Friday, July 31, 2009

Growing a garden when you don't have a yard

tuscan window boxes of flowersWe are moving, and we are losing our outdoor space as a consequence.

I've had to grieve through this, which has somewhat surprised me. We've chosen well in terms of the unit we're moving to, and frankly we just can't afford to own land plus decent interior square footage in our chosen neighborhood. We had to choose one or the other, and we chose the interior.

Our decision makes sense, because we're not very outdoorsy people, and we still have an entire beach less than a block away. We shouldn't be so attached to having our own personal piece of land. In fact, we had never had any outdoor space before this current apartment surprised us with a private patio. But we've grown accustomed to the luxury in just the short time we've lived here. Because the patio was broken down already, I added some dirt and called it a garden. We have a porch swing; we sometimes splash in the birthing-now-kiddy pool; our cat likes to sun herself and scratch her back on the concrete; and our toddler rides his scooter and trike back and forth along the length.

And now we're losing it all. We're selling the porch swing on craigslist. We have to figure out some way to store and maneuver all our bikes up the flights of stairs in the new place.

And my garden. My beautiful babied plants — flowers and veggies, berries and lavender and perennials. I'll be leaving them behind, if the landlady agrees and if the next tenant would enjoy them. If not, the yard waste bin (oh, sad...) or given away through freecycle. And this is after I had such resolve to grow my own plants, too, and have enjoyed it immensely so far this season.

It got me thinking about how to garden without a yard, because I did it in small doses in my previous rental before we moved here a couple years ago, and I fully intend to start again next year. I'm not resigning myself to the loss of a garden forever!

So here are my ideas and tips for people in the same position: living in an apartment, high-rise condo, or houseboat (oh, that would make up for the loss of a yard!) but still wanting some green space. Feel free to add any that have worked for you!


1. First of all, consider what plants you can grow indoors. A lot of this will depend on how much light and how much space you have. You'll probably have to forgo the fruit trees, but there are always old favorites like a window box of kitchen herbs, a jar of sprouts, and green houseplants. But don't limit yourself to just that. Seeds, pots, and planting soil are all cheap, so you might as well play around to see what you can coax into bloom. Or you could go futuristic with a hydroponics system! Regardless, you'll need light. If you have a balcony or south-facing window, you might be able to hang a tomato planter or flower baskets to catch the sun, and arrange potted plants wherever they can get the photosynthesizing they need. If you don't have decent light, though, as in our previous east-facing apartment shaded by tall neighboring buildings, you're not going to be able to grow healthy vegetables in the window alone. I'm curious whether supplementing with grow lights would suffice for veggies, particularly in the gray Northwestern winters. I used an inexpensive DIY lighting system (three cheapo reflectors with a mix of higher lumens compact fluorescent bulbs clamped to a shelf overhead) to start my seedlings but then transplanted the baby plants outdoors into the much brighter sun. But if I ramped up my lighting system, maybe year-round indoor salads would be a possibility! If you try it, let me know.

Regardless, if you really want to grow enough to feed your family, you're most likely going to have to move outdoors, so here are some other options for the urban, landless green thumb:

2. Community gardens. In Seattle they're called P-Patches, but I'm thinking that's not a universal name, and the emphasis here is on organic gardening and low-income residents. In Seattle there's also a waiting list, so I won't be getting into one this year, and probably not the next either. But basically they're community lots that are divided into garden spaces and then rented out to members who pay for the privilege by putting in time caring for the common areas as well as their own patch. You can grow whatever you want, as long as it's for personal use. Harvest-time overflow is donated to area food banks.

3. Urban Garden Share. In Seattle, a group of kind souls set up a free website where homeowners with extra land can match with gardeners who are land-poor but knowledge-rich. Some homeowners are looking for mentoring relationships in starting a mutual garden; some just want to see their yards put to good use, for perhaps a share of the yield. Since I love a good romance novel, this description made me laugh. It is a little like a dating website for gardeners. You can write your own listing for either your expertise or your available dirt, and you can contact others securely and anonymously (as you wish) to see if you'd be a good fit. The listings are arranged attractively by neighborhood, so you can choose someone close to share ground with.

4. Get some friends. If the established options don't work out for you, see if you can arrange your own. Ask a friend or family member who owns a house nearby if you can be the garden gnome. Digging in dirt together is a great way to deepen your friendship, and you can share the astonishing amount of tomatoes and cukes you harvest. Or start your own Urban Garden Share idea, or see if you can connect with like-minded souls on craigslist or community bulletin boards (but be safe, please!). See if neighborhood businesses or schools, or even your own apartment building, would appreciate some volunteer landscaping, or maybe ask the city if you can beautify a traffic island. A local elementary school or preschool might relish the idea of a vegetable garden that all the kids participate in, assuming they're continuing through the summer. There's plenty of land around, even if it doesn't belong to you — if you ask, maybe others will share!

Some inspiration from someone who wasn't fazed by gardening indoors:



Happy gardening, all my fellow landless dirt-diggers!

Tuscan window boxes courtesy
Jenny Rollo at stock.xchng

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why boys don't wear pink, and why girls do

little girl in dress with pink balloonsThanks to Arwyn, I skated over to "pink at the rink: some thoughts on children and gender" at small red house. It talks about how women and girls are allowed to wear masculine clothing but not the other way around — because the dominant gender (males, in case you weren't paying attention) is not allowed (culturally speaking) to be dominated.

