Amie has a cold. Dripping nose, little cough. No fever, but I’m thinking that might come tomorrow, and I’m sure she’ll be staying home from school. But all in all I am quite happy with her health since coming to live here.  She has been sick less often and less severely than when we were living in our little basement apartment in the city.

Not so for us grownups. We’ve never been sick so often, especially DH, who caught a cold last week a mere week after he had recovered from one. A couple of weeks ago I was so sick he had to stay home from work to take care of things. We’re stressed, we don’t exercise enough…

But I’m fighting. I’m telling myself I’m strong. I will not be sick. I’m impervious. I’m strong. Not me!

savehandmade button

A new law will be coming into effect on 10 February, called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). It demands that all products for children aged 12 and younger be tested for lead and phthalates, and that those that haven’t been tested yet are considered hazardous and may not be sold.

It’s about time that lead and phthalates are banned from children’s products – manufactured in the States or imported from abroad – and that the manufacturers have tests to show their safety. But this well-intentioned law suffers from two problems:

  1. It applies to any and all “consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age and younger”: from toys and clothing to books, games, sports equipment, furniture and DVDs.
  2. It applies not only to products being made right now and after 10 February, but also to products that are already on the shelves. This means it doesn’t just put manufacturers on the spot, but retailers (or resellers) and second-hand sellers, as well.

Consider that

Lead testing promises to be expensive — from several hundred to several thousand dollars per test, depending on the product. And each batch of each item must be tracked and tested, making compliance brutally expensive for items with small runs. (source)

No wonder the law in all its generality is creating a panic. For instance, for a while there it seemed as if many thrift stores and second-hand shops were going to have to close.

But there may now be good news for them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the law,  drafted a Memo to clarify the law. “The commission does not have the authority to change the law but can decide how to interpret it” (source).

As for second-hand children’s products – thrift stores, consignment shops, and other used-goods stores:

Sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards. (Memo)

How about the retailers whose entire stock is bound to become contraband? Those that sell clothing and toys made of natural materials such as wool or wood (not painted) may be off the hook, for the Commission is considering giving also them an exemption (source).

All others may have to consult their lawyers. For them too, the CPSC seems to bending the rules a little, in what to me two  rather confusing paragraphs:

  1. The new safety law does not require resellers to test children’s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell children’s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties. (Memo; my emphasis)
  2. While CPSC expects every company to comply fully with the new laws resellers should pay special attention to certain product categories. Among these are recalled children’s products, particularly cribs and play yards etc. (Memo; my emphasis)

Does this mean (“while”) that that only those “certain product categories” should be actually tested?

Can the small shops afford to run these tests on their suspect stock? Many can’t, like Amanda Christina of Hearts and Trees, who will no longer be able to sell her homemade art, handicraft and nature study kits.

And what about children’s books, for instance? From a Boston-based article on this matter:

This Wednesday, sent a general letter informing its vendors that, if they did not certify their products by January 15, the items would be returned at the sellers’ expense…

To make matters worse, even publishers that have already had their products tested for lead will be forced to retest…

“All of us are totally in the dark,” says Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. “I can’t make a decision, because I don’t know what the regulations are. We’re all sort of in limbo here.” (source)

You may even find the shelves of your childrens’ library empty…

To be continued, no doubt.

Go to Cool Mon Picks SaveHandmade for more information, resources, and a way to respond to this law.

A while ago I was telling an older acquaintance about how few clothes we need to buy for Amie. We have several generous friends who have daughters a year or so older than Amie and who gladly pass on some clothing.

– I love hand-me-downs, I said.

To which my acquaintance whispered:

– Ssshh, you don’t want Amie to hear that she is wearing those! Its embarrassing!

I was so confused by her reaction that I didn’t respond. But why should I have been confused? Of course hand-me-down clothing is regarded somehow shameful in this society, that is, Western society (my acquaintance is a European who has lived in North America for thirty years). Yet I am now so comfortable in this life of “less is more” that I had managed to forget it altogether.

