Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting ready for school

We're very busy getting ready for the start of school these days, and one of the items on our list is the annual family photo. Children's House and E1 classrooms at our Montessori school ask the children to bring a photo of their family to keep in the classroom -- hence the annual chore. Here's this year's version, taken by our nextdoor neighbor.

Goodbye, -- and good luck!

Today is the official "closing" day of my deal to sell to Our Sunday Visitor. The paperwork is all signed, the money is in the bank, and it only took two hours to transfer the domain, files, and associated accounts to the control of OSV.

This is exciting news for three reasons. First, obviously, the financial boost is going to help, mainly by clearing some small debts, and also in terms of getting the adoption process rolling. Second, I don't have to worry about it anymore. Being the top result for "Catholic wedding" and having some 500,000 visitors projected for this year had made it into a big responsibility -- and frankly, I already have a fulltime job caring for four children without worrying about keeping the website up to date and fresh, and answering couples' questions. That is not to say that it hasn't been enjoyable. As the president of OSV said, it's obviously been a work of passion. And I have enjoyed helping out couples with their questions via e-mail. It's offered a real interesting glimpse into the wide variety of experiences people bring to the Church.

But the third reason I'm excited about the sale is that OSV is going to be able to take the website to the next level. They have the editorial staff, advertising staff, technical staff, and financial resources necessary to support and develop the website, so that couples preparing for marriage in the Church will continue to have a place to turn for answers to their practical questions for years to come. They are pairing it with their new marriage preparation program, Together In God's Love.

I'm hoping that this will mark a transition for me away from website development into a career path more focused on writing. Yeah, I know everybody's stampeding in the opposite direction, but I'm more of a words guy than a tech guy, and the technical expertise -- not to mention the degree of social networking marketing investment -- necessary to keep these websites going is increasing by the week. And I can't wait to get back to writing in a more focused way.

Cheap laundry soap, better than Tide

Got this laundry soap recipe from Winona ECFE. A friend made up a batch for me last October, and it has lasted until now -- nearly ten months. Total cost of the ingredients for that batch (about 5 gallons of laundry detergent) was $10 or so. Works great -- a number of moms in my ECFE class swear by it, say it's better than Tide. Even a couple moms who say they're picky about their laundry, which I am not. And you can't beat the price. The only issue I've found is that when storing it in a five-gallon container, it needs to be stirred occasionally to prevent settling. (You can also store the concentrated form in empty laundry detergent bottles.) Here's the recipe, written up by the inimitable Jenah Hensel:
1 Fels Naptha bar
1 cup washing soda
1/2 cup borax
1 five gallon pail with a lid

All those weird ingredients are available at Hy-vee, or any other major store in the laundry detergent aisle.

Grate the Fels Naptha bar up. It will look like shredded cheddar cheese. In a sauce pan, melt together the bar and 4 cups of water. Stir, and it takes awhile, 15 minutes or so.

Fill the five gallon pail half full with hot water. Mix in the washing soda, Borax, and the melted Fels Naptha water mixture. Fill up the pail with more hot water. Allow sitting overnight, to gel.

The next day, mix up the stuff. I actually did it with my hand/arm. Just dig right in there! Spoon or even a joint-compound mixer would work well). Looks like egg drop soup, the picture is what is looks like at this point. Now use an old Tide container, or Snuggle, or whatever, fill it half with water, half with the soap mixture. Shake it all about.

For standard washing machines, use 5/8 cup. For high efficiency (HE) use 1/4 cup. Hot, Cold, Warm, whatever you wanna use for water, that is up to you. Use cold, it's cheaper.

Here is the breakdown:
Makes 10 gallons of laundry soap
180 loads for standard
640 for HE
Costs around $2 to make this much
No real smell after the clothes are washed, but smells like my grandma (which is nice) when making it

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Visiting the Great Minnesota Get Together (part 2 of our late summer vacation)

Really, nothing says "the Minnesota State Fair" like a kid holding a giant blow-up cow, does it?

Mouse won this right off the bat, not twenty minutes in. We went to something called "Little Farmhands" (sponsored by Kemps: "It's the Cows!") where little kids get to pretend to be farmers. This consists of "planting" plastic seeds, "feeding" plastic seeds to plastic cows and hens, and "harvesting" plastic eggs, apples, and milk, which is then redeemed for "real" food wrapped in real plastic at the end of the exhibit. Well, the first thing that happens is they get a temporary "tattoo" on their arm. Well, Mouse's tattoo was one of a handful of lucky winners, because the lady who picked it out got all excited and said, "Hey, you won a cow!" and headed over to this big fenced-in area full of mournful-looking plastic cows.