Maria notes that every girl she sees at the ice rink is wearing an article of pink clothing. And I've noticed before how absolutely grim the boys' section of any major discount department store is. Since my big-boned (ha!) son from an early age has been in toddler clothes, I sometimes dispiritedly wander through those big-boy sections and sigh over the meager array of colors, if you can call them that: black, brown, khaki, olive, and a splash of red or navy blue here and there. And the prints are either something neutral like a stripe, or something gender-typed like a robot, tiger, monster truck, dinosaur, or toolset, the baby stuff often with slogans like "Daddy's Little Boy" or "Future Linebacker." Nowhere have I seen, say, a whisk with "Daddy's Future Cook" or a thermometer with "Nurse in Training."

No, once we're out of the womb and our parts have been audited, we are officially camped into pink or blue, and there we must remain.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spanking as just kinda creepy

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at http://mudspice.wordpress.com/scarecrow doll rearI want to talk about an uncomfortable side of the spanking debate. I know it's an aspect of spanking that might not affect every parent or child who experiences spanking, but it needs to be put out there as a possibility.

It's the facet that spanking can be potentially sexual.

I found this article on Project NoSpank called "The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children," by Tom Johnson, that goes into much more depth of why and how spanking can be sexual than I will here. It finishes off with a round of truly horrifying news excerpts of perverted sadists who have used spanking innocent children to get off. That's not even what I'm talking about here, though I take the author's point that as long as spanking is condoned at all, it provides cover for such sickness.

Most parents don't intend for spanking — and by that I mean hand or instrument to buttocks, whether bare or clothed — to be sexual. Most parents, including ones who believe in physical punishment, are not depraved in that way. Even though I disagree with those parents (and that includes my own), I don't suspect the vast majority of meaning anything sinister by their choice to spank minors.

But there is something inherently sexual in spanking, and I sensed that even as a kid. Which is why I call it "just kinda creepy."

It's all so contradictory, right? I was taught that my bottom is one of my "private places," reserved for only me to touch. Only, when my parents are angry at me, then they can touch me there. But not just touch me, but hit me, so that it hurts this "private" place. It's creepy, ya know?

As a prepubescent, it was especially odd, because I didn't know what real sex was all about. I mean, I was given some books when I was 8 and my little brother was on the way, but I didn't really understand it. Spanking and touching people on the bottom seemed like just the sort of naughty thing that people might do for titillation — little did I know at the time, that was actually true.

My parents actually spanked me for the last time when I was about five years old, but I didn't know at the time that it would be the last time. So every time I displeased them, I wondered, would they be hitting me there? And I would feel a white hot shame, a violation, at the thought.

I try not to write about sex much here, except in oblique ways, because I can't figure out how to do it in a way that's not awkward. So, in my typical awkward fashion, I'll say that, in practice, I am not awkward about sex at all and that my early spanking experiences have not irrevocably harmed me sexually. I am not a spanking fetishist, and I do not enjoy pain mixed with my pleasure. (And that's not intended as a judgment against those who do.) But...and this is a big but (get it?)...the rear end still is a (nicely) sensitive spot. So let's reserve it for its intended uses: sitting, you know, and you know #2 (get it?).

Here is a particularly good summarizing section from the article from Project NoSpank:

"Since children are sexual beings and since the buttocks are a sexual region of the body, we should question the propriety of slapping children’s buttocks. We generally understand that fondling or caressing a child’s buttocks is a sexual offense (even if the child does not understand it to be so). We also know that slapping an adult’s buttocks is a sexual offense (even if the offender does not get sexual pleasure from doing so).

"The question, then, is why slapping a child’s buttocks is not considered a sexual offense. Is it because spanking, unlike fondling, is physically painful and used to punish misbehavior? No, or painfully spanking a misbehaving adult would not be a sexual offense. Is it because children are less likely to be sexual targets than adults, less likely to feel violated, and therefore protected less strictly? No, or fondling an adult would be a far more serious crime than fondling a child. A more plausible explanation for this breach of logic is simply that the majority of people are unable or unwilling to believe there could be anything indecent about a practice as old, common and accepted as the spanking of children—something which nearly everyone has received, given or witnessed at least once. And since spankings typically come from esteemed or even beloved authority figures, many people are loath to question this behavior."


So, add this to your list of reasons not to spank. It might not be top of the list, and it might make you feel a little dirty just thinking about it. I want to emphasize again that I'm not suggesting that the average parent is thinking of sex during spanking. I just want to point out that the parent has no control over how it's perceived by the child being spanked. If the child finds it sexual in some disturbing way, then it is.

Creepy scarecrow backside courtesy
mario gonzaga at stock.xchng

Monday, July 27, 2009

Fingerspelling babies

ASL C hand sign languageWell, our 2-year-old might not really be talking yet, but he can spell!

It's too funny. He'd enjoyed the Baby Signing Time DVDs, as I mentioned, but we noticed he also enjoyed YouTube videos of the more advanced regular Signing Time version.

Well, we sell some Signing Time sets in our home business (which is, ta da, selling DVDs), and one of the discs from the new Series 2 was loose in the case, so Sam had to take it out to see how scratched it was and if it would still play. Mikko, being present for every aspect of our family business, won himself some free Signing Time watching right there!

