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Archive for April, 2012

This week, I drove the boys down to Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, MA to meet up with our friend Ali and the baby Orli. Drumlin Farm is a Mass Audubon property, so we scored another stamp in our Passports to Nature.

We strolled through the farmyard portion of the property, perusing the goats, sheep, chickens and cattle. Being something of a country boy himself, none of these are particularly novel to Malcolm, so he instead chose to document our trip via photos and video. So here, for your enjoyment, is Malcolm’s photojournal plus this dance video he tyrannically directed.


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The neutral toned life

I like to think that the things I like are original! Unique! Things I thought of myself! Like most people, I do not enjoy the feeling of being a late adopter of a trend. But, let us face facts. I wear the same black plastic eyeglass frames as every other mildly hipster 30-something white woman. Additionally, I drive a Prius. And I enjoy running long distances. When I read the lists on Stuff White People Like, I think to myself, “My GOD. How does he KNOW me?” Still, I like to think I’m maybe midway along the continuum between insufferable yuppie douchebag and crazy hermit living off the grid.

There is no denying, however, that I like a lot of things that other middle-class liberal east coast ladies like. In particular, neutral toned homespun goods. The other day, I was perusing one of my very favorite blogs, Design*Sponge, and I happened upon this rhapsody of grays and browns in the nursery of a Tribeca baby named Gabriel. Simultaneously drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of this photo, and scoffing at its stagy preciousness, I began to contemplate the origins of my ambivalence.

It happened that the very next day, Christophe had me listen to a Open Yale courses history lecture on the Northern economy and the Civil War. The image of the Yankee Pedlar, going door to door selling northern ladies finished cloth made from southern cotton stuck with me. Those northern ladies were thrilled not to have to make their own cloth anymore! It occurred to me that all the current fascination with suburban homesteading, and making sweaters for your kids, and canning your own tomatoes is something of a faux nostalgia for the pre-Industrial Revolution era. I have many friends for whom even knitting is not enough–they want to shear the sheep themselves, card the wool, spin the yarn and dye it too, just as our colonial ancestors did in 1738 before the advent of cheap, factory made cloth. Here’s the difference though: we can do all that, and make one, precious, lovely thing, and then we can swing by Target and get the kids 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants and a Starbucks on the way out. In reality, we don’t want to have to make every stitch of our own clothing, because it would grow tedious and we would have only one pair of pants and two shirts each. And the ethereal muslin dresses with raw hems that make us think of a “simpler time” are really maximally charming when we have a closet of baby sized down vests and tweed coats to pair it with. The closet of Baby Gabriel in Tribeca seems to nag at me because there is so much in it. Five neutral toned coats? Fifteen earth toned sweater suits? and so on.

I love to make neutral toned handknits

even though my kids actually wear things like this.

I have nothing against handmade, neutral toned sweaters for babies. I started this post partly because I just finished a handmade, earth toned baby sweater myself. But let us be honest with ourselves. We like growing swiss chard and tomatoes in the backyard because there’s no anxiety in it. If all the plants die, it’ll be a bummer, but we’ll just go buy some at the store. And if it takes me several weeks to make a baby sweater (and it does), that’s fine because my kids get their actual clothes from thrift stores. Let’s face the fact that a lot of the stuff white people like is stuff we can dabble in as a mere hobby, because the stakes are low. I suspect that migrant fruit pickers do not spend their fall weekends at an orchard picking their own apples. We like doing that because we don’t have to do it to survive. It’s a novelty. So, by all means, plant a garden, make a sweater (or buy the one I made on etsy), and learn to sew your own throw pillows. I genuinely love doing all those things. But I try to remember what the desire to do them means; I am so blessed with such incredible wealth that I can make a hobby of a prior generation’s subsistence.

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So we only eat plants. So what?

My family’s recent decision to stop eating just about all animal based food is part of a small but growing trend in this country. While still largely considered wacky and fringe, plant-based diets are drawing a great deal of attention in the mainstream media. Probably because the mainstream media loves the wacky and the fringe.
We made this choice because we are convinced, based on science, that this diet is the only way to achieve the health goals we have set out which are:
1) Maintain a total cholesterol of less than 150.
2) Live forever.

We are somewhat flexible on 2.

Since making this change, we have had a lot of conversations with people who are just curious about it, some who want to try it, and some who are hostile toward it. There are a few common threads in those conversations, and here are my responses.

