My family and I attended an unschooling conference recently. We were pumped, ready, excited to go and be with people like us, who homeschool in a sort of nontraditional manner—instead of “having school at home” where there is a designated school area in our home and our son sits there for 6 or 7 hours, 5 days a week, we unschool. Looser, more laid back, much more eclectic and flexible which works for our crazy schedules we still use a curriculum as a reference to be sure we don’t forget important stuff like fractions… and grammar… and all that other stuff I forgot as soon as the test was over.
I mean, LOOKIT this thing—it just SCREAMS, “Come to me, all ye old hippie-chicks and beloved families!”
And there WERE people like us there—people who travel, explore museums and parks, and do extra-curricular activities with their kids like music lessons and tae kwon do lessons, as well as other worthwhile endeavors that are so much more attainable and enjoyable when you’re not confined to the public school year. People whose children are all reasonably polite, and clean, and respectful, and poised. The children were confident and moved throughout the resort with an aura of calm mastery of the world around them. They needed no supervision and didn’t need to be within their parents’ sight at all times. They were the ones holding doors open for folks, watching younger siblings, and attending sessions.
And then there were… The Others.
The Others are the children of the parents who believe the best thing they can do for their offspring is to abandon them. Which is weird because they are the parents who read books like Attachment Parenting and The Family Bed—books that tell you your kids can’t get ENOUGH of being close to their parents.
I believe those books. I believe in home birth (Alec was born right here—3 feet from where I’m sitting—with 2 midwives, Ward and a collie named Slippers in attendance) and the Family Bed and not letting your baby cry itself to sleep. I believe all that.
Here’s where The Others’ parents and I apparently part ways.
The Others’ parents believe that children are born—right out of the box—knowing what they need and it’s their job as parents to Release Them Into The Universe to find it. Their children are not fettered by things like bedtimes, or baths, or anyone forcing them to eat healthy foods, or teaching them manners, how to read, what 2 + 2 equals. All that knowledge is theirs for the finding, as they need it.
What that looks like in Real Life is packs of feral, unwashed, illiterate, rude urchins over-running a very nice resort—scuffling in the dining room, dropping stuff off of balconies, dancing on the pool tables—all things we personally witnessed. IF they attended sessions, they just sort of drifted in and out. A great number of them could be found in the darkened Violent Video Game Room (actual title from the literature—NOT my own assessment of it), which was open 24/7 with no time or age limit. No shit.
If the goal of these parents is to raise children Freely and Naturally, I’m for it.
They need to work with the entire Nature scenario, not just pick and choose.
In Nature, animals have their young at home, not a hospital. Homebirth—I’m there.
In Nature, animals keep their young close to them day and night, sleeping in the same nest. Family Bed—I’m there.
I should mention here that if you are a reptile or insect In Nature, you do, in fact, throw your children at the universe and abandon them, but generally, that’s why they have many, many young (or eggs) at a time instead of just ONE and up to this point, The Others’ parents have acted in a very birdlike or mammalian way, what with that Attachment Parenting stuff so I’d assume they’d keep it up as follows…
In Nature, animals TEACH their young how to eat, how to act, how to care for their physical selves, how to be a part of the family group. Children need to LEARN how to act, eat, bathe, play together—they DON’T automatically know that stuff. Children need to know that they’re not the center of the universe—that while yes, they are each as special as Christmas and unique as snowflakes, so is every other child and that needs to be respected. They need to understand that their bodies need certain foods to stay healthy and a certain amount of sleep to be well and they need to know you love them enough to MAKE them take the steps to be good citizens, healthy people, and good friends.
In Nature, animals know where their young are at all times because the world is a dangerous place if you’re small, and helpless, and don’t understand that THERE’S A FREAKIN’ INTERSTATE HIGHWAY RIGHT NEXT TO THE RESORT. Children aren’t stupid. They are fully aware that they are smaller than adults; they don’t have car keys, checkbooks or other things to facilitate being Fully in Control of their destiny. They need to know—NEED TO KNOW—that the adults closest to them ARE there and they know where they are and are available to help them and keep them safe from the world, from each other, from themselves.
There were children as young as three wandering around untended—up and down the hallways and flights of stairs, outside (did I mention the INTERSTATE HIGHWAY?), even running around the pool. The pool with no lifeguard on duty. This may have been freeing for the children and their parents, but it gave this ol’ momma heart palpitations and I’m not kidding.
