Growing Leaf Lettuce During the Heat of Summer


It’s July, and the garden is overflowing with a bounty of food. Tomatoes are beginning to ripen to a bright orange. Sweet corn and Russian Mammoth sunflowers tower above us. Vines of zucchini and watermelon slither snake-like down a slope.


As the thermometer tops out at 90 degrees, cooking is out of the question. A fresh lettuce salad topped with tomatoes and peppers would hit the spot tonight. But who grows lettuce in this heat?

I once mistakenly believed that I would never enjoy my garden’s bounty of summer tomatoes served with fresh greens. Tomatoes and leaf lettuce just don’t grow under the same conditions. Fortunately, lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, rather than the produce section, can be enjoyed together – even in the middle of summer. Varieties of heat tolerant lettuces such as Simpson Elite grow, and even thrive in these hot conditions.

Simpson lettuce growing  in hot July conditions.
Simpson lettuce growing in hot July conditions.

Since 90 degrees is extreme heat for my Wisconsin climate, I can’t vouch for how the lettuce would withstand Texas heat. Another option is to plant the heat tolerant variety under other plants for shading. I planted some lettuce under my large broccoli plants and a few tomato plants. Just make sure the larger plant doesn’t completely shade the lettuce. If not kept under control, indeterminate tomatoes can easily overtake and block out the sun to plants beneath them.

Even if you don’t live in the south, planting some heat tolerant varieties as an understory plant provides several advantages:

    1. The larger plants shade the delicate lettuce from the hot sun.
    2. Watering is more convenient when everything is close together.
    3. The lettuce planted close to other plants doesn’t need as much watering because of shade from the larger plants.
    4. The soil retains water better because the lettuce covers bare soil. A blazing sun quickly draws moisture out of bare soil.
    5. Soil does not erode as easily if there are plants to hold the soil in place.
    6. And my favorite reason – less weeding. The lettuce helps crowd out the weeds.

Now, I can devour a BLT in July knowing the “L” and the “T” came out of my soil. No longer do we have to give up salad from our gardens during the hot summer months. Now, if they could only produce a heat-tolerant arugula or spinach, I would be in heaven.

4H Dog Shows Teach Kids and Dogs


Training and showing dogs teaches patience and humility. Dog shows teach the handler (or trainer) to deal with situations that are unexpected, chaotic, messy, and definitely loud. The handler learns to maintain composure under the most humbling situations.

Imagine and old barn filled with thirty kids and thirty sniffing, barking, dogs. Each child leads her dog through a series of commands amidst the distractions of fragrant barn odors, dogs, and ogling humans. This past summer my oldest daughter, Miss T, participated in the 4H dog project. The dog project included training, caring for, and showing dogs. She trained and showed our collie, Samson.

If you know anything about collies, you’re probably aware that barking and herding are almost as instinctive as breathing. We’ve almost resolved the herding (except for bikes), but not the barking. I learned how much the inside of a high-ceiling barn amplifies even the slightest bark. And Samson’s yelp is not slight.

Still, Miss T stuck with it. At the end of the project she and Samson placed first in their class for pre-novice A, and second overall. Our whole family was stunned. Just the evening before, this was the same dog that pulled on the leash, barked incessantly, and ignored most commands.

Judge is giving Miss T instructions.
Judge is giving Miss T instructions.

The showing day began with a rocky start. Miss T entered the show ring with Samson at her heels. That didn’t last long. Between the dogs, humans, and weird smells (from the barn not the humans), his brain clicked from obedient dog to playtime pup. Samson jumped, and then he barked. He barked and barked and barked. He jumped again, and then barked some more. As he barked, other dogs joined in. The piercing shrill drowned out the judge speaking. At any moment, I thought the judges would ban him from the building.

Barking and yelping, Samson is pulling Miss T into the ring.  It doesn't look hopeful.
Barking and yelping, Samson is pulling Miss T into the ring. It doesn’t look hopeful.

As if a switch suddenly turned on, Samson calmed down and obeyed Miss T’s commands. She slowly guided him around the ring, halting, turning and then picking up the pace when directed by the judge. The two of them performed the figure eight with Samson at correct heel distance. I was satisfied with that amount of success and thought we could go home happy. But he wasn’t done surprising us.

