Friday, May 31, 2013

Just Add Water

Big Sister and Brother having fun with a bucket of water.

Sometimes when my kids are driving me crazy and I just can't get us on track and nobody is getting along and somebody is crying or fighting or all of the above, I have to remind myself that there are two things I can do that will turn the situation around nearly every single time. They are:

1) Take The Kids Outside, or

2) Put The Kids In Water

Taking the kids outside solves at least 50% of the problem behaviors that were happening indoors. Talking too loud, being too rowdy, kicking balls, jumping off of things, running, yelling, and climbing are all perfectly acceptable behaviors outdoors but drive me crazy indoors. Siblings who are fighting indoors can often be taken outdoors where they find something different to do and forget about fighting. A change of scenery is just as important to my own mental health. Even if my kids continue a difficult behavior after we have gone outside I often find that some fresh air and open space help me to feel less trapped by it. 

Sometimes when we are struggling I do both things at once: I take the kids outside and put them in water. The water can be a plastic kiddie pool, a sprinkler, or even just a hose in the sandbox (they can spend HOURS with a hose in the sandbox). When my older two were smaller they invented a game they called Bombets. For Bombets the kids would slide down a plastic slide into the inflatable kiddie pool while I sprayed them in the face with a garden hose. Seriously, I would just sit in a lawn chair with the hose and blast away. They loved it and it saved us from the sweat-soaked monotony of many a summer afternoon.

Bombets in action

Toddler + Sprinkler = A Good Time
Even if you don't have access to a little pool or a hose, a kid can really have some fun with a bucket of water. Especially if you also hand the child a few empty cups or containers to pour with. They'll make "soup" in no time. And don't forget mud! Where there is water there is mud and remember: mud is okay. Mud never hurt anyone (at least not in my backyard). I'm a believer in letting kids play with mud.. 

If it is winter time and too cold to take the kids outside, putting them in the bathtub can help break up a problem, too. I have occasionally put my little kids in the bathtub to play in the middle of the day just because they needed a good distraction. Little ones who are tired and grumpy (often because of a missed nap) sometimes feel better after they get in the bath and play by themselves for a while. 

Now that I think about it, both of these tips (going outside, getting in water) work pretty well for adults, too. I get pretty cagey if I stay inside too long. I feel better if I go outside for awhile, even if it's just a quick trip out to empty the compost bucket and catch my breath after dinner. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Profile on NW Backyard Veggies

One of my very favorite blogs, Northwest Backyard Veggies, profiled me for a Bio of a Blogger series today. Head on over there and check it out! While you are there, check out the rest of Lindsey's blog. It's a good one, with plenty of good writing, interesting projects, and humor.

And while I'm here, here's a photo of a coyote standing outside my house earlier this week.

Our Stuff Owns Us

Our stuff owns us.

Do not be fooled. We do not own it. It owns us.

We spend our valuable time, money, and life energy obtaining, maintaining, storing, restoring, repairing, and despairing over our stuff.  We want more stuff, better stuff, newer stuff, or different stuff. We get tired of taking care of all of our stuff. We feel overwhelmed when our stuff piles up but we find it hard to cull our stuff. We buy extended warranties to protect our stuff, even as we ourselves go without insurance protection. We hang onto stuff we don't even like because so-and-so gave it to us so we "can't get rid of it". 

The indestructible Silver Swede

If we own a new car or a nice car then we worry about keeping it nice and we feel anguish over that first big scratch in the paint job. I find having newer, nicer stuff is actually a hindrance to good living. Mr. Chanclas and I own a faded, cracked 1991 Volvo station wagon. It is wonderful because it is a very reliable car (it has never left us stranded) and we don't have to worry about scratches or dings (or comprehensive insurance). I don't think twice about driving it down the potholed access road near our house and I don't worry about hail damage or the fact the Mr. Chanclas let Big Sister drive it down the driveway and crash it lightly into a low rock wall. It is a worry-free vehicle. Another example of how crappier-is-better in my book is the lawnmower. When we moved to Austin 11 years ago I bought a used lawnmower for $55. It was a total junker made of parts from other lawnmowers. (Was it a Honda? A Lawnboy? All of the above?) We had it for 10 years before we finally ran it into the ground mowing our 1.3 acres of rocky weeds. Our neighbors offered to let us use their fancy riding mower but we were too afraid we would damage it. So we bought another junker off Craigslist and continue to merrily mow down Johnson grass, chest-high dandelions, small trees, and chunks of limestone.