Or had I?

As we were packing to visit one of those generous friends over the holidays, Amie wanted to bring a special gift for the daughter. My first reaction was to think of where to buy what. But Amie’s reaction was different:

– I can give her this, Mama! she said, holding up her puppet frog in triumph.

Her little friend had enjoyed playing with it when she was over at our house. It was the best gift Amie could give her friend: something of her own, something they had played with together, something that she herself also enjoyed and was joyfully willing to sacrifice, all of which made the gift so much more meaningful than a toy fresh from the shelves of a shop.

I felt so proud of her, and I hope I can foster this attitude toward gift-giving and her own toys and clothes, so that it will stand up to the pressures of society and her peers – all of which she is still mercifully oblivious to.

Now some of these clothes that I get from friends are samples from a well-know store where we can’t even afford to window shop. These are fantastic clothes, well-made in the US, beautifully designed. But they have “SAMPLE” stamped on them, and in the most conspicuous places too, like on the seat of the pants or the back of a sweater.

This morning I dropped Amie off at her preschool and one of the teachers remarked on how amused they were at her pants the other day. One look and I knew it had been kindhearted: no, they hadn’t been laughing at my child. I said:

– Well, you know, she’s my little sample!

And we both laughed.

I am writing an article on a new law concerning lead in children’s products, called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which is about to go into effect on 10 February. It could affect thrift and second-hand shops.

Over the holidays we made several visits to several Natural History Museums. Amie was keen to see the dinosaur bones. When she was 2,5 years old she learned that the dinosaurs are extinct. She was having dinosaur nightmares at the time and our discussions about their demise and the meanings of “extinct” and “dead” helped her defuse her fear.

So it’s the first thing she will say about dinosaurs: “They’re extinct!” But  seeing all those bones, I think, really brought it home to her. This is Amie getting up close and personal with the T. Rex in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.


I wish I had captured her face: she is squealing with laughter. It was also, as you can imagine, a great opportunity to talk about scale and measurement.

We especially like the American Natural History Museum in NY, which has the largest collection of real dinosaurs bones in the world – and the entrance fee is at your discretion. On our second visit we brought Amie’s friend and drawing buddy, E, along. We found a comfortable bench with Tyranosaurus Rex towering over us and the Apatosaurus – which you may know as the Brontosaurus (*) – in full view on the other side of the hall.

trex apatosaurus

We started drawing right away.


E asked me to draw the Apatosaurus (all those vertebrae!) and she colored it in.


Amie drew the T Rex, but unfortunately I wasn’t paying the exclusive attention I usually do and failed to supply a new, blank sheet – and sequester the finished product – before she proceeded to color the whole thing in till it became a big brown blotch.

I like this take-your-drawing-pad-along approach to the museum. It helps the child focus on one room or even one thing, especially in a huge museum. And it helps the caregiver catch his or her breath and, perhaps, get a sketch down as well.

(*) Aha: cf. Wikipedia:

Othniel Charles Marsh, a Professor of Paleontology at Yale University, described and named an incomplete (and juvenile) skeleton of Apatosaurus ajax in 1877. Two years later, Marsh announced the discovery of a larger and more complete specimen at Como Bluff Wyoming — which, because of discrepancies including the size difference, Marsh incorrectly identified as belonging to an entirely new genus and species. He dubbed the new species Brontosaurus excelsus, meaning “thunder lizard”, from the Greek brontē/βροντη meaning ‘thunder’ and sauros/σαυρος meaning ‘lizard’, and from the Latin excelsus, “to exceed in number”, referring to the greater number of sacral vertebrae than in any other genus of sauropod known at the time.