(He was quality testing. He's a contributing member to our home business.)

Signing Time DVD with Rachel ColemanSo, it was the funniest thing. The Series 2 DVDs try to be a little more advanced for the older kids by, among other things, introducing special fingerspelling practice and commonly fingerspelled words, like TV (well, duh, which is just what that link conveys) and refrigerator.

Sam saw Mikko pantomiming fingerspelling by holding up one hand and waving it around vaguely.

But then later, Sam showed him a few ASL letters, and Mikko knew them all! We knew he was learning some letters, reading-wise (he loves finding Os in books in particular), but we had no idea that fingerspelling could sink in with just one casual viewing.

I had heard that baby sign language could help promote early literacy, but one place I'd heard it from was the Signing Time videos — and you know how when you hear a product claim from the manufacturer, you're apt to take it with a grain of salt? (Or a full saltshaker?) They were pointing out that each sign is presented on a screen with the word clearly printed behind Rachel (the host) and that that could help connect the idea that letters mean something and what they mean is the concept we're talking about — all those big leaps of logic required for literacy. A sort of easy, receptive way to start learning to read.

Now, I'm not a big believer in pushing babies to do anything they're not developmentally ready or motived to do, so I've been trying to avoid coaching Mikko along the way to sit, walk, talk, whatever. I figure he'll get around to it all in his own time. I mean, he is sitting and walking — did I not make that clear? And he is talking, just not with a degree of facility I see in other 2-year-olds. But I (really) don't worry about it. We've had his hearing checked; we know he understands what we're saying because he responds appropriately; and we know he's trying to get it all out in comprehensible words and sentences and just isn't quite there yet physically.

Anyway, the reading fingerspelling thing is a another encouragement that he's on his own unique and perfectly normal developmental track, in particular because we weren't forcing him into it. He just thinks it's fun to spell.

So, off we go!




American sign language alphabet from Lifeprint.com

If you're interested, here's a little more about fingerspelling and ASL. Fingerspelling is used all.the.time in sign language, both for common words and proper or unusual terms that don't have a universally accepted sign (people's names or specialized vocabulary). Words are also sometimes made more specific by using an initial (like using the R shape for the general "mouse" sign to mean "rat"). For instance, follow this link and scroll to the end to see a list of commonly fingerspelled or initialized ASL terms.

I don't give enough props to my linkie friend for all things ASL: Lifeprint.com's ASL University, hosted by Dr. Bill Vicars. I've gushed about it before, but it bears repeating. It's got a great ASL dictionary and a free (!) ASL home-study course.

For fingerspelling in particular, there's a whole lesson series just on fingerspelling in ASL. It goes way more in depth about all the nuances and culture of fingerspelling than I can do justice here.

For super fun and maybe to hurt your brain, try out the interactive fingerspelling quiz. A phantom hand will spell words at you of a specified length and at your chosen speed, and you have to wrap your mind around how to interpret these letters flying at you, then type in your best guess. (Hint: It helps to sound out each letter as it flashes by rather than saying its English name and then trying to reconstruct what you've just spelled.) It's addictive! I find it really useful, because I feel like I don't get enough practice being signed at, particularly at an easily adjustable speed with a replay button!

On the main page, scroll down to see a "Spell It" box where you can type in words of your choosing and see them relayed to you. See if your kids would like to view their names in American Sign Language! It might help their spelling...

C-hand courtesy Luis Alves at stock.xchng
and ASL alphabet courtesy Bill Vicars at Lifeprint.com

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biking with your baby or toddler: In praise of a front-mounted seat

(ETA: For an expanded review of the WeeRide Kangaroo seat, see my later post at Hobo Mama Reviews.)



WeeRide Kangaroo Child Bike SeatIt's bike season, and my 2-year-old is fascinated with all the Fahrr├Ąder we see on the bike path by our house. (Every word is a contest to see whether English or German will win out in his vocabulary! So far bikes are "faaahhh" combined with the sign language for bicycle.)

I had given away my bike back when we lived up a steep hill with stairs (lazy, lazy, I know), but this summer I knew I needed to restock my wheels and acquire a child's bike seat as well, because Mikko would love riding around with his mama.

I won't recommend the way I chose my bicycle (whatever was at Costco — don't hate). But I do want to plug the adorable bike seat we chose.

WeeRide child bike seatIt's the WeeRide Kangaroo Child Bike Seat and is in the first four pictures in this article. I've included pictures of various other family-bike-riding options so you can get a feel for what's out there in case you want to go a different route. And I'll explain my decision-making process so you'll understand why I like what we chose.

In bringing children along for bike rides, there are four main options in the U.S.:

     1. Your child is old enough to bike alongside you. We're not there yet.

WeeRide tandem bike with child bike seat     2. If your child's a little older but you still want him or her close, a child-size tandem attachment to an adult's bike frame is a nifty possibility. Again, too advanced for us for now. That left us with:

     3. A trailer that's pulled along on the ground behind your bike, or

     4. A child seat that attaches to the bike.

Now, growing up, all I knew about and saw were options #1 (of course, ha ha) and #4, and as far as child bike seats went, WeeRide child bike seat Irelandthey all sat behind the adult rider, so that the child riding there got a great view of the parent's butt.

