Friday, September 28, 2007


I've been participating in and following several conversations at the 4Real Forums about Waldorf-inspired education. I haven't read any original Waldorf materials, yet, and I would not, sight unseen, recommend Waldorf materials. From what I've seen, there is a lot in Waldorf that needs to be "sifted out" if a Catholic family wants to use it. I have also seen a lot that I think is a great fit for our family. Again, I'm taking all of this secondhand, so I'm not sure to what extent I'm even adopting a Waldorf idea.

Waldorf makes much of "rhythm." At first I thought that this might just be a crunchy way to say "schedule" but, even so, I was really attracted to the language of "rhythm." I think I like thinking of rhythm with a "parts to whole" mentality. Our family is already familiar with the rhythm of the seasons and the liturgical year. We start with Advent and move through Christmas, Lent, Easter, the feasts of Ordinary Time and back to Advent again. The seasons of nature come full-circle each year: full bloom, death, hibernation, and new life again in the Spring. I really want to take this big-picture idea of rhythm and apply it to my week and my day. I'm still working out the details but something like: rise, pray, eat, read together, do an activity/get out of the house, process creatively, eat, rest and repeat it all in condensed form after naptime.

I do believe that the essentials in my day do need a bit of a schedule and a routine. I need to go to bed and rise at basically the same time every day in order to get enough sleep. Dinner and lunch need to be served at the same time every day so the kids can get enough sleep. Chores need to be assigned to particular times and done in a certain way simply so that they get done and the habit of getting them done is cultivated. My prayer needs to be given priority each day and we make an effort to schedule Daily Mass. Beyond these essentials, I have been unable to create and follow a workable schedule for myself or the kids. I really, really love books like A Mother's Rule of Life, but I am just not programmed that way.

I think I've finally realized that I thrive on order but not on a schedule. I need my day to make sense to me and make sense to my family. I need the day to allow for the flourishing of everyone in our family. But I don't need every hour scripted. I like that the idea of rhythm allows me to say: we need an activity this morning but it's raining so let's just build with legos; we need a quite, decompressing activity but we're all going stir-crazy so let's go for a quiet walk and look for squirrels; we should do something creative but we drew with crayons all day yesterday so we'll turn on some music now.

Even though I'm not really homeschooling, yet, I already see that my tendencies are running in a very "unschooling" way. I love the flexibility, the freedom, and the room for creativity. But I also see that this approach gives in to one of my bigger parenting weaknesses: underparenting. I'm a pretty passive parent. This can be a good thing. Too many kids are overparented. But I do want to be involved and I want to parent. Children need boundaries and a guide. I hope that thinking about our planning as cultivating a rhythm will give us the right balance between order and flexibility.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Our Family Physician

When I began this blog I thought I would be posting often on political topics. I haven't at all, as it turns out. Each time I go to write something I feel like I'm just not quite informed enough to say something intelligent. But the one topic that is really making my blood boil this election cycle is health care. We are big health-care consumers in this household, so it's something we've been able to think about quite a lot. Red Cardigan gives an excellent overview of some of the problems plaguing our modern system. To encourage Red, I thought I'd highlight one sign of hope: our family physician.

Our family doctor is, first of all, a family doctor. I certainly believe in specialized medicine and we see many specialists but for run-of-the-mill medical problems, it's much more important to the quality of care that the physician know the patient. I have never personally needed to see our family doctor, but I have taken both of my kids in on several occasions. When I do go to him for some malady, he will already have an established relationship with me

Our doctor is in solo practice and has no staff. He doesn't have any partners, any nurses, any receptionists or any billers. When we need to see this doctor we call or e-mail him, and schedule the appointment with him personally. He always knows who is waiting to see him because he makes all his appointments. I once had to wait five minutes in his waiting room but otherwise we've always gone in on time. Our entire 30- or 60-minute appointment is spent with our actual doctor. We don't answer a dozen questions from a nurse only to spend half of our precious five minutes with the doctor answering all the same questions again. Our doctor weighs babies, gives them their shots and even replaces their cloth diapers after an exam.

