Friday, February 15, 2013

What If

What if in a suburban neighborhood a block of neighbors decided to pool their backyards. Then they could have a cow, maybe only a small cow, and then each household could help tend the cow. Even Violet gives about 2 gallons on average a day, which is plenty for one family. Maybe each household would have to compromise and take only a gallon. Or maybe, everyone would see that the benefit was more important than complete equity in milk distribution. Perhaps, the resulting calf- there is always a calf when you're keeping a cow in milk- could be turned into ground beef and shared equally. Imagine a neighborhood where the people were producers instead of only consumers.

Sure, sure, there are logistical problems, and anyone who has been in a cooperative knows the work will not be divided evenly. But again, maybe the benefits would be more important than the headaches.

What, you may be wondering, would be the benefits?

1. Fresh, raw, unhomogenized milk. For the squeamish, they could pasteurize it themselves. This is a benefit beyond the ken of most people today. Most of the things done for "safety" regarding milk are actually more closely linked to shelf life.

2. A relationship with a cow. Cows are good for people; they make you be calm because you're going to lose if your bad attitude irritates the 1200 pound cow.

3. Nice, lush, low-maintenance lawns. Cows are good for grass and they will mow it just right, given proper handling.

4. A reason to work things out with your neighbors. Now, if your neighbor is annoying you, the easiest solution is avoidance. When you and that annoying neighbor are sharing a cow, you're going to have to face those issues and find solutions. That's better for the whole world.

5. A reason to be outside. Cows require some work, and most of it cannot be done sitting on your butt watching television. So, at least once a week, you'll have to go outside a couple of times and commune with the cow, or at least make sure she has food and water and has been milked.

6. Closer link to nature. Cows have less mediating their relationship with nature, so when working with a cow, you become more attuned, as well. Cold has more meaning when someone you care about lives outside. Heat, too, is more significant if it triples the amount of water you must haul. What exactly is growing underfoot takes on significance when it will appear on your OWN table in the form of milk.

I cannot see this happening with ordinances and what not, but wouldn't it be amazing if someone out there could make it work. Even one successful neighborhood cow could start a movement.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Little Things for Boys

For the girls, I am able to do all sorts of little things. I paint their toenails, I braid their hair, I sew them clothes (not so little), I buy a few new hair bands or clips, etc. Ezra presents a challenge. When he was smaller, I painted his toenails and put clips in his hair if he asked me to, but he was not that old before he decided he didn't want those things. He prefers t-shirts and jeans to any other clothing, refusing to wear shirts with buttons, so this leaves me only pajama pants for a clothing option to sew. I do knit him mittens, but this is a BIG thing that takes a long time and lacks the immediacy of a cute pencil.

Don't get me wrong- he likes cute pencils as much as the girls do, but his desk is covered with writing and drawing paraphernalia already. A fellow can only have so many pairs of pajama pants. He understandably balks when I suggest brushing his hair for him. So, I invite him more often on walks or make a point of engaging with him more about the books he's reading, etc. He still feels it's not quite fair, but he does not have any suggestions either.

Then I have nephews. And their mother already knits and sews them hats and pajama pants and toy animals. That's pretty much it for little things I might make them for birthday or holiday presents. If they were girls, I could do homemade hair bows or little aprons or cute bloomers or...

I figure there are things I must be overlooking, but I also really dislike giving gifts that I know will not be appreciated. Most boys I know (but not all!) are not going to be delighted to open a bow tie. Remember that scene in "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie gets the pink bunny suit? I do not want to be the aunt who puts all that effort into a skunky gift. So, I give little card games and erector sets and I try to find interesting craft things, like Ukrainian egg dying kits. But I am open to suggestions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Robert Plant and Mick Jagger

Robert Plant

Mick Jagger
Meet our new roosters!

Jason and I were doing some last minute Christmas shopping and chatting with the woman behind the counter. She jokingly said, "You're not wanting a rooster are you?" Much to her surprise, I gave an unequivocal yes.

Within a week of Elvis' death, one of the red hens had taken over and she was being quite mean to the other hens. Admittedly, a rooster isn't all sweetness and light, but he shouldn't have it in for one particular hen. The main way a rooster "hurts" a hen is that he inevitably pulls the feathers from her head and between her wings when he mates with her. This red hen and begun keeping the lower hens away form the food and drawing blood occasionally.

It turns out this woman and her family had gotten their order of hens late in the summer and included were at least two roosters. They live in the city and could not keep the roosters and she was delighted to find out someone wanted them. She offered to pay me to take them she was so happy. I explained that only one would probably live, but she was inured to that as well.

So, a couple of weeks later she called to say they would be passing through and could they bring four roosters. When they dropped them off, they told me their names and which was the favorite of whom, and then they left. We killed the two Aracauna type roosters the next morning, because we knew we did not want either of them. The other two are a Buff Orpington and a Rhode Island Red. The red is beautiful and seemed dominant, so we planned to keep him and named him Mick Jagger. I was sorry about the Orpington, because he would make a lovely Robert Plant with his flowing golden neck feathers.