Not that this is a bad thing — I remember my butt-gazing days fondly, since my dad let me continue riding in my child seat until I was a lanky 5 years old and was forced into retirement.

But when it came time to transport my own toddler on my 18-speed (actually, I have no idea how many speeds it is — did I mention I'm the kind of person who buys the first bike she sees from Costco?), I didn't like the idea of not being able to keep an eye on my little one.

I considered a trailer because I heard trailers have better safety ratings, but it seemed counter-intuitive to me, because how could I check on child bike seat and trailerMikko's happiness except by stopping entirely? Also, I'm not so adept at maneuvering my bike on its own (getting back into riding a bike's like...um, riding a bike, right? You never forget, right??), so hauling along a trailer seemed chancy at best.

I liked the idea of having my baby on my bike with me instead. From a philosophical standpoint, it seemed more in line with Continuum ideals (no, really, work with me here), because Mikko could witness firsthand how bikes worked and how the adult moved and manipulated the bike. Back in a trailer, it would be more like a stroller ride, with less interaction with the physics and physicality of bicycling. From a practical standpoint, I also thought a compact bike seat would take less effort for getting inside and out and for storing the bike plus accouterments in our one-bedroom apartment.

But having the baby up behind me would be less immediate for him and less reassuring for me since I still couldn't keep an eye on him.

iBert child bike seat farmI was happy to see that front-set bike seats were available, which seemed like the best choice. In the WeeRide seat we chose, my arms can go around him as I hold the handlebars, and I can talk directly into the cute little ears peeking out from under his Spider-Man bike helmet (our toddler's head is massive enough that we had to skip to a child-size helmet). We together point out every truck, tractor, bike, boat, dog, and baby, and quite a few of the cars (or "Au-ko"s as he calls them), that goes by. It feels akin to babywearing, to me, because he's right up close at chest level and interacting with the world from the adult perspective, with my input and comfort.

Hamax Discovery 101 front-mounted bike seat with rear seatI looked at a few models of front seats (because there are only a few available): The WeeRide Kangaroo Seat, the iBert, and the Discovery 101 by Swedish company Hamax. They all had good reviews, plus a few stinkers, so I just sort of had to try a seat for myself to find out if it worked for us.

We chose the WeeRide Kangaroo Seat because (a) it was the cheapest, particularly since it was eligible for the free Amazon shipping; (b) it allowed for the highest weight limit of the front-seated models (40 pounds); (c) it looked pretty comfy (though if you want even comfier you can go up to the inexplicably more expensive deluxe padded version of the WeeRide) — I liked that either WeeRide had a higher back rest than the iBert and what looked like enough room for my toddler's long legs; and (d) it promised to be easy to remove in a moment if I wanted to ride alone (and it is easy — you keep the bar attached but just unscrew the seat with one big thumbscrew by hand and then screw it back on for next time). The size issue was really crucial for us, because our toddler's so large. I think the front-mounted seats are maybe intended for younger babies, and then they're supposed to "graduate" to a back-mounted version or a trailer. But I wanted to use one for my big guy, anyhow.

Now that we've used it for a couple months, I can give the WeeRide a big thumbs up. Mikko thinks it's awesome, which of course is the most important. Here are some other notes about it:

     • My 25-month-old fits well enough at around 3 feet high and 35 pounds wide, though he's definitely on the big end of the allowed size; his legs have to be very bent to fit in the stirrup-like foot holders, even at the lowest setting, but his shod feet do fit inside.

     • I would definitely revamp the safety harness if I could, because the chest loops keep falling down, thereby allowing the straps to slip off his shoulders. I've had to prevent that by using a hair clip or buttoning a cardigan so that it keeps them up. I would never recommend that as appropriate safety gear for, say, a car seat, and it makes me sad that I have to jury-rig any sort of safety equipment. I console myself that I ride only on bike paths and in the daytime, at a slow pace (not for safety reasons, but just because I'm slow), and of course both Mikko and I wear appropriate helmets.

     • The WeeRide gives little hands a nicely padded resting place, when I can get Mikko to leave them there. We did go through a minor phase where he really wanted to hold the handlebars without my hands on them at the same time — that didn't last long, since I rather insisted that I needed to use them. Fortunately, I can usually remind Mikko to put his hands back up on the rest, and he'll comply for the next several minutes, so it must be pretty comfy.

     • I was worried that biking around the seat would be awkward, that I would be in an exaggeratedly bowlegged position, but that's not the case. I definitely have to turn my legs out a little wider than if the seat weren't there, but it's only a slight adjustment to riding normally, and I'm 5'9".

     • As I mentioned, getting the seat itself on and off is a cinch. Installing it in the first place took maybe 20 minutes, and I didn't have any problems getting it to fit my Costco bike. I've heard all of the front-seated models don't work with drop handlebars, only upright, so if you already have a (good) bike, that will affect your options.

     • The added 35 pounds of child weight plus the seat means that I don't go all that quickly, and hills would be a chore. Fortunately, I'm able to ride along a nice, level stretch of waterfront. I don't know if a trailer would be a lot easier or not, but presumably so, because of the benefit of added wheels. I haven't felt thrown off balance by by the weight, because I think it's well centered. I do try to be very cautious when putting Mikko into the seat not to rely on the kickstand to hold him and the bike up but always to steady the bike myself until I get on.