Our doctor does not work with any insurance companies. He provides standard "diagnosis" forms for the convenience of his patients who wish to file for reimbursement. He also encourages Health Savings Accounts. Because he does not work with insurance companies he can charge a fair hourly rate instead of an exorbitant rate that is then "negotiated" with a third-party. Our doctor does the negotiating with his patients directly. He does not refuse patients because they can't pay but will work with them to find an acceptable financial arrangement. Because he does all his own billing, he knows exactly what the visit is costing his patient. He knows, for example, that each vaccine costs $30 and that administering five in one day might be a financial burden (as well as a physical burden on the health of the baby).

There are a lot of other things we love about our doctor that have less to do with the current state of health care, but that still buck the current trends of the medical establishment. He trusts the judgment of parents: he asks parents to make informed decisions about vaccinations and he doesn't insist on endless well baby visits. He responds to e-mail and often offers simple solutions and advice this way. And, because his second-floor office does not have an elevator, he has often met me at my car and walked me back out again so he could carry one of my kids.

This is an unusual doctor. There should be more like him. If healthcare in this country become increasingly privatized, I think others will follow his model of practice. If healthcare becomes nationalized, I'm afraid this doctor might be forced to find another line of work--or radically change the way he deals with his patients.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dad Working from Home

I was at a party recently and met another mom. We were comparing notes the way you do when you've just met someone and she asked what my husband does. I replied that he was writing his dissertation and mostly worked from home. Her reply was unusual,
"Oh, I can't imagine! I have a hard enough time organizing my own life!"
I think this woman and I are going to become friends.

Most people, when they hear about our family's arrangement think that we are so lucky. Mom and Dad are both home. We're never lacking for "couple time," we both see lots of the kids. Eric is able to babysit and otherwise arrange his schedule to make my life with the kids easier. We know several families trying to find a line of work for the husband that allows him to be at home. This life, to them, seems ideal. I don't doubt that there are some families out there who successfully have Dad at home to the greater happiness of all. But our family is not one of them.

Eric and I certainly see our marriage and our family as our mutual vocation. We wouldn't have married each other if we didn't think so. We adore each other and the children. We've found, however, that all these relationships work better when Eric and I maintain our separate work, our separate spheres.

Eric's vocation includes the roles of husband, father, scholar, writer, teacher. My vocation includes the roles of wife, mother and household manager. Throughout our relatively short marriage, we have found over and over that the spouse and parent roles work better all around when we are most fully engaging our other respective roles. When Eric works from home all day he is tempted to talk to me, play with the kids, see to other chores around the house. When he's around me I feel as if someone has invaded my work space. I don't need or want his advice on when to wash the futon cover, but I tend to ask him about it if he's there and he, of course, responds.

Small moments of stress or disorganization on the part of one of us always affects the other negatively. It's one thing for me to debrief with my husband at the end of the day and get his insight into a discipline problem I'm having. It's quite another for him to witness, first-hand, each and every blowup with the kids. I find that each stress point in my day is magnified into an event if Eric is there when it happens. If I'm on my own, I don't wallow in it, I just deal and move on. In the evening, when I tell Eric about my day, everything is put into better perspective when I can't even remember what the kids did that made me so annoyed.

When Eric is home I let him solve problems for me. Again, this isn't such a big deal when a problem is big enough that I am still thinking about it at the end of the day. Then it is appropriate that Eric and I discuss it and come up with a solution. But when I let Eric solve my small problems day after day I start to wonder if I'm even capable of being a stay-at-home mom. When he's not around and I have to figure things out on my own, I feel competent and capable (but tired) at the end of the day.

We're recently adjusted our schedule so that Eric can work at the library on campus three days each week. The benefits have been tremendous. The whole family feels busier but happier and more productive. The academic life is one of constantly changing and irregular schedules, so I expect that we'll have to relearn this lesson over and over again. But now we're appreciating each other more, spending better time with the kids, and taking more ownership over our separate tasks.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Pest Man Cometh

Monday afternoon, Joseph's physical therapist showed up early. I had just started the pre-therapy cleaning blitz wherein I frantically remove layers of toys, clothes, food, couch cushions, and orthopedic equipment from the floor and sweep so that Joseph has a bit of room to work. As I answered the door I said, half jokingly, "Oh, no! You're early! I haven't cleaned up, yet." "No problem," she said, "Some of the houses I go to have roaches."

