22 April 2008

Money, money, money ...

You've all heard, I'm sure, that petroleum prices are through the roof and that food prices are sky high and going higher.

Well, as with the rest of the world, that reality has hit home at Chez Smiffy, too.
We have cut and scraped before, and cut and scraped some more. But we're still so tight than anything unexpected means a crisis and that means more cutting.

We never were big on shopping, except books. I am a sucker for books. It looks like my commitment to the library will have to be renewed and I will have to get better about getting back there every week. If we do that, it's free. The Friends of the Library sales are an exxcellent resource, too.

New clothes amounts to socks and underwear and one new item when something we've been using falls apart completely. I can't see how we can reduce that further. We have already cut out all the laundry additives and we use about half the detergent recommended, but I guess we could use a cheaper detergent.

We don't use high priced cleansers as a rule, but I plan to see what I can do with more traditional methods, like vinegar and baking soda.

We dilute our shampoo so that a bottle lasts months, and I make my own skin conditioners. Toothpaste is the most expensive part, but I don't see that as optional. Baking soda get teeth clean, but without my sensitive tooth toothpaste, I'd be in agony. I wonder if we could use cheaper soap. Rod and I have equal and opposite skin sensitivities, so soap has always been a challenge.

We are extremely reluctant to scrimp on the quality of food we eat, but we've cut back on the amounts of the expensive stuff. Instead of meat, we mostly use bone broth and we make two sausages feed three of us for a meal and a pound of ground beef makes three meals. We have cut back on the amount of milk we use. We have been mostly baking our own bread since we can make a $6 loaf for pennies by grinding the wheat ourselves.

In the fruit department, we had gone from 'whatever sounds good' to apples and oranges. Now it looks like we'll have to ration those, too. We had been getting whatever vegetables looked good, striving for maximum variety, but it looks like we're going to have to cut way back on that, too. There are still vegetables within our reach, but not much variety until the garden starts bearing. (I have renewed my determination to raise as much as I can this summer and preserve most of it to get us through the next winter.) I hate to cut into Jack's nutrition that way -- but his brothers survived and so will he. In this case, I think it's temporary.

Next comes coffee. Sad isn't it, that coffee comes after vegetables? But I know we can get cheaper coffee. And I can try to cut back on how much I drink.

We had already cut back as far as possible on the medical expenses, and now it's time to cut the vitamins and other supplements. (Again. Those come and go as cash flow allows.)

I used to be so good at this. Time to learn again, I guess. But now, off to work, so we have *some* cash flow to work with. ;)

(BTW, tone doesn't come through well in writing sometimes...this is all pondering options rather than complaining. I have gotten by on far less, so this is an no longer accustomed challenge rather than a complaint.)

21 April 2008

I did it again!

I just managed to walk 1.5 miles again! I feel hot, but refreshed. I think I may be able to maintain this all week -- what a wonderful thought!

Building my hermitage

Things have been strange for me recently. I''m not sure how long it's been going on, maybe as much as a year and a half, but it has become very hard to resist.

As much as I love and miss my friends, as much as I enjoy their company when we're together, I increasingly find that my "perfect" evening or weekend seems to involve spending my time in semi-solitude. Washing dishes and laundry isn't as much fun as socializing -- but when I stay home with Rod and Jack and cook and clean and craft, I end up feeling much happier, more relaxed and less stressed. When we go out to socialize, I generally enjoy myself--and then I get home and the day ends and I feel like I've lost something precious. I think I may be turning into a hermit. It's not terminal. After I have had several quiet weeks, I genuinely enjoy getting together with one or two friends.

Menopause? Just too intense a year? I don't know. But it is wierd.

On the bright side, I managed to get four birthday cards made and three Mothers Day cards ready to be cut and assembled this weekend and I headed out to work this morning satisfied and rested.


OK, well it's official.

The crop from my first planting of the year was a flop. Not only have I managed to keep very little alive, but the friends with whom I shared plants are *also* not getting much germination. One friend even reported massive amounts of mold, so that may be the problem. Our house is pretty damp.

