Face Blindness: Do I know you?

My essay on what it's like to live with Face Blindness is up on Vermoxie! Head on over to read it... then like it and share it, if you are so inclined:-)

Update: Vermoxie is no longer running... so I'm posting the essay here.

Face Blindness: Do I know you?

“Is that the same guy who was just in the last scene?” my dad asks my mom.

“No, dear. He’s the woman’s husband, the one who stole the car,” my mom says of the man on the screen, Colombo’s primary suspect on the hit murder mystery drama.

This was a typical conversation as my family sat on the couch watching 80s TV. Columbo, Dallas, Mash… my dad was always asking my mom to identify the characters for him from one scene to the next.

Now, as my husband and I watch TV, curled up on the couch, it is me who is asking David to confirm who is who.

“Wait, is that the same girl who was just in the restaurant?” I’ll ask.

“No hon,” David answers patiently, hitting pause so he can explain who is who, again. “That’s the journalist, the one threatening to publish the scandalous article.”

These exchanges have always been a part of my life – a normal and necessary component of watching TV. It never struck me as odd that it took the entire first season before I could tell “Vaughn” apart from “Will” in one of my all time favorite series, Alias. David often teased me about my poor facial recognition, but I never thought twice about it. I just chuckled at the similarity between our exchanges and those between my parents twenty years earlier.

But it turns out, my face recognition deficit is real and it has a name: Prosopagnosia. It is defined as a cognitive disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired. About two years ago, David sent me the link to an essay written by a man describing what it is like to live with Prosopagnosia. I identified with every aspect of that essay; he could have been describing my life. My dad and I both have prosopagnosia.

I certainly don’t think of it as a disorder, though; it is more of a social inconvenience. And the term face blindness doesn’t really describe what I experience, either. I see faces and I even see details of faces, but I have a very, very poor memory for those details. The threshold for getting a face to stick in my memory seems to be much higher than for the average person. It is possible, though, and there are a large number of people whose faces I can identify instantly, such as my children, husband, close friends, and co-workers I have gotten to know well. Once a face makes it into my memory, it is there for good. A few years ago I reconnected with a high school friend. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years, but I recognized her the minute I saw her, and she looked exactly the same.

But most of the time, I rely heavily on other cues, such as context, hair color and style, accessories such as glasses, clothes, gait, and voice. Of course, everyone uses these cues, but I seem to use them exclusively rather than additionally.

For many years, I was unaware of the fact that I was using these other cues. I assumed I recognized faces, like everyone else. But since David pointed out that I definitely do not fall within normal range of the facial recognition spectrum (and it is a spectrum, just as most cognitive and sensory impairments are), I’ve started to notice that I don’t actually recognize people based on their facial features.

Once, midway through the school semester, a student I had never seen before walked into my class and sat down. I nearly told her she was in the wrong classroom. Luckily I didn’t, because it turns out she was my student, but had dyed her hair from blond to brown over the weekend. At my children’s school, a woman I greeted daily as I walked from my daughter’s classroom to the parking lot simply disappeared from my morning routine. For weeks I wondered why I never saw her anymore, until one day I heard another mom greet the woman I never saw anymore by name on the path to the parking lot. She hadn’t disappeared; she had just cut her very long hair into a bob. In both of these instances, I was astounded by how utterly unfamiliar these women’s faces were to me when their hairstyle changed. I still worry that I offended the woman at school by ignoring her for several weeks, and I wonder how many other people I have inadvertently offended.

Sometimes, my lack of face recognition can be more problematic than simply offending an acquaintance. Once, a man I had never seen before was in our driveway when I returned home from running errands. He greeted me and began talking to my children with a familiarity that made me uncomfortable considering I had no idea who he was. It even seemed he was planning to come inside with me as I unloaded groceries. I grasped for clues as to who he was, rationalizing that I probably did know him. Did I recognize his car? Had he said anything that could at least reveal where we had met?  Finally, he mentioned David’s name and referenced the town he lived in… it was David’s uncle whom we had visited only the week before. He was passing through town and had stopped by our house to say hi. Relieved, I invited him inside.

I have many conversations with people who seem to know me, but whom I have no memory of talking to before. I have learned how to stay in a conversation until some cue in the content of our conversation triggers recognition. Other strategies help hide my lack of face recognition as well. I rarely greet anyone by his or her name. I’ll respond to a “Hi, Karen!” with a simple, “Hi!” because I’m rarely confident enough that I have correctly recognized the person within the first few seconds of an encounter.

