Wednesday, May 25, 2011


By now you've surely heard about the destruction wreaked upon Joplin, Missouri by a tornado on Sunday evening. I first learned about it later that night when I checked my email. My mom has a cousin who lives in Joplin with her husband, and someone on the extended family email list sent a quick message to report that C and husband T escaped the storm, but were without power. Since then, C herself has sent a few more emails with details about their experience and the state of their town. I don't have her permission to just copy and paste what she's written, so I'll just paraphrase and summarize here.

It just sounds so awful. Electricity is limited, and a lot of cell phone towers went down in the storm, so communication is extremely difficult. 1500 people are unaccounted for, but workers think most of them were out of town, or managed to leave town after the storm, and just haven't had a way to report in. They still expect to find people trapped in basements as they clean up. No one but trained rescue and emergency workers are allowed into the damaged areas. Hotels are booked for 50 miles, and there isn't a rental car available "from Tulsa to Kansas City." People who have lived in Joplin all their lives can't find their way around because the destruction s so massive, and street signs are no longer standing. C has been organizing temporary housing, shelter and laundry facilities in their development. Some houses are so crowded with extra people and pets that people are spending most of their time outside. She watched a child sitting in the middle of the road practicing his viola.

It's been an extraordinary few months for natural disasters, hasn't it? Earthquake in Japan, record storms in the Midwest and South, the Mississippi floodwaters...It's like a slow apocalypse. The world didn't end all at once last Saturday like that old guy predicted; instead, it's happening one disaster at a time. If global warming is to blame for the storms (not the earthquakes, obviously), well, what more of a wake up call do we need?

I've read and heard in various news accounts of people comparing the destruction in Joplin to the destruction caused by bombs. One guy said it looked like Dresden, another guy mentioned Hiroshima. Now, I know these people are in the middle of a traumatic experience, and I don't doubt that Joplin does look like a war zone, so I don't want to come down too hard on them. But seriously, Hiroshima? Dresden? 100,000 people were completely annihilated when the atomic bomb was dropped. Dresden was carpet-bombed and untold thousands died. It's not a fair comparison. I don't know about these guys on the news, but the irony was not lost on me that they compared their town to cities bombed by Americans more than 60 years ago.

In any case, it seems to me that we should stop dropping bombs on people all together. Nature seems to be doing plenty of damage on her own.

Monday, May 23, 2011

pests and varmints

Yesterday afternoon a small rodent found itself trapped in one of the window wells. The wells are a good three feet deep, and the wood lining them is not completely vertical, but arranged in really narrow steps, so that should a person find it necessary to escape from the basement (in case of fire, for example), one could crank open the window, jump out into the well, then scramble up the side to safety - but only after carefully removing the screen, of course.

So anyway, this little creature found its way down there but couldn't get out, presumably because the bottom step was too high for it to scramble out. I think this little thing was a vole. It had practically no tail and a pretty big sniffer, plus it looked blind. It was just scrambling around the gravel, trying to escape the sun, which was beating down on it, and it looked frantic. Actually, the way these animals move, they always look frantic to me.

The kids spotted the vole and were fascinated. Fortunately, their curiosity stopped short of climbing down in there and trying to catch it, but they watched its every move, and probably terrified it even more with their squeals of interest. I, for one, was about equally interested and repulsed. I hate hate HATE little rodents. The way they twitch and skitter around just gives me the creeps. I also, however, have no desire to fish out dead rodents who were stupid enough to get trapped in the window well in the first place. So we decided we had to help the little guy get out of there.

Fortunately, I knew this moment was coming. A family we know in town had a nice big egress window installed in their basement by the same builder we've hired. Before our project began last fall, we went over to take a look at theirs, and we saw a narrow strip of screen had been tacked to the wooden lining of their window well. L and J explained that after removing a dozen or so dead shrews (shudder) who had gotten trapped in there and died, they installed that strip of screen for the little rascals to climb out. I did the same, only with a bit of chicken wire leftover from our garden fence.