Now that it's warm enough to leave the plants outdoors, I am going to run the tubs throuigh the dishwasher and bake the dirt as one friend suggested and then try again. This time, I think I'll wait until I have germination to offer to share. How embarrassing.

20 April 2008

Noticing...that spring is here!

Edited to change autumn to spring. Not sure what i was thinking...

The guys and I went out noticing yesterday while dinner cooked.

It was wonderful to see signs of spring everywhere!

And speaking of "noticing", Harmony Art Mom over at The Heart of Harmony has been posting a series of Green Hour Nature Study Challenges since February. She starts out assuming that nature Study has not been a big part of your children lives, and that you know little about it, so it's an excellently easy place to start! She even suggests readings from easily available on the web, so it doesn't turn into "yet another book I should read" on the stack by your reading chair. We started this weekend, and the first lesson doesn't look much different than our usual noticing. Easy!

17 April 2008

Hey! Rod made the local paper!

Check this out!

15 April 2008

Jack turning five

Jack is just a few weeks away from his fifth birthday, and we have just recently started seeing the physical evidence.

First, he has simply matured physically, so that he very much looks like a five year old version of himself. That's fun to see.

But there have been developmental leaps, too. He has started to have that clear, literal mind that happens at about five which is entertaining in the extreme.

He has started to have "defense fantasies" of a sort that I remember well from my other boys and from my brothers, but but we haven't seen from Jack before now.

"If that dog rushes me, I do this, and I'll do this, and ... Dad what would the dog so it I shaked the stick at him like this"?

But for this Mamma, the single most exciting step happened last night.

At the age of two, children become immensely cautious eaters. Many won't eat anything that isn't "plain". No sauces (except that red nirvana, marketed as catsup) no stews or soups, nothing unfamiliar, where unfamiliar can mean it hasn't been served this week. It's extremely frustrating, though absolutely normal.

We gritted out teeth and got through it. If we served anything "complex", where possible we saved out the individual things and served them separately to Jack. He was aware that he was getting what we were eating, but without the sauce". He was allowed to eat what he preferred first, and then he had to take one "no thank you" bite of everything (on the openly agreed "You like familiar foods best -- but if you never taste them, then they can't become familiar") Then, he had to pick two things to finish completely. (We always made sure that there were at least two things that were both familiar and somewhat acceptable.) Then he could have seconds of his favorite part and dessert, if there was to be any.

It was tedious. I worried occasionally that we were raising my first really picky eater, as one food after another dropped from the acceptable list. Eventually, we also added the rule that 'if you don't eat a civilized amount of dinner, then when you're hungry again in the evening, which you will be, it will come back to haunt you, until it's gone.'

But, rules aside, we tried to ignore what he ate or how much. I made sure that there were at least three of his acceptable foods on the plate, but I served him whatever we were having. In Jack's case a serving being two or three bites. He could always ask for more.

Last night, we did exactly what we've always done -- Rod made Pork Satay with rice and vegetables. He saved out a bit of everything to be served plain on Jack's plate. I put two baby lettuce leaves, two grape tomatoes, and a plain raw mushroom on his plate from the salad bowl. And we sat down to eat.

Jack's first bite? Not the pork, not the carrots -- both familiar favorites. He grabbed the mushroom, asked excitedly "What's this?" and *he ate it!* And asked for another!! We gave it to him and tried not to stare as he wolfed it down ... he then proceeded through his pork and carrots. Then he asked about the grape tomatoes -- one gold, one red. We explained that last summer, when they were last available they had been one of his all-time favorite foods. That we had bought packages of grape for dinner and Jack had eaten every one of them before we even made dinner. He carefully cut them open -- and wolfed them both down. When they were gone, he picked through his rice for another slice of pork and found that he'd eaten it all. He asked for more, and I slipped a satay covered piece from my plate to his without comment. He poked at it for a moment, looking unsure -- but I'd given his a taste of my rice and satay earlier...so he asked me to cut it for him because it was slippery -- and he ate every bite.

I have no illusions that the picky eating stage is over just like that -- but this was certainly an encouraging light at the end of the tunnel!