I have learned to nod in greeting people who appear to know me as we pass on the street, even if I feel I have never seen them before. I have perfected this nod to pass as either a “Hey, I know you but don’t have time to stop and talk” nod, or a “Hey, I don’t know you, but I’m being friendly” nod, just to cover the bases and avoid offending someone I do know, without coming across as odd to someone I don’t know.

I have learned to accept that I won’t always know who someone is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a nice chat. If I’m lucky, I’ll figure out who it was after the fact, and eventually, the person’s face will cross the threshold of exposure I need in order for it to enter my memory.

Despite the social awkwardness face blindness can cause, it does have its advantages. I excel at out-of-sight and long-distance recognition. From my desk at work, I can identify who is walking down the hall based on the rhythm of their footsteps or the jingle of their keys. When out and about with my husband or children, I am likely to point out a person walking down the street two blocks away, “Hey! There’s so and so!” and I am almost always right, even if it is the middle of winter and the person is bundled up. I can identify people’s voices quickly and accurately based on only a short snippet of a conversation, even if it is someone I barely know. I am also strangely adept at telling apart identical twins; I suppose it is one case in which non-facial features are more useful than facial features.

Most of the time, I don’t think twice about my face blindness. It is simply a part of my life and I have instinctively adapted to minimize the impact it has on my day-to-day. Besides, unless someone gets a drastic haircut or purchases a new winter coat, my recognition strategies are very effective.

I often wonder if any of my daughters inherited this deficit. Over the summer, when my seven-year-old called out in excitement at the Fourth of July race, “Hey! There’s Jacob! I can tell it’s him by his shoes!” I wondered if it was a sign of prosopagnosia, or if she is simply a typical, observant kid who is tuned into the trendy brand of shoes her classmates wear.

Considering I didn’t even know I had a deficit until my mid thirties, it won’t bother me if my children have prosopagnosia as well. I’m sure they’ll adapt, as my father and I have, and if nothing else, those in the family who don’t have it will enjoy a few laughs at our inability to recognize even our most favorite TV characters... or in some cases, our relatives.

December

The semester is wrapping up, which sounds all nice and tidy, as though the work is coming to an end, but really it means that writing and grading final exams for one semester collides with the (somewhat frantic) prep for the next semester.

In the meantime, winter is definitely here. Six below last night and blinding white, crunchy snow. The town is decorated for Christmas and my children are finally starting to respond to the little elves who are watching for good behavior. Alexandra, who has taken to wrapping all the toys in paper, is asking if she'll get more scotch tape "from Hanukkah". 

We have an EIGHT year old now! Katherine's birthday gift this year was her own room. She has organized her shelves and drawers jus the way she likes them. She happily reads herself to sleep now (instead of the putting up with the annoying, loud chatter of her little sisters). She has her own alarm clock, although because of the horrible, shrill bell that startles everyone in the house when it goes off, we have reached an agreement: She does not have to set the alarm as long as she gets out of bed the first time I ask her to in the morning. So far so good.

We're getting ready to take the goats to the "love chateau" across town, where they will get to spend the day with the bucks we have chosen to sire their kids. I expect the big date will happen around the 20th, though I'm a bit skeptical of the whole process. I'm not sure I have actually figured out the does' cycles and I don't really know how long the window of opportunity is. I guess we'll either have goat kids in the spring or we won't! I hope we do.

A few pictures from the past few weeks, including a final picture of the girls' room before Katherine moved out… it was awfully cute when they were all three snug in their beds!

iPads for Kindergarteners: For the Birds?

(A version of this essay appeared in Holistic Parenting, Nov 2014)

I recently went to visit an elementary school. The school was wonderful - bright, open classrooms with large windows, outdoor playgrounds nestled up in the woods behind the school, healthy homemade lunches, foreign language starting in kindergarten, music and art, and an outdoor eco program. I was very impressed.

And then the principal told me that every kindergartener is given an iPad.

On some level, I can understand the allure of computer technology in the classroom: it offers an abundance of activities on a wide range of topics -- activities that engage and entertain students, are easily incorporated into classroom lessons, and, in some cases, can be tailored to individual levels. Even the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) claims that integrating technology in an interactive manner can improve classroom instruction (1). In addition, cutting edge technology is appealing to the parent community who no doubt wants their children to receive a cutting edge education. So when funding is made available for each child to have his or her own iPad, it would be hard for a school to resist.

