Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Little Music

For Christmas, Sylvie gave me an old Pete Seeger album that's a guitar lesson. It's a peach.

As I was getting familiar with it, Phaedra hung over my shoulder. I suggested she take down the baritone ukulele, which is tuned like a guitar. That means the chords are the same shape minus two strings.

So, Phaedra sat and learned to make the D-chord. Sylvie stood jealously to the side. After much fussing and competing, I decided to get Sylvie a soprano ukulele.

This afternoon I played guitar, Phaedra played the baritone ukulele and Sylvie played the soprano. Ezra watched. I suggested he get the music book. Since he can sight read pretty well, he was playing Frog Went A'Courtin and the rest of us were accompanying, strumming away at a D-chord. It was a pretty idyllic moment.

Thanks, Pete!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Elvis Has Left the Building

I've known Elvis, our rooster, has not been feeling well since the first cold snap. Then, he quit going out to scratch with the hens. His comb faded and he quit avoiding us so strenuously. Then, the other day, he just let Jason pick him up.

This morning he was lying in the same spot in the coop, not roosting, that he was yesterday morning. The hens were being kind enough, which for chickens means they were not pecking at him. I figured he was probably happier with them as he shuffled off, so I let him be. This evening when I went to do chores, he was still in the same spot, but the hens were scratching hay over him so that his back half was covered. He was still looking around, and this seemed wrong to me. I tried to get him to move, but he wouldn't, so I gently moved him to another spot. He rolled over on his side, which is not a position chickens mostly choose, and then the hens began to investigate. SO, I moved him again, at which point he went into death throes.

RIP Elvis- you were a good rooster.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Cure" by Ginger Andrews

Lying around all day
with some strange new deep blue
weekend funk, I'm not really asleep
when my sister calls
to say she's just hung up
from talking to Aunt Bertha
who is 89 and ill but managing
to take care of Uncle Frank
who is completely bed ridden.
Aunt Bert says
it's snowing here in Arkansas,
on Catfish Lane, and she hasn't been
able to walk out to their mailbox.
She's been suffering
from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.
The cure for the mulleygrubs,
she tells my sister,
is to get up and bake a cake.
If that doesn't do it, put on a red dress.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Interesting Christmas Wish

Sylvie told me that what she REALLY wants for Christmas is a pooper scooper.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Polite Chickens

We have thirty laying hens and one rooster. We have that many to try to guarantee eggs through the winter when even with a light on them, production goes way down. Last year, we did not get eggs from some time in October until late December. I'll admit, it seemed a little unfair to be feeding all those chickens and getting no eggs. The problem was they all molted at pretty much the same time.

This year, I also noticed a dip in production in September, just about the time I agreed to use eggs for a barter. Still, we kept getting enough eggs, and I watched the flock to see what was going on. It was pretty obvious that three or four chickens were molting. A few weeks later, we suddenly got closer to two dozen eggs again. In under a week, we were getting only five and another batch of hens showed signs of molting. And so it has gone the whole fall. Now, I think the last few have almost finished getting feathers and we should go back to close to two dozen eggs a day.

While it has been a little annoying, we have continued to get eggs daily, unlike last year when we had to buy eggs for more than two months while feeding thirty hens. It seems awfully considerate of them to have gone to the trouble to coordinate their molting this way, and they do look prettier with fresh feathers, as you can see in this picture. That poor buff hen lost those hiny feathers last winter when she didn't properly groom herself, and now she's getting more. Don't you know THAT will make her warmer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Drying Laundry In December

I hung a load of laundry outside last week just before a thaw. I had dried three other loads in the preceding days without a hitch. But the thaw brought rain.

I thought, "Ah well, a little rain, a little sun, a little more cold dry weather, the clothes will dry." Most likely they've been dry, or mostly dry, in the past week, but with the short days and our driving schedule, I was not home before dark on any of those days.

Then it rained for two days.

Then it froze last night and stayed below freezing all day.

I brought them in to dry by the fire.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Lone Cow

While I know no cow probably wants to live alone, Violet is handling it pretty well at the moment. I am not seeing any stereotypies to indicate otherwise. We are helping all we can by sticking pretty closely to a schedule that she can count on.

I am hopeful that the new cow shed will be finished by the end of December. This should stay drier in the spring and there is room enough for a couple of cows and a calf or two. For the moment, she's spending all day, every day outside. There's was one really miserable day of weather when we should have let her in the milking area, and if we have more weather like that, she'll definitely have access.

Her milk production dropped by a half gallon between one day and the next about three weeks ago and has not come back up. I'm not sure why. Our plan is to dry her off at the end of January or when we get less than a gallon of milk a day consistently. I am worried that our hay is not as good this year, or something, but it looks okay to my inexperienced eye. She looks healthy, so I am just watching.

We have a nice relationship now. Maybe some people make cows comfortable more easily or maybe some cows are more easily comforted, but it took two solid years for me to feel good about my cow. Now that we're at this place, I think everyone should get to interact with cows regularly. I bet they're even better for your health than a dog.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Delightful Decadent Dissonance

I'll start by saying we do not decorate really until just before Christmas Eve and we take down the decorations two weeks later; it works better in our compact, busy house. And when we do decorate, we do not put up a million lights; we only light the tree. And even for that, I've considered switching to candles.

Still, there is something so very delightful about those houses, especially when it's only one here or there, that go all out on the outdoor decorations. There's this one along one of our regularly traveled routes that we have been watching since Thanksgiving, just waiting for them to put their lights out. They cover maybe 1/2 an acre with different lighted figures and things. As you swing around this one bend in the road, you can see a few, but the house is actually in a kind of hollow, so you only get the full effect very briefly at 50 mph. It's deliciously too much! It's so wasteful and wonderful!

I could tell all my rationalizing, but you'll have to work your own out. May you enjoy one or two excesses in this season!


We have pretty strict screen regulations. There's no tv, and the children are supposed to be nine before they start watching movies. We were more relaxed in other people's houses, but even this has not been an issue since we moved to Vermont.

This worked fine for Ezra. He was delighted when he hit nine and got to watch a movie about once a month with me and Jason. Phaedra was just shy of nine and happy to get to join us. The problem is that that left Sylvie, the only one to not get to participate in what had become a family thing. This felt wrong, so when we took Ezra and Phaedra to see a movie in a theater last year (The Muppets), it seemed only right to take Sylvie with us. And when Jason was taking the older two to see The Sound of Music, Sylvie also got to go.

You see that the genie is now fully out of the bottle. While we've resisted somewhat, we have also made an occasional exception. We watched Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, one of our favorite oldies, and she fretted that Cary Grant and Mirna Loy would divorce. When the older two wanted to see Monsters, Inc. while Jason and I were going on a date, we let Sylvie watch it with them. She cried; apparently her wails drowned out the last few minutes of the movie. We were naturally reluctant when the older two were planning another movie when Jason and I would be away. However, Ezra said they would watch Up and they would comfort Sylvie if she got too sad and that it really was only fair to let her watch it and they would warn her about the sad parts and please couldn't she just watch it with them. We relented; while she tried to stifle her cries and she definitely said she enjoyed the movie, there was still an inordinate amount of tears. So, no more movies.

Advent started this week. One of our traditions is to watch particular movies during December. Jason and I always watch Hudsucker Proxy, and we're looking forward to showing it to Ezra and Phaedra for the first time. We also decided to show them Philadelphia Story. Sylvie heard these plans and got very sad to be excluded.

We talked about it and decided she might really enjoy Babe and Mary Poppins. Both are pretty happy movies, Babe in particular. As a matter of fact, once I thought about how much she would like Babe, we decided to show it to her right away. Remember that part at the beginning when they take all the mothers away in that confinement operation? Well, she started crying then, and pretty much cried for the rest of the movie. She just couldn't believe they fed the piglets with those metal feeders and she couldn't believe that Farmer Hoggett would think that Babe would kill Ma and ... You get the idea.

