Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Watercolor and Controversy

Last week I was looking on line for instructions for wet-on-wet watercolor painting to use up some of the insanely expensive Stockmar watercolor paint I bought during a fit of Waldorf-poseur-dom when I ran across this website for critics of Waldorf education. They claim that Waldorf schools are creepy-weird religious cults rife with institutionalized bullying (by teachers and students) and disturbing racist undertones and that the educational philosophy is entirely based on the untested hypotheses about child development of Rudolph Steiner and that it has not been updated to align with modern understandings of education.

Whew! I know some people who find Waldorf overly rigid and controlling and I had read Kate Haas's essay about her horrible experience as a child in a Waldorf school, but I had no idea there was such controversy surrounding it. I don't know enough about either the benefits or the drawbacks of Waldorf to have an opinion one way or other, but I do find it interesting (I love a good controversy). I do read a lot of blogs by Waldorfy parents, and I find it hard to believe that all of these creative, seemingly intelligent people are either members of a cult or have
been duped into following cultish practices unwittingly.

In any case, I am feeling extra grateful for our wonderful PUBLIC school with amazingly caring teachers who know my kids (and no doubt all the other kids too) so well and go out of their way to make education work for them, who are creative and flexible (we just had parent-teacher conferences and E and Z's kindergarten teacher told us about how after Z brought in the Dangerous Book for Boys, she set up a knot-tying station and how much all the kids love it).

I am a huge proponent of public school anyway, and if you let me I'll get on my big (probably offensive to many) soap box about how public school is our most basic democratic institution and that (like water) if the people who care about education (or clean water) only send their kids to private school (or buy bottled water) then there will be no political pressure for public school (or tap water) to meet high standards and it won't be there for those who need it, but who may not come from a family who has the time, interest or motivation to make it work (or it will just flow rusty from the tap).

It breaks my heart to see how much time and energy people put into educating their one or two own kids when if they just put a tiny fraction of that into a public school classroom, they could benefit 20 or 30 kids. (Two disclaimers here: 1. I have well water--but I drink tap water when I travel--and 2. I have not volunteered in my kids' classrooms, due to infant/toddler twins when M was younger and full-time work now. I know, I suck).

Anyway, back to Waldorf education, regardless of controversy, I do like the idea of children learning to cook, sew, knit, and create art as part of their education, so I try to fit as much of that in during our "at home" time as possible. And I do like the look of wet-on-wet paintings (we've used old watercolor paintings in the past as Mother's Day & Thank You cards, Valentine hearts and gift tags). And there's all that paint to use up. So we did some wet-on-wet painting Sunday morning. I had even bought some of the big brushes (rather than using the tiny ones that come in watercolor trays) and I finally figured out the ratio of paint to water (1:2), which as it turns out was in a book I had all along. This gave the paints a much richer color than we'd had in the past when I had stingily put in a little dab of paint with lots of water. I didn't tell any stories or give them any kind of instruction.

It took a lot longer to set up than I had expected, with finding and cleaning jars and mixing paints and soaking paper, so I don't know how often we'll do it, but E and Z seemed to have a good time (Z left after his first painting, while E completed four. The other two are mine. M was downstairs working with C on his Halloween sword).

How do you fit creative time with kids into your busy schedule?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Simplifying: Cleaning Routines

A couple of years ago, I tried out the FlyLady's house cleaning methods--for one day. Long enough to get my sink shiny, but once I saw the next assignment (get dressed) I didn't really feel the need to go on. Seriously? When was the last time that I wasn't sick (and even if I was), that I got to stay in my jammies all day?

But, thanks to MaryBeth's inspiration, I decided to give the Fly Lady another go, this time using her book, Sink Reflections. There is much that is irritating about the Fly Lady: her "god breezes," her 8000 acronyms, her very scattered writing style, her excessive quoting of overly effusive fan email. But there is a lot that is useful in there, too. If you can get by the annoying stuff: routines--morning, night, weekly--letting go of perfectionism and working on things a little at a time, rather than waiting for a huge block of time to clean the whole damn house (these aren't exact quotes, just what I've gotten out of the book). As with most self-help books I've ever read, I thought of a dozen people who could benefit from the FlyLady even more than me. I even briefly thought of handing her book out for Christmas presents, but decided it wouldn't be very well received.