But cutting edge technology does not equal cutting edge education. In fact, many disadvantages are often associated with screen time, including passivity, lack of social interaction, inhibition of deep processing and reflection, decrease in physical fitness, attentional difficulties, and sleep disturbances (2). One might argue that these findings are based primarily on studies examining the effects of television and video games, not age-appropriate, interactive technology that is integrated into classroom activities under the watchful eye of a dedicated teacher.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder, what can a five-year-old possibly learn better from a screen than from the world itself? When I voiced my concern, the principal reassured me that the iPads are used age-appropriately to enhance learning. For example, during a unit on birds the kindergarteners take their iPads outside to record birdsongs. When they come back inside, they listen to the songs and look at pictures in order to identify the birds.

Using the iPad as a recording device seems harmless. It’s not as though the children are simply sitting at a desk looking at birds on a screen, nor are they being drilled with factual knowledge at the expense of engaging in physical movement and outdoor exploration, both of which would arguably be inappropriate uses of technology (3). The children are using iPads to record birdsongs in nature. At first glance, this scenario appears to characterize an appropriate use of technology in a kindergarten class.

I have to ask, though, what are the children not getting because they are using computer technology? What would the alternative look like?

What if the children were asked to go outside, sit quietly for a period of time (a lost art in and of itself), and really listen to the birdsongs? In small groups they could take turns trying to replicate the song they heard, getting feedback from their peers and teacher on how close they were to the real thing. Instead of focusing on their screens in order to manipulate the recording app, they could observe the birds and make note of their physical characteristics, or draw them on sketchpads. Then, back in the classroom, they could talk about the songs, compare what they recall to a recording the teacher had made, and use their own drawings to identify the birds.

Even though the two activities (with technology and without) are similar in terms of content learned (names, songs, physical appearance of birds), there are fundamental differences in the skills that are required and, thus, developed.

In the lesson with technology, the children are asked to listen for the birdsong and then use the iPad to record it. Back in the classroom, the children use the iPad to replay the birdsong. Although the children do go outside to record the songs, they are relatively passive in the process and there is minimal cooperative interaction.

In the lesson without technology, the children are asked to listen to the birdsong. They have to pay close attention in order to notice the musical detail of the song and the physical appearance of the bird. Furthermore, they have to work together to accomplish the task. Back in the classroom, the children have to rely on their observations in order to identify the bird and its song. In this scenario, the children are active participants throughout the lesson.

A lesson on birds is perfectly appropriate for 4-6 year olds.  Furthermore, children these ages are capable of paying attention to and remembering details of birds’ songs and physical appearance. Giving children the opportunity to practice and develop these skills is what learning is all about, perhaps even more so than the actual content of the lesson. So why would an educator design a lesson that promotes a more passive role for the students? In other words, why would you give a child an iPad to record the song instead of requiring the child to engage in the cognitive exercise of recording it mentally?

In discussions with other parents and educators, it often comes up that even if computer technology does not enhance the learning process for young children, it is a fact of society. Therefore, it is important to incorporate technology into the classroom from an early age; not doing so may have the downside of making it more difficult for children to become proficient with technology later in life.

However, with technology changing so quickly, today’s computers won’t even resemble the technology that will exist when our five-year-olds are teenagers, let alone young adults entering the workforce. It is unlikely that the skill of navigating an iPad in 2014 will be relevant to the computer skills needed in 2025. Besides, new technology is increasingly intuitive and user-friendly; if it is not, it is heavily criticized in the market.

Furthermore, I have seen two-year-olds figure out how to work their parents’ “screens” in a matter of minutes, which begs the question, what “computer skills” are children learning if it is something a two-year-old can master in a few minutes? The skills that are really necessary for success with computer technology (and in life in general) are logic, troubleshooting, and perseverance, none of which are typically required in children’s computer programs and apps that operate on a point, drag, and click basis.

Finally, to the best of my knowledge, there is currently no empirical evidence of a critical period for learning technological skills. That is, there is no age after which a person is no longer capable of learning how to use a computer. It is possible that a 40-year-old encountering a computer for the first time would face a steep learning curve (as my own, highly computer-literate father experienced), but a twelve-year-old is just as capable of figuring out a computer as a five-year-old. Case in point, many of us middle-aged folk didn’t have any computer technology in our elementary school classrooms, and we have proven capable of mastering a wide range of new technology, including our iPads. 