Then it seemed like the two of them might be able to get along, so we did not kill either of them. We had wondered whether Elvis was a little overworked with thirty hens to tend, and if the two of them could get along, maybe they would live longer. I'm not sure this was the best choice, and we might have to kill Mick Jagger eventually; he's definitely getting on Robert Plant's nerves and suffering the consequences. They were confined to the smaller coop space during the very cold weather, but now that they can move around a bit more, Mick Jagger hasn't had any more wounds.

FYI- the discoloration at the tips of their combs is frostbite damage.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I have succumbed

The illness has crept into me.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Broom vs. Vacuum

I actually hate carpet, so when I've had the choice, we've lived places with hardwoods or other non-carpet flooring. Carpet is gross; even well-maintained carpet holds an enormous amount of dirt. When we did our first round of renovating on this house, we pulled out the carpet and put in pine board floors and Marmoleum.

Jason felt it would be too cold and bought couple of rugs. The rugs added color, we could clean them, and sitting on the floor seemed more inviting. They also meant I used the vacuum pretty much every time I wanted to clean the floors.

Then we had the fire, and the firemen did not take off their dirty boots when they were looking for our cats in the smoke filled house. They walked across the rugs with an urgency for which I feel only gratitude. The thing about a fireman's boots is they tend to be quite dirty, and as I discovered, it tends to be a type of dirt that just doesn't come out of a rug. So, I looked at that stained rug a couple of years, and I tried turning it this way and that to see if I can hide the stains some.

This fall, I got rid of the rugs, and I switched to using a broom. I like sweeping; it's quiet and kind of soothing. The children are able to talk to me while I sweep and I can hear what's going on around me. The vacuum creates a curtain of sound that's pretty hard to penetrate. I can see what I'm collecting with my broom and whether I really do want it to go in the dust pan. My fantasies of someday being offgrid do not include a vacuum cleaner.

The only problem is the spiders. We have many spiders around our house, and I do not actually mind. However, the cobwebs do bother me. I've swept down cobwebs and swept down cobwebs. Then I noticed that within a day of sweeping them down, there were just as many if not more; the spiders were getting the upper hand. I realized that they had not been such a nuisance before because I probably killed a fair number of them when I vacuumed down the webs. So, I pulled out the vacuum.

It took two hours to vacuum our small house, but the cobwebs are gone, the furniture is vacuumed, the floor vents are clean, as are the insides of the cupboards and the bookshelves. The floor is noticeably cleaner than when I sweep. I think I'll have to work out some rhythm for using the vacuum, like maybe once a month. Between times, I'll use the broom.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


The children are all sick. Ezra has pretty much spent three days like this, Phaedra two, and yesterday was Sylvie's first. I've read aloud from Kipling, made chicken soup and banana bread, played a few games, and tried to keep the peace. I have been thinking on how my own parents would have had trouble leaving us home so many days; there would definitely have been pressure to go back to school.

One reason would be the fear that we might fall behind. The other is that neither of them would have been able to stay home with us, and they felt better when we were not home alone so many hours a day. So, I've also been thinking about how impossible it would be to handle an illness like this if I also had to earn money. It helps me feel sympathy for people dragging around obviously sick children.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What We Teach

"Mama, what does 'gay' mean anyway?"

That's what Sylvie asked as I hopped back into the car, having forgotten something in the house and foolishly having left the radio on. So, I said, "You know, like Aunt G. I wanted to marry a man, but Aunt G wanted to marry a women. That's what people mean by 'gay'."

Then she told me how the radio said in Washington you could not have two gay parents if you were adopted and wasn't that sad, because everyone needs two parents. I explained that probably most of them DO have two parents. She said, "What's a legal guardian?" So, I explained how if she got hurt and had to go to the hospital, either Jason or I could tell the doctor to fix her broken arm, or whatever. Or if she needed a form filled out for dance, either Jason or I could fill it out. I explained how there are places where both parents aren't "allowed" to do this if the parents are gay.

"Why? That's STUPID!" she said.

I asked her of she was prettier because her eyes are blue. She said no, she was just born that way, it did not make her prettier. I asked if it made her smarter or better or if it meant that she should get more candy than her brown-eyed brother. She said no, and gave it that particular twang of "Don't be stupid!"

I said that Aunt G was just born gay and there were people in the world who thought that meant she was less. And that that's just as wrong as thinking blue eyes are better.

Then she said, "Marrying a woman is a pretty good way to not have babies." I concurred, and I explained that while Aunt G likes being an aunt better than almost anything, she never really did want to be a mother.

Then she said, "I know how it is, knowing those things. I've wanted to be a mother my ENTIRE life."

A little empathy, the idiocy of bigotry- I guess I like how that "lesson" went.