First: We are not vegans. Our family stopped eating all meat, eggs, and dairy. We still eat honey, and we wear wool hats, and leather shoes and so on. Vegans do none of those things, eschewing all use of animals whether for food or not.
Second: We did not make this choice as a political statement, and we did not do it to show you how superior we are to you. While I oppose the inhumane treatment of other animals at the hands of their human cousins, I do not oppose killing animals. In fact, I decline to try to tally all the animals I have killed with my own hands because they were sick or injured, and I do not lose a moment’s sleep over it. If an animal is killed quickly and humanely for someone to make into supper, it bothers me not at all. It’s just not going to be my supper.
Third: Yes, I am aware that bacon/cheese/butter taste good.
Fourth: If you want to try doing it, do it. I’m really bored of hearing, “Oh, I could never give up cheese/bacon/butter.” After all, I know I’m pretty awesome, but I’m not so much awesomer than you that I can do it but you just can’t.

The New York Times Well Column ran a piece on the many, many, apparently insurmountable obstacles to giving up animal based foods. The message appeared to be, “It’s hard, and people will think you’re weird. So it’s totally not worth it.” I have a hypothesis though. Every single thing you’ve ever really wanted in your life, that really, really mattered to you, was somehow challenging. Outside your comfort zone, to speak in the common vernacular. Here are some examples of diffcult things and weird things that are most important to me:

1) My husband and I have been together since we were 14. No, we never broke up, even for a day. (weird, not difficult)

2) I learned hypnobirthing so I could have my second son without drugs, yet without pain. (weird and difficult)

3) I went to veterinary school and got myself a degree. (very weird, and very difficult)

4) Took up running and ran two half marathons in the past year even though no one was chasing me. (difficult, potentially weird)

5) Balancing work that I love with time with my kids. (difficult, and my work is weird)

What they all have in common is that they are things that mattered to me enough not to give up when people looked at me funny, or rolled their eyes, or made snide remarks. This diet we’re on is the same. I believe this is our best shot at avoiding the early diseases and deaths of our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. If you don’t believe the same, that’s fine with me. Believe it or not, I don’t care what you eat. Just don’t assume it’s impossible. It’s possible. And you might even like it.  I like it even more than I liked bacon and cheese. Which was very, very much.

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At the behest of Malcolm’s awesome Pre-K teacher, Miss Sue, I worked up some simple fleece collars for the upcoming Dr. Seuss themed “Week of the Young Child.” I maintain that every week around here is “of the young child,” but any excuse to make something.
The fact is, I will never be a mom that makes cookies or cupcakes or any such thing for my kids’ classmates. I can think of no torture more exquisite than being forced to bake. Frankly, even cooking is something I do out of strict necessity and my fondness for eating. But if I could get away with it, I would just leave a box of cereal and a bucket of soymilk on the floor for me and my kids to graze on all day. But I digress.
The collars requested were inspired by a lesser known Seuss work. Beft are a sort of species that apparently only ever go left. And these Beft sport fuzzy, high necked collars. So, I set to work replicating this aspect of Beft.

To make a Beft collar, get yourself some absurdly colored fleece. Fleece is ideal because it will not unravel when cut, and it also has some structure to it. You can usually pick up a piece of remnant fleece at your local fabric store for cheap money. Once you have your fleece, measure around your kid’s neck and add an inch or two. Cut out a rectangle of the fleece that wide, and about 8-10 inches high (this need not be precise).

The rectangle of fleece.

Now, cut a sawtooth pattern into both long edges of your fleece rectangle. (The pile of little triangular fleece bits generated from this snipping can be used in some later project. Or, as my son Simon suggested, “Feed it to spiders for spider food.”)

The last step is to sew on two little squares of velcro, which you can also get at your local fabric store. If you are totally sew-phobic, I suspect you can get iron on velcro or something like that. Cut about a 1.5 inch long piece of the loop side of the velcro, and an identically sized piece of the hook side of the velcro. Using a zigzag stitch, sew one of these at the edge of the fleece, just at the base of the sawtooth pattern you cut. Then, flip the fleece over and sew the second velcro piece at the base of the sawteeth at the opposite edge of the fleece.

Once you’ve done that, just fold the row of sawteeth above the velcro out towards you, and fasten around your Beft’s neck. If you wanted the collar to sit a bit higher, you could easily reinforce it with a bit of fusible interfacing, or even cardboard. But I had to make 13 of these, and it just wasn’t going to happen.
If you would like to learn more about the elusive Beft, please watch the following short film:

Click on the image to learn about Beft.