Regardless, the national trend is to integrate technology into classrooms as early as possible, with technology standards that begin in pre-school. Currently, the NAEYC offers several recommendations for successful integration of technology into the classroom. Generally, they state that, “technology and media should be recognized as tools that are valuable when used intentionally with children to extend and support active, hands-on, creative and authentic engagement with those around them and with their world” (1).

However, their guidelines do not address what I consider to be the detrimental components of technology in early education. For example, while the use of iPads in the bird unit described above falls in line with the NAEYC guidelines, it greatly changes the nature of the activity, and, in my opinion, deprives the children of important skill development.

Therefore, instead of embracing technology as a valuable tool for young learners, I propose evaluating its use based on the following questions:

  1. Does the technology provide the opportunity for children to develop skills or is the technology performing those skills instead of the child?
  2. Does the technology enhance or inhibit the children’s use of their own sensory or physical skills?
  3. How does the technology affect the children’s active participation in the lesson?
  4. What would the same lesson look like if the technology were not used? What is gained and/or lost?

I believe the answers will shift as children get older in that the benefits of technology run along a continuum, increasing as children get older. A computer is unlikely to enhance a lesson on birds for a five-year-old; however, a computer may be extremely beneficial to a fifteen-year-old learning about the human respiratory system in a biology class. Therefore, it seems a reasonable approach would be to gradually – and thoughtfully – integrate technology into the curriculum over a period of several years after the children have had a chance to develop the set of skills the technology will likely replace.

Technology has a useful and important role in society and in education, but technology is also most beneficial when it extends or facilitates human capability, not when it replaces it. If children are not given the opportunity to use and develop a range of skills, then as adults, they will be far less capable, and their use of technology will be far less effective.

(1) http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PS_technology_WEB2.pdf

(2) Sigman, A. (2012). The impact of screen media on children: A Eurovision for parliament. Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe 2012, Volume 3.

(3) Wardle, F. (2002) The role of technology in early childhood programs. Earlychildhoodnews.com. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=302

 

November Post

Yes, I am very aware that I rarely come to this space anymore… and that even on Fridays, I don't always manage to post my “This moment”.

I have a tendency to overcommit; generally, I like to exist in that slightly overwhelmed realm of life. The organizational challenge of taking on a little too much is quite satisfying. But sometimes the balance tips from slightly overwhelmed to completely overwhelmed, and that is where I am right now. I’ve been here before and getting myself out of it is always a tricky because I can’t choose what to let go.

Kids. Most days I am home with three kids, give or take two depending on school, play dates, sick days, and the carpool schedule. They are lovely little creatures, but they suck the energy right out of me. Actually, it’s dressing them, wiping the littlest’s butt, feeding all of them three meals plus snacks, and bathing them often enough that the butts don’t start to stink that sucks the energy out of me. Oh, and the laundry. Keeping up with laundry for five is in and of itself a substantial time commitment. Those two days a week when I am at work (and don’t feed the kids or wipe their butts) are a wonderful break, but it also means I have to prepare extra meals the night before and do extra laundry the night after.

If my husband, Dave, reads this, he will surely smirk. He is often the one who does the laundry and makes lunches and dinners for all of us. But there is a good chance he won’t read this since he is swamped in his own realm of overwhelmed. So let’s just say, regardless of how often Dave takes on the cooking and laundry, I feel like it is a big part of my day.

Work. I love linguistics and I love teaching, but the amount of childcare we can afford (in order to end up with even a slight financial gain from my working) only covers the time it takes me to drive to campus, teach, hold office hours, and come home. It does not cover time spent on planning, grading, professional development and service activities, or other logistical components of the job. There is nothing we can do about this. You can read more about adjunct salaries here. So after a long day at home with the kids, I settle in at my desk around 8pm to work.

Garden. We planted a huge garden this year. Our goal was to grow enough food to last through the winter. I think we succeeded – our chest freezer is filled with frozen vegetables, soups, lasagnas, and breads. But there is a lot that isn’t getting done. Dozens of cherry tomatoes went to waste because I couldn’t find time to turn them into sauce. Chard and kale have toughened and gone to seed in the hoop house. I barely got the garlic planted, we still have to put the garden to bed, and I have not yet finished planting the tulip bulbs that my mom generously sent to us. As I write this it is snowing. Is it too late?

Farm. This summer we remedied our empty barn problem by getting goats with the plan to breed them this spring. We’re very excited about goat kids and fresh milk… but first we need to figure out which of our neighbor’s bucks are good genetic matches for our does, learn our does' cycles, and prepare for potential pregnancies and babies. I’m not sure what all that means yet, so add in researching goat breeding. I’m really hoping nature just takes its course on this one.

