Monday, September 29, 2008


On days 14-17, our caterpillars crawled up their sticks (with one going up the side of the jar instead) and assumed the "ready position", as I think of it. Each one makes a little silk pad to rest its back end on and also spins two silk strings to hang its top end from. Then it scrunches up (it really does look smaller than before) in the shape of a comma or apostrophe. It hangs there for about 36 hours, occasionally wiggling. See the one farther down the stick? It's in a more classic semi-upright position than the top guy, but I didn't get a good enough picture of that one.

After the allotted time has elapsed, the final molting occurs. The [looks like a caterpillar] wiggles and shakes off the last skin.And from inside that skin appears the chrysalis!It is so much more dramatic than watching the spinning of a cocoon. One moment it's a caterpillar, and the next a chrysalis. Several years ago we actually caught that moment on video, but it's not digital so I can't show you.You can still see the silk strings holding it in place.If you get an early "batch" of caterpillars (say, July), they'll emerge as butterflies in the same season. That happened to some at my sister's house this year. Ours almost always appear later (the final chrysalis formed September 17th), and the chrysalises in real life would overwinter outside with the butterflies emerging in the spring. The Family Butterfly Book states that overwintering species can be kept in the refrigerator and removed about 30 days before it's time for them to emerge. We've had some success with this (and some failure, too).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Caterpillar Anatomy

Swallowtail caterpillars have an organ just behind the head called an osmeterium. When it is bothered, the caterpillar turns a sort of pocket inside out, and these orange "horns" are pushed out and then withdrawn again.

The horns emit a real stink (reminding me of marigolds). Apparently this lets birds know that the caterpillars taste bad. One of our books (Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study has a unit on the Black Swallowtail) states that this protection is why they don't hide under leaves.

I've been trying to get a good photo of this phenomenon, but had no luck until today. Becca found a caterpillar outside in the parsley patch (the one that escaped during cleaning?) and we poked it a bit...for educational purposes, of course.
There was some discussion of bringing this guy into the habitat, but we've got several making chrysalises already (posting tomorrow I hope), so I decided not to be greedy. Besides, it will be fun to see if we can find this one's chrysalis outside in a few days--a real nature hunt.

Soup Night is Back

And I am so glad! We skipped all last year because there was so much going on in our family, and I really missed this event.

I've posted about soup night here; basically I make two soups and invite the neighbors. We have a casual meal and some easy visiting. Tonight was the first of three fall evenings. I'm hoping to plan four more, starting in January.

We had a lovely time tonight, with 34 folks in all, including some who had never attended before. I made clam chowder (bacon and cheese on the side) and taco soup (fritos, cheese, sour cream, onions, and Tabasco on the side) and provided simple drinks (water, tea, lemondade). Guests brought bread or fruit. Most of the children did eat before running off to play. We adults talked and laughed (and ate, of course).

Just in case you're wondering, yes, I did make too much soup. I always do. Who knows which will be the most popular or how many neighbors will show up? Besides, taco soup freezes well. Here's a picture Len took of the soup remaining with just half an hour to go:Those are 8 quart and 16 quart pots... =)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Caterpillar Diaries: Days 8-11

On day 8 the smallest caterpillar took a turn for the worse. When I cleaned the habitat I may have disturbed it too much (it really didn't want to leave the side of the jar--maybe it was molting), or maybe it was just not doing well anyway. Part of the time it wandered aimlessly around the jar, but mostly it just lay there. It seemed to be shrinking (these guys normally eat A LOT) and was dead by the next day. I hope it's not my fault.Above is a caterpillar on day 8. Notice how it's not spiky anymore. It's black with yellow spots and thin bands of green. Here's one the next day. Yes, it's grown, but it's not a giant--that's Becca's hand. Notice the three pointy legs near the head; it has 6 real legs. There are 4 sets of puffy prolegs farther back, which it uses for holding on to sticks or parsley stems (or fingers!).This is a day 11 picture. Now the green stripes are becoming more prominent. Soon it will look like a green caterpillar with black stripes. Look at its size next to the parsley leaves and compare to one of the first photos (below). Wow!
Below is a photo of "the guys" in their refreshed habitat this morning. I'll try to get a picture tomorrow to show just how much these four little piggies can eat. I'd really like a movie showing them eating--it reminds me of vertical corn-on-the-cob munching--but it's hard to focus through the jar. (BTW, if you look closely you can see 3 of the 4 in their "jungle". Try clicking on the picture to enlarge it.)
This year we are studying flying creatures in science, so we've jumped ahead several chapters to follow our up close and personal insects. We keep these guys on the school table or island and so observe them throughout the day. Marianna and Joe are also doing some narrating and drawing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Caterpillar Diaries: Day 5

