Monday, June 18, 2018

Outdoor preschool: a review

A Little Background

I say it constantly but it always bears repeating: our older daughter is a force of nature. She is vibrant, and wild, and athletic, and riotous, and chaotic. All the baby books I read were so completely, totally wrong about what my kid needed that I had to ignore pretty much all of the "expert" advice because, apparently, those experts have never met a kid like mine. We tried dozens of different sleep methods that all promised we could get our child to sleep well. (Ha!) We've tried at least as many routines and methods of discipline. In the end, she does what she wants regardless of consequences. Some days, I feel like I might as well bash my head against the wall as try to direct or control her because she listens to me so little, and cares less for my opinion or thoughts.

It took us a long time, but we finally realized that our kid thrives on chaos. Everyone ever who has studied kids will say that they need order and structure to feel secure. In some ways this may be true for ours (she can count on meals and snacks at roughly the same time each day, bedtime at around the same time, and all of that) but the times when she is the best behaved for us tend to be the times when everything is in disorder. Thirteen people over for Christmas? She's an angel! Giant crowds? Loves them! Noise, light, distractions? Her favorite things!

She has never yet stuck to any consistent schedule. Sometimes we put her in bed at 7:30 and she's asleep within ten minutes. Other times we put her in bed at the same time but we're tearing our hair out with frustration because she's still awake at 11:00. She likes disorder, and if there isn't any built into her life she will create it herself. It. is. exhausting. I was so, so looking forward to the start of preschool through basically all of her early years. However, I was also nervous about it. Was she going to have discipline problems at school? Because, well, how can any school contain such a big personality? If they're trying to create order, how will that stifle my kid who needs chaos? How will she even learn effectively?

Over a year before she was even due to start preschool I started looking into different types of schooling methods and philosophies. I thought that Montessori and Waldorf schools might be a little more promising but didn't fully buy into their methods. Then I came across an article about Germany's outdoor preschools. Holy shit, I thought, the Holy Grail of school types for my kid! I wouldn't have to worry about her being made to sit still in some small classroom with a bunch of other kids, something that would never suit her at this age. Or, probably, any age. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be confined and stifled. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be so energetic and wild that she'd get kicked out of school!

Of course, those preschools were in Germany. With a heart full of pessimism I did a search for forest preschools in the Seattle area and found two. One is on an island nearby, which was obviously out, but the other operates in quite a few parks around the city. I applied the very day I discovered it. It was a leap of faith, because we hadn't even bought our house yet and I was applying to the class in the area we were just hoping to be in. When we got accepted, we still hadn't closed on our house. It made me a little anxious to not have it all together but only mildly so. Optimism won the day, and proved correct.

The Review

This school is amazing. Each of the kids is given, out of their tuition, a pair of Grundens and a matching rain jacket. Kids who needed them also received boots. The rest of the appropriate gear for the weather--hats, warm pants and socks, gloves, mittens, etc.--have to come from the families. The preschool teachers regularly sent out emails to either remind us of different layering options or to point us in the direction of good deals to be found on children's cold weather gear.

Because yes, the kids go to school outside in all weather. There were no snow days, despite there being several days during which it snowed. There was no cancellation even on the rainiest of days. And there is also no building. The "classroom" is an area that's marked off by the park management but has almost no covering beyond what the trees provide. It is truly outdoors.

The school day itself was exactly what we needed: ordered chaos. The first half hour, during drop-off, is generally for the kids to explore on their own, within the classroom. This meant anything from reading books (the teachers did put up a very small rain cover to keep the reading area dry) to building with blocks, to climbing trees. Smashing rocks against bigger rocks was also a major activity. Essentially, the kids ran wild to burn off their beginning of the school day energy. The teachers, there were three for our class, would check up on kids who seemed to need it, whether it was because they were sad that their parents had left or were 30 feet up in a tree. "Are you okay up there? Do you need any help? Okay then. I'll just wait down here and you can tell me if you run into trouble."

After the kids had gotten out some of their initial energy the teachers would corral them into different activities. School officially started with "greeting", a song and either a conversation about something the kids were interested in or, later in the year, puppets talking about issues that were relevant to the kids. Emotions and how to handle them were, naturally, a big topic. It is, after all, preschool. We showed up a few times and some of the kids were wrestling on the ground. If they were actually fighting, rather than playing, the teachers would gently pry them apart and separate them to talk about what was going on and better ways to handle big feelings or conflicts. If it was mutual play, the teachers would keep an eye on them but not interfere.

Every day included a hike, and a snack, and big group time (often a form of tag or Simon Says, something physical but that also required the kids to either work cooperatively or to listen), and small group time. Small group time was when they worked on counting, letters and writing, patterns, things of that sort. They were learning just as much as kids do in any preschool about the "important" subjects, while also learning things like: nettles sting but plants growing nearby can help lessen the sting, moles make holes, how fast and far they can run or climb, and where to find salamanders. They learned about the life cycle of plants, they observed birds and squirrels, played in streams and mud. They learned to measure using their arms, since sticks to be played with couldn't be longer than that. (Unless it was going to be a walking stick for the hike.)

In addition to all of this, the kids were given responsibilities. The Munchkin generally thrives when given a task or chore to do (usually--she's only four) and would sometimes brag about her chore for the day. "I was the snack passer!" "I was the sweeper on our hike! I had to call [friend] to keep up with the group, and he did!" I love that the school is based around the idea of giving kids agency and treating them as responsible. It's something we try to do at home and I was happy to see this idea reinforced by the school.

The kids were able to use tools, including saws, and I've mentioned some of the other "dangerous" activities they were allowed to do. Learning to be mindful of how and when to do something--don't throw rocks when your friends are near, for example--was a huge part of the curriculum. There was also always safety equipment available. When the rock smashing became a thing, out came the safety glasses. You could smash rocks but only if you were wearing safety glasses. It's such a small thing but it really helped the kids to be mindful of all the other safety rules. Make them put on the glasses and suddenly they're telling their friends to stand back because it's not safe to be so close.

You might expect that the gender disparity would be large in such a school. After all, in a world where parents tell little girls "be careful" more than they do little boys, and where "boys will be boys" but girls are princesses, it would be safe to assume that more boys would be signed up for outdoor school than girls. So I'm really happy to say that the gender ratio only slightly favored boys. Having other tough, capable girls of her own age around was great for the Munchkin. And I love being able to talk with other moms who understand what it's like to raise a girl like mine. The kiddo isn't the only one who made friends!

However, it was a mixed age group. Kids ranged from 3 to 5 years old. Some have another year of preschool while others are starting kindergarten in the fall. This actually worked out really well, especially since some of the kids were returning from last year. They knew the drill and helped the younger kids adjust to the routine of school. In the beginning of the year they helped carry things that were too big and heavy for the smaller kids, or gave them a boost up onto the log that was just too tall. They also provided a benchmark for the younger kids to work toward, constantly striving to be just a little bit more like the bigger kids.

The only things that I disliked about preschool are mostly things that we would have disliked about any preschool. She picked up on gender stereotypes that we had, until this point, managed pretty well to shield her from. "Pink is a girl color" became a thing in our house, so we had to have conversations about what everyone important in her life has for a favorite color. Spoiler alert: she has an uncle whose favorite color is pink. We discussed the fact that a color cannot be for girls or boys because it's just a color. "Your eyes are blue. Does that mean you have boy eyes?" "No, haha! Silly Mommy!"

Our Munchkin has also never really been violent, but this year she tried out a few things. She hit me several times, her tantrums became wilder and she started kicking us occasionally during them. She also threw a book at me. (We got rid of that book as a consequence--I disliked it anyway.) I know she picked up the ideas to do these things from watching the other kids. There was a day early in the year when she got bitten by another kid. When we showed up the next morning he handed her an "I'm sorry I bit you" card that he'd made and his dad said, "Okay, let's go. We've got another one of those to deliver." (I'm not upset--in fact, that kid has become one of the Munchkin's best school buddies.) It's not surprising that kids in a school like this one would be very energetic and very physical, but I do wish this was something that our girl hadn't picked up on. Thankfully, her attempts at violence have been few and far between.