Despite the much-publicized debut of the mounted skeleton, which cemented the name Brontosaurus in the public consciousness, Elmer Riggs had published a paper in the 1903 edition of Geological Series of the Field Columbian Museum which argued that Brontosaurus was not different enough from Apatosaurus to warrant its own genus, and created the combination Apatosaurus excelsus: ” …In view of these facts the two genera may be regarded as synonymous. As the term “Apatosaurus” has priority, “Brontosaurus” will be regarded as a synonym.”


I can feel I’m back in the thick of things when I feel one of those big TO DO lists coming on. And boy, is there a lot to do! I decided to put these lists in my sidebar and I’ll cross out as I get things done (and for each item crossed out I will no doubt add another). Here they are, for now.

Do because necessary for planting seeds:

  1. plan garden: what to grow when and where
  2. set up seed germination areas and seedling area (buy lights, fixtures)
  3. buy seed growing supplies (flats, peat pots, potting mix)

Do because it’s easy, inside, and almost everything is right here:

  1. finish hay box and experiment
  2. count, clean, store mason jars (buy lids)
  3. collect emergence things and organize space (buy some equipment)
  4. move things from Annex into basement

Do outside when weather gets better:

  1. turn compost heaps
  2. make compost/soil screen
  3. make more compost bins (buy materials)


  1. chickens: town regulations: we can!
  2. soil amendments: which and pricing
  3. garden fence
  4. greenhouse (book from library)
  5. berry bushes, fruit trees
  6. floors and drainage (lean-to, shed, greenhouse) (get free pallets)
  7. deck
  8. terracing for slope
  9. “wetland” area: which plants, boardwalk


I has just reread Lori’s Observational Drawing Lesson on the Camp Creek Blog when I looked up and spotted the perfect occasion for such drawing: Amie sitting at the table, waiting for her grandparents to appear on the troubled webcam, paper and pencil, and a panda bear mask she made in school. Okay, I thought, let’s practice seeing!

Lori advises to start with something simple, so the panda bear mask is perfect.

  1. The shapes are simple, yet varied, and well defined.
  2. There is only black and white, and no shades of gray (except in the details), so we can focus on the shapes.
  3. The alternating rings of black, white and black of the eyes would be a nice challenge for Amie. She often forgets which contour she is coloring in and often looks up to see she has colored in the whole image.
  4. There are only a few details (the staples, the shadows of the indentations around the rim of the plate, the pronounced grain of the wooden handle), and I thought it would be interesting to see if she would see them. But even without the details, the result would easily look like the original and be satisfying.
  5. It’s not too big and there won’t be too much coloring in, which she has little patience for.  I give her only half a letter size piece of paper, to keep it manageable. The drawing could be done in 15 minutes.

To focus on shapes and later on on details, Lori says to use only a plain pencil. Amie has always had recourse to lots of colors, but for drawing she always chose just one of the bunch, so moving to a pencil was no problem for her. The only problem I have with plain pencils is that they don’t scan in very well, as the graphite reflects the scanner’s light.

Amie was so interested in the exercise that she wanted to do a second drawing right away, even though the grandparents had now appeared on the screen (they were happy to watch). Then I left everything on the dining table so the next day when we found ourselves there, she wanted to draw another one, and this morning at breakfast she drew the fourth. Here they are (click on image for larger):

090109panda1 090109panda2 090110panda3 090111panda4

I made sure we used our words, naming all the shapes and discussing their location respective to one another.

