Sunday, September 28, 2014

lasagna garden

It's been a while since I've done a garden update. Summer is really hanging on this year, so even though the plants are looking a little worse for wear, at least they're still producing. My back yard bale garden is fairly ragged by this point. The bales are sinking, and most of my tomato plants were struck with blight, but they yielded fruit anyway, enough for several batches of Daniel's favorite late summer dish: gazpacho!

Sad, bedraggled tomatoes.
I often say that our back yard is a work in progress. We've had seven trees removed in the last two years, so a lot of space opened up, which is both good and bad. Parking the cars isn't such a squeeze (good) but we feel a lot more exposed to the neighbors (not so good, but not always terrible, depending on the neighbor). There is definitely more space and light for gardening (good), but the weeds are taking over all the empty space (bad).  The kids have more room to play (good), but all the extra sun makes it hotter back there on warm days (eh, they can deal).

Since my straw bale garden was at least partially successful, I've been thinking about how to expand that garden space out back. The soil has got to be terrible, full of weeds and tree roots and spruce cones. There is no point in digging down and trying to amend, so I want to build up. But how? I'm hesitant to install something permanent like raised beds because we're still holding out hope that the big renovation can happen next year, and I'm guessing our back yard will be used to park big trucks and store materials until they're used.

Then yesterday my next door neighbor (the nice one) suggested we try lasagna gardening, a method of building a garden where you put down thick cardboard and newspaper to smother weeds, then pile organic matter on top to break down and turn into soil. Easy enough, I thought. So this afternoon, instead of cleaning the house and working on some other projects in the basement like I'd been intending, I spent a few hours outside spreading cardboard and newspaper and covering it with compost and the straw bales with nothing left growing in them. Now this is what I've got:



It's not pretty, I know. And eventually I need 24" of stuff piled up on there to break down over the winter; right now it's only about 4".

Not only is the back yard a work in progress, it's going to look worse before it looks better. That's true of everything in my house, though, alas!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

love people. cook them good food.

There's been quite the hullabaloo over a study recently published by a group of sociologists called Joy of Cooking?. Here's the abstract (quoted from the website where the study was published): "Sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton offer a critique of the increasingly prevalent message that reforming the food system necessarily entails a return to the kitchen. They argue that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials." 

I read reaction to the study (here's the link to Room for Debate in the New York Times, which is worth a read, but the other thing I read was so stupid and infuriating I won't even bother to link it here) before I read the study itself. In fact, I was all prepared to write an indignant post of my own defending the home-cooked family meal, and then I thought, well maybe I should read the piece that stirred up the controversy in the first place, and so I did just that this evening. 

The study is full of examples of women whose lives are stressful enough already that the added pressure of cooking every night for their families or their children isn't worth the effort, especially when the kids won't eat what's in front of them. (I can certainly identify with that last part). They rightly point out that many proponents of cooking at home often overlook the extra time and stress it takes to plan meals and clean up afterwards, as well as the potential cost of ingredients. 

It's true that planning and cooking takes time, and that ingredients can be expensive. It's true that it sucks when the meal you set forth before your family as a labor of love is rejected and picked at. And even though I don't know from experience, I am sure that the stress of these realities is magnified manyfold if you're a single parent with significant financial constraints. I won't argue against any of those points.

But I will still defend the family meal, and I will do so adamantly. Good food doesn't have to be expensive or elaborate or difficult to prepare. Yes, it takes planning to have homemade meals in the midst of our hectic lives, but everything in our hectic lives takes planning. We all have to eat every day, after all, and I think it's worth the effort to eat as well as we can. 

My own reaction to the Joy of Cooking? article was mostly indignation. After I read it, I felt like the sort of person the authors would label as an "elitist foodie", someone out of touch with modern life because I do actually take the time to cook meals for my family every night. 

Now, I'm an advocate of home cooking for many reasons, not the least of which is that our country is facing an enormous public health crisis that is directly related to how we eat. In general, our population eats too much junk and drinks too much sugar. Not only that, most people have no clue where their food comes from or how it's produced, nor do they care. These things are not unrelated. Perhaps if more of the food we eat was balanced nutritionally and made from whole ingredients we would not be in this crisis. I also think the crappy eating habits we've developed collectively are in part a result of a work culture that does not support family life or value time spent making and eating meals together. (Go get yourself a copy of French Kids Eat Everything and you'll see what I mean.) 