The one downside to this school that wouldn't come from an ordinary school is the amount and type of laundry. I'm so sick of opening socks that have been balled up as they were removed and being showered with sand. For quite a long time, our washing machine had gravel in it because our kid stuffed her pockets with it and didn't tell me. It took so long to remove it all. Formerly white pants are all a sort of dingy brown-gray, despite attempts at both chemical and sun bleaching. The mud was real, even with the Grundens. To keep warm enough, over the winter we had her wear multiple layers of clothing so some days we'd have: two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, two jackets, a hat, and gloves that were all either soaking wet or filthy. It adds up over five days.

Not only that, but it's hard on gear. The Munchkin lost five pairs of gloves and mittens over the course of the year. She also managed to put gashes in her XtraTufs. !!!! How does a kid even manage that? She put holes in several pairs of pants and managed to lose some of her wool socks. I would say my kid is just forgetful but I saw the Lost & Found box every day, the other kids were just as bad. Again, they're preschoolers.

But how much does it cost?

Since the preschool doesn't have a building to maintain, it actually costs far less than a traditional preschool. For five days a week, mornings only, we've been paying the full price of just shy of $700. (There are scholarships on a sliding scale for lower-income families, in an effort to make this accessible not just for rich kids. I also love that about the school!) Considering that other preschools I looked at were asking $1500-$2000, this is far more economical, even with the gear we had to buy to outfit her properly. (Goodwill, yo. And my Buy Nothing Group came through for us a few times too.) It would not be worthwhile for me to work if we had to pay for normal preschool, particularly now that we're also paying for baby care.

There are also a wider range of options for what we want the school schedule to be than a lot of schools will have. Many have either five full days a week, or three full days. That's it. Even worse, many schools don't even offer part-time care because they don't have to. Since I only work three days a week I looked into that as an option and could practically hear crickets. Preschools and daycares in the area are at such a premium that they fill up very quickly. At this school we had a wider range of options for what we wanted to do. For both this year and next, five mornings a week has been the right balance for us between school and being home, but that was one of about six different options to choose from.

The Takeaway

I assumed, at the start of the year, that the kids in such a school would pretty much all be similar in temperament to mine: adventurous, riotous, energetic. I was so pleased to see that that wasn't true, though. One of her good friends is a little boy who's much quieter than she is. We've had a few playdates and when I mentioned to his mom that he's so much quieter and more reserved than the other kids she said that she'd been hoping outdoor school would open him up a little bit more, which it had. It makes me love this style of school all the more, to know that it works well for both gregarious kids and for the shyer, quieter ones.

I figured that we would be able to meet some like-minded families, parents who didn't tell their kids not to climb so high or run so far, parents who weren't constantly reminding their kids that life is dangerous. And we did! I really like the parents as well as the kids, it was such a great group. We've met up with several families outside of school and are planning many more get-togethers this summer.

At the end of the school year, all the parents of the younger kids were trying to figure out who would be returning next year, who we could count on our kids seeing in the fall. It was gratifying to know that our Munchkin is in such high regard among her classmates, because no matter what else she is she is intensely social. She managed to befriend the shy kids as well as the outgoing ones, spanned the age gap (her November birthday might have helped, as she was sort of in between the younger kids and the older ones), played with boys and girls, and generally did a great job of befriending everyone. I'm so proud of her.

I really, really appreciated how the teachers handled the kids and any conflicts that arose. In fact, I appreciated our teachers all around. They were so patient, so kind, and so enthusiastic. They worked hard to redirect the kids when something was going sideways, something I could be better about myself, and really worked at teaching to all of the kids as individuals. I learned several tricks from them that have made life for me a bit easier. It was obvious right from the start that they are teaching outdoor school because they are passionate about nature and about the kids learning, growing, and being in nature. I cannot say enough good things about them.

We did have one minor misunderstanding with them, because they simply did not see our kid as we do. This is natural and normal, since kids behave differently for their parents than they do for just about anyone else. The teachers mentioned several times that she complained about being hungry at school, or being cold, and we explained that we did our best but mornings were often difficult with her. Getting her dressed as appropriately as we could (it took most of the year before she figured out that being warm inside the house does not mean that she will be warm outside of it) and getting her fed was sometimes just a tantrum-filled battleground. She'd take two bites of the breakfast she had asked for, then declare herself full. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, or warnings could get her to take another bite. And when it came to getting on warm clothes or rain gear, oh boy. If you've never tried to forcibly dress a 4-year-old who's resisting you in every possible way, it's quite the challenge. You'd think she has twelve hands and legs instead of the two. She'd scream at us that she didn't need rain gear when it was clearly, obviously pouring down rain outside. Making her go out on the porch to feel the temperature and check out the weather only sort of helped.

The teachers did not see the tantrums, however, because she never threw them at school. Until one of the snow days. Luckily I was home, because I got a call halfway through the morning asking me to come pick her up. "She is currently safe, but she's soaking wet and refusing to put on her jacket. I just don't think it will continue to be safe for her to be out in the cold any longer." Apparently they'd been trying to get her to put on her jacket for the better part of an hour and, despite shivering and being soaking wet, she was howling and crying and throwing an epic fit. When I picked her up the teacher looked at me and said, "I finally understand what you mean when you say that mornings are a battle." Having that mutual knowledge made life, on our end, so much easier. If she came to school with her breakfast in hand they were more understanding, and they were able to work with her on some issues so that she was better equipped to handle her emotions in the mornings.

Despite the morning fights (which have faded quite nicely toward the end of the school year), I'm amazed at how easy this year was. She sleeps better more consistently than she ever has before in her life, because she's been getting enough stimulation and activity most days. She has also matured in so many ways, and seems more self-assured. Sometimes it comes with a big helping of teenager-level sass ("I've got it, Mom!") but she's able to do so much more, and is more mindful of being careful when she needs to be. She's volunteered to help with chores around the house because she's so used to needing to help out at school. I mean, this doesn't work nearly all the time, but there are plenty of times when she'll just help out when she sees that something needs to get done. She also seems to understand better that we make her do chores not as a punishment but because we all live here so she's responsible for helping with the upkeep.

We've allowed her to do more dangerous tasks with less oversight as the year has gone on, because we know she can handle them. When she's learning things both at school and at home then it becomes more normalized. We can trust her to handle a knife since she knows the knife safety rules aren't something we're doing just to be mean but because they are important, no matter who is around. The other night, she cut up all of the broccoli for dinner, with only minor supervision from us. We were so proud of her, and she was proud of herself. As she should be! But we knew she could handle it, and part of that is because she's been handling saws and hand drills and other tools at school.

Seeing her handle these things has also helped us think of other ways that we can help her have more agency over herself and her world. Small things matter. We put a hook in the coat closet that's at her height, so she is responsible for hanging up her backpack and jacket every day. Some days this is an hour-long argument/delay because she just doesn't wanna, but she knows what's expected of her and, usually, she's pretty happy that we made the world accommodate her just a little bit better.

She's stronger in body (which did not help when we had to force clothes on her) and in her mind too. There's a certain level of learning to suck it up when you're going to be out in the cold rain all morning, so I've noticed that she complains less than she did before a lot of the time. There's less whining about certain things, more sighing acceptance. She understands, somewhat, that sometimes we have to do the hard thing, the un-fun thing, and that complaining won't get her out of it. This is huge for a small child.

One of the best things I did was to build in treats on some days. When I knew it was cold and pretty miserable, I'd try to ensure there was something fun waiting for her when we got home. Hot chocolate, or snuggling under a blanket on the couch and watching a movie. I think those little things made facing the next day more bearable and cut down on the number of days she said she didn't want to go to school. After all, most grownups use some sort of incentive to get themselves to do things they don't like or which are just harder to motivate ourselves to do. Children are no different.