Jack's Book o Dinosaurs

A few weeks ago, I found these odd little puzzles -- 3-D dinosaur bones. They were made by slave labour in China, and so only a dollar. I was embarrassed to do so, but I bought them anyway.

Jack and I poked around with them one evening -- and I eventually declared that this looked like a Dad project.

In the meanwhile, Jack and I worked on a Mamma project. We made a lapbook in which to record everything Jack knows about dinosaurs. We expect it will take a long time to get it all down -- and Jack thinks we might need another book to finish it all. (He may be right.)

Since the puzzle he and Dad worked on was a Dimetrodon, Jack dug out his Dimetrodon model to compare it to the skeleton.
The puzzle is slightly bigger, but we were able to see what bones did what. (And Mamma has her doubts about the anatomical verity of this puzzle.)
We took photos and and pasted them into the lap book, and then Jack narrated everything he could think of about Dimetrodon. (Jack had to help me spell the dinosaur names correctly. He looked them up and dictated the spelling while I wrote.)
And then we were on a roll...so we did Stegosaurus, too!

It was interesting to watch Jack read his book. I wrote down exactly what he said in most cases (a few times he took so long to get it out that I figured out what he meant and suggested an alternative phrasing - - and then wrote down whichever he chose. He rushed off to read it to Dad and I was fascinated by his reaction as he came to the phrases that didn't make sense the way he had phrased them. He stumbled over them, paused and said "Hmmmm. We'll have to rewrite this one", said it in a clearer way, and went happily on! I was so pleased that he neither ignored an imperfection, nor let it dim his joy in his creation!

Quick health update ...

OK, it was gently pointed out to me that I never updated folks on the final outcome of Rod's misadventure a few weeks back. I'm sorry folks, I thought I had. Things got moderately crazy when Al died two weeks after Rod's release and a few days after Al's funeral, our friend Bill went in to the hospital for triple bypass... welcome to middle age, eh?

Anyway, Rod's back in top form again. His doctors have each in turn been sure it was a heart condition and have each in their turn examined his heart from every possible angle. No sign of any heart trouble can be found, beyond some high blood pressure, which he is treating. After many diagnostic tests, it has become clear that Rod suffered a temporary anaphylaxic episode, due to allergy. Best guess -- either his cod was fried in oil (or dipped in batter) that had been contaminated with sea-food, which he knows he's allergic to -- or the "cod" was actually perch. Hard to say with fish and chips - -so no more fried foods for Rod anyplace that might have sea-food or perch.

As to my health, I have been home for two days with pneumonia. I still don't feel well, but my voice is back, though still rough and I am better enough to go back to work tomorrow.

It started out as the flu, as I mentioned a few days ago -- but because I had to push through at work, it took a lot longer to recover than I thought it should -- after a week, I was still getting sicker. When I woke myself up twice over the weekend with the whistling from my lungs, I gave in and went to the doctor on Monday. (Shelley had warned me that this flu went to the lungs very easily...)

I now have an antibiotic, an inhaler, and a steroid to drag along to work with me. This seems like a weird collection, but I haven't have pneumonia for years and I guess the treatment standards have changed. (I was expecting an antibiotic.)

Jack is, of course, in perfect health. What a guy! ;)

Longstanding hassle...

For about as long as I've had kids, the size of kids books has been a bit of a hassle to me. I mean, there is no earthly reason that children's books need bigger spines...except that the current arrangements makes them so hard to read on the shelf!
My older boys, being who they were, were quite happy to pull the entire shelf down in search of a specific book - - or even just to have a browse.

Jack, being who *he* is, is not happy to pull down the entire shelf. He tends to ignore books that are too tightly packed to read easily.

So, we display a few books here and a few books there around the house.

Some in the parlour, which are mainly non-fiction. History, language, poetry, science, music and art...

Some in the office, which are mainly fiction. Largely picture books -- novels live upstairs in Jack's bedroom.

A few stay out on a table or on the freezer when they're in heavy use. That would be all things dinosaur, for the moment.

And the rest languish in closets until they get their turn to cycle in again.