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Most of Wednesday, I was crouched on my parents’ dining room floor reupholstering their dining room chairs. I live almost entirely in a barter economy: home-cooked suppers exchanged for babysitting, veterinary services for more babysitting, interior design for still more babysitting. Since I ditch my kids with my parents on a regular basis, redoing a dining set seems a fair price to pay.

The origins of the project arose during my first visit to my new favorite store: Exeter Handkerchief Company Fabric and Furniture. Three floors of a ramshackle old clapboard building next to the Amtrak station, and all three are packed wall to wall with bolts and bolts of fabric for home projects. You won’t find fabrics for making clothes and costumes here (its only flaw) but you will find an entire floor of fabrics all priced at $9/yard (and $6/yard on Tuesdays!) It was there on the third floor that my mom found a lovely damask with a black background–exactly dark and busy enough to hide the filth dropped on my parents’ furniture by my gross kids.

As compared with reupholstering a wingback chair like Bad Blue, dining room chairs are cinchy. So, rather than throwing out a bunch of chairs because their cushions are appallingly filthy, just do what I did and spend 7 hours pulling staples, stretching fabric and gripping a staple gun until your hands are useless, blistered claws! Here’s how:

Start with a gross chair cushion.

Turn the chair over and unscrew the seat from the frame. If you have a four year old, make him do it.

Using a screwdriver and pliers, pry up EVERY SINGLE staple holding the old fabric to the seat. Don't just rip the old fabric off. That's not good enough.

Make your four year old help you pull staples. Mine said things like, "This is just like pulling toothpicks from a rhino. Or ticks off an elephant."

Once you have the old fabric off, use the nasty old stuff as a template to cut a piece of your amazing new fabric. If you are using a fabric with a design that runs in one direction and/or has a repeat (think wallpaper patterns), you need to pay attention to how you cut the fabric so that the design motif will be centered on the cushion. If this is your first reupholstery rodeo, you might wish to select a random, non-directional pattern so you don’t have to worry about centering anything.
After cutting your fabric, place the now denuded seat face down on the backside of the new fabric piece. Begin wrapping the fabric up over the sides of the seat like it’s a present. Pull the fabric taut, but not so tight it puckers, and place a couple staples to hold it in place. Then pull the fabric taut along the opposite edge of the seat and place a couple staples there. Do the same for the two remaining sides, and then add staples all around. Recall how ridiculously many staples there seemed to be when you were pulling them? Do that.

Wrap the seat with the new fabric, pulling it tight but not so tight it puckers. Place a few staples to keep it in place.

Gather the corner fabric like such and staple it down as well.

And then you’re done. Just repeat for all the remaining chairs. Which, in my case, since my parents had five children without a thought for my future reupholstering situation, is a lot of chairs.

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Average people running a half marathon is no joke. Though my sister Meghan (left) seems nonchalant, and my brother-in-law Kevin appears slumped in self-defeat.

I’m feeling a bit depleted today, after running yesterday’s Great Bay Half Marathon in a blistering 2:01:37. I was a complete spazz out there, running at wildly inconsistent paces from mile to mile. There were low moments, moments when I had to repeat to myself over and over, “if you can do childbirth, you can do this.” And indeed, racing and childbirth share much in common: by the end, one feels as if one’s lower body has been hijacked and replaced with completely foreign anatomy. Still, the sense of accomplishment is similar. Mercifully, however, no one handed me a red-faced, slimy, slit-eyed half human at the end of the race. Perhaps because I resembled one myself.

I corralled my sister, my brother-in-law, and my husband into running this thing with me, and we were feeling excellent about the achievement until we got to the front of the “free beer for runners” line to watch the last draft being poured for the jerk ahead of us. We watched with tears in our eyes and broken spirits as the empty kegs were carted off. At that point, it was no longer clear why we had done this to ourselves in the first place.

Aside from the free beer, I often find myself getting asked why I run. Or, more often, told that I am “crazy,” “obsessed,” or that I must be some kind of superhuman. None of which is true, though the first two were fair descriptors for much of my life. First off though, I assure you, one need not be a superhero to run a half marathon. If you doubt this, consider the 75 year old man apparently known as “Noobs” wearing a headband and a neon windbreaker who passed me at mile 9. Also, the plodding Clydesdale of a man whose guts could be heard roiling from some distance away. He  finished. And my hat is off to the larger ladies whose athleticism defied credulity and the apparent limits of spandex.

