Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Vocabulary Term

"Spontaneous car fire"

That's when a car parked in your garage (or wherever) suddenly burns up with no good reason.

And that's what happened at our house early, early this morning.

Everyone is fine. The fire department was awesome. The garage is remarkably undamaged, except maybe some water damage.

It was good the smoke alarm was near the garage. It was good Jason realized it wasn't the ipod beeping. It was good we live this close to town.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Preparing for the Trip

We leave day after tomorrow for Texas, and the plans are well underway. Elmer will go with Jason to work for the next two weeks so that he will not be lonely. Many thanks to Temple Grandin for helping me convince him of this necessity. Doby the budgerigar will go to a friend's house tomorrow, the same friend Elmer will stay with when Jason joins us in Texas (Many thanks, Friend!). Another friend will tend the cats when Jason leaves.

Jason is making scones for breakfast tomorrow morning so that we can take the leftovers with us Sunday morning. The plan is to leave very early (6:00?) Sunday morning and arrive in Cincinnati Sunday night along this route. It will be a long day but it will be worth it to not have to deal with a motel and then getting back in the car the next morning. Then, we'll spend Monday in Cincinnati recuperating and gearing up for another day of driving. I hope the weather is fine and we go to one of the many superb parks Cincinnati has to offer. But, there is also a truly awesome museum with a children's section that works for everyone from little Oliver to big Ezra. That would be a fine place to spend the day.

Then, Tuesday morning bright and early, we hit the road again. This time my goal is to make it to Gina's house this way. It will be another really long day, but then we'll be in Texas and the fun can begin.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Being Right

I will admit that I like to be right; I like the superior feeling I get from knowing I'm better than you. The trouble comes when I meet someone more right than me or someone who is right in a way I used to be. And the older I get, the more people I meet who indeed seem at least as "right" as I am and often, even more right.

Confronted repeatedly with this evidence, I spend many hours, like as I am trying to go to sleep or when I am driving alone in the car, puzzling out how I can be right and someone else can be right and we are not doing things at all the same. How can I be right to use a homeschool curriculum and my unschooling friends be right in their fluid days? How can I reasonably argue that I'm right to feed my pets a raw diet when the pets of my childhood ate really cheap kibble and lived to their dotage? How can I be as uptight as I am about food and not strive to be as uptight as my even more uptight friends? If they are more right, why am I not trying to do the same thing they're doing? How can my very amorphous beliefs regarding god and the universe seem so very right when so many people I love might fret over my salvation? How can I commit myself so entirely to homeschooling in the face of my quite strong belief that it almost doesn't matter how school happens? How can I claim any superiority?

The Truth, as I see it, is I cannot.

I can only live in my skin and make decisions from behind my own eyes. And while I love to hear how other people do things and how they got to that point, it does not mean it will change my mind. I also love to talk about how I got to where I am in my thinking and doing, but I've given up on claiming I know what I'm doing. I try to serve my opinions with a heavy dose of my own doubt. I love the saying, "Your mileage may vary," because it's so complete. It helps me remember how much nicer life is when I am not superior, when I am just open to what comes my way.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


As I have been preparing for our upcoming trip to Texas I've been pondering the best way to deal with the trip and the food around a trip. I have driven to Cincinnati a couple of times by myself with the children, and one of those times, we did pretty well for food and the other time, not so good.

So, this morning, I said to the children "We are not stopping for any fast food on our way to Texas." They all said, "YEA! No junky food!" (This is proof that my brainwashing is working.) Then I said, "Let's think of things we might like to have that would make the trip more bearable and maybe feel more like a treat."

Ezra said "May we have oranges?" Affirmative.

Phaedra said, "May we have O's?" Affirmative. (O's are the Heritage O's you can sometimes find in bulk.)

Sylvie asked if we could eat at Cracker Barrel. Maybe for breakfast, but no junk from the "gift" shop.

