October 10, 2008

forging curiosity

Schmiedetag forgeLate summer brings with it the beginning of the Fest season for Germany. Though most are familiar with larger gatherings like Munich’s Oktoberfest and Bad Dürkheimer’s Wurstmarkt, it’s the smaller festivals that happen weekly throughout August, September and October that are great for kids. Across the country, there are dozens of festivals where you can avoid the crowds, learn more about local history and participate in more family-friendly celebrating. For example, every year in the small agricultural where we live, they have a weekend festival called Schmiedetag. The literal translation is “forge day,” and, historically, it was a village market day each August. On Schmiedetag, local farmers would congregate in town to sell berries and summer produce. They’d get together to organize and prepare for the coming harvest. And an important part of that organization was a trip to the forge, where horses could be shod en masse before fall’s hardest work began.

Today, Schmiedetag, is all that and more. It’s a market that sells local handicrafts and produce. It’s a forum for local artists to show their work. It’s a place to taste regional beers and wine. It’s a place where the local children perform a play about the town’s centuries-old traditions. And yes, it’s an excuse to have a big party. But mainly, it is a great opportunity for kids to learn about feudal Germany.

My son loved a visit to the old (and still operational) forge in town, where he sat rapt with attention as blacksmiths demonstrated not only how to shoe horses, but fashion metal tools and modern sculptures. A beekeeper brought not only fresh honey but a live hive. And for a three-year-old, we learned firsthand that my kid is a pretty good basket weaver. These fests offer the opportunity for kids to not only try their hand at the old crafts and skills that were necessary for survival hundreds of years ago but also puts them in their proper historical context in a really fun way.

Whether my son will still show prowess at basket weaving past the toddler years, I don’t know. But I do believe that the curiosity and the desire to try something hands-on that come with an event like Schmiedetag will stay with him for a long time to come.

October 7, 2008

i believe in compost

The February morning that my water broke, signaling the two-week early arrival of my daughter, Lauren, I wasn’t resting on the couch as the delivery room nurse had suggested, or taking a moment to practice my breathing technique for the labor ahead. Rather, I was restless in my backyard tending to my original baby: my compost pile.

Really.

Sure you could call it a hormonal pregnant woman’s wild nesting instinct at work, but composting is a habit for me and on this day– the day I was to give birth– was no different.

I believe in compost, that organic wonder that makes a garden’s ecosystem sing by boosting the soil’s fertility, enriching it with needed nutrients, and helping it to retain the moisture for growing roots.

Sure, composting allows me and other green-minded gardening types to dispose of household biodegradable waste in an environmentally conscious way. But for me, my pile always has been so much more. Composting lets me create something out of seeming nothingness; something organic, sweet-smelling, and of the earth. It makes me feel productive. And in a way, it has always satisfied my need to nurture long before Lauren arrived.

My husband, Jim, naturally thought me crazy when I told him where he could find me awaiting my ride to the hospital. He laughed even harder when I threatened to deliver our daughter out at the compost bin if he didn’t hustle.

Now, fast forward three years, Lauren is my constant companion and my composting prodigy so to speak. Together we head out to the compost bin hand-in-hand for the weekly turning, a long handled shovel resting over my shoulder. My compost pile is housed simply in a black, bottomless, lidded plastic bin that keeps neighborhood critters out while allowing essential heat to build thereby speeding the decomposition process along. As always, when I open the bin’s lid, I am awed at the handiwork of the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of worms, bugs, nematodes, and microbes who have replaced last week’s scraps with the dark earth that will soon dress my garden. I am just the lowly servant that feeds, turns, and aerates the pile while trying to keep in happy balance the ratio of nitrogen to carbon.

“Yucky,” my princess-obsessed, tutu-wearing toddler proclaims but then lurches forward on tiptoes so that her head clears the bin’s highest tier for a better look. I dig in, incorporating my eggshells, coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, and yard leaves. When Lauren believes she spots Slimey, Oscar the Grouch’s earthworm companion, nose-diving deeper into the rich blackness, she gleefully giggles. It’s then that I know that the compost bug has bitten her too.

