Archives for April 2009

Making Earth for Earth Day

It’s Earth Day! I spent some time thinking about how to commemorate it, and I decided that the obvious choice for Earth Day would be to talk about making earth. As in soil. That’s right, I’m talking about everyone’s favourite method for disposing of kitchen scraps, composting.

We got our composter back in July of 2004. We bought a compost bucket to go along with it and started saving up our kitchen scraps right away. I was surprised at some of the things that are compostable. I’d always known you could compost apple cores and carrot peelings, but who knew about paper, tea bags, and hair? (OK, probably lots of people, but I didn’t!)

Full compost bucket

For the first few months, I was very diligent about composting. I was out there every few days, I monitored my ‘green’ and ‘brown’ ratios, and I stirred regularly. I took it all very seriously. But then winter hit, I was 6 months pregnant and still nauseous, and the bloom was off the rose. In early 2005 I stopped completely. Then Hannah was born and my world fell apart and composting was the last thing on my mind.

Our backyard composter

But I felt bad about that. After all, there are many benefits to composting, like:

  • Composting reduces the amount of garbage that ends up in the landfill. This is especially important because waste doesn’t readily biodegrade in landfills, so your potato peelings can be preserved for a very long time if they end up in the trash.
  • Compost is good for your garden. It results in good-quality, nutrient-rich soil that retains moisture and all sorts of good things like that.
  • When you make your own compost, you’re reducing or eliminating the amount you buy at the store. This in turn pollution generated by producing and transporting other products.
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    Soil being made inside the composter

    A couple of years ago I got back on the composting horse. Which was a bit of an adventure, since a bunch of bumblebees had set up residence in my neglected bin. But I remained undaunted, and I’ve managed to keep up with the composting pretty religiously since. I harvest my compost in October, and spread it on my garden. I even harvested a little bit this past weekend, although there’s much less in the spring than in the fall. The amount of garbage I’m putting out has decreased, and I feel good about doing my little bit.

    Very meager spring soil harvest

    You can find lots of good articles online if you’re interested in composting yourself. Metro Vancouver’s brochure ‘Here’s the Dirt‘ is excellent. And of course you can find info on Wikipedia, too. Or you can check out the Government of New Brunswick’s Handbook, ‘Backyard Magic‘.

    Many municipalities are starting to offer composting programs, as well. These programs are great, because they accept things that aren’t compostable in a backyard pile, like meat, bones, paper cups and kitty litter. Prince Edward Island is a composting pioneer, and Toronto has the famous green bins. Locally, more Lower Mainland municipalities are getting on the ‘green bin’ bandwagon, but most still don’t offer this service. I would still compost myself if a program like this were available, but I would to divert even more waste from the landfill.

    So what about you? What are you thinking about on Earth Day? Or do you have any great composting tips? Please leave a comment and let me know!

    But it’s Educational!

    The other day Hannah picked out a magazine and bought it with her own money. It featured the Disney Princesses, my 4-year-old’s personal heroes. Inside there are some stories and a few activities. Pretty harmless stuff, and all right up Hannah’s alley.

    The thing that interested me was how strongly this magazine emphasized its educational value. It was packed with messages to parents about how it contributes to literacy, critical thinking, and creativity. Really, if you think about it, you’re a bad parent if you don’t let your child read the magazine. In fact, subscribe today before your kid is left behind!

    This sort of thing really turns me off. Almost all media that’s targeted at preschoolers is labeled ‘educational’. TV shows, computer games, books, CDs, and toys are all designed to enhance your child’s mental or physical development. And I’m not always sure what distinguishes something as ‘educational’ at all. There’s no standards board saying Sesame Street is educational and the Backyardigans aren’t, for example. The term is used for promotional purposes, to sell products to parents.

    I strikes me as sort of funny when a company touts the educational benefits of playthings. Often it’s a tried and true favourite that was around long before we expected toys to be teaching tools. For example, rattles help your baby learn about cause and effect or rhythm. Jigsaw puzzles teach logic and spatial reasoning. And they always have, but by emblazoning these claims in bright colourful letters it makes it seem as if you’re getting so much more.