After I mentioned having individual yogurts instead of our standard milkshake-for-the-road and one IZZE per day, they got giddy. They have all picked which flavor of which they'll have, and everyone agreed that hummus and chips and bread and cheese would be fine as long as we have the oranges. There was a request for trailmix and another for nuts.

I might get a strong yearning for a coke around Buffalo and Little Rock, but I have the children to keep me on this path, I guess.

Friday, February 19, 2010

How Many Trees Can I Water?

Let's pretend the next few things are limitless: time, water, and my awesome strength. In that pretend place, I could plant as many trees as we can currently imagine wanting. Here's the math that makes me question just how many trees I can plant.

If each tree needs 5 gallons of water every day for 4 to 6 weeks and that much water 2 to 3 times a week throughout the first season, and maybe all of the second season, too, that's a lot of water even for just one tree.

My friend has a pond and she fills buckets at her pond and then hauls the filled buckets to her trees. It is admittedly difficult work, but it's pretty darn quick to fill a five gallon bucket from the edge of a pond. I would have to stand at the hose filling my imaginary bucket. Oh, and I should mention that my hose water passes through my pressure tank. I could also use the frost free hydrant (much better choice). It is still going to take some time to fill the five gallon bucket.

Then I have to haul the bucket to the trees. Yes, I could run that hose out to the trees, but that would take yards and yards of hose and we would probably have questionable pressure, making the filling of the bucket still slower. I also have not investigated the frost free hydrant, and I know next to nothing (at the moment) about such things, so I do not know if a hose can be connected to it. Definitely worth investigating.

This year, I only want to plant twenty fruit trees, five "shade" trees, 40 hazel bushes, and 26 berry bushes. Then there's the two big gardens and various other garden spots around the house. Let's pretend again for a second that I plant all those trees and bushes and that the garden will not ever need water. Let's also remember that one gallon of water weighs roughly 8 pounds. Each of those 91 trees and bushes would take 40 pounds of water a day for the first 4 to 6 weeks, hauled somehow by me and the children. That equals 3640 pounds of water a day. I'm pretty sure that my plans are a bit grandiose.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


We implemented early bedtime for Ezra when he was about 18months old, and we've been pretty committed to it for the children ever since. It took a bit longer for us to see the impact of our own sleep-lack, like maybe 7 years, or once Sylvie started sleeping through the night consistently. It's amazing what good sleep means for everyone in a family.

I know that we've all heard how much our bodies need sleep, how ADD-type symptoms can be strongly correlated with too little sleep or even inconsistent sleep, how driving when tired is marked in some locales as an offense. I just think it can't hurt to say it all again.

For our family, there are many obvious signs that one, or many, of us is getting too little sleep. Sylvie cries more and screams more and annoys more when she goes to bed too late. Phaedra gets a bit mean and inflexible when her worries or anticipations keep her awake. Ezra is more prone to tears, the long-suffering kind, as we all seem to be more unjust when he's tired. Jason gets snippy and I get angry. Each of us is more easily overwhelmed. These things are only obvious when the regular pattern is enough sleep; many behaviors would seem normal or understandable if we were not more familiar with our own resiliency and adaptability.

A commitment to sleep in our family means we miss out on many things. For the most part, we do not do anything as a family in the evening. There are naturally exceptions, but we acknowledge the price in family harmony ahead of time. This means sports have been pretty much out of the question. It means one adult accompanies one or two older children to live music or plays while the other stays home with the younger one or two. It means many evenings when Jason comes home, Sylvie is already in bed and the other two have had reading time before dinner.

As the children get older, we test the envelope. Truthfully, Ezra does not seem to need much sleep for a child his age; he gets a much later time for lights out and still lays awake for another hour most nights with no sign of irritability the next day. Phaedra and Sylvie seem to need eleven to thirteen hours of sleep most nights, Phaedra on the low end, Sylvie on the high end. This can be difficult, because Phaedra finds it extremely unfair that Ezra gets to stay up much later than her. We haven't found a good compromise beyond, "Go to bed!"