The little vole was so traumatized, probably by my presence and all the hammering, it hid in the corner under a rock. At this point, I almost - almost - felt a little sorry for it. I was also a little nervous that it had exhausted itself so thoroughly already that it would just die right there. It didn't help that Daniel and Anya were both yelling "Come out, little vole! Come out and climb your ladder!!" We decided to lure it with a little piece of bread smeared with peanut butter placed at the very bottom of the chicken wire. Eventually, this worked, but it did take a little while for the vole to find the bait. Daniel thought maybe we should give it a little cup of water, too, but I told him that might encourage the vole to just make our window well its new home, and that would not be acceptable. Not at all.

After a little while, the vole finally made its way out of the window well, to the enthusiastic cheers of Daniel and Anya. I'm not sure where it went after that. Maybe down into the other window well? If it did, I've got some chicken wire nailed there just in case. I just hope it's not expecting a little snack on the way out.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

painting lessons

It has been a busy weekend chez Madtown Mama! First and foremost, our priority has been to get the basement painted. Our drywall guy painted the ceilings for us, which was a godsend. I don't know how I could stand painting ceilings on top of everything else. He has a sprayer, so he got done with that part in just a couple of hours. The rest was up to us, though, including the walls and stairwell. I spent some of my precious kids-in-preschool time getting a coat of primer in the bathroom and around the windows last week, but Stuart and I put in a couple of late nights, too. Stuart spent most of Saturday working down there, first taping the ceilings, then painting and painting and more painting. I couldn't help out on Saturday because I had a performance in the afternoon and didn't want to wear out my forearms (plus someone had to watch the kids!) Also, I thought it might be bad form to show up for a performance covered in paint spatter.

I took charge of the bathroom, though. That had to get done first because someone's coming first thing Monday morning to work on the floor. Primer went on Thursday night, first coat of paint Friday night, and this morning Daniel and I put on the second coat. Daniel was begging to help, and finally relented. As it turns out, this kid is pretty good with the roller! So is Stuart, actually. See how our kids are gazing at him in quiet awe? Or maybe it's just fascination with the painting equipment.

Anyway, he does good work, and he's fast. Also, he did all the work in the stairwell, for which I am forever grateful because heights of any kind give me the heebie-jeebies.

Here's the bathroom. I'm not sure if you can tell from the picture, but it's blue. I'm very happy with it.

I'm also quite happy with the color I chose for the rest of the basement walls. According to Sherwin Williams, this is "bungalow beige," and it's a tan/taupe color. A while ago I met with a friend of mine for suggestions for more interesting wall colors, but in the end I decided something light and neutral was the best option. I can always go nuts with accent pillow or something, right? The picture below is actually from yesterday; you can see how the corners and edges weren't done yet, but I think it still gives you an idea of what the room looks like.

Now, Stuart and I have done plenty of painting in our house before, plus Stuart spent a whole summer on a painting crew in college, so we came to this project with a decent amount of experience. Still, we learned a couple things:

1. It's definitely worth getting really good-quality paint. Previously, we'd always just used the house brand paint from Ace Hardware, which was fine and all, and I really like their color swatches because they'll put groups of colors together for you in pleasant combinations. But this time, our contractor hooked us up with a pro who let us use his account at Sherwin Williams. This is normally very expensive paint, but we got what I think is wholesale pricing, so it was actually a little cheaper than the stuff from Ace Hardware, but even if it hadn't been, it would have been worth it. The paint is smooth and has great coverage, and - best of all- it doesn't smell nearly as strong! When you've got hundreds of square feet of wall to cover, this really makes a difference (especially when the windows are sealed shut with plastic from the drywall work.)

2. Don't fall for the gimmicky tools! We really should have known better on this, but sometimes you have to learn the hard way. Even when you're over 30. Stuart made a shopping trip for painting supplies a few weeks ago and came home with a couple fancy rollers, one designed to be spatter-free, and another small one with a guard on one side for ceiling and trim work. These rollers were both a complete and total bust. The spatter-free had a shield contraption that made the roller itself get stuck, so Stuart had to stick his hands in there to free it. When I tried using the trim roller, the guard scraped the wall and blocked the roller from painting until I had so much paint on it that it dripped and glopped everywhere. FAIL. So we taped the ceilings and used regular rollers and brushes, and everything went smoothly from then on.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2 reasons to join a community garden



Seriously, a big reason I pursued getting a community garden plot closer to home this year was for my kids. (We had one last year, but it was kind of a trek to get there, so it didn't work out so well, especially when we hit the hot, dry part of the summer when tomatoes fail and weeds take over.) They - and I - can learn so much from this experience. We learn how important it is to take care of your plants nearly every day by watering them and pulling out the weeds. Right now with more hours of daylight, it's exciting to see how fast those little plants grow; the green patch Daniel is looking at in that first picture is some arugula that was barely sprouting at the beginning of last week.