    This is really the crux of it – you, and your child, are being marketed to, whether a product has ‘educational’ value or not. Head into the kid’s clothing section at a department store and tally up how many items feature Dora. Sure, Dora teaches kids Spanish, or how to count. But there are a lot of items emblazoned with her image, and the motive behind that isn’t to teach, it’s to sell. Kids love Dora because of her ‘educational’ TV show, so they ask for ‘her’ products. And someone’s raking in the profits. (Know that we possess many Dora-emblazoned items ourselves, this is not a judgment if your 4-year-old is also rocking the Dora underwear and peeing on the Dora potty seat.)

    I’m also concerned that the educational label results in outcome-based thinking. Instead of just reading or playing for the pleasure of it, we’re doing it for some specific benefit. Kids are pushed into school and structured activities so early. Does everything that they touch really need to have a purpose? And if something isn’t labeled educational, does that mean it has no value? Kids can learn a lot by playing with a stick or an old cardboard box, even though nobody’s selling those or making claims as to their long-term benefits.

    There’s no sure-fire way to raise children to be who you hope they will be. Whether you use educational toys or not, whether you read to your children just for pleasure or because of the long-term benefits, your kids are probably going to be their own people. They will develop at their own rate, and cultivate their own interests. As a parent I try to create a supportive and nurturing environment, and trust my kids to seek out the experiences they need. I’m not always as zen about it as I would like to be, but I’m striving to create a relaxed and happy childhood, as free of pressure to perform as possible.

    I guess we’ll just have to see if that approach works, or if 20 years from now I’ll wish I had gotten that subscription to the Disney Princess magazine after all. Perhaps it would have made all the difference in Hannah’s development. Only time will tell. 😉

    A Day on Mat Leave

    I’m participating in the Carnival of Breastfeeding today. The theme is ‘How To’, and you can find my own contribution and links to lots of other great breastfeeding posts. After you read all about a day in my life, go check it out!

    It’s Mat Leave Monday! Today I’m going to lighten the mood a bit, by sharing what a typical day in my life is like right now. Prepare to be dazzled by my glamorous lifestyle! 😉

    6:00am – Woken up by the baby. Attempt to nurse the baby while lying down to coax him back to sleep and get more rest myself. Spend half hour in this fashion, give up after his third jab to my eyeball with a cheerful, “Ba ba ba!”

    7:00am – Get up. Lecture baby on my need for sleep and the importance of being considerate of others. Preschooler hears talking and also wakes up. There’s no way I’m getting back to sleep now.

    7:30am – Try to dress the children. Yell, “Would everybody please just BE QUIET!” Feel immediately guilty.

    8:00am – Breakfast. We are all feeling much better once we have some food and/or caffeine.

    8:30am – Jon leaves for the day. I try to spend a few minutes on the computer, nursing the baby. Preschooler tries to jump on my lap too. Then she wants to type. The baby gives up on nursing and starts trying to eat paper off my desk. I give up.

    9:00am – Try to do some tidying, but more mess is being made as I work. Almost cry when a container full of dry oatmeal gets spilled everywhere. Tell preschooler I need help with cleaning, am told, “No, I don’t want to.” Deliver mini-lecture on how I don’t want to either, which is why I didn’t spill oatmeal everywhere.

    9:30am – Baby is tired. Put him on a baby carrier on my back to nap. Do puzzle with preschooler. Prepare a healthy snack. Hug my daughter. Feel like Supermom.

    10:00am – Break into the Girl Guide cookies on the sly. I get caught by my kid and have to give her one, too. Darn. I wanted those to myself!

    10:11am – Attempt to go to the bathroom alone. Or as alone as I can be with a sleeping baby on my back. Preschooler feels abandoned, end up peeing with an audience. Fun!

    10:30am – Start getting ready to go to the playground across the street.

    11:30am – Arrive at the playground across the street. I have no idea where the last hour went, did it really take that long to get shoes on everyone?

    12:00pm – Lunch negotiations begin. Preschooler is hungry, but refuses to say what she wants, I’m supposed to guess. Grilled cheese? No! Peanut butter and jam? No! PleaseJustTellMeWhatYouWant! No!

    12:30pm – Sit down to a lunch of pasta with cheese grated on top. My preschooler tells me I made a great lunch. Feel like Supermom again.

    2:00pm – Head to the library. Repeat to the preschooler over and over, “You must keep your shoes on in the library.” She doesn’t.

    3:15pm – Visit the playground adjacent to the library. Leave because Jacob is awake and squawking, and won’t nurse because he’s too distracted by the scenery.

    4:00pm – Home again, I try to sneak in more computing time. Inform my preschooler that sometimes she needs to play by herself. Have an argument. Realize that I am spending more time arguing than if I just spent 10 minutes pretending to be Peter Pan.