I'm so glad that we found this preschool, and I'm even more excited for next year. We're off for the summer, but she's got one more year before kindergarten and I happily signed her up again. I look forward to next year even more, and I'm so excited to put what I learned this year into making next year even better.

Play of all kinds, but particularly outdoor play, is not given the pride of place in early childhood that it deserves. Kids and parents alike are increasingly divorced from nature, which is having terrible consequences. Everything from ADHD to poor vision to obesity is being linked to a lack of time spent outdoors. Forcing our kids to spend much of the day outside is a boon to their development. I'm not terribly concerned about a lack of nature time within my family, since we do spend so much time outside. Trips to the playground, time spent gardening or biking, going for walks, all mean that we spend more than the average amount of time outside. Still, more time outside is better. Humans evolved spending most of their time outside, after all. This school made all of us get more time outside since the grownups and the baby also had to participate in drop-off and pickup. Usually, pickup was at least a half-hour process of gathering gear and playing a bit more with friends on the way out of the park. On nicer days, this could stretch to an hour of extra playtime out in the fresh air. If I showed up early, Baby and I would walk around a bit. So school might have been for the Munchkin, but it was beneficial for the whole family. Can you see why I love this school?

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Home hair cuts

When I was a kid, I thought it was perfectly normal to have my mom cut my hair. Until sometime in about elementary school, I thought that going to the salon or barber was only something that grownups did. Even after my first (remembered) salon haircut, I thought that it was like a special treat.

This feeling has continued. I, frankly, love going to the salon and getting my hair done. The whole thing just feels like such a treat. The swankier, the better. I like sitting there sipping my tea and reading my book while I wait for my appointment, smelling whatever essential oils they've put in the air. I even love getting my hair washed, and I've always loved having someone else toy with my hair. Best of all, my hair never looks better than the day I walk out of the salon, because as much as I love having other people toy with my hair I don't actually much like fussing with it myself. I have a few hairstyles that look really complicated but they don't require any products or curling or drying, just a bit of hand dexterity and practice. Which is especially good, because I don't really have any hair products or a curling iron, and the hair dryer I have has been used maybe half a dozen times. (It was a gift from my mom years ago, and I keep it around because I keep telling myself it will be useful at some point, for something.)

With all of this, you'd think that I prioritize getting regular haircuts and all the pampering that goes along with them. Nope! My last salon haircut was about three years ago. I decided to get a hairstyle that would require more maintenance and regular trips to the salon, but after about six months I realized that I didn't have the energy to maintain the style or to make it actually look good every day. So I got a cut that would be easy enough to maintain and grew my hair out for the next two years.

After Little Miss Sunshine was born I realized that I had four months of maternity leave, so I dyed my hair blue. This was a long-held dream of mine. (I know, I dream big.) Then, feeling the need to do something else to get rid of some of the weight of my thick hair, I handed the clippers to my spouse and made him give me an undercut. Well, it ended up too short and I realized after a few days that, even after it grew out a bit, I wasn't loving the style the way I thought I would. Though, it did do a lot to relieve some of the weight of my otherwise long hair.

With my return to work coming up, I knew I couldn't return with long blue hair and I wanted to fix the undercut situation anyway. I looked up what is often the cheapest source for a haircut, a salon school, but the logistics of getting a babysitter for my kids (they're not open on weekends) and getting there and paying for it all just seemed like such  hassle. Instead, one morning while the Munchkin was at preschool I grabbed the hair shears and went at it. I cut my hair so short that I sometimes feel like a Flapper. An A-line bob, it's wonderfully short and easy. I barely have to brush it! No more baby fingers tangled in my long locks. No more giant knots from all the getting up and going back to bed that I do. No more heaviness. And since summer is coming, it's wonderfully cool.
Short hair!

This is not the first, or even the dozenth, time I've given myself a haircut. I won't lie, it took a lot of courage the first time. It's my hair! But I figured that I could always put it under a hat and go to the salon if it was a disaster. Well, it wasn't. Which is not to say that I do all the work myself. I do the initial trimming and then grab someone else to double-check the back. One time, the handy person was my younger brother. Evening out my hair was not what he expected to be doing that evening! But he was a good sport about it. HusbandX has, in the past, performed the same office for me quite a lot.

When the Munchkin saw my haircut, she wanted one of her own. This happened the last time I cut my hair too. She's only ever had two other haircuts (done by me) because, OMG, her hair is so pretty with its curls! She wanted her hair long, girly, anyway. I occasionally brought up the idea of trimming her hair, but she was never interested and I thought her hair was fine as-is so I didn't press the issue. Well, when she asked for a haircut like mine I was game. Last time I cut her hair I thought I was trimming it shoulder-length, the way she'd asked for, but it turned out after the first few snips that she'd been shrugging up her shoulder. I can't complain, the effect of the shorter hairstyle was even cuter than it would have been a bit longer. The curls were still there but it framed her face adorably, and it was still long enough that I could pull it out of her face when I need to.

This time I ended up cutting it even shorter. It's sort of easy mode for summer, since I know she's going to be swimming and running around, and she's never ever going to want to let me brush it. This way we don't have to fight over her hair.
Before

The one trick to cutting a toddler's hair that I can offer up is that I gave her frequent chances to get the wiggles out. She'd start to shift around and I'd say, "Do you need a moment to wiggle?" She'd step away from me to shake and shimmy and then step back when she was ready for more. In her world, it took forever (about fifteen minutes) but she seemed to love her new haircut. For days afterward she was asking me to cut her hair again.

The first person whose hair I cut, other than my own, was HusbandX's. He had, so far as he could remember, only ever gotten his hair cut by one woman in his life, a friend of his mom's. In college he refused to get his hair cut by anyone else, which meant that he had to wait until he went home at breaks and his hair would get long. Not in a good way. I finally persuaded him to let me cut his hair, after watching many, many Youtube videos of how to give a man's haircut. I'd also, for years, observed what stylists do when I was at the salon, because it's interesting, so I figured that I at least understood the principles. Well, that first haircut wasn't the best but it wasn't the worst, either. It was certainly better than the long hair he'd been sporting for weeks months. And I only got better from there.
After!

The point of all of this, and I promise I do have one, is why it's worth it to me. Why, if I love going to the salon so much, would I instead cut my hair at home? Yes, it's expensive, but not doing something I enjoy borders on cheap rather than frugal.

As much as I enjoy going to the salon, I've decided that it's not that time of life. It takes time away from my already busy life and it is expensive, using up some of our finite funds. Mind you, not going to the salon has been my choice. If I told my spouse how much I really, really love it he'd probably get frustrated by my refusal. But my time and money can be better spent elsewhere, like our efficiency projects (we want to insulate the house before next winter)and my garden.

My current personal moratorium on going to the salon isn't absolute. I will definitely be going to the salon occasionally in the future. But it will be more of a strategic pampering than a regular one. After all, the very rarity is part of what makes it so enjoyable. How often in my regular life do you think I get cossetted and spoiled? Holding that time out for when I actually need it makes going to the salon something I appreciate all the more. If I did this regularly, it would not only become routine but it would also actually become a hassle.

It's the same way for many things. We'd get sick of having Christmas once a month, and we'd get sick of our favorite foods if we ate them all the time. For me, making my trips to the salon rare makes my gratitude for them all the greater. And since I've gotten pretty darn good at cutting my own hair it's less of a burden to push off going to the salon. I get an ego boost in the meantime, with people complimenting my haircut. In many ways, that's just as good as getting pampered by a salon.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

To lean in, or not

I've had just about everyone asking me if I'm going back to work at the end of my maternity leave. What a complex and complicated question! As my leave nears its end (I'm due back before the end of this month) I've been forced to think a lot about work and what it means to have a job in our society, particularly as a mom. Any working parent has a tough deal but moms in particular get a raw deal, which I think we can all admit. I read an article recently about the idea of having it all and one line in particular really spoke to me. "I have kids who have forced me to do everything in my life with greater efficiency and the professional assumption that I’m now less efficient after having kids." That pretty much sums it up. I'm writing this post one-handed with a baby in my arms because she's been sick and won't nap unless I hold her. But according to society, my brain has lost all functioning that doesn't directly tie in with child rearing.

