was pouring rain. It was the kind of tropical rain we were used to from Costa Rica actually. We dashed to a restaurant close to the train station and ate. Then, with a few hours to kill, in a lull in the rain, we walked a long block to a nice hotel and had some refreshments in the lobby.

The rain picked up again and we laughed at how hard it was coming down about 10:45pm as we were planning to head back to the train station. Aidan pointed out where the water was moving along the gutters and splashing up. We bit the bullet and decided that it was unlikely to let up and so we’d have to get wet to get back to the station.

The hotel was about 200 yards diagonally across from the train station. There was a complex set of streets intersecting in between, creating a huge, almost continuous intersection. The closest street was about 20 yards wide followed by an equally wide grassy median, and then a street going the opposite direction, also about 20 yards wide.

On the way across, Aidan was with me and Nev was with Deb a few yards behind. We got split up. Here’s where we’ll give you two views of what happened next.

Deb’s Story

By the time we reached the median, Aidan and Andy were ahead of Nev and me by about 10-15 yards. Nev and I were in the median when Andy and Aidan started crossing the second street. Just as they hit almost midway and we were nearing the edge of the median heading into the second street, a huge river of water, at least 2 feet deep, came rushing down the street. It really did happen in a flash.

Nev and I watched in horror as Aidan was swept off of his feet, getting carried with the water. He managed to recover for an instant and then lost his footing again as the water seemed to get deeper. Andy went lunging after him to grab him by the back pack. With a good bit of work, Andy managed to get them to the other side and behind a bus stop “wall” as a “barricade” from some of the water. The median was slightly elevated from the street level so Nev and I were not hit as hard by the rushing water.

There was much yelling back and forth but not any hearing of coherent words over the din of the rushing water and the pelting rain. I knew that Nev and I could not make it across safely. So the first thing to accept was that we were separated for the foreseeable future from Andy and Aidan.

We couldn’t make it back to the place we started because the road behind us was the same. I also knew that we couldn’t stay out in the open where we were in case the water rose. The first thing was to get behind a large chunk of concrete that held some type of flag pole or something or other. Then we climbed up on top of it and hung onto the pole for further safety.

Once we were up and safe I could take a better look around. Down the street roughly 100 yards or so was a pedestrian overpass and there were some stairs that led up to it from the grassy median. It appeared that the water was roughly the same depth along the median to the stairway. After much waving of arms and strange gesticulating I felt that I had communicated my intentions to Andy. Nev and I hopped down from our concrete block and ran as fast as we could through the water to the stairway.

We arrived at the stairway and ran up without incident but the price was no longer being able to see Andy and Aidan at all due to the lack of street lights (power outage) and the sheets of rain. Unfortunately, the covered overpass had chained and locked doors so while we were safe from the flood waters, we were still standing in the cold rain. Fortunately, I had asked everyone to pack their headlamps. Nev took one out of a pack and used it to signal/mark our location for Andy. It was a relief to see Andy’s light shortly after.

While I felt I did the right thing by making sure that Nev and I were safe, it was very frustrating to not be able to do anything of significance to help Andy and Aidan. I wanted to see if there were stairs that lead to their side of the road (it would make sense) but I couldn’t see any from where we were. I saw some people in orange jumpsuit things that looked like they were some type rescue people. I knew we were all pretty invisible in the dark and in dark, drenched clothing. I started whistling very loudly to get their attention. After a couple of minutes of whistling, they located us. I yelled and pointed and tried to explain where Andy and Aidan were and that they needed help.

Eventually, some of these folks broke the locks on the doors to get into the pedestrian walkway and then come over to our door, broke that and we were able to get out of the rain. I then convinced them to go over to the other end and see if they could reach Andy and Aidan. The headlamp communication is how they knew where to go. By this time the rains had let up a bit and the water was not quite as high – but certainly not at a level yet for going into the street. Andy and Aidan were able to make it to the other end of the pedestrian overpass and meet us up there.

After much hugging, we made back to the hotel via the pedestrian overpass and then walked through rushing water – though this time only about a foot deep. This was somewhere around 00:20-00:30. We sat on the leather sofa, put down our rain soaked backpacks (which of course held all of our clothes, technology, etc.) and the hotel people handed us blankets, towels, and bottles of water to drink. The hotel was full. We had missed our train and, of course, still had no way to get to the station even if our train had not already come and gone.