I laughed nervously. Minutes before her arrival I'd grabbed Margaret as she gleefully tried to catch a roach she found under the kitchen sink. The therapist killed another one before the hour was out.

We've battled mice, too. After trapping four or five we hadn't seen any mouse evidence for awhile but then last week saw signs of a mouse revival. I discovered droppings in the usual kitchen area, the bedroom, the laundry room, the linen drawers. Also, oddly, the spice drawer. I buy my spices in bulk and they are all sealed inside metallic or plastic bags. Did you know that mice will chew through both of these things to get cocoa powder, parsley, and baking soda. That's right. Baking soda.

We don't really understand our landlord. He owns this building with fifteen units, about half of which are vacant. Some (like ours) are renovated, others aren't. Some individual units have been sold, but we're renting. It's an odd situation and he's pretty laid back. But he did assign someone to deal with the pest problem which, apparently, is building-wide. I wanted to affirm this unusual show of concern for the us tenants.

I'm a big fan of non-toxic living. I read this fantastic book last winter and I have tried to adopt a chemical-free lifestyle ever since. Plus, I have small children. One of them eats everything she finds. I was not excited when the exterminator arrived. He had boxes of poison and bags of traps and spray cans of stuff. He wanted to spray all the baseboards, put poison behind every appliance and line the closets with glue traps. (He also wants our landlord to close all the dog-sized holes in our walls, but I'm not holding my breath.) I protested. He tried not to laugh at me. My husband played the diplomat and in the end we got a little poison, a little spraying, and some glue traps to place at our own discretion. My husband, coincidentally, installed a sound-emitting mouse deterrent the same day.

I hate roaches and mice. I really, really, hate them. They increase my stress level so much. But there must be a better way. All these chemicals feel so temporary. The poison will get eaten, the spray will dissipate and all the little critters will come back (unless that high-pitched sound emitter works as well as it says it will). I'm not the neatest housekeeper, but I was a REALLY bad housekeeper in our old place and we never had a single pest. What's up? Are we all supposed to peacefully co-exist? My husband calls it rustic urban living. If I liked rustic, I wouldn't be living here!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Cooking with lard is another activity recommended by the Weston Price Foundation. I have to admit, I've never really had much of a desire to cook with lard. But I have had a desire to make awesome pie crust and I've been told more than once that good pie crust requires lard. Our Amish farmer sells lard, but I never remember to order it from him. We were at our local farmer's market recently buying cheese and I noticed that the cheese man also sold lard. I asked the little girl helping him for a quart of lard and she gave me a blank look. Apparently lard wasn't flying out of the refrigerated truck that Saturday. I was also getting scrapple and pudding (scrapple without the cornmeal) for my husband, so I should be glad she didn't just shoo me away. The actual farmer came to my rescue and fetched the food out of his truck for me.

I tried some pie crust with the lard a couple weeks ago. It was pretty underwhelming, but not bad. I love to cook and I love to perfect recipes, especially baked goods. Scones were my last project and I think I make pretty awesome scones, now. The new project: pie crust. Today I'm making a quiche for dinner, so I decided to double the crust recipe and make some cinnamon raisin tarts for tea time. Today, the internal temperature of our apartment dropped below eighty for the first time this summer, and I feel like fall is coming. We're celebrating with cinnamon.