But before you roll your eyes and close this window, let me assure you, I'm no Donna Reed. To hell with all this pressure on women to make the family meal every night. Didn't I say we all have to eat every day? Well then, maybe we should all pitch in on the effort, too. Take turns being in charge of meals, put the kids to work cleaning up, plan the weekly menus together, spread all that extra stress around!

So I think the most glaring omission from the study was that it offered no real solutions or even reasonable suggestions to the "cooking is too stressful" problem. The authors had an opportunity to discuss the structural flaws in our work culture that create impositions on people's time with their families, but they didn't. I mean, healthy food trucks? Monthly town suppers? Seriously?? I agree that sticking women back in the kitchen isn't really going to fly, but that's no reason to give up on the family meal entirely. We still have to eat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

this is why fast food was invented

Let me tell you about my afternoon. I had to work all day while the kids were at school, and once we got home, I had to quick shove snacks into them before hauling them with me to the UW campus so I could play for someone in her voice studio class before dropping them off at soccer practices in two completely different parts of the city. My afternoon was going to be a crazy series of driving back and forth between about 3 different places and hoping I wasn't late for anyone. My dinner plan was contingent upon me having a few minutes to stop at the store for bread and a few minutes at home to mix up egg salad and find an acceptable side vegetable. 

Alas, we all know what happens to best-laid plans.

Voice class went fine, but as soon as we arrived at Anya's soccer practice, I picked up my purse from the car and realized it felt lighter than it should have. Sure enough, my wallet was gone. It must have fallen out in the room where voice class was held, so I frantically texted and called the singer (who was still in class) to see if she could find it and hang onto it for me. Just as I was leaving with Daniel, I got a call from Stuart, who was stuck with a flat tire on his bike 15 miles away and needed a ride home. 

So much for dinner plans. I had a wallet to find, a husband to rescue, two kids to get to and from their practices, and absolutely no way to set one priority above the other. Well, ok. People are more important than wallets, I'll give you that, but no one was hurt or sick or alone and it would suck so hard to have to cancel my credit and bank cards, you know?

So I left Anya at soccer practice while Daniel and I drove back to the music building where I parked illegally before we both sprinted inside and happily located my missing wallet just as the voice class was letting out. (Whew.)Then I stopped at home long enough to grab the bike rack before dropping Daniel off at soccer practice and drove out to the country road where Stuart was waiting patiently for me to pick him up. As he put the rack and the bike on the car, I texted the dad of one of Anya's friends and asked if she could ride home with them because their house is near where Daniel was at soccer practice and also on our way home from The Rescue. The other dad very kindly agreed (Whew again).

As if I need to tell you, the egg salad never got made. Anya was disappointed because she loves egg salad so much, but the rest of us are relieved to have gotten home and eaten dinner before it was anyone's bedtime. Thank goodness for Chipotle. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

hawk vs. mouse

This morning I saw a predator in action. I was out running on a bike path and a bird of prey - a raptor - gracefully swooped down, talons first, and landed in a patch of grass on the side of the path. I stopped running, afraid I would scare it away if I got too close. The bird stayed where it had landed, mostly not moving, looking up at me every once in a while, and clawing at the ground. I heard a few desperate squeaks and realized that it had caught something, probably a mouse. I stood there for what must have been five minutes, watching. In the time that I stood there, a runner went by, and a few bikers, but the bird didn't move from its spot, just looking around and occasionally pecking at its now silent (and presumably dead) prey.

Of course since I was out on a run I didn't have a camera or my phone to get a picture. I just watched the bird, and it watched me back. I wish I knew what type of bird I was looking it. Most likely it's a hawk, but a quick online search didn't help me identify which kind. I can tell you that it was brown on top with a white belly and brown specks and that its legs had feathers all the way down to its feet, giving it the appearance of wearing wide pants, sort of the opposite of the "bird leg" stereotype.

How often do you really get a chance to see nature up close like that? I've certainly seen hawks flying overhead, and we've found the occasional dead bunny in the yard (that's always fun) or seen owl pellets in the park. You can find evidence of wild animals all around you if you know where to look. But to witness up close and in person that most basic act of one animal ending the life of another for its own survival is actually a pretty amazing thing.

