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Two of my kids are participating in Somerville’s Open Air Circus this summer, a local circus produced by and for kids. My teenage stepson is taking a leadership intensive and teaching classes in everything from unicycling to juggling, while the five-year-old in my life has become an instant expert at balance beams, tumbling and running around like a maniac in “circus pants”.

This is all practically free for me (we paid a $20 membership fee at the beginning of the summer, for six weeks of classes). It’s gloriously disorganized and fun, and the kids are learning a lot. Not only about how to perform in a circus, but how to be in a class or teach one. We love it.

The Open Air Circus is the progeny of a grown-up circus called the ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment. They would love it if everyone came to their benefit show this weekend. Here’s their information about it:

ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment is putting on a benefit performance on July 10th at The Armory in Somerville. Advanced tickets are on sale now at at $8/child (5-18 years old), $15/adult, and $40/family (admits 2 adults and 2 children). Tickets at the door will be $12/child and $20/adult. Please let all your friends know about this opportunity to enjoy a spectacular performance while helping support the OPENAIR Circus.

Please consider coming in a green fashion (public transportation, walking, biking, skating, etc.). We have some directions on the above page of how to get there but are glad to help you figure out a your particular path if you email us with your starting location. If you do come by car, please remember to park in the lot behind the Armory to try to avoid street parking congestion.

Strawberry Jam!

Strawberry Jam!

The kids and I made half our haul of strawberries into a tasty jam this afternoon. Rio and Serena were both great helpers, as was the morning preschool gang. They washed the berries, cut the tops off them with a safety knife, and put them into bowls for mashing. Rio even helped stir the sugar into the jam.

My two big discoveries for the day were that making strawberry jam is, wonderfully, one of those bits of domestic magic that is secretly much easier than it looks. We followed a simple recipe we grabbed from the internet, which was more formula than recipe: just match quantities of sugar and mushed up berries 1:1, add some lemon juice, heat it up, and put it in jars.

It sounds simple, and it is. Also forgiving. We made several mistakes along the way, and the jam still turned into jam. It did so in spite of our lack of canning equipment, our failure to own a candy thermometer, our messy hands and messier workspace. It turned into jam in spite of our using the food processor instead of the potato masher to mush the berries and our innovative “squish the big bits with your fingers” technique.

I confess, I was astonished. It wound being kind of runny, since we skipped the pectin, but it was delicious. Like eating the sun, if that wouldn’t be fatal.

Once we had conquered jam, we had a serious challenge to face: do we slather this stuff on the homemade sourdough boule Martin baked over the weekend, or the homemade banana-walnut-chocolate-chip bread he and the kids made?

Both, of course. And then we lick our fingers.

IMG_4206.JPG, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

Serena, like most toddlers, loves to mimic everything Mommy does. Especially the things Mommy does that are not generally available to toddlers. Like operating a spray bottle full of cleaning chemicals, or using the garden tools.

Today was her day to do it all, just like a grown-up. A few of our plants are infested with aphids. The cure for this, according to our Wise Gardening Neighbors? A very diluted solution of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Another neighbor gave us a big bottle of it, which I watered down and poured into an old 7th Gen spray bottle.

Toddler toy, meet pest control. How often do you get a chance to put those things together in a good way? Serena was delighted. This photo captures her focus and determination. She must have spent an hour carefully spraying everything in the garden. Those aphids and their ant farmers have met their match!

I took a lot of photos in the garden today, as well as some jammaking ones. They’re all up on my Flickr if you want to see more of what the girls and I got up to.

Strawberries, harvested

Strawberries, harvested

Today the girls and I went to Red Fire Farm, the organic farm that provides our vegetable CSA. The bulk of the CSA comes to us in the form of a weekly drop-off at the Growing Center, but we also have an open invitation to go pick some crops at the farm. It’s a long drive, almost two hours. It takes a lot to get me to drive that far with my kids, and this was totally worth it.

In addition to the amazing strawberries we picked, we also got peas, herbs and seedlings (we had to pay for the seedlings, but they were very reasonably priced. one might even say cheap, at about $1.75 apiece).

I had heard rave reviews of Red Fire, which prompted me to sign up with them even though they’re a little pricier than some of the other local CSAs. So far, my experience says it is all true. They really do put out more diverse food, and higher quality produce.

Our first week of the CSA brought us a wide variety of vegetables, not just an avalanche of greens like we’ve had with other farms. We got cilantro, kale, turnips, beets, spinach, green garlic and, yes, two heads of lettuce (but one of those was red!).