This past weekend, we watched Mary Poppins. It's a musical, so we knew she would enjoy that part. And she did. She also liked the children and the animation and the bit of magic. She only cried the last few minutes when Mary Poppins is leaving. I understand that; I even tear up a bit. However, she gets SOOO upset, that I think it's too much for her little heart. Still, she wants to be included in at least one more Advent movie. We've chosen to show her either What's Up Doc or Bringing Up Baby, but we are looking for the pitfalls in each. She gets so worried about what sad thing will happen that she doesn't really enjoy the funny parts.

I think we should have held off until nine.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Three weeks ago, I was scratching my head over why Sylvie had not yet launched into reading. She has spent over a year teetering on the cusp, and if you asked me, I would have even said she WAS reading. But still, she had not begun reading box labels, street signs, or anything, really, that I had not put into her hands and said, "Read!"

Three weeks ago, I was thinking about my sister who kind of wonders if she herself might have some sort of learning/reading disability. I was wondering if Sylvie might have similar issues. I was reminding myself that I actually logically believe that anything before nine is completely normal for learning to read, and that my personal freak out point is 13. I was remembering that Ezra was just a little more than 8 when he started reading, Phaedra was pretty close to 7.5, and Sylvie is only now 7.75 years old.

Three weeks ago, Sylvie was definitely better able to read than a year ago. She could labor her way through a page of Peter and Polly, but she was ready for me to take over. She could read a chapter from the Frances books as long as I was willing to help on words she might get stuck on; for example, three pages into the story, she might suddenly forget what AND spells.

Last week, Jason and I were cooking dinner, and I heard Sylvie giggling in the living room. I glanced up to see her reading Ivy and Bean, a book she had declared far too difficult three days before. Now, she was CHOOSING to read it, and following the story well enough to giggle over it. Today, she was reading a book on puppy care and giving me a thorough report on all the things we do wrong with our dogs. In fact, she sat beside me while I sewed so she could more easily read the pertinent paragraphs aloud. She now reads street signs and she reads over my shoulder. She reads the spines of the books while we sit at the table and she reads warning labels.

Now, I am once again amazed at how reading comes. She is the first one I have tried more actively to teach to read. And I am once again convinced that reading is something we make room for, maybe facilitate. I'm pretty sure we do not get to take credit for "teaching" it, any more than I take credit for teaching these three to talk.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Another Reason My Mother Should Have Lived

She would have really enjoyed discussing history with her grandchildren. I always think of her when Ezra or Phaedra or Sylvie comes to me, shocked over the misbehavior of Frederick the Great or giggling over the misdeeds of Robert Hook or sorrowful over the end of King Harold. They each seem to have a personal relationship with characters in history, much the way I remember my mother feeling.

The advantage to this is when they remember history as real people interacting and reacting, they have a whole tableau instead of dates and places. They all seem to then have a better understanding of how these people and events fall in time relative to one another; maybe they do not have the exact date, but they are emphatic that Dante was not a contemporary of Shakespeare, but Galileo was. And when you're trying to teach the arc of history, these are the important parts. When you know who these men are and who their contemporaries were, then you can more easily remember which wars were waged and why and by whom.

Maybe, I am a brilliant teacher with an excellent curriculum, but I do not think I'm all that special. I really think my mother's spirit kissed them each in their cradles and blessed them with this history gift.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Some Finished products!

Here is the skirt and jacket:

She is very pleased. The polka dot is a fabric Stacey gave me; the rest is scraps from various other projects and a costume Phaedra was done with. The jacket turned out very well, in my opinion, though I admit it's a bit over the top.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Math with Sylvie

She says- 27 plus 56 is 20 plus 50 is 70 but 7 plus 6 is 13 so that's another ten which is 80 and then 3 more . That's 83! 

Imagine all this in an animated voice.

Doing math with Sylvie is rather like doing math with Vizzini.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

More Sewing- Ottobre

But no pictures yet.

Someone reminded me about Ottobre, which is a pattern magazine out of Finland. They have children's sizes up to 170, and even a women's magazine each year. There is a way to subscribe in the states, but it's easier to use their website to browse through issues of their magazines, and find one that has things you might want to make. Then, Sewzanne's and a few other online retailers have back issues of the magazine.

There are good things about Ottobre. They tend to be fashion conscious, especially in the larger sizes. There are always different ideas for embellishments which could be applied in many sewing projects. The patterns do not have seam allowances, which actually makes it easier to cut up pattern pieces for adding flare or to do alterations.

There are problems with Ottobre. Their patterns make more sense when you are already fairly experienced at sewing. The instructions are slim, and there are pertinent details scattered through the pattern sheets and project section of the magazine. Being fashion conscious means they have many patterns for knit fabrics, which are relatively hard to come by in good quality prints or colors. (I think in Finland, and maybe elsewhere, they have stores where you can buy their specific fabrics.) The patterns are very cleverly included on the sheets that have MANY patterns, each in a different color, on a single side of the paper. This means you MUST trace the patterns in order to use them.

All of the "bad" things are also part of what make these magazines so great. I'm not sure of a better way to include all they include in a single magazine. And the patterns really do turn out pretty well, especially if you have some sense regarding nice ways to finish a garment. Though I had forgotten the size range, I did use these magazines a few years back with pretty good success and quite limited sewing experience. I would say the patterns and instructions are still much better than any Simplicity pattern I've had the misfortune to use.

They also end up being a learning opportunity for me. For example, I made Phaedra a lined skirt. It was the first lined thing I've made. It's fitted, so I also altered the pattern successfully with the help of this book, which by the way is pretty darned awesome for information. Another thing I learned is that the weight of the fabrics is terrifically important. The pattern was for a heavy satin, and I used corduroy. The skirt doesn't hang quite right; if I had just done the pleats slightly differently, it would look fine. It's my opinion that the thin instructions free one up to experiment this way; I just happen to have trouble experimenting in the middle of a project.

So, back I go to the shirt I'm making to go with the skirt. The shirt is from this book, which I have had trouble with in the past. However, my new skill with alterations should make a success. I also did a step I've never done before; I made a mock up of the bodice out of an old sheet to be sure the shirt will fit. This step is totally worth it! Pictures to come...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Used to Be Vegan

Back when I knew better, when I knew I was right, I did not eat any meat or eggs or milk or honey. I ate vegetables, soy, beans, and grains. I carefully chose food that made a complete diet. And Jason and I spent a lot of time working out animal-free analogs for many holiday favorites. We used whipped tofu for cranberry salad, for example.

Why do this? For one thing, we knew that the meat available at the grocery store was not produced humanely. We knew all about the battery hens that gave us eggs. We knew about the tie ups where dairy cows pretty much spent their lives.

For another thing, we really like experimenting. How can we get swiss corn bake without any swiss cheese?

Pregnancy completely changed my priorities. After subsisting for twelve weeks on cashew butter and soy milk, I began stealing meat from my friends' plates. And that was the end of our four-year vegetarian experiment.

It helped that Jason had already been rethinking the whole thing. We suddenly knew a different set of "right" things. We knew our soy wasn't free of animal products, or if the soy beans were, they were loaded with petro-chemical fertilizers. We knew that many of the analog food-type things we were eating were actually very far removed from "food". We knew that soy is actually pretty indigestible in most of the forms we were using it. We knew there were meat and dairy options out there that were kinder to animals- if we could find them in the burbs in Texas.

