Monday, May 30, 2011

A Visit to the Aquarium

After a lot of waiting for the library pass to be available, we went on a trip to the aquarium. We thought it'd be educational for Noah. Hehe.

We took the train to make it more fun, and to avoid having to park in the garage.

The aquarium is great! It still costs $8 per person with the library pass. Noah actually just likes running around right now, so it's possible he would have enjoyed running around in Boston just as much, but perhaps the structure of the trip was as helpful for us-- getting us out and about-- and next time we'll just go and roll around on Boston Common... Unfortunately Bostonians are sun-starved and all gravitate to the same places the moment it gets warm. So it'll be a crowded summer, but it'll be good...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Heavens, New Earth

Post May 21st non-rapture, I read this blog over at the Washington Post, by Brian McLaren. I've read his book A New Kind of Christianity, and it was one of the most helpful books for facing some of my big questions about the Bible. With this in mind, I wanted to share part of the blog post, below:

"Now I, like many others, have migrated to a very different understanding of the future. More and more of us are calling it a “participatory eschatology” or a “participatory view of the future.”

Instead of assuming that the future is predetermined, that the script is written, that the movie is already filmed in God’s mind and is only “showing” in the theatre of the now, we believe the future does not yet exist.

We believe that we are called to work together with God’s Spirit - with creativity, for justice and peace, nonviolently, and both passionately and patiently - to create the kind of future that fulfills what Desmond Tutu calls “the Dream of God.” Of course, we can’t presume to know what that world looks like: we can’t presume it’s communist or capitalist or works on some as-yet undreamed-of economic system.

But we work with this confidence: that when we show love, when we seek God’s justice for all, when we care for the vulnerable and forgotten, when we try to take the logs out of our own eyes before working on the splinters in the eyes of others, when we care for the birds of the air, flowers of the field, and fish of the sea, when we admit our wrongs rather than hide or deny them, when we give rather than hoard, when we seek reconciliation rather than revenge ... we are nudging the world one small step forward in our journey towards that dream of blessing and peace."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You Can't Control Your Children.

Well, at least I can't control my child. I probably shouldn't have tried, but I guess a part of me still wanted this extension of me as some kind of reflection of my awesomeness.

I was a mediocre history student at Wellesley, and I while I was a student I daydreamed about having the admiration of one professor. I would compensate for my mediocrity in East Asian history by being outstanding in life. I would keep some nerdy colonial railway facts on hand (did you know imperialist Europe planned to make a killing with railways, but made railways with different size tracks across Africa? I have plenty more. Ask me.) to show that they and I, we were just the in-house railway geeks. They with their 500-page book on Manchuria, me with my honors thesis-on-the-railway-noone-had-ever-wanted-to-write-about-because-it-was-such-a-colonial-failure. And one day, I would return to the department, an accomplished humanitarian, possibly talking in fluent Chinese on my cell phone, with my astonishingly well-behaved prodigy toddler in tow. And it would show that, for all my mediocrity in history, I was exceptional. Now, it seems pretty awful when I write it down like that, but I'm counting on you to understand.

I thought about that stage in my life as I pick Noah up, kicking and screaming, from whatever I want to stop him from doing. He's reached the stage where it's really insulting and annoying for him to just be lifted out of whatever he's doing. But he's not yet at the stage where telling him about something else fun is very compelling. So it just seems like a lose-lose. He put my laundry in the toilet over the weekend. And was so proud.

But then, Noah got super excited yesterday when he could communicate with me by squeezing his eyes shut. Then I squeeze my eyes shut. Then we both laugh and give eachother hugs and kisses. I like to think we're saying something like "I love you", but I think he just thinks it's fun. He was so excited about communicating that he just ran around the house in circles for an hour or so. An hour in which Eug and I didn't have to say "no" once, we could just let him run and laugh.

I'm not sure that there's a lesson here, but just to say that outcomes-control doesn't seem to be a good focus point, in parenting or in life. Even though there are many, many times when I need to assert that I know more than Noah (I know when he's tired, for example), it can be less about controlling some distant outcome and more about being really focused on Noah, and whatever is needed from that moment, right then and there. It's a subtle difference but I've noticed it matters a lot. There'll still be times where I have to just pick him up (I'll bet there are entire parenting books dedicated to how not to do this) but the point is that Parenting with a Big P is just too big a concept. Just like eating healthy food for all time is too nebulous and daunting for me. Trying to be a Consistent Disciplinarian is also just too big (it involves remembering what's allowed and what's not). So I'm lowering the bar.

