Things We Need to Do in the Spring

I know, technically it’s already spring. But the snow suck to the ground outside says otherwise. It’s starting to melt, but slowly, reluctantly. We had enough snow out there to read above my knee without snowshoes. Our large 5 gallon chicken waterer was completely buried. The day its lid reappeared was special.

But now we have that spring paradox: tons of things we need to do before spring actually hits full on, but can’t do until the snow has melted and the ground has thawed.

1) Fence in the chickens. The deep bedding in our coop has covered their little back door entirely, so we’ve been letting them free range around everywhere. However, it’s getting warmer and the foxes should be coming by to dine any day now. While we have rifles and are prepared to shoot them, we’d rather not lose any chickens first. So we need to get them fenced in. But first we have to….

  • Build a compost bin. But the snow needs to melt first
  • remove most, if not all, of the bedding from the coop
  • Fix the electric fence because it has fallen over in places
  • Run an extension cord to turn it on to keep the chickens and the foxes out

It’s never as easy as just opening the chicken door.

2) Build separate brooding areas for the ducklings and chickens we’re getting. You cannot brood chickens and ducks together because ducks are fiends for water and scare the living crap out of the chickens with their outlandish behavior of trying to swim in the waterer. They also get the chicks wet, which the chicks really hate.
We can however, put the goslings with the ducks should they arrive at the same time.

3) Fence off the shed so the chickens stop laying underneath it. My husband hopes to do this today. About 10 of our chickens have decided they’re too good for their nesting boxes and lay underneath our woodshed. We cut holes in the floor so we could access the area underneath and pull out eggs, but the fact we have to is annoying.

4) Fence off the garden. Right now my mobile manure spreaders can go in there and hang out, that’s fine. But I’m bound and determined to get my spinach and peas in early this year (as soon as the ground is workable!) and I’ll be damned if they’re going to be the ones to enjoy them. I made a makeshift fence last year to keep the geese out, but the few chickens who managed to escape their fenced off area still managed to get in. This year we will build a proper-er fence, a few feet away from the outer most raised beds so no one can use those as leverage to propel themselves over the fence. I’m not joking. Chickens can be annoyingly clever when it comes to getting greens.

5) Clean up the basement. Ugh. Going down there makes me want to throttle myself. We managed to free the last logs from their trap of frozen mud and are burning those and hauled in some branches to saw off so we can rely less on the propane, but now the basement floor is covered in bark, wood shavings, and water. The water is actually from the washing machine because the outflow pipe came off the other outflow pipe and we failed to notice, attributing it to the heavy rain and snow melt. We were under a flood watch! Now I still have water to get off the concrete floor.

6) Start the rest of the seedlings! I enjoy this. I’m going to buy a heat pad today and see if any of my friends have extra eggplant because I forgot to order that…again. I’m going to have an awesome garden this year! I say that every year, but last year was disappointing. No one got tomatoes before August, which is quite late. I’m going to concentrate on melons and hope to get a lot. Being as far north as we are, we grow the small “personal sized” melons,  but they’re still deliciously awesome.

I think that’s it. I didn’t include the regular every day stuff. All this is on top of that. Sometimes I feel I don’t appreciate the winter enough.




I’m getting dumber

It’s time to face facts: I’m getting stupider.

When I was in college, I would read a lot of blogs on economics because I was an economics major. A lot of the posts discussed things I was learning in class and tied them to current events or current debate, which made them interesting. Then there were the posts that just discussed markets in everything or different cities, which are always interesting. I still read these blogs, but more and more I find myself skipping posts discussing actual economics in exchange for the ones about other topics–parenting, food in Singapore, books, whatever. You know: the ones that are always interesting if you’re not interested in economics.

It’s not that I don’t want to read the economics-heavy posts; it’s that I can’t concentrate on them. I try. But my mind wanders. I get up and do something else and when I come back, I just scroll past. My brain no longer has the time or energy to devote to topics that are now only marginal to my every day existence.

When Brian Caplan–hands down one of my favorite economists–wrote his book about parenting, I lapped it up. I even pre-ordered that book and it stands as my number 1 parenting book to this day. It’s the economics of parenting–but written in such a way that a sleep deprived new mom can still understand it. In other words, no math.

Maybe I’m just out of practice. It takes a lot of effort to concentrate on something boring. If you have to do it for a grade, that gives you motivation. But I have no external motivation to concentrate on blog posts that deal with the ‘difficult aspects’ of economics, even if it came to me fairly easily before. In my Money and Banking class, I was the only one who understood how the interest rate works to control money supply and I tried explaining it to my friend (a mom returning to college to get her degree). My teacher overheard and told me, “You’re good at school. You should do more of it.”