It’s not just new stuff or fancy stuff that owns us, either. Stuff of any age or quality level can get in our way. Example: family heirlooms or inherited furniture that we really don’t need/want/like but feel obligated to keep. Or unused stuff we can’t bear to get rid of because “what if I need it again someday” OR “just think how much I paid for it”. What we don't realize is that we continue to pay for it just by continuing to own it. We have to make space to store it, take time to clean it or service it, and continue to share our lives with it.

I think I'm over my stuff. I don't need my stuff to be nice or fancy or even (sometimes) fully functional. It just needs to work well enough and not cause me undue grief. When my stuff no longer suits my purpose I like to repurpose it or pass it along. When I need more stuff or different stuff to get a job done I like to scavenge something that will work, repurpose something, or borrow from a friend. I find it harder and harder to pay for stuff these days because so much of what I need just comes my way if I am patient.

How do you feel about your stuff?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sometimes It Takes a Village... To Make Dinner

This is no ordinary bowl of chili. This chili was a community effort. This chili was one of numerous dinners I have made that were only possible with help from the neighbors. I didn't mean for it to require outside help but yesterday afternoon I was headed home with three very tired, cranky children. I knew I needed a can of tomatoes for our chili dinner but stopping at the grocery store looked like it was going to be an exercise in frustration and despair. So instead I just stopped at the neighbors' house down the street. The kids waited in the air-conditioned car (it's 95 degrees here already) while I ran in and got the tomatoes from my neighbor, Miss J. I have no qualms about making such neighborly requests because we benefit mutually. I have received more than one desperate, early-morning text from J. wondering if I have any extra coffee. Then one of her kids or one of mine make the door-to-door delivery. We joke that the ground coffee in the silver bag is the "emergency coffee" because it has gone back and forth several times.

After we picked up the tomatoes we went home and the kids got some much-needed down time and I started dinner. Then I realized that I didn't have any chili powder. You cannot make chili without chili powder. So I sent Big Sister next door (to a different, closer neighbor) to get chili powder. The same neighbor who recently came over and borrowed exactly four slices of bread to make sandwiches for her kids.

And so it goes. Other neighborly requests (mine or theirs) in the two years we have lived here are: milk, sugar, curry powder, beans, eggs, infant fever medicine, diapers, toilet paper, a food dehydrator, and a blender (actually, I've borrowed a blender from two different neighbors). Once I drove a hot Dutch oven full of beef bourguignon down the street to the neighbor's oven when I had company coming for dinner and my own oven was already full. And those are only the grocery and household-goods requests. We've also helped or been helped with last-minute homework projects, emergency child care, tree stump removal, the school carpool, and a host of other activities. 

I realize that not everybody is comfortable with such neighborly sharing and there are certainly people out there that I wouldn't want to interact with regularly like this. But if you have a nice neighbor, think about asking a small favor the next time you need one. Most folks are happy to share a couple of eggs or a bit of milk or whatever. And then you can return the favor sometime. It feels really good to be interdependent. Interdependence is at the heart of independence, in my opinion.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Very Appropriate Quote for Making Shift

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

- Robert A. Heinlein

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Homemade Chicken Tractor #2

I finally finished our second chicken tractor last weekend. It is very similar to the first tractor we made except that the new one has an actual door. Tractor #1 did not have a true door; instead I prop a cattle panel against the end of the tractor. The good thing about the cattle panel is that I can lower it completely and have easy access to the entire width of the tractor. The bad thing about the cattle panel is that I can lower it completely and all of the chickens run out.

The cattle panel propped against the front of Chicken Tractor #1
Because I sometimes get tired of chasing poultry around my yard I decided to make a small door that swings open for Tractor #2. Big Sister had the idea to use an old baby gate as the door. (I had picked up several in the trash in recent months.)

Chicken Tractor #2. The door is an old baby gate placed vertically.
A baby gate is essentially two wood-framed squares that slide one behind the other to create the desired width. I slid the two sections apart to the desired door height and then drove a few screws through the wood frame to hold the two sections permanently together. The screws splintered the cheap wood in a couple of places but they still held the pieces firmly enough. I covered the splintered sections with duct tape just so they won't snag someone's hand or clothes. I also taped and wired the wooden bars that run down the center. (I am all about the baling wire, people.)

