The Robot Unicorn

We recently came across this almost-forgotten testament to my wife’s awesomely resourceful & creative parenting.

When our kids were approaching their fourth birthday, over seven years ago, one of them (I forget which) announced that what she most wanted for her birthday was a “robot unicorn.”

We puzzled over this for a while and I planned to move on to other, more possible gifts.

But Sarah got hold of this small plush unicorn, and sewed on green and red “Go” and “Stop” buttons. (She may have asked what would make a unicorn a “robot unicorn,” and gotten “buttons” as an answer.)

The gift was a hit and became a beloved object.

Sometimes kids can be easier to please than you expect…


Chicken intelligence and the terror of a shaken tablecloth

We’ve had the chickens for maybe 8 months now.  They are funny creatures– much more sociable than I expected.  They come running if you enter the back yard when they’re out — always think you may have a treat for them (vegetable scraps, bread, or best of all, yogurt (!?)).

Sarah rigged up this stylish and ingenious door for them the other day.  Unfortunately, they so far seem incapable of figuring out how to go through it. Or rather, they will come back into their enclosed run — going “into the toilet,” so to speak — but don’t understand how to do the other way.


Sometimes I do think that they are kind of dumb.  But really, that’s an anthropomorphic way of thinking.  They just have a very different intelligence than ours.  On the other hand, if we think of intelligence as a form of cognitive resourcefulness outside of or beyond specific “scripts,” it does seem fair to say that they don’t have this in abundance.  They do, and like to do, certain specific things: explore the yard hunting for seeds or other food, dust baths (these are hilarious to watch), being together in a group, being able to go to sleep when and how they feel like it (they all huddle on their roost in the hutch together).

Certain activities clearly satisfy their urges, and some things scare them. What scares and does not scare them can be funny.  For example, a visiting dog barking ferociously and slavering at them through the fence bothers them very little.  But Sarah once came into the yard and shook out a tablecloth, and they freaked out and ran squawking for the corners of the yard. Our theory is that what most scares them are raptors– hawks, eagles, falcons, etc. I also think it may be the case that they are “programmed” to count on a rooster to guard them from certain earth-bound classes of threats (like dogs), so they don’t need to worry about those.  But for whatever reason — I guess maybe it makes sense — every hen needs to look out for threats from the sky for herself.

Thus the terror of the shaken tablecloth.

Backyard Hugelkultur Redux

Sarah has developed a new Hugelkultur initiative in the backyard. (I previously wrote about backyard Hugelkultur way back in June 2008.)

What, you ask, is Hugelkultur?  Think of it as very slow composting.

Hugelkulture is the practice of composting large woody material to create a raised garden bed. It is a way of dealing with excess amounts of woody garden wastes, for example prunings, hedge clippings, brassica stems, or brashwood.

The name comes from German – hügelkultur translates as “hill culture”.

The technique involves digging a circular trench about 1′ (30 cm) deep and 5′ (1.5 m) wide, in the centre of which is dug another hole 1′ (30 cm) deep hole. The material is piled in. Turf (grass) is then stacked face down on top, then layers of compost, well rotted leaves and manure, etc as available. The layers break down slowly and creating rich humus over four or five years. It is claimed that this is ideal for growing hungry crops such as zucchinis (courgettes) or strawberries.

As the years pass, the deep soil of the raised bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm the soil giving a slightly longer growing season, in temperate and cold climates.

We dug out what looked like a large grave which soon filled with water.  For a week or so the girls would say things like “can we go play in the grave?” to creepy effect.  (In fact, the presence of this inexplicable gravesite in the backyard, slowly filling with water, created a very Rear Window effect.) Then, after it seemed to be starting to breed insects, not to mention becoming a likely death trap for skunks or other smaller mammals, Sarah filled it with sticks and branches and we all went out to jump on the branches and break them as much as possible and drive them down into the ground; and then we loaded the dirt back on top.  Sarah claims it will somehow all be fertile compost in a year or two.

I swear to god we don’t have a pesky former neighbor buried under all that…

Secret winter fairy house

Activity for an MLK day holiday afternoon (no service component here…).

Materials mostly gathered on walk to park:

  • sticks
  • milkweed (or something) fluff
  • seeds
  • berries
  • acorns
  • one round box

Tools: saw, hot glue gun.

And here is the finished product, so far, the house of two fairy children and their pet mouse Rollo (made from an acorn, with felt ears and tail, unfortunately not pictured).