But I was sick of school. I’d been doing it since I was 4 years old. I wanted to get my degree, get out and do something else. I briefly considered getting a masters degree in economics, but the expense and econometrics (something I wasn’t sure I’d do well in) hung over me. Why take out tons of debt without any guarantee that I can pay off?

But all the same, I feel sad I’m getting stupider, that my brain no longer has the energy to read something more challenging than Jane Austen. I started reading the Gulag Archipelago, but stopped because Solzhenitsyn’s writing style bothered me. Too conversational in some ways. I figure if I’m ever stuck in an elevator for a long time, I’ll finish it then.

A Bright Future in Translation

When my son went to preschool, he provided me with an on the spot translation of the apple song he learned in Kindergarten. It originally went

I am apple I am apple
On a tree, on a tree
You come and eat me
You come and eat me
I taste good. I taste good.

He sang this once and I complemented him on it and then he kept singing it, only each time he sang it more and more of the song was in German until he reached the final version:

Ich bin Apfel, ich bin Apfel
Auf dem Baum, auf dem Baum
Du kommst mich essen
Du kommst mich essenIch smeck’ gut, ich schmeck’ gut

He was torn between ‘gut’ and ‘lecker’ on the last line (and apparently it should be ‘an dem Baum’ but whatever) and kept changing it, but I was very impressed.

Since then, his translation skills have continued to developed.

When we were in Kansas visiting my family, my brother-in-law took Alpha and my niece out some where. My niece spent the drive asking him how you say various things in German and he would tell her. Not speaking German, my brother-in-law had no idea if he was giving her the correct answers or not. Finally, my niece asked him, “What do you say in German when you’re really, really scared?” Alpha thought for a moment and opened his mouth and screamed, “AAAAAAAGH!”

* * *

We’re currently remodeling our bathrooms. I don’t know if this project is current; we’ve been doing it for the past 5 months, but since we’re still doing it, I guess it is. At any rate, we let the kids do a sample tile mosaic so we could get an idea how the grout color would tie everything together.
Beforehand, my husband explained to the kids in Finnish that the white glue they would be using was like liquid concrete and was toxic, so they should be very careful not to eat any or mess with it.

Alpha listened to this, then turned to Beta and repeated what DH had just said to them, only in English.
My husband was astounded. “I didn’t even know he knew the word ‘toxic’ in English.”

I get the feeling we consistently underestimate our children’s language abilities, particularly Alpha’s because he’s had so many problems with his speech. He’s also more reticent than Beta when it comes to speaking. Beta is a little chatterbox and talks to everyone. We go to the gym and when I drop them off at the daycare, she immediately starts chatting away to the lady there about her outfit, or a toy she brought or whatever. I talk to my host family via skype and she happily starts telling them whatever she can think of.

Alpha will talk to people now on the phone, but he’s still very quiet about doing so. His speech therapist has mentioned that she has a very hard time getting him to speak spontaneously. If she asks him what he wants to play with, most of the time he doesn’t answer until she offers him a choice and then he just says yes. She worried about his vocabulary, commenting how she showed him a nature scene and asked him to point at the leopards and he pointed at some birds flying. I told her that was strange because ‘leopard’ is actually the same in all three languages (Leopard in German and leopaardi in Finnish). She wondered earlier if he was just self-conscious but then answered her own question by stating that he was too young to be self-conscious. Then I told her the story of the first time we went to get his speech evaluated and he told me that he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t speak English. This seemed to change her opinion a bit.

Alpha is still quite sensitive about his speech abilities. Once when he was sitting at the table doing his work, he commented in English that he had to do speech practice because “I am not very good at speaking.” And it really stung me to hear him say that. I quickly told him that it wasn’t a big deal, lots of people have to practice their speech and told him that his father had to go to speech therapy when he was Alpha’s age and now he speaks just fine. I think this reassured him; he hasn’t mentioned being bad at speaking much again. At any rate, his speech has improved remarkably and ask long as he speaks up when he’s around people, he is very intelligible.

My Bullshit Experiment

I decided to do an experiment with my family this year.

Half of us got the flu vaccine and half of us didn’t.

I got it when I went in for an appointment to discuss my out of control asthma (and went back on Advair and have been good ever since–yay!).

My son got it at his 5 year well child check up.

Neither my husband nor my daughter have had a doctor’s appointment since then so they remained un-vaccinated.

The results?

None of us have gotten sick.

Seriously. This has to be the healthiest winter we’ve had since we started having children. We had a stomach bug my niece gave us all and two colds, the second of which we got after I told a friend how healthy we’d been this winter. Figures.*

So what does this mean? Absolutely nothing. It’s completely irrelevent and says nothing about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.