The pile lets me know instantly when things aren’t right. Too many green, nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps and an unmistakable sour smell emanates; too many brown carbon-rich leaves and pine needles and the pile composts glacially. Thankfully, the pile is forgiving, and with a little tweaking and an occasional squirt of water from the garden hose, the pile chugs along once more.

Now Lauren makes demands as she shoves into my hand the remnants of an afternoon snack — be it banana peel, apple core, or plastic mozzarella cheese stick wrapper. “Mom, compost this!” she says and I can’t help but smile. Lauren knows that it’s Mom’s compost that helped produce the sweetest cherry tomatoes that she plucked all summer long like candy. She gets that composting is a good thing. And she, like me, wants to do her part.

As I stand here with Lauren, does she realize that she was this close to being delivered at the compost pile? No matter. The compost pile is where I can pass along my love of gardening and my desire to replenish a better earth for my daughter with her at my side. It also serves as a valuable backyard lesson on the cycle of life and how living things eventually turn back to their essential properties. As I see everyday with my daughter, magic can happen with just a little caring and attention and it is the same in my backyard garden. One compost pile does and will make a difference.

raising a healthy vegetarian baby or toddler

Here’s to the illustrious, healthy vegetarian baby. Reading the newspapers, even talking to doctors, and certainly talking to my parents you might worry it’s as rare as the three toed astronaut. But vegetarians have been raising healthy babies for centuries, throughout the world. Here’s how we do it in Houston.

The major caveat in raising a healthy, happy, vegetarian baby is that you have to expand the kind of items you put on your grocery list. You need to start buying the exotic goods staring out at you from the bulk bins in your health food store or co-op of choice. The other major caveat is that you have to learn how to cook. No more sandwiches for both of your two meals a day, no more a slice of pizza here and some french fries there. If you can manage both these tasks, you can raise your vegetarian baby just fine.

Grasshopper, our resident vegetarian baby, usually has six or seven meals a day: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, snack, dinner, snack. She eats so frequently because she doesn’t always finish a meal, and that’s okay. If she eats three bites of lunch, I operate under the assumption that that old demon hunger will compel her to munch more heavily during her later snacks. (GreenDaddy’s mom — Grasshopper’s Dadi — visited this weekend and told me she’d read an article suggesting that part of the obesity epidemic in the US is linked to people forcing their children to eat every last scrap on the plate…that is, to eat when they’re not hungry. I love studies that support my habits!)

The best thing about Grasshopper’s frequent snacking, I think, is that it makes it much easier for me to ensure she’s eating from the Green Parenting Food Circle (not a triangle because some days she gets more of one than the other): protein, fruit, grains, vegetables, water & dairy daily between snacks and meals.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d put out this list of foods that Grasshopper is inordinately fond of, and/or, doesn’t know she eats but does regularly. I’m certain I’ve forgotten or don’t know about other great ideas, and I’d love any new ideas to widen our range.

Grasshopper’s Favorite Vegan Foods:

Veggie/Bean/Tofu Burgers. We make them at home, usually. None of us like the store bought much. Recipes abound on the internet, and I’ve posted our general recipe on the site.

Tofu. What can’t you do with tofu? We freeze it, bake it, fry it, stir it into homemade veggie burgers, and use it in the occasional smoothie. While I’m not such a huge fan of tofu blocks in food, Grasshopper is. In a pinch, I buy the pre-made teriyaki tofu from the Whole Foods salad bar.

Frozen edamame and lima beans. I microwave them in water for about 45 seconds. A favorite snack of MaGreen and Grasshopper alike.

All the other beans. Since I got my pressure cooker in gear — which means I can go from dry to cooked chickpeas in less than forty minutes — I love buying all sorts of crazy looking beans at Whole Foods. Turtles, Aztecs, Black Beans, Navy, Kidney, Garbanzo. Usually I cook these with greens.

Lentils & Dahls. GreenDaddy has a favorite traditional Gujurati dahl, and I have a few favorites I make. Grasshopper munches them up.