The farm trip really put it over the top though. The farm is idyllically beautiful, with pockets of woods breaking up verdant fields and a big, big sky. Being there felt like an opportunity to breathe more deeply and be more fully alive in my senses. It also gave me a great excuse to spend an afternoon alone with my girls, something I do surprisingly rarely considering I’m their full-time caregiver. It feels like we are so often socializing or learning or enriching that we’re rarely just on an adventure together.

We all had a blast, even when the thunderclouds actually broke out into pouring rain on top of us in the middle of picking our peas. We had our raincoats, and it turns out we’re all waterproof. It turns out Rio is an expert strawberry picker. She had a great eye for spotting clumps of truly ripe strawberries, and was diligent about staying inside the lines of the open pick-your-own field (unlike her Mama, who was occasionally lured under the string into the closed off section full of ripe berries). Serena is still at the nibble-and-toss stage of berry picking. She carried a basket around with her for most of the time, and put a few berries in it. Some of them might even have ended up in our stock pot.

My kitchen counter is now ensconced with two gallons of freshly picked strawberries, a flat of jam jars and a few boxes of pectin. Recipe suggestions welcome. I’ve never canned anything before, so tomorrow will be a whole new iteration of adventure. Today all I managed was tying up the herbs we picked at the farm to dry and setting the seedlings out in the garden so they’ll be easy to plant tomorrow.

I’m sure we’ll go back to the farm later in the summer to get a wild abundance of tomatoes. In the meantime, I expect to keep enjoying our weekly haul from the CSA.

I started doing The Compact about a month ago. The Compact is simple: for one year, buy nothing new.

There are exceptions of course. These things were written into the Compact as exceptions:

  • perishable goods (food, cleaning products, personal care, medicine)
  • underwear and socks

I’m a generous sort, and I think five is a nice number, so I’m giving myself a few others:

  • art and school supplies (another consumable good that we use a lot of and depend on)
  • garden supplies as needed
  • something else I have not thought of yet that will doubtless prove to be Very Important

While part of the goal of the Compact is clearly to live simply, it doesn’t require one to give up all shopping. You can buy things used, you can freecycle to your heart’s content, etc. It’s more about sustainable living and saving the planet than it is about saving your pennies.

I’ve been enjoying it so far. I wasn’t a big shopper anyway, but I’ve several times caught myself thinking, “I need to buy this thing…but wait! I can’t! I’m Compacting!” Only a few times have I been tempted to get someone else from my household to buy it for me as a cheat. 🙂

Benefits of the Compact:

  • It’s kind of a huge relief to me, because every time I think, “Should I buy that book/t-shirt/gadget/toy?” the answer is, “No.” and I don’t have to expend a lot of emotional energy on coming to a decision about each item it occurs to me I might want to buy.
  • It’s inspired me to be more creative. The Compact was in the back of my thoughts when I made Rio’s birthday gift instead of buying something for her.
  • It’s a good check on shopping impulses. It’s not that I can’t buy anything – most of the things I would buy I can get used – but it adds another layer to the process, another checkpoint I have to go through before getting out my wallet. That seems to be a good thing, because I have mysteriously been stockpiling cash for the past two weeks as my spending money goes largely unspent.

I’ve joined the Yahoo group, but it’s high traffic and a lot of the posts are off-topic; I admit to not reading it much. What I do read are a few simple/frugal living blogs that I do get a lot of value from. My favorites are Get Rich Slowly, the Simple Dollar and the Non-Consumer Advocate.

Have you been cutting back on your spending, or shifting towards more second-hand shopping? How’s that going for you? I’d love to hear about it, or answer any questions y’all have, in the comments.

So all the discussion of biking with kids has given me some exciting new options to consider. Right now, I have a two-seater Burley trailer that I use almost every day to haul my kids around, and a tag-along tandem attachement for Rio. I think these two things will get us through the summer. But then what? I doubt that Rio, at 6, will be able to bike independently for long rides, and Serena at 3 will probably not be *quite* ready for the trail-a-bike.

Some cool options I’ve encountered:

  • The Xtracycle, which is an add-on kit to transform your regular bike into a cargo bike, or a “family van” with two kids’ seats on the back. Very cool, cheap as these things go, and apparently available locally. The link above is to a blog written by a Cambridge couple who use one with their kids, and they give much more detail about it than I could. One clear advantage to this is that you get to keep riding your own bike, which you presumably like.
  • Dutch Cargo Bicycles, which allow you to carry some large number of kids, grocery bags or circus animals in their amazing and sturdy construction. These things cost more than my car, but are apparently a dream to ride and very sturdy.
  • MADSEN Cargo Bikes, might be my favorite of the batch. They put the cargo bucket behind the adult rider instead of in front the way the Dutch bikes do. They look like they can hold a fair amount of cargo, and provide a pleasant ride for the adults as well.