Thirteen years later, we are no longer right (much to everyone's relief). We do feel pretty good about our choices, just less self- righteous. We eat LOTS of meat and eggs and milk, but it all spent most of it's life on grass. I know the chickens who give us eggs, and we do our best to give them a good life. Our cow is probably lonely, but otherwise, she has a pretty nice life, as well. We still eat vegetables, but we also know who grew the majority of them. Legumes don't figure too highly, and soy not at all. Grains come and go; our feelings about them waver.

And still, having given up on being right, we are far from any sort of purity. Our cranberry sauce is made with local cranberries, but I haven't found a reliable source for Vermont oranges. Sabra and Cedar's hummus is really better than any other hummus I've had, with the exceptions of Byblos and Filiz Ozkan's. We really like Cabot cheese, which is at least local.

What is definitely true is that we enjoy our food. I believe our food choices are political acts, but what hits the table needs to be free from rancor and self-righteousness. Julia Child emphasized that food is not just so many vitamins and calories, but an entire experience.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


One strange thing about this place when we arrived was a lack of wild life and a narrow range of plant life. We could not tell if it had to do with our proximity to the highway or the atv trail or something else. Each year, I notice something that was not here before.

This spring, for example, we had dandelions for the first time. That seems almost impossible to believe, I know, but there was a line that crept from the front field. By the end of summer, there were a couple of dandelion flowers on the back margin of the channel. I keep wondering what our soil lacks or what the previous owners did to make the ground inhospitable to dandelions. I know they are not an ideal thing to have in a hay field, but the cow does eat them and they are good for the soil, so I see no harm in having them in our pasture.

Red clover, which we seeded in one pasture, is working it's way slowly into all four pastures and up around the house.

We have also seen more frogs each summer. This past summer, a couple of toads showed up in the front beds and the house garden. I made places that might be good homes for toads, as I hope for many more will come and stay.

We hang a bird feeder each autumn, and before this year, we only had chickadees and a couple of blue jays visit. This year, we've had our regulars, but also a nuthatch, pine siskin, house sparrow, and a wood pecker. Also, the hummingbird feeder had a pretty steady visitor this past summer.

We have known there are chipmunks and red squirrels, because the cats leave their remains in obvious paces. However, the red squirrels seemed much closer to the house this summer; they sassed us as we went through the garage door and as I worked in the house garden. And gray squirrels, which have been moving ever north and east across Vermont, showed up about three weeks ago in the trees around the front pasture. We'll see whether they stay through the winter.

Each new plant or animal seems like good news, even the ones that might be considered pests.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sewing for a "Tween"

I actually despise the term tween and see it only as a marketing word. However, I've had to use it the past couple of days in order to sort through sewing patterns online for Phaedra. It's been extremely frustrating.

First, she still really likes the patterns that go to a child's size 8, but Oliver and S and Izzy and Ivy and many other really neat patterns stop too small. I'm sure there's a way to do alterations, but this is beyond my skill level. Even McCall,s and Kwiksew have precious little in her size range, and much of that is a style I won't bother with.

Second, she's very far from fitting the proportions of a lady's pattern. This isn't surprising, but I did explore the option when I realized how few girls' patterns go beyond size 8 or 10.

I have spent over two hours trolling through sewing sites, looking for patterns that appeal and will fit. I finally found a few, and the way I found them was the search term "tween". And since I feel credit should be given when deserved, the site that had the most options in her size is Sew Mama Sew.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


We did many of the little tasks today that will facilitate other tasks, those detail things that don't exactly inhibit progress, but hang over your shoulder as you're trying to concentrate elsewhere.

First, Jason and I lingered over our coffee and did a crossword puzzle. We like this routine, but we haven't been able to indulge since we started school, either because the table had to cleared for school or because Jason had to hop right into work. The slow start on the day sets a pleasant tone.

Next, we loaded up the things for a run to the dump, Jason pulled the dead battery out of the CRV, and I hung a load of laundry on the line. We let things build up for the dump, and the past two weeks, the trash bags and miscellany have irritated as I waded around them when I entered the garage. I killed the battery in the CRV by once again leaving the lights on for at least 24 hours. And today, we were blessed again with some November sun, so it was a fine day for laundry.

We dealt with all the stuff in the truck, ran an errand for Jason's work, and parked the truck in the barn to keep the supplies in the bed dry. I held a cable while Jason put the new battery into the CRV. I made lunch while Jason ran by his mom's just to check on things. Jason talked to our friend who will help build the cow shed, and he talked to another friend who might take the BMW wheels we've had in the barn for three years. After lunch, we measured off the site for the new cow shed, and then cleaned out the garage.

Like I said, it was all little stuff, but I feel lighter and a little more prepared for winter.

Friday, November 9, 2012

You Have to Mean It

A friend was once praising a particular cover of "Hallelujah" by someone on one of those Star Search sort of television shows. The singer was maybe 20. While the singer was quite good, the song's power is in the lyrics as well as the music, and it is a rare 20 year old who can deliver this song with an understanding of its deeply dark undertones. The link above is tinny, so you will just have to trust me when I say Rufus Wainwright and Leonard Cohen are equally up to the emotional part regardless of how good their voices are. You can feel the twist in their guts as they each deliver the song.

Another performance that exemplifies what I'm trying to get at is Kurt Cobain's version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night". While I'm fairly certain he knew nothing of losing a spouse under the wheels of a train, you can feel that he knows what it means to be "in the pines". At the outset, you know the song is ominous and my breath freezes in my chest as he moves through the chorus at the end.

Whatever that quality is, Fiona Apple has had it since she was seemingly too young to know what she was talking about. So I know it's not all age and experience.

And whatever it is, I think it's why Bob Dylan's music works- I mean, it just cannot be the quality of his voice exactly.

While I can enjoy a light pop song as much as the next person, I will steadily choose those that seem to know what they're talking about and mean it, whether or not I can grasp their meaning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social Markers

When I was in college in Austin, we carefully avoided people talking loudly to themselves as they moved down the street. There was the large man who softly mumbled as he cut his eyes at your swiftly passing form. There was the man who knelt on the same corner every afternoon beseeching the heavens, wildly gesticulating, eyes glued to the sky. There was the woman who would snicker as you walked by, and another who told you what hell would be like.

Now, almost none of these behaviors mean you're probably crazy, off, of a different reality. Really, anything except the kneeling just means you're on the phone.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Age Appropriate

Way back, when I was pregnant the first time, I looked at the list of toys we needed in order to have a superior child, or at least to avoid being sub-par parents. The list varied in length depending on which book or magazine I read, but I came away with just a few things that were MUSTS. One was blocks.

Well, let's fast forward to wee little Ezra sitting propped up in a high chair, offered a block or two to occupy him. At this point, blocks looked like a good choice, but if we gave him a napkin or spoon or bagel or cup, he was much more interested. The blocks were fine for him to manipulate, but in no way a formative experience for a 4- to 9-month-old.

By twelve months, the well-informed parent hopes Baby is stacking at least two blocks on one another. That makes blocks again seem very important; they help us know that Baby is growing well. But any parent who spends time with Baby can see whether he is beginning to put things together; there is not actually anything magical about blocks. And by twelve months, Ezra had figured out a much better thing to do with blocks- throw them. This became a discipline moment, and I worked on it and worked on it. We worked on it until he was about four when he suddenly did the thing with blocks that I figured he would start doing a year or two earlier, building.

The girls followed a similar trajectory with blocks, but this post is not all about blocks. What I really mean to say is we are sold toys repeatedly for younger children that these same children would enjoy more at a later age, especially if they were novel at that point. Legos are another fine example. Yes, most three-year-olds of my acquaintance can and will assemble Lego pieces, but six-year-olds can follow the instruction books for the smaller sets, they can then disassemble pieces by themselves. If you wait even longer, like until they're nine, for the more complicated sets, they can do the figuring for themselves, which will lead to them venturing into new constructions all their own.