WeeRide Kangaroo Bicycle Seat     • A front-mounted seat will get you a lot of smiles. Everyone we pass thinks we're absolutely adorable. What can I say? They're right.

So that's that. We're enjoying our bike rides, and we go a little farther each day. In researching this post, I found a couple good articles that might help you if you determine to go the trailer route: "Baby on Board: Bicycling With Your Child" from Mothering and "Cycling with a baby (and a small child)," a very hands-on article by Myra VanInwegen describing how best to arrange the interior of a trailer to make it baby in a bike trailersafe for a very young baby, or a two-seater trailer to fit both a young baby and a toddler. Most cycling safety articles, and most bike seats, caution against using them before your baby is one year old (and therefore can stand the neck strains of a typical jolting bike ride), but if you're an avid cyclist like Myra, you might find that sort of wait interminable. I give no express recommendations on this — please consult whatever professionals you feel might be able to help you make decisions on an appropriate age to have your baby start riding along — but if you are bringing a little baby on a bike ride, I think Myra's idea to use a car safety seat secured within a trailer makes the best sense. (Just to point out, she offers other articles of interest to family and women riders as well.)

In reading about trailers, I realized that my idea of a front-mounted seat works best for a family like ours that has only one baby or toddler at a time and doesn't need to haul a lot of gear. If you have two young children who are not yet ready to ride on their own or on a tandem, then a double trailer might be preferable. Another option for carrying two would be to put one bike seat on your bike, and one on an adult partner's (either life or riding!). You could also buy one rear-mounted seat for the older child and one front-mounted seat for the younger (picture of a man doing just that above), which would be sort of like double slinging! If you use your bike as your main transportation and need to carry groceries or similar along with your baby, you'll need to consider that as Bakfiets Dutch cargo and children bikewell. To manage multiple kids and cargo, you could always go whole hog and get a Dutch Bakfiets, which look way cool and like such a better arrangement than a rear trailer. For us, since we ride (so far) only for our own amusement and plan to space our kids rather far apart, I suppose Mikko will have graduated to a tandem by the time we need to worry about the next kidlet joining Mama and big bro on a bike ride along the beach.

One note about cost: You can often find bikes and bike accessories, including various seats and trailers, for free or low cost by asking around or checking out groups like Freecycle or Craigslist for your area. Also check consignment and thrift shops. Just make sure that whatever you get is in good working order for safety's sake, and add in the essential safety gear depending on your riding habits (helmets for all riders for sure, plus lights and reflectors in case you're out after sunset, and a bell to warn pesky pedestrians on the bike path that you're coming through).

Whatever you choose, happy riding! Be sure to wave at all the motorcycles and trucks — we do! (If you're really lucky, they wave back.)

There are too many photos to list all the credits here, at least while my toddler continues to pester me to stop writing and do something fun like take a bike ride. Do me a favor and click on any of the photo links if you wish to trace them back to their respective copyright holders.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cover your shame, woman

underwear on clotheslineI slept in just a shirt last night (long, unfortunately boring story) and so I was finishing up peeing pantsless this morning when Mikko walked in on me, as is his wont.

"Diaper," he signed. He always sleeps pantsless, easier for nighttime pottying, so I figured he wanted his underpants on. (He doesn't distinguish between undies and a diaper in his signing, but he'll always point to undies if we offer both.)

"You want your underpants?" I said.

"Me," he returned, at first confirming my suggestion. Then I remembered that he hasn't gotten his pronouns straight yet. Since we're the ones who say them so often, "me" refers to anybody else, and "you" is Mikko. To make his point clearer, he pointed at my tummy. "Me," he repeated, signing "diaper" again.

"Mama needs underpants on?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding vigorously. His job of restoring modesty to the family satisfied, he toddled off with his bum hanging out.

Photo courtesy francesca antichi at stock.xchng

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reading snazzy jazzy books to baby

Time for a book roundup!

These are the titles titillating my two-year-old toddler (dang, can't think of any more T words) presently. Oh, right — today.

Jazz Baby, by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory ChristieI have No Time for Flash Cards to thank for clueing me in to Jazz Baby, by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory Christie (there are multiple titles with the same name, so check the authors or make like picture). So glad I picked this up at the library, and Mikko loves it so much that I think I might (gasp) have to buy it.

It's one of those rhythmic, toe-tapping reads that makes you happy to have a toddler to read to, like Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb which I mentioned before, and Bear Snores On. The wordplay and meter arc and flow through a jazz improvisation as the baby sways and bebops with glee, before settling down to sleep, deep, deep, deep...oh, yeah.

This book cracks Mikko up in two unexpected ways: First, one of the early phrases is "Grandpa toot-toots," meaning on a trumpet, but my son has a wicked sense of toilet humor. (Hmm, wonder where he got that from... The thing is, you're allowed to be juvenile when you actually are one.) Secondly, each section ends with the baby shouting "Go, man, go," and Mikko literally screeches out "Goooooo" and employs his sign language for the word, learned from Baby Signing Time because I didn't have the foresight to realize it would be such a beloved sign. (It's pointing both index fingers in the direction you're go, go, going.)