  1. We started with the circle of the face. I encouraged her to draw it big enough so there would be room for everything. In the first drawing she couldn’t get the circle quite right, but the next two were pretty close, while in the fourth she wasn’t paying much attention to the circularity.
  2. Then she added the handle underneath: the first time she didn’t get the thickness of it (and she added her own arm holding it), but when with the next drawing I pointed it out to her, she drew it as a long rectangle rounded at the bottom.
  3. Then she added the half-circles of the ears, on top but a bit off to the sides.
  4. Then she moved to the face itself. I suggested we draw the nose first, because it was nearly in the middle. She tried to get its fluffiness down by moderating the pressure on the pencil and going round and round in softer strokes.
  5. As for the mouth, she was more interested in its “thickness” than in its angular shape, and it had to be “smiley”. I pressed her to see and reproduce the shape, not the “feeling” of the expression, and she reluctantly did so in the first drawing but reverted to the smiley aspect in the other ones.
  6. The eyes were the most interesting: in the first three drawings she drew three circles, trying to size and position them right, which is very hard for her to do, motor-wise. Then she colored them in carefully. In the fourth drawing she decided there were four circles. I asked her why. She pointed to a tiny rim around the plastic of the googly eye. What a  detail: I hadn’t spotted it myself!  “That’s sort of whitish and blackish,” she said. “Gray?” I asked. “Yes.”  She colored in that extra circle separately, but in black, so you can no longer see it.
  7. In the third drawing, when she was done, I asked if she had missed something, a detail? She didn’t spot any and I pointed out the staples, which she gladly added.

We worked on these drawings together, only I made sure she drew all the shapes, I just helped with the coloring in. I decided, as we were playing with shapes anyway, to add some writing of letters and numbers.

Unfortunately she discovered the eraser at the other end of the pencil. I tried gently to dissuade her from using it: she is already such a perfectionist! But more than often she erased my mistakes. “Your coloring is terrific, but mine is even better.” We’ll call that “confidence”…

Though the fourth drawing shows perhaps the most likeness, it was obvious from how seldom she looked at the original anymore that she was drawing her idea of the mask, not the mask itself. So it’s time to leave the mask and find something else!

This is a great daily exercise. It fills those 15 minutes when you wait for dinner to be set on the table or some computer to work, or while you’re having a snack or chatting.

It’s 8 in the morning and everyone is asleep but me. I’m in bed, next to the sleeping bodies, trying to type quietly. They lie so deep, while I’m on the surface, eyes wide open.

I’m looking out of the bedroom window at the trees in our western garden and in the neighbors’ garden: beeches, birches, oaks and many pines. They are covered in the snow that fell during the night. Once in a while they release some of it and the wind picks it up and runs with it.  Narrow columns of snow move sideways, like smoke from a chimney. Tall, billowing veils glide along majestically: snow ghosts. Sometimes the view is a white out. It’s breathtaking, peaceful yet dangerous.

I love living in this country. “This country,” as in: this land, this place. I revel in its biodiversity, which I know is sorely depleted but still so much richer than in Europe. So many animals and flora seem so alien, so new to me: the huge puffball fungi, the foxes, the big beetles, even the deer. I am in awe even of the deer.

My Dad,  when at dusk he got out of the car after we picked him and my mom up from the airport in September, stopped still in his tracks and said: “What is that sound?” I stopped too, listened. What was he hearing that alarmed him? Oh, the crickets! Thousands of them, chirping away, very close and all over, all around us. No more crickets in Antwerp?

And I love this winter, the first in our house. Though I complain of our heating bills, I am grateful for the bitter cold (- 22 Celsius on 1 January , though I missed that), for the snow fall and snow drift. It excites me, a girl from Belgium, where a deep freeze and a snow  storm were events. Even in Brookline, where we lived until June last year and where the snow was cleared immediately by town and condo cleaning crews, I had not done this: walked on top of the snow, on the crust frozen so hard it is like walking – precariously – on stone.


DH took this picture two nights ago. That’s the light of the almost Full Moon, the Full Wolf Moon of January, touching down on our front yard. I have never seen moonlight like this. In Antwerp and Brussels, and Brookline and Alston, too close to Boston, moon and starlight were washed from the night sky.

I stood looking out the window then, at that white-blue glowing snow, the creeping shadows of the tree trunks and branches, and then up, along the stark beams of the towering pines and oaks, rising up, up it was like being lifted, by that light, up into the shimmering sky.

I was in awe, weirded out and attracted. I live in a strange and wild place.