Rice. A quarter of our meals are served over brown or white Basmati. This was one of the baby’s first favorites.

Hot Cereals. I alternate between oat grout, seven grain, and plain old oatmeal from the bulk bins.

Molasses. Grasshopper needs Iron supplements and the iron drops the doctor prescribed taste exactly like you’re eating a pole in winter: metallic and you can’t unstick the flavor from your tongue for hours. After trying many vitamin supplements I listened to my mother and started adding molasses to her cereal: within two months her iron levels were right where they were supposed to be.

Quinoa & Amarynth. Super protein filled seed-grains of the Aztecs. I add them rice whenever I cook it, put a little in her seven grain cereal in the morning.

Noodles. Who doesn’t like a good noodle every now and then?

Sunflower & pumpkin seeds. Sometimes I grind them and put them in food, sometimes I just put them in food, sometimes we just snack on them.

Nuts. Walnuts, peanuts, cashews. No allergies in this house, thankfully. She’s just learned how to chew them well enough to snack on.

Peanut butter. Grasshopper likes it on slices of apples.

Dried, unsweetened cranberries and apples we always have on hand. And I also usually have another sort of dried unsweetened fruit, pineapple if it’s available, or mango.

Veggies. Broccoli, corn, green beans, and carrots are her favorites. I don’t put any sauces on them, except butter on occasion. I remember my dad trying to “mask the taste” of broccoli with melted cheese and just destroying the vegetable for me. I was shocked to discover I loved it when I was twelve or thirteen and my always dieting stepmother demanded he serve the cheese to the side so she could eat hers with lemon juice over it. I believe I told every single person I met for a month about this amazing discovery of lemon juice on broccoli.

Greens. The vegetable that one ups all the others. We’re in the south, we get a variety of Kales, Collards, Mustard, Beet, Dandelion, Chards, Spinach…and a few I just can’t think of. For Grasshopper I choose the more tender varieties and least pungent: Spinach, Chards, Dinosaur Kale. I usually cook them with beans or if it’s a tough green, I boil it in the water with pasta. Grasshopper loves them sometimes, hates them sometimes.

Mushrooms. She likes cooked mushrooms.

Berries. Frozen blueberries. Seasonal raspberries, blueberries, strawberries.

Fruit. Apples, oranges, bananas, mango, melons, grapes.

Crackers. Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies or TLC cheddar crackers. But also just regular wheat crackers. Basically, I get what is the cheapest of the healthy (non-hydrogenated oil, baked) crackers.

Catsup. What can you do? She loves to dip.

Non-Vegan:

Quorn. It’s a brand of meat-aping protein consisting primarily of fungus n’whey, you find it in the frozen food, next to the Boc-blech Burgers. I like giving it to Grasshopper because I don’t want to overload her with soy. It comes in fake chicken & fake meatball forms. Whole Foods has it on sale once a month, usually, and I stock up, or I can’t afford it.

Cheese Ravioli. I buy Whole Foods brand, find them in the freezer section. I have also tried Costco’s three cheese ravioli and it was still too complex for her delicate tastes…

Whole Yogurt. Grasshopper eats a few bowls of plain yogurt with honey in it a day. It’s her primary dairy intake.

Honey. She inherited her craving of honey from my mom. For yogurt and cereals.

Milk. In her cereal. On occasion she’ll drink it.

Eggs. She’s on and off with eggs, and we eat them rarely.

Cheese. Grasshopper isn’t a fan of cheese, but some other babies might be.

-MaGreen

MaGreen and GreenDaddy are Houston writers who have chronicled their attempts at becoming “greener” since 2005, on their blog, Green Parenting.

October 2, 2008

play time

Every day after naptime, my two-year-old and I made the short trek to the local spielplatz (playground). It was a popular time of day for the toddler set. As soon as the castle-like climbing structure came into view, we could see other kids running amok, their mothers holding court at one of the many picnic tables. One particular group of Moms was a constant, a Queen-Bee-type clique led by one of those tall, blonde, perfectly-put-together German mothers. She and I never exchanged more than a “Guten Tag,” my obvious American-ness making me feel too conspicuous to say more.