Here are the caterpillars just before removal for a cleaning (the sticks are already out). All those little black specks are frass. Check out the growth already! Not only is this guy bigger than the other day, notice how its coloring has changed. It's still mostly black, but has yellow dots and is less spiky looking. You may be able to see the thin white stripes around its middle, all that's left of the white band from before. The different growth phases are called instars.
The contrast is even easier to see below, as one caterpillar hasn't changed as much yet.
After we change their parsley, the caterpillars usually have an active time, moving around and eating. On this day there appeared to be some jostling for position, including pushing and shoving ("Hey! You! Get off of my stem!"), although there were plenty of leaves for all.
Caterpillars are insects, so they have an exoskeleton that doesn't grow. As it gets tighter, a new exoskeleton forms and the caterpillar splits open the old one and crawls out of it. This is called molting.
Anyway, today Marianna saw a crumbled black blob just a few times bigger that a dropping. We suspected it was a discarded "skin" and looked at it under 40X magnification. I wish we could have taken a picture for you--it was so cool! You could see that it was opened (there was an inside and outside, although it was crumpled up), and could see lots of the little black spikes that the smallest caterpillars have.

Caterpillar Diaries: Day 3

These are the caterpillars on Day 3 (Saturday, September 13). They've grown a bit compared to the first picture, but still have the same coloring. Here's some wilting parsley. We remove the sticks, parsley, and caterpillars from the habitat for cleaning, usually every day. Cleaning consists of tapping out the droppings (called "frass"), then putting the sticks back in with fresh parsley and our charges.

Go Figure

So my cell phone battery was losing steam. It was holding a charge for just a day (vs. 3). Then the battery was low partway through the day, and at last it died just one hour off the charger. One would think it was time for a new battery, but one would be mistaken.

As Len suspected, when he got to the store he was faced with a choice:
  • order a battery (not in stock!) for $60-70, OR
  • get a new phone for $50 (then send in for the $50 rebate).
I have a new phone. It's not especially fancy, but I still need to learn its ways. So far I've made several calls (the memory was transferred, thank goodness), but I think I've only successfully answered once. I seem to keep hitting the wrong buttons. So if I hang up on you in the near future, please don't take it personally...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Please Pray

A young wife and mother is critically ill right now. Please pray for her and that God will grant a miracle if it is His will. And please pray for her family. They're facing either a very long and slow road to recovery or an even longer journey through grief.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

We Have Caterpillars!

In the spring we grow our herbs near the front door: basil, thyme, chives, mint, and parsley. The parsley is for us and also for the caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly. They usually show up around the time school starts, but I was beginning to wonder if we'd have any this year.

Well, here they are! In the first days they are tiny and spiky and dark with a white band--one website said they look like bird droppings. They'll change quite a bit as time goes by... Tiny, eh?
The girls helped me gather supplies for the caterpillar habitat. First we broke skinny sticks to the right height for our big jar. The sticks help prop up fading parsley and give the caterpillars something sturdier to climb as they get FAT. Then we plucked parsley with caterpillars on it. This sprig has three!
Can you see them all?

Below is our completed habitat. We've found that a piece of old stocking with a rubber band is an ideal cover.

Watching these grow and change is a project we've done many times as a family, but I never tire of it. Fortunately I have enough "fresh" students to enjoy it with me.