Remember how I spent a week getting rid of half the kids' toys earlier in the summer? If so, you know how happy I was to hear that. I had forgotten the downside of the state fair -- all the junk they give you to cart home and throw away in your garbage. But, Mouse was "proud" to have won, and obviously very happy with "Bessie," so I carted her back to the car.

Mudpuppy navigates the farm, with Bear's help.

The Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest fairs in the country, and it has the highest average daily attendance of any fair in the country. having experienced both of these facts on previous trips, I spent several hours mapping our strategy the day before. That helped, somewhat, but we still experienced the "bigness" of the fair mid-afternoon as we struggled through the massive crowds on the south side of the fair.

Besides the Little Farm Hands, we saw a dog training show, a horse show ("Boring," opined Bear, although the girls liked it), and had real ice cream in the dairy barn -- probably the best soft-serve ice cream I have ever tasted anywhere, hands down. And it's relatively cheap, too, in fair terms, which means there is a massive line for it -- but fortunately, it only takes ten minutes to get through the line, since they have a well-oiled, well-staffed operation.

Sadly, we missed out on the stuff on a stick, and the deep-fried everything. I did have my eye on some deep-fried pie, and would've stopped for some if we hadn't been so harried at the time.

What else? The girls did the "Kidway" amusement rides, with mixed results. Definitely not the adults' favorite part of the fair, but there you go. Bear saw a high school robotics competition, and a high-flying trampoline act that was definitely impressive.

 Probably one of the highlights for us adults was the Great Minnesota Sing-Along. They basically set up a big karaoke screen, with a bunch of microphones on poles at different heights for anyone to sing in front of. The nice thing is you can sing along without getting up on a stage or something. Here's a short video. Sadly, our kids didn't know the tune, or they'd have sung along better, I think:

At the end of the day, I asked Starling to rate this trip to the fair on a scale of one to ten -- as in, "Gee, that was so much fun, I can't wait to go back to the fair next year!" (a rating of "1") to "If I don't see another pronto pup stand in ten years, it will be too soon" (a rating of "10"). She rated it a "2," so I guess we will be back to the fair in 2013. And then maybe I can have that deep-fried pie.

Our vacation at "the Schoolhouse" on Fish Lake

This past week we took a much-needed end-of-summer vacation...much needed because of how insanely busy this summer has been, both with work and kids. That's why I, for one, was really looking forward to a few days in a lakeside cottage at the (rather insistent) invitation of a friend of ours. The place is located on a small (half-mile long) lake called Fish Lake near Elysian, Minnesota, in what the Explore Minnesota! people call "the south-central lake country." I did not know Minnesota had a south-central lake country, but if you look at a map, there it is: lots of lakes, all around the Mankato area. This particular place sits on our friend's in-laws ancestral farmstead (well, ancestral to 1850). They moved this one-room country schoolhouse half a mile down the road to their place in 1973 (we saw the newspaper clippings), where for many years it served as a rustic (=no running water, toilet facilities out back, paddles and fishing gear everywhere) retreat for the family. Eventually they sold the land to the famous artist David Maass, winner of the federal duck stamp contest (at least twice). He built a rather large house on a rise above the lake -- all windows to the lake side. Then he decided to move to a larger lake near the Twin Cities, and sold it back to the original owners, who moved into the Maass house and slowly began improving "the Schoolhouse," while retaining much of its original charm and character.

Anyway, I will try to recount our visit pictorially...but before we get to the Schoolhouse, I have to mention the parade we marched in last Sunday.

Starling's contribution to our parish's 100th anniversary celebration was to enter the parish in the annual Goodview Days parade. (Goodview is the little bedroom community next to Winona.) I was pretty skeptical about this, especially since she was doing all the work and for a while it looked like we were going to be the only ones marching in this thing. Fortunately, a few more people turned out:

Bear and Mouse got to hold the sign for much of the route
I tell you, there's a real art to this marching in a parade thing. I was carrying Mudpuppy in a sling for much of the route while pulling a wagon filled with boxes of candy (bought at bulk prices). We assigned the younger kids the job of tossing the candy to the onlookers. This was a mistake. Let's just say they were REALLY enthusiastic and generous in their candy-throwing at the beginning of the parade, leading to us running out of  candy (two boxes' worth) halfway through. We also realized belatedly that after walking the route, which was about a mile long, we'd have to walk back to our cars. That's when the bottom really fell out on the little kids. The lucky ones got a ride in the wagons; the others just whined and cried about their feet. But, overall everyone had fun and the whole thing was deemed a success. If we do it again next year, maybe we'll make a float. Or better yet, someone else will make a float, and we can ride in it.