I just thought I’d tell you anyway.

* We’re probably all going to get the plague now that I’ve written this post.

“A Woman in Berlin”: A Review

What does it mean–rape?..It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything–but it’s not.

 I just read the book “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City” and I keep turning around in my head. It’s an unbelievable account of mass rapes perpetrated by the Red Army at the end of World War 2. The anonymous author worked as a journalist before and after the war and spoke passable Russian. It’s unbelievable this book came to be at all, especially when one considers how well-written it is. Republished in 2004 after the author’s death, it’s disturbingly relevant today:

I look at the 16 year old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her virginity to the Russians. She has the same dumb, self-satisfied look she always had. I try to imagine how it would have been if my first experience had come in this way. But I stop myself–it’s unimaginable. One thing is for sure: if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there’d be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation, news reports and neighborhood gossip–and the girl would have reacted differently, would have suffered a different kind of shock. But here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered. Which of course doesn’t mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won’t fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives.

The 16-year old girl was raped by 3 Russians and afterwards proudly declared that they all immediately went for her and didn’t even glance at her sister.

It’s strange to think of a situation where rape can be so normalized that it can be joked about and taken lightly or even seen as a matter of pride:

It seems he left [the widow] with a compliment. At first she didn’t want to reveal it, but finally she told us: “Ukrainian woman–like this. You–like this.” The first “like this” he illustrated with a circle formed by both his thumbs and forefingers, the second “like this” with a single thumb and forefinger.

The widow still hate nightmares about it later, but she felt free to discuss it with everyone. Usually, rape is dealt with silently. It’s simply not discussed. I was attacked and nearly raped two weeks shy of my 16 birthday. Afterwards, I emailed one friend and told her about it, but she was the only one and even today so few people know. How do you bring that up in conversation? And yet, among the friends I have told about it, a surprising number of them have similar experiences. One of my high school friends was raped at a party. She woke up feeling pain ‘down there.’ Another friend had something slipped in her drink at a bar. Another was molested by a family friend as a child. They say that one in three women will experience some sort of sexual abuse in her lifetime. Detractors say that these numbers are highly inflated and include women who regretted having sex and decided to ‘cry rape’ later. I have no difficulty believing they’re accurate.

The women in the book run the entire gauntlet of emotions after being raped, from disassociation:

I remember the strange vision I had this morning, something like a daydream, while I was trying in vain to fall asleep after Petka left. It was as if I were flat on my bed and seeing myself lying there when a luminous white being rose from my body, a kind of angel, but without wings, that floated high into there air…Of course it’s just a fantasy, a pipe dream, a means of escape–my true self simply leaving my body behind, my poor besmirched, abused body. Breaking away and floating off, unblemished, into a white beyond. It can’t be me that this is happening to, so I’m expelling it all from me.

To disgust:

I’m constantly repulsed by my own skin. I don’t want to touch myself, can barely look at my own body. I can’t help but think about the little child I was, once upon a time…

To despair:

 Judging from their speech the two women behind me were well-bred ladies. One said: “You know, I was completely numb. I’m very small there, my husband always took that into consideration.” Apparently she’d been raped repeatedly and attempted to poison herself. Then I hear her say, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later learned that your somach has to have enough acid inside for the stuff to work. I couldn’t keep it down.”

 “And now?” The other asked quietly.

“Well, life goes on. The best part was over anyway. I’m just glad my husband didn’t have to live through this.”

And then acceptance. The author realizes early on that it’s better to have “one wolf to keep the rest of the pack away” and works her “way up from supply train to major,” the major being wounded and surprisingly sensitive, for a rapist:

Please give me your hand.” I stare at [the major]…He takes my hand and clasps it firmly with both of his, then says, with pathetic eyes and trembling lips, “Forgive me. It’s been so long since I had a woman.” He shouldn’t have said that. Next thing I know I’m lying with my face in his lap sobbing and bawling and howling all the grief in my soul. I feel him stroking my hair…A little later in the dark I tell him how miserable and sore I am and ask him to be gentle. He is gentle and silently tender, is soon finished and lets me sleep.

This is perhaps the most important thing that most people miss in discussions about rape. It isn’t about the ability to say yes to sex. It’s about the ability to say no. If someone is passed out and they can’t say no, you can’t assume he/she is saying ‘yes’ because they aren’t capable of consenting, one way or another. Annonymous could not say “no.” She was going to be raped whether she wanted to or not. The only power remaining to her was the ability to choose who was going to do the raping.