Writing. I love writing. It helps me process my world. I have several writing commitments, including a monthly writer’s workshop, a monthly post at VTmommies, and various other submissions here and there – including this blog. I admit that my writing is a selfish endeavor in that it doesn’t contribute financially, it takes a lot of time, and I am really the only one who benefits from it. It would be much more convenient for our family life if cooking were my preferred extracurricular outlet.

Exercise. This is always the first activity to get cut when time is tight, and not surprisingly, I feel the negative effect on my mental and physical health when I don’t make time for a run or brisk walk. I also know that a 30-minute run would boost the productivity of my late night work sessions, making it well worth the time investment. So, just last week we got an elliptical machine off our neighborhood forum. I am now committed to working out three times a week.

Miscellaneous. There are always extra activities and projects. This category tends to be seasonal. The rotting door and window frames on our very old house need to be repaired and painted before winter. Snow pants need mending (soon!). We have an 8-year-old birthday to celebrate, the impending arrival of a new cousin, Thanksgiving, and the start of the holiday season in general. I’d really like to put thought and care into celebrating these events. I want to savor them; I don’t want to feel rushed or harried.

Down Time. It would be deceiving not to include this. I love curling up with Dave at 10pm to watch an hour of entertaining T.V. We try to limit this luxury to weekends, but occasionally we give in to a Netflix binge and watch during the week… and stay up way too late doing so. But we love it.

I love all of these things that make up my life right now (except having to repair a rotting house and mending snow pants). I don’t want to give any of them up. Of the things I could give up, I wouldn’t even know how to choose if I had to. They all contribute to what we want our life to be… But I also know it is more than I can handle.

Sometimes I fantasize about what it would be like to be just a writer. I’d wake up, go for a run to get my mind going, then settle in at my desk with a cup of tea and write for hours and hours. Or, I wonder what it would be like if I had devoted myself to my career instead of splitting it with stay-home motherhood. If I am really honest, I sometimes wonder (not wish, just wonder) what my life would look like if I had chosen not to get married and have children.

But I know myself: if I created more space, I’d just fill it up again. I’m not sure yet how to work my way out of my current state of overwhelmedness (if any students are reading this, can you tell me what morphological process I used to create the word “overwhelmedness”?), but it usually ends up sorting itself out… eventually.

And, because it is Friday, here is this week’s “This Moment”. Fire, a vampire, and a puppy named Bodhie, who looks more like a cow than a dog.

Harvest

Not sure this qualifies as a "This moment", but the early morning light on our pumpkins, squash, and indian corn was beautiful this morning. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays (and not just because the Halloween Fairy collects candy from our little Trick or Treaters). I love when the pumpkins start appearing on every porch, indian corn is hung on doors, and kids start imagining their costumes. This year we'll have hot lava, a vampire, and a puppy named Bodie.

Happy October!

Pumpkins and leaf mazes

It's so easy to focus on what we don't get done each day. Every evening when Dave comes home, I start rattling off the list of things I didn't get to: I didn't make it to the post office, I didn't fold the laundry, I started to clean the bathroom, but didn't finish, and I thought about editing that paper, but well, I just didn't get to it. 

Despite the ever-growing list of things I don't get to, I've started making a point of saying what we did do. Everyday mundane things like getting all three kids fed and out the door, doing dishes, and sweeping the floor; and good things, like morning tea with a neighbor, lingering on the swings at drop-off, Saturday afternoon bonfires, pumpkin stands, and leaf mazes. 

At some point I do need to get to the post office and I definitely need to edit that paper. But kids can pick through the pile of clean clothes to find their favorite sweatshirt, and as long as I clean the bathroom before Grandma J and Aunt J arrive, we'll be ok.

 

A long overdue post

The past several weeks have brought a new rhythm to our lives. The garden is bursting and we are often up until midnight washing, chopping, cooking, shredding, blanching, and freezing. We can barely keep up. Also, my semester started a few weeks ago; I love teaching and am pouring all my creative energy into that. And finally, the kids’ school started back up, which means I spend a fair amount of time driving small people around. I have a wonderful carpool schedule, but the lazy, open-ended summer days have been replaced with waking up early, getting kids up, dressed, and fed, and making sure everyone has their respective backpacks, lunches, spare cloths, and, of course, vegetables for soup day and boots for walk day. We organize as much of it as we can the night before, but we are forgetful (tired!) and distracted (cooking!), so it is still a hustle and bustle in the morning.

