Thursday, November 29, 2012

Articles, Reading and writing

Some articles I've enjoyed this week:
Living and Learning as a Father
Beth Terry on "Greenwashing"
Online shopping with toddlers
Stuff we're going to try with pallets (well, some of it anyway)
Positive thinking and Global warming (thanks Connie!)

On Wednesday, for the first time in what seemed like forever, I bought a kindle book for pleasure and started reading. It's not that I haven't procrastinated, watched random downloaded shows with Eug, and had adventures, but yesterday I stepped into a book for the first time since I began my PhD, and it was lovely. It is John Holt's How Children Learn, which has a simple message:

Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple- or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves...

I know John Holt is immediately associated with a particular parenting stance and I want to hold those ideas loosely. Noah doesn't know when I'm trying a particular parenting idea and there's nothing he hates more than my "parenting voice", or the voice when I'm trying to be the adult. Or the voice when I'm trying to get him to do things.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving week

Our bird mite situation improved when we and our neighbor hired someone to remove nests and seal our common roof with wire. Cool thing I learned: our roof tiles are probably over 100 years old, and affixed with copper nails to avoid any rusting/etc. Less cool thing: 2 tiles were removed in search of bird nests, and stuck back on with cement (?!). Even less cool thing: the guys were unable to get to a nest so baby birds were actually sealed into our roof. Wow. Having a two story house with burglar guards on the windows makes us dependent on people with long ladders and a lot of courage.

For Thanksgiving, I did grocery shopping and we got bonus muffins. We took the muffins to eat at Glencairn beach. It was so windy that we couldn't hear ourselves at all, we had to focus on survival. What's with the cannon in Simonstown going off every 5 minutes?  We ate our sandy muffins and huddled between two rocks. Eli ate sand, which he later pooped out.  Our Thanksgiving was seconds long but profoundly beautiful. It helped that I couldn't talk over the wind and the cannon.

Then, on Friday, someone came and chopped our tree down. There was a giant tree in our tiny space, and it was starting to break down the wall and only growing larger and larger. It is not without sorrow that one sees this large and incredible thing killed. I'll add photos of the before and after soon. Our back area is bright now and I suddenly have double the space for growing stuff. I feel very content because practically speaking, I don't think I could grow a larger area of food yet! The main challenge is that, apart from where the tree stump sits, I'm limited to pots. I'm hoping that an initial investment in potting soil will be followed by many free or almost free gardening years.

At the intersection of lower main and albert road, they're making a stop for the new MyCity route. I'm really excited to start trying it. I find it obnoxious that we have to pay every time we top up the bus cards, because ABSA is involved. For anyone with limited means, this is the difference between sticking with minibus taxis and trying out the bus. So there are issues of power and wealth and race, as always. There's some debate over bikes traveling on buses and trains. If we're able to take our bikes on buses and trains, even if only on off-peak hours, it will make a really big difference to how we travel. So I'll definitely keep telling that to whoever will listen. Here is a potential map of bike routes in Cape Town. I still find it fairly scary to bike in Cape Town, mainly because of minibus taxis, but I think I can largely avoid their routes. I'm on the lookout for a second-hand front facing bike seat, so that I can transport both boys.

Cape Town gets really filled with tourists in the next few weeks. I'm not sure how it'll affect us, as we've gotten used to enjoying these incredible beaches and gardens almost alone, but we probably won't just sit at home either.

Happy Thanksgiving! Beautiful Things by Gungor on Grooveshark

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Summer gardening nerd

At the moment we're spending a lot of time reading to our babies and enjoying the abundant plant growth of summer. I feel like we've gained two extra rooms- one tiny area in the front that has been transformed into a forest- and one large room in the back which I'll share pictures of another time.

5 tomatoes long
I am doing nerdy things like calculating the weight of tomatoes we need to have tomato pasta sauce for the year (about 110kg) and how many tomato plants I might need to fully provide our tomato needs (a lot). I'm planning how much spinach we can grow when the tomatoes are pulled out next year, and I found a 25L bucket in the river to scale up worm tea production. The worm tea is really remarkable. Two doses of worm tea and my strawberries are completely aphid free, after being pretty severely infested.
I get to sort worm castings with Noah. He loves picking out the worms and we talk about things like "can the worm hear? See? Feel?" and Noah laughs and says that they can feel what he's saying through his fingers.

Our car is quite small, so today was my Christmas when my mom said she'd help me pick up some dumped car tires with hers. We got 5, though we did feel like criminals because that's a lot of tires. I know there's some debate over whether tires are really good to use as planters, and I mainly focus on the fact that they're extraordinarily durable, and that strong, healthy, organic, local happy plants grown in something otherwise polluting is surely better than eating food I'm not sure about grown in China (yes, our garlic is from China??!).

We moved two chairs to be in amongst all the plants, and tonight the three of us sat there. Eli trying to eat poisonous leaves, and Noah.... I'm not sure what Noah was doing.
I am preparing to adopt two Hannepoort grape vines- one to grow into a shelter over our back table, and the other to provide us with grapes aplenty.  I am also thinking about asking if it's ok to remove the barbed/razor wire separating us from our taxi-cab neighbors- I'm not sure if it's to protect us from them or them from us, but it makes me feel uncomfortable.

I loved this slide show A House of the Clouds for a vision of a house that is totally impractical and beautiful.

Check out this website about the construction of a load-bearing straw bale house. I loved the pictures and just poking around to be inspired. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Our version of Thai Iced Coffee

For those of us heading into summer: we've been trying out expresso (left to cool), condensed milk and ice. It's really sweet and really good.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Food, food, food

Eli began eating. Really eating. As soon as we introduced food. It was a surprise for me, and I have to grieve the end of that really intense infant era, as I welcome this new era of food.

In other news, there's been a lot of cleaning:
Noah won't let go of the vacuum cleaner. 
I made jam for the first time. My dad always has an early crop of plums and apricots that are thinned from the tree before they're fully ripe, and so I wanted to try to make jam and see what the process was like.
Strawberry jam sans pectin= Strawberries and an obscène amount of sugar.
We were sent halloween costumes from Eug's mom!
And most importantly, our boy discovered food:


APPLES!!! (we found the high chair at Merry Go Round, and I love it. We didn't have a high chair for Noah but having one for Eli has helped so much) 
I love that summer is coming, and find it hard to believe we've been here almost a year. It feels to have gone by in a haze and I hope I can be quieter and more conscious of the passing of time next year. 

On that note, South Africans, here's a site on Straw Bale Houses. We're thinking about trying it some time, maybe when the kids are able to be excited and part of the process.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

So, about those bird mites

We have bird mites from some nests in the roof that we chose to ignore. Who knew there were these tiny, evil little creatures who, when baby birds leave their nests, come inside in search of new prey? Now we do. They've been biting Noah all over, who had this strangely prescient fear that bugs would come through the vents in the wall and eat him. Unfortunately, he hides under the covers in his bed- which is exactly where the tiny bugs are waiting to ambush him. 

So we've been cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. After borrowing my parents' super vacuum, today we're going out and buying our very own vacuum cleaner. Not even second hand- brand new- because we can't find second hand. whoa.

Eug and I were reflecting on how house tasks sneak up on us, and we need to put aside our plans for great work or great adventure and go the mall and buy Stuff. I get all entitled and frustrated that my plans are not realized, and then it dawns on me that Worse Things have happened to people than buying a vacuum, fumigating, or whatever else we have to do to get rid of the various infestations that come upon our house. and then it's ok.

But all these infestations have inflated my suspicion that I am not yet a responsible adult. Cleaning is a sensitive topic, because our ideas of "clean" are so culturally embedded. I remember just as apartheid was ending and the schools were being integrated a tiny bit, a classmate was shamed by our teacher for wiping his bum with a cloth. Everyone laughed and was horrified by this "lack of basic hygiene" and it was terrible- the memory sticks 21 years later. Today, all of us hippies are wiping our bums with little pieces of hemp or cotton or whatever, and it's a growing trend. Why not? I'd have had reservations but I'm already dealing with 10 diapers a day, and what's the difference between cloth wipes for Eli and cloth wipes for the adults? Just perception.

The first time I was in Asia as an 18-year-old, I remember families being horrified when I forgot to take off my shoes. It was new to me and I was shamed on several occasions- my hosts thought I was ignorant of basic hygiene- why would you bring dirt from the city into your house? Then, in Korean households when I removed my sandals and had completely bare feet- No one wants to see your bare feet! Thankfully by the time I actually went to Korea I had a collection of knee high stockings on hand. Now, we try to have a no-shoes household because it is what works for us and is what we're accustomed to, but in South Africa one usually wears shoes indoors, so we don't enforce our no-shoes ideas on visitors. 

Much of our cultural ideas stem from what works in a specific environment or climate. Eug and I are trying to figure out what works to produce more peace in our home.  The decision over whether to use chemicals, what chemicals to use, how to get rid of the bugs in our house is a complicated one that is also culturally embedded. Are the bugs or the carcinogens worse?  Is there a middle ground? How much time is too much time to spend cleaning? For how long should we change our sheets every day before we decide to fumigate? I'm not sure, but I know we'll be fine.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Selective deprivation

I wanted to close the chapter about being with/without a car in Cape Town. The day after we got the car back, we were again faced with all the choices we'd had before, which was stressful. Should we go to the beach? The park? A special park? and so on, and so on. Would I still have time to do my work? If I did things this way would that leave Eug and I more or less time to work on this or that? What about house projects? And on and on. If the day wasn't working, there was some pressure, real or imagined, to make it work better because we suddenly HAD options. I say this knowing that a total prison of lack of choice would be terrible, too.

During our time without a car we were in crisis mode, where we are at our best. Rather than try to make our lives work, we acknowledged that our lives weren't really working, and that we needed help- supernatural and human.

So although we were in crisis, we did very well. Which brings me to the subject of selective deprivation. I've nurtured a lot of different crutches and coping strategies the last few months with small children and work: getting the kids out of the house, ice cream, coffee, chocolate, Modern Family. Some of the coping strategies are just good parenting- to have ideas for when the kids aren't doing as well as they could. But some of them seem to incubate that sense of crises, even when that crisis is just Life. Counter-intuitively, I've found that saying no to some of these crutches leads me to pray and not feel like life is made up of a series of crises. At this stage in our lives there are bound to always be crises. Again, it helped to acknowledge that something-- that life, objectively easy as it is for us-- still wasn't working.

And now, we're battling a bird mite infestation which is eating our Noah alive. I think that is yet another legitimate crisis....

Friday, November 9, 2012

Roasting Coffee in Cape Town

I've been searching around Cape Town for a place that'll let me bring my own container to get coffee beans. It's not because it's my only remaining source of waste. On the contrary, it's absurd and inconsistent but I got really into it anyway.

What I learned was that good coffee roasters with good beans balk if you ask to bring your own container (or even reuse theirs)- The carbon dioxide! The beans will spoil! The solution, we thought, would be to start with raw beans, so we can roast in tiny batches as we need it.

So we visited Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West to get some unroasted green coffee beans. This is the only place I know of that sells unroasted beans, but I'm sure there are some places in the center of Cape Town. Can you comment if you know a place? Lourensford hosts The Coffee Company, which sells beans online and also has a store where you can go in and select your beans.

Noah just wanted to hunt peacocks.

Noah begins his peacock hunt.
Note the hands behind his back. He thinks he's hacked how to not get bitten by large birds.

Hunting peacocks is exhausting

We successfully selected some beans, and I had to really explain that we didn't want a bag. "You can just throw it away!" That's the point. I don't want to throw it away. "?????" Repeat. So if you're interested in trying to roast your own beans, do take a glass jar or a bag or something, so that I'm not the only crazy one.

Unroasted beans!

We had a torch from fixing up the bathroom and soldering the copper pipes, so Eug had the genius idea of using it to roast the beans outside. Bean roasting produces a lot of smoke- which unfortunately doesn't really smell like lovely coffee- so we thought we'd try it outside rather than on the stove. 

Noah's pictures provide a pretty good idea of how Eug did it.
The final product- a fairly light roast.
The first attempt was good. Eug is experimenting with ways to slow down the process by adding a layer of old foil in the tin can- an even roast seems to be quite challenging. We're trying even tinier batches so that all the beans roast through without burning. The green coffee beans at Lourensford cost half the price of their roasted beans, so about R90/kg. This is about 1/5 of the cost we'd been paying before.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Worm Tea and Falling in love with worms

Noah loves handling the worms, which has made me love it too. He's gentle enough not to harm them.
Given the success of our big trash conversion to a worm bin, I wrote to the City of Cape Town to ask about canceling trash pickup and they said this was not something you can opt out of. I'm going to work on this with them over the next few years, because I think the giant 240L bins promote carelessness about waste.

I've noticed that many urban dwellers who are really into sustainability still find it hard to make the transition to vermicomposting. If you don't have a garden, vermicomposting is the most effective way I've found to convert household organic waste into something useable and wonderful.

I am only now beginning to really imagine the benefits of this process, because I finally have a bin that is large enough for our needs. A key shift is in the fact that our regular trash is not organic at all, meaning that having the worm bin doesn't add an extra place where hygiene is an issue. It's the only place.

We have recycling, non-recyclable plastics, and stuff for the worm bin. So the "ick" factor is actually less than it was when we had meat scraps or hair or gunk from the drain in our trash for a week- Now it all goes into the worm bin, except the large number of orange peels that we dry then use as mulch.

I wasn't very into the worms- they were just a means to an end- until Noah started picking them out of the little trapdoor in the worm bin and having conversations with them:
Noah: Hi WORM!!!
Noah: OOOOH BIIIIIIIG Worm. Worm tickle me, tickle me! ahhaahahhahaahaha! Hi worm!
Jo: Hey some worms seem to be leaving the bin. They must be upset about something.
Noah: Oh NO!!! worms are sad! worm cry. (stroking worm) Worm, no cry no cry. (to me:) Worm no sad. Worm tired.

And this was the start of my anthropomorphizing little worms. I then read that they lived 10 years, then that lived 5, and either way it caused a shift in my perception of the worms and in how I took care of them. The worms in our worm bin right now could potentially live until Noah and Eli are 5 or even 10 years old! It gave me pause, and I'm spending a lot of time figuring out how to make the worm bin as effective as it can be for us and the worms.

I've recently started making worm tea using these instructions because I unexpectedly inherited an air pump from my brother. I'm ridiculously excited about it, and if you're in Cape Town and want some, I'm imagining some kind of home-made-consumables-barter system where I share it with as many people in Cape Town as I can. Based on knowledge acquired from obsessive reading in the last two days, worm tea is about the most awesome thing imaginable for gardeners. It is a golden elixir that lasts just days.

Building inspiration

Friday, November 2, 2012

Education without school

Noah is almost two and a half, so we are just beginning to think about schooling and unschooling. Two years ago I would never have considered unschooling. I was quite passionate that all South Africans should return to the public schools, and that these should be free. I'm sure I will wrestle with issues of equality and social justice some more, but right now I am thinking about how the internet, and the radical availability of information is changing the way children the world over can learn, and the way we work. 

I began to consider unschooling because of the freedom Eug and I have felt in breaking the tie between work and financial survival. Central to this has been some radical choices (and a good amount of luck) that allow us to live on about 1/3-1/2 of the U.S. median income, without any real pressure to earn much more than that.

Firstly, what is unschooling? For me, unschooling is about allowing people to pursue knowledge and relationships without social and institutional expectations or pressures. In practical terms, for us this means pursuing a range of experiences, reading a lot of books, and respecting that Noah and Eli are integral parts of our family with valid experiences of the world. When your children are tiny, unschooling is very easy and very hard: easy in the sense that there is no social pressure for your child to be learning algebra. Very hard in the sense that keeping one's cool and showing respect to very small children is difficult, and small children are also disrespected in social settings all the time.

There's a lot of people who have given much more thought to this than I have, so I defer to them:
Christian Unschooling
Sandra Dodd
Joyfully Rejoycing
You can find a great summary article at Zen Habits on Unschooling

There's some parts of it that wouldn't work for our family right now- we don't own a TV and Noah usually doesn't have the opportunity to request junk food- but I'm fairly open to figuring out what works for family in each season of our lives.

There's a lot wrapped up in how we think about school for our kids: Whether we think tertiary education is essential, how we think about socialization, gender balance in the home, how we think about learning in general, how we think about money and earning a living. Somewhere in there is the truth of our situation, a truth that I think is a bit different for different families.

Two common questions I have been thinking about re: unschooling, and my current thinking on them:

  1. Will my child be social awkward/miss out on important social experiences? 
    • In the real world, we socialize with a range of age groups and benefit from all these relationships. This doesn't mean one doesn't need peers so as Noah and Eli get older I'll pursue classes and group activities and I'm sure it'll be fine. I'm not sure the shared suffering that defines most schools is real socialization, though if Noah and Eli want to go to United World College I'd be pretty excited about them sharing the amazing socialization I experienced there.
  2. Will all the parents' time be taken up/isn't that a lot of responsibility for a parent?
    • I'm not sure. Eug and I currently split up our time and this year has been a mom-heavy year for me because of giving birth and breastfeeding. Right now I'm imagining that as Noah and Eli start to learn more, they'll also be more independent and allow the care-giving parent to do chores or projects that actually benefit the household. Having family nearby is really integral to my belief that this could really work- I think there are enough people around us doing interesting things that could spark interest in Noah and Eli. If they're interested, I'd love them to try different activities with different people as they get older- from lessons to apprenticeships. We don't have to squeeze these in after school, so I think there's a lot more flexibility to pursue whatever interests them.

What unschooling looks like for us right now. I tend to highlight the things that are unexpected for me:

  • We try to say yes unless there's a really good reason not to ("I'm tired" is sometimes a good reason). It's built up a fair amount of trust between us. It's not perfect and we're still figuring out how to frame our no's as yes's. It means I'm pretty careful about taking Noah places when he's very tired, and the supermarket is just a super fun adventure that only happens once a week. We generally don't do something unless we all feel up for it. This means life has few errands, and that things happen very slowly. 
  • I try not to freak out about mess, but I always invite Noah to help clean up. I try not to freak out if he doesn't help out, I just say I want him to.
  • Noah does things other 2 year olds might not be expected/allowed to do- he can make scrambled eggs (though I put the stove on), feed the worms, plant seeds, get food from the fridge with pretty limited supervision. 
  • For Eug and I, we are trying to find what we truly love to do, so that work is an overall joy and a contribution (however small). We are 29 and 33 years old, so it would be absurd for us to have "arrived", but I think it's a good goal. 
  • We don't do "educational activities" or try to have toys that teach certain things. In fact, other than duplos and building stuff (where it's silly for small kids to use real bricks), Noah uses the real thing and does "real stuff" as much as possible. He's really getting into fantasy play, so I'm not saying he has to be a little adult.
  • We don't have a hard line on napping and bedtime, and Noah can choose his own clothes and shoes, even if they me look like a bad mom. Noah also doesn't have to clean himself unless he wants to, though if we don't brush his teeth I can't offer him food that has sugar or simple carbs. He hates clothes changing time, so he usually wears the same clothes for 24 hours.
  • Bribery, or incentives as I like to call them, are fine because peace matters more. I don't think of it in terms of mutual manipulation or those terms. Incentives are generally pretty low-key, just something Noah likes when he's being asked to do something he doesn't like. 
  • I get a bunch of books from the library every week, and read them with him. We all spend a lot of time together in general.
  • If Noah isn't hungry at mealtimes he doesn't have to eat. I don't cook a whole separate meal for him, but he's often hungry at different times to us, so he can choose what he'd like (fruit, vegetables, plain yoghurt, eggs). 
  • Noah's allowed to watch Kipper and Sesame street almost any time he'd like to.  
I imagine the way we educate Noah and Eli will change a lot over the years, and as we learn about their needs and our own.