When it was time for the stay commands, all the dogs and trainers took their place. For both of these commands, the trainer must stand a good distance in front of the dog. The dog must sit for one minute and lie down for three minutes. Samson sat proudly closely watching Miss T the entire time.

A rare moment of a calm, quiet collie.
A rare moment of a calm, quiet collie.

Then came the three minute “lie down” command. He lay down, again, never taking his eyes off his trainer. The seconds ticked away. I thought he would give in at any moment and run to my daughter. In the end, Samson was the only dog in his class to sit for one minute and to lie down for three minutes.

As a first time dog trainer, Miss T entered the show with few expectations. The leaders, who did a fantastic job, suggested that each trainer pick one or two realistic goals. I’m not sure how many of these children met their personal goals, but they all amazed me. When a dog didn’t cooperate, the trainer, who was anywhere between eight and fifteen years old, stayed in control and kept her composure.

Sometimes in life, we can’t control a situation, but we can control our response to it. The 4H dog show offers a great opportunity for kids to bond with their dog and take ownership, even under challenging circumstances. If you have a dog and access to a 4H club, the dog project is a worthwhile project for children to consider.

Are Grow Lights Worth The Extra Cost

As frugal gardeners, we grow plants from seed in our basement during late winter and early spring. A $3 seed packet provides enough tomato plants for two to three seasons, plus plants to give away. And we grow a lot of tomatoes. If you consider the cost of purchasing pricey herb and perennial plants , the savings doubles. Gather your seeds, growing medium, and water. You’re almost on your way to an indoor garden.

But there’s still one thing missing. Light. Herein lies the frugal gardener’s dilemma: splurge on expensive grow lights or economize with basic shop lights?

In the past we’ve opted for the economy route. Our plants grew. It was nothing impressive. We planted extra for plants that didn’t make it. This year we tried something different and wound up with interesting results.

Light Needed by Plants
Outdoors, the sun amazingly provides all the colors of the spectrum. Plants soak up the red and blue colors with the most intensity. These colors allow them to photosynthesize, flower, and produce fruit. It keeps them growing in all their glory. Most indoor lighting produces a limited spectrum of colors and lower intensity of light. Intensity can be offset by allowing 15 – 18 hours of light. (A timer for the light works great for this.) But intensity doesn’t solve the color problem.

Lighting Options
Lighting options abound, but the most common fall under two categories, fluorescent shop lights at $4 a bulb or fluorescent grow lights at $8 a bulb (both T12 bulbs). Standard shop lights provide only one end of the spectrum, usually the cool bluish colors. Grow lights mimic the suns full-spectrum more closely, providing cool through warm tones.

Economizing with Shop Lights
In the past, we used standard shop lights. After reading garden forums and seeing the price of grow lights, it just didn’t seem worth it. I also believed that since we were just growing seedlings, we could get buy with simple shop lights. Soon the plants would be outside under the full spectrum of lights. Let’s face it, we often start seeds indoors to save money so why buy expensive lights if I don’t need them.

Make no mistake, plants do grow under shop lights. Our plants grew. Some grew tall and spindly reaching for the light. It looked like they might snap with the slightest brush of a breeze. And some of them did. Other times, the plants grew slowly into short, sad little impostors. We compensated by planting more than we needed. But this required more space, more seeds, more potting mixture, more fertilizer, and more time. And that was just to increase our odds of having a decent garden. Suddenly, the economy version didn’t seem so economical.

After a lot of investigating, I believe there are a few things happening. First, I think our five year old T12 fluorescent bulbs had weakened in intensity. Apparently, the cheaper T12 bulbs we chose lose intensity over time. That would explain the legginess and stretching. Replacing the bulbs with newer lights, either shop lights or grow lights, would have fixed the “spindly-plant” problem.

However, with the grow lights all the seedlings are growing into lush and healthy plants. No sad, sickly short plants. Lighting with only cool spectrum colors can result in stunted growth. And overall, all the plants appear healthier and hardier. Our Thai basil even started flowering!