 

My son, Chet, had no problem ingratiating himself with the local children. Despite the language barrier, as soon as we stepped foot on the playground’s gravel, he’d find himself surrounded by other children, sharing their toys and games. But me? Despite my fledgling German, I always seemed to be on the outside looking in. The lone outsider.

 

Until the day after Fasching, the German equivalent of Mardi Gras.

 

On that day, as we approached the playground, I saw Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee standing near the swings, holding her small daughter at bay. Once near, we saw the problem. Fasching’s partygoers had visited the playground the night before and left behind a mess of broken glass and party favors. Worse, they had done mischief, throwing dirt and water all over the slide and swinging the swings up out of reach. The other regulars must have seen the mess and turned tail back home. But Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee and I had two children who would not be dissuaded. They wanted to swing.

 

What else could two mothers do? We cleaned up the glass as best as we could. But that didn’t solve the swing problem. Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee handed me her daughter and then tried to jump up and dislodge it. But even at nearly 6 feet tall, she couldn’t quite reach. So instead, she turned to me and asked a question.

 

At first, I couldn’t quite make out what she wanted. At just over 5 feet, I had no shot of knocking it down on my own. What could she be asking? I looked at her quizzically and said, “Wie bitte?” She repeated the question, this time with hand motions. She wanted me to climb on to her shoulders. She said we’d have more luck zusammen (together).

 

Our children laughed at the sight of me climbing on to her shoulders. But that laughter soon changed to cheering as, together, we got both swings around and down.

 

As we spent the afternoon pushing our kids on the swings, listening to their attempts at communication. Going by their example, Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee and I started our own talking. There were a lot of words we couldn’t explain around, a fair amount of topics shut down with a shrug and confused look. But we kept trying.

 

And the next day after nap time, Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee waved me over to her table and introduced me to as her Amerikanische Freund (American Friend). I was never on the outside again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sensing saudi arabia

This is #6 of an on going dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas

We were living in Saudi Arabia for a month last year. Sometime between Non-Christmas and Non-New Year and right in the middle of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, my daughter and I had an amazing cultural experience which only a rare few Americans get.

I had walked outside the gym I was in but quickly returned inside to gather my daughter, Olivia. It was important to me that she not just be in Saudi Arabia but instead to experience such an amazing country. Especially in this day and age were it seems so many people judge the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Muslims in negative way. I wanted her to be able to FEEL the difference in the air. I wanted her to sense it from her insides.

In that moment, at 6:15 pm in the evening, we both FELT something special in the air. We FELT what the difference was to be Saudi Arabian. The sun was going down and it was about 75 degrees. The sky was orange and darkening. And every mosque in the city of Jeddah was in prayer. Every mosque has loud speakers that project the prayer being said inside by a man. There are mosques everywhere, seemingly on every block in the city. And every mosque had a calm male voice chanting a prayer, almost singing. I said to my daughter “Olivia, what is that we hear?” And she replied, “they are praying.” I said “Isn’t it amazing! Nearly all the people in this city, the whole country for that matter, are all praying at the same time. They are ALL doing it. Isn’t it amazing? I really want you to listen and try hard to remember this for your whole life. This is very special.” Then I said to her “why aren’t we praying?” She replied very matter of factly “oh … that’s because we aren’t Mussie.”

Today, as I started to write this piece I stopped and sat down with my 5 year old snuggled on my lap. I talked to her about that experience. I asked her if she remembered Ghada’s gym and she said yes. I asked her if she remembered the special night when we went outside to hear all the prayers from the mosques. And she shook her head… no. My heart dropped. I wanted her to remember. I needed her to remember. I felt if she could remember and absorb this part of the whole Saudi experience it might give her a core of compassion for others who think and believe differently than she does. I needed her to remember so she would have respect for Muslims all over the world in a time where it is more than necessary. But she didn’t. So I told her the whole story, everything we said to each other on that warm Arab night. And when I told her the reply she gave “oh…that’s because we aren’t Mussie,” she said to me with her head slightly tilted and very serious….”Mom. They aren’t Mussie. They are MUSLIM.” My heart rose again and I now know she has the respect I wanted her to learn from it. She can’t remember the night but I know in my heart she absorbed the experience and the message.

a different kind of culture shock

It was early October. We had only recently arrived in Stockholm, but the days were already shorter than in the States. By half past six, the sun was officially gone. And every day sunset came three minutes earlier, not enough to notice right away, but quickly do and you know in 30 days we would lose an hour and a half of daylight.