I especially like the seed-pod chandelier, the little canoe-like fluff beds, the leaf rugs, the table, the bowls of seeds…

N.b. I had almost nothing to do with this…

*Cedar Rapids,* Eliot Coleman, and the Midwestern greenhouse dream


We watched the El Helms movie Cedar Rapids: Ed Helms is Tim Lippe, a modest, upstanding, nerdy small-town Iowa insurance salesman who is sent to a conference in the glittering fleshpots of Cedar Rapids, IA, which functions (often wittily) in the movie as a very tame/toned-down version of Las Vegas in The Hangover.  “Sometimes a girl just needs to go somewhere where she can be someone else,” a character comments; what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids.  It’s not bad… Helms and his roommate, similarly modest/upstanding/pious salesman Isiah Whitlock Jr., are both very amusing in their shocked disapproval of the wild goings-on (swearing, drinking shots, swimming in the hotel pool after hours) at the conference, embodied in their other crass roommate played by a good John C. Reilly.  There’s a funny running meta-joke about Isiah Whitlock’s nerdy (African-American) character, who is “a fan of the HBO series The Wire” and at one point puts on his best ghetto Omar imitation for purposes of intimidation; Whitlock played corrupt State Senator Clay Davis in The Wire.

Ultimately I’d categorize this as one of those movies that if you stumbled upon, you’d be pleasantly surprised; not exactly a must-see, though.  Sadly these days that probably makes it one of only a small handful of decent recent Hollywood comedies?  Sarah made a good point that the movie would make more sense if the characters were teenagers, and that it’s probably (a la Hot Tub Time Machine) intended for 40-somethings with fond memories of 1980s teen movies; I immediately could see the whole thing taking place at a senior class trip or some such.

Anyway… we were both amused when the Anne Heche character asks Helms to tell her about his dreams and fantasies, and he starts explaining his desire to build a small backyard season-extending greenhouse.  “A greenhouse?  Come on…” she says, meaning, “I want to hear about major life fantasies, not little DIY backyard projects,” but Helms says, “no, really, it can be quite affordable if you build it yourself.”

This was funny to us and hit a bit close to home because Sarah has been obsessed with this very possibility even since our friend Judith offered us her quite-awesome built-in greenhouse which she does not use.  Of course, the question is whether it would be remotely practical to move the fragile, glass-filled thing the 7 blocks to our yard, but Sarah has been scheming about it and dreaming of December fresh lettuce and greens.

I’m reading & enjoying that Melissa Coleman memoir about her upbringing on her father Eliot Coleman’s famous Maine organic Four Seasons Farm (which we visited last month; Sarah even managed to schmooze with Coleman himself a bit), THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone… Elliot Coleman was an innovator in popularizing organic farming techniques that allow for vegetables throughout the winter– greenhouses and root cellars playing a key role.  Sarah would also like a root cellar of course.

In a way, that a character in this kind of Hollywood comedy would be dreaming about a backyard greenhouse can be understood as a sign of how far the influence of Eliot Coleman and his ilk has spread in the U.S., far beyond the counterculture.  Next all Tim Lippe needs are some chickens.

I Built 1% of this Wall

I spent last week reading, among other things, George Eliot on the sanctity of skilled manual labor (Adam Bede) while Sarah constructed a stone wall in our front yard.  It was pretty funny.  In the evenings we’d both be saying “Whoo!  Long day!  I’m tired!” but I was tired from sitting in the library/cafe turning pages slowly, reading about Adam and Seth building cabinets and coffins, Sarah from heaving big slabs of limestone, chipping at it with hammers, rearranging the dirt and gravel, etc.

This wall has actually been a going concern for two years.  Sarah’s been working on it off and on with our friend Jack and a few other colleague/sidekicks of Jack’s.  It’s sat unfinished for the last year and now Sarah’s been making a push to complete it.  (Aha!  I realize that I wrote about this project, then the “New Wall Project,” back in the Fall of 2008.)

This is a “dry-laid” wall, meaning that it’s made without mortar, simply by fitting the pieces of limestone together neatly.  Sarah and Jack bought four tons of limestone in the end, 1/2 ton at a time in a truckload.  It costs $80 per ton (pretty good deal, $320 for all of this stone).  The pieces were cut by saws with smooth edges, so they needed to be “split-faced” — chipped away with a carving tool — to make them look more natural.