The trifecta (I’ve always wanted to use that word) of changes – the garden burst, my work, the kids’ school – is exciting, refreshing, fun… and exhausting. The days are full and I don’t have much time or energy to write (or even read) for myself. 

I guess I’m admitting that it might (continue to) be quiet around here for a while. (But I am working on a few writing projects and I hope they make it out into the open at some point)

In the meantime, here is a photo + caption update for record keeping purposes.

This sweet girl turned FIVE last month! 

I finally got around to the garlic. I was a little late getting them out of the ground and several heads burst open. Those cloves are being cooked into soups and sauces, or simply minced and frozen for the winter months. We should still have plenty for replanting and storing, don't you think?

A (very small) glimpse into the produce overload… yes, we are very grateful for the bounty, but it is completely overwhelming. More on that soon.

The lilies are done blooming now, but they were magnificent! 

The littlest has taken on brushing the biggest's hair. 

The biggest has taken on reading (yes, reading!) to the littlest.

To keep up with all the first-day-of-school Facebook posts, here is ours. I took about a dozen pictures, but not one has all three girls smiling normally. Oh well. Notice the cosmos blooming in the background. Mom, they grew! 

And finally, last but not least, the goats! We're learning how to take them for walks through the woods. Clementine (the orangish one below) is rather stubborn and seems to be the leader, so if she gets distracted and heads into the yard (instead of into the woods), there's not much we can do about it. It becomes a bit of a comedy luring them back to the barn… but we're getting the hang of it. And they are so sweet and gentle! They love attention (after they are well fed) and melt right into us when we pet them. The time we spend with these calm souls perfectly balances the current busyness of our days.

Happy end of summer / back to school everyone!

How we ended up with goats

Goats

When my husband, David, was little he wanted a goat. His sister had a pony and he thought he should have a pet comparable in size. But his parents, who were out in the barn at the crack of dawn every morning soaking Hazel the pony’s chronically infected hoof, wisely decided a bunny was a better idea. David loved that bunny, but “Pepper” wasn’t a goat.

Fast-forward thirty years… After a decade of city living, David and I were more than ready to move to the country. The home we fell in love with, and subsequently moved into last summer, included a picturesque barn with stalls and a paddock already set up for a variety of farm animals, a flock of chickens, and a large vegetable garden. We settled in with the plan of growing into rural living, and slowly adding to our little homestead. Knowing my tendency towards impatience, we made a concerted effort to pace ourselves. We’ll be careful not to take on too much too soon, we said. After all, we are two working parents with three young children. It would be easy to become overwhelmed. We decided to focus on the garden first, and think about farm animals in a few years.

But now, as we plant, weed, and harvest, we’re very aware of the empty barn. Instead of housing animals, the stalls have become home to bicycles and scooters, a lawnmower, a variety of gardening tools, and old carpets we haven’t figured out how to get rid of yet. We can’t help but think that the barn has become a shed… and isn’t that a shame?

Still, we acknowledge we’re not ready for farm animals. We limit ourselves to casual conversation about what kind of animals we’ll want when the time comes: We don’t eat much meat, so pigs don’t make sense. Plus they’re supposed to be really smart and great pets, could we really butcher a pig? What about a cow, not for meat, but for milk? But a milking cow is a huge amount of work. Sheep? Sheep could be nice. But they need a lot of grass and the fencing would be a big investment. Would there be any payoff? Maybe goats. But what do goats do? They’ll eat the brush... Then we sigh and turn our conversation back to the vegetables, reminding ourselves again that the garden alone is almost more than we can handle at this point.

But the thought of goats lingers in the back of my mind. I start to pay a little more attention when we visit friends who have goats. I start asking questions, slowly building up my knowledge of what it means to keep goats. The picture takes shape and I can see goats being a good fit for our family. The goat people I talk to encourage me, describing each of their goats’ personalities, and declaring that goats make great pets—our children would love them, and so would we.

I visit farms that have “great goat set-ups” and I tour their barns, learning about bedding and fencing, grains, and minerals. I price hay bales and learn the difference between first and second cuts, and why both are important for goat nutrition: the first is higher in carbs, the second in protein.

I’m still just gathering information, I tell myself, but soon the momentum is stronger than I am. I have immersed myself in a crash course on goats. Without realizing it, I have tapped into a community that is full of knowledge, resources, and enthusiasm. I’m starting to feel like a goat owner without goats.