I saw the same thing with dolls, doll houses, kitchen play, Play Mobil, etc. They make many things with extra bells and whistles for smaller children to try to get them to play with the toys the parents think they OUGHT to enjoy. It is good to remind ourselves that these people are trying to separate us from our money; they are not really all that interested in our children's development. The time we spend with our children is our most valuable tool is determining what they are actually ready for; no table of expected milestones or far removed expert can beat that.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dark is Coming

I read somewhere recently that people who claim to like winter are people who feel pretty secure in what they have set aside for it. Right now, we have plenty set aside.

The pantry is full- mostly of tomatoes and apple cider. The freezer is near bursting with chickens, beef, butter, lard, tallow, berries, green beans, and melon. We'll have to find room for half of a pig. There's kimchi in the cellar. The chickens are laying pretty well. We're getting almost 3 gallons of milk a day. The wood is stacked. I guess we're about ready for winter.

And suddenly, even before daylight savings time ends, it's really quite dark at completely decent hours, like 6:30. When it gets dark, my prey brain says, "Time to tuck into the burrow." Unfortunately, that would mean very little in the way of a social life. My goal this winter is to force myself out into the dark more often. I'm starting a sewing circle that meets in the evening, and I'm going to attend at least one reading or similar thing per month. I like staying home, but I think I'll feel more involved in our community if I make this effort.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Weatherman Is Crying Cus He's Happy

If you were in Austin in the early nineties, you had the chance to see an amazing band called Shoulders. We only saw them a few times, probably under ten, and their performances and wonderful lyrics still play in my head.

The lead singer, Michael Slatterly, had a raspy voice, and dressed in an Austin musician's uniform- sweaty, poly-blend button-down, old man's hat, and non-committal facial hair. Being the front man, he's really the only one I remember. There was a bass drum set up on the front edge of the stage, and he would whale on it, driving the audience with his mania.

The music was raucous; the entire band (besides maybe the drummer) definitely danced around the stage.  Their shows were like a fun house; everything seemed exciting and happy until you listened more closely to the lyrics. That's when things got dark, warped, and slightly menacing.

After we left Austin, I found a cd of their music. I was thrilled, at least until I actually played it. Whoever produced it had trimmed off the razor edges. What was left was sadder, colder, and quieter than a tombstone.

So, because their lyrics keep going around in my head-

Outside Lulu's bar and pool
a pack of wolves gather round
they howl and drool.
They'll eat anything that bleeds...

It's just a charm not a jewel
it's just a charm from a fool...

In trashman's shoes

Uncle Akin was sore at the world
For what I do not know
But when he spoke to the flowers they
did grow grow grow!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

On Sunday the children carved their pumpkins. Phaedra's as the biggest, but it had mold inside. Sylvie scooped it out for her, then Phaedra decided Sylvie could just have it. Ezra's definitely reflected his age; it was more creative and had big enough openings to shed a fair bit of light. Phaedra's also had pretty big openings. Sylvie's had six faces that let out hardly any light at all; she was delighted!
 Tonight, they each put together their costumes with only minimal input. I'm not really the helpful sort in this department, and no one liked my idea of going as a laundry hamper.
So, Ezra went as an IRS agent; Jason got him some faux tax forms to hand out that taxed people candy. He made the briefcase out of a canning jar box and gorilla tape.

Phaedra went as a librarian. The glasses are some of Jason's. She felt that with the glasses way down on her nose she looked like her Grammy. That's "Little Women" under her arm.

Sylvie went as a witch. She likes anything that requires odious amounts of face paint. She wanted very much to look scary.

Jason took them trick or treating; they like for him to take them. Sylvie explained to Librarian Rose this morning that if I take them, they only get to go to two houses. Jason said there were not very many people out, and that not that many houses had a light on. I wonder if the weather scared people.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Peace Points

My beloved third child needs the world to respond to her; she needs to know if you like what she's doing, whether she does it better than anyone else. She will ask for, insist on, and demand attention from most anyone she feels comfortable with. If she really loves and trusts you, when all else fails, she will pinch, yell, jump, poke, do ANYTHING to get you to notice her. For the record, we are not a cold, distracted family; she just entered the world needing more attention than the other four of us can steadily give.

Her yearning for attention has resulted in some pretty negative interactions with her siblings, particularly Ezra. I have watched and tried to stay out of the way, believing pretty firmly that they will come to a workable solution for both of them. Seven-and-a-half years in, I've decided that there are too many negative patterns between the two of them, and I can see similar patterns extending into more of her interactions with all of us. It seems high time to do something.

Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of "peace points"; these are tied to behaviors that either create or undermine peace. Being overly sensitive does not calm our environment, breathing into your sister's ear is disruptive to everyone, unobtrusively helping with another's chore makes life better for the entire family.

Each child starts the week with ten points. At the end of the week, if all three children have eight or more, they may each spend $1 on candy. If any child has 10 points, that person may have $2. (Candy is a hot commodity in our house; it's one of the upsides to deprivation in childhood.) Points may be regained, as well as lost. The trick here is that each child is dependent on the others to reap the reward, and they all actually like it when all of them have the same treat. They will each advocate for the others as the week comes to a close to make sure everyone has as many points as possible.

And finally, I see Sylvie trying to measure her responses to annoyances, like someone quietly enjoying a book or wanting her to put her shoes away. I see her trying to frame her wants and needs in a friendlier way. I see Ezra trying to be tolerant instead of provoked. I see Phaedra tempering some of her passive pettiness. The whole system is kind of a bother, because I am the banker of points, but two weeks in, it seems worth the effort.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another Chicken Harvest

We bagged the chickens today, sending most to others' freezers, and tucking twenty into our own. The birds came in at a good weight, averaging 6.5 pounds. The first year, they averaged 6 and last year they were only 4.5.

The first year, we did not kill them until 13 weeks. They did not seem to gain much that last week, so we decided to kill them earlier the following year. Part of the deal is that once they get a certain size, they really eat a lot, so you have to compare what they might gain to the cost of feed.

Last year, we tried a different food that was not specifically formulated for maximizing growth. We also killed them at about 11 weeks. That was one depressing harvest, as we killed chicken after chicken that were so obviously smaller than the year before.

This year, we fed them "grower" food, and we supplemented with all of our waste milk. The past two years, we really didn't have much milk to spare for chickens. Since most of our milk is going into butter this year, and we're not sharing with a calf, that left gallons of skimmed milk for the chickens.

About a month ago, I helped a friend kill his chickens. His were a different variety, one that is more manipulated to grow big and fast, and I knew they would be bigger than ours. Still, I looked at them one week, and we both thought they looked a little small; the next week when we killed them, they averaged 8 pounds. I had a bit of chicken envy, and I upped the amount of milk our birds were getting.

A couple of weeks after that, a friend killed her chickens, which were a breed similar to ours, and hers all came in around 5.5 pounds. Now, maybe that sounds plenty big, but there is another meal on a six pound chicken; that half pound of meat really does make difference. Also, when you're putting 6 pound chickens in the freezer, none of the grain costs seem to matter; whereas when we sold 4.5 pound chickens at a price per pound that had counted on them being 6 pounds, it was painful. My friend's experience made me worry about whether ours would be big enough on execution day.

We picked up the chicken rig the evening before, and we felt pretty good about getting everything going, as we had used this setup the past two years. Well, harvest morning, we could not get this scalder to light. Jason worked and worked with it; he took the propane tank and had it topped off just in case that was the problem. Our friend showed up to help, and he worked on it. We got a huge pot of water heating on a propane burner, and still Jason and our friend tried to figure out the problem with the scalder. They actually had a good idea of the problem, but we were already two hours into our harvest and not a single chicken had been killed.

That's when Sylvie let all sixty chickens out of the fence.

