Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Review: At Large, and At Small

Hey, all. We're still here. I happened to need a break from the computer during Holy Week, and as you may imagine, said week before Easter, with an event at our church every night of the week, is a busy time for a church musician. On to some recent literary musings!
Anne Fadiman has become one of my favorite authors. You know, the kind whose book you read just because they wrote it. I read these two little volumes with sheer delight. In her newer book, At Large and at Small; Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman , she writes a tidy little piece on the familiar essay itself, listing her favorite masters of the genre.
The man she missed, in my book, is G. K. Chesterton. (as an aside, the St. Paul Public library has a great collection of his out of print work; help me keep it in circulation!) He wrote a few interesting greater works; The Everlasting Man, The Man Who Was Thursday, and, most delightfully, the Innocence and Scandal of Father Brown, respectively; but a lot of his leavings are inhibitively dated. I hate to say it, being a fan of the archaic, but it's true. He does also have many volumes of familiar essays. I think they were originally written for newspaper columns or the like? Lovely little musings on diverse themes such as, "On Losing One's Hat," "On Cheeses," "On the Contents of My Pockets." Make me want to saunter into a nearby pub and shoot the breeze with such a chum as he.
Anne Fadiman's essays differ from Chesterton's in style; they are heavily researched and quite denser, but retain the cheerful, serious, and contemplative solidity that I love in this genre. I heartily recommend them.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thrifty homemaking in The Tale of Two Cities

I used to just be a plain, dorky kind of nerd. Bookish, opinionated, rumpled. I liked to think that I became a alternative, articulate, intentional kind of nerd. Now I am additionally a homemaker. I have mixed feelings about being this. Homemaking may not help my image. I associate the word with frumpiness, doting, and provinciality. But there is also a wonderful alchemy in homemaking.
May I share some unexpected gems from one of our recent reads, Dicken's The Tale of Two Cities?
On the enigmatic Miss Pross, that vociferously loyal maid of our main characters: "From these decayed sons and daughters of Gaul [her forebearers], she had acquired such wonderful arts, that the woman and girl who formed the staff of domestics regarded her as quite a Sorceress, or Cinderella's Godmother; who would send out for a fowl, a rabbit, a vegetable or two from the garden, and change them into anything she pleased."

On Lucie, the good one: "Nor, how the lightest echo of their united home, directed by herself with such a wise and elegant thrift that it was more abundant than any waste, was music to her."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Little Dreams and Supercool Bikes

Can I share some little dreams with you? I am dreaming of:
-going out on the porch to wake up in the mornings when it's warm enough!
-reading with the kids in a hammock
-finally building my dream compost bin: a 2- or 3-bin system with front panels that slide out, in the backyard
-finding some way for myself to bike around town safely with both the kids!
-growing more herbs and flowers in the garden this year
-canning and drying more wild, garden, and farmer's market foods, so we can head into next winter with a beautiful, well-stocked pantry!

So, lets talk about the biking dream a bit more. Warning! None of the pictures in this post are our own. I snagged them off of the websites of people who sell alternative bikes, and will try to give credit for each one. I hope they don't mind as they all look like great companies.
My goal is to be able to bike with the kids. We rejected the bike trailer pretty early in our search. They seem to be the preferred method of cycling with children, but they are heavy and kids are behind me and out of view. I think I would still go for the trailer except that our biking is primarily on city streets, and there are busy ones all around us. To cross a big, fast, four-lane road on a bike, bikers often stop on the median but this wouldn't be practical with a big trailer hanging off your back end. To cross at a light, I would either need to ride alone the busy road for at least a block, right in the middle of traffic, or go on the sidewalk. The sidewalks are rightfully full of pedestrians here in the hood, and I just don't feel good about biking in a traffic lane with my precious children behind me.
That brings us to child seats that can be mounted right on the bike. A great option for one kid. Maybe even two. There are front-mounted child seats that go either in front of or just behind the handle bars. They are popular in other countries, where family biking is more common. Bobike has a child seat that goes in front of the adult, but looks like it wouldn't interfere with pedalling. There are some other nice ones out there as well. But with one of these in front as well as a seat in back might make a lot of extra weight up at the top of the bike. It might work great--check out the sturdy-looking setup I found onthis blog, which showed this picture by Bala Nallama of a mother with three kids on her bike! I love the way those Scandanavians make everything look so easy. It also makes me wonder if a bike designed for extra riders wouldn't be more stable than a conventional American bike with after-market seats. Even better would be a setup with the child lower to give a more stable center of gravity. I would also like a place to put our backpack or whatnot. We always need our water bottles and diapers other sundries when we are out and about.
Well, leave it to those wonderful bikers and designers, Scandanavians, to have figured this all out long ago. I found plenty of Dutch and Danish manufacturers of cargo bicycles called Bakfiet as well as cargo tricycles!
This fancy version of the bakfiet is pictured on the
CargoCycle site, which is a good resource for all kinds of things related to alternative
It was also at
Cargocycle that I discovered the Christiania.
As far as I can tell, and this is all new to me, the Christiania is the essence a cargo trike, and were designed to carry all kinds
of things, and people, around the town after which they are named, where cars are not allowed. Both of these designs seem to fit all my saftey requirements, plus room for gear.
One company imports the classic Dutch bakfiet, and their website displays this picture of Princess Marilene biking with her two small children. Isn't that just lovely? At their site, I also found a video describing how bicycles can be used by ordinary families as transport for people or large cargo. I particularly appreciated their explanation that in many countries, regular families travel this way and it is completely accepted as a safe mode of transport, even safer than cars, whereas here in the states it is still really a fringe thing. I realize that it may be safer there because of the way roads are designed and bikes are respected. Hopefully we too can learn.
I feel like we're getting close to a workable solution; low center of gravity, secure places for children, children ride in front of the adult, small bicycle road footprint. And, imported from Europe, quite expensive!