Why, you might ask, do my tarts look like blobs? Partly because I have crummy photography skills, but also because my daughter was shrieking at the top of her longs for the duration of the tart exercise. Also because I really lack food presentation skills. Maybe after I've conquered pie crust I'll make presentation and arrangement my next culinary project. If Mrs. T every gets a camera, maybe I can get some tips from her.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Kitchen Extravaganza

I've been trying to adopt--not a schedule, exactly--but sort of a rhythm to my days and weeks. I had this down pretty well, once upon a time, but things have really been in flux since we moved (three months ago). We've been spending a lot of mornings, and some late afternoons out of the house, which has been great for beating the heat and not getting on each other's nerves, but it hasn't been so great for getting things done--especially kitchen things.

I'm thinking about making Mondays my kitchen day. I want to get us set up for the week. We're big fans of on Weston A. Price, so we do a lot of soaking and fermenting. A lot of our food takes several days to prepare. Although, I usually end up cheating because I don't plan ahead. I hope that if I take Monday to get things rolling, I can feel more on top of food all week. Today, which was the first day I even thought to do this, I managed to:

--Soak pinto beans in water and whey, bag them into two-cup portions, and put them in the freezer. They'll now cook up in 30 minutes and they've already been soaked.

--Start chickpeas soaking to be bagged and frozen tomorrow.

--Make one gallon of yogurt.

--Make vanilla ice cream from the cream we skimmed ourselves off the grass-fed raw milk we get from our awesome Amish farmer. I started some chocolate to make tomorrow once the ice cream freezer has a chance to get cold enough again.

--Soak almonds in saltwater all day to dry out overnight in the oven.

--Skin chickpeas for making hummus this evening (I know it's really anal to skin the chickpeas, but the hummus comes out so much better that way--even the kids helped!)

--Make oatmeal cookies. Okay, that's not a WAP thing at all. We just needed a teatime treat and it sounded good.

I was able to do all of this mostly because I didn't have to make dinner. We had weekend leftovers. I do hope that making sourdough bread can be a typical Monday activity. I might also be able to get in a soup or two to go in the freezer for quick dinners this winter. I won't always have nuts or beans to soak, so I'll have more space for other cooking.

Now that Margaret is finally sleeping, I better clean up from all this cooking . . .

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Small things

A neighboring parish has a Holy Hour with Benediction every Thursday and my husband is kind enough to drop me off and take the kids for a walk each week so I can get some quiet prayer time. (For my non-Catholic readers, a Holy Hour is when the Eucharist is placed in a monstrance on the altar. Since Catholics believe that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, this is a special time to worship Jesus. Some churches have this form of adoration available all the time, others for just one hour each week. Many churches, unfortunately, do not provide any time for adoration.) A Holy Hour with Benediction is one of my absolute favorite liturgical events. I'm so glad we've found a time to fit this into my life regularly.

I wish I could say that my time before the Blessed Sacrament was a time of deep, mystical, contemplation, but it wasn't. That did happen once but, too often, I end up staring numbly off into space. It's awfully hard to recollect oneself when the time just before prayer was taken up with getting unhappy children packed up just about at bedtime. Today, actually, was a really good time of prayer, though I didn't realize it until the end. I use a journal when I pray before the Blessed Sacrament because it's the only way I can stay even a little focused. Today my journal was going something like this:

"Dear Lord, I just can't get the dishes done and I need to get some winter clothes and I should make those cushion covers and Joseph really needs more of a schedule and I wonder if Margaret is napping enough and maybe doing the dishes should come before yoga each night and maybe I should pray more and maybe Eric would like me to stop nagging him all the time and I wonder what I planned for dinner this weekend."

I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I think you get the idea.

I reflected on this a bit. Does God really want me to use this precious hour each week to talk about the dishes? I mean, I pray other times, too, but this is a really special time. Shouldn't I be working myself into a mystical frenzy?

But, here I am Lord. I come to do your will. I'm confident that I chose the right vocation and this is it: dishes, husband, kids, prayer, groceries. To do the will of God I need only do all those things well. It's an awful lot of little things.

I'm a big fan of the Tightwad Gazzette. When it's author, Amy Dacyczyn, was asked why she emphasized practices, like reusing ziploc bags, that saved only pennies. She answered that most people have very few opportunities to save $100 or $1000 dollars in one shot, but most people have many opportunities every day to save a few pennies and the savings add up. I think about that every time I turn off a light or wash out a plastic bag and this evening I thought about applying it to the spiritual life. We don't often have a chance to battle cancer, or die for the faith, but each day we are given many opportunities to do small things exceedingly well for the love of God.