Jazz Baby makes me happy as a parent, too, because it demonstrates a Continuum-happy lifestyle where the baby is surrounded by nurturing family members, neighbors, and friends of all ages and both genders. There is no disrespect for baby here, or for any age. Everyone's musical contributions are valid, and I think — and maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I'll go with it — that that shows that every person is validated and honored as well.

And, hey, as I mentioned, it's stinkin' fun to read!

Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy TownTwo other favorites right now are a treat from Grandma's recent visit. We were at the library for a German story experience and had some time to kill, so Grandma zeroed in on two Richard Scarry books — Busy, Busy Town and Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever — and asked if Mikko had either. He sadly did not, so they were checked out posthaste.

I have mixed feelings toward word books, without story to connect the vocabulary. I say mixed, because before having an actual child with whom to interact with them, I used to find them quite boring as a reader, but now I see how much delight Mikko takes in them. In fact, his favorite book for some time was First 100 Words, presumably because he could sign almost every one of those words. It was such a treat for him to point to a picture of say, a monkey, then sign it (scratch your armpits) and make an "eee, eee, eee" sound (that's what a monkey sounds like, natch), then wait for me to repeat it back to him and say "monkey" out loud several times to show I understood. It's been really helpful as we're learning German together, too, because I can "read" an entire book like this in German, reinforcing his (and my) bilingual vocabulary.

So, back to Richard Scarry... I'll just say, they're a big hit. Mikko goes ga-ga over the pages with trains, a recent obsession. He'll start saying "choo choo" and making the train sign (rubbing two fingers from each hand together) while I feverishly and obediently flip pages. Once I find the right one: "Train! Choo choo!" His joy is worth every hour spent poring over word books.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever revisedSomething that's on my mind about children's books is Arwyn's recent post about sexism in board books. I've noticed that Richard Scarry draws every woman and girl in a shapeless dress, and every male is in pants. But at least, I was reassured, he has a woman police officer on the cover of the Best Word Book Ever, even if she does have to wear her frumpy dress to work.

I should have known, though. I realized that the books must have been updated since their first publication, because there's a recycling truck on one page, and I know these books were around when I was a young'un. Let's just say that was before recycling, kids.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever 1963In gathering my little linkies and images for this article, I found the original 1963 cover to compare with today's version. It's so very intriguing!

Let's contrast: The woman police officer was definitely tokened in. A mother instead of a father used to be pushing the pram and leading a little boy (now a little girl) along on a trike. The house has been expanded to switch up the family roles. Originally, a woman bunny presided over the kitchen, while a boy bunny brushed his teeth upstairs. Now the boy has inexplicably changed to a girl (because girls have good hygiene too, dang it), and a man bunny has come to join the female in the kitchen. He's juicing some oranges for his tooth-brushing daughter and his layabout other child, and he's happy about it. There used to be only a male farmer in the field, hanging out with a scarecrow. The scarecrow has since become a woman farmer, and the term has been changed to the plural. The cow's still a cow. The firefighters are gender neutral, because I can't see if they've got skirts under their long coats.

Wasn't that fun?

And, hey, here's another funny thing as I'm learning German: There is no word I can find for "firefighter," only "fireman" or "firewoman." For some reason, this confounds me, because I want there to be a gender-neutral term.

Oh, here's another funny-slash-disturbing thing about the Richard Scarry books. In one of the train compartments, there's a pig eating what looks undeniably like a pork chop. I am agog.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Win a Boob top

boob nursing topAndi Silverman of Mama Knows Breast is hosting a nursing top giveaway from Boob, a Swedish maternity and nursing wear company.

You don't need clothing that's made specifically for breastfeeding to nurse in public, but it doesn't hurt! So pop on over to Mama Knows Breast to try for this cute nursing shirt. This is your chance to put those writing skills to use. If you're pregnant, tell Andi why you're dying to have this top. And if you already have a baby, tell her a favorite story about nursing in public.

Andi will pick the winner based on how fun, clever, or poignant the story is. If you wrote a particularly good one, cross-post it in boob maternity + nursing wearthe comments here so I can enjoy it, too. I've been reading some of the entries so far, and there are some really fun ones. I especially laughed at the "little tiny breasts" story and was shocked that someone was kicked out of church for a noisy nursling (as in, slurping, not crying). I was going to recommend some other comments, but I'll give up and say, just read them all.

The contest is for U.S. residents, and entries are due August 1, the start of Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We never wanted to buy a house

shell on the beachSo why are we?

One thing I've thoroughly disliked is that the word "home" has been co-opted by the real estate industry. As if nothing other than what you own qualifies, when home is such an emotion-drenched word.

Another thing I've disliked is the tired axiom: When you rent, you're just throwing money away. Balderdash. You're exchanging money for a place to live. Might as well say that you're throwing money away when you buy groceries, because you're just going to eat them.

I've never been much for the American Dream. I've never longed for white picket fences and expanses of green grass that's mine, all mine. I've liked the freedom of renting, being able to pull up stakes with 20 days notice, being free to earn as little as we wanted and find a rent to suit.

