Thursday, May 29, 2008

what else is new

I started reading a new book called Homestead Year, written in the early- to mid-1990s when many of the back-to-the-land folks had since gone back-to-the-yuppie-suburbs and Al Gore was just a boring vice president. At least to me--but I was about ten years old during the title year and really wasn't concerned with a lot more than how many different colors of slouch socks I owned.
Anyway, so far, so good. Although I would like to say I'm a little tired of authors who talk about farming on a humble acre of land. With all due respect, cry me a river, guys. Come take a look at our streetcar suburb lot of about a sixth of an acre, plagued by a north-facing slant, too much shade, and the ever-encroaching bamboo and ailanthus, and maybe you will feel a little better. Not only that, but this is the most land I've lived on since I lived with my parents. Up until this year, I was lucky to have a rooftop or a balcony for a little outdoor space. But I suppose the point here is that however small our space may seem to us, we've got to try to make the best of it. (Jacob often refers me to the story of the cow in the house).

One way I found to use less space is potatoes planted in an old trash can:

This is one of many, many experiments we've got going on in the garden. It's pretty much all experiments right now, because we barely know what we're doing, and this is our first season living here. But the potatoes have been pretty easy so far:
I just scrubbed out an old trash can and rinsed with hot water and distilled vinegar, drilled several holes in the bottom, planted some seed potatoes in some soil at the bottom of the trash can and they've gone from there. Every time they get a few inches taller, we cover them with old dead leaves, coir or light soil. I planted these in March, so supposedly in a couple more months, the plants will flower and die back and we'll have a trash can full of potatoes. I'll believe it when I see it...potatoes and root crops make me nervous because you can't see what's going on! But I really hope it works, because this has probably been one of the easiest projects.

The collard greens were an impulse buy of Jacob's at the co-op one day, and they were really suffering for a while, but now they are doing well. I love collard greens. I just want to bite 'em. (Upon further inspection, it looks like something has, in fact, bitten them. Hm...)

Here's another experiment. We had an old birdbath lying under our deck, so I thought I'd plant something with shallow roots in it, like lettuce. Cute idea, but kind of stupid, seeing as how birdbaths do not drain. I don't want to use this as a real birdbath, though, because we have a crazy mosquito problem around here.

What else is on the deck?
Ah, yes. As you can see, we do not have a clothesline yet. It seems like money evaporates when the weather gets warm. It's on the list, and the drying rack works fine for now.

In front of the house is Khymi's flowerbed, a lesson in delayed gratification. There are zinnias, cosmos, and...some other stuff. We take care of it when she's not here, but we still let her take most of the credit.

I have been waiting and waiting for these lovely peonies to bloom. See, I am not a pink hater.

The newest thing out front is our tomato trellis. We saw a blurb about tomato trellising in Organic Gardening and thought we might as well get some use out of that damned bamboo. We'll be growing cucumbers, and maybe pole beans, on the tripods. The bed is a lasagna garden with layers of coir, municipal leaf compost, decomposed horse manure, and our backyard compost. More experiments!

Here's something we did not grow:
Mulberries! There is a big, huge mulberry tree, and we didn't even notice last summer because it was later on when we moved here. Naturally, it is over the the driveway, so we have had to park our (white) car on the street for the past few days. Anyway, you can see that a lot of them are just about to ripen! A few have ripened already, and I got about a pound this afternoon just by shaking the branches within my reach:

(The white petals are from an adjacent tree).

I don't adore the taste of mulberries, but they're good, and there are so many that we thought we ought to do something with them. I've read that they make good wine, but we don't have the equipment for that. Any other suggestions?

Remember how pleased we were when we finally conquered the bamboo back in February? Sure enough, it's back with a vengeance:

Ugh. It's growing faster than we can keep up with it. Let's talk about something else.

Like jam! Look at those little jars. They just look happy. I didn't think it would be possible, but almost all the strawberries are used up or frozen.

Well, that's where we're at, and it's almost June. With any luck, I'll have much to report in a month or two. Hope you're all enjoying these sunny days.


Monday, May 26, 2008


Along with strawberry season came a baby named Jackson. As of Thursday morning, the queen of the mountain only kid at the Small Red House is now also the omnipotent ringleader eldest of three over at Family Hack. We hear everyone's doing great and we wish them the very best!


Sunday, May 25, 2008

looking for berries, berries for jam.

Yes sir.

You're looking at fifty pounds of strawberries. On Saturday, the people in the small red house, plus one cousin, dragged themselves out of bed to spend the morning at a local pick-your-own farm. (Well, those of us under the age of 16 did not require any dragging). A more perfect day you couldn't have asked for--not too hot, blue sky, and rows upon rows of beautiful ripe berries.

There is just nothing like strawberries in season. There was a certain giddiness among all the visitors at the farm, kind of like when the kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory first walk into the room made of candy. Kids of all ages were scrambling around among the rows, their zeal renewed when they'd come across a good spot or a particularly outstanding specimen (I heard my fair share of, "Ima! Look how big THIS one is!!!")...a good time was had by all and I recommend it for all ages, if you're not growing your own berries. Local small-scale farmers could use our support.