Screws, duct tape, and baling wire used to make the baby gate door.

After I made the baby gate door I realized I needed to find a way to secure it to the frame of the chicken tractor. I went over to my materials pile and pulled out two long pieces of wood. I don't even know what they are called. They're about two inches wide and less than an inch thick. I screwed the bottom of each piece to the wooden base of the tractor and then attached the tops to the front-most PVC hoop using baling wire. You can see both vertical pieces in this photo:

Note the two vertical pieces of wood in front that serve as the door frame.
The next photo is a close-up showing the connection between the wooden piece and the PVC hoop. It looks appallingly flimsy but actually feels quite sturdy. I took a handsaw and dug a shallow groove into the sides of the wooden piece so that the baling wire wouldn't slip up and down. The groove is hard to see in this picture.

Door frame piece anchored to PVC hoop with wire.
After I had the door frame in place I had to attach the door. I didn't want to waste good hinges on this thing, plus I didn't think that cheap wood would survive the necessary screws, so I just wired the door to the frame like this:

Chicken tractor door anchored to frame with wire
Now all I needed was a latch to hold the door closed. Again, I didn't want to waste good hardware so I made a latch out of a screw and a loop of wire. It holds surprisingly well.

The finishing touch was to add an old section of tarp to the back end to provide shade for the birds. Mr. Chanclas helped me carry the new tractor out to the field to join Tractor #1. Here they are side by side. Chicken Tractor #2 is on the left and Tractor #1 is facing the opposite direction on the right.

Our two homemade chicken/duck/guinea tractors.
I moved our 8 meat birds (those extra roosters they added to my poultry shipment) and 4 guineas to the new tractor. The 4 ducks stayed in the old tractor since I need the extra-wide opening to get their baby pool in and out of there.

I should note that the only thing I purchased for Chicken Tractor #2 was a roll of chicken wire at Home Depot. It's hard to find good chicken wire in the trash, especially not in the quantities I need, so I broke down and bought it new. I didn't have to do that for Tractor #1 because I had enough random lengths of wire laying around to finish it. Except for that roll of chicken wire, all of the other materials for both tractors were scavenged or left over from old projects.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My Compost Pile Is So Hot

That sounds like a line from a bad joke, but it is true. After I picked up that horse manure a couple of weeks ago I slung a few shovelfuls onto my compost pile and mixed it all up. I should stop here and mention that I have previously always been a very lazy composter (compostress?). I just threw stuff on the pile with no thought to greens or browns or proper ratios or moisture or anything. Eventually it would all rot. I had what is known as a cold pile, which means that the decomposition is so slow that it doesn't generate much heat. Until now...

My compost bin made out of shipping pallets

A few nights after I added the horse poop to the pile I came outside to throw the day's kitchen scraps into my Tumbleweed compost bin. While I was out there I checked on my other pile, the one with the horse poop in it. I stuck my finger in it. It was warm! I tunneled my hand down into the pile and it was downright HOT! It was hot enough to make me yank my hand away. Then I went inside and made Mr. Chanclas and all three kids come out and stick their hands in the pile of hot horse poop (okay, compost). They were really good sports about it. I like that nobody actually hesitated to stick their hand down in there. Honestly, it wasn't gross at all because the manure is already quite rotted and inoffensive. The compost pile smells good, like clean earth, the way good compost should. When we lived in Wisconsin we slept with our bedroom windows open all summer and we could often smell the fresh soil-smell of our compost pile as we lay in bed. I loved it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Chicken Surprises (or Who Layed This Rubber Egg?)

After a few years of keeping chickens I thought I had this whole thing pretty much figured out. I still encounter the occasional new problem (sour crop, anyone?) but for the most part it is smooth sailing. I have gotten used to the simple, daily beauty of the eggs.