On the other end of the spectrum,
WorldBike , whose slogan is "Bikes that Haul, for All," has programs for open-source bike designs to meet the practical needs of the world's poor. They have plans for bikes that carry stunning loads of cargo, and instructions to make them quite simply. While I do want to explore this site more, I didn't see plans for anything like the bakfiet or a front-loading cargo tricycle like the Christiania. I think the kids in the picture are just sitting on the cargo rack of an extracycle extension. Somehow I don't think this particular plan would work along University Avenue. All the same, WorldBike looks like a really neat organization doing exciting work.

Back to my Quest.

Looking for a company that makes a bakfiet or front-loading cargo tricycle domestically.
This company makes a sturdy cargo tricycle that looks good. I found a few start-ups trying to make something like the bakfiet, only better. (Isn't that just the American way? Trying to improve on what we haven't yet mastered?) These efforts didn't seem to be off the ground yet anyway.
I also discovered found a company in Eugine, OR, that makes this! Check out HumanPoweredMachines
Looks like the Bakfiet, no? Pretty exciting stuff. A girl can dream, can't she?

Hybrid Schmybrid

I found this ad on the back of a 1981 Mother Earth News. Having two old diesels myself, the big print caught my eye. The small print, however, illustrates why I'm not all that excited about new advances in fuel economy. This 1982 Datsun pickup got 33mpg city and 39mpg highway. By way of comparison, none of the three 2007 hybrid trucks got over 21mpg (according to Granted, the Datsun was a much smaller truck, but I think my point still stands. A small diesel engine can do just about as well as a hybrid and has no the big nasty (hard to dispose of) battery. I guess it's about time I fix my 82 diesel Audi.

All Around the Year in Picture Books

We love books that show the full circle of a year, with it's changing seasons and steady traditions. Here are a few of our favorites:
A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor. Most requested by Gibbie. Lots of darling ideas for fun things to try. He most loves all the dress-up costumes and pretend play. (have you noticed this theme with him?) Intricate pictures are delightful time and again.

Oxcart Man Colonial-style paintings on wood. Shows the year of an almost entirely self-sufficient farming family. Lovely text. Spare and beautiful. Our copy is loved to death, and awaiting attention on the repair shelf.

A Child's Calendar By John Updike, illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. One of my favorite illustrators, ever. Lovely rhymed, metered text. Pictures a modern family through a New-Englandy year. I like the poetry of real lives: "the radiator purrs all day."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book Review: North Country Spring