We just need to figure out how to do well moment-to-moment. Which is also big, but it doesn't involve holding future (possibly ridiculous) outcomes in our hands.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Eating Well.

As I gradually decrease pumping at work (from 4 times a day, down to two, and soon to one), I was considering my beliefs around breastfeeding. In short, I think it's really important. Which led me to think how I'd discuss it with someone who has to go to work to support their family, but is in a job that isn't supportive of pumping. My first line of reasoning would be "show your employer the stats!", but my second would probably be along the lines of human rights: For thousands of years, breast milk was the food for babies. And even though now there are better alternatives than cows milk, breast milk is still best. So if one's job doesn't allow your baby the good, affordable food they need, isn't it time to rethink your life? A good house, stuff, vacations, college fund, whatever- none are as tangible or basic as food.

But the reality is that to make such an argument will be heartless, because we don't feel like we can build our lives in that way. Maybe we choose where to study or work, or our location, maybe our spouse or to have kids, and soon enough things spiral in directions we have no control over, and we're left with tons of stuff and skills [and debt] but feeling as though good food is a luxury.

Given this line of thought, I was thinking about how Eug, Noah and I eat. Our monthly income is around the U.S. median or a little under, and while we feel rich, it's hard to do more than break even while living in Boston. When it comes to saving money, food has been a place where we've tried really hard to save (see here and here). Not to romanticize too much (there were two world wars last century, after all), I think it's reasonable to say I eat a ton more processed foods, and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, and less pasture-raised meat, than my grandparents or great-grandparents did.

So my charge to myself this summer-- after receiving money as a gift for Noah's birthday-- is to eat really well and see what it costs. I'll still be frugal, but I won't limit the number of in-season fruits and vegetables we can buy, and I'll also buy more good cuts of meat- to eat some kind of red meat or chicken once a week. Another goal is to eat good fish once a week. Instead of seeing how well I can eat with a pre-determined budget, I want to see how much it really costs to eat well, at least with my own understanding of what that means, and work on the rest of our budget from there.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Race to be Middle Class in Korea

It was striking in Seoul that the standard workweek seemed to be 60 or 70 hours long, rather than 40. In this context, almost all women end up staying home after they have children, as both parents can't work this kind of week. Dads and singles are working so hard so that their children can go to the best schools, study like crazy, and ultimately get jobs and start the cycle over.

Korea has this in common with lots of other countries, it just seemed particularly striking in Seoul, where there are thousands of identical high-rises and you feel so small and insignificant as one person in this huge, anonymous set of satellite cities.

In Boston, while the race for status and success doesn't seem quite as transparent, we get locked into similarly constraining set of norms. A decreased work week is a privilege that a lot of our ancestors didn't have (they also didn't have two parents working outside the home), but the assumption is that we'll embrace work in order to get all these other luxuries our ancestors didn't have, either.

The assumption is subtle. I assume that I should have my own computer, that we should probably have a car and that it'll be radical and temporary when we don't, an apartment (definitely not just a room), a good set of knives, a bed, Starbucks every now and then (that's a whole different debate...) when all those decisions add up to a lot of work. We've made a lot of counter-cultural decisions already, but they have to be held much more tightly, and constantly defended, exactly because they're going against the prevailing current of assumptions.

To oversimplify:
Our Ancestors: A little Paid Work------food+shelter-----a few luxuries
we can choose: Less paid work---food+shelter----a few luxuries (still more than above)
Or: Lots of paid Work----food+shelter----many, many luxuries

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stealth Farming in Seoul

In the midst of extremely fast-paced lives, many Koreans are using every spare inch of space to garden. And not with tons of compost or fertilizer or anything much. Somehow, people are successfully growing amazing gardens in what seems to be post-construction soil, with bits of cement, rocks and sand.

What's cool is that this apparently isn't official "public" land; people just see some unused space, particularly if there's a nearby stream, and start planting until they're forced off. Usually they're not. There are 1-feet wide strips of land going up a hill that are used for growing peppers, little bits of ground on a bridge over a stream-- it's all being used.

And while highways might not be the best places for some crops, I really love the idea of using public space to grow food-- perhaps even taking it a step further, to growing "publicly available" food in public space. I'll write a post later about how frazzled and difficult life in Korea seemed to be (and I don't mean that in a paternalistic poor-poor people way), but growing food seemed to be a glimpse of the life people were longing for, even as work hours are long and being "middle class" is increasingly stressful.