I've been rightly skeptical of the financial advantages of house-owning, as we've watched Sam's parents' equity disappear into the black pit that is the Michigan housing market, as we've seen friends foreclosed on, as we've watched investment properties not pay back as much as a savings account. I've witnessed the smaller financial disadvantages of owning, as well — the increased monthly payments even for a smaller place in a more prosaic location, the impulse to buy new furniture to fill those pretty new rooms, the drive to put in granite countertops and those sinks that sit on top of the counter and to switch to the stainless-steel appliances that will show all of your children's grimy little fingerprints. I held myself aloof in our rentals, making do with whatever ugliness and inconvenience presented itself, because it wasn't mine to deal with, and neither were the repairs or maintenance. I reminded myself of this as I saw two separate friends sink tens of thousands into replacing the rotting foundations of their purchases.

Mostly, we just felt we needed to be free. Sam and I each grew up living the Gypsy life. Before here, the longest I'd lived anywhere was four years, and the shortest was six weeks.

But, dang it, we fell in love. With a location, not a building. With this stretch of beach we're living along in Seattle, with Seattle itself.

We don't feel like picking up and jumping onto the nearest box car. We've (dare I say it?) settled.

And then we had another run-in, the latest in a series, with our crazy landlady of doom, as we've un-fondly named her. We recognized that we no longer felt comfortable in our otherwise ideal apartment, but rather than moving to another rental and another potentially insane landlady, would it be possible to own? We asked this of ourselves wistfully and sheepishly, not really expecting a yes from the universe.

But as I mentioned in my post on housing assistance programs, there were options available. We were beyond surprised when we walked out of the bank with a preapproval for what seemed like a great deal of money.

Of course, in Seattle, even a great deal of money doesn't go very far. We quickly realized there wasn't much, and hadn't been much lately, in our price range in the neighborhood we were interested in. When we happened upon our underpriced beauty, we pounced.

I think we will be happy there. Not because we're owning it. Not because we'll be cool then.

We would be happy where we are, too, or in another rental.

I think we'll be happy because we mean to be happy, and this purchase makes sense right now. It will make our lives easier in the future, if all goes well. Our housing payments will go down in proportion to inflation as the years go on, and meanwhile we will be secure in our nice little water-side bungalow.

We will raise Mikko there, and potentially another kidlet. We can see it. Mikko will continue sharing our room for now, but there's another room available if he prefers, and he and the future sibling can share the space together. Can I say how stupidly happy that makes me to envision? Not being a cosleeping baby or toddler myself, I always felt the lack of a roommate. I seriously loved it when I got to college and didn't have to sleep in a room alone anymore.

And our kids can run down the stairs and out to the beach, to our home, this stretch of sand and languid blue water.

And, who knows, maybe we'll even put in some granite countertops at some point. But I draw the line at the stainless steel. I don't want to go wiping those down every minute.

Photo courtesy Timo Balk at stock.xchng

Monday, July 13, 2009

I hate most parenting magazines

I unexpectedly received a mainstream parenting magazine in the mail the other day. I need to call to find out why, but I'm putting off the task.

Once I inadvertently got signed up for a subscription because I had put myself on a mailing list for samples and didn't return a card specifically opting out of subscribing to the magazine. I got customer service to cancel it and not charge me after all, but it all seemed very underhanded to me.

It's possible I got signed up for this current one because Mikko's Grandma recently signed him up for a kids' magazine subscription, and maybe this was a package deal. That's all I can guess at the moment.

I flipped through the mag anyway, wondering if I'd like it enough to read it if it is indeed free.

I quickly determined that you couldn't pay me to read it. Even if it's free, I want to cancel the subscription.

First of all, flipping through it is a misnomer, because most every page stuck at an advertisement. One of the first ones I flipped to was a scare tactic for the pertussis vaccine. Then there was the full-page one on the back for toddler formula. Most of the ads weren't anything out of the ordinary: disposable dipes, bright plastic toys, and all the other gew-gaws your average American parent thinks are necessary. I will freely admit that I make use of some of the wares being advertised. But I kept thinking that these were all things that didn't need advertising. And I did think to send a letter condemning the formula ads in particular, since formula companies, ethically speaking, aren't supposed to be advertising at all!

Then there were the articles. The raising of fears and the urging of coercion, and the veiled advertisements even here. My favorite was the page of snack suggestions, which recommended feeding kids Jell-O to learn colors (no, seriously) and Cheez-Its with letters on them to learn the alphabet. Huh-wha? Yes, let's make sure our preschoolers are getting their full RDA of gelatin and cheez, shall we?

mothering magazineTo keep this from being just a rant about what I don't like in parenting magazines, let me plug my fave mag of all time: Mothering. And, no, they're not making me say this (or paying me, sigh...).

There are ads (something's gotta pay the bills), but they're for companies you root for, ones that need the attention. And the articles celebrate parenting in relationship rather than present it as a task to be done just so.

It's so odd, because my uncle was visiting one day when my parents were here and was flipping through my issue of Mothering and said to my parents, "So, this is the guilt magazine, I see." My parents chuckled along. And I couldn't even figure out what he meant.

mothering magazine interiorI processed it later. I guess he saw that it encouraged breastfeeding, organics, traditional foods, cosleeping, unschooling, and so on, and decided that it would make everyone as uncomfortable as it made him.

But, for me, since I already embrace those precepts, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like there's someone out there who knows me, a whole heap of someones in fact, and that they're going to support me in every issue.

And when I want more support, I can head off to the Mothering.com discussion boards to chat and listen.