On the other hand, my motivation for work is now more complicated. I don't think going to work is any more of a moral or societal good than working in the home is, though it definitely has more status in our society. Do I really want to go to an office all day to work for The Man when I could instead be home with my snuggly, giggly baby? My family is definitely more important to me than a job. It's so weird to me that housework and being a parent, which is really the work that makes up a life, has become labelled drudgery while going to work for someone else's enrichment is a good thing. It's moral and right, while staying home is quaint and a bit unreasonable. What the actual fuck has happened to turn that all backwards?
Why wouldn't I want to stay home
with this little nugget?

Then there's the ever-fraught question, do I really want to miss out on these early years? I did my time, working full time right after my first was born. Despite the fact that she was fussy and didn't let me sleep longer than four hours until she was more than a year old (and still woke up twice every night then) I dutifully went back to work ten weeks after she was born because I couldn't afford to take any more time off. My husband was in school again, a venture we could afford because my job paid his tuition and just enough to pay rent and eat. (Don't worry, I still got asked if I'd be going back to work. I might have stared at those questioners as if they'd grown second heads.) Now I can afford to stay home, or not. We're in a different place entirely and suddenly I have options!

On the other end of the spectrum, from birth to death, I also have my mom to think about. She'll be moving into a care facility soon, because she needs 24 hour care and her health has begun to decline at a more rapid pace since my dad's death. Just as it's important for me to be here for my kids when they're little it's also important to be available for my mom at the end of her life. It is so, so painful to be around her now. In many ways she's reverting back to being a child, with her current state being in the zone of a young toddler. She's forgetting how to dress herself, even how to talk and feed herself. As my kids grow more capable it throws into stark relief the fact that she gets less and less so. Despite how painful it is, though, I don't want to regret that I could have done more for her, been more available. If a job ever gets in the way, guess what I'd choose.

Not only my family is important to me, however, but my own interests and mental well-being need to be taken into account. There's not much time to yourself when you're a parent (not even bathroom breaks!) so what little time I have to myself is precious. Other moms are probably nodding, because we all hoard that time to ourselves the way a dragon does treasure. I will breathe fire on anyone who gets in the way of my down time! 

Keeping up with a home and family is hard work, even with a supportive spouse pulling his own weight. It doesn't help that our four-year-old does things like deliberately flooding the bathroom, so nearly every day I have extraordinary work to do on top of the usual. I spend so much time on the kids, and the chores, and if I give some to a job then where is the time for me? Time to workout, time to read, to garden, time with friends. These are important to me. I don't want to stress myself out trying to fit in a little bit of relaxation time. That defeats the purpose, clearly.

My job will just pay me enough to cover childcare, healthcare, and a little bit to put in my retirement fund. Is that worthwhile to me? This is more than a lot of women get, so I'm grateful, but it still seems like a lot of hard work to do for not very much reward. I don't even mean that my job is hard, but that all the scheduling and coordinating for me to be able to work--meal planning, childcare, getting to and from work, looking professional instead of rolling with the fact that the baby spat up all over me, pumping milk so the baby can spit up even more--is work in and of itself.

I realize this is a privileged position. We always talk about when women entered the workforce en masse in the 70s, but that ignores the fact that poor women, and particularly women of color, have always worked. They had no choice. I read The Feminine Mystique last fall and was utterly turned off because it was so classist. All the jobs Friedan wrote about were white collar, with no examination of the fact that the nannies and housekeepers she advocated hiring were also working women, frequently with families of their own. The fact that I get asked if I'm going back to work is a mark of my privilege.

The fact that my husband has never, to my knowledge, been asked if he's going back to work after Baby shows that sexism is still alive and rampant in our society. Yes, it makes sense to have (breastfeeding) moms stay home more, but it honestly makes the most sense to have both parents at home for a while after a baby is born. HusbandX got 30 days of leave and that was wonderful, more than most men get, and still it wasn't quite enough. It flew by and gearing up for him to go back to work when I wasn't even fully recovered from my c-section, and we hadn't fully acclimated as a family to the new dynamic, was rough. We need to have better parental leave laws if we're actually going to be "family friendly", and they need to encompass fathers as well. They are just as important as mothers. A good first step will be setting the expectations of who works on its head. Men don't have to be "the breadwinner", they can stay home too! I've heard of plenty of men who'd love to stay home with their kids but didn't because the stigma they faced for such a decision was crazy, even within their extended family. The idea that a father shouldn't stay home is what seems crazy to me.
If I don't work I can do fascinating
things, like figuring out the most
efficient way to line-dry diapers.
Woo.

After taking all of this into account and weighing my options, I've decided that I am, in fact, going back to work. Not because I think I must have a job because I'm an Upstanding Citizen, or because I'm a feminist (I totally am) and feel the need to represent, or out of loyalty to the company. I'm going back because I find my job interesting. It's stimulating in a way completely different from being at home with my family. I get to talk to other adults about things that sometimes have nothing to do with home, and I really enjoy my coworkers. I even like the company I work for. It's employee owned so we're treated like humans rather than Workers and the work is worthwhile. It's a large enough company to have multiple offices in multiple states but small enough that the CEO knows my name when he comes by. I've also hit the sweet spot in employment: I only work three days a week. The 20-hour workweek that was envisioned by Keynes is farther away for most Americans than it was when it was first thought up. I'm lucky to be able to work just enough but not too much, which I am able to do in an expensive city mostly because we don't consume like most Americans. We're frugal weirdos.

If I'd had a different baby, if she'd been more like my first, I made up my mind to quit. There was no way I was going to put myself through that level of sleep deprivation again and still hold down a job. Then Little Miss Sunshine was born and she's such an easy baby. She already sleeps through the night (which, for a baby, means six hours at a stretch, but sometimes we get more) and she got herself onto a schedule that works for all of us. She smiles and laughs all the time, and--illness aside--she generally lets me get things done. I've been able to garden. To read. To go to my book club and cook and bake and dream up other projects I want to try. (Soap making? Quilting? Both??) She even sleeps in her crib! I got more alone time in the first month with her home than I did for the first six months after our Munchkin was born. I don't even have to hurry through my showers with the background noise of screaming baby! In some ways it makes me want to stay home with her more, because she is so easy and so joyful to be around. She lights up the moment our eyes meet. But I also know that if I don't go back to work I'll end up unhappy with my choice, feeling stuck at home and without anything interesting to think or say or do. I do not want to become the person who can only talk about their kids because that's literally all they have going on in life.

Working will also allow me to regularly get back to doing something I love: biking. My body changed so much when I was pregnant that it not only became uncomfortable but also dangerous, as the shift in my center of gravity made me wobbly. Now I have no way to bike with a kid who can't sit upright on her own, and since I'm breastfeeding that limits the time I can be away from her. I mean, on her end I can supply milk in advance. That doesn't help my end of things, however. Since I'll be doing all that I need to do to be away from her for a full work day anyway I can ride my bike home and enjoy that time to myself, doing something I love.

This decision doesn't come without its reservations. As the date nears I'm getting a little anxious. Will she really be okay without me for three full days in a row?! ...Will I be okay without her? She's still so tiny! She'll be four months but, still, so little. So dependent on me above anyone else. Then there is, as I mentioned above, all of the coordination. I'm going to spend the week before I go back getting meals and snacks worked out, so that the days I work will be as hassle-free as possible. It's not a negligible amount of work, but at least I know what I'm getting into.