I'll keep you posted on their progress; for now here is a little more info:

  • Eastern Black Swallowtails lay their eggs primarily on parsley, dill, and carrot tops.
  • Every day or two the parsley needs to be changed. Caterpillar waste (which starts out tiny and black and later gets bigger and greener) should be tapped out of the jar as well.
  • Occasionally spritz the jar with water to keep things moist but NOT wet.
  • Caterpillars found earlier in the summer make chrysalises and emerge soon after. Late season ones (like ours) will overwinter (outside or in the fridge) and emerge in the spring.
  • A great resource recommended to us long ago (and found in our library) is The Family Butterfly Book by Rick Mikula.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Health Issues

We've got big issues and little ones here:

Yesterday Len's mom had back surgery. It's a big deal (duh) but went VERY well and she's already experiencing relief from her long term pain and other symptoms. She sounded positively perky on the phone tonight. Recovery will of course take patience and perseverance, both of which she has in good measure. Please pray for her and for Len's dad (and all the people taking care of them).

And after at least a week of snurgly morning and evening coughs, Rebecca is now miserable with a fever. Hopefully this will burn up the germs and she'll be back to her cheerful self soon.

Civics Lesson

Today Len, the homeschoolers, and I attended our FIRST EVER political rally. We went to Fairfax (along with 10,000-20,000 others, depending on which estimate you believe!) to see John McCain and Sarah Palin.
We were on a hill (in the shade--yes!) far from the podium but with a clear view.Here's a better photo showing the size of the rally.
I don't think I've ever found a candidate with whom I agree on every issue. Certainly no major party platform matches my beliefs. I vote every year, but sometimes with discouragement about my "choices". This year I feel hopeful.

It was more exciting/interesting than I expected to be at the rally. There was lots of enthusiasm and not too much trash-talking (certainly not from McCain or Palin).

As we were walking back to the car, the motorcade went right by us. Actually it almost went by, then stopped, then almost went by, then stopped again before finally driving past. Apparently John McCain got off his bus TWICE to mingle with the crowd--I could hear the walkie-talkies of the motorcycle escort. He didn't stop to shake our hands, but Joseph did get a shield decal from one of the police officers (who beckoned him into the street to give it to him).

The children are following this election more closely than I ever did at their age. They saw commercials for both candidates during the Olympics (we don't watch much tv) and have heard us discuss issues. Today we talked about Virginia as a battleground state and how the electoral college makes each state "all or nothing" for the candidates. They saw and heard politicians, protesters, and supporters. Some of the protesters were rude. Len told Joe that,"He who shouts loses the argument," only to hear someone on our side of the street yell something about "socialists and communists" and "voting for Muslims". Sigh. (Most people on both sides were adamant but civil.)

Altogether a day they're not likely to forget.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Missing Them

Everyone wants to know how I'm doing with Lauren away (pretty well--it helps that she is so happy), but she is not the only one "missing" this year. Daniel is at Trinity School at Meadow View, away from our homeschool for the first time, and that's more noticeable most days. He used to be home for hours and hours every day, while we saw less and less of Lauren as she transitioned through high school and off to college.

Example: Last week I went shopping while Len taught (yes, I know he's wonderful!). There I was at the grocery store when I spied them--poppy seed bagels! The store NEVER has them. There isn't even a label for them, but they are Daniel's favorite kind. I stocked up, gloating, and thought to myself, "Dan will be so excited! Wait until I show him! He can have one for lunch! ...Oh, no he can't...he's at SCHOOL..." It didn't quite make me sad, but it made me realize what a big change this is and that I haven't fully adapted yet.

By the way, Daniel's very happy at Trinity. Middle school soccer practice started a week before school, which helped with joining an established class. Some courses are easy and others less so, but he enjoys both the students and faculty.

Annex Update

Did I say there were fewer distractions at the schoolroom annex (playground)? I'm discovering that there are really just different ones!

Friday is a good example. In our hour and a half, we saw:
  • a big spider (almost daddy-long-leg sized, but much sturdier)
  • a stick bug (it stayed on the school table)
  • open soft eggs (snake? turtle?)
  • a pine cone on a branch
  • mushrooms
  • a fast, fuzzy, white caterpillar
Then, of course, there is the Becca distraction: "Push me!" "Come here!" "Come see this ____!" Plus the random chatter when she is coloring along with our history lesson.