In Nature, if a little cubbie steps out of line and acts ugly towards another cubbie, momma corrects it—fitting the severity of the reprimand to the severity of the crime, but they DO get corrected. Allowing a child to be rude and run wild not only makes for a very disagreeable person to be around, but also makes it damn near impossible for the rest of us to appreciate that child’s innate “awesomeness”. I sat in a session run by a young man who was a product of this type of upbringing—one of the sessions for which we specifically attended this shindig, which will be detailed a bit farther down.
His hands and feet were filthy and his hair matted (trust me—it wasn’t in dredlocks) and every time someone said something not right in line with his thoughts and ideas, you could visibly see him “sull up” (a great term I learned after moving to the South) and pout. This guy was well into his 20’s and it wasn’t a good look for him.
We witnessed a young boy of about four making his way through the dining area. Another boy about the same size and vintage walked calmly up to him, punched him in the face and walked on. No repercussions from anyone. In one session a woman admitted shamefully that she had “interfered” when her EIGHT YEAR OLD was sucked into a gang brawl—and then she requested counseling to teach her to let her child grow on his own.
In Nature, if an offspring becomes too much trouble, you eat it.
Just kidding… By the end of the weekend I desperately wanted to go after The Others with a fire hose and a case of shampoo and toothpaste; they are definitely not consumable.
Now in an attempt at fairness, great chunks of the conference had to do with autistic children and home-schooling in the black community and since we have no autistic children and are Caucasian, we didn’t attend these sessions. They were all run by different leaders and may very well have been outstanding.
So I attended a session called Energy Sensitive Beings, because I had some very serious questions to ask. It was run by two people—one the obvious leader and one…not.
After just a few minutes, I was aware (as an Energy Sensitive Being myself) that the leader was more Showman than Shaman. Let’s call him Oren Harris (because that’s his name- see? – www.orenharris.com)
Anyone who says he can be Anything and Everything Anyone and Everyone Needs at any given time is…suspect. I actually expected him to break into song any minute or, at the very least, for an organ to drop down from the clouds accompanied by a winged choir.
I was in a room full of adults and they were all mesmerized by this man. I mean, really grown-up adults—I was NOT the elder in the room by a long shot, and I know I should’ve just up and left, but it was like a car wreck—you’ve just gotta watch—you don’t WANT to watch, but you just. Can’t. Turn. Away.
His girlfriend was looking to find something to do for her life’s work and by selective discussion, errrr…. Using the Flow of Energy, they were able to figure out that she’d like to be a massage therapist.
So she was all excited (which is GOOD, you SHOULD have a passion for what you’re going to do in life) and started ticking off things she needed to do from there: find a massage school, see about licensing and equipment…but he told her “NO—you want to BE a massage therapist—you ARE a massage therapist. You have the knowledge within you to do this.” So she hung out her shingle and has a growing herd of clients.
Ummm…. NO. Not just no, but HELL NO.
She has no idea of the workings of the human body and muscles and she’s really gonna HURT someone. Stuff like that has to be LEARNED, I don’t care how much Flow is running through your body.
And in speaking of the Power of the Energy, he related how he’d been leaving his house to come to the conference. His PHYSICAL body was headed for the car, but his ENERGY stopped him in his tracks; wouldn’t let him continue to the car. So he listened to his Spirit and realized he’d left his computer in the house.
*The entire room gasped in wonder.*
Except for me. All I could hear was Stan from South Park’s voice, “Dude. You stopped to think if you forgot anything and you’re calling it Magical Energy? Weak.”
And I must confess to hearing that old Saturday Night Live character during his spiel about being everything for everyone all the time—the voice in my head kept saying, “GET to know me!”
Anyhow, the other guy was different. Let’s call him Gabriel, because that’s his name—no website or catchy phrases. Just Gabriel; one of my favorite names.
Different in that he clearly is uncomfortable with whatever Energy flows through him—he made no claims, no promises, and no sales pitches. He related things that had happened to him, do happen to him, that defy how “normal people” think and see, and I thought, “THIS one is the Real Deal.”
After the session, after all the adoring women had made arrangements for “private consultations” with Oren (conveniently held in his HOTEL ROOM) for the special conference rate of about a Ben Franklin each, I asked him my question, which had to do with Alec.