Mothering's even cooler now, because it's introduced a new digital interface. It's eco-friendly, internationally accessible, substantially cheaper, and easier than print to read in a dark room while breastfeeding your baby to sleep! Parfait, non?

So, that's my plug for Mothering magazine. What magazines do you read that make you feel all warm and squishy inside, or inspire you to think deep thoughts, or challenge you to change your ways? Please share, so I have more good parenting magazines to read, to replace the trash in my mailbox!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cache and carry

Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing MothersGo to Motherwear's Breastfeeding Blog for a fun excerpt from Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett and Nancy Mohrbacher.

It explains the four different types of mammals, and why our breast milk is designed to be so low (comparatively) in protein and fat.

(To break the suspense, it's because human babies were designed to be carried around and feed all day long!)

Tanya says it might be geeky that she finds comparisons to other animals so fascinating. I'm too much of a geek to say whether it is or isn't, but I'll share in the fascination.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The all-consuming home-buying search

mortgage loan applicationI've felt kind of out of it lately, because all my emotional energy has been going toward buying a house.

A 2-bedroom condo, to be exact, a half-block from the beach. It's a pretty sweet pad, if I do say so myself.

But not so sweet that my mind should be this taken over by the process of acquiring it.

I haven't been writing or commenting much lately, because all I've been thinking about has been this home-buying process, and I didn't want to write about that, for fear of jinxing it. Do I believe in jinxing? No. And, yet... Well, I think it's more that there are so many ifs in our particular quest, and I felt vulnerable putting them out here. If it all falls through, then I'll have to admit that and feel stupid for ever mentioning it in the first place.

But maybe our journey and the resources we used can help some other low- to mid-income first-time home buyers (thusly was the demographic presented to me), so I'll give out a little bit of our course of action, and if you want details, feel free to email.

First, I'll point out that it seems to be a really good time to buy if you can swing it. Housing prices are low(er) almost everywhere in the U.S., and interest rates are very low as well. The place we're trying for is definitely undervalued right now. Now, no one can predict what will happen, if we're heading into a serious depression, where prices and rates will dip even lower. The common wisdom I've heard for my part of the country is that prices will stagnate for awhile, but interest rates will go back up. I am not a financial advisor or housing expert; do not take this as a prediction from Madame Fortuna. I only seek to point out that if you can afford it now but wait a couple years, you might not be able to afford it then.

To find helpful information and programs, I went to good old Google and typed in "first time home buyer Seattle." Substitute your location accordingly.

Using that method, I happened across the Washington State Housing Finance Commission's website. Might there be similar commissions in other states? There might. It's worth checking out.

The commission offers a free, 5-hour intensive class for first-time home buyers. Once you take this educational seminar, you're eligible to apply for various income-based assistance programs.

Washington in general and Seattle in particular have what's known as the House Key program. If your household is under the maximum income limits and your house price is under the maximum price, and if there are funds available in the House Key program (a big if, as we've discovered), you can potentially combine a low-interest mortgage loan with a down payment assistance loan (up to $60,000) with very low interest (3%) and deferred payments (30 years).

Another program we looked into was the community land trust option. There are various CLTs operating across the country and internationally, so see if there's one near you if you're interested. Again, there are income limits. The CLT operates as a nonprofit whose purpose it to keep housing affordable for generations to come. The one hereabouts buys the land under your house by gifting you an additional $100,000 on top of whatever mortgage amount you qualified for. You then lease the land back from the land trust for $35 a month as long as you live there. When you sell, you agree to forego a large portion of the appreciation to sell it at an affordable price to the next CLT wannabe. It's community-spirited and nicely do-goody. It also protects you in a down market by cushioning the effects of depreciation.

So, long story short, we're trying for House Key, but it's kind of like threading a needle to be poor enough to convince House Key that you need the assistance but rich enough to assure the underwriters that you can afford the monthly payments. After a whirlwind couple weeks of learning, hunting, offering, and switching lenders, we're twiddling our thumbs right now, waiting for the approval or rejection of our loan application. Time has suddenly slowed, and we have nothing to do but wait. And write, apparently.

So that's my current story, and those are the thoughts keeping me up at night. Here's hoping for good news, an easy move, and more interesting thoughts for the future as we continue to enjoy our life by the water!

And I'll try to respond to comments soon!

Photo courtesy Jan Stastny at stock.xchng

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Get your own Baby Signs starter kit

I've talked a lot about using sign language with your baby or toddler. Now here's my chance to shut up and let you win some free resources to help you introduce baby sign language into your own family.

Look What Mom Found...and Dad too is teaming up with Baby Signs With Elizabeth to offer to one lucky reader either the Baby Signs® Complete Starter Kit, which contains everything parents and their babies need for a successful start to signing, OR the Baby Signs Potty Training Kit, which contains a program and supplies for combining potty learning with baby sign language.

Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, by Linda Acredolo and Susan GoodwynYou can jump through various hoops on the Look What Mom Found blog to get entries, and the contest ends July 17.

Baby Signs® is a brand of baby sign language headed by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. (Some baby sign language classes you see offered will be a specific brand, and some will be generalized.) Baby Signs is a good program, based on what I've read of the book. When I was investigating baby sign language, Linda Acredolo's Baby Signs book was one that I sought out from the library, and it was very helpful in getting me started.