In fact, Daniel is more enthusiastic about this whole garden business than I could have imagined. I know, it looks like Anya is more gung-ho from the picture, but after posing for a picture and a couple trips with the watering can, she lost interest. Not that I blame her, you understand. She's only three years old, and that watering can is heavy even when half-full. Daniel, though, could barely contain his excitement when he saw how our plants were growing. He can fill the watering can himself from the water barrels by our garden plots, and he is very good about making sure that water goes where it needs to. (With Anya, it's a little more hit-and-miss, but that's okay.) He also loves meeting our gardening neighbors and chattered practically non-stop to the woman in the plot next to ours this afternoon. She didn't seem to mind, fortunately.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I just heard Daniel say: "You know, Anya, at school you have to do just what the teachers say. It's not like at home."

This comment prompted me to get my second glass of wine for the evening and have a good sit-down. You see, tomorrow morning Anya starts preschool. She and Daniel will be going together three times per week for the next month or so before the summer break. I signed them both up for lunch bunch, which means that the days they have preschool, I have an almost 4-hour block of time sans children.

Now, as it turns out, I signed up as a parent-member (the preschool is a parent coop), which means I have to volunteer a few times over the next four weeks. When you count a day off for Memorial Day in the middle of that plus all the days I'm obligated to be there, it really doesn't add up to that much free time for me. Still, it's more than I've ever had before.

I'm not really sure what to do with all this free time. Read a book? Knit a sweater? Deep clean the house? Tidy up the garden? Practice? (I do need to practice, actually.) Probably all of the above with a fair amount of pacing and hand-wringing thrown in. Anya, while excited about starting preschool, is still pretty clingy with me (I could count on one hand the number of times I've slept the whole night in my own bed without going to her in the middle of the night), and she is rather bashful in new situations, and so I worry. I worry that the 4-hour chunk of time will be too much for her. I worry that she'll get homesick and exhausted and overwhelmed. Rationally, I know that this is ridiculous and that she'll adjust soon enough, if not immediately; she does know the teachers and most of the kids already, after all, from Daniel's time there over the last year or so. She is nearly three and a half and she needs this experience.

So maybe I'm the problem. Suddenly I'm faced with a few hours of time to myself during the week and I'm at a loss.

I didn't expect this to be so hard for me. My babies aren't babies anymore! I've longed for this moment; for the past three years all I've wanted was some time to myself and now that I have it I don't know what to do. I think for tomorrow I'll set an agenda so I don't end up frittering the whole time away on the computer, reading meaningless celebrity gossip online and berating myself for not scrubbing the bathroom floor.

And this is what it comes down to. I'm 32 years old. I graduated at the top of my high school class, went to college, went on to receive numerous graduate degrees, had babies, became a housewife and now that my children are just beginning (just beginning, mind you) to grow up and gain some social independence, I am on the verge of falling apart. Crazy, huh? Can you imagine what it will be like when Daniel starts kindergarten this fall? Yeah, I better get a plan.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

it ain't over yet

The weather has turned chilly, windy and wet. Shitty weather on a Saturday in Wisconsin, what a perfect time for a protest!

You see, it's not over yet. The recount in the Prosser vs. Kloppenburg race for Wisconsin Supreme Court is ongoing (though I'm afraid it doesn't look too good for Kloppenburg at this point). Governor Scott Walker hasn't backed down from his union-busting policies, and the last few weeks he's introduced so many policies that gut programs for the poor and middle class and vulnerable citizens, not to mention the environment and public education, it's hard to keep up with it all.

I think Walker was expecting this to just blow over.

I think he was expecting us to get tired of protesting his terrible policies and just go home.