Anyway, we got home and realized that we had just brought fifty pounds of strawberries into our house. So today Jacob and I and aforementioned cousin spent the afternoon cooking and canning strawberry jam and preserves. The rest we're dipping in chocolate or just plain devouring, or freezing (to be used later in pies, ice cream, smoothies, popsicles...)

This has all made me feel rather insecure about our little strawberry jar outside with a few measly plants and halfhearted berries. But we're still excited for what the rest of the season has in store.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

pink at the rink: some thoughts on children and gender

It's official: I am becoming my mother.

Okay, let's back up. A while back, I started taking ice skating lessons. Or rather, re-started. When I was in elementary school I was a half-decent figure skater, but then I stopped when I was about eleven. I was 4'9". Now I'm 5'9". So I thought I would re-learn some of the skills now that I'm a lot farther from the ground than before.

Anyway, one day I was at the ice rink lacing up my skates, observing a group of young parents and their group of young skaters and their siblings; about ten children, mostly girls, maybe ages 2 - 5. Every single girl was wearing something pink. I counted. At least one article of clothing each, but in some cases a lot more. Pink shoes, pink scarves, pink jackets, pink gloves. Jeans with pink-themed embroidery and appliqu├ęs. Pink barrettes. All of them.

Why? Are they afraid people won't know they're girls? Or, the more likely explanation--pink is hard to avoid when you're buying girls' clothing.
I don't have anything against pink itself. It's an inherently nice color, one that occurs in nature in the form of beautiful cherry blossoms, seashells and birds' feathers, not to mention all of our own bodies' mucus membranes (okay, maybe not the most pleasant image). I will also freely admit that despite this claim, I own hardly any pink clothing.

Many people I know have made the good point that rejecting pink because it's a "girly" color is just as bad as insisting on it. It's still an acceptance of the idea of pink as feminine, when really you should just choose according to your preference no matter what. This makes sense, and it would make more sense if our preferences weren't completely skewed by the culture we live in. If we could all make truly unbiased decisions, don't you think that some men and boys would prefer pink and pastels too (I know, besides the frat guys who wear pink polo shirts to be ironic)? Why should it be women's responsibility to reject or reclaim something when the point is ultimately that color shouldn't indicate gender?

A couple years ago, I spotted a posting on Craigslist:

Looking to trade Bumbo seats, I'll take any color! Just can't stand putting my boy in purple!

Really, I think this is interesting. It's remarkable to me that pink is so completely inescapable in the girls' section, but even more telling is its conspicuous absence from the boys' section (does anyone ever wish there were just a kids' section?). At least girls can wear "masculine" clothing (those are huge incredulous quotation marks) if they want, and no one's really the wiser. It's cute if a girl wears boys' clothing. It's tomboyish. It's endearing...sort of in the way that it's endearing when a child dresses up like an adult. (You'll see what I mean in a minute).

But heaven help the boy who wants to wear girls' clothing. Heaven help that Craigslist parent who got stuck with the lavender (yes, it's actually lavender) Bumbo seat. I honestly wonder what this person envisions--how this lavender apparatus might scar his or her child so. Will he take on "feminine" qualities from this piece of obviously girly plastic? Will he become...sensitive? Nurturing? Artistic? Vulnerable? Sympathetic? Reserved? What a failure this child could become! A blue Bumbo seat, stat!

I think it's the universal undesirability of "femininity" that says the most about our culture. We could look at things like careers, but let's stick with appearance to keep it simple. Comfort and practicality aside, a woman wearing "masculine" clothing (work overalls, a loose-fitting Oxford shirt, or a necktie) in our modern context is seen as strong, daring and even intelligent. A man wearing a skirt, however, is generally considered bizarre and sometimes perverse. Parents can feel free to buy red, yellow, blue and green for their daughters, but they wouldn't dare put their sons in lavender or pink. What this tells me is that it's fine for the subordinate group to try and emulate the dominant, but put the other way around, it seems...backwards. And that means that (surprise!) women are still an inferior class.

I don't know. Call me stuck in the second wave, but I don't think it's so great that girls and women (or rather, the large companies that manufacture our clothing) are reclaiming pink. A real change with have come when a) men can feel comfortable being "feminine" as much as women are comfortable being "masculine" and b) eventually the current concepts of masculine and feminine have blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable.

I realize that it seems completely counterintuitive that women should somehow need validation from men to prove that femininity is obsolete, but that's just it: it's just gender. I'm not looking to preserve it. Sex, for the most part, is undeniable. Women will always be women. Men will always be men. Adult men and women have some physical differences that make certain clothing more practical for one sex than for another, but guess what? When you're a kid, those differences are much fewer. Children's bodies are almost exactly the same until they hit puberty. Separate kinds of underpants should be pretty much all you need. The rest is all gender. It's noise. It's an empty signifier.