Finally, chickens were rounded up, water was at temperature, and we were off. The rest of the day was uneventful. We realized that the scalder was nowhere near as important as the plucker and killing cones. We spent roughly 4 hours doing in 60 chickens; our friend, as well as Ezra and Phaedra learned how to eviscerate, Sylvie learned how to clean gizzards. It was quite a team operation.

Unfortunately, there were no free hands for a camera, so I'll try to describe the one thing I wished I had a picture of. At about 3:00, I looked at Jason, and he had chicken blood all down his neck, splattered across his face, and all over his clothes as he grimly set about killing the next chicken.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Popular Shorthand

My siblings and I share a repertoire of cartoon references that serve as conversational shortcuts. Ours is extensive due to the inordinate hours we spent in front of the television, but it even helped with my peer group in college. You know, we COULD sit at Quackenbush's discussing whether Tom or Jerry was the 'bad" guy; we were of course far too cerebral for that conversation.

I am realizing that this is something I am denying my children. They will be a little odd the same way I am when someone talks about football or more recent tv. I mention this because I feel a ridiculous pride in not having a television, but I also see that there is a social cost. I think of this girl in college who was just a bit off, and at the time, people attributed it to her not having a television when she was growing up.

The good news is that they do have peers in the same situation, and maybe, depending on where they choose to live, they'll have some sort of television-clueless cohort.

We also have started bringing a few things into their lives. Ezra, in particular, sees recent movies, and as the girls get older, they will, too. Jason keeps us in touch with newer music, although still not top 40 stuff. (How I remember listening to Casey Casem on a weekend mornings so I would know what band to like now!) As we get farther along this path, we'll have to continue to pick and choose. I know I'm supposed to say that all this popular stuff should not matter; it's their characters I should care most about. But I remember how much more I enjoyed life when I began to understand what it was my peers were interested in and wanted to talk about. Belonging, or being able to choose to belong, is an awesome tool. We are herd animals; even if we do not want to move with the herd, we should at least teach our children how to recognize a few landmarks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Domestic Goddess

I was recently with another woman who has a completely different skill set from me, and I found myself comparing the two of us, and wondering whether I measured up. I like doing comparisons like this, because it helps me remember where I want to be, find a new way to go, or congratulate myself on what I'm doing. It also occasionally makes me feel like a failure.

The funny thing about this particular comparison is that it brought up thoughts I have regarding some of best friends as well. I started thinking that maybe I could only feel truly that I had become a domestic goddess when I regularly did almost everything each of these woman do. The list got pretty hilarious the longer I thought about it, and I encouraged my friends to chime in when they had something to add to the list.

So, here's my list; add your own items in the comment section if you feel I've overlooked something.

  1. Homeschool.
  2. Growing at least 50% of the food a family eats.
  3. A tidy, presentable house at all times.
  4. A bathroom your mother wouldn't mind using.
  5. Each child always  having a homemade item to don.
  6. Fresh, matching pajamas at bedtime for the children.
  7. A well brushed dog.
  8. A garden that's a delight to walk through.
  9. Chickens are a must.
  10. The chicken coop must be pristine- especially the nest boxes.
  11. The chickens must USE the nest boxes if you're really a domestic goddess.
  12. A pantry full of home canned and lactofermented goodness.
  13. Fresh baked something every day.
  14. Every meal must be a peaceful occasion. 
  15. No sandwiches- unless all sandwich items were lovingly prepared by you.
  16. Domestic goddesses do not have to own or shear sheep, but from roving to sweater, they must know the way.
  17. Each family member must have a sweater from your labors.
  18. Your yard must be beautiful.
  19. The children's rooms must be inviting.
  20. Daily mopping.
  21. Homemade yogurt.
  22. A happy spouse.
  23. An empty laundry room due to all the laundry being ever clean and put away.
  24. A calm answer to every child who ever makes any request.
  25. Always ready.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I remember being about eight when we were once driving home from church, my mother seething. This happened pretty often, and we three children sat silently, wondering which of us had misbehaved so badly during the service that she felt she had to drag us out of church. She took a deep breath and began to talk to us about what women do.

Her voice shook as she explained exactly why she worked. She told us how she was not happy staying home; she elaborated on how difficult it had been when my brother and I, only one year apart, were babies and my father spent so much time working. She mentioned other families in the church in which the mothers did stay home, and how for some of them, it worked well, and for others, the women simply suffered and looked gray. She talked all the way home, trying to make us understand how no one answer works for every woman, and how women need each other. She wanted us to understand that the women who stayed home were not the enemies of the women who worked, but they were all the same people trying to find the best solutions for their families.

I also remember my mother often saying how she would crawl into a warm bath with a razor blade if she ever found out she was pregnant again- not a coat hanger mind you, but a razor blade.

There's a Breeders song that goes, "Saw it on a wall, motherhood means mental freeze. Freezeheads!", and I wonder about the neighbor ladies I knew as I got older.  Her best friend was a mess and not our neighbor, but she was like my mother. They could talk for hours about entertainment esoterica or the Hapsburgs or czarist Russia. My mother only saw her a couple of times a year, but she's the only woman, besides my aunt, I remember my mother spending quality time with. Those neighbor ladies watched soap operas and and seemed rundown by their lives. Maybe my mother was fleeing that as much as her three demanding children.

I remember sitting beside my mother in the car one morning when she had taken a day off from work; she was a little sick, but really, she had planned a day just puttering around the house. Between her commute and her handicap, she was too tired at the end of most days to tackle housework, and weekends were not long enough for any real project. Mostly, our house was pretty filthy, but occasionally, she would take a day and deal with some area or another. This particular day, I turned up sick as well. We had just dropped my siblings off at school, and she was headed back home. She said, "I know you're not all that sick, but I figured you needed the day with me."

And there it is; I just needed my mother.

I stay at home because I wanted her so badly. Staying at home has increased my questioning of what I was taught about feminism. I think my mother's speech in the car that morning defines what I believe. I like to think more women know this now--we cannot have it all, and we've given up trying. We know we have to pick.

Her generation also shook the foundations of authority, giving me the breathing room to figure some things out for myself. While she believed fully in experts, she somehow instilled a mile-wide streak of doubt in her children.

That doubt led our family to homebirth and nursing and cloth diapers, things many in her generation had really moved away from. It led to home schooling and homesteading. My life is probably pretty far removed from what my mother might have imagined for me; she might have chastised me for wasting opportunities her generation fought for. Still, I know she believed what she told us in that car that long ago Sunday. I know someone had deeply hurt her for what she had decided was best for our whole family, and I know she would understand that my decision might not look the same but is based on that exact foundation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Playing Dolls

Ezra had no interest in dolls until Phaedra was big enough to play with them. For those of you who are tutting at all our culture does to deny boys this beautiful expression of caring for ourselves and learning to nurture, trust that Ezra had plenty of opportunities and gentle encouragement to play dolls. Sure, there were occasional forays; I have a sweet picture of him when he was almost three nursing a baby doll in a sling fashioned from a play silk. I think this had more to do with imitation than with playing at nurturing, because it never seemed to develop into the same sort of play that his backyard engineering feats did.

Phaedra chose to sleep with a doll around the time she turned two, and this doll still resides in her bed, with a threadbare face and mittened hands. But sleeping with a dolls and playing dolls are not really the same. I had hoped she would play dolls, and Ezra would join her, and they could both try their hands at nurturing. There was some doll play, but it never seemed to grab either of them. They spent more time telling stories and swinging and building with blocks. Phaedra definitely likes dolls, but she does less pretending with them, and more maintenance, like making clothes and smoothing hair.

Now, Sylvie really plays dolls. She dresses them and carries them places and worries sporadically about their feelings. She always hopes someone will be fooled that she's carrying a real baby.  She cajoles Ezra and Phaedra to play with her, and she always wants them to play dolls. Sylvie is the one that keeps a storyline going, so that everyone will just stick to dolls.