The one daily routine I've taken up consistently and which has really made a difference in house cleanliness is to wipe out the bathroom sinks and swish the toilets every morning. It only takes a minute, and it really is so nice to go in there and not cringe at whatever surprise the boys have left behind. I wash out the tub either before or after I give them a bath, and I scraped all the old dried soap of the soap dish in the shower while I was taking a shower one morning...this cleaning stuff can be addictive.

The Fly Lady recommends a weekly one-house speed clean that she calls a "House Blessing." That sounds too much like it involves a priest in vestments with holy water and one of those big brass incense burners, so I prefer to call mine a "House Bewitching." The results are almost as magical as Samantha cleaning the whole house just by wiggling her nose. The trick is to do six tasks for ten minutes each. Here's my Bewitching Hour:

1. Strip beds and stuff sheets in washer (if the sun is shining) and empty trash cans.
2. Pick up floor downstairs.
3. Dust livingroom furniture.
4. Sweep and dust mop downstairs.
5. Mop kitchen.
6. Dust and dust mop upstairs.
7. Water plants.
8. Hang out sheets.

OK, that's more than six tasks, and it usually takes more than an hour because I get interrupted by things like kids, breakfast (C. cooks Saturday a.m.) or soccer games. And, I don't stop what I'm doing when the alarm goes off, but keep going until I'm done with what I'm on.

The amazing thing, though, is that my house gets reasonably clean every week without me spending all day Saturday and Sunday cleaning it (I do still find myself spending a lot of time cleaning, but I have been working on that &$#@* basement and I spent a couple of days getting the yard, deck and front entryway cleaned). I used to mop my kitchen every few months (seriously...I horrify myself), usually when a guest was coming and it would take me an hour or more and several changes of water (each bucketful turning black). The FlyLady says it was my perfectionism that kept me from cleaning my floor more often, because I felt like I needed that huge block of time to do it really thoroughly. Now (wait for it) I don't even move the table and chairs out of the way and I only use one bucket. Once the floor is done (and the water black), I move on to the next task. I'm hoping that at some point I'll get ahead of it and the water won't get black anymore. I'll let you know how it goes.

The other FlyLady recommendation I have taken on wholeheartedly is the HotSpots. These are areas where stuff tends to pile up. My goal was to keep the end of our kitchen/dining table clear of school papers, mail, magazines, art projects, toys, etc. But once I got that cleared, I cleared off the end of the counter, my dresser, my sewing table, my desk, a small end table in our living room. I have one last HotSpot, a mail envelope full of things "to do"...like thank-you notes I never sent last Christmas (oh, yes, and a drawer in my desk that has started taking up random papers. It's such a relief to not have those piles of papers staring at me (though there are fewer places to look when I can't find something). Now when I go into other people's houses I'm on HotSpot alert.

The FlyLady recommendation that I'm having a hard time taking on is to Quit Whining and Stop Being a Martyr. Grrr...I've actually been extra grumpy and resentful about everyone else's messiness since I began the new routines. Right after I read the no whining chapter (and right after I had completely cleaned and rearranged the living room) C said something like, "Why did the cleaning people quit?" I'm sure he thought he was being funny, but, considering the house had been more consistently clean (rather than one huge burst of clean a few times a year) than it has ever been, I was really irritated. But immediately after that, he started sorting through some of the stuff on the two desks that make up his home office in our living room. So maybe he was feeling like his mess looked even worse compared to the rest of the house.

Now if I could only get the boys to hang up their coats and backpacks when they walk in the door, rather than dumping them in the mudroom doorway (and I'm not even going to talk about their bedroom...I've been cleaning and sorting and decluttering it for months--to the point even of just throwing everything from the floor into laundry baskets or boxes and taking it all to the basement...I've done this twice and they've neither noticed nor cared very much, and still it's like trying to scoop the water out of a hole on the beach; it just fills up again).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cheese Enchiladas

Long ago--after braving a little whole-in-the-wall that served "home-made" tortillas stuffed full of melted Velveta--I figured out that if I wanted decent Mexican food in Maine, I'd have to learn to make it myself. Here are my favorite: Cheese Enchiladas.

I use Rick Bayless's tortilla recipe. (Which, apparently, is also here. It seems I write about tortillas on a regular basis. Must be like a vitamin deficiency).

The boys love to help press the tortillas.

After the tortillas are made, I shallow-fry them in oil to help them hold together in the casserole (this also helps rehydrate cast iron pans after making the tortillas).