I felt conscious of my own privilege. Somehow, I was in the right place at the right time to see this basic, carnal act of nature. Somehow, I didn't scare the bird away. Clearly, it was used to seeing humans (the path goes right by a golf course and is heavily used). After a few minutes, I left, figuring I'd seen the most exciting part - the capture and kill - and that what was left to come was just more pecking and clawing and feeding on the part of the bird. I could have stayed longer, waited until it left first, waited to see how long, exactly, it takes for a raptor to eat a mouse in front of a rapt audience. But it would have felt a little intrusive to do so. It was like the hawk or falcon or whatever it was was waiting for me to leave so he/she could finish its meal in peace, thank you.

How about you? Have you seen unexpected moments in nature around you?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

good things

Today is a day I should practice gratefulness. I should do that any day, but especially days I'm feeling overwhelmed for no particular reason and convinced of my own mediocrity.

I'll try not to make this list too trite, yes? So here we go, some good stuff about today:

1. Biking to work. The weather for this isn't going to last long, so I need to be grateful for the warm sunshine while I've got it.

2. Kids who can read on their own and like it, even if that means all they read is Captain Underpants and Garfield comics.

3. Dinner that turned out okay, though I wasn't sure what it was going to be when I started making it. (You kind of can't go wrong with onions and olive oil and tomatoes).

4. A good book to read. I actually need some recommendations, please! I'm in the mood for some good fiction. I love a good novel, but I'm open to all suggestions at the moment.

5. Eye candy for knitters. This was just released today. I don't know if I'll make anything from it because all the big, boxy sweater shapes are not for me, but the stunning photography and pattern work on those sweaters and scarves are enough to make me swoon.

6. Fresh herbs. Soon it will freeze and I won't have basil right outside my back door any longer! I better harvest what I've got and make a nice big batch of pesto.

That's it for me today. What are you grateful for?

Saturday, September 06, 2014

second day


I took this picture on the second day of school because Stuart forgot to take one on the first! It's okay. I had to work early that morning so he was charge of getting them all ready and walking them there, and with all the rush and first-day jitters the picture didn't happen.

I'm happy to say the first week went pretty well. It will take me another week or two to adjust to the new routine, I think. I'm so glad to be working, but it means my daily schedule is more splintered than ever.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

first day

I had my first day of work on Thursday. I think it went fine but sometimes it's hard to tell. Four straight hours of teaching is hard on the vocal chords, that's for sure. I'll have to build up my stamina for that.

Madison schools start on Tuesday. We've got the holiday tomorrow and then we're off! A lot of us parents would have been happy if school had started a week or two ago. The days are getting noticeably shorter, and it just feels like it's time. Plus, kids have a way of driving you crazy at the end of summer break.

Last summer was stressful with family health issues and neighbor issues, plus I was kind of tied up in knots about Anya starting kindergarten. This summer was less stressful overall, thank goodness, but now that school is about to start, anxiety is kicking in for both Anya and me. This evening she completely fell apart over something that didn't seem like a big deal at all, and it took her a while to calm down. (That's a clue that she's feeling apprehensive. And that maybe she needs an earlier bedtime.)

I have to work on Tuesday morning, and I have to be there early enough that I won't be able to walk Daniel and Anya to school on their first day. I'll be there to pick them up at the end of the school day, and I'll be there on Wednesday afternoon already to help with a 3rd grade garden activity, but there is still this knot of guilt in my chest and a lump in my throat that I won't get to say goodbye in the schoolyard.

It's silly, I know. Most kids ride the bus and plenty of kids stay for the after-school program and all of them and their parents are obviously just fine not walking to school together from day one so I should just take a deep breath and get over it and dial back the on the helicopter thing.

Stuart, as far as I can tell, is as nonplussed as ever (his daily work routine isn't changing, after all), and when I asked Daniel if he feels a little nervous about school, he looked at me quizzically and said, "No. Why?" Ah, to be that easygoing!

In fact, Anya is pretty excited about my new job. She has been asking me a lot of questions about it, like where I'm working and exactly what days and how that fits into the school routine for her and Daniel. She wants to know who I'm teaching and what book I'm using. She is a curious child, and perhaps more interested in these sorts of things than other children her age, but I find it touching that she wants to know about my life outside of my role as Her Mom. It struck me last week that if I am a role model for both my kids, it's important for them to see that I have a fulfilling professional life, even if it's part time for now, outside of taking care of them and the house and helping at their school.

It just might be a bigger adjustment for me than I thought.