I can bring my dishes and groceries and whining kids before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and know that He does, indeed, want me to bring my vocation and its challenges before Him. God's grace is even sufficient for couch cushions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Where have all the manners gone . . .

One of the things I love about coffee shops is the cafe culture. Actually, this is one reason why our family has no problem with Starbucks--it created cafe culture in America. If it weren't for Starbucks, the little, local coffee shops would not be pulling in business--especially the ones in rundown urban neighborhoods like ours. We are total suckers for new coffee shops. A couple weeks ago we were on our way to the hospital and noticed a new one en route. We stopped for lunch on our way back and were pleased to see that the next neighborhood over from us is enjoying a nice revival--complete with its own coffee shop. One of the "locals" noticed our cute daughter and engaged us in conversation for half an hour. It was great. The laid-back cafe atmosphere invites opportunities like this because, really, if you were too busy to chat you probably wouldn't be at the coffee shop in the first place.

Our own local place is really, really fantastic. It has the best coffee I have ever tasted. It's almost worth drinking other coffee the rest of the week so that on our regular Tuesday afternoon "date" to the coffee shop we can enjoy our drinks all the more. Almost worth it--we've started buying our beans there. The owner can't afford to live in our neighborhood (it's gentrifying so fast) but he is committed to engaging the people who live here. His coffee is less-expensive than almost any other place I know and he often provides meeting space to civic leaders. He knows our family well and always gives us an iced fruit tea on the house for Joseph.

While we were there last week our little boy wheeled up to a customer and said, "Hey! What's your name?" The guy's name was Bryant and we chatted for awhile with him about our mutual neighborhood enthusiasm. Since there is otherwise nothing to draw outsiders to the street where this cafe sits, the customers are almost always neighborhood folks. We saw that same guy today and we might almost call him a casual friend, now. That's the best of cafe culture--forming relationships, slowing down your day, engaging people.

There was another customer at the table behind us who didn't quite get it. She sat there with her laptop (not, in itself, such a bad thing) and her cell phone. The phone rang--loudly--several times during the hour we were there. One of those times she proceeded to have a long, detailed conversation about a recent Tarot reading she'd had during which she was advised to proceed with an adoption as a single mother. I'm sorry, ma'am, but we really don't care to know about it. But we couldn't help but know about it. Everyone in the cafe now knows about it. I now know more about that woman than about Bryant whom we've talked to twice. But there isn't any relationship and she never engaged us.

This is why I agonize over the role of technology in my life. I was waiting in line at the store recently behind a woman who seemed perfectly sensible but who spent her entire time in line and the whole of her transaction yammering into her phone. The woman at the Customer Service desk might have been an ATM machine for all the consideration she got. No wonder store clerks get snippy and rude. They have non-interactions with people all day long.

Our family attended a wedding earlier this summer in Montauk, NY, which is the south fork of Long Island. The traffic out there made us decide that nothing in Montauk could justify the hours of crawling through the Hamptons. Montauk, and the towns leading up to it, are big weekend spots for New Yorkers trying to "get away from it all." It seems, though, that they aren't able to get away from it all. Every establishment in Montauk bore a large sign announcing that customers on cell phones would not be served. Bravo, Montauk!

I suppose it's just a cultural lag. I don't think the woman in front of me in the store or the woman at the cafe were trying to be rude. They looked like lovely people otherwise. There was yet another woman at the coffee shop today who stepped out to the sidewalk to take a call. Apparently, cell phone use does not automatically equate with rude behavior.

Manners must be taught. Sadly, our culture no longer seems to teach polite behavior through natural selection. Perhaps more places will have a problem as extreme as Montauk's and be inspired to drastic measures in the same way. And perhaps the message will trickle down a little. For now, at least Joseph knows to put his napkin on his lap as soon as he sits down at the table.