In spite of what they’re gonig through,  the author and other women she encounters seem to concern themselves with their men’s feelings more than their own:

While Ilse and I discussed the subject, her husband stepped out to visit their neighbor, as he put it, to get the latest news for me off a crystal set. As he left, Ilse grimaced. “Yes, well, he can’t really bear to hear about that.” Her husband is tormenting himself with reproach for staying in the basement and not doing a thing while the Ivans took their pleasure with his wife. During the first rape, down in the basement, he was even within hearing range. It must have been a strange feeling for him.

I know a lot of people who are very passionate about guns and a woman’s right to bear arms–the great equalizer, and “when seconds count, cops are only minutes away.” But in this situation, any action by anyone to defend themselves with firearms would have been construed as a counterinsurgency under martial law. So the men did nothing because they were powerless to do anything:

These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men–and the feelings of all other women–are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man– is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.” In earlier wars men could claim that the privilege of killing for the father land was theirs and theirs alone. Today we women, too, have a share. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.

When Alpha was 3 months old, we went to Finland for my husband’s grandfather’s funeral and rode in the entryway on a severely overcrowded train. With us was a really drunk Finnish guy, who wanted to talk to DH the entire time. At one point, he approached Alpha and me aggressively and I swear, I have never seen my husband move that fast–to protect me and his son. It crazy, but comforting to know that he would totally stand up for me. What reaction would you have knowing that your husband couldn’t?

The baker comes stumbling toward me down the hall, white as his flour, holding out his hands. “They have my wife…” His voice breaks. For a second I feel I’m acting in a play. A middle-class baker can’t possibly move like that, can’t speak with such emotion put so much feeling into his voice, bare his soul that way, his heart so torn.

An Ivan grabbed the bookseller’s wife as she was coming back with water…The woman shrieked and her husband came running out of the apartment, making straight for the Ivan and shouting, “You damned bastard! You prick!” As the saga has it, the Russian piped down, shriveled up and backed off. So it can be done after all…I’m convinced that this particular woman will never forget her husband’s fit of courage, or perhaps you could say it was love. And you can hear the respect in the way the men tell the story, too

The only other story the author recounts where a man tried to protect his wife, he ended up getting shot and dying. Even more tragic, his wife was Jewish and the author explains how he had such a hard time during the war because of it, but refused to divorce her or leave her because he knew what would happen to her. So much of what happens in this book is senseless, so easily avoidable. So many people who poison themselves, a woman who runs out of a building and dies trying to evade Russians, others who get blown up waiting for water:

Beauty hurts. We’re so full of death.

Then her fiancé returns home and it’s interesting that, although she mentions all women will have to pretend she in particular was spared or their men will never want to touch them again, she does precisely the opposite with Gerd:

If I was in a good mood and told stories about our experiences over the last few weeks, then he got really angry. “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, everyone one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?…It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure…”

I gave Gerd my diaries (there are three notebooks full). He sat down with them for a while and then returned them to me, saying he couldn’t find his way through my scribbling and the notes stuck inside with all the shorthand and abbreviations. “For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” He asked, pointing to “Schdg.” I had to laugh: “Schändung” of course–rape. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

Gerd only echoes society’s opinion the first time this book was published in the 1950s, when it was roundly condemned as “shameful to German women.” In a scarier way, Gerd’s words echo those of many Americans today. Remember, if it’s “rape-rape,” you won’t get pregnant! Your body has a way of just shutting down! Or those who claim “she was asking for it” or get annoyed when women get raped and actually want the perpetrators brought to justice instead of keeping quiet and letting it all go away. At least here, that can happen. The bigger shame for Germany in the 1950s if you ask me isn’t the way the women behaved, but they had to shut up about it afterwards and pretend that nothing happened so as to spare the menfolk’s feeling.

The author confesses she herself doesn’t know how many times she was raped. I guess after a while, you lose count, but I make a rough estimate of at least 15 times. At least. It’s darkly amusing how after a while, her concern is less with the rape itself than with the fact the rapist just ripped her last pair of whole underwear.
I don’t think this book shames German women at all. If anything, it shows how amazingly badass they were to go through all that they did. They endured the carpet bombing (by Americans, hence the saying “Better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead”), the deprivations of the last few weeks before the Soviets invaded, the rapes of the last few weeks of the war, then got up, brushed themselves off and became the infamous Trümmerfrauen, moving mountains of rubble with buckets to clear streets and rebuild homes. They were tough as nails. A German guy I knew in college told me German women scared him. After reading this book, I can understand why.

Why are Americans so fat?