For the enchilada sauce:

Heat in a medium sauce pan over med-low:

3 T oil

Add and saute till tender:

1 onion, chopped

Add and saute one minute:

1 clove garlic, minced

Add and stir till browned:

3 T flour

Add and stir:

2 T chile powder (I use Fernando's chile moldo puro)

1 t salt

1 t cumin

1 t dried oregano

Slowly add:

2 c cold water

Cook over med-low until thick. If it is too spicy for your taste, you could add 1 cup tomato sauce.

Spoon about 1/3 of the sauce into the bottom of a baking pan. Lay six tortillas in the bottom of the pan (yes, despite making my own tortillas, I am too lazy to roll them...you gotta pick and choose). Sprinkle on a generous layer of shredded cheese (I used cheddar, but Monterey Jack is good too). I also added a layer of steamed Swiss chard because we have bushels of it in the garden and I'm running out of ideas of what to do with it.

Lay the other six tortillas on top, pour on the rest of the sauce, sprinkle with cheese and bake at 350 till all hot & bubbly.

I served it with rice and some gorgeous pinto beans that we grew (and of which I'd show you a beautiful picture, but I'm still having photo issues!!) from a small bag of seeds someone gave us for free. They were easy to grow (apparently--the garden is C's job) and yielded just enough beans for one potful. They simmered all day in the solar oven and came out really fat and delicious. I saved a few to grow more next year.

Afterword: After slaving over this meal one night and serving it as leftovers the next, I brought home dinner from a sandwich shop the following night (we had parent-teacher-conferences and no time to cook). The kids were practically dancing in their seats eating the ham Italians that took me 10 minutes to order and pick up. While they ate the enchiladas (with lots of milk for the mild spiciness), they certainly did not dance, and did not sigh about what a wonderful dinner it was after it was over, like they did with the sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens

This weekend we visited the Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens somewhat spontaneously--I would never, ever plan a visit somewhere that involved an hour drive each way and an expensive entrance fee for a late afternoon just two hours before closing time, but a friend called and invited us and I decided to lighten up a bit and go--and I'm glad I did!

We spent most of the time in the new Children's Garden, which is enchanting.

The boys ran through misting fountains, traveled mazes, climbed rocks, played in tall ornamental grass, hopped across a pond on stone lily pads, climbed a tree house, hid in a Wigwam, checked out chickens, traversed a reflexology labyrinth over and over, and, of course, built fairy houses.

I wish I had the skill, imagination, time, energy and, I suppose, money, to turn part of our land into this kind of landscape. Somehow natural nature, with all its spiny blackberry and raspberry bushes and prickly burdocks and hitchhiker plants is just not as inviting.

(Grrr...I'm having such a hard time dealing with pictures--not being able to drag and move them around, accidentally deleting them--with my new computer. If anyone has a MacBook and uses Blogger and can offer any advice, it would be much appreciated!)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Creating a Room

So the state of my house is really starting to drive me crazy. Maybe it's that on-again-off-again organizational obsession that has been dogging me for the last two years. Maybe it's my new cleaning regime (more on that later). Maybe I'm just fed up with chaos.

Anyway, the fact is, we have a small(ish) house (by American standards)--it's about 1500 square feet, has only two (good-sized bedrooms) and an open-concept floorplan downstairs. But we do have a full daylight basement that could be a useful and functional, even aesthetically pleasing space. If only. If only it was not full of skis, bikes, yard tools, scrap building materials, power tools, chain saws, record albums, recycling bins, garbage cans, flower pots, camping gear, and tons of other crap (let's not mention the boxes and bins of fabric, yarn and craft supplies, shall we?).

I have a vision for it--beautifully plastered walls, book shelves and cabinets, a corner for arts and crafts, a corner for C's office (so that I can reclaim the large chunk of my livingroom currently devoted to his two desks, filing cabinets, computer, printer and reams and reams of god-knows-what piled all over), a big play area. It'll be sweet.

I had been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for some other structure to come along to take in all the afore-mentioned stuff (particularly the outdoor-oriented stuff), but no shed or garage magically appeared in the yard. So finally, tired of waiting, I decided to just start doing something about it. In addition to massive amounts of decluttering (into which I have only just started to dip my toes), I have partially finished off one room to the extent that I can do so myself without any help or skills.

