Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fearless and jacketless in January

Today was the winter festival at a local park. Last year when we went to this festival, our visit was cut short because Emily managed to find a hole in the pond ice with her leg, so we had to go home and get warm. This year, in contrast, the ice wasn't solid enough to trust, because it has been warm all week, culminating in a sunny day in the 50's for the Winter Festival. I joked about it being a Global Warming Festival instead.

Anyway, lately I've been working on a proposal for a new book, this one about women and girls playing outside, or perhaps about how we don't play outside enough. I've been thinking especially about fear - of the dark, of assault, of animals, or even of sullying our clothes. But I realized today that one of these fears is one I am more familiar with than many: fear of my own clumsiness.

I found myself following a gaggle of girls (OK, just four, two of my own and two friends), crossing the stream. Last in line, I realize too late that Emily, in the lead, is already three-fourths of the way up a climbable, but muddy and steep, hill face, while I might have thought we'd travel the boring but reliable stairs instead. Hazel is right behind Emily, and one of her friends is with her, racing to the top. I've climbed this before, though I wasn't planning to today, and so when the last of the girls was just ahead of me, I followed her up, encouraging her en route and feeling proud of myself to manage not only not to fall, but also to be right behind the child I was helping, stable enough, I hoped, to catch if need be.

At the top, I might have sighed with relief, had I not been struggling to keep up with the herd. The girls were bounding ahead, at first trying to outdistance a boy they encountered en route, then simply with the joy of having a trail to follow after weeks playing either indoors or hindered by snowpants.

We reached the woodland fort without incident - a spot probably built by local teenagers, on park land, but with a hammock, fire circle, and treestands demonstrating relative permanence compared to the many stick-teepees and huts scattered in other spots. The girls played for a few minutes before I suggested that their parents didn't expect us to be gone long, and we headed back, them bounding before me again with a speed and grace somewhere between deer and young bears. I don't care to think of what animal I resembled, but I was not bounding.

Twice, Emily tried to lead short cuts downhill, and I have no doubt Brian would have simply followed and encouraged her. First, I called her back to the trail because she was venturing down trail-less hillside; while I have no fear of getting lost in this park, I did not want to lead other people's children to the edge of any sheer drops, of which there are a few. The second time, Emily started downhill in the spot where we'd scrambled up, a spot where by any reason I should know we could get down: if you can climb up, you can always climb down backwards.

And I debated there, for a moment, almost letting Emily and Hazel and the more fearless friend down. They, certainly, would be fine, and I could walk with the less certain climber, down the stairs.

Somehow, though, between my own fears for myself and my own feelings of responsibility for the other girls, I balked at this. The girl who would have walked with me wanted the company of her friends; I was not confident in my own ability to lead her down as safely and fearlessly as we'd gone up. Though heights, per se, don't bother me, the idea of me climbing them does: I can't seem to trust my own climbing skills while simultaneously having to see the route I might fall.

So I forced the whole group down the stairs. Only Emily really complained, so it wasn't torture, and all the girls were off playing before I even reached the bridge back across the stream. It was, at some level, just the kind of boring judgment call which parents make all the time: safety or fun, pushed toward safety, once again.

But, hours later, I'm still thinking about it, with regret. I'd rather remember this afternoon proudly, with a memory of me helping the uncertain climber conquer her own fears instead of reinforcing them with my own. Could anything realistically have happened to us, besides mud or a few scrapes? And have I possibly infected all four of them with the seeds of my own self-doubt, dooming them all, in their 30's, to take a boring route with their own children when a more challenging climbing route was offered?

Next time, I'm going down the steep way.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chicken education

Today Emily and Hazel's afterschool program came over to visit the chickens. None of the chickens was busy laying this time, so the kids got to hold them, chase them, watch them - many of them for the second time, since when the chickens were younger I'd taken them over to Boyd to play one day in fall. The chickens had grown a lot, and I've learned a lot about them in the meanwhile. I still know so little about them, perhaps about how much as I knew about horses back when I just took riding lessons but still hadn't talked my parents into buying one for me. I'm definitely still a novice.