One of my friends just got back from a trip to Austria to visit her parents for Christmas. Her father, an aging Austrian, leaned over to her husband during the trip and said, “Look around! Do you see any fat women? NO! Because there aren’t any fat women in Austria!”

“And there aren’t!” My friend informed me, part despairing, part admiringly.

How does this work? Why are Americans (especially American women) so much fatter than other nations (excepting Mexico).

We didn’t used to be so fat. Seriously. Go back 50 years and Americans were a lot thinner. Go back 20 years at this point, to late ’80s and Americans were a lot thinner then, too, making “skinny jeans” the worst timed fashion comeback ever.

What happened? Cultural change.

Whenever I go to Europe, I lose weight simply because I only eat 3 times a day with my host family. We eat breakfast together. We eat lunch together. Then we have Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake, around 4pm. Think of English teatime?) and then eat dinner (Abendbrot) and that’s it. Snacking in Europe is uncommon.

Compare that to the US. When my husband moved here and got a job, he returned home from work one day and informed me that Americans only eat one meal a day, it just lasts all day. We have a tendency to perma-snack. All. Day. Long. According to this study, 90% of male’s and 112% of women’s increased calorie consumption is from snacking and calories consumed at meals time have gone down. Food is present pretty much everywhere. Workplaces have candy bowls everywhere. My gym set out cookies and Christmas Candy in the days leading up to Christmas (?????). Food is more convenient and transportable than it’s ever been before, making it easier to eat more.

In addition to our poor eating habits, we’ve also become very accepting of larger body types. Fat Shaming week made headlines actually and I thought it was really horrible and awful. Why would you want to make fun of someone just because he or she is fat. Maybe I should just say she–because it’s usually women. Men are just BEEFCAKE. But, again, if you look at other countries, they do not accept fat people–at all. Especially not fat women. When my Ukrainian host sister returned to Ukraine maybe 10-20lbs heavier than when she left it, the first words her father said to her when she was arrived, were “You need to lose weight!” She was still, as I call it, “American skinny.” But American skinny is Ukraine-chubby. I’m 5’6″ and 165 and consider myself “American skinny.” But it became quite apparent in Finland that I was definitely not Finland skinny. “You know,” my husband commented, “when we’re in the US, I think you’re pretty thin and healthy. But in Finland…” I just nodded in agreement. His mother was more direct. Commenting on Haakon’s pickiness, she told him in English “If only you had your mother’s appetite…”

In Finland, it’s okay for guys to be fat, but not for women. They’re expected to watch their weight. Looking around the Christmas dinner table, I realized that all the men were overweight (my youngest brother-in-law actually looks like someone stuck a bicycle pump in him and overinflated him)–except for my husband (a lean 175 at 6’2″, Americans keep telling him to gain weight).  But all the women were thin–except for me.  And it’s all cultural pressure.

My sisters-in-law are very careful not to eat too much. And I don’t see them snacking or eating sweets much when I’m there, either. Maybe an occasional piece of fruit or yogurt. They stay away from most things that have a lot of added sugar–and it helps that not everything has added sugar in it in Finland. Nearly everything in the US has added sugar in it and that shows when it comes to our obesity and diabetes rates. If you’re trying to eat healthy and order a salad in the US, get the dressing on the side. There could be enough sugar in it to spike your blood sugar if you’re diabetic. Even so, there might be some on the lettuce. Unless you make all your food yourself, you cannot get away from it. It is impossible.

So, we eat all the time, most of the food we eat has a lot of sugar in it and we have a culture that is very tolerant of being overweight. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that we don’t move very much. We walk an average of 5,117 steps a day while others walk 8,000-10,000. We drive a ton, mainly because the distances we have between us and the places we want to go are larger than in other countries. One of the biggest regrets I have about living in the countryside is that I can no longer walk anywhere except “around.” I have to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere. I drive to the gym to work out because if I walked to it, I would never get there. I’d probably die in a snowbank somewhere along the way.

The good news is that while we may be one of the fattest nations on earth at the moment, other nations are rapidly catching up with us! I was amazed at how many fat people I saw in Germany the last time I was there. It was strangely comforting. No country is immune to overeating. Once the cultural rules of eating start to relax and allow a lot more snacking, it’s like opening the floodgates.

And I should know. I was doing really well no-s-ing for a while there. Then I stopped right before New Years (yes, I did really well right until Christmas) and I haven’t quite managed to find the willpower to start up again. I’ve vowed to start again, reminding myself if not now, when? If not me, then who exactly is going to shed the extra 15 lbs I’ve been carrying around since having two kids?
But my mother-in-law was encouraging. She asked my husband how much both of us weighed and then did the math to figure out our BMIs. She concluded, “Well, for living in the US, you’re not too bad off!”