Sometimes the hens will surprise me by laying their eggs in a different place. When I let the flock out to free range the hens almost always come back to the nesting box to lay.  Occasionally they will surprise me and leave eggs in some hidden place or another. Tonight I went into our workshop, which is open on one side, and found a little nest of three banty eggs. A few weeks ago I found this little nest outside in a protected place:

But sometimes they still give me a real surprise. Yesterday I went out to the coop to find this:

At first I didn't even know what it was. Then I realized it was a very rubbery, torn chicken egg. There was fresh egg white seeping from it but no sign of the yolk. The strange dark bits in the photo are just bits of sawdust and grass from the coop. Another weird thing was that I found it in the main part of the coop and not in a nesting box. I googled soft-shelled eggs and it sounds like a fairly common abnormality and nothing to be too concerned about as long as it doesn't become routine. In the meantime I will keep my eye out for the rubber chicken that is laying rubber eggs in my coop. I have a few questions to ask it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How to Host a Clothing Swap

The women's clothing table at my swap

I hosted a clothing swap at my house last weekend. It was easy, fun, and a success! There are lots of different rules and guidelines you can follow when hosting a swap but this one was simple in that there really weren't any rules. Here is the information I sent out in the invitation:

I’m hosting a clothing swap at my house! I would love for you all to come. Here are the swap rules:
  • What do I swap? Bring clean clothes and accessories in good condition (not perfect, just wearable). Clean out your closet and your kids’ closets (even your husband’s closet) and bring what you no longer need. Clothes can be for any size, age, or gender! Clothes with a small tear or stain are okay if you think they are still wearable. Everything should be clean and folded, though. We will sort into piles by age/size and clothing type (jeans, shorts, skirts, etc). Feel free to also bring accessories such as bags, backpacks, caps, mittens, etc.
  • What can I take home? Anything you can use! You are welcome to take any items you need/want. Bring a big bag to take things home in (or I’ll send you home with your loot in a trash bag). I guarantee there will be enough stuff for everyone.
  • What happens to the leftover clothes? I will offer leftovers to friends and neighbors who weren’t able to attend the swap. After that all leftovers will be donated to charity.
  • When should I arrive? The swap starts at 1 pm. Each person can sort the items they bring into the appropriate piles when they arrive. We will start swapping as soon as folks arrive and the piles start growing! If you can’t get here right at 1:00, don’t worry. Just show up when you can between 1 and 4 pm and we will be here.
  • What else do I need to know? I’ll have some snack food and drinks for everyone to enjoy. I’ll bring out the full-length mirrors and we can use the bathrooms and bedrooms as fitting rooms. This is not a fancy event- it will be an easygoing affair!
  • Can I bring my kids? Yes. We have a huge yard and they can all play outside if it is not raining. Sturdy shoes recommended.
Baby clothes for swapping

The Little Girls and Little Boys table (signs decorated by 3 yr old)
I invited my friends, neighbors, and all of the families from my kids' preschool. In the end I only had maybe 7 different families show up but that was enough for a good swap. I think everyone went home with at least one grocery bag of clothes. After the swap was over I sorted through what was left and picked out items for my extended family members and a neighbor who wasn't able to attend. I also had another friend come by and pick out a few things. I will take the rest of the leftovers to Goodwill.

The big girl clothes table was on the patio

The living room was a hub of activity during the swap
My new favorite summer clothes have come from two recent swaps. Mr. Chanclas informed me that I would never let our children wear the same clothes four days in a row so maybe I should give my new dress a break. Hee hee. At least I washed it after day two.

My favorite summer dress, which I got at the clothing swap at the Mini Maker Faire last week.

I got this T-shirt and skirt at my swap
The swap was really pretty easy (the only unpleasant part was cleaning my house beforehand) so I'll definitely host another. I plan to host a swap twice a year- once in spring and once in fall. I'm also considering hosting a separate toy and book swap at some point.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Scavenged Animal Housing & Other Materials

I did just a teensy bit of scavenging this week. It is bulky trash pickup week for the area near my younger kids' preschool so I made some brief detours on Monday morning. Right off the bat I found this large igloo dog house. Now, my dog doesn't even use a dog house but the other dog houses I have scavenged have served as excellent chick brooders and nighttime nesting spots for teenaged birds. This particular igloo will probably house ducks for the rest of its days. Shortly after finding The Igloo I found The Hutch. I don't know what this thing used to be in its former life but it is made of lumber, plywood, and hardware cloth and that, to me, says Rabbit Hutch. Hardware cloth is that really sturdy wire mesh that costs more than you would think. It's great for animal housing, especially rabbits. I looked at it at Home Depot recently and decided I wouldn't pay for it, that I would just be patient and let some come to me. And here it is!