The big question is, can we find a better way? I have seen various ways to display homeschooling "topical" books. The one I like best is the rain gutter nailed into the wall. http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/oliver.html

But that method does require more wall space than we really have at the moment if we are to display more than a very few books at a time.

We tried using more bookends to separate them and that was easier to search through, but it didn't actually display them any better.

I am wondering whether anyone else has come up with any truly clever ways of making the picture book display more engaging and easier to browse. Ideally in away that doesn't require miles and miles of wall space, since we don't have that much. (The serious downside of an open-plan house is that there is a lot of space and very little place to put anything.)

I haven't found much -- but I've decided to head out to the hardware store to price rain gutters. A little is better than none!

But really, does your family have a great idea that might help us?

13 April 2008

Happy birthday, Mom!!!

This is my Mom, with two of my five younger brothers, Jeff and Joel.
Amazing, isn't she? She never seems to get any older!

And with Jack, when she was here last Mothers' Day.

11 April 2008

Garden update, 19 days past planting

I keep fretting that I am not going to get much germination from this first crop of seeds...but then I remember having much the same feeling last year and eventually almost everything *did* germinate.

However, a little digital assistance points out that I actually have quite a few greens in the lettuce tub (which I knew) and about 12 baby plantlings ... many of which I can't find with my naked eye. (Nor in glasses, for that matter.)

Maybe that's not so bad after all -- it just *feels* like a lot more than three weeks. I hope to take advantage of the waxing Cancer moon this weekend to plant the next round, since so far I only have about 1/3 of the plants I want for this year.

Help the bees!

Bees are responsible for Every Third Bite of Food!
As you may have heard, we have had an alarming die-off of bees in the last few years. The bodes very, very ill for all the plants and animals on the planet.

From the great sunflower web site:
Bees help flowers make seeds and fruits. Bees go to flowers in your garden to find pollen (the powder on the flower) and nectar which is a sweet liquid. Flowers are really just big signs advertising to bees that there is pollen or nectar available – though sometimes a flower will cheat and have nothing! The markings on a flower guide the bee right into where the pollen or nectar is.

All flowers have pollen. Bees gather pollen to feed their babies which start as eggs and then grow into larvae. It's the larvae that eat the pollen. Bees use the nectar for energy. When a bee goes to a flower in your garden to get nectar or pollen, they usually pick up pollen from the male part of the flower which is called an anther. When they travel to the next flower looking for food, they move some of that pollen to the female part of the next plant which is called a stigma. Most flowers need pollen to make seeds and fruits.

After landing on the female part, the stigma, the pollen grows down the stigma until it finds an unfertilized seed which is called an ovary. Inside the ovary, a cell from the pollen joins up with cells from the ovary and a seed is born! For many of our garden plants, the only way for them to start a new plant is by growing from a seed. Fruits are just the parts of the plants that have the seeds. Some fruits are what we think of as fruits when we are in the grocery store like apples and oranges. Other fruits are vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers.

"We need to know where are bees are doing well and how parks, gardens, natural areas and all sorts of habitats effect our bees” says Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn, the Sunflower Project’s Queen Bee. “Once we identify where bees need help, we can start improving their habitats!”

To get as many groups of individuals in your community to participate in The Great Sunflower Project, share our project with other gardeners, nature centers, other kids, and anyone who would like to stop and learn a bit more about our helpful friends.
Not just any sunflower will work - - the projext will send you seeds for sunflowers native to your area.

So, plant a sunflower, count your bees, and make the world a little better place. For bees and for you.
Posted by Picasa

The flu

I have the worst flu I've had in years. This week - -the second of the two weeks each year when I don't really have the option to stay home.

You see, I am the audit manager for my department and we have two of our annual audits in April.


And I'm sure the auditors and the folks being audited are just thrilled. I am taking tons of vitamin C, zinc, elderberry, and everything else I can think of to slow the germ spewing, but it sure ain't pretty.

As I say...yuck.

(The guy up there? He's Sunshine, a western lowland gorilla from the Detroit zoo. He was always my favorite -- he always looked so griumpy, and yet I observed him to be astonishingly gentle.

Sunshine died of the flu a few weeks ago. I probably won't.

07 April 2008

Welcome to Michigan...

