Thursday, January 31, 2008

First Words

I'm going to post a list of Ezra's first words. If I don't write them down now, by the time I do he will have too many to list, and we will have forgotten which ones came first. Most of them are hard to catch, if one isn't an intimate acquaintance of Ezra's. But we are certain that they are real words. Except when he's singing, which is usually while he reads himself a book, he doesn't babble much. If he comes out with a single syllable, pay attention to it; it's probably very important to him.
Mama Papa
Read Hug
Light Up Milk

It's like his first poem, no? Hug is the name of a book, not the action. He will walk around the house saying, "hug." as clear as can be, but he doesn't want a hug. Nope, he wants to find that book. He asks for a real live hug by leaping into our arms and snuggling joyfully.
He also says, "Puff the Magic Dragon," but to muggles it sounds like, "ra-rah. Gah. Dah." He also does some vigorous head shaking to signify a negative. And a lot of pointing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In the Hinterlands

When driving up north, when the deciduous forest changed to scraggly jack pines, and the pastures left off for rocky outcroppings, my mom would say, "we're entering the hinterlands!" When it gets cold like this, it feels like the hinterlands right here!
The air temp didn't get above zero today. When we ventured out to go to school, I dressed the kids in their soft woolen unders, their school clothes, wool sweaters, and seemingly many layers of coats, hats, mittens, socks. They still love going outside! Gibbie still begs to play for longer in the snowbank (excuse me, dirt-encrusted icebank) on the way to the car. At school, their teacher asked if it was cold on the way to school with shivers in her voice. Gibbie nonchalantly and seriously responded, "just a little." Bundle up, and you hardly notice it!

So we've been playing indoors a lot! We've had a rennaisance of the art box. Here we are making valentines. So far none of them will actually make it into mailboxes, as I will explain in a moment. We are working with glue! I take scraps of used tin foil (or any other unusable, unrecycleable piece of small garbage; a pop bottle cap would work great) to make a little glue-pot, and squirt in a small amount of school-glue. The children apply the glue to the paper or table with q-tips, and then stick on scraps of colored paper. The beauty of these heart-felt creations is fleeting, alas. Part of the process for Gibbie is folding up his work after he finishes. Even if it's covered in wet glue. So it gets all glued to itself and crumpled up. I think all the love is glued in too!

Little Cabin in the Woods

Wow! It's cold! We made these back before Christmas. They were also photographed back then, and have long since now been eaten all up! I just baked loaves of gingerbread. (the dark, spicy kind; nothing like cutout cookies.) My recipe is a modification of the one in Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, which would make a nice quick winter read.
We just cut the loaf into thirds, and sliced off a few edges to make houses. This way, there was no trying to use frosting to glue together crumbly or cracking cookies together-- what an exercise in frustration that would be for little kids! This way is also quick for littles with short attention spans.
Anyway, frost and decorate with whatever's on hand. Ever seen those "natural" food colorings in pretty bottles at the co-op? Just a word to the wise; they alter the flavors of the frosting. Makes sense, I suppose. Just be warned. I think this pinkish-one tastes a bit beet-ey.
Today, Gibbie crawls into the kitchen: "Mama, I'm a woodchuck! I'm gonna bury this bean! Mama, it's turning to spring, and do you know what woodchucks do in the spring? They turn into COWS!"
Later, in the bedroom, the cow morphed into a penguin. Betcha didn't know that cows turn into penguins when they grow up, huh? I think he might have picked up on my habit of piecing together bits of information gleaned from I've-forgotten-whence and authoritatively dispensing semi-factual information. I don't mean to do it. I intend to always tell him when I don't know the answer to a question, but what can I say?
I think a lot of real things also just seem incredible, as in not quite believable. Like, caterpillars turn into butterflies? Water and ice are the same thing? Rabbits change color in the winter? No way!
Or the circus? We just read a book about a circus, and after I closed it, Gibbie looked at me and said, "that's just pretend, Mama." I explained that there really are circuses; they are big shows, with lots of people doing tricks with costumes and animals like elephants to ride on, and they have the show in a big tent, and people come to see it.. yada, yada, yada...
Gibbie totally didn't buy it. "But it's not [real] outside of the book." Sensible kid.

Stay warm inside your own little cabin!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Onto something Big!