This is our third time raising chickens, and the first time we've ever gotten to the laying stage. When we first got eggs, before Christmas, I was so excited at the eggs themselves - the size, the little shape variations, the speckles on some. Now we have four layers, and what interests me these days is the laying process.

She circles restlessly, forcefully and repeatedly scratching at the ground as she turns, stopping occasionally. Sometimes when I watch her beak is open, as if she is out of breath, but usually her face reveals nothing, saving perhaps some inner concentration. If I am quiet, she doesn't stop work to notice me, though if I make a sudden movement she'll stop her circling and walk over a bit to look at me, curiously, before going back to her restless scratching and circling. Her tail is up, and sometime the feathers fluff and seemingly strain with the effort. If I watch the tail feathers, it is as if I can see the hen breathing there at her backside, the feathers softly moving in and out, sometimes faster paced, and sometimes slower, like a yoga breath. As labor progresses I get an occasional glimpse of egg peeking out under her tail feathers. She will pick up bits of straw in front of her and put it next to her side, but such small quantities that it seems to make no difference in the nest; she is just restlessly moving it around. After somewhere around an hour (I've not yet literally clock watched, but it is more than 30 minutes, more than 45, less than 2 hours), eventually she will stay still and focus her efforts.

If Taylor is the one laying, she'll stand and squat, body at 45 degree angle with head up, but Selena, Gabby, and Swallow seem to lay from a horizontal squat, body basically parallel with the ground. When the egg pops out, she'll stand for a moment or two, seemingly uninterested in the output, but resting. Then she'll hop down to join her sisters - drinking, eating, scratching the dirt. The sense I get is not so much of relief as just "OK, now I've taken care of that, what have I missed down there?"

Emily and her friend watched Selena lay an egg this weekend, standing by the coop in the melting snow, quietly, for at least a half hour. I've often bemoaned that for urban children, the most animal reproductive life they see is squirrels frenzied by spring rut, or male ducks tussling over a mate. In other words, they see the chase - what might be thought of as the fun part of reproduction. Rarely do they see the results of that chase. Most animals, sensibly, give birth in dark, quiet places, and only occasionally - not with the clockwork regularity of a chicken's daily labor over her egg. Even breastfeeding is something which my own children see rarely, though I cultivate friendships with moms who are likely to feed their children this way, and urge my friends not to hide the activity from me or the girls.

In the last seven years, I've had less and less contact with birth, myself. I loved the girls' births in a way that few women have the luck to love their children's births: two six hour labors, with good support, no pharmaceuticals, healthy outcomes, and an almost complete lack of fear (mine, my spouse's, or the attendants) present in the birthing room. But no matter how good my body is at birthing, for a human, I have nothing on these chickens. They have no fear - they almost seem excited about it, the way they tussle over the favored nesting corner. They are clearly doing something instinctive, which demands full focus, and they don't seem to worry about it, or fear it. The sound of their scratching suggests that the sensation is intense, but intensity is the only word for it. With these chickens, labor is aptly named - it is the work they do.

I have read that cats are the best animals to have present in a birthing room, because mother cats bear their young so easily, purring. I've never seen a cat birthing, and I suspect few people have - cats are so secretive. Not many people these days have seen chickens laying eggs, either, but it is a lot easier to watch - it happens daily, and they let you watch them doing it. I'd argue that more children should get to see an egg laid. Our education about births is coming from the wrong places; even our doctors often learn about birth first during their ER rotation in hospitals, and their birth education is focused on managing complications. Midwives have better training in normal birth, but how can we know they exist, if most of our friends used the nearest OB at the biggest maternity unit in town?

