Author Archive

Changing Bicycle Fleet

July 20, 2014

Things have changed a bit since my last bike-related post.  I have learned a few more things about bikes, too.

I learned that there are at least two different sizes of 26” wheels – those for mountain bikes and those for old three speeds – and studded tires are not made for old three speeds.  Thankfully, someone else was willing to buy the 26” studded tires that I could not make use of.

I discovered that the Raleigh Superbe would not work as a winter bike because nobody made studded tires for it.  I also decided that it had features that others would want but I no longer felt I needed for a regular child-hauling bike: dynamo front hub, internally geared rear hub, drum brakes front and rear, fancy front and rear lights, super upright riding position.  After riding the CrossCheck so much I realized I really didn’t need these things for hauling kids, and I might like something else better.  Someone into old Raleighs was happy to buy this bike through Craigslist.

I decided that the Gazelle was not going to work for me as a child-hauling bike or a winter bike because it was too big and needed too many special parts (read: expensive/impossible repairs).  Someone fresh from a trip to Amsterdam was happy to take that bicycle off my hands (also through Craigslist).

In researching what would work best for me riding during the winter, I still wanted an internally-geared rear hub because I thought my knees wouldn’t be able to take a single-speed or fixed gear bike.  I also discovered this idea of belt-driven bikes instead of a chain system in order to avoid the issue of lubrication and rust.  I think this was an attraction borne out of laziness.  I liked the drop-bar style of my CrossCheck and hoped to find a winter bike with all of these features.

I ended up searching for a Civia Bryant, which was no longer made.  It had all of these features, in addition to mechanical disc brakes (better for winter).  The parent company was also the owner of Surly and based in Minnesota.  I found one on Craigslist for a good price, but it was in Florida.  You’re not supposed to use Craigslist for long-distance purchases, but both of us were up for it.  We checked each other out online, and he had a friend at a bike shop who was willing to facilitate the transaction and handle the shipping of the bike.  This is the bike I used to commute all winter since I received it in December.  Unfortunately, the rear hub does need some adjustment/repair, but overall the bike works great (even without said repair), and I made it through the entire winter without any broken bones.

After selling the Gazelle and the Raleigh I really didn’t have a good bike for hauling the kids around.  The Surly could take a rear seat and pull the Burley, but the Burley wasn’t too much fun for anyone (too small for Basil), and a rear seat on the Surly made it too top-heavy and it was hard to handle.  All of this applies to the Civia Bryant, as well.  The Surly is also not made to accept a kickstand, which is very important for loading children.

I was well aware of the phenomenon of longtail bicycles, but I had always written them off because it has been very important for me to make sure I have a bike that will fit on a bus rack.  I was always too intimidated to put the Fr8 on a bus because it was so heavy and because I’d never done it before.  Since then I’ve done it several times, and I know that living on the East Side of St. Paul will make it necessary to get on a bus if I ever want to get very far with my kids without a car.

Then I discovered that Bike Friday was making an adjustable-length longtail bicycle with 20” wheels.  This company is widely known for making folding or packable bikes for people going on long journeys by plane.  This bicycle, however, is part of their recent effort to make fully adjustable bikes for school bicycle fleets.  The system is called OSATA – One Size Adjusts To All, and they are supposed to fit people from 4’6” to 6’4”.  I was promised the Fr8 would fit me (5’10”) and Elizabeth (5’), but it simply didn’t work for her.  The combination of 20” wheels and adjustable wheelbase length made it possible to actually put this bicycle on a city bus rack, and the sizing range left a lot of room to make Elizabeth feel comfortable.

I raised up money by selling bikes and working the equivalent of “summer school,” and we ordered a green Bike Friday Hauladay in April.  After much anticipation, the bicycle arrived on July 18, hand made from Eugene, Oregon.  I’ve ridden it several times during the last three days, but this morning is a nice picture of how it can be used:

Emilia is too young to ride on a bicycle yet.  I walked to church with Emilia in a carrier, while Elizabeth rode with Basil and Macrina.  After church Elizabeth wanted to stay for a sewing class, so I rode home on the same bicycle with Basil and Macrina, and Elizabeth walked home with Emilia.  All it took was a quick switch of the frame length and an adustment of saddle height, and we were both comfortable enough to have kids on the back.  Unlike the Fr8, this is a bicycle that we can really share and at ~35 lbs, it will be much better on St. Paul hills (and my ankle, should I fall!).