For Jason and me, 10:00 seems a pretty good bedtime. We like to think we can stay up to 11:00 without a problem, but one errand the next day will reveal my sleep lack. Sometimes, it's hard to be the adult.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Security and Resiliency

I've saved this one for last because it was overwhelming both in scope and content. The presenter was Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design but the workshop was not specifically about permaculture.

Instead, he started with a list of catastrophic things that could happen, touching briefly probability (alien invasion vs. pandemic). Then he began covering a list of items and skills you might want in place in such an event.

Some things were obvious, like hand tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Other things would not have immediately come to my mind, like gravity fed water.

I feel like he tried to stay relatively light, but his topic was naturally a bit depressing and scary. My sense of "hurry, hurry" to learn how to grow a variety of food and to enmesh myself in my new community is heightened. I want to have a small generator on hand. I want to be somewhat comfortable with a gun. I want to know how to take care of cows and find a resource for hay.  I want to get fruit trees planted and get the pines down. I want to plant some trees that can be coppiced for firewood. And so on. I do not even enjoy reporting on this seminar, but I think it was important.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Trees as Agriculture

The second seminar I attended on Saturday was on agroforestry. I am interested in this for some of more open spaces- not to turn them into woods, but to use them in a variety of ways in different spaces. This presentation was a little frustrating because there were two presenters, not one, and in allowing one another to talk, they covered less ground and left less time for questions.

However, I have a better understanding of coppicing, the ways trees may be used for fodder, and how to do hedge laying. I got a few more insights regarding species that do well in Vermont for these various uses.

My long term goal is to strategically plant trees in this field to provide some shade and fodder to animals while also increasing fertility through leaf fall.

We would also like some wind break here. The pines must come down, and they are not a good windbreak anyway. If we could incorporate some other trees into the line of the apple trees moving left of this picture and then curve around, the house would be better sheltered from prevailing winds. Ideally, these would be a combination of fruit and nut bearing trees and hedges. We have to pick carefully, because we do not want to strongly shade the area. But even any garden space we put inside the windbreak would do better with a bit of shelter.

We could lay hedge along the contour visible in the top picture, partly a living fence, and also as a lower bit of windbreak.

The main place I want it is along this field on the left side. We want this field for pasture and we will put woven wire fence around it. Because the ATV trail runs along the left border of this field, we intended to do some denser plantings and it seems a good place to teach ourselves (or fail at) hedge laying.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

So Much to Do

I went to the NOFA winter conference yesterday. I attended one workshop on using a hoophouse to winter laying hens, and how this can be used to increase the fertility in the hoophouse as well as creating compost for other gardens. The next workshop was about the security and resilience one can incorporate into a homestead. The last was about agroforestry. I headed home with a dazed feeling.

The hoophouse seminar was pretty straightforward and well- presented. The idea is to create a bedded pack (lots and lots of pine shavings) for the hens to live and move around on in the hoophouse. Come spring, most of this is moved to other gardens, but you also leave some in the hoophousee to be worked into the soil.

  • The hens should only be wintered there every three years to avoid a salt build up in the soil.
  • The doors should be open as much as possible, regardless of weather, or else you create health issues for the chickens. I also know from one friend's experience that there can be a moisture problem if there is not enough ventilation.
  • Pine shavings breakdown faster than straw, but some people have good luck using straw in a bedded pack.
  • If the hens smell, you've already missed the point at which you should have put down another layer of bedding.
  • When you smell ammonia you are losing nitrogen to the air instead of keeping it in the bedding/future compost.
More later on the other two seminars.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lack of Flexibility

I just do not like surprises. For example I do not have to know what a particular gift is, but I will be really flustered if I did not know ahead of time that I was getting a gift. I am easily startled and will scream. I like to know how wide a set of variables can be, like it will NOT be 60 degrees at my house tomorrow but it COULD be somewhere from -10 to 40. I do not have to know exactly, but the parameters help me make it through the day.