Birth education, for Emily, has been all verbal so far, and who knows if she listens to me, or when? But this Saturday, I know Emily learned something wonderful about labor and birth, because she watched one of our own chickens in labor, giving birth to an egg which Emily will eat in cookies or banana bread or spoon bread or french toast. And if Emily, 20 years from now, spends her labor walking circles in a nest of her own choosing and delivers her baby while standing on her own strong legs, I'll be pleased to think that she learned not from me, but from a chicken.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Skiing through trees

Although I've had cross-country skis for about 10 years, and although I visit Kentucky every winter, I've never brought my skis here, because I was never sure if there would be snow. But when I knew I had to come down and help my parents this weekend, the one pleasure I could afford myself was to bring the skis, and take them to the U.K. Arboretum.

It was a tad warm - right at 30 - so in spots, the skis stuck. But generally, on the beaten-down trail, the ride was smooth. The hills are gentle; I had a nice chat with a woman from Wisconsin who clearly had affection for the sight of cross-country skis.

And I had an opportunity I will hopefully never have again: to ski (safely) right through a tree. This lovely burr oak, standing throughout my childhood but now resting prone, didn't hurt me a bit.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Gazing at the snow

I've had a bunch of people ask me how chickens do in the cold, or what they think of the snow. They don't like walking on snow, but they like eating it. Generally at night they snuggle up to each other for warmth, but during the day they just do their thing - not visibly any differently than they did during the warmer months.

But I really liked this scene, tonight, because they look to me like old ladies on their porch, fussing about the weather. They want to be inside, but right on the edge of it. They look like how I feel on a snowy night - I love the snow, when I have a good view of it, and don't have to have my toes in it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Praise for Mr. G

Back in summer 2005, when we moved in, Brian was the first to appreciate the virtues of Mr. G. Though a confirmed resident of the "Show-Me State", a skeptic, Mr. G is not from Missouri, but he does remind Brian of the best traits of his two grandfathers. Mr. G doesn't believe in evolution - or dinosaur bones, or people landing on the moon - which you'd might think would be a problem when he lives next door to an evolutionary biologist.

But Brian knows better, knows that good skepticism is actually close akin to what he does at work all day himself. So a mutual respect developed, and the girls and I were soon in on it too, partly because I respect anyone who spends his days outside enjoying the scenery, doing his own yardwork: grass, leaves, and snow all three. I respect him because his teenage grandson lived with him a couple of summers. And I like Mrs. G because she's just sweet, nice as can be to the girls and out walking with a broom for support whenever she can. Mr. G is the neighbor who loans his tools when he sees Brian might need one, without being asked. We talk about gardening together, potatoes and tomatoes, and about raking leaves without leaf blowers.

This fall, Mr. G got shingles. We couldn't tell at first, because when we talked to him he kept on seeming cheerfully skeptical. Eventually, though, we noticed he was hardly out at all - his driveway remaining snow-covered for a day or two instead of his customary hour.

So before tonight, I hadn't even asked Mr. G if he would come to our hearing. I thought - we all thought, though silently - that this would be too much to ask, and that if he wasn't well, the zoning board would have to take his silence for support.

Anyway, we ended up with a lot of supporters: Amy and Adam and children (a courageous act, taking 3 children to a town zoning hearing); the family who chicken-sat for us over the holidays; a dad who lives across the street; Shelly, chicken-keeper herself from across the river, a brand-new friend who came just because I asked. A local (zoned agricultural) cattle farmer came, and gave me his card afterward, offering to take in our manure to his zone-certified composting operation if we had an issue. Our lawyer came, as a friend and civilian, just to listen to the action in case of future need, and I hope she won't be offended if she is paid in the style of old-fashioned community service people, with a couple of eggs from our best laying hens.

But no question, the star of the evening was Mr. G, who charmed the Zoning Board with his jokes about his own hearing loss, and then explained how his bedroom window is 30 yards from the coop, and he can't see them through the trees, and how no other neighbors have a right to an objection because they can't see the coop at all. He said he's lived here 45 years, and he thinks these chickens aren't causing anybody any harm, and he thinks we should get to keep them.