"Mama! Mama! They're the same!" He called.
"What? What are the same?" I came into the room where he was holding this little board book, Numbers by Candlewick Press. We picked it up at the library for the animal pictures Ezra was so into last week.
"They're the same as my book. My alphabet book."
Gibbie was excited. He couldn't believe it. He pointed to the letters, turned sideways and
running down the side of the cover.
Yup. I tried to be nonchalant. These are the letters that make up all the words in the books we read.
I opened the Red Letter Alphabet Book and we found each of the lower case letters in the title of Numbers in our cherished Alphabet Book.
I don't normally like Alphabet books much. They are not generally fun to read. We like stories and poems better. But this book is special. The letters are lowercase, like most of the letters we read in stories. The letters are flocked and printed very large, enticing us to run our fingers over them, tracing the path each one makes. The example words use the phonetic sounds of the letters, which only makes sense, but, maddeningly lots of alphabet books don't do.
This was a spontaneous, Eureka! moment for Gibbie--a milestone on his path to literacy. I hope I can share his enthusiasm in these moments without getting all boringly didactic on him. Without being so excited that I take over and make it my moment to teach, dulling the simple sincere pleasure of discovery.
We have these alphabet and number books and a few others that we read when requested, but I don't think that at one and two and three years we need to go out of our way to teach this. Our enthusiasm can detract from the pleasing puzzle that is reading. Kind of like how once when my sister asked Paul and I for our opinion on something. After we stopped talking twenty minutes later she said, "Wow. Next time I want a long lecture on something, I'll ask you guys."
As Gibbie nears the boundaries of school-agedness, I'm really chewing on some different educational philosophies. I read Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook in college and it changed my life. I took fully took the reins of my own education for the first time, and it was great! Since leaving educational institutions, I find I'm blossoming. Reading more than ever. Thinking hard, doing, processing with more depth than I did in school.
But I do wonder if I could do so if it weren't for all the time I spent in schools? If it weren't for this broad base of formal classes, all my gifted and talented, international baccalaureate, liberal arts, bachelor of arts hocus pocus. The question is somewhat moot as my time in formal classrooms is largely over anyway, but it's not moot for these kids. The big idea in the Liberation Handbook is that real learning happens best in real life. I don't know that we're going to become head-over-heels unschoolers, but it is promising to see how spontaneously and joyfully Gibbie discovers the world. How he makes this intellectual leap that is often laborious when taught from the top down.

I don't give his little self enough credit. Thank God that we can live a life that is so richly, luxuriantly full of books. It needn't surprise me that if he is as surrounded by the written word as much as the spoken word, he just might come to decode it almost as naturally.
Anyhow, I love these Montessori number and letter books. They are really beautiful in this plain, spare way. The Blue Number Counting Book is my favorite. I just can't resist touching each little shape on every page as I count it. Nothing could be more natural.

He's a Kid

Recently, we turned Ezra's car seat around. Little babies' car seats face the rear of the vehicle. When they get to a certain size, you've got to turn them around. Because of this and many other reasons, Gibbie has ruled that his brother is no longer a baby. We may not refer to him as such. "But he's not a baby; he's a kid," he explains.This is a long-awaited development. It was a moment of joy when Gibbie realized for the first time that Ezra wouldn't always be a baby, but was growing into a child, just like him. We had a lot of "is Evra a kid, yet?" conversations. Gibbie has decided that the wait is over.

Our dear Ever is turning out to be a book hound just like the rest of his family. Just as we are finally R-T-G (ready to go!) I turn and see little Ezra, booted, hatted, and mittened, with a small volume clutched between his mitts. He likes all kinds of books, and has a rotating stock of favorites. He so adores our Puff the Magic Dragon ("rah-rah, guh. dah"), a Christmas gift from Grammers, that he reaches up towards the high shelf where we keep it to prevent it's being torn again. He tries to climb the shelf, and croons along with the song when we finally read it.
Ezra is on the cusp of speech. The explosion is coming. He has many words, which he uses infrequently and which only those well acquainted with him can interpret. He toddles around the corner in search of Papa, book in hand, saying, "Reee, booh." If Papa doesn't respond quickly, he takes Paul's hand and gently places the book into it. Books are already his diversion, his joy, his succour and refreshment. We're just going to have so much fun here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bank the Fire on the Hearth

Deep winter is here. Everyone I know is stir crazy. We slip off the crusty snowbanks trying to load the children into the car. We play dragons in the car, exhaling puffs of steam. Mostly, we stay home.