Uh, thanks?

My False Friend: The Eagle

My host family in Germany always throws the most amazing parties. They’re German affairs, featuring perfectly folded napkins, a nice array of food, alcohol and cake. Preparing for these parties is no small affair. If it was a Big Enough Deal, I guess they would have it catered–I never really paid much attention to that part, honestly. These parties were so far removed from how things happened in my family (pick your own box of cake mix!) that I had no frame of reference. But I didn’t mind helping with the preparations.

One party, they told me I could make the eagle. Huh? They showed me a bunch of gehacktes (raw ground pork) and some onions and told me to shape it into the form of the an eagle. This wouldn’t be cooked, either, in case you were wondering. Germans are among the nations of people who still think eating raw meat occasionally is good for you. I thought it was disgusting back then. Now I’m merely on the fence.

At any rate, I stared at the mound of ground pork, picturing an eagle in my mind.

Where the heck was I going to get that kind of wingspan out of ground pork?

Confused and seeing no easy solution, I got to work and shaped two kind-of wings a head and some kind of feet-like talons with onions. When I decided it was close enough, I announced I was finished.

The Germans looked over at my eagle and said with typical bluntness, “What kind of an Igel is that?” They quickly and expertly removed the onion and reshaped the gehacktes into a round mound, sticking the onions into its back like needles. I stared at it, totally confused.

At the nearest opportunity, I slipped down into the basement and pulled out my trusty German-English/English-German dictionary and looked up Igel. Hedgehog.


What can I say? We don’t even have hedgehogs in the states, much less sculpt them out of ground pork.

The Chicken Coop of Despair

Three years into having chickens and I’m still not sure if we’re doing it right. I’ve learned a lot about having chickens, for sure. People have started asking me chicken questions, which is a sure sign of having some sort of Chicken Owner Seniority. But things never go perfectly.

Take our coop, for example. It was a disaster from the get go. We hired a contractor to build it, being short both on time and construction skills. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do (we wanted a lightweight mobile coop), so we ended up with a very sturdy non-mobile coop with a wire floor. It took our contractor twice as long to build it as we thought it would, too, so it cost us about twice as much. We installed the roosts ourselves, first putting them perpendicular to the nesting boxes, which turned out to be a bad idea because it left no space for a waterer and feeder inside the coop. So we redid those and reinstalled them parallel to the nesting boxes, which means we only have two of them. This is fine, we still have enough roosting space because the nesting boxes were built inside the coop, instead of hanging off outside the coop. This means there is a nice shelf for the chickens to use as roosting space about it. It also means that all the poop gathers on top of it and we have to frequently go out there and scrape it off. It also means that there is wasted space below the nesting boxes, which usually serves as a good place for chickens to sneak under and hide eggs.

The doors to the nesting boxes on the outside of the coop are basic paneling. At first they shut fairly tightly, but over time they have warped and started to bow out, leaving a nice gap between the door and the side of the coop. This makes the coop drafty and that is exactly what you don’t want in a coop for your chickens.

Our contractor also insulated the coop for the winter. It’s a toss up whether or not this is necessary. Chickens tend to keep themselves warm well enough as it is because they have a lot of feathers. In our case, it was futile since neither we nor our contractor covered it with anything (such as hardware wire or boards), so the chickens ended up removing basically all of it. And then they pooped on it. So we had to drag torn up mats of chicken poop covered insulation to the town dump.

Originally, our coop was going to be mobile. I have no idea how we thought this would work. It’s built too heavy for the two teeny tiny wheels my husband bought for it. To even hold it up off the ground, we’d need at least 4 larger wheels. And we’d need to be able to steer it. Unless we wanted to only push it around, we’d have to get a tractor or something with which to pull it as well. And probably an axle so we could turn it. Basically, it’s a stationary coop.

We also thought we would have a coop with a wire floor so that the chicken poop from the roosts would simply “fall through” onto the ground below, thus saving us a lot of mucking out. This worked for a little while in the beginning. But once the chickens reached a certain age, the pop just started clumping up together on top of the wire with feathers mixed in for good measure. It started to smell, too. Then I read that wire floors are bad for heavy breeds, so we gave up and cut the floor out and switched to an impromptu “deep bedding method.” Since we never got around to putting in an actual floor, we’ve decided to stick with this one.

After Mr. Fox slid under our coop a few times to steel chickens, I took some wire fencing and stuck it around the coop with wires. This keeps the fox out and keeps our deep bedding in–a double bonus. Whenever I want to remove the bedding, we just remove the wire and rake it all out. Violá!