But to the crazy and obsessed claims, I say this: for most of my life, I have been a seething mass of anxiety. I had my first panic attack at age 11 when I feared I wouldn’t finish my styrofoam model monorail for a sixth grade project on superconductors. (I know, sound the nerd alert!) Then, in college, I had what one might term a nervous breakdown–anxiety so continuous and debilitating that I had to leave school for a semester.

Running Meghan in for her finish (almost 4 minutes under her time goal!)

Despite that, it wasn’t until I had kids that I decided I needed to get help. I was such a total jerk to them sometimes; I was on a hair trigger and had an unsettling tendency to slap their hands or arms for minor infractions. I headed to Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD) for an evaluation. The diagnosis: anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. My obsessions were pervasive, vivid images of my children being maimed and killed in bizarre and horrific ways. Lawn mowers, pool drains, grain mills (don’t ask me how they would get into a grain mill. They’re young boys. It could happen.) In response to these constant obsessive thoughts, I cleaned and tidied and scrubbed (the compulsive part). My house was always impeccably neat, which was nice, but it flowed from a drive in my mind to order my small part of the world and momentarily dispel the images. It never lasted long.

Now, after learning some thought management techniques at CARD, I am vastly improved. I won’t ever be entirely normal; they made that clear when I was diagnosed. And in addition to the thought techniques, there is running now. I run without headphones, without music, with only my footfalls and ragged breaths in my ears. And I run until I’m too tired to think of the horrors that used to plague me all the time.

So to the people who say I’m obsessed, you’re right. I still work on it everyday. But running isn’t a symptom, it’s a little bit of my cure.

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After riding and driving past the puzzling sign on Route 97 in Salem, New Hampshire my entire life, I have at last ventured to America’s Stonehenge. Billed (by the proprietors) as a 4,000 year old prehistoric complex of granite chambers and stone calendars, the site was given its lofty moniker back in the 1980s. Before that, it was known as “Mystery Hill Caves.” The name change occurred to make the destination sound pseudo-archaeological, and less like a roadside attraction (“World’s Largest Twine Ball!”), but a strong thread of hucksterism still prevails at America’s Stonehenge. The goofball gift shop, the hand-lettered signs, and the cheeseball “recreated Indian wigwam” alert the visitor that this is no museum run by stodgy WASPs who practice archaeology as an avocation.

Yes, this is a bath mat being used to represent a hide at the "Indian settlement."

For some inexplicable reason, there is an alpaca farm at the site. But there are no guides, no tastefully done interpretive signage. There is just a two page pamphlet riddled with misspellings that gives such inscrutable descriptions as, “Sacrificial table is believed to have been used for sacrifices, not only for its size and the oracle speaking tube beneath it, as well as the carved channel on the top of the table.” These “educational” materials seem deliberately vague as to the age and origin of the stone channels and caves here. Radio carbon dating has confirmed use of the site by Northeastern Indians, but the “sacrificial stone” bears a striking resemblance to the lye-leaching stones used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make soap. The idea that a series of vertical stones set about the site were an ancient astronomical calendar seems questionable too, especially when reading this gem from the pamphlet: “This stone marked the southernmost set of the sun almost 4000 years ago, but is off today because earth’s tilt (obligity) has changed.” Obligity?

This sign greeted us upon arrival. I knew then that this trip would be amusing.

The name, America’s Stonehenge, does the place a disservice, elevating expectations that are inevitably dashed upon seeing a series of low granite walls and warren of cellar holes and root storage areas. And the idea that Druids came to America thousands of years before the English colonists and built these things is not only goofy, but detracts from what the site really does have to offer. Clearly, this place was used by native peoples for their fires, and tool-making, and agriculture. And an eccentric 19th century farmer named Jonathan Pattee was apparently responsible for some of the structures, as this was his homestead until the mid-1850s. But the whole matter is muddied by the efforts of William Goodwin, who bought the site back in 1937 and apparently had many stones moved to what he felt were their “original” Druidic/Celtic locations. His modifications altered the place quite profoundly to support his pet theory, and made it all but impossible to say for sure what went on at this place over the past few millenia.

So, if you go to America’s Stonehenge, and I do recommend it, you can see whatever you want to see in these stones. I am not troubled in the slightest by the prospect that they may just be the heavily modified cellar holes and potato storage areas of a 19th century New England curmudgeon. You can’t beat the feeling of crouching into a dark, granite walled chamber, feeling the temperature drop around you, the leaves and damp under you, and just sitting in silence for a bit with two awestruck little boys.

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