And I can't find our copy of The Tomten. What's a Tomten, you ask? Well, if you live here and don't know, or if you have a heart for the people of cold lands, you just have to read The Tomten, by Astrid Lindgren. I can't lend you my copy, with the ragged spine and the sticker of a happy skunk smelling a flower, that I stuck on the inside cover when I was little, because I can't find it. What's more, I now always have my library hold list maxed out. Did you know you can only order ten books at a time? It used to be twenty-five. Apparently only a miniscule portion of library patrons would ever have ten books on hold at once, and the Library Authorities felt that meant those loyal patrons should for some reason curb their biblio-enthusiasm. The reasons for the change in policy have not been explained. Don't ask me how I know these things. Sigh.

Anyway, it goes, from memory, something like this:
It is the dead of winter on the old farm. On nights like these, people creep into their houses and bank the fire on the hearth.
The paintings in this book capture many lovely things about winter, not least dreaming of summer.
The Tomten trips about between the buildings on small silent feet. He talks to us in Tomten language, a silent little language a child can understand.

Winters come and winters go
Summers come and summers go
Soon the swallows will be here again.

Conserving at the AmericInn

A while ago we spent a rare treat of a night in a hotel. Gibbie loves hotels, by the way. You know: the pools, ice machines, movie stars; all that glamour. Anyway, at the prestigious AmericInn in Mennomonie, Wisconsin, (Mana-mana.) I found there has been a change in the graphic design of the complimentary products.I don't know how legible these are in the photo, but they read,

Soap up and sink into soothing suds.
Energize with a lively conditioning shampoo.
A lotion to unwind your body and mind.
and, Rinse away the travel day with this facial bar.

I like a few things about these. They're cute. It's nice when even not-luxury places at least try to make it seem like they care that you have a nice time. I like the stars.

They came along with a new Do Not Disturb sign, the back of which mentioned that AmericInn tries to conserve energy and resources and encouraged us to do the same. They have a policy that on extended stays, they only do the laundry every three days.

My first thought was that if they really wanted to conserve, they wouldn't give away all these plastic disposable containers, but would install refillable dispensers of these products. And use real mugs, or at least paper cups instead of styrofoam ones. And about a hundred other things.

My second thought was that this is one of the only evidences I have seen of any business in that town trying, or even claiming to try, to conserve resources. Even if they're only being cheap, conservation is a great way to be cheap!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Beard Frost

I've got one of the biggest beards I've ever had right now. It's the coldest it's been this winter. Perfect conditions for Beard Frost! This is what I looked like when I came home the other day. (Yes, mom. I do cover my face when biking if it's below 5 or wind chilly.) Libby said, "Well hello Santa Clause!" It sure did make my beard look white around the edges.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

For the love of Pastie Pies!

I have a new cookbook that I love. It was a gift from sister in law and brother, Natalie and Robert, and it's just great: Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland, by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson. It doesn't have sumptuous full-colors images of the dishes, like so many trendy cookbooks, but unlike many of those mouth-watering , celebrity-studded tomes, this one has great recipes!

It's highly readable and contains a lot of fascinating history of our area. Many regional cookbooks don't go very deep, and aren't very interesting, or truly regional. Sure, we grow blueberries up here, but blueberry turnovers just don't ring Minnesota for me; you can get them anywhere. Dooley and Watson use not just the droll berries, but feature a range of wild game and wild ingredients I love Minnesota for, without just substituting for their all-American counterparts.

What's more, let's talk old-fashioned small-town holidays! Spaetzle? Pastie Pies? Now we're talking Midwestern church picnic goodness! Mostly, I must say, it focuses on northern European immigrants to the Midwest, but it also includes tidbits of Hmong and other more recent groups, as well as acknowledging some native culinary traditions and influences. The groups they focus on, they do a pretty good job with.

I've used several recipes. One for a Norwegian toast flavored with my new favorite spices, cardamom and mace turned out highly satisfactory. I merely substituted cream for most of the called for butter. There is a kickin' brownie recipe. I've made a lot of unsatisfactory brownies lately, but these were so good, they didn't even make it to our neighbors' houses. And the pastie pies!

I have always loved firm little pastry crust hand pies stuffed with savory meat fillings. Paul thought I was crazy and maintained they didn't exist till now. Ha! (I also found a whole article on their history in the Iron Range in a recent issue of Edible Twin Cities.) The idea is to make a sturdy complete meal; so the crust is meant to be strong, while the interior juicy. I altered the filling recipe, using what I had and made a filling with potatoes, sausage, and fresh pears, seasoned with fennel, coriander, and caraway. That might all sound far-flung, but they turned out great. Gibbie spontaneously raved about them, "these are really good, Mama. Thank you. These are so good." And they handled magnificently as lunches the next day.