Recycling in Korea is pretty amazing-- this was the trash dropoff for an apartment block of 80 families.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I'm Wearing Thirty items for Three Months

We have beautiful sunflowers in the house (great choice, Brucie!), so I just had to show them off.
I've long been talking about how to do an inventory of my clothes in the name of streamlining and simplifying and so on.  While there are a ton of different templates for reducing your wardrobe, I recently encountered one that resonated with me. I like that I don't have to get rid of my other clothes, because I want to see how it goes and whether it actually simplifies my life.

I've modified the parameters a little to help fit where I'm at, so this is my wardrobe for the next three months (everything else is stored).  The idea is this: 30 items (including accessories, bags, sunglasses, shoes, but not underwear) for three months. After three months, you can rotate your stock.

1 Sunglasses
1 Bag
2 Dresses
3 Skirts
2 pants
2 Light Sweaters
1 Blazer
2 Tank tops
2 Button Down Shirts
3 other shirts
3 pairs of shoes
2 Light Coats (one waterproof, one not)
1 Hoodie
1 Swimsuit/costume
1 Necklace
3 Scarves
30 Items

Balancing the office dayjob and my other life is hard!

My bag doubles as a diaper bag, and the pair of shoes not pictured here live at work.
On Saturday I hung up all the items I'll be wearing, and put all my other clothes in a chest. My initial reaction was one of relief, because my cupboard looks simple and I can see everything- and everything is in one place. I was surprised by how quickly you end up with 30 items-- at first it seems like a pretty large number (for Eug, I think it was-- he's also down to 30 items without blinking)-- but I shudder to think of how many items are usually in my closet and chest. I also think this is a much harder exercise for those of us who wear necklaces and scarves and so on.

I consider this exercise as discipline, where it works to the extent that it allows me to focus on other things, particularly God. For me, the discipline of fasting from most food hasn't been helpful up to now, because I spend the entire time thinking about how much I like food. But this kind of discipline works because although it's a stretch, I'm not going to be thinking about clothes these three months. Or the three months after that.

I like the idea of thinking of those things that are excellent, true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and so on. I say "like the idea of" because much of the time I'm critical and sarcastic, without necessarily building things. But we're meant to build- we're creative. Now, it's a leap from simplifying your wardrobe according to a pre-determined rubric- to thinking and building. But I think the more we create space in our lives, the more space there is to dream and to build.

If anyone tries this out (with me, or later) please let me know, I'd love to share in the experience.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Noah's First Birthday

Traveling is tiring! And what is with this hat??

A year ago today, Noah arrived in the world.

I remember reading a long time ago that people don't undergo an automatic transformation during the trial of dying. Most people encounter the enormity of death as they've encountered life. That stuck with me, and I think it applies to parenthood, also. On the one hand, Noah's arrival was immediately life-altering. On the other, we remained very much the same-- no special wisdom, I didn't immediately become less selfish, I kept many of the same dreams and hopes. I remember being surprised that, a few hours after Noah was born-- a totally new life, remember-- it seemed ok that Eug watched the Celtics playoffs in our dimmed hospital room. And yes, the three of us squeezed on the bed and watched that episode of Lost that was late to post on Hulu. After 9 months without caffeine, I had a diet coke 30 minutes after Noah was born.

I'm not saying that his birth didn't change us in a deep and fundamental way. Just the opposite. But the small events-- the choices of what to have for breakfast and why, where to live, how to spend my time today (whether or not to watch Lost again from episode 1, season 1)-- play a huge role in defining how I learn to parent. And parenting seems to be the sum of a lot of moment-by-moment decisions. Will I give Noah a kiss right now? Will I let him put his little finger in the electrical socket? How will I try to communicate with him during bathtime? Will I get stressed about the amount of banana he seems to be eating? Is it ok that he just peed on the floor?
I've never looked better...
And over the course of the year, these small moments added up. Even as I continue to dream big, my career goals are much less ambition-driven. Marriage is still a huge part of my life, but in a different-- gentler, more giving, less everything-needs-to-be-perfect-right-this-moment-- way. Growing into a person of grace looms large. Dealing with my issues seems more important, as I see myself through the eyes of a son (who will inevitably inherit some of my issues).

Noah's started to try to communicate (he points and squeaks a LOT, and knows when we're making fun of him), and with this change I've started to feel more deeply the responsibility to pray for his future, and what he'll become. I'm not praying for him to be a particular thing, or have a particularly problem-free life, but for him to be able to experience deep-down contentment and joy. Which, for right now, he seems to have grasped as well as any of us.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Whole Grain Baking

I read a recent article over at Frugal Girl about trying to make baking healthy (the url might not be linking because I'm figuring out a Korean browser), and it got me thinking about my take on baking. On the one hand, I'm all about practicality and what's doable-- home made sorbet is [usually] better than buying ice cream, but I'm not going to try too hard to make it healthier. On the other hand, healthy baking doesn't need to be hard or taste worse.