My brother has agreed, for the short term at least, to be our 'br'au-pair'. He wants to figure out the next phase of his life so we only have an agreement through the summer, and after that we'll see. I've become a big believer in taking life in short increments now anyway. We'll get through the next six months and then see what changes, what works for us then. It's a huge shift from my old method of trying to plan life, and it works much better. None of my plans ever fully came to fruition anyway. The entire time I was pregnant people kept asking me what my plans were for this or that--delivery! childcare! to work or not to work?--and I answered that I generally didn't even have the next month planned out, let alone these big issues that aren't completely in my control. (If you think anyone gets to plan out their delivery, you've obviously never talked to women who've given birth.) I think this frustrated the people who were asking, because why wouldn't I have the big things sorted out? It's taken me 35 years but I finally realized that life does not care about my plans, big or little. It is so much easier if I roll with whatever happens, and I am so much happier when I'm not stressing myself out trying to stick to a plan. So I will be going back to work, with the caveat "for now".

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Spring Gardening

When I was a kid, for quite a while whenever I was asked what I wanted to do I said I wanted to be a farmer. My parents told me what hard work it was but that didn't deter me. As it turns out, however, the realities of being a farmer are not at all what I wanted. I didn't really want to be a farmer, I just wanted to grow my own food. Though I wouldn't hear the term for quite a while longer, when I said I wanted to be a farmer what I meant was more along the lines of being a modern homesteader.

I don't actually consider myself a homesteader (is there a hard line on that, and if so what is it?) but I want to be more than just 'a gardener'. I've mentioned before that I'm trying to maximize efficient food production of my property, thinking over the long term. I've had gardens in the past but they were always kind of pathetic. We lived in an apartment, and then in my parents' house, so the garden space was never really mine. Sure, I could do what I wanted. But why would I want to spend so much time and effort to maintain someone else's yard?

This year, however, is different. One of the attractions of this house is that it had garden beds already put in for me. Not great, not what I ultimately want, but they're there and I can work with them. Six lovely raised beds. One even has trellises in place for peas and beans.

I planted a few crops last fall, mostly as an experiment to see what would grow over the winter and how well. Carrots, onions, lettuce, and spinach went in. Not all of it germinated, not even close. I had intended to make some low tunnels but pregnancy lethargy struck and it never happened. I'm still happy with what did grow, however. Spinach and lettuce both did pretty well, although it got incredibly bitter when the temperature dropped below freezing. I didn't mind so much as I don't crave salads in winter. That's soup season! Still, it was enough to gather a little bit occasionally, and now that it's spring the lettuce is getting sweeter and going gangbusters when most other people are just seeing the first few big leaves. It's enough that we've had some big salads where all of the greens were from the garden, plus lettuce for tacos and other meals. I've got so much I've been considering offering some up to my Buy Nothing group.
Not even all of my lettuce. I pick leaves
off the sides and it just keeps putting out more.

The carrots I started in the fall are also starting to get big. I'd been warned that carrots would grow, and they'd be nice and sweet thanks to all the cold weather over the winter, but they wouldn't get beyond baby carrot size. However, leaving them to grow means that now they're growing fairly well and should be ready to pick soon, well before spring-sown carrots have even put out their first true leaves in most cases.

The onions didn't germinate in the fall, probably because it was already too cold when I direct sowed them, but a few are popping up now. For this summer I got onion sets rather than seeds to grow from, and I expect I'll get a healthy crop of onions since they're already popping out of the ground. If all of them grow, I should have very close to 100 yellow onions and 100 red onions. Yes, we eat a lot of onions.

Since six raised beds still gives me limited growing space I transplanted the strawberries the previous owners had planted in one bed, plus a few from my mom's house, out front. They scorched last summer in the raised bed so I put them in an area that gets lots of sunlight but also some shade. Since onions can act as a pest deterrent, and they get along pretty well with strawberries, I inter-planted some of them among the strawberries. Soon I'll add a summer crop of lettuce and spinach, choosing the shadier spots so that they don't bolt quite as fast as they would in full sun. Or, that's the hope.
Carrots and lettuce!

Instead of buying plants, I generally buy and start my plants from seeds. This can be rather hit or miss, since sometimes a packet of seeds just won't grow well and there's a lot that can go wrong even if you have great seeds. This year I bought some seed starting pods in trays to make things easy on myself. It was a good decision, and most of my seeds germinated. I didn't actually expect them to do so well so, uh, I ended up with way too many seedlings. Oops? Knowing that I didn't have enough space for even half of my plants the only logical thing to do was...build more garden beds.

I had a raised bed that I'd made out of pallets with my dad last year. My brother brought it over for me and putting it back together was bittersweet, since it was the last project I'd done with my dad. It's really just a pile of free wood and screws leftover from other projects, but it means a lot to me. It's quite deep and will make an excellent tomato bed, since tomatoes have deep roots that need space, and I left three of the sides tall so the tomatoes won't even require a lot of cages.

The vegetables I'm planting vary from year to year but I try to get the ones we eat the most and deliver the best return on my investment. This year I'm (hopefully) growing tomatoes, cabbage, green and purple string beans, shelling and sugar snap peas, butternut squash, carrots, lettuce, spinach, onions, celery, broccoli, potatoes, red and orange bell peppers, and Anaheim peppers. I might buy a zucchini start as well, or I might just get zucchini from friends when they inevitably declare zucchini overload.

For fruit I have quite a few strawberries, two (so far) new blueberry bushes, the cherry tree, and a rhubarb. (Is that a fruit? Whatever, we treat it like fruit.) I'm not expecting much fruit this year, since they take a while to get going. The cherry tree put out a grand total of nine blossoms and I would be seriously surprised if any of those translated into cherries. The blueberry bushes similarly won't produce much in the beginning, and rhubarb can't be harvested for at least the first year. But they're all perennials, so I'm not concerned.

I also have a few herbs. Thyme, rosemary and mint were already planted in the raised beds. Unfortunately, the mint was planted NOT in a container so now it's trying to take over everything. (Always plant mint in a pot here.) I bought basil, hoping that this will be the year I finally manage to grow amazing basil, as well as lemon balm and chamomile. I can grow my own teas! (Tisanes, technically.) The lemon balm, as a member of the mint family, has been planted in a pot so that it, too, does not begin to take over my yard. I may also add sage into the mix, but am content with what I have for now. I want to build an herb spiral but that will most likely be a project for next year.

The best of plans

Garden planning is really challenging work beyond just time, space, and money. It requires that I think in multiple dimensions. I don't want root crops right next to each other because then they'll be vying for the same space. Something should go between, hopefully. Similarly, I don't want to plant tall tomatoes in front of lower plants and shade them out. And will the squash vines crowd out the other plants?
Spring peas

Then there's the matter of nutrients. Will everything I'm planting together be good neighbors? Or will they be stealing nutrients from each other so that none of them grow really well? And soil requirements too! Blueberries only grow in very acidic soil, so what would go well with them? And how do I ensure the soil is acid enough?

As if that wasn't enough, you're not supposed to plant any crop in the same bed all the time because diseases can fester in the soil from one year to the next. If you don't give them their favorite plants to eat they'll go away, but it takes time. So crop rotation needs to be practiced and this needs to be done anew every year. Maybe someday I'll get my garden on a regular rotation but I honestly don't know of any gardeners who don't tinker from year to year, trying to make everything better.

When to plant different crops is yet another factor that requires careful planning. I love this website for all things gardening in the maritime Northwest. Not that I always follow it. I planted my winter squash seeds right along with everything else in March and then looked at April's to-dos and saw that I should have waited until mid-month. Oops. No harm done, though, and the seedlings are transplanted out. Two withered almost immediately but the rest are thriving, putting out new leaves after only a couple of days. It helps that we've had quite a few sunny, warm days recently.

What my garden plan looks like so far is this: three beds of mixed carrots, onions, spinach, and lettuce. One of those beds has the thyme and rosemary (and mint, but that's all over the place now). I have one bed of onions, broccoli, leeks, and cabbage. One bed has beans, squash, and peas. Two beds will have celery and tomatoes (which can't be planted out yet), and in the two beds I have yet to make I will have one potatoes + cabbage (+ beans?) bed, one broccoli + leeks. I also have two large planting buckets with potatoes.
Bucket of 'taters.