Here, then, is our active bicycle fleet:

Surly Crosscheck – Eric’s all-around bike
Civia Bryant – Eric’s winter bike
Bike Friday Hauladay – Eric and Elizabeth’s child and grocery hauler
Terry Burlington – Elizabeth’s all-around bike
Specialized Hotrock 16” – Basil’s 4/5 year old bike
Strider – Macrina’s 2-3 year old bike
Burley Two-seat trailer – stroller, extra capacity or cold weather child/grocery hauler

Scott 24” kids bike – Basil will grow into
Schwinn Goblin – Macrina will grow into

need to get rid of, taking up space:
1960’s Montgomery Wards Hawthorne 3-speed
1960’s Womens Rollfast 3-speed

Fuller review of the Bike Friday Hauladay (with pictures!) is forthcoming…



Teaching Children to Read, Write, and Speak in French

January 31, 2014

I have been experimenting on my children, and I want to tell you about it.  My goal has been to raise them to be bilingual.

My Background:

I took two years of French in high school.  The languages offered with an in-person teacher were Spanish and French.  I chose French because there were fewer students in the French program, and the language and culture seemed more interesting.  In retrospect, I think I should have chosen Spanish for purely practical reasons.  I really enjoyed learning French, however, and was able to travel to France (and Spain).

When arriving at college I had (and wanted) to continue language study, and I chose French by default because I had already made a bit of progress, though less than I had hoped.  I wasn’t ready to start over with something new – why waste the investment I had made when I wasn’t yet fluent?

I studied abroad in France for about 3 months during my third year of college and had not yet chosen a major.  I was leaning toward doing something in the history department, but I realized that if I went that route I would need to take so many classes that I would have no more room in my schedule for any French classes.  I thus chose to major in French.  It was enjoyable for the most part, but I had to study a lot of fiction literature and wanted to study more of the philosophers.  In particular, the professor who taught classes on Pascal was on leave, and so I studied about Montaigne, instead.

Upon graduating I decided to become an elementary teacher, which had nothing at all to do with studying French language or literature.  I promptly stopped speaking or reading any French.

Starting French with Basil:

When Basil was fairly young I had a few French language children’s books in the house.  These were left over from a very short-lived after school program I took part in, teaching kindergarteners French.  I would occasionally read one with Basil, but it wasn’t a true effort to teach him French.

When my brother’s family returned from living in Taiwan for two years, his daughter was fairly proficient at speaking Chinese, and his wife encouraged me to really teach Basil French.  I thought about it for a while, and it made a lot of sense to me to pass on to him at his young age something that took me so long to acquire in college.  It also seemed to make sense to me from my Montessori training that it would be much easier for him at his age.

Right after he was about 3 years old I decided to only speak to him in French.  I checked out a couple of books from the library about “one parent one language,” which describes how to raise children bilingually.  At first I tried speaking to Elizabeth in French as well to make it a complete system, but she became too frustrated with not understanding what I was saying, especially in stressful situations, that I stopped doing that.

Stopping French:

Basil became very frustrated, as well.  Just after he turned 3, when I started this experiment, he had just come to a fluency with English.  He was speaking full sentences and was able to express his thoughts.  This was a very important new step for him, and he did not enjoy taking a step back with me.  When I spoke French to him he had to gain his understanding by context clues and the little he had learned from children’s books we’d read.  I also stopped reading English language books with him, which mean, of course, most of the books we had access to.  He became very frustrated with not being able to fully understand what I was saying, and we both became frustrated with my inability to say everything I wanted to say.  I spoke less to him than I had previously because I didn’t know how to say everything I wanted to.  Thus, I read and spoke less to him and he spoke less to me.  Out of concern for my relationship with Basil I decided to stop the experiment.