We planned this little room on the north end of the basement (directly under our mudroom) to be a pantry (my vision) or a root cellar (C's vision). But what ended up happening is that it became a place for us to pile all of the junk that didn't have a home elsewhere (backpacks--why we have four I don't know--gift bags and boxes, skis, ice skates, a sewing machine C found on the side of the road, ugly paintings, you name it). This is how it looked before I got started:

I spent 15 minutes a day for a week clearing out all the stuff inside, then over the Columbus holiday weekend (I had an extra day off, kid-free!), I painted the concrete walls with clay paint (from here--the color I used was "lemon"), moved in a book shelf from the main room (which involved piling all of the craft supplies that had been on the shelf onto the floor) and arranged jars, baskets, berry boxes, buckets of potatoes and other miscellaneous kitchen items (that we don't need in our kitchen every day) inside.

This is how it looked when I was done:

And yes, it did occur to me as I put it all together that I had just spent a weekend remodeling a room for the sole purpose of storing empty mason jars. But they won't always be empty. Even C, who thought I was behaving irrationally, will be very pleased by the convenience of finding and storing jars when he goes to make maple syrup next spring.

I still want to move our new chest freezer in here, but that will require that someone (not me) wire an outlet. Also, one-and-a-half walls are still not done because they have insulation on them and require drywall (which has been quite conveniently leaning against said walls and becoming warped for the last eight years), which means I require C's help. But that might take awhile because (as a direct result of my taking action on this room I'm sure, though he would no doubt deny it) he has begun work on a barn/garage (henceforth referred to as the "barage"). Which will hopefully come in handy when addressing the rest of the basement:

Monday, October 18, 2010


This last week I've been all a-jumble, trying to do too many things in too little time. Every morning I make little pledges to myself, "I will go to bed early tonight." "I will work on the basement 1/2 hour tonight." "I'll bake bread tonight." "I'll write two hours tonight." But there's not enough time for it all. The only solution I see to my problem, other than to hope that the teabag candidate wins the governor's race and shuts down state government for the next four years, is for a large asteroid to hit the earth and slowdown its rotation just enough to add two, make that three, hours to the day. A girl can dream, right?

The only other option for eking a few minutes out of my days is another pledge I make regularly: "I'll take a week off from blogging." Only I don't wanna do it.

I have so much to tell you about--I have a back-log of untold stories and yet more come up every day. For instance, I never got around to writing my "Pectin Conspiracy and How to Make Jam Without It" post (partly because I was smugly composing it in my mind while making blackberry jam that, as it turns out, I didn't cook long enough and turned out runny. And that was my holiday gift jam. But who doesn't love blackberry syrup? With lots of seeds?). More recently, I've wanted to tell you about the mole dying, and our first trip back into the woods after the summer of avoiding bugs and raspberry bushes, and my ugly couch.

Truly, I go through life thinking about things to blog, but the blogging can't keep up with the living (which is a good thing, I suppose. Much better than the other way around). And for the longest time I couldn't figure out why I have this urge to share this stuff with you, and to read about your stuff. Then I read Kristen's post today, about imaginary friends, and do adults need them, and it hit me. YOU are my imaginary friends!

Like Mary and Anne and Silly Sally and Up-to-the-Sky-Down-to-the-Ground Silly Sally and their 100 Silly Sally sisters (can you tell I had a lonely childhood?), you are the person with whom I carry on a make-believe conversation in my head. I can tell you about my drawer organizing endeavors, show you my latest project, complain or brag about my kids, bemoan my frustrations with writing. And I can visit your blogs and see what you're up to if I want to, when I want to, just like imaginary friends who are there, waiting in the background until I want them around, but never intruding when not invited.

And now you will probably never come back here again because after this post you'll be convinced I'm a crazy person, talking to imaginary friends (with your name!).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Write, right? Write.

I could not believe it when I got my fall issue of Brain, Child last week and there was Catherine Newman’s name boldly displayed on the front cover. Again. For like the third time in the last year.

Don't get me wring--I don't have anything against Catherine Newman. Actually I adore her. When I read anything written by her I never fail to come away wishing I were cozied across the kitchen table from her, preferably with something delicious she has cooked, and written about, between us. And she has an amazing ability to write about absolutely nothing and make it seem really vital (this issue’s essay is about boredom). It helps to quell the anxiety that every bit of creative nonfiction needs to be earth-shattering.

I don’t in the least begrudge her success (if you, like I, measure success as being regularly featured in a niche magazine). But three essays in one year? Is no one else submitting anything worthy of publication? Why have I not submitted anything in the last year (other than the fact that I haven’t written anything in the last year)?