So when a post on our local list serve announces four Nigerian Dwarfs for sale, I reply. I’m just going to look, I tell David as laughs at me. He knows that’s not really true. I’m going to look at what will soon be our goats. But he doesn’t stop me.

Later that night we have an honest conversation. We have no business taking on four goats right now. Our days are already full with work, children, the garden, and a variety of other commitments. We are going to pace ourselves.

But I am impatient and David has always wanted a goat.

Clementine, Mabeline, Temperence, and Caramello arrived on Sunday.

 

Around the Garden: Flower Edition

Vegetables are great and all, and I love the neat and tidy rows of a well-organized vegetable garden… but the flowers are stunning. The unknown of our flower garden this year - what I call "Garden Surprise" -  very nicely balances out the orderly toil we've put into growing vegetables.

Greens that looked like weeds, but that I've resisted pulling up, are now colorful bunches of flowers whose names I am finally learning. Sweet William spans the patch in front of the hoop house, with bunches of daisies and pansies interspersed here and there, and a low layer of poppies waiting to take over later in the summer. In front of the barn are bleeding hearts, peonies, poppies, clematis, mint, and a few other things I don't know yet.

I've also started to add a bit of my own (well, my mom's) touch: allium, sunflower, impatiens, nasturtium, lupine, and zinnia. The allium and impatiens are doing well, and we're still waiting (hoping) for the others to come up.

Usually I don't like chaos, but in a flower garden, the messy mix of this and that and here and there is just perfect. 

Flower3.jpg



Around the Garden

A long overdue garden update. We've finished planting (we think). Pole beans, bush beans, carrots, shallots, pumpkins, dill, tomatoes, garlic, peas, basil, cucumbers, winter squash, acorn squash, zucchini, broccoli, chard, lettuce (which sadly isn't growing), kale, spinach, rhubarb, asparagus, watermelon, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and indian corn. I think that is all… I might be forgetting something. Oh, and a wood chip path is in progress.

We seemed to have overcome the snail problem, but now the cucumber beetles have arrived and seem to really like the squash. I've been told I need to not only hand pick them off, but squish them with my fingernails. I'm ok with picking them off, but squishing them between my nails? I'm not quite there yet. But I guess I'll have be if I want squash.

And now, here are many, many pictures.



Neglected...

Dear little blog,

Once again, you have been sadly neglected and are again at risk of becoming a space for weekly pictures instead of an outlet for my thoughts on parenting. I tell you, that month of May nearly did me in… and I'm still catching up on all the other things I let go when I was giving you lots of attention. Important things, like working for gun safety legislation (interested in helping out? Email me!), overdue writing commitments, end-of-the-school-year events, figuring out our summer schedule, oh, and taking care of three kids.

But I'll find that balance again soon… as soon as I start waking up early every morning to write. 

In the meantime, how about a few pictures of our summer sprinkler kick-off? Katherine and Clara love the sprinkler and never tire of sneaking up on me when I have the hose, hoping to get a blast of water turned on them. Alexandra is a little wary, but doesn't mind a little shower from time to time.


Chores and Defiance

After three months, the chore chart that Katherine was so excited about has lost its appeal. Although she does her daily chores with little to no prodding (me) or whining (her), the other, bigger chores have become a bit of a battle. Even her favorite one – waking up early on Sunday morning to make pancakes – no longer interests her.

In some ways, I’m not surprised. She wanted an allowance so she could buy things, but the act of saving up money over a period of several weeks is still a bit abstract to her. Plus, at $.25 a week, saving up $2.00 for the little package of Rainbow rubber bands she wanted was a long haul. I think she decided it wasn’t worth all the work, and once she purchased them, there wasn’t really anything else she wanted.

Also, we never set aside a consistent time for her to do her chores. We tried to make late afternoon "chore time" hoping the balance of independent, somewhat monotonous, physical-but-not-difficult work (i.e., sweeping, changing sheets, filling the woodbox) would meet the witching hour energy. But because there were just enough afternoons when all three girls would fall into the kind of harmonious, "golden play" that should not be interrupted for something like sweeping the floor, I didn’t hold the routine firmly enough.