This year we’ve decided we’ve learned enough to really know what we want in a coop. So we’re going to make some changes. The biggest change is going to be in the nesting boxes. Since the chickens only use 3 of them anyway, we’re going to rip them all out and build one row of 6 nesting boxes hanging outside the coop. This will 1) prevent the chickens froom roosting on top of the nesting boxes and pooping up there 2) Get rid of the drafty gap from the nesting boxes’ door (the new door will be a lifting roof that should fit snuggly) 3) give us more room inside the coop for hanging feeders and waterers and another roost. We will reinsulate it and cover the insulation with paneling or hardware wire (we can’t decide which). We will take more hardware wire and staple it to the outside of the coop around the bottom to replace the wire fencing we currently have. This will prevent chipmunks, mice and rats from being able to sneak into the coop to nest and steal food, hopefully decreasing our feed bill. We will still be able to lift up the hardware wire when we need to clean out the coop.

We still need to find a solution for keeping the deep bedding from overflowing and falling out of the coop. We have two doors: the original one and a smaller chicken sized door we cut into the back of the coop. At this point, the smaller door is entirely covered and I’ve been adding blocks of wood in front of the bigger door to make a threshold. I hate having to leave that door open so the chickens can get out, but I don’t want to lose bedding through the back door. We’ve thought about cutting subsequent higher chicken doors, but then we’d need more chicken ladders. Other than that, I feel like our coop is finally getting to a point where it isn’t completely ill-suited to our needs.

Having chickens is complicated.


Why Americans Have Baggers–and Europeans Don’t

One of the major differences between the US and Germany and Finland is the lack of baggers. Seriously. If you shop at any American grocery store, they will have the cashier (standing because physical pain shows dedication) and a person at the end of register to bag your groceries. You as the customer only have to swipe your card. In some places, they will still even push your grocery cart out to your car for you!

They will not do this in Europe. In Germany, cashiers will not get up from their cushy chairs unless there’s a fire. You are expected to not only bag your groceries, but pay for the bags to do so (or bring your own, which most people do) and to do it quickly enough to spare yourself from the wrath of the cashier and the customer behind you. If you’re not used to packing your groceries, I recommend just taking them all to the bagging shelf where you can take your sweet time to do things properly.

Why these differences? There are several reasons.

1) Culture. Germany and Finland don’t really have a huge service culture. If you want good service in Germany, you pay for it. Germans are che—thrifty, so they don’t want to pay for service. They’d rather pay for quality. Finland is only nice to foreigners who are shopping there. Now that my husband has been out of Finland for about 6 years, he gets the foreigner treatment when he goes home and is constantly amazed at how much better he’s treated. Actual Finns: you’re own your own.

2) Labor supply. In the US, baggers tend to be very young, very old or mentally retarded. Occasionally someone hire up will be filling in for them, but this is the general rule. It’s unskilled labor. In the US we have a lot more unskilled labor than they do in Finland and Germany. This is partially due to the fact we have a lot more unskilled (and illegal) immigration. It’s also due to tradition. It’s a lot more “traditional” in the US for teenagers to work. I got my first official job when I was 15 (babysitting in a church nursery. I got $27.70 after taxes every two weeks). By the time I graduated high school I was working two jobs: church nursery and telesurveyer at a university. My husband’s first job was when he was in college: tutoring other students. His first real REAL job was after he immigated to the US. The foreign exchange student my sister had from Berlin actually got some jobs when he was a teen: as an extra in some soap operas being filmed in town. It definitely wasn’t anything regular though.
Of course there is regional variation. I was discussing contractors with a friend and he said that was the biggest difference between living in California and the Northeast: in California, you hire people to work on your house and they show up at daybreak, banging down your door ready to get started. Hire someone in the Northeast and they’ll show up…eventually. You might have to call them a few times though. If you fire them, it’s useless. The replacement will be just as bad. They’re like this because they know there’s not a lot of competition. Any immigration in the Northeast tends to be skilled white collar labor and population trends are down, kind of like Germany and Finland.