He needs to think again. I heard one speaker at today's rally say the crowd was 20,000. Granted, that's small by standards of the protests a few months ago (when temperatures were well below freezing), but it's still 20,000 people. Several Republican senators (I think the count is up to 8) are up for recall July 12 of this year, and way more than enough people have pledged to sign a petition for a recall election in 2012 as soon as Scott Walker has been in office long enough to be kicked out.

We were there, with our children and our signs.

No, this ain't over. Not by a long shot. We have had enough.

Friday, May 13, 2011

stupid blogger

Blogger ate my last post! And there were some interesting comments, too. According to their status page, posts were only supposed to be removed temporarily, but clearly they have not resolved this. I'll try and write up another gardening post soon.

In the meantime, let's all wish my little brother congratulations! This weekend he graduates from Virginia Tech with his PhD in Electrical Engineering. Smartypants. Hip, hip hooray for Doctor Joe!!

ETA: It seems my previous post is back up, though without the comments. I still plan to do a follow-up at some point.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

lessons in gardening

I've got dirt in my fingernails and compost on my mind. My moments of daydreaming are filled with plans for vegetable beds, herb patches, and the wooded area of the back yard. In short, gardening is my new passion. Well, not exactly new. It's been simmering for a long time now. But this year, I'm starting to feel like I just might be getting the hang of it. Of course, it's still pretty early in the season, so the weeds haven't caught up to everything else just yet (though with the warm weather and rain we're getting, it won't be long, so I shouldn't get ahead of myself).

So how am I going to do better than last year? Well...let's make a list:

1. Don't assume the compost will take care of itself. This mistake of years past ended up in wet, stinky slime that had the neighbors referring to our "diaper pail compost." Fortunately, we are on very good terms with these neighbors, though I suspect another year of having our property reek of shit-smelling compost would have jeopardized that relationship. We got rid of the composter (we actually gave it to said neighbors, andtheir compost doesn't stink at all; someone explain to me how the same contraption works for them and not for us???) and just put up a fence to dump our vegetable scraps and leaves in. I think having the compost in the open air is working better, plus we've been turning it a few times a week to make sure enough air gets in there.

2. Wait, wait, wait to plant tomatoes, peppers and basil. In years past, I've been so eager to get these warm-weather-loving plants in the ground I put them in too early, and every year they get cold and suffer. Not this time. I vow this year not to put a pepper, tomato or a basil plant in the ground before the first of June.

3. Get a community garden plot close to home. Done and done. Last year we had one close to Stuart's workplace, which would have been fine if Stuart were the one who likes doing garden work. He doesn't mind being put to work to weed or water or what-have-you, but when it comes down to it, I'm the one with the time and emotional commitment to gardening, so it makes more sense to have a community garden plot that is more accessible for me. We got lucky this year and got a plot that's less than a mile from our house. I can walk there in 15 minutes, bike there in less than 10 minutes with the kids in the trailer, or drive there in 3-5 minutes, depending on the one stoplight we go through on the way there.

4. Take advice from people with experience. Last night I stopped by the community garden plot to water. I ended up chatting with a couple of fellow gardeners at least a generation older than I am - friendly, interesting, dynamic people - who have been gardening successfully for decades. They are not only knowledgeable, they are willing to share that knowledge with less-experienced, less-successful gardeners like me! They are the reason I know (now) not to plant tomatoes too early (see #2). Also, I learned a few interesting things about traditional gardening techniques in Sudan, but that's another topic...

5. Don't be afraid to rip out or transplant what you don't like. Several years ago I planted some thyme. It smelled lovely and bloomed so prettily at the end of the summer. But oh, how it spread and sprawled across that particular corner of my herb/perennial garden. It also dried up and got really ugly after the first couple seasons. A week ago, I decided to pull it up and move some irises over there instead, and I haven't regretted it one bit. I've also got native columbine coming up all over the place, the result of a flower I planted on purpose a couple years ago that re-seeded like mad. Columbine is a charming flower, but it comes up in inconvenient places. I've been digging up and re-planting every one in the wild, wooded area of my backyard.