By the time we “fell back” from Day Light Savings Time, sunset was right about when my kids would wake up from their afternoon nap. My kids would sleep until 3:30 or 4 p.m. and when they woke up, it was dark. Really dark. If you’ve been to Boston or Seattle, you can say you know dark, but this seemed different than anything I’ve experienced. It’s strange to see children walking to school in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and coming home from school at 2:30 p.m. in the same darkness.

Winter in northern countries means a change in lifestyle with, oh, six hours or so of daylight. While my Swedish neighbors would use this opportunity to bake and spend time together as a family, I found it strange to have it pitch dark at 3 p.m., and needed some life around me. I had two young children under the age of two. They were driven by schedule and light helped tell them determine when it was dinner or breakfast time.

We learned to adjust. They would wake up from their naps when other mothers of toddlers back here at home were setting out to do afternoon errands or playdates. I found it difficult to pack up the diaper bag and head out to grocery shop in the dark. But I did my best to reset my internal clock; or perhaps it was my mental clock. Perhaps I should have done the “when in Rome ” thing and retreated inside like the Swedes did, but I didn’t. The kids would wake up from their naps, and to help expose them (and me) to some kind of light, we’d head to the mall. Lots of fluorescent lights do wonders to help establish daylight. Why else do airports create this “hey-it’s-day-time-somewhere” feel at international hubs? We would zip to a grocery store, department store or indoor play area that was fully lit and full of life, even if only for a little while. I soon discovered we were not the only ones going this route. I actually made a few friends with this game. (Side note: I saw first hand why people centuries ago needed a winter solstice celebration in the darkest of dark days. I craved lights for six weeks.)

This was definitely a lesson in learning to adjust to what you are given–a different kind of culture shock for me. It was, perhaps, just an introduction to the next four months of snow that would cover our front yard. You can’t fight Mother Nature. I realized I had to just get in there and do what I could to make darkness fun for all of us. It gave me new appreciation for those who forged this path a century ago without electricity.

The good news is that daylight comes as quickly as it wanes. Once December 21 passes and each day gets lighter, it’s back to 6:30 sunsets sometime in March and a few months later you’re back to round-the-clock daylight. Which I have to say is even weirder than the darkness.

vermont b&b tailor-made for toddlers

If mixing a New England B&B and a toddler doesn’t strike you as a match made in heaven, you haven’t been to Lyndonville, Vermont’s Wildflower Inn yet.

Just picture it, agreeably worn-out kids, fresh from a day of fun activities on the farm, drinking apple juice from rocket-shaped sippy cups while their equally agreeable parents sip an “oaky” chardonnay and admire Vermont’s green countryside.

Located in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, the Wildflower Inn is just a twenty minute drive from St. Johnsbury, home of the Fairbanks Museum. In an hour, you can reach New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory or the Cabot cheese factory. If you want to save on gas, there’s plenty to do at the Inn — two hours of kids and teen activities daily, an outdoor pool, a petting barn with a charming miniature horse, wagon rides, a play room, access to bike trails and your choice of two modern play structures.

The Wildflower has a proven track record of doing whatever it can to make families comfortable and happy. Accommodations range from standard hotel rooms (all with great views) to private cottages. The restaurant caters to children but remains up-scale enough to make parents happy.

The Wildflower Inn is family owned and operated. The views from the Inn, especially during foliage season, and the personal, friendly service is a guaranteed to be worth the trip!

east coast whirlwind

We’re just back from a fantastically chaotic 5-week travel binge- Boston, Cape Cod, New York, Chicago, a lake in Wisconsin, home (with a double-case of RSV caught somewhere in the germ-swamp of OHare).