3) Labor costs. Labor costs are a lot higher in Europe than in the US. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25. Finland and Germany don’t have federal minimum wages, but wages are negotiated via unions by sector. But the average for unskilled labor, like a cashier, in Finland and Germany is higher than in the US. Or maybe that’s the issue: in the US, cashiers are considered unskilled labor. You will be set ringing after maybe an hour of training. In Germany and Finland, you’re probably educated and as far as I know, probably have to have a degree from a vocational school in cash register technology. Labor regulations also increase the cost of hiring an extra cashier. So you usually encounter two or three cashiers in a store and long lines. In the US, both retail chains I worked at (large chains, you’ve definitely shopped there), had rules regarding how many customers could be waiting in line. At the large box store it was something like 2+1 (Two customers waiting, one ringing). At the pharmacy retail store, it was “I-see-3.” If he saw 3 customers in line, the cashier was supposed to call that code for back up. This will not happen in Europe because there IS no back up. And you will wait. But those cashiers are damned efficient. Their productivity has to be high in order to justify their employment. The amount you’re paid signifies how productive your employers expect (or think) you are. Cashiers in Finland in Germany have to be a heck of a lot more productive. Go to a McDonalds in Europe and compare it to a local one in the US. In Finland, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than two cashiers at Hesburger (it’s like McDonalds) or McDonalds. They’re like octopuses. It takes longer to get your meals, you wait longer, and the employers are crazy busy, but it works. In the US, it depends what time it is, but generally three cashiers and people running the drive thru along with assorted other people running around doing things. Completely different.

Any other reasons?

My Kids Believe in Santa

Apparently telling your kids about Santa is controversial these days. I do it. Why? Because it’s fun. And sometimes, I like to have fun. People who are against telling kids about Santa raise the argument that telling kids some dude goes into their house and gives them presents while flying in a magical sleigh pulled by reindeer is not only creepy, but also lying to them. My response to this is: considering all the other ways you’re invariably going to lie to your kids while raising them, you’re picking this one to make a stand? Really?

In the long run, it doesn’t matter one bit if you tell your kids there is a Santa or not. If you want to tell them there’s a Santa, DO IT! If you don’t want to waste your time (and give all the credit to an imaginary person), then DON’T! Either way, it’s not going to turn them into a serial killer or make them cynical. Growing up and realize that their parents aren’t perfect is going to make them cynical. Not learning there is no Santa.

My parents told me about Santa when I was little. I believed it until I was 5. Then I started noticing my older sister and brother kept accurately telling me what I was going to get for Christmas so I finally asked my mom if there was a Santa Claus. She said no. I wasn’t upset at all. At least not until I tried to tell my friend down the street. She refused to believe me and kept insisting that there was a Santa Claus. I kept insisting that there wasn’t. Eventually they moved away, but I now have the satisfaction of knowing that eventually she found out that I really was right. Since then, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just shut up and not be right.

My husband also grew up believing in Santa Claus. Or more specifically, Joulupukki. Joulupukki lives in Finland in Lapland. Every year on Christmas Eve they have Joulupukki reading letters and taking phone calls from kids on the television. You can even fill out a form online somewhere (I’d look it up, but I’m lazy) and give Santaland an address and name and they will send you a letter from Joulupukki. In other words, Santa is a big fricking deal in Finland.

Onko täällä kilttejä lapsia?

Telling our kids about Santa/Weihnachtsmann/Joulupukki gives Finland that extra edge of cool in the language and culture race in our household. When Alpha went to Finnish preschool while we were visiting over Christmas last year, they discussed Joulupukki and that was the only word he ever actually said while at Finnish preschool. Other than that, he was completely mute. But JOULUPUKKI IS BRINGING HIM PRESENTS, MAN! That has to be acknowledged. Then Joulupukki showed up at his grandparents house on Christmas Eve (presumably while on his way to hand out presents to all the other kids out there) and personally delivered presents to everyone. Alpha was beside himself with excitement. Beta was confused.

This year, they’re both excited. They know about Joulupukki and they know about getting presents. This is actually the first year it has firmly registered with Alpha that he can request presents and get them. He’s asked for a scooter, which we bought (one for each child). Then he changed his request and asked for a fire scooter. I have no idea what it is, but he gave me a long monologue about how he could ride it in the street because he would be “sehr sehr sehr sehr sehr vorsichtig” and if a car came, he would be able to go REALLY FAST. I told him I didn’t think there were such things as fire scooters. He insists that there are. I think he’s going to be disappointed tomorrow.

But he’s convinced there’s a Santa. The crazy thing is that we haven’t even put forth a lot of effort to convince him of this. Society has done most of the work for us. And it’s not a “be good or Santa won’t bring you any presents on Christmas” thing either because unless you’re actually planning on NOT giving your kid anything for Christmas when you say that, that’s a really ineffective way to discipline. They’ll learn that either a) you don’t mean a damn thing you say or b) that Santa is on their side. As far as my kids are concerned, Santa just comes and brings them presents because he’s cool like that. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected their behavior. Today my son decided he needed to clean up all his toys so that Santa wouldn’t step on them and hurt himself or break his toys. I told him that was a really good idea.

So whether or not you tell your kids about Santa or believe yourself, have a Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten, hyvää joulua!