Over the holidays Amie got to stay for several days over at her friend, E’s, place in NY. E is four and a half and bright as a button and she loves playing with Amie. They are well matched for verbal communication – they both love to talk – and they are both interested in making art, like drawing and making paper flowers. So there were plenty of opportunities for seeing the two of them create together.

There was a great moment when E asked Amie if she wanted to learn how to draw a butterfly. Amie was keen and she followed E’s instructions carefully.

This is E’s drawing:


This is Amie’s:


It was fascinating to witness their exchange. For instance:

E says: This is how you draw the body. [E draws the long oval shape of the butterfly pointing away from her]

Amie carefully copied the shape. They were sitting at a 90 degree angle to one another, and Amie drew hers in the same direction as E’s.  E saw this and it didn’t look right to her, so she turned Amie’s page so her butterfly body would also point away from her.

Then E drew the antennae. And gave her butterfly an ear. BTW, much earlier on I speculated that some theories might be right: that children’s draw animals more “realistically” earlier on than human figures (namely tadpoles), because they are “freer” (not caught up in the animal body) to see its shapes correctly. Amie back then (at 24 months) seemed to have a better idea of the shape of a dog than a human. But ever since she has left the tapole figure behind, all her animals have looked like human! This eared butterfluy is an example.

E had no such illusions (but she has probably drawn a lot more animals, in particular insects, than Amie).

E says: No, that’s not right.


DH explains: Amie, those aren’t ears, but antennae. Draw it like you draw arms and legs.

Amie did so, so her butterfly has one ear and two antennae. (We don’t erase.)

Then they went on to the ladybug. unfortunately all of us adults were distracted so none of us witnessed that. Going by the evidence, Amie seems to have made an attempt which was not right, and moved on to another ladybug. E’s drawing also has sky and grass, Amie’s doesn’t – I don’t know what that green square represents.

It was pretty neat to observe them. Amie obviously paid a lot of attention to E’s instructions. There’s more drawing with E to come!


Bad weather and illness delayed our second Outdoor Hour challenge – we did Challenge #1 over a month ago and it’s supposed to be a weekly challenge!


But yesterday we were – and we still are (knock on wood) – healthy, and the temperature deigned to rise above freezing (though only barely), and the sun shone so brightly on the fields of snow. We were sitting at Amie’s desk, looking out her big window and practicing writing, when I couldn’t resist the urge to go for a walk. Amie is always up for a walk in the snow, so we went out for about half an hour, until our fingers grew numb inside our gloves from the cold wind and the chunks of snow we were carrying…

I love the (apparent) paradox of the second challenge: it is about keeping quiet in nature but also about “using your words”. The idea is to be quiet while out there, and to use the words once you’re back inside for discussion.

Now, keeping quiet is hard to do with Amie, indoors or out. Ever since she could, she has talked nonstop. She can whisper, and does so with a lot of theatricality, but she can’t keep it up for long. Also, part of our walk, around the block, is via a street that gets busy with cars and buses around that time, when school ends.

I decided not to initiate talk but to let her talk if she wanted to, and then to guide the conversation toward words (adjectives and verbs) for what we were seeing and hearing and feeling.

Snow was, of course, the main attraction. It was everywhere!

  • The snow looked white and clean or dirty and brown/gray.
  • It sounded and felt either crunchy and icy or slushy and wet.


  • It looked and felt either frozen and slippery, or melted or something in between. We discussed what made the snow melt and how one thing (water) can  look and feel so different! We studied tiny rivulets underneath thin ice sheets. I mentioned – totally off the cuff ;) – that dark things get warmer in the sun, absorbing more heat, than white things, which reflect the sun rays.
  • We deplored that the snow wasn’t fluffy like before and that all the snow has hardened into rock solidity. This made for interesting track-making: you could stand on top of it, making hardly a dent, or crash through the frozen surface taking whole chunks down with you.