I’m happy with the results which I partially attribute to the full-spectrum lighting. But I I must admit other factors contributed to their improved vigor: adding new lights that haven’t faded in intensity, blowing a fan on the plants, and raising the temperature of the environment by enclosing it in plastic. Still, I believe the full-spectrum grow lights provide optimal indoor lighting conditions to grow healthy and resilient plants.IMG_0229

One last point: We are currently using cheaper T12 full spectrum bulbs. Next time, I would invest in the T8 bulbs. T8 bulbs cost more but would be worth the investment. Compared to T12 bulbs, T8 bulbs provide more intensity with less energy and don’t lose much of their intensity over time.

What type of lighting do you use to start indoor seedlings?

Oregano Education Series (3 of 3): What’s In A Name?

Interested in growing your own oregano?  Before buying those seeds, read the packet closely.

Seed companies slap the “oregano” label on a variety of plants.  But many of these plants are nothing like the Italian herb.  It’s not enough to buy oregano seed.  You need Greek — not Italian — oregano seed for that authentic Italian flavor.  But even that doesn’t guarantee your getting the correct herb.

First decide what type of flavor you want.  The flavor I’ve always associated with Italian cooking has a strong, savory — not sweet — taste.  It even has a slight spiciness to it.  Used with restraint, it balances the acid of tomato sauces beautifully.  It also adds an earthy, rustic flavor to the best pizzas.   As an accent, rather than a dominant flavor, it creates depth in Italian and Mediterranean dishes.

I realize not everyone likes the strong flavor of Greek oregano.  Sweet marjoram, also a type of oregano, tastes much milder than Greek oregano.  Another choice is Italian oregano, a cross between marjoram and oregano.  A dash of Italian oregano adds a sweeter, more-Americanized flavor to tomato sauces.  You can find more detailed information on Italian oregano at the Herb Society.

If it’s true oregano flavor you want, skip the mild imposters and purchase Greek oregano.
But there’s still one more thing to know.  Latin.

The botanical name, or genus, of oregano is Origanum.  A variety of species and sub-species fall under this classification.  And that’s where the confusion begins. Furthermore, many seed packets are sold as oregano when they may not even belong to the same genus.  Margaret Roach, from A Way to Garden, points out that Mexican oregano falls under the genus Lippia not Origanum.  So Mexican oregano isn’t even oregano!

I’ve consistently found two oregano names listed as the Greek oregano associated with Italian cooking:  Origanum vulgaris hirtum and Origanum vulgaris heracleoticum.  These subspecies of oregano are often used interchangeably.  The latter, heracleoticum, seems to be most consistently true to the Italian herb according to the folks over at Growing Taste.  It’s also the oregano named at A Way to Garden,  a blog with a wealth of reputable information.

Many oregano plants continue to reseed, offering you an unlimited supply year after year in some of the coldest regions.  If the oregano is a cross with another plant, like Italian oregano, you are likely to end up with a different herb over time.  This gives you two choices.  Either trim the plant back before going to seed, or treat it as an annual that you replant yearly.  I didn’t trim back my own “imposter, hybrid plant” before it went to seed and ended up with a disappointing result.

So if your ready to grow your own tiny taste of Italy, grab the Greek oregano.  Look for the Latin name Oreganum vulgaris heracleoticum.  As two added precautions, you might want to pull up a old oregano plants and plant the new oregano in a new location, out of reach of any stray seeds from a previous oregano plant.

An online seed company, Terroir Seeds, sells the Greek oregano, Oreganum vulgaris heracleoticum.  I’ve not purchased from this company in the past, but plan to try it.  A reviewer at their website raves about the true, oregano flavor from this seed company.  While there are probably other sources, I’m not finding many places that sell this exact subspecies.  At any rate, Terroir is a good place to start.

Good luck, and happy gardening!

Meriam Ibrahim Finds Temporary Refuge at U.S. Embassy in Sudan

Prayers have been answered. Meriam Ibrahim and her family have found a safe haven at the U.S. embassy in Sudan (( . According to Fox News, Meriam’s attorney also confirmed that the family was staying at the embassy.

In case you haven’t heard, Meriam and her two young children were recently released from a Sudanese prison. Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian mother from Sudan, was condemned to death for refusing to renounce her faith. She was also convicted of adultery because her marriage to a Christian man was not recognized. She was sentenced to one hundred lashes for that crime. Shackled and chained in prison, she gave birth to a baby girl. Meriam’s newborn and her toddler son remained in an over-crowded, filthy prison with her.