Outside our North window on March 27 -- 8 inches of snow.
On our south facing wall on April 7.
Even the lilacs to the North are getting into the act!!!
Not all of our baby plantlings are doing well....
But some are doing GREAT!

A note from Jack: One baby plant looks like it failed, because its leaves are at its trunk I think, I saw it.

Once, a great pit bull scared me out of the yard when I was building a snowman. It was far away to safety but I escaped, and when it was all clear I went inside. That day, the gate was open and now we keep it closed. Another day, when I was inside, the pit bull again almost went into the gate, but I was inside and then he threatened Dad! And he was still growling and barking!! Then the dog headed home. Twice.

04 April 2008

Hey! We're published!

The Homeschool Diner's Guide to
Homeschooling Basics
Family Matters

When your parents don’t support your decision
to home educate your children

We'd all love our parents to support our choices (parenting choices,
especially) whole-heartedly. When we make the decision to home
school, we would love for our parents to see that we are doing the very
best thing for our kids and share our enthusiasm.

As both grandparents of two and parents to a four year old, our
experience suggests that blanket support of that kind is pretty rare.
Conflict with our parents over parenting decisions is something many --
maybe most -- people face. Sometimes our disagreements are about
school decisions, sometimes about discipline, sometimes about nutrition,
or television or ...well, you name it. If it’s a decision we have made, our
parents can find something wrong with it.

See the rest here

Maximum Nutrition Gardening

I got some of my garden plants started a couple of weeks ago, and I am now enjoying watching the lettuce and tomato babies peeking up out of the soil and blinking at the sunlight. It brought to mind a post I started last year when I was exploring this whole "how to garden" thing, and I thought I'd finish it up, finally. A year has passed and, oddly enough, the post morphed from what it was. Funny thing what a year's experience can do, isn't it?

When I first got interested in gardening, a little over a year ago, my goal was to provide my family with the highest possible nutrition. I had read that current commercial farming methods had resulted in the reduction of nutrient value (according to the FDA) of various fruits and vegetables by an average of 40%. That's pretty alarming! It means that at a time when, because of all the competing manufactured foods, we are having to work harder than my mother's generation did just to get fresh fruits and vegetables into us, we are also benefiting less from them.

I looked into why that might be and discovered that commercial farming typically returns to the soil only three of the nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) that plants need to grow and be healthy. The micro-nutrients are gradually removed from the soil by the growing plants and shipped off in the fruits and vegetables. The next year, the plants have fewer of the nutrients available to them. If it's not in the soil, it can't be in the food we grow on the depleted soil, which means that each year, the fruits and vegetables have fewer vitamins than the year before, leaving the soil more and more depleted over time, both of minerals and of the microbes that help to make those minerals available to the plants growing there.

An analogy to this soil depletion may be found in raising a child entirely on fast food. A steady diet of fast food contains the three major nutrients a child needs to grow (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) and the child will grow up without starving to death, but it's completely lacking in many of the vitamins and minerals a child needs to be really healthy.

I looked into organic gardening and it looked like a great improvement, but it can still be an incomplete solution. Compost is a great addition to the soil, but too many leaves or too much manure can unbalance the soil with far too much phosphorous and potassium, while if the composted plants were grown on depleted soil, they won't contain all the minerals and micro-nutrients the plants need, either. This might be the equivalent of raising a child on home-cooked meals featuring some processed foods and some fruits and vegetables. This child will be in far better health than the child raised entirely on fast foods, but it still isn't optimal nutrition and can leave the child more susceptible to degenerative disease later in life. I want more for my family.

So, I went hunting for information about how to supplement the soil so that all the nutrients a plant needs for optimal health are available in my garden. If the nutrients the plant needs are available, the vegetables and fruits will contain as much nutrition as possible, meaning that my family will also be nourished as much as possible by the produce we eat.

Now, plants don't need "vitamins" the same way that humans do. Plants use minerals, with the help of soil microbes, to create the vitamins we need. The best way to get the nutrients to the plants is to remineralize the soil by providing a wide range of "soil amendments" so that a wide variety of nutrients are made available.