Immediately after the parade, we hopped into the van for the two-hour ride to Fish Lake. We arrived in the early evening, just in time to have a simple supper with our friend and his wife and college-bound daughter at the main house.

We were really impressed by the Schoolhouse. This back entryway is not original to this particular schoolhouse, but was patterned on the wood/coal sheds in the back of similar country schools in the area.

A view of Fish Lake, from the public access about 400 feet
from the Schoolhouse.
As you can see, they really modernized the interior -- it's bed-and-breakfast quality, with modern appliances and lots of cute little touches, including historic pictures of the Schoolhouse on the walls.

Back by the piano, you can see burn marks in the wood floor
where the stove used to be. They keep a guest book, as well
as some books about the history of the place and country
schools in the area -- fun reading.

What used to be the cloak room was turned
into a little office and bedroom; Bear slept here
on a foldout bed (not shown, opposite view).
Behind the curtain is a working toilet. A full
bathroom was available downstairs.
Our friend took us for a ride around the lake in their pontoon boat after supper, and we settled in for the night. We were there for three full days and spent them lazily. The older kids gobbled up the Nancy Drew mysteries they found there -- I think they read six books between them.

One night we built a giant bonfire with the help of our friend;
we cooked s'mores and talked late into the night. Bear burned
his finger pretty bad on one of the marshmallow sticks.

Mudpuppy had his s'mores raw.

The kids went swimming at the public access ramp, and also
off of a pontoon boat that we maneuvered into the deep
water. They wore life jackets the whole time.

Mudpuppy stayed on the boat.

Bear liked jumping in the water on the hottest day
that we were there. You can see why they swam off the
pontoon -- the shoreline was very weedy.

It takes some guts to jump in, considering that this is a cold
spring-fed lake.


I'm sure the kids could have spent the whole afternoon
frolicking in the water, if we'd started earlier, but we waited
until late afternoon to avoid the worst of the sun.

Reading a Nancy Drew mystery.
The last full day that we were there, we tried taking the pontoon boat out in high winds (gusting above 30 mph). That was a bad idea. Good thing Starling came along, because I needed her help the whole time. I had a horrible time getting out from the dock; the wind kept wanting to push us back into the dock, the other boat, or worse, shore. I fought it frantically with a long pole for about ten minutes, not wanting to foul the prop on the thick weeds, but I finally had to give up and use the motor. Even though I took the boat to the end of the lake where the wind was coming from, we had lots of problems staying in one place. We dropped anchor twice, but the wind was so strong, we just drifted more slowly as the anchor dragged on the mucky bottom. In fact, the wind was so strong, it blew away a page from one of the kids' books, and a life preserver that we had to go retrieve. Thanks to Starling's help (and not a few prayers), we managed to return the boat to the dock without causing any further damage.

One of the highlights for the kids was our visit to a place called the Okaman Elk Farm and Petting Zoo. This is a working Elk farm that has slowly expanded to include a petting zoo (rabbits, cats, sheep, miniature horses, donkeys, alpacas, goats), an art museum (mostly filled with art made from antlers), a gift shop, and an old sorghum mill that you can tour. The best way to describe this place would be that its owners apparently have no cares or worries about lawsuits -- to their credit, in our opinion. This meant that, unlike most petting zoos, they actually encouraged the kids to climb into the pens with the animals -- so little Mudpuppy and Jaybird got right up close and personal with the various sheep, donkeys, goats, alpacas, and miniature horses they had on the property. No hand sanitizer on the fence for afterward, either. They also had a trampoline on the premises that the kids spent a long time bouncing on -- no rules or anything posted, just a huge trampoline with a net around it. And the sorghum mill was full of rusty old equipment, and boards falling down, and huge holes in the floor -- which made it all the more interesting.

The kids especially liked the baby goats.

On the trampoline.