Meriam’s story clearly demonstrates the hardships and persecutions faced by Christian women living in a Muslim world. They are at the mercy of a male-dominated society that views women as chattel with no rights. Add being non-Muslim woman to this view, and you create an violent environment for women. Maybe it’s time to rethink what some in our country call a war on women.

After worldwide pressure, Meriam’s case was appealed and both convictions were overturned. Meriam and her children were free. Well, they were as free as a Christian woman could be in Sudan. Upon Meriam’s release, she was reunited with her husband, Daniel Wani. But the family’s trouble was far from over.

Meriam’s release enraged a Muslim man claiming to be her half-brother. The man, Al-Samani Al-Hadi, vowed to kill her and seek revenge against other Christians. (( It was clear the family would not be safe in Sudan. While trying to attain the proper documents to leave the country, the family hid in an unknown location for the first day after Meriam’s release. ((

The U.S. Embassy helped Meriam secure papers to leave Sudan and enter the U.S. with her children and husband. The family made it to the airport, documents in hand. Wani, a naturalized U.S. citizen, should have had no problem leaving the country with his family. But the NISS, a national security force with a reputation for torture, detained the family last Tuesday at the airport in Khartoum. They alleged Meriam presented forged documents. The family initially remained in custody of the NISS before being handed over to the police. ((

And, the dangers kept coming. Wani told Agence France-Presse that death threats had been made against Meriam. (( death threats appeared to come from somewhere withing the Muslim community. It was not clear, at least to me, whether the police at this point were Meriam’s jailers, protecters, or both. But police protection alone would not keep the family safe. The family needed protection from the U.S. embassy until they were allowed to leave Sudan. Sudanese officials finally agreed to release the family to the U.S. embassy on Friday.

The family cannot leave the country, but they have found a temporary refuge at the embassy. As of now, the family appears to be safe and receiving the proper care. But until they land on U.S. soil, their future remains uncertain. Continue praying they make it out of Sudan safely.

Christian Mother Freed from Prison but Detained in Sudan

Meriam Ibrahim almost escaped persecution for her Christian faith. Almost. She, her husband, and their young children almost escaped Sudan. But not quite.

Emaciated from her captivity, Meriam and her family made it as far as the Khartoum airport. Then everything changed, and it changed for the worse.

The National Intelligence Security Service (NISS) took the family into custody at the airport. They claimed Meriam didn’t have the right paperwork to leave the country, a serious crime in Sudan. ((

There is some dispute whether she was arrested or detained. Fox News reported that a spokeswoman from the State Department had been assured by the Sudanese government that Meriam and her family were safe and just being held until the proper paperwork was produced. No one seems to know exactly where they are being held, however.

Detained or arrested, there is reason to be fearful. The NISS, also known as “the agents of fear”, have built a reputation for their brutal tortures and killings. (( These “agents of fear” can bypass the legal system and do anything to it’s captors without repercussions. It’s all in the interest of national security. Once arrested, some are taken to secret locations and tortured. We don’t know that this happened to Meriam, but the world should not rest easy while she is in the hands of the NISS.

Background on Meriam’s Situation
Meriam’s captivity began in February when she was arrested on charges of apostasy and adultery. The court convicted her on both crimes, apostasy for converting from Islam to Christianity and adultery for marrying a Christian man (a marriage not recognized, and therefore making her an adulteress). She was sentenced to one hundred lashes for adultery and sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy. Her toddler son, Martin, was imprisoned with her while she waited for her sentence to be carried out.

Adding to the horror, Meriam was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Shackled during labor, she gave birth to a girl, Maya, in the prison. Maya began her early life in prison with her brother, Martin.

Meriam and her lawyer maintained the charges were false. Meriam had never been a Muslim, and therefore never left the Muslim religion. Her Christian mother raised her as a Christian, and she had always followed her Christian faith.

However, Meriam’s father, who left her mother when Meriam was a child, was Muslim. In Sudan, anyone with a Muslim father must follow the Muslim religion. To choose another religion is a crime punishable by death. But the law has no problem with an Islamic man abandoning his wife and child.