Monday, February 4, 2013

What We Teach

My mother was not much of a housekeeper, not from lack of want to, but from a physical handicap coupled with guilt laden depression. The fair dose of guilt meant that she also did not manage to teach us much about how to keep house. She insisted we clean house, pushing the vacuum around before I was as tall as it, but she never really taught us.

My first "lessons" on how to clean house came from my grandmothers and aunts. One grandmother sat us beside her to dry the dinner dishes from the time our heads were as high as the counter. Both grandmothers made sure we cleaned up after ourselves at their houses, dusted sand off our shoes, knew how to set the table. And so it went- these sporadic life lessons from one extended family member after another.

The rest I taught myself through reading and trial and error. I have had spells of keeping an immaculate house, but I have also learned that clean must be balanced against life and health. There is a degree of clean that will ensure we're not compromising our health and a degree of tidiness that means I'll feel able to relax in our house. And that is good enough most days.

Because I got these lessons on housekeeping by hook and by crook, I make more very deliberate lessons for the children, trying hard to demand only what is appropriate for each at each age. And the things I see they have to be taught sometimes seem dumb, until I see an adult who obviously was never taught. Lessons like, "When you drop something mindlessly on the floor, it has to be picked up by SOMEONE, so you pick it up or you don't drop it."

When we teach our children to maintain their space, we're also socializing them to be responsible in the world at large.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

It's NOT the Teachers

I heard on the radio that someone is pushing for a bar exam for educators. My first thought was, "Where does that guy live that he can turn away so many willing people for that job?" Then I thought, "Start paying teachers like lawyers and you'll have a much different type of person trying for the job."

The problem is that we already have really good teachers who are hamstrung by one thing after another.  A really good teacher can respond to what is happening in the classroom and adapt to it, but teachers, for the most part, lack this latitude. Our system has gotten so concerned with WHAT children are being taught that any kind of HOW is lost. Our system has come to rely more and more on individual, isolated bits of data leaving our learners without any sort of framework to set these pinpricks of information into.

Think about what you remember about the Civil War, for example, and which pieces of it stick with you in your daily life. Is it particular dates? A particular battle? The political climate of the time? Personally, I'm not sure which of these is most important, but what I hope my own children remember about the Civil War is that it was approximately a century before the Civil Rights movement, that Dickens had not been dead long, that people had been suffering the pangs of industrialization, that Europe had been in tumult for at least ten years, and that it happened in the United States. I hope they are still curious enough as adults to find out more about the Civil War and that they know how to find that information.

I have the latitude to focus on the minutiae that capture the attention of a particular child. If one of them is most concerned with period costumes, we can look at how clothes changed through time and why people were able to dress particular ways and how different classes managed to be clothed. Later, what that child might remember is how Napoleon dressed and how that differed from or influenced the attire of the Southern gentry. That is a framework that facts about the Civil War can then be worked into. It also means that child might fail a generalized tests on the dates of that war.

That's one plank of my soapbox about the failures of the institutional school system. I have not even touched on the social elements that cripple a teacher's classroom "performance". Go ahead- make it even harder to become a teacher. Set this elite cadre of bar examined "professionals" into the real world of the classroom without paying them a decent salary. Tell them what to teach, for how many minutes, on what day. Make sure they know that their pittance of a salary is dependent on a test that they have no part in writing. Let them know that what they actually see in their real classrooms has no bearing whatsoever on the material the children will be tested on. Then, people those desks with real children from a real area with the wide spectrum of needs, deficiencies, and gifts. Somehow, I do not think even the most tested teachers will show any better than the current batch, who are for the most part doing all they can with what they've got.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Land Management

When I walk through pines or hemlocks, I notice a serious lack of undergrowth. Pines drop such a profusion of needles that almost anything that might try to grow underneath is choked out or left with too little sun. Hemlocks seem to kill what's underneath- maybe with too much shade or maybe through their rhizosphere. So, in places where I want grass to grow or where I would like to encourage any sort of understory to help fight erosion, I am eliminating pines and hemlocks and pretty much any evergreen.

A friend recently questioned this line of reasoning with the argument that trees themselves fight erosion. I cannot argue against that. However, there are places, like here-

where I see other problems. Snow did not collect here so the ground did not get that gentle blanket. Water did not even penetrate the needles that collected here. We had many good reasons for cutting down these trees, but a benefit I did not predict was this. It has taken two summers for grass to establish, but this winter, the snow collects here as well as anywhere. And that little drop off is definitely eroding less as daisies, grass, briars, daylilies, etc. grow on it.

This hill also had no grass and an abundance of pine and fir. The yard above was slowly working its way downhill. Again, we cut down the trees and stayed off the hill. Grass grew. Now, the dirt stays put even in thaws like we're having now because there's grass to catch snow and no dense foliage to keep it from collecting. Come spring, when everything really thaws, the roots of the grass will also keep the thawing mud in place.

Cutting down trees can certainly lead to erosion, but sometimes, it's actually a better choice.