The problem is that Ezra is the most likely to say yes, and his babies are always so poorly behaved. To me, it looks like doll rebellion. His dolls always wake the others from their naps; they refuse to be potty trained or dressed nicely. They pinch the other babies to make them cry. Sylvie announced that Ezra is banished from doll play until his dolls can act right. (I love this stuff!)

So, the other day, Ezra is quietly and pointedly crying behind me as I'm washing dishes, and I ask the question he's silently begging me to ask, "What's the matter?"

His tears fall faster as he explains that Sylvie is excluding him. I look out the window and see the girls playing peacefully; I reflect on all I know about my plastic grandchildren; I ask Ezra if he knows why he's being excluded.

There's a powwow and then,

This lasted a solid hour. I always wonder when this moment will be the last like this I'll see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Flexible Schedule

I homeschool the children in a way that means I rarely get a week day off during the school year, so I'm pretty tied up with them until after lunch Monday through Friday. Then, five afternoons a week, we have enrichment activities. This works for us, except for one thing.

I still have a million things to do outdoors. I actually plan the work load to be heavier between now and March, so that I can have more time to begin gardening. Fall sneaked up on us this year; Jason has been so busy with one thing and another, that he has not taken up the slack the way I have come to count on. Some things were outright errors, like I planted green beans so late that they were only barely coming on when we started school.

Fortunately, I have learned a bit of flexibility through the years, and the newest contortion is that Monday is not a "real" school day until probably snowfall.

The children handled it pretty well yesterday. Ezra is quite independent in his studies, relying on me primarily to follow up on readings or edit writing. Phaedra likes to have me in the neighborhood when she does math, but she managed with only a little nudging from Ezra. Sylvie did only a few things, as she still relies heavily on me to provide structure to her school day; still, she can have a few four-day-weeks in second grade.

I delighted in pulling up the eight-foot tall pole beans that hung dead and slimy from frost. I raked leaves and raked leaves and raked leaves. Do you have any idea how many leaves it takes to fill a 50' by 3' path? I only filled one of them, but I did hit some trouble spots around the ends of rows with cardboard and leaves. I layered hay onto three green bean beds, as well as the cucumber and chard beds. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but it took 6 hours. And I haven't even started on the new garden.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Teaching Manners

Jason and I enjoy new ideas. We like experiments; we're not too afraid of failing. The notion that making mistakes quickly is a good way to a workable solution appeals to us. The upside is we almost always have something to talk about; the downside is we make lots of mistakes. Parenting has offered many avenues for making humbling mistakes.

Before we had children, before I started teaching, I read many books on child development. The theories I happened onto that made a lot of sense to me were more of the "adults must stay out of the way of the natural goodness of children" or "children will do all the things they need to do naturally if we give them the space". Two months into teaching, I was already doubting these theories. Given complete freedom, most of the children in the school where I taught preferred playing and socializing to academic pursuits. Non-violent communication did not beget non-violence among the students who liked to express themselves physically. For the ones who liked talking more than math, the "peace corner" was a perfect place to spend the morning. There seemed no natural leanings toward watching out for less able, younger, or confused peers.

The thing with theories is they sound so good on paper, and you can always find someone who has the experience to back up one theory or another. So, if you're already biased, you're pretty likely to believe the supporting arguments. There is nothing like personal encounters to blow theories out of the water.

Ezra did not sleep when he needed to; it seems his little baby and child self benefited from an adult facilitating sleep- even when he was three and four and twelve. The girls definitely followed a similar pattern. Letting a small Ezra or Phaedra or Sylvie experience the cold due to their inadequate clothing choices proved to be another asinine theory. Each of them might have blue lips and chittering teeth as they claimed they were not cold and, "No, I don't want a jacket, shoes, shirt...."

Admittedly, some things worked. I do not cajole the children to eat; I've never begged them. I have occasionally insisted on one bite. I think I have pretty good eaters with very few table tantrums on the books. Their table manners still need work.

And manners is what this post is supposed to be about.

Along with the idea that they would sleep when they needed to and ask for a coat if they got cold, was the idea that if we modeled good manners they would copy us. I cannot even count how many times I read on the Mothering boards some scathing comment about a mother who made her three-year-old say please, thank you, I'm sorry, excuse me. Why! If that mother only knew how she was scarring her child into hating manners and how much more gently she could do it by simply providing a good example. If everyone would do this there would be peace in the Middle East!

Here I sit with three children who have heard me say please and thank you, hello and good bye, excuse me, welcome!, and so on and not a one of them has developed the habit. I'm surrounded by just those sort of haters who MADE their dear little toddlers mouth these meaningless words and phrases until it became habit- and the fact is their children are much nicer to be around.

All these little habits are more easily impressed on little ones, and for them, they are most likely meaningless. But I'm one person who feels delighted when a visiting child says, "Thank you for having me over." I wish I had seen the foolishness of omitting this bit of direct teaching.

So now, I'm having to teach and explain that these little words are just to make people feel better and they are the oil in the social bearings. I'm having to whisper cues in the ears of children old enough to be embarrassed by promptings. We have to review social niceties before we go into a store or a lesson- things like "make eye contact, say thank you, always yield right of way to pregnant women and elderly people". Maybe these are not the same rules you would enforce; maybe my children will talk to their therapists about the year their mother got manners; maybe no one else actually cares afterall. And still, all I can think is that it's about time.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


for a child of 1918
by Elizabeth Bishop

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
"Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet."

We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather's whip tap his hat. 
"Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day."
And I said it and bowed where I sat.

Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
"Always offer everyone a ride;
don't forget that when you get older,"

my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a "Caw!" and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?

But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled, he answered.
"A fine bird, " my grandfather said,

"and he's well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he's spoken to.
Man or beast, that's good manners.
Be sure that you both always do."

When the automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people's faces,
but we shouted "Good day! Good day!
Fine day!" at the top of our voices.

When we came to Hustler HIll,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What Happened at Our House Today

Maybe I'll get used to this, but I have my doubts. Here in early October, we had some strange, but not unheard of, weather. That white stuff is not hail, but very fat balls of sleet. It felt decidedly winter-ish, or late fall-ish, with the wind blowing and much frozen white stuff falling.

Like Texas (in January or February), it all melted pretty quickly, like when there would be twenty minutes of blazing sun between the intervals of blowing sleet and snow. I was delighted, and awed, and mystified.

I looked at the children on this mid-October day and said for the millionth time, "I do not believe we're in Texas anymore."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Music for the Third Child- Part Two

Sylvie still had Pete as a mainstay for the first couple of years. She probably even had more of my soul through singing, because I had learned so many of the folk songs that were on endless repeat at our house.

But, when she was four and Ezra was nine-and-a-half, things began to slip. Partly, it happened because we were working in such a focused way, that my soul energy was less available to filter all the music Jason and I had as our first picks. Ezra was getting to a point where he was really interested in music beyond the folk stuff we had been hearing, and that seemed pretty reasonable.

Also, we all REALLY like the White Stripes, and, for those of you too foolish to know, their songs really are pretty kid friendly. The lyrics are pretty inscrutable, there are no curse words, and no dark clouds of hate and anger. The subject matter, rockin' music, amd clever lyrics mean that they are still 100% adult music. It was a happy thing...

and a gateway drug.

With a dash of Pandora and Slacker and a heavy dose of Ezra's interest in minutia, combined with his liking Cocteau Twins the best of all, you might see where this is leading. You know, about 45 seconds into any Cocteau Twins song, I fall asleep. Jason's similar opinion meant that he began suggesting other bands Ezra might enjoy.