My experience with whole grain baking is this: I was comfortable making white flour food before I got comfortable baking with whole grains. But I don't think this has to be the case. The recipes I learned growing up used all purpose flour, and you can't just substitute whole wheat flour for white flour, or apple sauce for sugar and oil, and hope for the best. Our baking forefathers made choices. These choices are imprinted on our tastebuds, and on our expectations of those recipes. So I don't mess with the brownie recipe we've always used. Nor do I stop baking brownies.

At the same time, I find the assertion that whole grains are important-- whether wheat, corn, barley, or rice-- pretty compelling. That food that has spent a long time-- a year, more?-- on the shelf or in the warehouse, is not the same as fresh food. Whole grains seem to be closer to what they were in nature (though probably still not terribly close. Anyway).

Whole grains turned out to be surprisingly easy to introduce-- though we're nowhere near eating all whole grains in baking. One help was the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book (, because the recipes were designed for whole grains. Rather than tasting dry and stereotypically "healthy", they just taste good.

So, with an n of one, I sometimes ask if my health (or Eug's health) has improved since we started eating more whole grains. I'm not sure. I'll probably need to ask again in 50 years. But we're super lucky in the sense that we don't have to think about our health all that much, and I think having time to cook has a lot to do with that.

So this post is more like a long comment to say that you don't necessarily have to give up your grandparent's best-loved recipes to be healthy, but maybe one way to bring us into better touch with our food (and maybe our health) is to find great, healthy recipes to pass down to our kids.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Enjoying Seoul

I wanted to share my sister's blog. She recently began this blog, after years of writing. It's full of hope. Blogging is so fun because we glimpses of the people we already know. Perhaps we also get pathways to deeper conversations and mutual inspiration as we do life in the kitchen, or in the trenches, depending on metaphor preference.

A quick (live) post to interrupt the scheduled posts. My first visit to Korea has been full of quiet observation- noticing how people communicate and interact with one another-- as I'm not able to do much communicating myself. I'm able to understand a difficult period of my life-- when I was in a Korean church in the U.S.-- much better against the backdrop of our trip.

In hindsight, traveling with family for one week with a one year old probably wasn't our best idea, but it was an important trip. As I ponder how the trip could have gone better, I'm struck by the fact that Eug and I take once-in-a-lifetime trips almost every year, and how I can maintain a sense of wonder and learning through the stress of actual travel. Many of you readers are also travelers, and I wonder how you manage to make the most of this stage in your life?

I'm looking forward to reflecting more with you, as it's been several years since I traveled to a country other than South Africa or the U.S.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Frugality, Fashion and Cultural Norms

Whenever Eug has a client asking him to design a poster or brochure or logo with people in it, he has to ask them to step back: what do the people look like? Are they one race? Diverse? What are they wearing? Business casual? preppy casual? hippy-looking? homeless-looking? Because these things matter. They matter A LOT to how included we feel in society, and how we relate to a message and to eachother.

I write this a few days before I leave on my first trip to Korea (you're reading it while we're away), because I've been thinking about clothes a lot in preparation for this trip. In Korea, dressing beautifully, wearing makeup and being generally well-groomed, is a demonstration of respect and {where applicable} love to those around you. The flip side is that not meeting that standard may be deemed a sign of disrespect, or of a bunch of other problems.

I really didn't want to buy a ton of new clothes for one trip, but I wanted to show respect and appreciation for the family I'm meeting for the first time. Which was stressful because I felt like I was failing before I even started. I had entire conversations in my head where I tried to figure out how to measure up while not being crazy extravagant. I even bought a dress from the thrift store and only just thought through the fact that it's impossible for Noah to partake in breastmilk when I'm wearing a dress. I had momentarily forgotten that I haven't worn a dress in over a year.

Then I thought about people like Shane Claiborne, who manages to be totally loving and charming without buying a ton of clothes, and I discovered Kristy's One Dress Protest, which expresses some of this notion of how our clothing defines us.  These are extremes, but I'm surrounded by examples of people weighing consumption carefully.