That's it for now. I should do a whole post sometime on community gardening and how I think it could save the world, but that's for another day.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Saturday, May 07, 2011

what i want for mothers' day

I was talking with someone this afternoon about Mothers' Day. She has three kids - twin boys on the verge of getting their drivers' licenses and a daughter in middle school. She said all she wants is to go on a picnic for Mothers' Day with them and her husband because anymore they're so busy it's rare that the whole family is together to do anything. She asked me what I am planning to do for Mothers' Day and I said I don't know, but I hope I don't have to wash any dishes.

I guess you want to spend Mothers' Day with your children when they're old enough to be avoiding you most of the time. I'm still at the point where I want Mothers' Day to be a break from my kids. I want a few hours off-duty. Funny, isn't it, how that works?

I don't expect anything extra-special tomorrow, and that's okay, really. I think elaborate Mothers' Day gifts are kind of silly. I did buy myself some flowers at the farmers' market this morning, though. I was dropping some pretty strong and not-at-all-subtle hints as we passed the bouquets of daffodils and tulips, and Stuart said, "Well, I'd be happy to pick something out for you, but I'm out of cash, so I'd have to ask you for the money to pay for it." We had a good laugh over that.

What I really want for Mothers' Day is a whole day to do what I want, whatever that is. The weather forecast couldn't be better (finally), so I want to have a picnic and plant some flowers and onions (because someone gave me a handful of onion starters this afternoon, which was very generous) and herbs. Stuart put together a frame for a raised garden bed this afternoon, and I want to fill it with dirt and decide what to plant there (we're thinking tomatoes). I want to have some time to myself to read or knit or whatever and not feel guilty about spending that time reading or knitting instead of folding laundry. I want to go for a nice long run, something I haven't done in a while.

And I don't want to wash any dishes.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

osama bin laden

Here is what I remember about 9/11. Stuart and I were in our apartment, getting ready for our respective days as graduate students at the university. We had NPR's Morning Edition on. Just after 8:00 (central time), the host reported that a plane had run into the World Trade Center. I was walking into the bedroom brushing my hair, wet from the shower. "Terrorists?" I said. "No, couldn't be," he replied, "A bomb would be much easier, right?"

It was a beautiful day. I biked to campus, walked into the music office to make some copies for my piano class. Everyone was crowded around a small television, watching footage of the Pentagon. One woman was crying. I made my copies, tried to teach my class. I talked to my office-mate, who thought that at least there couldn't have been too many people in the Twin Towers, so hopefully there hadn't been too many casualties. I had a couple piano lessons scheduled with college students (part of my TA position), but all we did was talk.

I went home and called my dad. I don't remember what we said, but we talked about the terrorist attacks.

Stuart and I had been married just over a month, and we'd gotten two or three of the same blender as wedding gifts. I'd been planning to take one back to Bed Bath and Beyond on my way to a studio where I taught private piano lessons on Tuesday afternoons. By the mid-afternoon, I was, like everyone else, numb with the news from the morning, but I didn't know what else to do, so I drove out to BB&B with that blender. It felt so absolutely pointless and trivial, but I did it anyway. The store was closed and dark, and as I drove away, I felt ridiculous and sad. My piano students all showed up, young children who basically had no idea what was happening. I remember one conversation with a 9yo, normally not an easy kid to teach or talk to, who turned to me and said "Why would anyone DO such a terrible thing?". I had no idea what to say to him. I don't even remember his name now, but that kid is probably in college now.

I didn't know anyone who was on one of those planes, or in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. But I remember so many things about That Day, and these memories have been flooding back to me since I heard the news of Osama bin Laden's death earlier this week. Like many, I have mixed emotions. I'm glad he was finally found, and - I suppose - brought to justice. There's a bit of relief in the knowledge that he is gone. I am profoundly disturbed, though, at the knowledge that the nearly decade-long hunt for this one man was used as justification for a wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that has, since their respective beginnings in October 2001 and March 2003, cost far, far more lives than were lost on American soil on 9/11.

My heart is troubled today, but not that Osama bin Laden is dead. I think we all knew he wouldn't go down without a fight. I am grieving for what it cost to find him, to bring us to this day. I am grieving for my country at perpetual war. I am grieving for my country deeply divided. I am grieving for the price Humanity has to pay for violence and atrocities thinly disguised as justice. Could all this have been avoided if they'd just found bin Laden in 2001, or 2002? Probably not.