It's pretty complicated to do it the "scientific" way, with soil tests and brix testing, and PH testing, with the amendments varied for the specific needs of the specific soils and changing over time to meet changiong needs. Eventually I want to get to the point of understanding all that, but in the meanwhile, I tried a scatter shot approach last year, based on the general principles I have learned. I got some astonishing results.

In the year before last, Rod had planted some vegetables. Basically, he put seeds and some baby plants in the garden and kept them watered and did little else. It was our experiment in "what happens if". What happened? Not much. Most of the seeds never grew and many of the plants died before they ever fruited. Probably many of them were lovely salad greens for our furry neighbors, but the ones that survived never got very big and none were terribly productive. They looked sad and listless and droopy. Now, we do have a friend who has used this method very successfully for many years, but our soil was simply not up to it.

Last year, I decided to circumvent the furry neighbors problem by starting the seeds indoors very early and keeping them out of harms way until they were big enough to survive an experimental nibble by the rabbits. (I planted most of them after the six-leaf stage.)

I also added a lot of soil amendments to the garden.

  • alfalfa - because alfalfa is a very deep-rooted plant, it brings minerals up from deep in the earth, well below where most plants can reach. It provides many minerals but it also provides a plant growth stimulating enzyme that makes plants sturdier.
  • kelp - because sea-weed grows immersed in the ocean, which is a rich source of minerals, it can add back minerals that are relatively rare in the soil, especially iodine and it is an excellent source of "hummus", which stimulates the microbes that keep plants healthy.
  • rock dust - this takes longer to break down and I don't know whether it would have made a big difference last year, but it will help to re-mineralize the soil over the long term.
  • manure - adds a huge amount of "organic matter" to the soil, which is critical to the happiness of the plants and the microbes who feed them
  • bone and blood meals - a ready source of many minerals

I also added an "inoculant" -- a shot of the microbes the plants need. They will eventually find your garden if the conditions are right, but I wanted to jump start them.

Over the course of the summer, I fed the plants "cow poop soup" -- what other people call "compost tea". I put a couple of handfuls of manure and a couple of handfuls of alfalfa in a five gallon bucket of water and let it steep int he sun for three or four days. Then I poured some around each plant once a week. (nutrient drenching)

I also sprayed the plant leaves with a fish and kelp emulsion (foliar feeding) once a week.

The result was a vibrant garden with huge, productive plants and little trouble with pests.

I can't say for certain that the plants were more nutritious than they would have been otherwise, but I can say that while we had trouble keeping up with production, we had almost no spoilage all summer even though vegetables sometimes sat on the counter for weeks after harvesting. (Produce that some friends gave us had to be eaten immediately because it didn't last well.) As a matter of fact, our last butternut squash is still sitting on the counter seven months later, waiting to be cooked --and it has not yet started to spoil. (We ate another one a few weeks ago, and it was still firm, delicious, and quite fresh tasting.) Long lasting produce is said to be one of the hallmarks of nutrient density, so I think we're moving in the right direction.

This year, I'd like to get a brix meter to see whether the produce is actually as high quality as it seems to be. But you know, brix meter or no, this is already worthwhile. By nourishing my plants with the same thought and care that I nourish my family, not only does my family have better, healthier food, but I found out that I really LOVE gardening!!

For more information, have a look at these sites:

Gardening for Maximum Nutrition

High Brix Gardens

They have a kind of "true believer" tone to them that I found offputting at first, but in amongst the hyperbole, I did find a lot of excellent information.

01 April 2008


We live in a small town. It's easy to forget that, sometimes, but really, everyone knows everyone around here, one way or another.

At a healing circle this weekend, a friend mentioned that she had overheard some conversation about Jack that amused her greatly. It seems that somewhere in this town, there are people who feel bad for our poor deprived boy because he's too serious and doesn't know how to be a child. She didn't say who thought that or why they thought that, and it doesn't really matter -- it's just funny.

The tidbit of gossip had to be delivered at some volume, because little Fauntelroy was busy tearing at full speed and full volume around the house with his little friend. They were being very fast, very loud dinosaurs.

We had to laugh.