Yesterday I laid aside the Victorian fiction for the morning to help Sarah with some of the stone-lifting, digging, and root-cutting.  It’s good exercise, my arms were tired afterward.  She thinks that strenuous digging is the perfect exercise for psychological health, I think partly for evolutionary-biology-related reasons, and that instead of aerobics or step classes at the gym, people should just spend an hour digging dirt.  Probably true.

I asked her if she thought it was a fair estimate to say that I contributed 1% of the labor on the wall.  She didn’t really dignify that with a response, but I think it’s about right.

We were joking that passersby would say, “wait, who’s that pale man in the huge sun hat?  That’s not Jack!!  Wait — is that woman married??”

Hey — we all have different skill sets and interests…

Willy Streeter Community Garden

Sarah took the plunge and joined in on a community garden plot.  Or rather, 4 plots, I believe, as part of a team of five people.  Here she is planting some onions.

It’s great — the Willy Streeter Community Garden, a former pig-farm (apparently) a little more than a half mile from our house, very convenient, right near the Y and a playground.  Should be a good spring-summer family activity.  For various reasons the home garden thing hadn’t been working as well as we hoped for vegetables, there were some light/shade issues.  But now that we’ve started, it seems to make so much sense to do it more communally.  Everything’s nicely set up at the community space, with the land tilled, manure available, and a hose right there.  Our friend Leah is an artist whose work involves plants, gardens and seeds — I’ve seen her described as an enviro-sculptor — and one perk of having her part of the group is that she has a big backlog of nice organic seeds.  When I was there helping out a bit on Sunday, we were planting onions and leeks and parsley.

A decade ago we lived in Hyde Park, Chicago for two years and we have friends who’ve been heavily involved in the community garden there.  We enjoyed a lot of pesto from basil planted in that garden — Anthony and Kirsten used to bring home big laundry baskets of it and have basil-making parties.  Unfortunately, the garden is being razed by U. Chicago — a sad story [this is the Chicago Reader article about it].

Snow (day) candles

Our school district closes school at the drop of a hat… or a snowflake.  Last week we had a “rain day.”  To be fair, the predictions were for serious snow, but it was just rain that sometimes got a bit flake-y, with zero accumulation.  Now we actually do have a few inches, so natch, no school for two days.

I was teaching yesterday so Sarah was on duty.  It was apparently a very crafty day.  Among other things, the gals made these Snow Candles.  You melt craft-store paraffin on the double boiler, then pour the wax in an indentation in the snow.  Add some colored crayons, and a wick attached to a chopstick (I think).  Anyway, they’re pretty cool!


Today’s project was making valentines for school (classmates and teachers).  I gave them a big pep talk about how much better homemade ones are — they seemed to buy it.

Target was predictably disappointing.  There’s a whole section of the store now dedicated to Valentine’s Day stuff, but no colored construction paper to be found anywhere.  It’s as if they’re actively hostile to the idea of someone making their own.  We bought some overpriced glitter and went to Dollar Tree, which had good paper for $1 a package, also various stickers and other decorations.  (There are girl stickers — hearts, unicorns — and boy stickers, cars and trucks; I made only the most half-hearted, because so obviously doomed, effort to question this opposition.)

They spent much of the afternoon creating these.

Pretty great, I think.  We also spent some of this weekend painting their bedroom pink, so all in all the household has become significantly more girly.  Out tonight someone observed that I had a single shiny glitter on my left cheek.

Oh, by the way, as we were walking into Target Iris told me that from a nature documentary they watched with mommy they learned about how you shouldn’t leave lights on when you don’t need them: “because if you leave a light on for too long, it makes it easier for the polar bears to catch the penguins.”

How to Make a Fruit-fly Trap

Take a glass and put some fruit-fly bait in the bottom.  A piece of tomato or banana works well.

Cover the top with saran wrap and poke some decent-sized small holes in the top [just realized my holes have been too big — they should be tiny, made with a pencil tip or some such].  Use a rubber band to affix.

Put the trap on your counter and let the hunt begin.  Every morning and sometimes every few hours subsequently I have to cover it with my hand and bring it outside to release the catch.  (I feel kind of silly letting them go free, but it’s too much trouble to kill them).  I find it kind of fascinating that the cup is often hot from the methane emitted by the rotting banana.

It’s gotten hot and sultry, and too many fruitflies buzzing around makes me feel like I’m in Baby Doll.

Photo 419