The only bad thing about finding two big things early on is that I ran out of room in my van! I had to tie The Igloo to the top of my van and shove The Hutch inside. Then I had to drive around South Austin all morning with an igloo on my car. Which, because this is South Austin, does not garner any strange looks. I even showed up at our preschool's Cinco de Mayo party like this and several people suggested I turn my van into an art car.

In addition to my two big finds I also picked up a few nice 2x4 pieces, some 1" PVC pipe, and several cabinet doors. I don't need the cabinet doors themselves but they had some really nice hardware on them-  brushed nickel pulls and good hinges. Those will come in handy at some point.

I think one of the things we have to do when scavenging materials is to see their potential. Often we don't need something to serve its original purpose but instead it finds new life as something else!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Austin Mini Maker Faire 2013

The Mini Maker Faire was great fun! The best part was getting to spend some one-on-one time with my dad (an exceedingly rare event since I have three young children). I think my favorite booth may have been the one for Design Build Live. DBL is a really active organization here in Austin that promotes natural building and sustainable living. They host a lot of interesting workshops throughout the year. Somehow I didn't get any pictures of their booth at the Faire but they had the folks from Earthbound Builders Collective demonstrating how to build a wall with Compressed Earth Bricks (CEB's). I am a cob building enthusiast (no personal experience, I just love the idea) and I thought the CEB's seemed to offer a lot of the benefits of building with cob with fewer drawbacks.

Another booth I really enjoyed was the East Side Compost Pedallers. They use these awesome modified bikes to collect compostable materials from their subscribers in east Austin.

They pedal the compostable materials to nearby gardens and farms and use them to make compost and grow food. I was especially excited about this because I have been toying with the idea of picking up compostables from my neighbors. Our family just doesn't produce enough compostable waste to supply our garden with all the compost it needs. I had envisioned sending the kids around the neighborhood with a bucket twice a week. They're cute kids so maybe the neighbors would be more likely to save their food trash for us!

I may have scared the woman at the Austin Creative Reuse booth with my enthusiasm for their project. A creative reuse center is essentially a retail outlet that collects unwanted materials that can be used for craft projects. Things like fabric scraps, sewing notions, old wallpaper samples, wine corks, etc are diverted to the creative reuse center, where people can go to get materials for their projects. We don't have one yet in Austin but there are several others in operation in the U.S. They had several cardboard messages at their booth and this was one:

I spent some time over by the clothing swap making balls of yard out of old T-shirts. It was really, really easy! They had hundreds of old T-shirts to choose from and we cut them into strips and then stretched the strips by hand while winding them into balls. I am going to try knitting with some of these at home. I don't even know what that would look like but it would be fun.

I also scored about 10 clothing items at the swap, including a light cotton dress that I have worn every day since Sunday. It is sure to be a summer favorite. I also got a technical running top for myself, several T-shirts for the kids, a skirt, and a dress for Little Sister. For free!

The following photos are of some of my favorite craft items. There were several booths that sold handmade crafted goods. I wasn't looking to spend any money but if I had had an extra $20 I would have bought this T-shirt with a narwhal on a Segway scooter. Awesome!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tater Tire Progress and How To Fill Your Minivan With Horse Manure

Wednesday was an interesting and varied day. In the morning I got to work on the tater tire project with Little Sister and a friend/neighbor who was visiting. The potato plants had grown tall enough for us to be able to add a second tire to the stack. I threw the tire on there and then my two helpers added half-rotted compost to it. They were very careful not to crush the potato plants.

After we got enough compost in there Little Sister watered the mix.

Later in the day I took Little Sister and Brother with me on a manure adventure. We had a conversation like this:
Me: "Who wants to go on a manure adventure??!!"
Them: "MEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!"

Obviously I have trained them well if they think picking up poop is fun. We headed off to get some horse manure from a woman who advertised in the Craigslist free section. What a great way to get rid of your manure! Better yet, most of the manure I got was already well-rotted so I'll be able to put it directly on the garden without risk of burning the plants. I got one plastic tote full of the fresher stuff and I threw that in my compost pile to help heat it up. Since I don't have a pickup truck I just took along a big plastic tote, three 5-gallon buckets, and some empty chicken feed bags. That worked out just great and I managed to not get the van full of manure.