The smile froze on his lips, because it was more than “What do I do with my life?” or “How do I access the Energy of the Universe to my benefit?” This was a real, specific, serious question, and he was clearly flummoxed. I saved him by adding, “And I’d like to talk to HIM”, pointing at Gabriel. Oren said, “Oh, of course—that’d be best”, then tried to talk to me about the Sliding Scale of Payment. I told him we have NOTHING left after all our medical problems and this conference was REALLY expensive and Gabriel (who’d been studying my face very intently while I’d been relaying my concerns/fears) said quickly, “I’ll talk to you—no charge.”
They had to go lead another session but I was told to call Oren’s cell phone the next day to set something up. I did, and he never called back.
Not surprised. I suspect Gabriel was never even told I’d called.
The best moment of the conference for me was as we were walking past a session room and Oren spied us and came almost leaping out of the room.
He said, “I was in there and I suddenly FELT that you wanted to talk to me”.
I said, “Ummmm…. no. We were just going to the dining room,” and after introducing Ward and Alec to him we just kept on walking.
Score One for the Practical Hippie-chick.
The other session I was really hyped about was the one titled “Rethinking Housing”.
I am not an expert on natural building techniques, although we’ve attended a hands-on workshop and have friends who’ve built their own homes with their own hands with stunningly beautiful results. I’ve done extensive reading on various types of natural building from strawbale to earthbag to earth-bermed to yurts to stone to log to cob.
And I guess we’ve been lucky.
The people we know and the people we’ve met who’ve built, and more importantly, have TAUGHT classes on how to do all this, have been hands-on, researched, tried and tested, learned-from-others, sensible folks who understand that the crux of the matter is that what we’re doing is BUILDING something—a home—that people will live in with all the literal mess that entails, and that these homes need to be natural—yes. Beautiful—yes. Sustainable—yes. Safe—absolutely. Seems like a true No-Brainer, yea verily a larger No-Brainer than say…Don’t tug on Superman’s cape, don’t spit into the wind, don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and not messing around with Jim.
These folks we’ve met, without exception, have real-world experience in conventional building, or a solid grasp of the laws of physics, or are actually living in something they’ve built themselves after experimenting on projects smaller of scale—noting what works and what does not, and being very careful to adjust their methods accordingly.
And I thought (foolishly) that that’s how all the Natural Builders were.
I was looking forward to this session in particular, since we are, as I type, breaking ground on our house that we’ve been planning for roughly the last 10 years or so. Our intent has always been to have a home that is very efficient, very casual, and that needs a minimum of outside interference for heating, cooling, and ventilation.
One thing we’ve done differently than the rest of the Green-Builder crowd is to not look at the Green Products of the Future (one reason being I can’t envision such stuff without also feeling disappointed that the year 2000 did NOT in fact see everyone with flying cars, as promised back in the ‘60’s).
The whole Flying Car debacle and our current 100-plus-year-old home nudged us to look backward for clues to comfort. Because our beloved old house may be many things, but one thing it is, most of the time, is comfortable.
Here in Texas it’s comfortable six months of the year during spring and fall—and those seasons are bracketed by 3 months of “Brrrr…where did I leave my socks?” and “Wow. I think the dog just melted”, respectively.
In 1890, there was no central air conditioning, so the ceilings of this house are 12 feet high, because heat rises. There are big windows all around and cross-ventilation not only within each room but from room to room all through the house. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And it’s completely foreign to most of today’s homebuilders.
When we designed our new house, we took all that stuff into consideration and presented it to the man with the blueprint software to be turned into something “official”. He kept trying to move doors and windows, add things like a dishwasher, and kept asking where the HVAC closet was going. (Trick question—there is no HVAC closet in our house because there is no central heat or air. I thought his head would explode till I started using the phrase “zoned climate control” as code for “wood stove” and “window a/c”.)
So our brand new home will be dependent largely on very old-timey ways to keep us not-too hot, not-too cold, but just right. Please pass the porridge.
So I was excited to talk to others who are thinking, nay RE-thinking, about housing, to hopefully get some additional ideas; maybe share some of ours if they would benefit others there. I walked into the room filled with anticipation and the very essence of open-mindedness.
As Bugs Bunny would say: “What a maroon.”