Many of the recipes are truly authentic old-fashioned recipes. Where realistically, almost no one would make the old-fashioned item authentically, there are variations. I like doing laboriously authentic things, but realize not many people do. For instance, there aren't recipes for Lutefisk or home made lefse. They've also made a few changes for health, lightening up a dish. Usually I don't like that so much, but the authors here alter with aplomb. They do well at maintaining what is memorable about the dish. There are also plenty of stellar original recipes by small-town cooks and big-city chefs. They've really pulled together the best of the best.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tribute to Zil, Inside tour of the Artist's Box

Sorry, that last post was just too complainey. So on a more positive note; I am so thankful for good friends. I have one friend who has had Mastitis way way more times than me, and her help has been invaluable this week! (not pictured)
I believe that when we meet someone with whom we are like-minded, with whom we can share our heart, and with whom we communicate well, we have to hang on to these kindred spirits. Many of you know how hard long-distance, heck, even short distance correspondence is for us! My brother once said that calling our house is like calling a black hole. Well, I'm rubber and you're glue, Robert!Anyway, this is Me and Liz and Paul. This is a fourteen-or-so-year friendship. (nineteen years if you count the ones Paul's been in on it, but that's not really fair.) I used to call her "Zil", after a funny trip where everyone briefly got called their backwards name, and I kept it up with Zil. We once made her watch a Will Farrell movie with us, to her loud protestations to the store clerk and to us all the way home that she hated said actor, and everything he was ever in. Well, I think she watched that flick about three more times before returning it, and her speech has been peppered with quotations from it ever since.
Duude, we miss her!
She has a master's degree. In Science.
Just kidding. She's a real live doctor. Of medicine. Wait, no-- of Osteopathy. I know what you're thinking. But she's not a quack. Osteopaths are even better than real doctors, and often even help people get better! Seriously. She's got healing in her hands. (Liz would be gasping and whacking me now, if she weren't in Arizona)
Okay, enough squirreliness. As Gibbie says, "Back to work now, back to work." (that's a quote from Birthday Bear in The Witch Down the Street. not the best writing, but really cute bears!)
Anyway, I just want to show y'all one of my own little pleasures in life: my art box. It's just a lil cigar box, filled with my essential art supplies. I take it with me whenever I might need a bit of art, anywhere, in a pinch, you know. Actually, with what's in this box, I can make almost anything two-dimensional I want. It's light, packable, durable, protects my supplies, and as beautiful as useful. Plus, it took no work to make!
My art box contains:
-Ink: walnut, my fave.
-Pen holder: that's the handle for the pen you dip in the ink. cheap, plastic, black, elegant.
-Erasers: kneadable, regular. I never use these.
-Pencil sharpener. I've just switched to a new one. My old ones bit it and it's tedious and messy to use a knife. Did you know there are cheap sharpeners with replaceable blades?
-Lead pencils. Okay, graphite. Okay, I don't even know that, you stickler! HB, 2B, whatever.
-lil ruler (six inch, wooden, metal edge. vintage!)
-X-acto knife. I like things that start with X-
-extra (X-tra) blades, and safe dispenser
-stoneware bowl for ink. I like to work out of a little well, to minimize the impact, and the loss incurred by spilling. I spill lots and I'm just dealing with that.
-nibs. These are the metal points that make the line with a dip-pen. My new favorites are at Wet Paint. They're the Japanese ones behind the counter, and they're like a thousand times better than any other nib ever. Seriously.
-a bamboo pen. for ink with thicker lines
-a wooden tool meant for throwing pots on a wheel, that I use as a paper folder. Actually, I never use it. I should trade it for my bone folder.
-a tiny chamois useful for blending, especially with charcoal
-a rag. for blotting ink
-watercolor pencils. I just love my Faber Castell Aquarelles. I use them for everything and they are fabulous. I adore how they work in conjunction with my Walnut ink. I have a big set, but mostly use about 6 colors, so I put them in my Art Box.
-a vintage eraser/brush tool. The eraser is a wheel with a brush attached. I use it exclusively for brushing dust or eraser dust off of work. It's from my late great-grandmother Daisy's paint box, and erasers that old oughtn't to be used.