    5:00pm – Begin dinner negotiations. No, you cannot have more Girl Guide cookies. No, we will not go to a restaurant. No, not even just one more Girl Guide cookie. Popcorn is not a dinner food.

    6:10pm – Jon could be home anytime now. The kids are grumpy, I’m grumpy, and dinner is nowhere near finished. Consider calling him, just to confirm his arrival is imminent. Decide against it.

    6:16pm – Where is he?

    6:21pm – Consider hiding in the bathroom. Pick up the phone, put it down. Smell something burning.

    6:23pm – Salvaging the food, Jon walks in. I hand him the baby and burst into tears. Feel decidedly unlike Supermom.

    6:34pm – Food. Everyone feels much better. The baby makes a mess with avocado. Our whole family is together for dinner, maybe I am Supermom.

    7:20pm – Bathtime. Jon cleans the kitchen, I wrangle the kids. I make funny voices and pretend to be the rubber ducks. Wonder to myself how toxic the rubber ducks are, decide not to think too much.

    7:50pm – Bedtime snack negotiations. No, we are not making popcorn now. No, you cannot have more Girl Guide cookies. No, I will not guess what you want. How about some fishy crackers? Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!

    8:07pm – Preschooler kisses me good night. She says, “I really love you. Have sweet dreams!” I think she’s the best kid ever.

    8:10pm – I nurse the baby to sleep and spend some time on the computer.

    9:10pm – After a few unsuccessful attempts, I lay the baby down. I do a little dance outside the bedroom door.

    9:15pm – Me time. Which means I’m probably doing some cleaning. Woohoo!

    11:00pm – I’m getting into the shower and the baby wakes up. Try to get him back to sleep, shower very quickly.

    11:32pm – I’m tucked in with the baby, to the baby’s great relief. He snores, I collapse in exhaustion after pleading with God that we all get enough rest tonight.

    Buffet Love

    I love a buffet. I always have. Piles of food of all kinds laid before you. Plates that could never possibly be big enough to hold it all. Finding a bunch of items you really love and never make. It feels like the world’s your oyster.

    As a child the buffet held a particular appeal. For one thing, there’s no waiting at a buffet restaurant. You don’t need to be still for 15 or 20 minutes to peruse menus, order, and wait for your food. For another, at buffets you have total control over what you eat. Once I was old enough to serve myself my mother was no longer involved in my food choices when I was at a buffet. And the desserts – oh, the desserts. I especially loved it when they had a ‘build your own sundae’ station. So. Good.

    There are a few food items that seemed to be staples at the buffets I frequented in my childhood. These were not what you would call fine cuisine. But all the same I loved them. Some of my favourites were jelly salad (shredded cabbage in green jello), meatballs, cheese cubes, and those oven roasted potato wedges. Oh, and pickled herring. Yes, I love pickled herring. I might have been a picky eater at home, but at a buffet I piled my plate high with foods that didn’t remotely belong together. And of course, I always took seconds.

    85.365 | buffet time.
    Photo courtesy Matt Hinsa on Flickr

    I seem to remember more buffet restaurants dotting the landscape of my hometown back in the ’80s. Only they were usually called smorgasbords or salad bars. (Although once a ‘salad bar’ includes fried chicken and cheesecake I think you’ve crossed the line, myself.) I’ve considered the possibility that they’re still around and I just don’t eat at the same sorts of restaurants anymore, but I don’t think that’s it entirely. Places that used to have them, like the Keg or even Wendy’s, don’t anymore. I think it’s actually a shift, at least in my area.

    Perhaps the demise of the buffet is related to increasing concerns about food safety. I wouldn’t doubt it, those fears are probably well-founded. Keeping the food sufficiently hot and preventing cross-contamination isn’t easy. Google ‘buffet food poisoning’ and you’ll find more alarming articles than you can shake a stick at. Or perhaps it’s one too many university students viewing the ‘all you can eat’ promise as a personal challenge. I don’t really know.

    Of course there are some areas where the buffet is still going strong. The Indian buffet has become a local mainstay. Las Vegas buffets are legendary. And brunch. Oh, the buffet brunch. Two meals in one, and always lots of hash browns. I do love a good hash brown. Sometimes they even have omelette stations. Really, what’s not to love?