In the very front, along the fence, my wonderful spouse built two new raised beds. Those will be my blueberry beds, with rhubarb and (for this year at least) peppers. Since it's facing the sidewalk and I want it to be pretty I'm going to add gladiolus, tulip, and daffodil bulbs. (Tulips and daffodils can't be planted until the fall.) And my chamomile is planted under the cherry tree.

I'm currently in the process of setting up  some of the low tunnels I wanted to make in the fall but didn't. We don't have anywhere very good to set seedlings, nowhere for them to get enough light, without it being a total pain in the butt. However, celery and tomatoes still need more warmth at night than nature will provide. Enter the low tunnel. I bought ten foot lengths of PVC pipe, some brackets, and clamps to help hold the plastic down in the wind. The plastic I'm using for now is leftover painter's plastic, which we bought when HusbandX was removing the asbestos ceiling downstairs. It's very light and thin so it's not the greatest, but it does let a lot of light in. It will also contain moisture, so I won't have to water those beds as much at night until the plastic comes off completely. (It gets opened on sunny, hot days right now so that the seedlings don't scorch.) Since it's so thin, for now I've got a few water jugs in with the plants to act as thermal mass. They absorb the daylight heat and then throw it off at night, which should help keep the temperature swings to a minimum. Seems to be working well enough so far. The first bed I did this in, the one with celery and tomatoes, also gets the most sunlight each day, to maximize the amount of warmth and light these heat-loving crops get.
One completed low tunnel, with some of my starts.
I have clamps to hold down the plastic when it's windy.

Before autumn comes I plan to have at least two other beds with low tunnels over them, to keep plants going a bit longer in the autumn and to give fall-started plants a running start.

Weeds, weeds, and more weeds

All this and I haven't done any major landscaping. Phew. I know that what I have isn't going to be a permanent setup. What we have in the back is going to eventually be re-done, not least because we have bindweed under almost all of the beds. It's awful, and I'm already sick of pulling it out of my raised beds. It grows super fast so if I miss even a day of weeding I come back to dozens of new shoots popping up. It cares nothing for the ground cloth the previous owners put under the raised beds. You know the scene in Stranger Things when Hopper goes underground and finds out how extensive that creepy plant is? That's exactly what it's like to find bindweed in your garden. I moved all of the dirt in one of the beds around to dig up as much of the bindweed as I could, pulling up the ground cloth to get the roots, and it just keeps coming back. You pull on one tiny sprout and find a four-foot root that attaches to several other sprouts, which leads to even more roots and more sprouts. Ugh. The same corner where the bindweed flourishes also has blackberries and English ivy, all invasive and annoying as hell. I'm not sure that anything can get rid of these weeds except perhaps chickens, but my spouse has nixed that idea. For now. (Probably wise.)

In the meantime, to combat this and other weed problems, in the new beds I'm making a half-assed attempt at lasagna/hugelkultur beds. I laid down cardboard, then sticks, then a bit of unfinished compost or charred logs from backyard fires with friends, then the finished compost/soil mixture I bought. (It ended up being $30 for two yards, thanks to a friend with a senior discount and a truck. That's roughly 2 tons of compost, for those who don't understand the yardage system.) The sticks (brush we cleared because it was massively overgrown) will decompose very slowly, replenishing nutrients over a long time, while the unfinished compost will break down very quickly to add lots of nutrients from the start. We'll see how it goes but I've had good luck with even my half-assed attempts in the past. The bindweed has been growing around the newest bed but not up through it (yet) so that is promising.
Baby butternut squash

One of the best ways to combat weeds is to crowd them out by planting a variety of things. In permaculture there is the idea of building more like a forest canopy, with many levels. ("Guilds".) Big trees, smaller trees, large shrubs and bushes, smaller ones, plants, ground cover, root crops. If I have a big item, what can I plant around it as ground cover to keep weeds away? Can it do anything else for the plants around it, like attract beneficial insects or draw up nutrients from the soil? My knowledge of this is still in its infancy but I'm trying to incorporate it whenever I can. I'd rather not spend all of my time in the garden constantly weeding when I can get other plants to do some of the work for me.

Since I'm not a farmer, I also don't have to obey the same rules. I don't need to plant everything in a straight line because it's not going to be harvested by machine. If it makes sense to plant a few onions around a lettuce plant, or to put one cabbage in the middle of my broccoli because that's where it fits, I can do that. I'm not constrained in the same ways so I can maximize my use of space to make it more efficient and to help keep weeds out. #winning

More than a garden, more than a yard

As I move forward with planning out my yard and my Perfect Garden I'm trying to think of it more as an ecosystem than anything else. I want to grow as much of my own food as I can, yes, but to do that requires more than just plants and soil and light and water. I also need insects to act as pollinators and defenders. It's a certain thing in the NW that slugs will come after my plants, and I want to attract things that will take care of them for me. If I want to attract pollinators that means I need to have a healthy mix of non-food-producing flowers as well, hence the bulbs I'm going to plant along with my blueberries. But plants aren't the only thing, either. I want to have a few bee houses around, and at some point we will likely have honeybees. My brother-in-law gave us his beehives, and all I need to do is get over my fear of bee stings first. Maybe take a class about beekeeping....
This lilac is one of my favorite plants that came with
the house. Visible right outside the dining room, it attracts
lots of birds and bees, plus it both smells and looks lovely.

If I'm attracting insects then I'm also attracting birds. And this is a wonderful thing! Birds will also help eat the bugs I don't want (mosquitoes) and can act as pollinators. I'm not going to be setting out bird feeders, as they can introduce invasive plants or spread weeds and help invasive birds. If I plant bird-attracting foliage, however, it will help the local species. I'm conscious of what in and around our yard is attractive to birds, particularly hummingbirds. We saw quite a few last summer and fall and I want to keep seeing them.

It's not a project for this year but I want to get a bat house or two. Bats are just sort of awesome to watch, and they eat mosquitoes. Plus, their poop can be used as yet another wonderful natural fertilizer for the garden.

When we moved down from Alaska I mourned the fact that I wouldn't get to see as much wildlife. And it's true, I don't. When I do it's certainly not as big or quite as wild. But it is there. When I went to my book club recently, in a busy neighborhood around dinnertime, as I was getting the baby out of the car I heard a noise and looked up to see a coyote racing away. It was surprising but also sort of heartening, in a way. I want to live in a place where wildlife is still intertwined with humanity. I want to know that we haven't driven it all out, and in fact I want to draw more of it in. I do draw the line (ants in the house are no good, Seattle rats can go to hell) but having a variety of animals and insects is overall a good thing.
Leaving some spaces wild, with native plants,
is a good thing. It can be beautiful too.

Do it for the children!

As annoying as it can be, I'm also trying to incorporate my children in the gardening process as much as I can. The Munchkin helped me plant seeds (especially the peas and squash) and they've both been coming outside with me as I work in the garden. The day we got the compost was a banner day for our older girl, who had a blast playing in the dirt. ("Helping.") There's only so much I want a four-year-old to do--only so much she can do--and even some of that has had me gritting my teeth. However, watching the process of plants growing is not only fascinating and a great learning experience, it also helps kids eat better. I'll take a few crushed seedlings to have a kid who enjoys vegetables, thanks.

More than trying to help, my Munchkin spends her time in the garden observing things. She had a "pet" pill bug the other day and it's a treat to find worms or caterpillars. I have a minor internal panic attack every time she picks up a spider but I'm trying not to show her that. We discuss what these bugs eat and what they do, we talk about the birds that eat the bugs. Having a kid who enjoys being out in nature means having a kid who will want to take care of it. That is priceless.

Why bother?