This kitty followed me around everywhere.
Cats love people who are allergic to them.
 The natural beauty of the area was wonderful to explore. The kids spent a good half hour throwing rocks into the lake one afternoon. Another evening, Mouse and Jaybird gazed up at the stars one night and went, "Wow! This is so awesome! It's just like heaven, minus the mosquitoes!"

Walking down the dirt road toward the big house; the garden
and small barn are on the left there.

Jaybird and Mudpuppy went on a walk down the road with
me one evening.

Bear went rowing for the first time, and found it a bit
challenging to coordinate.

With the help of our hosts, the girls made circlets that they
filled with wildflowers.

One day we went into Mankato because we needed to get our door handle repaired at the Toyota dealership. (Toyota Siennas of a certain age have a nasty tendency to lose their handles.) We made a day of it. After the car repair, we visited the church where our friend works, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church.  This is one of the oldest churches in the area, and one of the most beautiful; they are thinking of applying for basillica status. Our friend gave us a tour of the church, which includes a massive altar with the first-class relics of the five North American Jesuit martyrs, and a first-class relic of Saint Francis Xavier (which I got to hold, in its reliquary, of course). They keep the church open, despite the constant theft and vandalism.

Next, we went to see the Minneopa waterfall in Minneopa State Park, as well as an old German windmill that's on the park grounds. I was disappointed that you can't go in the mill; also, it doesn't have any working, turning arms on it, so it was a bit of a letdown. However, I did hike (by myself) the half-mile through the native prairie that they've established there, and that made the trip worth it.

We left the Schoolhouse early Thursday morning to head up to the Cities, where we visited my mom and made our once-every-ten-years trip to the state fair, which I'll post about next time.

A summer of firsts for Jaybird

It has been a summer of firsts for the six-year-old in our family. Her top five:

1. Learning to read
This is an ongoing process, but she has definitely made real progress in reading on her own. We're hoping that she will be reading books in bed by Christmas.

2. First lost tooth
She had this loose tooth for MONTHS. In fact, when she went to the dentist before our trip to Alabama, we were convinced that she would lose it there. Nope. It just came out a few weeks ago. And even then, I yanked it out. Jaybird was happy to get a Sacagawea dollar from the tooth fairy.

3. First time riding a bike without training wheels
Sp, several of Jaybird's friends learned how to ride a bike without training wheels, which meant she wanted to learn, too. And NOW.

This led to a funny incident earlier in the summer. After falling off the bike one more time, she stormed into the house. "I hate God!" she announced. (A statement like that will get your attention.) "Je did NOT answer my prayer to ride a bike without training wheels, AND I FELL DOWN!!!"

So much growth in faith is inspired by crisis, no?

After giving her a hug and a little sympathy, we explained that a) God is not your servant, and prayers are not magic; and b) God usually wants us to use our own capabilities to achieve some good, because it is part of our human dignity to do so; and c) maybe God wants you to learn patience and persistence.

To which she crossed her arms, stomped her foot, "hmft'd" and said, "Well, I hate that rule!"

To her credit, she did persist, practicing her riding for up to an hour every day, despite various mishaps. And one day, she was able to announce that she had learned to ride: "I still have a few things to work on, though," she said with a totally straight face, "like braking and not running into trees."

On the day she learned to ride

4. Learning to swim
We covered this in an earlier post, but this has been a continued source of pride for Jaybird. She likes to show off how she can dunk her head under water, jump in the deep end, and paddle around. She even swam in the deep part of Fish Lake during our recent vacation.

5. First fish
We also chronicled this in an earlier video post. For weeks, she had been begging to go fishing, just like her older brother. We finally took her down to the lake, where they rent not only canoes and kayaks, but also fishing poles, for free. She liked catching it, but wouldn't touch it!

So, a summer of firsts. And in a week, she will be entering first grade!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

First fish

After weeks and weeks of begging to go fishing, Jaybird recently went fishing with her brother, me, and a friend from the Catholic Worker who is really big into fishing. Right off the bat, she caught her very first fish:

Funny, she hasn't been asking to go fishing since this outing...


For the most part, this has been a pretty good summer for swimming -- hot and muggy, up until the last couple weeks. We have a membership at the pool, and we use it several times a week. Usually Starling takes the older kids for an hour or two in the afternoons during Mudpuppy's nap. Once in a while, though, we will all go down as a family, like we did last Sunday evening. I like going on Sunday evenings, because the place is virtually empty -- and we don't have to sunscreen all the kids at that hour. That knocks half an hour off our prep time.