That said- when something falls outside of the parameters or there is an unexpected something, I am able to take it in and keep moving, but I might not be happy about it.

And it looks like Jason will be at least one day late from Germany. One more day of solo parenting and housekeeping. One more day of Phaedra worrying about whether he'll be home for her birthday and discussing the probability of plane crashes. One more day of Sylvie puddling up as she smiles and says she's fine. There is a way in which that one more day suddenly feels like too much, never mind the other eight days we've done pretty well. Maybe we'll all call in sick and sit around and read all day tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I want Jason to Come home

Or- I don't know how single parents do this.

Jason left on Tuesday for Germany for work. He returns Wednesday, so I'm past the halfway mark. It has gone quite well; I think his overnights have helped me feel less stressed by the continuous "on duty" routine. My temper has been a bit short, but I keep reeling it in.

The thing is, despite how well things have gone, there are many things that just have not been done. I managed to do a bit of marketing on two occasions and I even have a menu for Phaedra's party, but the kids have had to put groceries away, because I forgot to do it. Also, just because I've been to the store twice and have a menu doesn't mean I actually have the food required for that menu.  Thank goodness she only wants tortilla soup.

Today, I managed to sweep the floor after I realized I was wading through soot from the stove, bits of wood and dirt from the stove wood, Elmer's sheddings, yarn scraps, paper scraps, crumbs and crumbs and crumbs. I normally sweep two or three times a day, but I just cannot get to it right now.

We're eating homecooking, but it lacks the flare Jason gives. Also, the children are tired of oatmeal for breakfast; I am not a morning person, so it's either eggs or oatmeal. When Jason is here, breakfast regularly includes biscuits or scones or the occasional blueberry muffin. I'll just admit I cannot imagine how he does it, but I'm looking forward to him taking over breakfast duty again.

I also did all the class running this week. So, I spent 2 hours Thursday driving back and forth to Earthwalk and three hours for fiddle on Friday and FIVE hours for ballet on Saturday. I always do the Earthwalk trip, but after ballet, I decided the children are going to have to give up at least one activity.

On top of that, when we got home Saturday, no one had done my chores for me. The breakfast dishes were waiting, the floor needed mopping, and I needed my husband to come home.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Getting Older

I have these sudden flashes about my age, like when my hands and feet ache the first few minutes after I get up in the morning, or when I say, "I'm not 40, just almost 38." Then it seems funny. I wonder if I'll get to do all the things around here I want to do, and I wonder how much time I have to get them done. Is that a mid-life crisis? Isn't it funny to say a sentence like that about yourself?

Jason gets antsy when I point out his gray hairs or when I wonder whether I'll have arthritis like my mother and grandmothers. I get antsy when I think of how long my back or shoulders or whatever will let me do the work I have never quite gotten to. Now, when we're finally ready to farm/homestead, I worry a bit that we've come quite late to the game. There is so much to learn and do.

Still, how lovely to be almost 40, and feel excitement about all I have to learn and do in the next few (or many) years.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The "go to" cake

I like to bake, but I really do not like the children's help in the kitchen. I sometimes think it's because I'm not much of a baker, so I get easily overwhelmed by all the little hands. It could be that when we're baking, I hear "Mama!" an extra 300 times in that day. Perhaps it's the fact that not one of the children notices when someone else is talking, so they all feel completely comfortable talking over one another. Whatever the reason, I find it most pleasant to bake when the children are all already in bed, when I've already been working for 13 hours, when I really ought to be getting ready for bed, when the kitchen is already clean, and when I'm already dog tired.