The leader of the discussion was the young, pouty man described earlier. A detailed look at the program shows that other than the “specialty” sessions regarding autistic children and the black community, Quin was leader or co-leader of a full quarter to a third of all sessions. He’s also the son of the woman who runs the conference.
I’m sure that’s just a coincidence…
His youth didn’t bother me. His lack of personal hygiene didn’t bother me, even though the only available chair in the room was next to his. What bothered me right from the git-go was the very apparent fact that the session really should have been called “Re-Thinking Housing as Long as it’s MY Way”.
He only wanted to talk about building with cob. Which is fine if that’s what you want for your house. Cob is wonderful stuff—sturdy, beautiful, and mostly forgiving if you follow a few simple rules.
For those who don’t know, cob is sort of like adobe without the block shape, free-form adobe. That’s where it gets its name from: the material is patted into oval slabs the size of a loaf of bread—literally corn-cob shaped and stacked, then smoothed into a seamless structure. It’s massive and great for certain climates, but its very time and strength intensive and there is a learning curve. It’s a simple recipe, but it needs to be strictly adhered to; it’s a simple idea with a lot of leeway for the shape of the house but it still needs to be structurally sound.
So I listened to this young man talk about the many things you can do with cob (and you can) and even though cob isn’t our thing, I’m always eager to hear new ideas.
Unless they clearly stink.
People asked him about what could be done in different climates and with different needs, i.e. very hot and dry or very cold and damp, and he had a ready answer for them all. Which is great, if the answers don’t just fly outta your head willy-nilly.
Not knowing enough about cob myself, I was just mildly questioning some of the answers in my own head.
“Is cob a good choice for tropical rainforest?” He said it’s perfect, but I’m not sure what with the 200% humidity and all that.
“How do you heat a cob home?” I had always heard about laying a stove pipe through the walls to make a large heat-sink, which he did mention, but he lost me on running tubing inside, what amounts to, clay walls that are supporting your entire house and running hot water through them. That part seemed to dare Fate by more than a little.
The talk moved briefly into straw-bale building—something he WOULD talk about apparently, and with as much authority as cob.
“I’m not a farm girl—so do I just go to the feed store and buy bales of hay?” He said yes.
To re-cap a few paragraphs ago, I am NOT an expert on either cob or straw-bale building, but I do know some basics of building in general.
In general, your building material needs to be inert. If you are building conventionally and are pouring a slab you remove the topsoil because it’s alive and will shift, shrink, decompose and otherwise get all squidgy under your slab. Even if you are doing a poured adobe/tamped earth and oiled floor you remove the topsoil. Wood needs to be dry, any clay or sand needs to be sifted so the organic matter is gone and…
You cannot use hay.
Hay is grass that’s been cut while green—it’s food. Animals eat hay because it’s still alive and can provide them with sustenance. When hay gets wet, or old, it gets moldy and breaks down into very unattractive (and reasonably toxic) piles of steaming goo.
Straw is grass and the stems of other stuff that’s gathered after it’s dead—it’s bedding. Animals pee on it and poop on it and THEN we take it and make compost out of it once all that organic matter is added to it. Straw lasts forever if kept dry because it’s already dead. It’s inert. And it’s what you need to build with.
So, knowing full-well that my opinion was not going to be welcomed, but armed with (and alarmed by) the knowledge that using hay does NOT = using straw, I raised my hand.
“Ummm…no—you can’t use hay. Hay is still alive and will break down after you build with it—you need straw, which is ok, because straw is cheaper.”
Quin slowly turns his head to look down his nose at me.
“That’s not true. You CAN build with hay—it’s the same thing.”
Thereafter he used the term “hay-bale house” for the rest of the session.
It sort of went downhill from there.
One woman shared ways to cool your home from what she’s learned by owning and living in an earthship-type house in New Mexico. Quin asked, “Do you live in a Mike Reynolds house?” referring to the man who pioneered building with old cast-off tires. She said no, she doesn’t—her house is built with the same principles, but out of (I think) cement blocks and she stated that a lot of the tire homes are being condemned due to off-gassing issues. “No, that’s not true,” Quin said petulantly. And yes, I scrubbed my entire brain for a fitting word and “petulantly” is what I mean, even though it’s rarely used for anyone over the age of three. She lives there. Why wouldn’t she know if that statement were true or not?