Cape Cod: a whirlwind of parents and grandparents and children and sandy feet and beach crabs. 9 grown-ups looking after 6 kids, all under 4. Milo taught Alastair how to eat shells. Eeek.

Which was all a far cry from New York City, where we spent two glorious weeks in that perfect end-of-summer balmy – but not baking-hot – weather. It was a fun routine of elevators (“Mino push the buddon please to go down down down?”); cheerful doormen (“Mino say heddo to friend man?”); stroller rides to Washington Square Park for its plaza where the men drink from paper bags and play chess; and lots and lots of taxis, policecars, firetrucks, and other vehicles of New York’s Finest, including a fine horsie with tickly whiskers who says Neigh.

The lake in Wisconsin was the pinnacle of kid craziness. We had 10:11, with no child over the age of 6, and only one other over the age of 3. We stayed in our friend’s great-grandmother’s chalet-style rambling lake house, with a massive lawn sloping down to the lake, a rowboat, sailboat & motorboat, on-site tennis, and a huge porch that afforded the adults some wine-drinking and politics-talking time (Sarah Palin…really???) while the kids careened around the yard. Milo learned about bumblebees and spiders, and why we should only look and not touch. Alastair learned how to say “guh, glerrrrramph” and whack at the other babies.

Home via Milwaukee, where we stopped by Calatrava’s amazing bird-ship-like art museum sailing out over Lake Michigan for some play in the lobby. A magical white, windowy, watery open place with shocks of sculpture color, perfect for running and gazing and wearing out kids before our long (delayed) flight home.

September 25, 2008

chopstick kids

I like to eat with chopsticks when we dine out at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant or when we cook Chinese food at home…it really does taste better with chopsticks, doesn’t it? Of course, my daughter doesn’t like to be left out. She quickly fell in love with the idea of chopsticks (what kid wouldn’t?) and she simply will not accept a fork or a spoon if there are chopsticks available. But chopsticks can be tricky, even for many adults, and my daughter’s first attempts resulted in tears of frustration.

Enter Chopstick Kids by Fred & Friends. A cheerful little boy or girl in red or pink silicone sits atop the chopsticks (it will work with almost any pair) and keeps them in line, making them much easier for small hands to manage. Now my daughter can participate happily in the meal, chopsticks and all. Someday she’ll learn to use chopsticks on her own, but in the meantime Chopstick Kids is a great training tool and a wonderful way for us all to enjoy our dinner together!

straight from the blogger’s mouth

One of the best ways to help your child become a true citizen of the world is to travel as often and far as you dare. It helps them learn to love adventure, open their mind to new ideas and cultures, and break out of routine.

Of course, traveling with children is not always easy. It’s dirty, filled with cumbersome gear and, for me, often involves wearing way too much of whatever my son had for dinner. Sometimes regurgitated.

But the secret is that those hardships are a small price to pay. In fact, I would argue that any discomfort or annoyances are, at the end of the day, completely and totally worth it. The advantages of traveling with my son — what he learns, what I learn — makes any angst about the process seem silly by the time we return home. And I’m not alone. There are plenty of other Moms out there who are traveling all over the world with their kids and blogging to tell the tale.

Looking for the best places to visit? Great hotels that won’t mind if your child stomps up and down the stairs while you check-in? Funny stories of just how much a four-year-old can barf on an airplane? Commiseration? Inspiration? Look no further than your browser. There are plenty of great Mama blogs that explore the where’s, why’s and how’s of traveling both near and far with young’uns with experience, poignancy and, most importantly, humor. Here are some of the best:

Wanderlust and Lipstick

Traveling Mamas

Travel Savvy Mom

Backpack to Buggy

Mother of All Trips

MinneMom’s Travels With Children

Delicious Baby

Kids Go Global

SoulTravelers3

Two and a Half Travelers

What about you? Know any great blogs that examine the good, bad and funny of traveling with kids? We’d love to hear about them.