North Country Spring by Reeve Lindbergh, illustrated by Liz Sivertson is one of my favorite spring time picture books.
The text is lyrical, rhythmic verse in the vocative, calling each kind of animal to come out for spring. My favorite stanza, and a good example of the singing voice of this poem, reads,
Strut out, tall moose, from your stand of spruce.
Walk around, feel the ground, let your bones get loose.
Have you seen a moose? Have you seen a gangly young bull after a long winter? She really uses the cadence of her verse to describe the specific gait of each animal. Compare the above lines with the following:
Lope out, wild wolves, come out and prowl.
It's a fine shiny night for a yip and a howl.
This combined with the painting of wolves, under a large moon, with long shadows on the yet-snowy ground, gives such an impression of the pace and gait of a pack of wolves. I love the way the sounds of the words used to describe the wolves are so wolfish themselves. A wolf wouldn't be a wolf without both doggy yips and detours in his path; and that wild, sustained lunar chorus.
The pictures fall right in line with this.; lush, pastiche-y and expressive paintings. They show just enough detail to paint a personality--the tumlbey-ness of bear cubs, the cupped form of fluffed up chickadees on a branch. These images are every bit as lyrical as the text.
I would like to emphasize that picture books are not only for children. Long before mine came along, I haunted the children's section of the bookstore. As an adult, a reader, and an artist I built my fine picture library book by book out of admiration for the fine work coming out of this genre. There is a lot of twaddle in kids' books, but discarding that, the best of writing and illustrating for children is of the highest quality. I wonder if this may not be because children read for the sheer joy of it, so those who write and illustrate best for them have not the pretensions that drag down much adult literature. Paul and I often still use children's non-fiction as a starting point for research, when we need an overview of a new topic. I often read young adult novels and children's stories for my own pleasure reading.
At the sustainable neighborhoods conference, I attended a most excellent workshop on community gardening with youth and one important point I absorbed was that our children need a sense of place. This articulates for me why we keep reading books that sing of our seasons, our plants, our woods and waters and animals, here in Minnesota. Ruth, a founder of my beloved Swede Hollow Cafe's wonderful community children's garden talked about how we must teach our children to read the land here, to know it's story and understand its ways. She said she has found in her work with Twin Cities children that they may know something about the rainforest, but almost never know anything about our own mighty Mississippi.
We're reading it as a clarion call to spring--come, come, wherever you are! Come out from the corners, come out of your lair!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Real Quick and Good

a raised German pancake. Hearty and filling, I serve it for breakfast and dinners when I'm in a hurry. It takes very little time to prepare, so we just whip it up and get dressed while it cooks. This makes just enough for me and the two little kids if we're really hungry. Or Paul and I and kids if we're not too hungry. If I were alone, I'd do 2 eggs with 1/2c. flour and 1/2c. milk, in a smaller skillet. A big gathering, just double.
3 eggs
3/4 cup flour
pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk
lump of butter
Turn oven on to 350 F. Put butter (a spatch or two!) in your trusty cast iron skillet and set in oven to melt. Whisk milk and eggs together, stir in flour with salt. Pour into hot skillet, bake 15-30 minutes, till puffed and just starting to get golden. Set table and pour drinks, to eat just when it comes out, as it rises and falls like a souffle. Call, "pannekuchen!" Serve and eat piping hot!

Options: I like to toss some fruit in the skillet before I pour in the batter. My favorite right now is pears with a sprinkling of cardamom. Then we eat with maple syrup. (I'll bet the first run of the maples is starting right about now around here. Anyone know?)

Quick alternative to a box of Macaroni and Cheese, when you need something that quick; and a bit more nutritious, I think, as it is so fresh with no preservatives, and when I need a quick meal I do want some protein. A great nursery food too, as children love mild things.
Cook small pasta al dente. Acini de Pepe are good-tiny round pasta. I usually use small shells or break up sphaghetti.
While it's cooking, grate a bit of cheese.
Drain pasta and put quickly back into its cooking pot.
Break an egg or two, one for a small pot, two for a lot, right into the hot pasta. Stir up quick till whites and yolks are all blended into pasta. Cover when mixed. It blends together, and coats the pasta, cooking from the residual heat of the noodles and pot.
Stir in or top with cheese, pepper, garlic salt, or whatever good and tasty things I might have on hand.

Options: I also put in some vegetables chopped small if I want this to be a whole meal; for the winter carrots, parsnips can go in the cooking water; mushrooms or squash I would saute separately. In the summer I would just toss with fresh veg from the garden.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Conservatory Photos

Libby's been excited for me to post the some pictures I took while we were at the conservatory last week. I like this one because of how Ezra put his foot on Mama's.

I find the interplay of the natural and unnatural at the Conservatory visually interesting.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Cradle Doll

There are a lot of beautiful, wonder-full toys out there. I do adore many of them. (If you want great toy stores in the twin cities, try Peapods, Wonderment, The Essence of Nonsense) But really, often, the simplest are the best. I especially love handmade waldorf or stiener dolls. But I think Maria Montessorri was right, that it is the very poverty of [toys] which speaks to the soul of the child, along with the care which a parent takes in making them.