A man claiming to be a relative of Meriam’s father’s, Al-Samani Al-Hadi, was willing to step into Meriam’s life: he was first her first accuser. In a wild CNN interview, Al-Hadi claimed she had been a Muslim but then her Christian husband gave her “potions” to turn her into a Christian. Apparently, accusations of magic potions are enough to condemn pregnant Christian woman in the Sudanese-Sharia world.

Al-Hadi’s intense hatred of Christians increased when the appeal court overturned her case, thus freeing her. Al-Hadi said he would kill her himself if she was not executed for refusing to renounce Christianity. (( He has also vowed revenge on Christians in a CNN interview: “The Christians have tarnished our honor, and we will know how to avenge it.”

Test of Faith
Meriam isn’t one to abandon her loyalties. The judge gave Meriam an opportunity to renounce her faith. Meriam refused. She faced flogging and then hanging. Still, she remained faithful to Christ.

She inspires me, but she also makes me exam my own loyalty to my faith. Would I behave like Peter before Jesus’ crucifixion and deny Christ? Or would I behave like Peter after Jesus’ earthly death and willingly die for my God? I pray for the courage to choose the latter.

U.S. and World Involvement
The U.S. has given 159 million dollars in aid so far this year to Sudan ((, a country known for it’s atrocious human rights abuses. Some of this money is earmarked for economic recovery, a monetary boost to a government that imprisons and kills people for their faith. Maybe we should rethink where we send foreign aid.

The State Department and U.S. Embassy helped secure her initial release. Members of Congress have spoken out; the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the persecution. The House has been working on resolution, as well. Diplomats, prime ministers, Christians, faith-based organizations, and human rights groups — all of these throughout the world have spoken out.

Pray for Meriam and her family, but pray also that President Obama will speak out for her. So far, he has been silent. His words could possibly change her fate. Meanwhile, Meriam waits.

Why the John Hancock Building is a Must-See Chicago Attraction, Part 2

The 360 Experience
The Hancock’s observation floor is now called 360 Chicago. A fitting name, 360 Chicago offers some of the best views of the city. The entire John Hancock experience, from the views to the 45 second elevator ride up 94 floors, makes this a great family destination point.

View from 360 Chicago (Hancock Observatory) of north shore in Chicago.
View from 360 Chicago (Hancock Observatory) of north shore in Chicago.

You purchase tickets for 360 Chicago at ground level. Then the fastest elevator in the world whisks you up to the 94th floor (( You might experience some tummy rumbling and ear popping, but it’s over in seconds. The door opens. You step out into a glass walled room. Beyond the glass, sky and water stretch for miles and miles. The giant ferris wheel at Navy Pier is the first Chicago landmark you see. Navy Pier is the strip of land that juts out from the city. Lake Michigan disappears into the horizon line with Lake Shore Drive [LSD to Chicagoans] running along the Great Lake.

Over to the south, Willis Tower (Sears Tower) stands out with it’s own dark, iconic presence. On the west side, the city blurs into the suburbs and beyond. You get a great view of the street life below in all the views. My favorite vantage point is the north wall. It’s a great juxtaposition of Lake Michigan, Oak Street Beach, LSD traffic, and amazing Chicago architecture. It reminds me that Chicago does really have a bit of everything.

View from the 360 Chicago looking south.  Sears/Willis Tower  and Trump Tower in distance.
View from the 360 Chicago looking south. Sears/Willis Tower and Trump Tower in distance.

The amazing views were somewhat compromised by the bright sun and haze. It’s still worth it, but I would love to see these views at night. Chicago has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world. Daylight doesn’t do it justice. There is something magical about seeing the night sky as a backdrop for the brightly lit buildings. One of my goals this summer is to visit the Hancock at night, camera in hand.

Another option is the open-air, screened viewing. However, it was not open the day we went because of the construction for the newest feature, Tilt. I also think it would have been too cold. Remember, it’s six degrees cooler at the top, and we were almost at the top.

Tilt 1000 Feet over the City
We visited the Hancock a week before the new attraction, Tilt, opened. In case you haven’t heard, Tilt is an enclosed, glass-walled promontory that — you guessed it — tilts you out 1000 feet over the city of Chicago (( Your body is angled somewhere between a vertical and horizontal “tilted” position.