I've been thinking a lot about all of this recently, because it seems like a lot of people in my life are having babies, and I've been hearing a lot of, "It's a good thing/it's too bad _____ is having a boy/girl because ______." If it's not their first child, there's talk of hand-me-downs and whether or not they'll be useful.

Today, the comments on SouleMama's latest post said it all over again: multiple uses of the words 'sweet' and 'adorable', and lots of people either being grateful they have a girl so they can make sweet, adorable clothes, or wishing they had a girl for whom to make sweet, adorable clothes. (To be fair, Amanda Soule's sons have beautiful clothes, too, and they seem to love the domestic arts as well, which I think is great). But it left me thinking, boys (little, baby boys even!) can't be sweet, delicate and adorable?

Wouldn't it be great if there were just kids' clothes, and nobody had to buy a whole new wardrobe for an opposite-sex younger sibling? What a victory against consumer culture that would be!

The reason I say I'm becoming my mother is that gender in children's clothing has been one of her main research areas since before I was born (at this point, she could write a book...hmm). I guess I've learned to notice stuff like this.

Notice is one thing, practice is another. I've never had a baby and I don't fully know the questions gender can present. My stepdaughter came into my life at age four, with a full wardrobe and some preferences already in place. I'm interested in hearing about the experiences and thoughts of parents who have had small children, especially those who have had both boys and girls. What place does gender have in this 21st-century generation of kids?


Thursday, May 1, 2008

dear internet

I've been on a self-imposed sort of blog hiatus recently. I've been meeting some new people and spending a little time with old friends and family. And I've been thinking a lot about the people behind the blogs.

In The Phantom Tollbooth there is a character named the Dodecahedron. A dodecahedron is a three-dimensional shape with twelve pentagonal faces. And the Dodecahedron has twelve faces, each with a different emotion. I sometimes think of people as various polyhedra, with many different faces.

The weird thing about this culture on the internet is it makes it possible for us to conveniently show only the faces we choose to show. Usually we like to show the happy face, or the pleased face, or the proud face. And after a while we end up with these constructions of people that aren't really people. Just a few faces.

Blogs and social networking have been presenting me with the same few themes, with some exceptions. Themes somewhat like these:
-Here Is My Expertly Photographed Family and All of My Good Parenting Decisions at Work!
-I Heard About This New Thing/Method/Tip/Or Maybe Totally Meaningless Information First.
-Let's All Talk About What Good People We Are!
-I Will Admit I'm Flawed, But In A Funny Way!

I don't mean to sound disparaging. I enjoy participating when it comes to subjects like these, no doubt. But sometimes I wonder about the real people, the real stories. What's your first memory? What was the worst fight you had with your spouse/partner? What would you consider the low point in your relationship with your parents? When was the last time you cried? What have you done that really made you wonder if you were a bad parent?

If you answer these types of questions in list form, it's called a meme and it's considered an act of self-pity. But hardly anyone likes to discuss these things at length or with any degree of sincerity. If we show our less impressive faces, we have to use some sort of defense mechanism (sarcasm, irony, "snarkiness"). Maybe because we're afraid of marring our spotless self-constructed internet images.

I understand that there's a line between public and private life, and it's up to each of us to determine what that means to us. But it's strange that "public" usually automatically means what we consider the best sides.

My friend has two beautiful and creative children, and up until somewhat recently, was half of one of the coolest couples I knew. Her world turned upside-down when she and her husband split up. But she kept blogging. She kept being sincere and sharing what she felt comfortable sharing. I think that's admirable.

The author of one of the funniest "parenting blogs" around, Finslippy, recently chose to share with her hundreds (thousands?) of readers that she had suffered a miscarriage.

Breakups happen. I know; if nothing else, we stepparents wouldn't be around if it weren't for breakups. Miscarriages happen. Grief happens. People are vulnerable. We get sad. We make mistakes. We aren't perfect.

I'm not saying the blogosphere should be one big therapy session. But personally, I find a little sincerity refreshing. It's nice to hear someone is going through what you might be going through, or what you've already been through.

I haven't noticed a unity of opposites in our culture. We want the best, the greatest, the happiest and the most perfect. Maybe we should try to accept more of a balance, an equilibrium.

I'm thinking about how I might approach this in the future. For now, a struggle and a pleasure...

I have suffered from mental illnesses for the past decade, or maybe longer--Major Depressive Disorder, which I at least know runs in my family, and ADHD, the origins of which I'm less sure. I have done badly in school despite being quite intelligent, and sometimes I have struggled to be a productive adult. My mental health has been the single greatest burden I have carried in my life.

Today I turned twenty-six. I watched ants crawl around the sticky buds of a peony, I planted lettuce, and shared a wonderful dinner with someone who loves me. Tomorrow we are getting on the train to go to Vermont. I'm really looking forward to it.

That's the truth.