Andy bravely went back out to check on a little pensione we had noticed earlier in the evening. I was too cold and too focused on trying to keep the kids from shivering so much they cracked their teeth to even bother being worried about him out on his own. In the end, the pensione had a room for us which was dry. It had a hot shower to wash off the flood gunk, clean sheets, and warm blankets. There was no electricity, but we got by with the headlamps. We managed to piece together a few bits of clothing that were mostly dry to wear. We laid out some clothes to (hopefully) dry for the morning and tried to dry out our technology, then we showered and fell into bed.

Andy’s Story

Heading out, my biggest concern initially was getting all of our feet wet and having to dry out our shoes. It was the only pair for some of us. I had checked the street already and the water was flowing a few inches deep and so it was clear we’d be soaked.

The rain was really coming down as we started to cross the first of the two streets. We were all laugh-groaning as we hit the water. It would make for a good story, right?

There were still a few cars driving around the intersection in the very muddy water, but fewer than earlier.

Aidan and I crossed the first part of street running and crossed the median as Deb and Nev hit the median. It was hard to sprint quickly since we were all wearing our heavy backpacks. The water flowing down the next part of the street was a little deeper and we started running across.

As we made it about two-thirds of the way across, the water started flowing a lot faster and in a few seconds it was about two feet deep. Several things happened at once.

I realized this was no longer water flowing down the street. It was a flash flood (even though I had never actually seen one). Aidan fell and was getting quickly getting pulled down the street. Then the water rose a bit more.

As Aidan fell, I dove for him and grabbed for the loop at the top of his pack and fortunately caught it. I as I grabbed him, the water rose about another six inches and it was nearly up to my waist. I started to trip on one of a number of pieces of debris under the water. Aidan’s feet weren’t on the ground any longer; he was in the “river” of muddy water and I was dragging him through it by his loop.

We had started crossing at the corner. Once I had his loop, we were about 10 yards away from the corner. There was a bus stop shelter and I moved to get behind it. The water was rising and I remember thinking that we had to get to high ground. We couldn’t get trapped inside the shelter but it would block the water flow for us. We made it to a bench just behind the shelter. It was up on the curb. Aidan sat down and the water was flowing just under the seat.

I looked back and the street was a raging river of muddy water and debris. I saw Deb and Nev and tried to motion them to go back. Very fortunately, they hadn’t attempted to cross the street.

Aidan was really scared. I was in one of those creepy calm states where you can think very clearly and it does indeed seem like things are moving more slowly (time dilation). The thing I remember most at that point was deliberately speaking very slowly and calmly to Aidan, telling him that he was doing a super good job and that I was very proud of him – all the while looking for a way to get out of there.

Getting to the bench gave us a few minutes to collect our thoughts. Aidan was very worried about our electronics. I expected that they were all toast and told him it was all just “stuff.” Stuff can be replaced. We were very lucky. Despite being wet and cold, it could have been a lot worse.

Aidan was cold so I gave him my cashmere sweater to keep warm. I had a t-shirt, but by that point the cold was the least of my worries. And for some reason, I, who am perpetually cold, was actually somewhat warm. It’s strange what you remember.

I checked on Deb and Nev. They first jumped on top of a large concrete block. They couldn’t hear me and I expected that my phone in my pocket was gone since I had been submerged.

The water seemed to be rising much less quickly, but it was still rising and the level was rising above the bench where Aidan was sitting with his feet up. I knew we couldn’t stay there. Beyond the street on our side was what looked like a park. It was all underwater and the water was flowing very fast still. I had no idea how deep it was and couldn’t chance it with Aidan.

Fortunately, we were a few feet from a tree. Aidan was shivering and couldn’t move his legs well, so (still not having let go of his backpack loop), I told him we were moving to the tree and pulled him to the end of the bench. The water was still mid-thigh. I pulled us to the base of the tree and told Aidan we were going to climb it.

The branches started about 6 feet up. I got his pack off and held it over my shoulder as I pushed him up. I have no idea how I was able to do that with the weight of two packs but the little dude grabbed the branches and locked himself in.

It was a fairly small tree and there was no way I could get up there easily with the packs. The water wasn’t horribly strong and so I stayed at the base. I clipped Aidan’s pack to the branches. Then I remembered that I had my headlamp in my pack and so I pulled it off carefully and retrieved it. I also remembered that I had a light rain jacket in my back and gave that to Aidan as well.