Audio Tours
I had read about the free multi-media tour, but somehow we missed that. Instead, my kids listened to the audio tour for $6 each. Adults paid $8. Since I had already dug deep enough into my pockets, I skipped the audio tour for myself. My children listened and learned about the views, architecture and history of the city. (One note: My children, ten and twelve, listened to the adult audio and paid the $6 price because the children’s audio wasn’t available. Based on their response and interest, the adult audio seemed age appropriate for them.)

Shopping and Eating in the Sky
When you’re ready to sit down, you can relax in the cafe area right on the same floor. Grab a table and sip an espresso while enjoying the views. There is a menu for snacks, drinks and a light lunch. We didn’t eat at the cafe because we had lunch plans at the Cheesecake Factory on the first floor.

There is a small gift shop on the top floor to help you part with more of your money. But you have another gift shop opportunity when you leave. The elevator ride down conveniently drops you off inside another gift shop. The bottom floor gift shop is much bigger so you might want to wait until you get down there.

Who Should Go
While the Hancock is a great family activity, I would suggest it more for school age children. Young children may enjoy it, but school age children are likely to get more out of it. I honestly don’t think my three year old would get enough out of it for me to justify the cost. But others may have another take on this, especially if they want the entire family to experience it together.

When to Visit
You can experience 360 Chicago any day of the year between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. They stop admitting visitors at 10:30 p.m. During peak season, summers, weekends, and holidays, the lines can be an hour or more. The ideal time to visit is during the school year on a weekday morning. We visited on a Monday morning, and there was no line. We paid admission and took the elevator right up to the 94th floor. We had our pick of panoramic views.

It’s not a cheap family outing, which is why I recommend it for children who are old enough to appreciate it. The cost is $18 for ages 12 and up and $12 for ages 3 to 11. Those under three are free. Tilt costs $5 plus admission. (However, 360 Chicago’s site — link says this is an “introductory” price.) A variety of ticket options are available at If you plan to visit museums, it’s worth looking into one of the bundled packages that include museum visits and the John Hancock for one price.

Getting There
If you don’t mind city traffic or paying a lot for parking, it’s easy enough to take one of the three major expressways into the Streeterville area ((Streeterville is the neighborhood surrounding the John Hancock building.)). You can get specific directions and parking information at 360 Chicago. Just be prepared for long waits during heavy traffic periods. Rush hour and weekends heading into the city are congested driving times. An earlier morning weekend commute (before 9 a.m.) would make the drive less stressful, especially during the summer. If you park at the Hancock Building, remember to get your ticket validated to save $5 off the parking price.

When I look at the Hancock and the surrounding city, I’m struck at how it epitomizes the American ideal. The Hancock shows not only what Chicago, a town I miss dearly, can do, but what American ingenuity can accomplish. The Hancock demonstrates the guts and vision that can only be realized in a free society, a society that values individuality and competition. It truly represents America at its best.

Why the John Hancock Building is a Must-See Chicago Attraction, Part 1

Part 1: The Hancock Experience from Ground Level

This is Part 1 of a 2 part series on visiting the John Hancock Building in Chicago.  Part 1 discusses discusses the building’s exterior and it’s significance to Chicago, architecture, and human potential. Part 2 takes you up to the 94th floor for the 360 Chicago experience.  

John Hancock in Chicago
Ground level view of John Hancock Building in Chicago

You can’t miss it on your drive into Chicago. The dark masculine skyscraper stretches over 1,100 feet into thinning air. (( The jet black color contrasts with the bright buildings that dot the skyline. Whatever you do, don’t confuse it with it’s rival, the taller and more popular Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower). This monster of steel and glass is the John Hancock Building.

The John Hancock is the 33rd tallest building in the world and the 4th tallest in Chicago. (( To give you some perspective on this, Chicago meteorologist, Tom Skilling, says the top of the building is 6 degrees cooler than ground level temperatures. (( Talk about climbing into the clouds!

But there is something else that draws us in. It commands us to stare, point, photograph. It’s our man-made mountain that we scale via elevator ride. Humans have always sought to climb toward heaven. Sometimes this desire to climb higher is pure hubris and has gotten the best of us — think Tower of Babel.