    I’m feeling rather nostalgic. Although I will concede that the food quality at many of my childhood buffets was sorely lacking. It’s sort of like fast food, really. On the one hand, it’s neither good nor good for you. On the other hand, it’s sort of comforting. As it is, with their disappearance my memories will have to do. Which is possibly for the best – I’m sure that real life and lukewarm potatoes would pale in contrast to my own recollections.

    You Are Your Child’s First Teacher

    childsfirstteacherI recently read You Are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin Dancy. The subtitle is “What Parents Can Do With and For Their Children from Birth to Age Six “. I was interested in the book because it discusses the Waldorf philosophy of education and outlines ideas that parents can implement at home.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I attended a Waldorf kindergarten for two years as a 4 and 5 year old. I eventually went on to attend public school, where I did very well and was perfectly happy. I am not considering Waldorf education for my own children. For one thing, the local Waldorf school is more than 30 minutes away by car. And for another I’m not really all that concerned about public school. If problems arise when my children are school-aged I may rethink my position, but for now we plan to enroll our little ones in our neighbourhood school when they’re kindergarten age.

    But. But. The thing I like about the Waldorf philosophy is that they focus on the ‘whole child’. They do a lot more arts and crafts work, including knitting and sculpting. They learn to play instruments at a young age. They try to integrate the natural world and natural toys into the classroom and their learning. I like the idea of focusing on more than academics, of helping very young children to learn and develop without so much pressure to achieve. Of helping kids learn a variety of skills beyond basic literacy and numeracy.

    This is why I read the book. I was looking for ideas of things that I could try at home as a complement to what my kids do elsewhere. Even parents who send their children to school are still teaching them. We’re all teaching our children, when we mean to and when we don’t. But we don’t all come readily equipped with ideas for fun and enriching activities.

    The book provided a lot of background on Rudolf Steiner and the movement he founded, called Anthroposophy. As a child attending a Waldorf school Steiner wasn’t mentioned at all. In fairness I understand that is probably beyond a 4-year-old’s understanding. But it was interesting to hear Steiner’s ideas invoked as justification for so much of what I remember. The use of only red, blue, and yellow crayons, or the peach colour of the walls. They all have anthroposophic roots.

    Although I don’t ascribe to Steiner’s teachings I did find the book useful. I particularly appreciated the integration of ritual into daily life. By singing a certain song or performing a certain action I have found that Hannah will more easily move from one activity to the next. For instance, every night we light a ‘story candle’ that she gets to blow out when the books are finished. These are small things to do, but they can make a big difference.

    As for me, I will continue to read more than one story at a sitting. I know that Steiner says you should only read one at a time in order for the child to absorb it more fully, but I’m willing to take the risk. And I will allow Hannah to have crayons of various shapes and colours. But I will also keep up our nature table and look for other ways to integrate ritual into our days and seasons. I am perfectly happy to take the parts I like, and leave the rest. 🙂

    Have you read any good books about integrating learning in fun and creative ways? Or maybe just something chock full of good craft ideas? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

    Egg Marketing Boards

    I’ve wondered for a while how eggs are sold and regulated here in Canada. I know that there is very strict milk marketing board, which forbids the sale of liquid milk or cream by unlicensed producers. Some people get around this rule by selling ‘shares’ in a cow, and then ‘giving’ shareholders milk. This is how people buy raw milk, even though it’s technically illegal.

    I have long known that there are egg marketing boards as well. However, they clearly don’t operate in the same way as the milk boards do, because you can buy eggs at farm stands and farmer’s markets. Milk you can only buy at the store. So what’s the difference? And what does the marketing board actually do?

    The Canadian Egg Marketing Agency is primarily responsible for managing the egg supply. This excerpt describes how supply management works pretty succinctly:

    The Canadian Egg Marketing Agency manages supply by establishing annually the national requirement for eggs. The national requirement is then shared among the provinces. To ensure demand can be met, provincial boards issue production quotas to individual producers after accounting for the numbers of smaller producers who grow eggs without quotas.

    By ensuring that the market isn’t flooded with eggs, the marketing board keeps prices stable. The argument is that without this sort of protection the Canadian market would be flooded with cheap American eggs, and our own farms would collapse. This would also leave us vulnerable, unable to guarantee our own supply of eggs. I support local farmers and measures to promote food security. But there is a flip side – as Canadians we pay more for our eggs. Are we getting value for the premium we pay?