When I started writing this post it was just starting to come out that a bunch of romaine lettuce was infected with e. coli. This has since turned deadly. (If you haven't heard about this yet, throw out your romaine lettuce.) Sadly, this sort of thing has become normal in our food chain. Every year there are dozens of outbreaks of illness which can be traced back to a breakdown of the food system as a whole. Frequently, as it now has with this latest outbreak, these illnesses turn deadly. I'd rather not risk death for my family with every bite. And no food, it seems, is safe.
Enough salad for six adults and a preschooler.
I hardly made a dent in the garden.
Salad: 3 types of lettuce, goat cheese, and dried apricots.

Then there's the fact that homegrown food not only tastes better, it also has more nutrients. The food we grow at home is just better for us than what we can buy at a supermarket. I've wondered many times if the obesity epidemic is caused as much by nutritionally deficient food as it is by anything else. I don't believe that a whole nation of people suddenly decided to gorge themselves into ill-health and that it's a moral or self-control issue. When you have people who are simultaneously malnourished and overweight, the problem is not with them but with their food. More likely, people are eating more because their bodies are demanding more real sustenance than they're getting from the crappy food.

I don't just blame the over-processing of food, however, but the fruits and vegetables which have been bred to travel long distances, rather than for taste or nutrition. I've been purchasing more heirloom varieties of seeds and every variety I've tried so far has been one worth keeping. You can't get them at big box stores, however, because there's not as much profit to be made. And that, right there, is the essence of the problem with food in this country. It's not sustenance, it's a product. This is what we all need to live, yet companies are throwing out patents for ingredients, processes, even the DNA. Everyone's looking for how they can get you to stuff yourself even more, to eat yourself to death so they can make a buck. It's stupid, crazy, and sickening. I want no part of it when I stop to think about it.

Chamomile under my cherry tree.
Spread, baby!
When I garden I also get to control what goes on my food, and growing organically at home is often cheaper because you're just not buying and using pesticides or strange fertilizers. I use compost, which can be made for essentially no cost and bought for very little if sourced by the yard, and that's about all you need for most plants if you also use crop rotation and companion planting.* The startup costs of a garden can be somewhat steep depending on how you do it but the payoff is forever.

My long-term goal is to have most of our yearly vegetable intake, and quite a bit of our fruit intake, come from our garden. Maybe one day I'll even talk my spouse into letting me keep chickens, to further close the loop (chickens eat kitchen scraps, poop out fertilizer, and they make breakfast!) and to produce even more of our food. (Will that be the point at which I cross the line into homesteader territory?) This all seems like an arbitrary goal and in some ways it is. I'm not measuring my veggies by weight, as some people have done, to see how many pounds of produce I can grow. I'm not even writing it down. I am trying to eat at least a little something from the garden each day now that it's producing so much. (Mostly lettuce still but yesterday the Munchkin and I shared a carrot.) Depending on how my chamomile and lemon balm grow and how the low tunnels do and how much I'm able to preserve, I might even be able to extend this goal to the entire year. That would be amazing. But for now, I'm content with a carrot or a salad here and there and I'll see where the summer takes me. I've got many more years of gardening ahead, during which I know I'll get better and grow more.

Finally...

I don't think I have a 'green thumb'. I have so much enthusiasm for growing things until the point at which I don't. Or, I get scattered and lose sight of something crucial. For instance, my new lavender plant is in the kitchen reviving. I got so into making the low tunnels and digging out the bindweed that I forgot about the lavender. Unplanted, it scorched in the hot weather we've been having. It looks like it will survive (pro tip: set wilted plants in a pan of water so it soaks up through the roots--far more efficient than top-down watering) but if I hadn't noticed it until tomorrow it would have been a goner. I'm sure I'll lose a few plants this summer due to neglect. What I know is not intuitive, it's thanks to extensive reading about gardening, farming, and homesteading. That is, I read everything I can about those who know more and do better than I likely ever will. It is despite myself that I manage to make the garden worthwhile, and still it's enjoyable. It forces me outside and it's relaxing. No wonder gardeners live longer.



*My blueberries have special fertilizer to enhance the soil's acidity. However, I'm also looking at natural ways of doing so. Adding coffee grounds, pine needles, peat, and even putting a tablespoon or two of white vinegar in a full watering can are all ways to help acidify the soil.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Another goodbye

Nearly fifteen years ago, I went just to look at a litter of puppies. Cocker spaniel puppies. Of course as my mom, my younger brother, and I all trooped off my dad was there saying, "Sure. To look. That's what will happen."

One of the puppies caught me, because of course one would. As my dad well knew, there was no way we could go look at puppies without bringing one home. From that first snuggle, when she put her head on my shoulder and sighed contentedly, she was my dog and I was her person. The little black and white sweetheart came home with me that day. It was, frankly, stupid and irresponsible. If I'd truly thought it through I would have realized that my life was too chaotic for a puppy. I was twenty-one years old and had no idea what I wanted to do in the future, or where life would take me. I ended up moving several times, sometimes without being able to take her with me. My parents, who by that time loved her as much as I did, took care of her for me when I couldn't be around. Through it all, though, she's been my dog and I've been her person.
"I'm beautiful."

Over fourteen years later and bringing her into my life is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It ranks right up there with meeting my spouse. When HusbandX and I decided to move in together, in Alaska, I told him that I would be bringing my dog up to (finally) live with me. He said okay, but I could tell that he wasn't excited about the idea. He said, several times, that he wasn't going to be responsible for her. She was my dog, not his.

And then they met. It was pretty much love at first sight. He'd been dreading a small dog with yappy tendencies and a hyperactive need to be in your face at all times. Instead, he got a laid back dog who loved walks and runs but was also content to just sit on the couch, encroaching on the space of whoever was there with her. I'm not going to lie, she could be pretty barky too, but generally for good reasons.
"Dignity. Always, dignity."

The joy she's brought to our lives is indescribable. So many of our favorite stories and moments are about or with her. There was the time she knocked down an entire pan of gingerbread and ate it, then spent the entire next day groaning and wheezing in pain. There was the time she confronted a moose outside of our dry cabin, tail wagging as she went to meet this strange new creature while I quietly had a panic attack on the front porch and tried to whisper-shout her back to safety, thinking that surely the moose would just stomp her to death. It snorted and she ran, yelping, back to safety. After that, we could always tell when there was a moose in the woods because she would run up and down the driveway barking, but never venturing close to the strange, scary beasts.

There was the Halloween that she had minor surgery and, drugged up, fell off the couch, barking strangely, as she realized trick-or-treaters were there just after they'd left. Every time someone came to the door we repeated this routine. She still insisted on getting back up on the couch. There was the time HusbandX was throwing leftover noodles to her and one got stuck to the hair on her back, so she spent 15 minutes doggedly sniffing around the kitchen looking for it, tail wagging, as we laughed until it hurt, intermittently throwing more noodles on her back. We finally had to pull them off and feed them to her because she would have looked for them forever. There was the time HusbandX took her to the groomers and asked them to shave her everywhere but keep her mutton chops. (They were glorious.)

She had a taste for cat poop, which we discovered only after we got our cat. She seemed to think he pooped out treats covered in pee-flavored sprinkles just for her. She also never seemed to want to lick anyone unless she had cat poop breath.
"You wish you could grow 'chops like these."

She has also been the best family dog we could have asked for. She knew I was pregnant the first time before I did, sitting and staring at me rather creepily until I figured out what was going on. Initially highly jealous of the baby, she settled down fairly quickly for a senior dog. I felt that it was a little unfair to throw a baby into the mix when she was so old but she took to her role as Babushka Dog amazingly well. She even challenged my mother-in-law, growling and barking fiercely, when she thought my mother-in-law had abandoned her baby somewhere. Then we put a second baby into the mix and she was nothing but protective and loving with the new little one. She snuggled the baby when the baby cried, she slept next to her whenever possible. After a bath, the dog ran around rubbing herself on the baby's stuff so that she'd smell like the baby, not herself. She let the baby tangle fingers in her hair and didn't even move when the baby flailed tiny fists at her face.