Naturally, I do not do much adventurous baking at that point in the day. That's when it's time to bake Grandmother Barclay's lemon pound cake with the slight modification implemented by Jason. It turns out great every time, even if my eyes are crossing as I mix it up. Add a little blueberry syrup, and you've got a fancy dessert. Toss it on a saucer beside some coffee, and you have a treat for a friend who drops by. You can substitute 1 cup of cocoa powder for one of the cups of flour, add a little cinnamon and leave out the lemon, and you have an awesome chocolate pound cake. You can make two loaves or a large bundt cake. It freezes well, so you can have a loaf on hand for a sudden potluck invitation. It really is quite a versatile little cake. Enjoy!

3 C flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3 C sugar (plus some to sugar the pan)
1 C butter (plus some to butter the pan)
1 T lemon juice
6 eggs, separated
1 C buttermilk (or soured milk)

Preheat oven to 325. Mix flour, salt, and soda. In another bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and lemon juice to butter mixture. Add milk and flour, alternating, to butter mixture. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into mixture. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 60 to 80 minutes, or until done.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


When I was little, my mom had three ceramic mixing bowls. There was a green one, a yellow one with handles that served as spouts, and a yellow one with flowers that had been her mother's. Before the stainless steel mixing bowls entered our lives, everything she baked was mixed in these bowls. The flowered one was the largest, so it was the one she called for most often. She taught me to make yeast bread in that bowl, and I watched nasty potato salad come to life repeatedly in that bowl.

My mom died in 1998, and I took her ceramic mixing bowls and her vacuum to remember her by. The fact is, I am not that sentimental and I took these things because I could use them. When I took the bowls, one of my siblings wanted the flowered bowl. Or maybe the flowered bowl was broken.  Whichever it was, I only took two of the mixing bowls.

It just so happened that my friend Janet had an estate sale habit that often benefited me. She was forever finding treasures for a song; she also found lots of junk, but I guess sometimes junk must be sorted in order to find treasures. About a year after my mother died, Janet gifted me with a flowered mixing bowl in a smaller size than my mother had. Janet did not know the story of the flowered mixing bowl, but it did not change the twinge of happy, warm feelings I had when I received the bowl. My low level of sentimentality meant that I was glad to have a bowl similar to my mother's, but I was also glad to use it.

Last year, Janet died, and with her, the steady flow of strange treasures in our lives. And this morning, I broke the bowl. I have been knitting many hours the past few days, and I guess my thumb was too tired to grip the freezing cold bowl. We had given the dog table scraps in it last night, and I was bringing it in this morning. As I shut the door, my left thumb simply released the bowl onto the floor.

I suddenly realized that my not so tender heart was a little hurt by the loss of this thing that actually had two people mixed up in it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sometimes cheaper is better

When I say cheap, I don't mean just a lower price but actually lower quality.
When Jason and I married, we got these really nice knives. Well, we registered for them then bought them ourselves; they were some of the most expensive things on our registry. I am happy to report that 15 years later they are still excellent knives that sharpen well and hold their edge. They are the counter to the rest of this entry.

We also received some deluxe bath towels. They lasted as long as bath towels last while being always frustratingly damp. They were so soft that they did not feel like they picked up water, just smeared it around. Then, they held that moisture long enough that they would begin to smell after just one use. When hung on the clothes line in hundred degree weather (in Texas, of course), they took longer to dry than any other item on the line. The skimpy towels that we already had dried in a snap and were ready to use again.

Right now, I have a nice mop. The head is big enough to theoretically save me time mopping, because the larger mophead should be able to cover more floor in fewer strokes.  The kink in this excellent design is congenital; I have really small hands, so I cannot squeeze the excess water out of this mass of mop dreads. The cheaper head I had before was easy to squeeze out, so I could get the head cleaner which meant the floor could be cleaner, too.

I find the cheap bakeware I picked up in a panic at the HEB on Riverside however many years ago still does the job I was panicking over in college. The nice stuff with the nonstick coating went into the garbage within two years of purchase because the questionable coating began to glom onto the outside of breads and cakes.

There are more examples. like beach towels, washcloths, cooking spoons, and tshirts, but I think you get my drift. Now, I have to decide whether to replace the mop head with one I can actually squeeze out.