I flashed over to Deb and Nev and they had a headlamp too. It looked like they were heading down the median toward an overpass, which was great. I flashed to them and to the street “SOS” a few times (not really expecting that anyone could get to us yet). There were a lot of branches hiding us though so I started ripping them all away from the street side. Poor tree. I think it will look odd for awhile.

I kept talking to Aidan the whole time. There was an ambulance stuck nearby and an older man sitting in his car pretty safely, but asking for help. I told Aidan I wasn’t leaving him. That’s when my phone alarm went off.

The alarm was telling me we had missed our midnight train J I pulled it out and thought for a second I could contact Deb. I texted but the phone said there was no SIM card and so I put it into Aidan’s bag.

At this point, the water was holding steady and not rising much. The rain was letting up and we were safe where we were – although we were soaked to the bone and cold (I was feeling it by then). The whole time I was looking for where to go next but the best option if the water rose was still our tree.

Shortly after midnight, I saw two people with flashlights and neon emergency gear walking toward us across the park field. It turned out that the water was really only a few inches deep there. I got Aidan out of the tree and we walked with them over to the overpass that crossed the street back to the hotel.

We met Deb and Nev halfway across that overpass in a very emotional reunion.

We then headed back to the hotel lobby. They were really nice and brought us towels and blankets, letting us get warm. Unfortunately, though, they had no rooms available (and no power). I tried to have them call a nearby hotel at the other end of the train station, but no one was picking up. I just wanted to get us someplace dry so I went out looking for a place to stay.

I walked to the other side of the train station where I had spotted a few small hotels earlier. The rain was falling lightly and as I trudged through the water and mud I saw a number of stalled and flooded cars. It looked like rescue crews were out in force now. The far side of the train station looked like it actually had gotten hit worse than the side we were on.

I found a small hotel that also had no power but it did have rooms and quickly returned for Deb and the young adults. We made it to our hotel room still soaked but very happy that we had a warm, dry place to stay for the night. We’d sort everything out the next day.

On the way to the hotel, I got a chance to reflect a bit on what happened. It was scarier than I’d like to admit, especially since Aidan was with me. I’ve been in scarier situations in high school, but it’s very different when you are with your kids. It was also really stressful that we were not all together. I knew Deb and Nev would be just fine – at least rationally. It was painful though not to be able to communicate in any way and I was sure that they were terribly worried.

That night I slept little – or at least, it wasn’t restful sleep. I think I dreamt of every negative scenario that could have happened, from Aidan not having a backpack on that I could grab and having him swept away to getting completely separated from Deb and Nev and not finding each other afterward. On the lighter side, I also dreamt of the zombie apocalypse and seeing all the zombies washed down the street. We all had a good laugh at that one. They are all still pretty vivid to me even now.

The next day we managed to each get a set of clothes that had dried overnight. Most everything else was wet – or wet and muddy in the case of Aidan and me. We made it to the train and on to our Rome flat without incident. We dumped all of our clothes into a wet soggy pile and cranked up the first of many, many loads of laundry.

On the technology front, I was astounded how little we actually lost, especially given the swim Aidan and I had. I did indeed lose my phone, along with my mouse. Aidan’s laptop was dead. Nev’s phone also died.

Very happily, my PC made it through, tucked into my Tortuga backpack laptop pocket. My Kindle made it as well, also reasonably protected by its neoprene sleeve. Aidan saved his phone and iPod because they happened to be in a Ziploc bag. Deb’s Mac and phone were fine, as was Nev’s laptop. They really only had hammering rain and so only the stuff on top was lost.

Now, a few days later, in some ways it feels like this event happened ages ago. When it’s rained since then, even lightly, I do think about it. And times like this are good at putting all the other minor challenges in perspective.

One of my favorite quotes has always been Nietzsche: “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.” I think it has. I was extraordinarily proud of how Nev and Aidan handled the whole situation. We can argue and get on each others’ nerves, but we are still a family and I think this is something that has brought us a bit closer. I’d like to think our whole adventure this last year has as well. I can certainly say that the rest of our adventure was far less dramatic. Pura vida

Some Kudos

I have to give a few shout outs after this event. A big thanks goes to the Starhotels President Hotel in Genoa for generously taking care of us after we made it back. Once again, I have big kudos for my Tortuga backpack. I’m not sure how the laptop sleeve kept my PC alive when it was mostly submerged, but I am certainly happy it did! And thanks to the designer at Lowe Alpine (Aidan’s backpack) who thought to put an easily grabbable and strong loop on top of the bag. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if I couldn’t have grabbed it.

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche