Friday, August 22, 2008

Gardening at Night

"I think you left a diaper at playgroup," my friend said, offering to drop off the stinky yellow Fuzzi Bunz a few hours later. Now sporting a white diaper and blue Crocs, my son accompanied me outside when she drove up and, after she pulled away, he insisted on going to the end of the street in search of the neighbor's cat.

After initially turning him down because dinner was almost ready, I decided some outside time after a late nap was a good idea. But as we too frequently meet neighbors while in varying states of undress, I insisted we first go inside to slip on some toddler shorts. I asked my husband if he wanted to join, which I immediately re-heard through my son's mouth: "Do you want to come with us, Daddy?" We all ventured out into Friday night dusk in search of felines, but somehow we got fixated on the ground instead. "We could weed," I offered, having lamented just that morning how I was almost as overwhelmed with the overgrown yard as I am with our overcluttered house.

So we all started crouching down, pulling up the tall grass that seems to be loving our drought, cracked earth and all. It wouldn't look so bad if we hadn't actually gotten landscaping done that makes it obvious it's not purposeful filler among the more manicured liriope. We probably did a decent job with some but just did damage control with others that will grow back.

There's still plenty to do, but what we did in 10 minutes made a big difference to our eyes. And in the process, we got to breathe still warm but non-conditioned air, talk about roots, and listen to cicadas, a word my son now knows at age two that I don't think I knew until I was twenty-one. My husband told me a story about he and E seeing a cicada up close at the park the other day; its clumsy flight as it left a leaf almost slamming it into their heads before it caught its breath and lifted up and away. That's an image I might never have owned if we hadn't gone out tonight.

Always a resister to seriously setting a routine, I wondered how much less out of control -- and more connected to each other -- we'd feel if we did ten minutes of weeding every Friday night. We spend so much time in tag-team mode, with one parent playing with the kid while the other cooks or cleans. As a result, our son misses out on some basic, work-oriented family time where we all just undertake a task together. It may be that he is only now ready to participate and have much patience in yardwork and housework, but my husband and I have been stuck believing we are more restricted than we actually are -- as parents, as owners of a small house with too much stuff, and certainly as people who just don't have enough time.

While I snapped this photo, the cat let my son touch his ear for the first time.

Sometimes it takes a stupid thing like a forgotten diaper to get our heads out of our butts.

See R.E.M singing "Gardening at Night" on YouTube

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Preschool Dropout

So I changed my mind. Not that I think preschools are evil. I don't. I'm just not going.

This past year seemed so successful and good for my son, I didn't question that I would want to do a preschool again this coming year in addition to our Waldorf parent-child program. I did look around at other schools that would have less intense cooping commitments, but I settled on staying where we were because of its very play-centered culture, proximity to our house, and fabulous wooden playground.

But as the less-scheduled summer wore on, I found I was dreading the cooping, dreading all the time to prep his food and label every single little thing (and not be able to include raisins or carrots or other foods on the no-no list, and feeling less and less comfortable about all the compromises I'd have to make -- antibacterial soap, bleach water, snacks I might not approve of or packing extra just for my son.

But the big thing was time and community. Once I'd attended two events through the Waldorf school, I realized how tough it would be to fully participate in two different communities. And three hours of preschool on non-cooping days really meant only two and a half hours of "childcare" and also came along with the expectation of staying after school for 30-45 minutes to play on the playground, sharing the responsibility of watching the cooper's child while she was cleaning the classroom. Add onto the cooping once every five or six school days the additional commitment of performing a job for the school, completing continuing ed hours, and performing buildings and grounds cleaning (with yucky toxic products). With a coop, there's always more you can be doing to help other people out. I want my lines cleaner.

I realized I'm ready to do more work from home, and what I really want is just childcare -- preferably in a home without toxic products or questionable food and preferably with just one or two other kids, not eleven. I want my time with my son to be my time with my son and my time alone to be my time alone -- not have them mixed together, especially since my son usually had a better time at school when I wasn't cooping. I couldn't fit in additional childcare along with two days of coop and one day of Waldorf school plus keep up with my playgroup and maybe take another session of Music Together or pursue a French class my friend recently started. I care more about E enjoying music and art and learning the language his cousins speak and maybe also learning the language lots of folks in our community speak (Spanish). With him at school, there wouldn't be any mornings left for us to just go to the zoo or hang out at home or run errands together.

Finally, when I read Wendy Ponte's article, "No More Homework" in the current issue of Mothering magazine, I found myself becoming less open to the idea of public school for my son in the future. Although I taught high school English for six years and believe that most kids do need to be assigned books and writing assignments, I also don't like the idea of my son getting pumped with worksheets and drills at age six. I don't think I'm up for the challenge of homeschooling if I don't like Waldorf, but I'm certainly leaning more in that direction now than I used to be. So why start with the structure of school so early?

The one day program last year was of great benefit to a kid who had a strong social side but was struggling with intense separation anxiety. Now my son asks about new friends and even new babysitters after just one meeting. I may be proven wrong in a few months, but right now it looks like E does not need the consistency of a preschool community.

So I quit. I sent one letter to the school and one to the school friends. Maybe I'll post those and comment on them later. For now, here in short form are my reasons, which might serve to help others quesitoning the same decision.

1. Time
-Too much structured time out of our week, excluding other activities I'd prefer
-Too much prep time for me, especially compared to having a sitter in our home
-Unlimited time (that I don't have) that could be put into community
-Not enough consistent free time for me to work

2. Green compromise
-Shared snack that might not be gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, corn-free, sugar-free (and not sure I want to force the whole group to conform to our needs & preferences). The last day of school featured color/HFCS-containing ice desserts
-Products I don't approve of (cleaners, soaps, etc.) - and soap is used A LOT
-Other kids have plenty of commercial product awareness, TV exposure, etc.

What we'll miss:
-Unstructured play time with lots of great manipulatives and projects
-Seeing the same kids regularly
-Learning from other parents
-Lower cost of preschool vs. nanny share or in-home daycare

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Like mother, like son?

"Where's the red pepper?" I asked E as I spooned the pesto out of the VitaMix. We'd just returned home from a week in Maine. While I unpacked, my husband came in from watering the plants with a huge bunch of basil and a small pepper that was about the size of our toddler's fist -- a little bigger and much redder than when we left. Volia: a dinner concept.

The pepper plants were gifts from an apartment-dwelling friend who ran out of room on her patio. E and I planted her leftovers in containers, too, because the plot where we used to garden in-ground has in the past two years become too shaded by ill-conceived pear trees (even though we removed two of them), and we weren't willing to utilize more visible parts of the yard for a garden. We did a few herbs in the ground in our side yard but did the peppers, tomato, basil, oregano, rosemary and some peas from seed (way too late, but they sprouted) in containers near the kitchen. I figured he'd benefit from the experience of a little planting even if it wasn't in the ground. He loved his Toddler-sized garden gloves and Kids' Hand Tool Set I bought from The Wacky World of Children, but the Toddler's Single Watering Can has gotten the most use.

"I eat it," he said, pointing to his empty mouth to clarify he meant past tense. LJ and I looked at each other.

"What do you mean? Where?"

"In the dining room."

We looked around for evidence. Nada. No seeds, no stem. A week later, we believe him; he really did eat it all, apparently while I was whirring away with the blender and stirring the Tinkyada rice pasta. We picked a green pepper a few days later, and his first thought was, "I want to show Daddy," who wasn't yet home. His second thought was to lick it and tease me that he was going to eat it. His third thought was crunch. The half-eaten pepper went into the fridge as evidence.

I'm told I did the same thing as a child -- ate peppers right out of the garden. But a major difference is, we really had a garden. We outfitted my whole fourth grade class with pumpkins. There were rows and rows of vegetables, thickets of berries, huge sproutings of rhubarb. Somehow I keep thinking my son will have those memories of living in the country even if it's not his experience.

LJ and I have been flirting with the idea of adding on to the house for a long time. Recently we've thought that we just need to purge all our unnecessary stuff and then just move out of the DC area to somewhere with clean air -- a place where our money will buy a bigger house and a bigger yard where we can grow most of what we'd want and live with less negative impact than our current suburban lifestyle. I loved that my son got to pick asparagus and strawberries at my parents' house in Michigan in June and that in July he walked right up to fennel growing at Beech Hill Farm in Mount Desert Island in Maine. (Well, I liked that he had the opportunity, not so much that he was so manic my husband had to take him out of the barn while I bought produce). Part of me wishes gardening was an everyday part of our lives.

But there sure is a lot of driving that goes on to get to my folks' house and to get to places out in the country. Maybe moving out to the western DC suburbs isn't such a crazy idea after all, LJ and I started to think. Housing prices are tanking. We could get something roomy and with a big yard and still be commutable to lots of places without much more time/gas/money than we currently spend. Why do we need to live so close to the city?

But I think we've come to realize we do like where we are. I've got a lot of friends here. I can walk to a grocery store and quickly get to whatever other places I need to go without having to cross town or country. And I can be on the bike path in about three minutes, carrying me to parks, a nature center and miles of wooded trail. I've got several options for natural foods grocery stores. I can get organic (and local when available) produce delivered to my home through Washington's Green Grocer, I'm not far from a farm drop where I can get pastured eggs and grassfed beef, and I could be part of any number of CSA's (community-supported agriculture) for produce if I could get over the issue of negiotiating an afternoon pickup around a child's sleep schedule (the main reason I didn't continue this year with Potomac Vegetable Farms).

And honestly, we have a big yard for this area. There's an entire steep slope that gets plenty of sun, and it's no picnic to mow it. So why don't we just make it a priority to garden? That would take something of a mindshift for us, since I'm not my dad and my husband is not his step-dad, who last year donated tons of produce to Food Gatherers in Ann Arbor. Somehow my fairly mainstream neighbors can find the time to grow a nice garden with three kids. The mom recently told me, "R just picked a green bean and ate it. Now I don't have to worry about her getting a vegetable!" As the parents of a son for whom green beans are our default/backup/quick-easy food and who will choose my sugar-free cookies with zucchini and carrot over frozen Van's (gluten-free) waffle, surely we can muster the mettle.

So it's not a done deal, but our next quest -- along with purging our junk through Freecycle and Craigslist -- is to research what we'd need to do this fall to prep our slope for a terraced garden in the fall.

I hope that by next summer we won't have any more Fuzzi Bunz diapers drying in the sun to broadcast our crunchiness, but I do hope we can build a decent garden.