The vote was 2-1 in favor of our variance. Chickens are still not broadly allowed in O'Hara township; a variance would technically be required for any coop. I don't think we could have gotten a 3-0 vote, ever - zoning member 3 was determined to keep O'Hara R-2 safe from livestock, period. He wasn't nasty about it, but he was determined, no question. And I in no way imagine that the other two votes were categorical approval, either - they were fine with *our* coop, with exactly 4 chickens in it, in this particular location. They warned us that they knew more requests would be coming, and that we needed to maintain a model coop to make this work. The summary comment was "Now if anyone comes to us next with a pet cow, the answer is going to be 'No'."

As it turned out, what we needed was exactly what we got: 2 out of 3 votes, from 3 gentlemen of a certain age, with the weight of township history and esteem behind them. And tonight, thanks to one highly respectable gentleman, Mr. G, we have 2 happy daughters and 4 legal chickens roosting peacefully in their backyard coop.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Like mother, like daughter, like chickens?

I've been too preoccupied with our upcoming chicken zoning hearing to blog - we've traveled, we've been sledding, I let Emily try my cross-country skis, but I've also been researching chicken laws and the zoning hearing process. I've been thinking a lot about a comment a friend made: "You fit in just fine here, you're just a non-conformist."

I like the idea of being a non-conformist; to me that's a compliment, though I'm sure some of my students see me as way too much of a conformist. I live in the suburbs; I have two kids and a husband; I drive a Buick. I'm not sure I can claim the non-conformist label; but one thing certain, I'm not not exactly a rule follower.

Local ordinance states that "no agricultural animals shall be kept...except children's pets shall not be prohibited." I read this ordinance over 3 years ago, after the first time we brought home chicks from the Kentucky State Fair. However, our learning curve with chicken care - especially the fox incident - have meant that we had no reason to analyze this language until now. Clearly, if we didn't have children, I would be in questionable territory with the chickens. Clearly, I have found the pet which sits right on the legal line, and we as a family will be defending that choice tomorrow evening.

I have often commented to Emily that she is a kid who listens to the rules, hears the line, and then stands on that line and says "Can I step here?" Years ago, Brian and I watched the Festival of Animation, and in one short a boy's harried father tells him not to use bad words, and the boy quickly starts asking "Can I say ___? How about ___?" and then finally, over and over "Can I say 'bum'? Can I say 'bum'?" I am not sure, but I think the cartoon ended with the father screaming.

This is how I often feel Emily behaves. She's smart, she knows there are limits, but thanks to my parenting or her character, she knows the limits have interesting edges and sometimes shady boundaries. One of her consistent jobs in life is to test these boundaries, and as she knows, this testing drives me bananas.

And until today, I confess, I just assumed this was Emily, the way she came out, without questioning how she got this way. But today, when Emily was given permission to watch a movie, and interpreted the permission as applying to computer games, at first I got mad. It seemed like just one more example of Emily not thinking, of Emily deliberately refusing to understand the point of my words.

Then, I realized that what we are doing at the Zoning Board tomorrow is testing the limits of their permission, testing the point of their words. We have interpreted Zoning Code our own way, without asking them first, and now we're insisting that we're right. What right do I have to get mad at Emily for this, when we're doing the exact same thing tomorrow night?

I don't know what good it does to realize this about Emily and me, tonight. Emily, recently, has proven that she realizes a sincere apology will sometimes blunt our frustration with her limit-testing. Maybe, if I remember to approach this hearing with a bit of humility, a bit of I'm-sorry-sheepishness with my legal logic, I can at least not giving the Zoning Board the impression that I was *trying* to flaunt the boundaries of their rules. Because even though I think we'd win on appeal, even though I'm fairly certain we're in the right, I'd rather keep this process simple.

I'd rather go home tomorrow evening with the happy knowledge that we already have the pets we want. Because I fear that with people like Emily and me, the alternative would be going home and trying to figure out what other exotic non-agricultural animals we could keep in our chicken coop. Geese? Rabbits? Guineas? Perhaps I'd better ask for a list of acceptable animals tomorrow night, if the chickens are denied. At the same time, I'm not sure I want to know, because my fear in this neighborhood is that one of the species which is absolutely forbidden is me: a person who doesn't like following rules. At least, though, if that's the list, Emily and I are in this together.