A couple of people mentioned that bikes built from the ground up to be cargo bikes might be safer and more durable than a standard bike that you adapt with a kit, because they were designed to hold the weight of three people. That might be true. On the other hand, I’m fairly small. My kids and I together weigh just a little more than my (very tall-n-skinny) spouse, and he rides a bike every day. I doubt the weight of me+kids or me+cargo is really going to strain the brakes or wheels on my bike to the breaking point.

What not to do on a bike in traffic

What not to do on a bike in traffic

A friend just posted a link to a great site about bicycle safety. I can’t recommend strongly enough giving this clear, simple page a read. Especially if, like me, you have a crazy habit of putting your kids in harms way, er, riding your bike with your kids.

To my knowledge, there are two basic camps of bicycle safety: those that advocate treating your bicycle like any other vehicle on the road, and those who advocate theory of invisibility: assume the cars won’t see you, and stay out of their way at all costs.

This page falls more into the former camp, which as a driver I endorse. My life is much better when cyclists behave like cars behave, and stay highly visible. It’s a little scary to ride in traffic, and sometimes people get angry (especially if you are *gasp* riding with a child in tow), but I still think it’s the safest course of action. I can’t really speak about the invisibility option, because I have never tried it. It seems dangerous to me.

If you want more good info about safe, effective riding on city streets, I suggest The Art of Urban Cycling, by Robert Hurst. This book teaches a medley of vehicle-style cycling and using intuition to know when to break the rules. I read it when I was getting back on the road this past fall and found it extremely helpful.

Even more helpful than a book or a good website when you’re starting out riding is a more experienced cycling buddy. See if you can find someone who’s been doing it awhile to go for a few rides with you. There is no replacement for a live teacher.

(ps. the photo is of course not what it appears to be. my daughter is testing the size of her brand-new birthday bike in her grandmother’s driveway. she is not actually even riding, let alone riding on a busy street in traffic with no helmet.)

When I posted my list of May events, I should have included this one, which I am leading at The Growing Center tomorrow at 4 p.m.:

Wheel of the Year Festival: Beltaine
A series of family-friendly festivals celebrating the turning of the wheel of the year. Through song, story, art and play we will explore the changing seasons and our changing selves. You are encouraged to bring a potluck contribution and, if you are able, a small donation to help cover costs. Sponsored by Viriditas, a Boston-area Reclaiming group.

The prize of my May schedule is a fermentation workshop with Sandor Katz. It’s next Friday at 2:30 at BU. His book, Wild Fermentation, changed my life. You need to pre-register for this event. If the admission fee is a too high and you’re a homeschooling family, let me know. The workshop was organized by another homeschooler who may be able to arrange a fee reduction.

Some other May activities my kids and I will likely be at:

Somerville Open Studios – This weekend, all over town. My plans to host a Kid’s Art Show fell through, which is a bummer but also frees up the kids and I to prowl the neighborhood and check out other artists work. There will be some lovely and amazing photography on display right in our very own house.

Fun With Logical Puzzles at the Somerville Central Library. This is a series of math and puzzle sessions geared to 6-13 year olds. It’s happening May 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th at 4 p.m.

And of course, being outdoors. We’ll probably be at the Growing Center playgroup on Friday mornings more often than not.

Most of my energy this month will be going into personal activities: a long-planned solo mama trip, my eldest’s 5th birthday, and the wedding of a dear friend. Hope to see you all out and about in the sunshine!

Dear Concerned Citizens,

Please do not shout insults or parenting advice at me as I am biking past your car on a city street with my kids in tow. Your fear for my children’s safety is truly touching. However, if you pause for a moment, you may realize that taking your own attention away from the vehicle you are driving to startle, alarm and anger the rider of the bicycle does not make my kids safer.

In fact, were you to cause an accident with this behavior, you can be fairly sure I would not be blaming myself for the harm that befell my babies. I would blame you, and your self-righteous idiocy.

Perhaps next time, instead of screaming, “You’re going to die!” or “That is so dangerous!!!” out your car window, you might want to focus on taking special care that you’d don’t became the agent of our apparently inevitable destruction.

A very good way to do this is to get on a bike yourself. If more people tried that, my kids and I would be a lot safer on the roads.


Your friendly neighborhood cyclist

Flickr Photos

A little bird told me…

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