Jaybird has taught herself to swim, through sheer dint of will, this summer.
She does what we like to call "not drowning," which is to say
 a very basic dogpaddle that will get her to the side of the pool. 

She has also taught herself a few floats, and has been experimenting
with diferent styles of strokes.

Relaxing by the pool.

Mudpuppy very cautiously explores the zero-depth portion of the pool.

Mouse enjoys jumping off the diving board in the deep end.

Playing under the "mushroom."

The evening light on the water is nice for these portraits.

Bear sat out the evening reading a good book -- but he has been enjoying
learning new strokes during his advanced swimming lessons.
All of the children, including Mudpuppy, are in swim lessons this week and next. Swimming lessons are a hassle -- as I say, it takes a good half hour to get everyone slathered in sunscreen -- but in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we like our children not to drown, so we haul them to the pool every summer for lessons. Of course it's been much hotter than usual all summer -- except for this week. On Friday we actually had lessons under cloudy skies with temps in the 60s.

Which wouldn't matter so much to me if it weren't for my being in the water with Mudpuppy for his lesson. When we signed the kids up back in March, I think my reasoning was that I'd prefer to be "playing" in the water with him over chasing him all around the pool and trying to keep him away from the restricted areas. I had envisioned a very laid-back splashing session, but as it turns out, the young instructor is something of a drill sergeant. She says she has more than six years' experience teaching kids this age, not to mention having taught all her cousins to swim, so she has Mudpuppy not only playing with toys in the zero-depth and playing ring-around-the-rosie, but also going in the deep end for front floats and back floats and jumping off the wall and hanging on the wall to kick and sitting on the wall to kick and putting your face in the water to blow bubbles and jumping off the wall and going all the way under, head and all.... Mind you, this is the kid who previously was known for screaming bloody murder when we washed his hair in the tub. Did I mention that we're the only ones in this class? (The early parent-toddler swim class has six toddlers and their parents.) So Mudpuppy does not get a break.

I have to say, though, that the aggressive approach seems to be working. He started off at the beginning of the week being VERY cautious about everything and doing a lot of head-shaking and whining; he's still doing that, but less and less, and he seems more comfortable and relaxed now. His back float is definitely looking better, and he's more relaxed doing it. He doesn't cry when he gets dunked under water -- partly because I immediately follow up by throwing him in the air, which makes him laugh. I also show him how I go under the water a few times before he does it. Unfortunately, he hasn't learned to close his mouth when he goes under. He might want to work on that.

His favorite activity in class is "motor boat" -- getting swished around the water in a front-down or backwards position by the instructor or me. He smiles and laughs and asks for "more, more."

By the end of the half hour, he is usually visibly shaking from being cold, despite wearing a swim shirt. So I scoop him up, he waves bye-bye, and then I wrap him up in a towel and lay him down on a bench to dry him off and change him into dry clothes. He just lays there, very quietly, with his eyes closed and a slight smile on his lips. And eventually, he stops shivering.

The kids were cold on Friday, too, of course. But, as I told them, outdoor swim lessons in Minnesota are 50% about learning to swim, and 50% about learning to Lower Your Expectations, because, to quote The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Sadly, they don't appreciate my sense of humor.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sayings of Bear

Bear said a couple amusing things tonight.

I was moaning that I was getting to old for this whole raising kids thing (it was the end of a long day) when Bear pipes up, "Well, hold onto your horses, 'cause in another eight years you should be guaranteed to have another baby around here." Meaning we'd be grandparents, of course. I shudder to think....

Later, he decided to bravely tackle a home repair that Starling had given up on. The doorknob had fallen out of both sides of the closet door, leaving it stuck closed. Bear spent about twenty minutes working to open it. At one point, Starling said, "You don't have to keep working on that." His response: "Don't worry, Mom! My mistakes are getting smarter!" (He eventually got it open.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

We're still alive! Sort of...

Why haven't we posted to GraceWatch in a while? Well, it's one of those "busy" times of year again, basically. Along with everything else that's going on, I am frantically trying to pull together our tri-parish faith formation program for the fall, which now also means writing some curriculum. (Long story.) Plus, people have been sick with the crud. Mudpuppy woke up vomiting again today, and Starling has been bed-ridden all day.

Not to fear! I have been snapping pictures and plan a big post about our summer routine sometime soon. In the meantime, here is a cute video of Mudpuppy playing with water on the deck.