Yet the skyscraper doesn’t always reek of arrogance. It shows what man can do with the gifts endowed to him by God. A building that towers over others and reaches far into the sky captivates us. It often defies what we think is possible. We stand at the bottom, crane our necks to look straight up and ask, “Wow, how did they do that?”

The John Hancock is more than an ordinary skyscraper (if there is such a thing). It is an architectural and engineering masterpiece. Although at one time, some debated whether it was an architectural marvel or an inky stain on the Chicago skyline.

Regardless, its presence commands attention. The steel and glass rectangular structure tapers as it climbs up toward the sky. This creates a sturdy foundation that allows it to stretch heavenward. Giant X braces and vertical steel columns surround the facade creating strong, dynamic lines that enhance it’s masculinity.

Like every good design, form and function work together. The X’s serve as diagonal braces that tie to the exterior steel columns. (( This helps resist wind forces by transferring them back and forth between the braces and the columns. This unique framing system functions as a steel tube that supports the building. (( The tube concept is truly unique. It economizes on cost and space. Less steel is needed and interior space isn’t taken up with support structures.

Read part 2 of this post to learn more about 360 Chicago and experience John Hancock from the 94th floor.

A Typical Homeschool Day: Sublime Existence or Flawed Reality?

Have you ever considered homeschooling but wondered what it’s like? It depends on the day, the week, or even the moment.

Here is one moment: The two big kids hunch over the kitchen table and write answers to their history lesson. They have entered “the zone”, that place where time goes unnoticed. They travel back thousands of years to a forgotten time, immersed in the world of the early Greeks, also know as the Mycenaeans. Barbarians knock down city walls. They terrorize the city with their iron weapons. Fathers and sons fight back with inferior bronze swords. Mothers hold their babies while witnessing all the bloodshed. Many Mycenaeans perish. Others flee the rocky, Greek peninsula. These ancient people disappear into history. But their story now lives on through my children, and this story connects both kids to their human history in a very profound way.

This is homeschooling — an edited and carefully framed vision of homeschooling. Missing are the the fears, uncertainties, chaos, even the criticisms from the anti-homeschooling masses. The scene above is no less true, but it reveals only part of the truth.

In another picture, my son fidgets in his chair and “accidentally” kicks his sister. Next, he complains about redoing his math lesson. Weary myself, I make a note to find more examples on time-elapsed problems. It’s going to be another late night.

Chaos has invaded my house. A basket of laundry sits on the kitchen chair, and the days worth of dishes have accumulated in the sink. Little Z has made a trail of toys: stuffed animals, play dishes, a pink tutu, and puzzle pieces wind a path through the living room. The trail ends at the tent, made from from draping a queen-size sheet over two arm chairs. In the corner, I hear the dog chewing something. I investigate and a thud hits the floor. Samson, our dog, looks up at me, guilt in his dark eyes. A cobalt blue puzzle piece rests between his paws with the edges chewed and frayed. I scold him, grab the puzzle piece, and tell Little Z to pick up her toys.

In my edited version of homeschooling, my obedient child would cheerfully pick up every toy. But this is reality, our reality. Little Z starts to whine. She can’t pick up the toys. The toys are for the camping trip in the untamed outback of our living room. (I don’t know where the tutu fits in with the camping plans, but she does.) Looking into her dreamy little eyes, I notice the peanut butter smeared on her right cheek. A smidgen of it has made its way into her hair. Peanut butter must also be on her hands, hands that have touched every object, wall, toy, and piece of furniture. That puzzle piece must have been an especially good treat for the dog. I grab a wet cloth from the kitchen and wipe a screaming three year olds face, hands, and hair.

My son, frustrated by all the noise, tells me he can’t concentrate. My daughter puts her two cents in and orders him to work downstairs. He shouts a predictable, “Be quiet, your not the boss.” She responds that he is always mean to her and then rattles off a laundry list of offenses. It’s official: An argument has begun. I tell them to both be quiet or there will be no dinner or swim practice. Uhg…Am I really ready to follow through with this? It doesn’t matter. I called their bluff; they’re back working.

Not everyday is like this. Most days aren’t even like this. But some days do turn out this way. These days I question my resolve. My mind wanders for a moment thinking how my days would be spent if I weren’t homeschooling.