Isn't that amazing? The whole thing is maybe 5x7", all told. I holds way more in it than I need, and I love it so.

Feeling a bit down in the Januaries

Well. We're down over here. A little mastitis, some feverishness, some overnight travel, some viral stuff, keenly aware of, and sick of, personal faults... and that's just Mama Bear! Really, for not actually being sick, I haven't felt so bad in a while! I'm starting to think like my mom, who has believed most of her life that really she ought to have been a member of the aristocracy. You know, with servants to take care of everything! That's what I'm saying-- where are the servants??
It also seems that just a week ago, I was focused, trusting, had perspective. These things seem to have slid (slided? slidden?) Out the (drafty? draughty?) window. Now accepting applications for hired (or volunteer) help. Prayers appreciated.
As always, the photography is Paul's.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Do It Yourself love

On thrift and Doing It Yourself:
Fast is expensive in a way that slow is not. Efficient is expensive in a way that inefficiency is not. Oddly, most people love to tell us we are "idealistic" when we are really just being cheap. We don't want to pay so much for the services we don't need. We want to save money for what we do need-- and for the occasional great food from far away. Those of us who remember the annual orange in the stocking are not so much worried about losing freedom and fossil-fueled abundance of options. What we worry about is being able to afford the good things, like air and water and time and balance.
This is Donna Schaper, writing in Grass Roots Gardening; rituals for sustaining activism. It's an odd little book, but I loved her expression of the above idea. We often forget the real costs of the conveniences that seem normal to us. This is part of why I bake bread, and sew clothes.

Speaking of inefficiency, we have some catch-up blogging to do, now that we can post pictures of many special gifts that have been recently all given away. The above bit of inefficient homemade-lovin' is a little zippered bag I made for my dear friend Liz, leaving us for wonderful work in South America. You can find out all about her exciting work with this really amazing organization, LifeWind, on her blog, where you can also find pictures of us singing Elvis Christmas and The Doors numbers with her great family, with Paul at the piano, among other things.
We will miss her so much, and yet we are so glad she is going! Like for my friend who will be receiving the socks, I wanted to make her a present she could use lots, and feel loved every time. This pouch is made mostly out of recycled fabrics. The print is a fabric my mom used on so many things when I was very little; an apron, a teapot cozy, a quilt, maybe matching dresses for us? It is very evocative for me. I just have a small piece of it left, and this gift is worth it. It's funny; I told Liz about the special fabric and when my mom saw the bag, she saw the fabric and spontaneously said almost the same things!
I made the pouch following the directions in Bend the Rules Sewing by Amy Karol. It's the second zipper I've ever sewn and the first that didn't make me cry. It's a little stiff, but will have to do. The pouch is lined with flannel, and I added a simple pocket on the inside, as well as a bit of hand worked embroidery on the inside and out. For extra love.

Love you so much, Liz!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Winter Biking

It was about five degrees when I left the house this morning around 5:30. It was about two hours before daylight and generally the coldest part of the day. Was I cold as I rode through the dark dark world? No.

Winter biking is not as hard as you'd think. I often tell people that I'm warmer properly dressed on my bike than they are sitting in a cold car waiting for it to warm up. I have different levels of layers that I use for different extremities of cold. Here's my basic gear:
The thin polar fleece hat works great under my helmet and makes sure my head and ears are warm. Hands are especially vulnerable because they're out front on the handlebars and can have a lot of wind chill factor. I use a pair of fleece mittens with finger flaps over a pair of unlined buckskin gloves. The two layers are enough to stop the wind and it's nice to have the glove-like feature for U-locking and other fine finger work. I wear a fleece vest most of the time during the winter and that zips up around my neck pretty well.

On extreme days like today I add extra thick socks, long underwear, and a balaclava to cover my face.

Road conditions are the only thing that consistently stop me. Usually the roads stay pretty good in the city because of snow emergency plowing. Unfortunately, this year we acquired a layer of ice under the snow on side streets that the plows can't do much about. I like to take mostly side streets, so I had to change my route to the dry main roads for now. I hope that the warm spell we're supposed to have in a few days will melt that slippery under layer from my favorite streets.

Honestly, one of the best things about winter biking is the looks of respect and unbelief people give you about it. I often hear, "You're a hearty soul." Maybe I am and maybe not, but I don't think most people know how easy this really is.