And finally, there is the defiance factor. Most of the time, I would describe Katherine as a very compliant child, but every once in a while, defiance kicks in. I would even venture to call it a mood rather than a personality trait (although if it is a personality trait, she surely got it from me). When Katherine is in a defiant mood, as soon as she is told to do something, she doesn’t want to do it, as though being told or reminded instantly deprives her of the autonomy she is craving. For example, if I ask her to fold the basket of socks (which is one of the chores she is expected to do three or so times a week), she’ll sit next to the basket not doing it until enough time has passed that when she does do it, it is because she decided to, not because I asked her to. Often setting a time limit (“Katherine, the socks need to be folded by dinnertime”) to indicate she needs to do the chore while still giving her some space and independence to get it done works well, but if she still doesn’t do it, then it becomes a battle. We’ve been having a lot of battles lately.

I'm pretty sure the daily chores work so well because we do them the same time every day - packing a lunch before school and wiping off the table after dinner are just part of the routine. But it's much harder when the chore varies from day to day. The woodbox needs to be filled when it is empty and socks need to be folded when laundry is done. These things usually happen 3-4 times a week, but there is too much variability (mainly due to weather) to set a day and time to do them. 

I think the solution is to set a specific chore time each day - even if the chore itself varies. It’s been hard to accomplish this during the school year when we are juggling school schedules, time at home is limited (and sometimes filled with that "golden play"), and kids are tired, but school ends next week and long, open summer days will be the perfect time make chores a part of the daily routine. Maybe I can even use chore time to anchor our day, just as Ma did out on the prairie with her three girls (oh, to be a fly on the wall in Ma's cabin).  

Hopefully we can work our way out of this unpleasant battle dynamic, and come September, I will have a cheerfully helpful, independent but not defiant, seven-year-old. And maybe, just maybe, in a few years, I will have kids who walk past the woodbox, see that it is empty, and take the initiative to fill it without my even asking... 

One month, almost every day

Well, the month of writing here (or trying to) every day is over… as nice as it was to give some more time to this space, I think a more realistic goal is three or so times a week. Unless I somehow manage to get myself on that early schedule I keep talking about. 

Only seven more days of school for the kids. I am very much looking forward to the open-ended days of summer with no school drop-off or pick-up. I've been making mental lists of all the things I want to accomplish once our days aren't chopped up by school schedules and carpools. But I should probably remember my word for the year - pace - and just focus on finding a rhythm that works, especially since I've never been home all day every day with all three kids!

 

Snail Snack

We just put our broccoli plants in the garden this week and already they are being devoured by snails.

Normally, we rely on our chickens to deal with problems like this, but because we don’t want them to scratch up the seeds, they are in temporary confinement. 

I’ve heard of a few different solutions that “may or may not” work, but I wasn't sure the plants would survive another day of snails, so I decided to just remove them myself. Alexandra happily joined me when I told her we were preparing a snail snack for the chickens. We picked them off the plants and out of the soil and served them up in a dish. 

The chickens were delighted.

Eight hours later the plants are still (pretty much) snail-free, but I bet they’ll be back by tomorrow morning. And as much as I loved collecting snails, I think I’ll get some copper mesh to put around the plants. Apparently the copper reacts with the snail slime and gives the snails a shock.

I’ll be glad when we can let the chickens roam again!

Milestone

I love biking…and way back when I used to ride my bike quite a bit. Then kids came along. I still managed to bike when it was just one, but couldn't really figure out how to do it with two little ones - especially in the city. But now we have miles and miles of lonely dirt roads AND two of the three kids can ride (i.e., go at a reasonable pace, move aside when a car is coming, and brake on the steep hills), and the third is still little enough to ride on the back of my bike. So today we went on our first family bike ride. A new era of family life. 


Rhubarb Pie Success

I found a rhubarb pie recipe online and it was delicious. In fact, it was so good that I made another one again the next day. We didn't eat it all ourselves - it's not chocolate cake, after all - we had lots of friends around to share it. But there is still some left, maybe it is a pie-for-breakfast kind of day.

Despite the prediction for rain all weekend and the rainy start on Friday, yesterday ended up being quite nice - alternating rain and sun, rain and sun, sometimes both at the same time. So in addition to pie, we had a Saturday night bonfire. We never intended to make s'mores a weekly thing, but everyone loves it so much. There is something about sitting around a fire in the evening with kids running through the woods, sticky and happy.

Today holds lawn mowing, pumpkin planting, wood chipping, a visit to a local farm, a mother-daughter bike ride if we can squeeze it in, and maybe more pie with friends.

Happy long weekend!

PS. I woke up this morning realizing that I forgot to post yesterday… I made it 24 days in a row, and then simply FORGOT! I'm going to just let it go. Dave's comment: FAIL! Try again next month. 

Ha.