And why is it that not one of those three or four essays and twice as many short story snippets that parade through my brain on my daily commute and at night as I drift off to sleep has made its way to paper (or pixels)?

I blame my basement--I have become driven by a visceral drive to clean, sort, declutter, organize and make livable and usable our underground realm. I have convinced myself that once I have the house organized and under control, when I have routines in place, then I will be able to settle down and write. I am convinced that I’m being held hostage by all the junk below grade, and once I can release myself from all of that, I will be free.

But what if I’m really being held hostage by my own desire to clean up that junk? What if it’s just one big procrastinationary tactic that, once fulfilled (if it will ever be fulfilled) will be replaced by yet more ways of avoiding the blank page (organizing digital photos, landscaping our five acres, raising pigs and chickens)?

I read this article last week: A Working Mother’s Guide to Writing a Novel by Mary McNamara. Check out number 1--writing for three hours a night after the kids go to bed (time I currently use to: work on the basement, brush my teeth, plan my outfit for tomorrow, read, sleep). And number 5--a daily goal, “You have to write Every Single Day,” McNamara writes. “Two hours is ideal. One is better than nothing...” Er, how ‘bout 15 minutes? Does this blog count? And number 7--the willingness to give up a lot of stuff: “me time,” lunch with friends, hobbies, vacations. Probably obsessive organizational binges too. Maybe I could write a novel about a woman in her basement sorting through various-sized yogurt lids and 2001 Quebec tourism brochures. If I didn’t die of boredom writing it, I’m sure my readers (if it found readers, that is) would die of boredom reading it. Isn’t there some rule that you have to actually live a life in order to write about it?

Then last night, while C read to the kids, I idly picked up a book I had started to read months ago--Raising Happiness by Christine Carter--and put down again after the part about the10-step conflict resolution process (show me a mom who can calmly follow ten steps to get to the bottom of Johnny hitting Georgie over the head with a brick and I will give her my kids). Anyway, last night I read the part about “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset” and learned that people who are really good at things are because they practice those things every day and that it takes about 10 years of practice to get there. Which means, if I start writing every day now, I might have something to show for it by the time I’m 47. If I wait another year, while I get my house in order, I’ll be 48.

After everyone went to bed I thought I’d browse through a few blogs before turning in myself, but could not get connected to the internet. So instead I opened a document that held a few sentences of an essay I’ve been marinating for a few months and, putting one word down in front of the other, I wrote.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Simplifying: Mama Routines

It may have appeared that I'd given up on my Simplifying Project, but really it's been here all along, simmering away on the back burner of my brain. I have had a strong sense, ever since I read the book (Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne) that none of the things recommended for simplifying a child's world would have any effect unless they are also applied to the parents' world. Perhaps Payne assumes that once you declutter and create rhythm for your child, your own decluttering and rhythmizing will follow. But for me, I think it needs to work the other way around; I need routines in my life before I can impose them on my children's life and I need to get rid of half my before I can expect the same of my kids (though I have been getting rid of huge amounts of their junk as well...more on that later).

To start, I have established a schedule for how I spend my after-work hours, to allow for a little more planning and, hopefully, get me home earlier on more days so the kiddos can have some downtime (maybe even less driving!):

Monday: Milk & eggs (local farms)
Tuesday: grocery store, health food store, and/or farmer's market; errands; Goodwill (to get rid of stuff); library; gas
Wednesday: straight home (C takes M to guitar)
Thursday: straight home (all boys to soccer practice)
Friday: milk & eggs

Truly all of these things happened on completely random days before...we'd go get milk a day or two after we ran out; I'd get gas when my car was on empty; I'd go to the grocery store after we ran out of butter or toothpaste. I've only been doing it one week, and last week I got delayed at work Tuesday, ran out of time (didn't think I needed anything at the store anyway), then ended up having to go to the store Thursday (I was going across town to pick up pizza for C's birthday anyway). It's a start, at least, and I'm expecting (hoping) that I'll get into the habit of having a grocery list (maybe it's step one toward a meal plan!) ready on Tuesdays. Wish me luck!

How about you? Are you a planner or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Motherhood Muse

The Fall 2010 issue of The Motherhood Muse is out today!

My column about Barbara Kingsolver is inside (try to ignore the fact that the last sentence got cut off).
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