I am not angry. I am sad, but more than that I am resolved to do what I can to make MY country and MY world a better place for my children. It's the least I can do.

ETA: Link to a thoughtful, insightful post by a local UCC pastor - The death of Osama bin Laden and the way of love

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


Drywall goes up in the basement this week. After several months of fairly incremental change, having the walls covered in sheetrock is decidedly dramatic. Here's a peek:

That funny contraption is used for getting sheets of drywall onto the ceiling. He lays it flat on the machine and cranks it right up there. I've never seen anything like it.

Watching this guy do his work is really something. LJ works alone, swiftly and gracefully. It's almost like a dance, the way he can lift a piece of sheetrock, balance it, and punch in more than a dozen screws with his power drill, all in a minute or two.

It will take him the rest of the week to finish putting all the little pieces in, and then he's got to wrap all the corners and put up mud and tape, then texture everything. After that, we paint, and that will be a BIG job. We won't be able to get to that until after the weekend. Stuart is impatient, but I am relieved. I wasn't looking forward to spending Mothers' Day painting a basement ceiling, but I was prepared to do it if I had to. Now it looks like I'll be able to spent the weekend working outside, which is what I really wanted to do in the first place.

Today was chilly (40s) and gloomy. This made me grumpy, I'll admit. I did take the kids to a certain large home improvement store to purchase a new bird feeder (as per Daniel's request) that we really hope is squirrel-proof, but I'm not holding my breath. Those little varmints can bust into ANY bird feeder, as far as I can tell. I also bought a cedar kit for making a raised garden bed. I hope to put it somewhere here:

I'm so apprehensive about this gardening project for some reason. I think I just need more confidence.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


I spent most of my weekend staining wood around the basement windows:

As you can see, I had a young helper who was Very Excited about the Prospect of Entering and Exiting the house through The Window instead of the Usual Way (through a door).

Boy, is staining a pain in the ass, what with all the sanding and layers of polyurethane and slim margin for error. I've done staining before, though it's been a while, and I had a definite learning curve this time around. We have two of those big egress windows like in the photo above, and two smaller ones on the west side of the house. I'm not sure what was more awkward - straddling the inside and outside of the egress windows, or twisting my torso on the stepladder to reach all the nooks and crannies of the smaller window.

The bad news: I'm not done yet. The good news: I'm at least 75% of the way there. I've got one small window to go, which at this point is totally inaccessible because there's a bunch of not-yet-installed drywall leaning against it (the drywall guy has flaked on us three times in a row, and I'm starting to get peeved), and there's also the wood directly surrounding the glass in the big windows. I've got this process down to a science, though. I'm pretty sure I can handle it.

Between all the window work this weekend and keeping an eye on the kids, I didn't get much of a break to do anything. Stuart and I both baked a bunch of bread today, which is kind of a long story in itself, but since we had too much, I decided to take an extra loaf to a friend in the neighborhood while my husband was giving the kids a much-needed bath. I wanted to share our bounty, but mostly I wanted to get out of the house by myself for a little bit. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," I said as I walked out the door, but we both knew that was a lie.

First I stopped by a neighbor's house around the corner to look at their new raised garden beds, which happen to be exactly like I want to do in our front yard. So I poked around and asked questions while he spread the dirt and watched his two-year-old play in the drivers' seat of their car. Then I stopped by the next house to drop off a couple dollars for the not-quite-dozen eggs I'd picked up earlier in the day (I LOVE having a friend around the corner who raises hens! Incidentally, she has named them all after British royalty.). Finally I made my way up the hill and past the park and around a couple more corners to my original destination and found that the recipient of my bread was in the middle of a dinner party. As it happened, I know or at least am acquainted with all of her guests, and when she asked me to stay for tea and dessert, it just seemed plain rude to turn her down. I even admitted out loud I wasn't quite ready to go home I stayed. My 20-minute errand had turned into an hour-plus walk through the neighborhood. It was lovely, and just what I needed.

This week the sun is finally shining. I'm going to clean my house and build those garden beds. Golly, I love spring.