When asked if he himself lives in a cob or straw-bale no-energy-using house he said no—he lives in Arlington. Arlington, Texas is a huge city squished betwixt Dallas and Ft. Worth. He’s visited natural homes. He’s been to some workshops. And the Universe has directed him to be a builder of homes.
I’VE been to visit natural homes and I’ve been to a workshop, but MY universe tells me that I have as much business being in charge of building homes as I do laying eggs for breakfast.
Thus far, I hung in there—of course not sharing any of our ideas or what we’ve been learning by living in our old gracious home for 15 years, because any time anyone tried to steer the conversation away from his pet topics he literally “sulled up” (a wonderful term I learned by moving South- meaning to pout with a vengeance). It was fascinating, in a morbid way, to watch, but really unattractive in an adult male with a presumed leadership role.
The final straw (or maybe hay—they ARE interchangeable) was when a starry-eyed woman about my age (and that’s over the half-century mark, not someone who hasn’t lived long enough to know better) raised her hand shyly and asked, “Could you design and build a house for me?”
Quin’s face lit up and he smiled sweetly, in a predatory sort of way.
“Of course I can.”
I wanted to scream, “No! No he can’t. He can design and build a nightmare deathtrap that will cause you no end of grief, at least till that final moment when it all comes crashing down on your head, smothering you in leaky tubing, damp clay and moldy hay.”
But I knew it was too late for this crowd—they were under his spell.
And that’s when I walked out, horrified and appalled not only by the gall of this “expert” but by the following he was generating by simply sitting in the Leader Chair. Of course being the son of the conference organizer may also have had something to do with his doe-eyed unquestioning following, but I’m too big a person to point that out.
Here’s the thing. I’m sure Quin’s a nice young man who knows quite a bit about certain things, but if he’s not a tried-and-true, experienced expert on something, he’s got no business giving not just advice, but absolute directives.
Natural building is a wonderful thing. And for the most part, natural building is an attainable—even do-able—thing for most reasonably healthy people, but it’s not simple or easy.
It’s a very serious endeavor to BUILD A HOUSE—even a tiny one.
You need a sense of order and a good grasp of basic construction techniques.
You need to know when to ask for help but most importantly you need to research WHERE you ask for help.
I guess my naturally outgoing, yet suspicious, nature has always encouraged me to seek out and separate the true artists from the con-artists. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t do the same, although the popularity of the “Snuggie” should’ve tipped me off. My son, as skeptical as his mother, said, “A blanket with sleeves? Aren’t those called ‘robes’?” That’s my boy.
When you are looking for assistance in building your natural home, don’t do anything any differently than you would for a conventional home.
Get photos and go see completed projects personally if possible.
Demand references, a lot of references especially for projects similar to yours.
Get both photos and references with some age on them; you want to know your home will outlast you safely and beautifully.
Make sure there’s a contract stating exactly what is going to be done, how it’s going to be implemented, when it’s going to be completed and what guarantees come with it.
Yes, it’s Natural Building and should be approached, embraced and accomplished with joy and freedom, love and grace.
None of that is possible however, if your starting point is not knowledge and experience based. If your Professional of Choice does not possess anything other than “inherent energy flowing from the Universe through him and guiding him in the way of building” escort him off of your property (at gunpoint if necessary).
Because the bottom line is that the Universe does not protect and shelter your family—you do, and by extension your home does.
Your family deserves both you and their home to be solid, safe, sheltering, whimsical and joyful. You know you can be all those things—and with the right guidance, so can your Naturally Built Home.
Or, you can have this guy design and build it for you: www.isnessis.com
We didn’t stay at the resort to enjoy the “full experience”, but Alec did take part in the “Ropes course”, which was excellent because it was run by the resort, not the conference.
Alec also attended a session on a South American Martial Arts Ritual Dance, and he loved it. I’ll bet some of The Others would’ve loved it too—but he was the only child there.
And at the Family Marketplace Saturday night, we purchased a didgeridoo from another attendee who spent more than an hour with Alec the next day teaching him to play.
Ward attended a viewing of “The War on Children”, a movie about public schools.
The food was very expensive and not very good, but I guess that shouldn’t have surprised us since the resort, although beautiful is an airline training facility.
To say that I will forever resent the just over $400 spent on registration fees, plus food, to attend what amounted mostly to a Snake Oil Festival thinly veiled as a celebration of Being One With the Universe is really way too mild, but I guess it’s one of those Live and Learn Lessons.
I hate those.