A perfect example of this is the cradle doll. I got this wonderful idea from Freya Jaffe's Toymaking With Children, a book I highly recommend. You don't need to be an artist to make these kinds of toys, and they are the best, really all a child actually wants. I have noticed that Gibbie consistently chooses to play with these simplest (crude, even) of babies over much more beautiful dolls. These are the ones he loves and takes care of. He oh so carefully made this basket into a bed for them, arranging the blanket, trying different situations with the pillows, guarding them from Ezra! Gibbie was aghast that his brother wanted to cover the babies with a blanket, "he covers their faces!" Ezra later added other babies to the carefully arranged cradle-bed when Gibbie was napping.

To make a cradle doll:
-find soft fabric--extra receiving blankets, pieces cut from soft old shirts, flannel.
-ball up some rags to make a head. let some hang a little lower than the head to give the neck stability. Wrap them in something so that it won't fall apart.
-cover this with the soft fabric
-Tie a cord or strip of cloth around the outside fabric to make the head and neck.

This is almost the simplest rag doll possible. To make him come alive, I hold him in my arms, talk to him, sing to him, put him to sleep; treat him as tenderly and gently as I would a baby. The children see this and learn how to love and care for a doll. Just for a minute or two, when a little boy comes running up, wanting to take over the care of his baby. They completely ignore the fancy dolls.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

every day, it's a gettin closer

goin' faster than a rollercoaster. Spring is coming, folks! Okay, so it's not actually warm yet, and all the sidewalks are ice and everything is white and grey, but have you noticed the birds singing? Listen to them! They know something!

And have you noticed the light? There's more of it! And it's a more golden color! Those snowbanks are a bit smaller every day. Soon, there will be rain. and sunshine.

To enjoy the light without cold, we like to go to the Como Conservatory. Delight of delights! Warm, humid, and flowering! They way to do the zoo or conservatory with kids is to slow down. I am finally learning this. Even at little Como, we don't need to see all the exhibits each time we go. If you sit and watch, you'll see more. In the Tropical Encounters (rainforesty, new exhibit, nothing between visitors and animals) we sat and watched, and found

birds on the ground as well as the air, poking around for worms.
The nest of a little songbird. (It pays to talk to those neglected volunteers; they spend lots of time there and know all kinds of things. He showed me many different kinds of birds, and described the one with the nest as "that small, very noisy little guy.")
Many mice about the forest floor; this may have been my favorite part. Mice can also be seen amongst the lions, while they are sleeping!
Birds taking baths.
They eyes of the stingray.
The strange gill holes of the coi.

I do hope Paul posts more of our pics from the conservatory. Such a pleasant way to walk and soak up sunshine!

Dude, Lighten up.

This is my son, "all covered up." He likes to pull his hat, made by his cousin Oakley as a Christmas present for him, over his face so that he doesn't get cold when he goes outside.
You can see Ezra in the background with a bottle. We sometimes give a bottle of something icy to help with teething pain. It helps a lot! He's just now actually learned how to suck on a bottle.

These pictures are from a while ago, but they go with the thought I've had that I need to, that I have the freedom to, lighten up. As much as I long to learn to keep this home simple and beautiful and running flawlessly and enjoy it all, I've realized that many wonderful people have messy houses, just like me. I'm learning to keep up with the housework, to be more organized and whatnot, but it's okay to not be there yet. Better women than I, whom I've met, have piles of things lying around also, and aren't embarrassed about it! This is the way real people live. In some families, moderate messiness is taken as a great taboo, a sign of sloth, but it doesn't have to be that way; messiness can be the symptom also of a healthy family with its priorities in order. People are valued, and they are caring for one another, doing things, living life, full of color and it may leave remnants around the house. Take them as evidence of life lived well.

There is a glorious freedom for us. I'm not talking about flying flags, but the unparalleled liberty of the children of God. There is a liberty like springtime, like the taking off of layers after a long winter. In laying aside even our own agendas, entrusting myself to him, giving in to whatever that might mean, and then finding that he has planned not some grueling march, but a great adventure begun with a long seaside vacation.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's Getting Warmer...

Last week it didn't hurt to be outside. Being outside as a family, which was once such a regular part of our time together has been impossible for such a long time because of the extreme cold of our bleak midwinter. Last Monday, though, it was time to go back to Crosby Farm Park.Gibbie just wanted to sit in his stroller and watch the river for a long time. (A park officer had earlier looked on in wonder as I plowed our little stroller through the snow!)
Ezra was snuggly wrapped onto Mama. We wonder how many more times we'll have of an Ezra small enough to do this with.
It was a short visit, but hopefully a foretaste of much to come.