As I think a little more about the stress and uncertainty of "fitting in" across language and culture, it's a cliche but the key starting point is actually feeling blessed by the people around me. Figuring out how to express that the best way I know how, has to come from that place, and not from a place of trying to measure up. As I try to navigate being "counter-cultural" in a society of consumers (U.S. and South African too, not just Korean), it seems that I have to first be really comfortable with myself and with disapproval. This is not to say that I don't try to dress well, but that if I don't quite pull it off, that's ok, provided I'm trying to understand more than to be understood.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Working towards Sustainability in the City

I was super encouraged by this post over at the Squibix Family blog, for it's long term vision. I completely agree that the garden can amount to ministry- a demonstration of love- to the people in the Archibald's life. Since I started this post, the Squibix Family launched Squibix Farm, which tracks the growth and progress the farm is making. Yes, it's a farm!

I have all these big dreams for being self sufficient; having a composting toilet, solar panels, and the like. And buying the Biltong factory next to our house in Cape Town), pulling up the concrete, pulling down the barbed wire and starting an urban farm. Where everyone's invited to share the pickings. Some dreams are bigger than others.

The Biltong Factory AKA Future Urban Farm.  You can see our house on the right (it shares a wall with the biltong factory).

Dan's inspiration, together with my dad (also Dan)'s garden inspiration adds up to renewed vigor to figure out what exciting, long term dreams might be possible. Plans I have no control over--for grand urban farm-- aside, our dream should look a bit different since we're currently living in an apartment, and even our house in South Africa doesn't have a garden. I figure this may be another year to be grounded in the present--learn some more about gardening on the balcony, learning to shop and cook from the nearby farmer's market (we won't have a CSA share this year); while having an eye on the future-- learning about soil, learning from more experienced gardeners, learning how to knit socks (I'm kindof obsessed with wool after I found out it never smells).

Somewhere mixed in with trying new things out in the context of the apartment is the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be proficient in something. While I can't put in all of my hands-on self-sufficiency hours right now, I'm keen to put in my reading hours and really be conversant in some of what it takes to grow and make food. I'm inspired by the idea that our two cents matter to God (and to eachother), and that even if we have unlikely dreams, we can still work with the gifts and possibilities we have right here in the present. Even if I killed the tomato seedlings by putting them in the sun and cooking them. And even if that biltong factory never wants to sell for cheap.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Eating Well as a Family of Three

Last November, I wrote about Eating Well on a Budget of $190/month, and posted an update in December. I wanted to revisit this topic, as it's at the core of what I'm hoping for here at Concrete Gardener.

There is a lot of theory around how we eat-- that there's not enough world for everyone to eat organic happy food (I disagree)-- that good food is expensive and that it may be more helpful to redistribute money so that at least everyone can eat. The arguments behind these ideas are  interesting and important at the systems level. But when I step out of the abstract and into our family, certain things are true: we could eat only local, sustainably produced food, but we don't. And we give part of our money away, but money does not translate to people eating, at least not in a linear way.

Our weighing of what to eat depends a lot on our context, and what's taking our time and energy. We arrive with so very many assumptions of what's normal and what's not.  Those baseline assumptions take time to change, so while I think we have to be radical, we can't do everything all at once, and that's ok.

I thought a good illustration of this was in the counterpoint between these articles on two of my favorite blogs: The Frugal Girl and Nourished Kitchen.

Over at The Frugal Girl, the considerations are: What will my family actually eat and enjoy? and What is affordable?

Over at Nourished Kitchen, the question is: What will make or keep me healthy?

The two perspectives aren't mutually exclusive. But if all your reading tends towards one thing, then that one thing can seem super important. For example, South Africans in my immediate circle don't necessarily eat super healthily, but they also don't overeat, they're not as busy (read: stressed) as Bostonians, and they exercise like crazy (for fun?!). Which has health implications that we can't really measure in a linear way.  Because people live more slowly, consuming paper goods is pretty unusual, which has waste/sustainability implications.

As I think more about what our family eats, I'm weighing cost, waste/trash, sustainability, our own health-- in the short term and the long term, and what we like to eat. Pppphhhew! It's almost enough to make one long for simpler times, when New Englanders had to store root vegetables in the basement to survive the winter. Almost.

Which brings me back to my evolving personal philosophy around food, informed my Michael Pollan and Nourished Kitchen and the Slow Food movement and others.
1) Give as much time to food prep as possible (i.e make food from scratch)
2) Buy one ingredient food items wherever possible.
3) Money spent on good, local milk, fruits and vegetables is money well spent. That said, we have higher priority items (milk) and lower priority items (onions).
4) Don't go crazy with the meat, but when you eat meat, make it special.
5) Don't worry about fat, but buy good oils (canola, olive).
I'm sure this will change over time as we uhhh...grow up?... but this is where we are right now.

How is your food philosophy evolving?