Despite more provocation than any dog should ever have to put up with, she has never snapped or growled or otherwise rebuked our kids. For the past couple of years she's had arthritis that has steadily gotten worse, to the point that we knew she was in a lot of pain even with a narcotic. Her joints have stiffened up and mobility has gotten worse. Still, she didn't utter a word of protest as a rambunctious toddler and now preschooler occasionally fell on her or dropped things on her. I've had many other dogs in my life and this one is, hands down, the best and most understanding of them all. She's earned her place in the doggy Hall of Fame.
"Dis is my baby, guys. I snuggles it."

This dog has also helped me through some of the lowest points in my life, including my dad's death. Her quiet snuggly support, her unwavering devotion and love, has been incredible. I realize that many dogs do this but, in my experience, rarely to this extent. She helped me understand empathy better simply by being herself.

Which makes it all the harder that she can't help us through this final transition, this last goodbye. The cruelest part of loving a dog is that they don't live nearly as long as we do. We've seen her aging--getting mostly blinded by cataracts, going deaf, cysts and tumors growing that hamper her movement even as arthritis makes everything more painful. It's been tough to watch. In many ways, she's handled it more gracefully than we have. For the last year HusbandX and I have watched her at various times to make sure she's still breathing. I've woken up in a panic at night thinking that I couldn't hear her breath, only calming down when she rolls over or snorts and snores. I've even wondered if she's hanging on for our sake, rather than her own. Does she feel like she's abandoning us?

She started having lots of accidents in the house this past summer and we thought that it was the protest of an old lady because so much was changing--we were going back and forth between houses and she clearly knew I was growing another baby. More chaos into an old dog's life. However, when we fully moved into our new house the accidents continued. We realized that we had to take her outside once every couple of hours or she just couldn't hold it anymore. She was trying her best. But there were clearly digestive and urinary issues she was dealing with, which were just because of age. And, she needed someone to actually carry her out because she couldn't get up and down the steps herself.

We began to prepare the Munchkin. Most of her memories of the dog involve us calling her Old Lady, so it wasn't a surprise to her when we pointed out that, yes, our dog is old for a dog. We talked about how when creatures get old they sometimes get sick, and that's what was happening to our Babushka. We even talked about death. That's been a big topic of conversation at our house this year anyway, but laying the groundwork for our kiddo to be okay with losing her dog, the one that helped her learn to walk, was as hard a conversation as any we've had with her. Her third word was "doggy", which in the beginning she mostly deployed as she was dropping food for the dog and giggling.

Still we waited. Our dog was in pain and mostly blind and mostly deaf and kind of incontinent but she wasn't sick. Was it really time? She still had a bit of that spark, those brief moments when her personality was stronger than old age and she seemed like her younger self. That means she's okay, right? Besides, we were both hoping that she would gracefully bow out on her own. Just go to sleep one night and that would be that, because the best of dogs deserves an easy and peaceful passing.

"I stepped in paint and ran all
over the porch so that you'll
always have my paw prints."
In October, she had what we think might have been a small stroke. Her head compulsively ticked to the side over and over again as we were snuggled on the couch watching "Stranger Things". She looked terrified, and so were we. However, as time went on and she showed no recurrence, we went into a holding pattern of waiting and watching. We couldn't bear to say goodbye just yet, especially when she wasn't actively sick. She was just...old. She didn't show signs of another stroke (or seizure?) but she had two long periods of illness. We almost put her down but pushed it off just long enough that she got better again. I mean, as better as an old dog can get. Her baseline was always a bit worse after.

She started refusing her arthritis medicine. It hadn't been doing much anyway other than making her sick to her stomach. Even with the medicine she'd had trouble standing up from the wood floors, and she was stiff when she did so. She could barely walk at times. She would fall over frequently, either tripping over things or just because, and she sometimes paced because she was in pain. The worst, though, was the heaviness. After her illness around New Year's, she got this heaviness when she laid down, as if she didn't want to have to get back up again. In bed she would rest on my legs and trying to move them wouldn't startle her or get the push-back she used to give, she would just be limp and heavy. She didn't care what I did to her as long as she didn't have to move herself.

"Don't worry, she won't go anywhere. I gots her."
We finally decided that her time had come. It was not an easy decision and we were (are) both conflicted about it. She has been, at various times and sometimes all at once, our nanny, our cleaning crew, our therapist, a thief, our comedian, our entertainment, our biggest source of aggravation, our comfort, and always our best friend. Contemplating ending her life felt so wrong, even for good reasons. However, her bad days had begun to outnumber the good and we couldn't ignore that. She hadn't been able to go for a walk for over a year now, and even food had lost some of its appeal. We also didn't want her to get sick again and have to do this in a hurry, or watch her waste away to a withered and wretched ending. She deserved better than that.

We gave her two last wonderful weeks, taking pictures of her with the kids and feeding her home-canned salmon with rice for dinner. We spoiled her with snuggles and back scratches. I took her to preschool pickup and let her meet all the kids, who doted on her. And during these weeks, we've been watching her, hoping that it wouldn't come to the vet visit. We were hoping she would gracefully exit on her own. With all the love and attention she actually perked up and we tried to talk ourselves out of it yet again, but holding her and feeling how bony she was let us know that we were just deluding ourselves. So I found a mobile vet who would do a house call. We wanted her where she felt most comfortable, where she could be surrounded by familiar scents and her people.
"It's okay, she can jump here
and I'll just keep napping."

Our Munchkin was treating it all as a game. "It's okay, we can get a new dog!" It was frustrating and demoralizing, even though we knew that she couldn't possibly understand. We had my younger brother come to take her to the playground before the vet got here. It took a while (the dog ended up getting the sedative dose of a 140 lb. dog, though she was only about 23 lbs at this point) so they walked around after the playground, then listened to music in his car as we said our final goodbyes.

We weren't going to let the Munchkin see the body. HusbandX had come home early from work and dug a grave in the backyard while I did preschool pickup. However, the Munchkin was insistent. We both felt that maybe it would make the whole thing seem real at last, and she would understand. As preparation I explained burial, that when a spirit is gone we return the body to the earth, and she accepted that. Then we showed her the body. "When will she wake up?" We explained that she's really gone, that what made her herself was gone, and that was when she finally got it. She wailed so loud and so hard that one of the neighbors, a dog owner also, came out to see what was up.

The Munchkin insisted that she help bury our Old Lady. I don't know if she'd ever been introduced to the idea of burial before (my dad was cremated) but she immediately understood the concept, asking for a little shovel of her own. HusbandX had put apple blossoms in the grave, and he and I lowered her down together. Then we gave the Munchkin a trowel and we grabbed our shovels and, all crying together, we buried our dog.

Of course, four-year-old spirits can't be repressed. Sobbing and wailing she was crying, "Bye-bye! Bye-bye, Pepper! I love you--waaaaaah! Oh look! It's a w-w-worm! I want to *sob sob* put it in there. Waaaaaah! Bye-bye Pepper! Daddy, *sob* aren't you going to--waaah--help?" I was both crying and laughing as we did the hard task of entombing one of the best creatures I have ever known.

I have some bricks that I was going to use to make a small flower bed, but now we're going to have the Munchkin paint a few as a grave marker. I'll plant some perennial flowers over her, so that no one can be gloomy when we look at that corner of the yard.

We'll get another dog at some point, because there's a big gaping hole in our lives now that can only be filled by a dog.  Anyone who's ever owned a dog knows there's something incredible and special. We do not deserve our dogs, creatures with the purest hearts. So we will get another dog, but we will never forget or stop missing the dog who helped us become a family.


"Later guys, it has been a wild time."
Addition from HusbandX:
Your departure has left me shattered and I can't figure out how to put myself back together. When it all started I didn't even want you, now I don't know how to continue without you.