And the ball rolled ever wider and farther until a couple of months back when Sylvie seemed to know all the words to "Kiss with a Fist" and most of the words to "Girl with One Eye".  It was completely charming to me that Ezra knew all the words to various propaganda songs at the age of seven, but these two did not make my maternal heart flutter warmly. I knew I had let things stray too far.

Now, I've made various edicts to the older family members about what we can play with Sylvie around. I explained that I do not listen to the Violent Femmes or Hole when any of them are around, and we need to extend this courtesy to her, but with still another couple of notches down on the content and subject matter ladder.

I still have trouble with this. I'm ready to listen to some of my own stuff more often, so I keep making playlists that I think will work. Today, L.A County came on while we were driving home; Sylvie says, "I love this song!" I guess I need to clean up that play list, too.

And the quote this morning that made this whole post come about was Ezra chastising Jason- "Daddy, don't you think it's wrong to listen to Jamie T. with your children around?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Music for the Third Child- Part One

 Oh no! The dreaded multi-part blog post! How pretentious can you get!

When Ezra was little, I discovered how much I really loathe most anything labeled kids music. None of the funky, artsy performers praised in Mothering did anything but wrinkle my nose. The Putamayo music was tolerable, but who can stand listening to the same "tolerable" music day in and day out; it would be like spending your life in an elevator. The Waldorf approved tunes had the advantage of wanting you to skip recorded stuff entirely and sing to and with your children from your soul. While that sounds at least vaguely hokey, I was completely willing to learn a bajillion songs, and I did.

Part of the problem was that Ezra was definitely learning from what he was hearing. I'd had to give up public radio when he toddled into the room where I was nursing Phaedra and chirped in his sweet two year voice, "I am Diane Rehm." He could also do funny parlor tricks, like tell you the names of various dictators whose names were oft spouted in the top of the news hour. I had thought music would give me a bit of companionship and would bring less ugliness into my little children's heads. I went on the search for more music.

One night when Jason and I were on one of our first dates after Phaedra was born, we happened into the cd section of a bookstore chain- it was Texas; there were no local book or music stores that I knew of. I thought I'd check the kids' music section. And there was the artist who changed my parenting life- Pete Seeger. This was music with funny lyrics, older melodies, no stupid children as back up singers, no electronic flim flam, and a singer just begging you to sing along- not alone.

After that cd, many more Pete Seeger albums found their way into our house. There's a picture of three-year-old Ezra with his ear pressed to the speaker as he tried to learn all the lyrics to "Union Maid". Pete Seeger was followed by a little Woody Guthrie and a little Burl Ives, but neither of these replaced Pete in our familial affections.

And so, Ezra and Phaedra had a pretty good selection of music that I felt pretty comfortable with for the first few years of their lives.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Phys Ed

I avoided for many years putting the children into structured dance or gymnastics or sports. I did it with the belief that their bodies needed time to become. Their muscles needed time to grow. Their focus for the first few years should be on learning their bodies and focusing their will.

I've decided that was all wrong.

Now, they all do some class. Ezra and Phaedra are certainly old enough, but Sylvie is in her second year of gymnastics and dance already. All the programs are very structured with good, patient instructors. What I've seen so far is increased confidence in ability and strength. I've seen a nice focus on developing skills that they lacked. I've also realized that they need more reasons to be physical at home- at least the older two. For Sylvie, she just needs some place to direct her physicality.

We got a trampoline this summer for just those reasons. We realized that we do not know many adults who have trouble sitting still, but we know many who avoid moving. So why spend all this energy convincing the children to sit still? They'll probably do it fine by the time they're thirty- maybe not Sylvie :)

Right now, we're driving a bit to get everyone to these activities. Come snow fall, and we'll add a bit more for cross country skiing. In the spring, Ezra and Sylvie would each like to be on a soccer team. And I guess I can finally look around me and see which priorities have fallen to the side while we figured out what we're doing in this little town in Vermont. Now, it's time to pick up those things that are important- whether that's my belief that motion is fun and important or the children's strong urge to try themselves, each in his/her own way, and to be with peers to do it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Composting toilet

This post has been sitting blank for more than a year; it' the post that made me wonder if I really thought blogging was a thing I wanted to do. I fretted about actually talking about this, because my feelings run strong and I worried about offending people. And then I came back to blogging and this blank draft is sitting in my post list and I think I have to talk about this.

I live in a place that seems (at least to someone from Texas) to have an unlimited amount of water. There's water everywhere. It falls regularly from the skies; the rivers seem to never be dry. Our sandy soil stays saturated for weeks in the spring and the occasional week throughout the summer and fall. So, why would I worry about water?

First, water is limited. Really. It is. There is only so much, and only so much of it is potable. Being from Texas, I know that water does not always fall from the sky when you need it.

Second, we have a spring that we get water from. This means we can actually have NO water if we forget to turn off a garden hose. Truthfully, the spring recovers pretty fast- about 2 hours in high summer- so we have never been without water long. But if you have never experienced the thrill/horror of turning on the tap and no water coming out, then you'll have to believe me that it is a sobering experience. It helps me not take water so much for granted.

Because I was always on city water in Texas, it never really registered. If the water did not come out of the tap, it mean the city had a problem to fix. Can you imagine a robocall telling everyone in Fort Worth there would be no water for two hours?

Third, there's the whole potability thing. Probably everyone who reads this post shits in their drinking water.Then, that water gets "cleaned" and cycled back into the system so you can either drink it or shit in it again. I hope you're a little grossed out at this point.

Coming to this realization, coupled with trying to conserve our spring, led me to try something that seemed completely crazy- much crazier than cloth diapers. I now compost our waste, "humanure" as it's called. While I have you cringing already, you might check to see what your city does with the human waste cleaned from your city's water. Around here, the guy who empties septic tanks sprays that "manure" on hay fields. I'm not sure exactly what regulations apply regarding when that field can be used to feed animals, but I am sure that my compost is sitting much longer and most definitely turning into dirt before it's used agriculturally.

And really, what ARE they supposed to do with all this shit we're dumping down our pipes?

So, as I try to keep at least on foot off the soapbox, I'll say we've been doing this for an entire year as a family. We made it through last winter by building a box with a toilet seat that a five gallon bucket sits in. The bargain I made to get everyone in this house on board is that I switch out the buckets and clean them. It's not such a big deal, except maybe in January. Things I've learned: I need three compost piles to get a family of five through winter; the compost pile compacts faster if I put a little sprinkling of compost on the finished bucket; everyone must be very clear on which bins are aging and which compost bins are active. I had two bins that should have been ready this fall, but the kids added kitchen scraps and cat litter in the spring, so those will wait awhile longer. Pine shavings break down better that cedar.

For now, we still have a flush toilet with a humanure receptacle beside it. Jason insists that people will not visit us otherwise. I'm not convinced, but sometimes, the more squeamish person should set the bar.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I have taught all three children to knit. Partly, it's about sharing something I enjoy doing with my children.

It's also because I believe knitting is very good for your whole self. It's rhythmic, it engages the will, it crosses the midline, there's the whole reading a pattern thing, etc.

Recently, Sylvie has crossed from knitting being all effort to being at least a little pleasure. It's a line they have each crossed at different times. Phaedra was probably in third grade, Ezra quit resisting so hard in fifth, and Sylvie is just barely into second grade.

For the girls, it looks like something they will enjoy at least somewhat through life. It is not something Ezra will probably ever stick with, but having one skill can make you more confident on other areas.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cottage Cheese

This story starts many long years ago when we made yogurt in Texas. We used raw milk, we used prepared (store bought) yogurt as a culture, we tiptoed around the house while it was making and we had yogurt. At least, we had one batch of yogurt; we could never get a good result from using our homemade yogurt as a start for the next batch.

Also, Jason kept wondering why something so common in cultures with much more limited technology was so darn difficult to make.