It's all good, but sometimes I do want to JUST GET ON WITH IT and stop with all the interruptions. After all these years I'm starting to mellow, but STILL need to remind myself that education isn't all about checking everything off the list.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Schoolroom Annex

This summer I got inspired. With "just" three students at home (yes, preschool counts!), I wanted to ride bikes to the pond once a week for nature study and to a nearby playground on nice mornings for outdoor school.

Lauren gave me her bike (and bought another for $20 for college) and we found a tow bar (which I love--the subject of another post) so I can pull Rebecca. We've had our first two days of school now, and it looks like this is going to work. Our loose schedule looks like this:
  • 8:00 rosary (a decade with meditation verses)
  • pack backpacks and water, leave for playground
  • work on "together" school--history, science, some religion, maybe spelling
  • mostly recess for Rebecca (she colors during history)
  • bits of play time for Joe and Marianna (between subjects or when I work one on one)
  • 10 or 10:30 leave for home
  • eat snack, make lunch
  • more school? so far we've fiddled away this time
  • 11:45 leave for mass
  • 12:40 home (See why lunch was made ahead? We're HUNGRY!)
  • 1:30 (Ha! I'm already slowing down by now) more school--mostly the individual work: music, math, reading, etc.
  • Today we also had read aloud time (on tape really) while I tidied the kitchen.
  • early or late afternoon (depending): carpool!
It's been great to get out on these beautiful almost fall days. I think we're more focused--I don't get distracted by mess or phone or laundry. The children seem to enjoy the new routine, too. Of course we won't do this all year, but we're off to a nice start.

So What's With All That Posting Yesterday?

Lately I've been strict with myself about online time, which has meant almost no reading or writing of blogs. I went crazy yesterday, writing several posts here and posting many recipes on my cooking blog. Why? (To the tune of "It's My Party"): "It's my birthday, and I'll blog if I want to..."

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


GET KUCHEN! (Koo-ken [it's German]. Cookin'. Get it? Ha ha...)

Feelin' Groovy

Lauren and one of her best friends share a birthday, and this year one turned 18 and the other 17. Lauren came home so they could share a party. "A" makes LOTS of tie-dyed garments, so a tie-dye peace sign cake was requested. I brainstormed colored icing swirls, but found an easier way on Family Fun dot com: spray on food coloring! Garish? Perhaps, but also fun. :-)

Dinner with Mother Teresa

In spring of 2007, we studied India and its culture. One book on cd we enjoyed was Homeless Bird, about a young girl married off, then widowed. It covered some serious topics, but was appropriate for our family even though Marianna was a few months shy of 7. We also learned about Gandhi and Mother Teresa. (It's still hard for me to call her Blessed Teresa of Calcutta!)

Cooking is one of "our things", so the children and I made an Indian dinner, complete with homemade cheese. Since Mother Teresa's anniversary is coming up this Friday (September 5), I thought I'd share our meal with you. If you're inspired, there's still time to get to the grocery store! ;-) Joe reminded me just in time, so we're going to repeat the treat this week.
We made Kabab Masala, except we formed the seasoned ground meat into patties rather than kebabs. They were so much easier to cook that way, and just as tasty. Our side dishes were Aloo Mattar (potatoes and peas) and Keera-Tamatar Raita (yogurt with cucumber and tomato).
We made chapatis--a flat bread, almost like tortillas. They're not difficult, but are time consuming. I've since seen frozen chapatis and pyrathas in ethnic markets; you just heat them up--EASY! I'm not sure which we'll do this week; the meal is an undertaking (if you have a lot of helpers), but everyone loves playing with dough...

Indian desserts are quite different from what we're used to. They're generally mildly flavored (no intense chocolate, for example) and not as sweet as we expect. For our meal we made some cheese and nut dessert balls. The cheese (chenna) was homemade that day (an awesome project!) and is very mild (not even as tangy as cream cheese), so don't think this is savory. It's gently sweetened and flavored with orange rind. Not all the children cared for it, but many of us enjoyed it. A single batch (maybe 20 small balls) was enough for the family.