    Here in BC, farms with less than 100 laying hens are permitted to operate without a license. These are the people who are selling eggs at the farmer’s market. Their eggs are nearly always free-range and often organic. And they are operating free from government regulations or oversight.

    In contrast, licensed producers with a quota from the BC Egg Marketing Board average 17,000 hens each. And 88% of those eggs are produced in conventional cage systems. These are industrial operations producing vast quantities of eggs. These are also the sorts of farms that groups like the SPCA have raised concerns about.

    So what? If I don’t want to buy eggs from a large-scale producer, can’t I just drop by a farm stand? Well, yes. But the problem is that there is a huge gap in the middle, between 99 laying hens and 10,000, the minimum number you need for a quota from the marketing board. And this zone has some very unclear regulations. The financial viability of keeping fewer than 100 birds may be questionable, but growing beyond that might be impossible when you’re bogged down by paperwork. You can hear about one farmer’s frustrations with the BC Egg Marketing Board over at Howling Duck Ranch.

    I think there must be a way to provide Canadian egg farmers with security, and also allow small-to-mid sized producers to operate. I don’t think it’s fair that farmers are prevented from growing their business in a small-scale and sustainable fashion. I think it conflicts with the very ideals the marketing board espouses, like promoting food security and protecting the family farm.

    As for me, I will continue buying from small producers. Partly because I like knowing where my food is coming from, and how the chickens are treated. But also because there’s no comparing the eggs. The colour of the yolk, the flavour, and even the nutritional content are better when hens are allowed access to outdoor pasture. Or at least that’s my own opinion. I’m sure the large-scale producers are working to ensure the best quality product, and that most people will buy it because it’s affordable and readily available at the grocery store. Fair enough. There’s room for all of us to exercise our own free choice.

    I am left with one small question, though. Why is it that farm-fresh eggs are always brown, and commercial eggs are pretty much all white? Is it convention – white says clean and industrial, and brown says crunchy hippie? Or is there actually a reason? If you can answer my burning question, I would love to know. 🙂

    Paying for Complacency

    I recently bought Hannah some tempera paint. I was actually looking for water colours. You know, the small, hard cakes that come 10 to a tray in a case with a clear plastic lid. I like those paints because they’re cheap, they’re washable, and they can’t spill. However, for some reason I couldn’t track them down that easily. Or at least not easily enough. I tried the grocery store and our local toy store, where I gave in and just bought the tempera paint. Yes, I know I could have visited one of a dozen other stores and probably found some, but when you’re traveling with two small, cranky children you want to minimize stops at all costs.

    I bought the paint because I wanted to make hand and footprints with the kids as gifts. Which was probably ill-conceived. Have you ever spread paint on an 8-month-old’s hand, and then tried to convince him to open it and press it firmly against a sheet of paper? It is not easy. It is particularly not easy to get him to do it in the right spot. You find yourself speaking ever more loudly and slowly, as if that will help at all. “Jacob! Please open your hand! Open! Open! OPEN!” I sort of succeeded once. At least I tried, right? That’s got to count for something.

    Anyway, I was left with 8 largish bottles full of paint. Hannah wanted to do some painting, so I set her up. At first I monitored her very closely. I poured little bits of paint into small containers. I hovered. I provided her with cloths and water for rinsing. I added a drop of soap to each little paint cup because I heard it makes it easier to wash later. And Hannah did fine. She was really careful and created a few works of art.

    You veteran parents know what happens next. Buoyed by your success, you become complacent. Your child seems to have mastered the paint, and is playing happily on her own. So you leave the room and read a book, surf the web, do a row of knitting. It doesn’t really matter, you’re just taking advantage of a rare moment of peace. And then your child shows up and says, “Look at me!”

    She was covered

    Oh. My. She helpfully offers that if you mix red and white paint together you get pink. And if you mix more white and more red, you get more pink. She’s learning about colour and texture, and having a lot of fun.

    Experiments in mixing paint colours

    Only, you know, she’s covered. The carpet she walked across to find you is covered. The floor is covered. Yes, there is a sheet of paper buried under all that paint, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Because you experienced a parental lapse and now you will pay the price.

    Believe it or not, there's paper under there

    Let this be a lesson to you. Do not leave a 4-year-old alone with paint. It will end very, very badly indeed. I can’t believe I was so fantastically foolish as to not foresee this inevitable outcome. I will not make this mistake again, that’s for sure.

    Please, share some tales of your parental lapses. I know I’m not the only one.

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