  • Also, we discussed how throwing a snowball made from this kind of ice-snow would hurt if you threw it at someone, because it was as hard as stone.
  • And that brought us to what kind of snow you need to make a good snowman (unfortunately not a snow Amie has experienced yet: a couple of weeks ago it was too light, now it is too hard). We talked about “dense” and “condense”.


  • We brought two “snowballs” home, though they were more chunks than balls and more ice than snow. Amie declared one a boy and the other a girl, adding that “it’s nice to be a girl” and that she would ask Baba if it’s at all nice being a boy.  Keeping in mind the melting  danger, she hurried me up as I transferred them from outside to the freezer.


We immediately indulged in some hot chocolate and some “honey cake” that my parents brought from Belgium (I need to find a good recipe for it, it’s always gone so fast).


Then we sat down to draw and Amie drew herself picking up snowballs (lo-ong arms) and holding hands with Lumpy (the Heffalump from Pooh). Nothing to do with the snow, that one, but she got the trunk right. She also gave herself some “earmoths”. “You mean earmuffs?” “No, ear-moths, Mama!”


Barbara, who started and runs the Outdoor Hour Challenge, just added another challenge specifically for winter, called Winter Wednesday, using the book Explore Nature in Winter by Elisabeth P. Lawlor as a guide. I’m thinking of joining that too, for obvious reasons.

Riot 4 Austerity fist with thermometer

We finished our second month of the Riot while not at home, so my meter readings are a couple of days off. These numbers are for the period from 1 December 2008 to 4 January 2009.

1. Gasoline: OUCH!

We did so well last month: 7.939 gallons of oil/person or 19% of the US National Average. But for the New Year we visited friends in NY City and Washington DC. For the three of us it was much cheaper to drive than fly. I do love road trips, I admit it. I love singing along with the 70s and 80s music we always play when on the road, and looking outside, concocting stories about the places I glimpse, through the trees, and getting a feel for the vastness of this country… But the memory of all that doesn’t lessen the pain:

22.6 gallons per person = 55 % of the US national average.

I’m enjoying winter, but I’m looking forward to when I can bike Amie to school. That will save us 32 miles a week, or 128 miles a month.

2. Electricity: up a little

We spent a little more on electricity than in month 1: 345 KWH (up from 300).

That’s 38% of the national average.

The rise probably has to do with the fact that we recently started heating the bathroom with a small space heater.

3. Heating Oil (and hot water): DOUBLE OUCH!!

We burned an incredible 93 gallons of oil in little over a month, 10 days of which we weren’t even at home (the thermostat was set to the minimum, and no water was heated). That’s almost double what we burned last month (52.7 gallons), and

151% of the US national average

(which ranges over a year and the entire country, not to forget).

Evidently it was terribly cold here in neck of the woods. For instance, on the day of our trip back up North (1 January), the temperature in DC was 36 F, 19 F in NY and 6 F in Mass. – we were happy to stop in NY for a couple more days. And it continues to be freezing cold.

We’ve insulated the house as tightly as can be, we Freeze our Buns, and as long as our budget doesn’t allow more measures to be taken (like a woodstove, and a home-built solar thermal collector), this is how it will have to be. I hope it averages out at the end of our Riot year…

4. Garbage: made it

This is unchanged from month 1. We produced 3 lbs. of garbage on average, so at 0.15 lbs a person a day we made the goal of

10% (.45 lbs) easily.

5. Water: very close

We consumed 324 gallons per person, which is

11% of the US national average.

I ascribe the drop (it’s down from 459 gallons in month 1) to the fact that we weren’t home for part of the month.

6. Consumer goods: Christmas fling

We spent $326 on consumer goods last month – not bad considering it was the holidays. We did a Handmade Christmas, but we also got a globe and a small computer mouse for Amie and some books and crockery for ourselves.

It amounts to 40% of the US national average.

It’s an aberration and we’re back on our thrifty track.

7. Food: Huh?

I am no longer going to calculate this category.  The more I think about how to, the less possible it becomes. Can anyone tell me how they do it? By weight, by bulk, by cost?