We tried again in Vermont, and here things got even shakier. We figured it had to do with being able to keep the temperature steady for the entire time the yogurt was making. We gave up; it was too much waste for too little return.

Then, one day last spring, we decided to just leave the milk in a pan on the counter, because we only wanted the cream off of it to make butter. Well, things got away from us, and we did not get around to skimming the cream until a day and a half later.

Voila! Yogurt was hiding under our cream. That's it; that's all we did. We took a couple of gallons of milk still cow warm and left it on the counter for about 36 hours. Now this was a believable way to make yogurt. (You might also call it clabber.)

Now, cottage cheese presents a similar problem to yogurt. The recipes for it are extremely complicated and rely on a control of temperature that's hard to believe a "cottager" might have been able to maintain. After our experience with yogurt, we felt certain there must be a similarly lost way to make it.

And here it is-

Take your clabbered milk and put it on the stove over a moderate heat. Stir gently and occasionally. As soon as the whey separates from the curds, drain your cheese and rinse it with cold water. You are trying to stop the cooking.

Salt your curds and mix them with some sweet or soured cream or just some milk. It is not the same as what comes out of the container from the grocery, but the ingredient list is much shorter and the product is quite satisfying.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses, too
I see 'em bloom for me and for you
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world

I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world

The colors of a rainbow- so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying, I love you

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world.

Yes, yes, I'm sure I'm not the first person to do this. However, this song keeps going around and around in my head as I notice the beauty in my life. Thanks and love to all of you who are part of it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Permanent Chicken Coop

For two years, we moved our chickens around the field in this :

There came a point last summer when we just could not make time to move the chickens anymore. Also, anywhere we moved them, no matter if it was only for a day, they pretty quickly decimated the spot; our sandy soil cannot even stand up to a chicken.

We noted that they got much calmer and easier to deal with when we were not moving them around all the time. We also found that they ranged pretty far and wide doing their chicken business. And let's face, it was much easier on us to leave them be. The eggs were easier to gather, they were more likely to be in a safe place when it came time to roost, and they still did the work we most wanted them to do- dispersing cow pats.

This past summer, we began in the same way, knowing that we wanted to have a permanent arrangement for them. I wanted whatever it would be ready by the time the meat bird chicks arrived at the beginning of July so that we did not have to brood them in the house again. We worked frantically for two weekends and we now have a fixed coop.

It is in what has been the cow shed. I would say the thirty layers look quite comfortable in it. Just to the left there is the brooding space, which was plenty big for the sixty meat birds for the first month of their very short lives.

This coop is not all I hoped for, yet it functions better than any I've had to go into so far. The fact that it is more square means the chickens and I are not chasing each other as I tend to chores in the coop. They are less stressed by our presence because they can get out of our way. They are also all laying in the nest boxes- except for one who insists on depositing her eggs on a particular bale of hay in the barn.

Come winter, they can have this whole structure to move around in, which will be nicer for them than being confined to the coop only. The past two winters, they have stayed in the very big greenhouse. I figure they can adapt to the smaller digs.

They spend the night and morning locked in the coop to maximize the chances for the eggs all being in the nest boxes. Then they range all over the property the rest of the day.

The only problem has been with fencing garden spaces. I haven't quite figured that out, so they ate all our berries this year. Maybe next year I can outsmart the chickens.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Things Used to be Tidy

So long ago, it feels like a dream, I mopped my floors almost daily, and my house seemed so easy to keep clean. I have lost this as a priority somehow.

Today, I was canning the first batch of broth and rendering fat and simultaneously helping the children with school. While I was doing the breakfast dishes to make room for my tasks, I supported Phaedra through her division work. I got the jars in hot water and read to Sylvie. Ezra slipped in and out telling me about what he was reading or trying to convince me that he needed no more practice drawing triangles. Sylvie took a break from school to help me fill jars, and then I set her up to paint something from King of Ireland's Son. More reading, more checking, more talking...

Just as I was feeling like I had things on the kitchen side of the room under control, I glanced across to see what homeschool looks like at our house. I think the word is disheveled.
And I think that's probably good enough in the midst of these four slightly canted walls.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

No Dryer

We chose to not have a dryer when we moved in here. We had experimented with this from time to time, but this house is so tightly configured that the space that might hold a dryer was quickly occupied by other necessaries.

It's been over three year; we've made it three winters. Actually the winters are not even the most difficult season. Since we run the wood stove throughout the winter, the house is relatively dry and laundry dries pretty well. I can set a drying rack in front of the stove loaded with laundry before bed, and it's all dry in the morning.

Today's weather presents the real difficulty. It has rained pretty steadily since we've been back from Maine, and there was a lot of laundry to wash when we got home. So, with steady shuffling and a fan, I've gotten most of it washed and the last "catch up" load is hanging in the laundry room.

We talked about taking it to the laundrymat, but the dryers there smell burned. We are tired of hearing the fan running, but it seems like a pretty good compromise.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Another Good Use of Electricity

Back when we weaned Gusto, we suddenly were overwhelmed with milk. It seemed a fine time to learn to make butter. The children and I have made butter in a jar, shaking and shaking and shaking the jar until finally some globs separate. It was tedious and long, and I really do not think my children learned much from it. My friend has made butter in her daisy churn; she was unimpressed with the "convenience", but she believes it's a good alternative if she ever has to make butter without electricity. I have also made butter using a food processor, but the results were less than thrilling. Faced with all this milk, I needed to choose a method of butter making.

I did what many homesteaders do these days, at least the ones lacking knowledgeable elders, I turned to the internet. These first method I found different from those already listed was to use an upright mixer. Some of you may be wiser or more farsighted or more experienced than I am and you may already know what happened. For those of you lacking these traits that I lack, I will tell you- it was an unholy mess. There was cream on the cupboard doors and cream in the drawers and cream on the stove and cream on the floor and cream on me and really just cream everywhere. To top it off, it took FOREVER to whip into butter, maybe as long as 45 minutes. I went back to the drawing board and pondered the lovely convenience of the tidy sticks of butter one buys at the grocery store.

I decided to try the food processor again with a little phone support from a friend who makes all the butter they use. It is perhaps the very best reason for owning one of these noisy machines. After ten minutes, I had butter floating in butter milk.

I think the reason the food processor did not work when I tried it before had to do with the temperature of the cream. It was in Texas and I did have a toddler and preschooler "helping", and I am not sure the butter did not go too long or that the ten minutes it takes seemed more like 45 with two children under foot.

So, this information is already widely available on the internet, but to keep you from looking further, here's what you do. Allow the cream to separate from the milk; this only works with raw, unhomogenized  milk. If your milk has traveled much, it may not separate very well. When you can clearly see the line between the milk and the cream, skim the cream off the top of the jar (this is a bad time to have milk in a jug) and put it into another jar or straight into the food processor. The cream is much easier to skim and make into butter if it is chilled.

 Now, put the cream into the food processor with the spinning blade thing that sits in the bottom and turn it on. Sometimes the butter will make in under five minutes and sometimes it might take fifteen. The trick is to pay some attention because if it goes too long and gets too warm, you have to chill it and start again.
 The sound will change, and you might open it to see something like whipped cream. Let it keep going. You might open it again and see something like whipped butter; let it go just a little longer.
What you should see when you open it should look clearly like butter floating in milk.

So, gently pour off the milk- ideally not down the pipes as it will some day cause you untold sorrow. Run a little cold water into the food processor and pulse the butter. Drain it again. Add the cold water and pulse again. Drain.

Now is a good time for a wooden bowl. I do not work the butter much in this bowl, but I do give it a couple of turns to get a bit more of the buttermilk out of it. The butter will keep longer the more free of buttermilk it is. We freeze our butter, so this is less of an issue.

Put it into jars that do not have shoulders, seal them up (not canned), and put them into the freezer.