Little Z and I could play all day. We would attend mom and tot groups. I could dress her up in cute little outfits that didn’t smell like peanut butter. My house would be neat. I could join the PTA. I could write during Little Z’s nap time. Or I could go back to work, wear nice clothes, get manicures. We would have more income, maybe buy a car with less than 100,000 miles it. We would travel to exotic far-away places…Oh, the places we would go.

Ok, none of that is reality either. So here we are. The house is a mess. The math lesson didn’t go as planned. My little one wears peanut butter in her hair instead of pretties.

I remind myself where my children began the year and where they are now: My son, who had given up on himself, now pushes himself through the math lessons. My daughter is finally being challenged. Both have rekindled an excitement for learning. They now follow rules based on absolutes of right and wrong, like the Ten Commandments. The earlier argument between the big kids is nothing compared to the school setting, where four letter words and physical brutality result. It’s not perfect. But it’s the life we’ve chosen for now. And in it’s own strange way, it works for us.

Many parents say they could never homeschool their children. I think the fear of the unknown and the desire for perfectionism often drive this. While homeschooling is not for everyone, I believe many families can do this well. It’s hard, no doubt. But it’s worth the sacrifices. I’ve found that the chaos at home is nothing compared to the chaos at school.

Bee Swarm in the Backyard

Picture a swarm of bees. Now picture them in your backyard.

Bees swarmed our backyard last week, just steps from our door. Here’s a picture below.

A mound of bees under a blooming lilac bush.
A mound of bees under a blooming lilac bush.
The lilac bush provided a temporary nest before returning to their hive.
The lilac bush provided a temporary nest before they  returned to their hive.

My kids were running around with squirt guns only fifty feet away. Immediately, my apocalyptic mind jumped to visions of African Killer Bees attacking my babies. I rushed my kids into the house, vaguely remembering walls and roofs didn’t save Tippi Hedren from attacking seagulls in the attic scene from the The Birds. Certainly Hitchcock intended to make a movie about bees but just never got around to it.

Back to reality and reasonable thinking. First, African Killer Bees don’t come this far north. Second, with reports of the dwindling bee population, we’ve been planting flowers to attract more bees; so, this is probably a good thing. Finally, just when I think I’ve transformed myself into some frontier woman because I don’t live near a freeway or el train, I’m humbled by how little I understand about country living.

It was time to find someone who did know something. So I called the experts at the University of Wisconsin Extension Office. A woman, who had just started bee-keeping, reassured me that this is a good thing. She explained that the honey bees (not African and definitely not killer bees) were probably splitting off from an overcrowded hive and searching for a new nest. I also learned that swarming bees aren’t likely to attack unless antagonized.

Great! The bee population is alive and well in my backyard. Many of our plants, including those in our food supply, depend on these tiny workaholics. The bees transport pollen from one flower to another to allow reproduction. Many species would die out without the help of the glorious honeybee. We owe a lot to bees.

As much as I appreciate God’s tiny, beneficial creatures, I don’t want a swarm of bees buzzing around my backyard. Kids, squirt guns, and happy puppies may inadvertently antagonize. But extermination wasn’t the answer either.

The woman at the extension office rescued us with a win-win solution. She knew an expert beekeeper just down the road from us! The beekeeper showed up within a half hour to assess the situation. He said he would return later that evening with a hive and lure them into it. If the queen was buried beneath the mound of bees (fingers crossed), the right enticement would likely draw them into the hive. The beekeeper would have more bees, I would be rid of the swarm, and no bees would be hurt in the process.

As an added bonus, I learned he sells honey to the public. I had been looking for a local source for some time. Now I had a source within minutes from my house. He shared a wealth of information on bees and beekeeping. In the past, I found that beekeepers — my Grandfather was one — are happy to share their knowledge. He was no exception. (Hmmm….an idea for a homeschool science unit was beginning to form in my mind.)

As luck would have it, the bees returned to their hive before he arrived. He said this might happen. I was disappointed for him. But I also felt fortunate to have a beekeeper just around the corner. He was working hard to keep the bee population going; we now had a local source for honey, and he had new business. Maybe it was a win-win situation after all.

For more information on the importance of bees, check out the sites below.