Starting Again:

The only reason I picked it back up is because Basil requested it of me.  He repeatedly brought to me the book Max et Les Maximonstres, which is Where the Wild Things Are in French.  He had never read this book in English, and it had become his favorite book.  This fact alone inspired me to continue reading in French to him and eventually continue speaking in French with him.  It showed me that in at least some way he enjoyed it and enough to ask for more.

We received a membership to the Alliance Francaise in the area, which had a wide variety of children’s books to check out.  I also started to discover the area libraries that had greater collections of French books – most I had explored had absolutely none.  Eventually, we also signed Basil up for classes at the Alliance Francaise two times, which he really enjoyed.

Why Reading?:

When reading from the OPOL books there was a discussion of what kind of “input” the children were receiving.  When the children are in a certain country that country’s language becomes the majority language and provides the majority of language input (written, spoken, or sung).  It becomes paramount that the children receive as much input in the minority language as possible to provide balance between the two languages.  If only one of the parents is providing input from the minority language the balance is weakened.  If that parent is the father it is further weakened due to a father’s reduced time with children (in traditional family arrangements).  It is advantageous to put the child in a school with the minority language, if possible, to tip the balance back and provide more input in the minority language.

I decided to further this experiment by teaching Basil how to read in French.  We had previously felt no urgency to teach him how to read early.  In addition, because of my concern of the imbalance in languages Basil would encounter I really didn’t want him to learn to read English early.  I wanted him to only have access to French books in order to increase the balance.  If I couldn’t be with him all day speaking French, I wanted him to have good input from the French books in our home.

Starting Reading with the Sandpaper Letters:

From my Montessori training I learned to teach reading with letter sounds.  The primary tool for this is a set of sandpaper letters.  These are expensive, especially French versions, so I decided to make them myself, which wasn’t too hard.  As it turns out, the alphabet is almost exactly the same aside from some accented letters and the important vowel combinations.  Why this particular material is effective is because it uses three senses to teach letter-sound associations: seeing, hearing, and touching.  I had to try hard (still do) to have family members stop teaching the children alphabet songs or reading alphabet books because learning letter names is counterproductive.  It does not help to say “a” as “ay” when reading the word “dad” or when reading the French word “chat.”  English letter names are counterproductive in both languages.  Each night after Macrina when to sleep, Basil and I would have a special time where we would pull out the letters and I would teach him a lesson on three new letters or fewer if they presented a special difficulty, tracing with the finger and saying the associated sound.  You can learn about a “three period lesson” elsewhere.

To guide my progress through the letters of the alphabet (after covering b,a,s,i, and l) I used a book called Pas à Pas, Ma Méthode de Lecture Syllabique, which I ordered from France.  This book provided a nice sequence and several pictures and words matched to practice some of the letter sounds already learned.  What was very nice about this system is that the words provided usually only contained letters already learned, something that was beyond my ability to create.

Sometimes we even made letters out of dinner!

Continuing Reading with the Movable Alphabet:

Also beyond my ability to create was the next material: the Movable Alphabet.  This is a collection of small letters: 5 of each consonant and 10 of each vowel.  The point of this material is to create words and sentences.  In the Montessori method, students learn first how to associate letters with sounds and then they learn how to compose words with those sounds.  Thus, writing comes before reading.  In practice, the reading comes automatically with the ability to write because they read as they write.  With these green letters Basil began stringing together letters – first his name, then other words we had looked at together.  Eventually he began stringing together entire sentences.  He is still very happy to do this activity as he has not yet mastered the spelling of all French words or the proper French grammar or syntax.  It is still a fun challenge for him.

Other supporting activities involved taking dictation for stories that Basil made up (in English and in French) and then having him illustrate them.

We even created an entire book out of movable alphabet letters and taking photographs to go with each page.

We also sing real and made up songs together in French.

Basil sometimes reads French books to his sister, Macrina.

Here is Basil reading Emilia her first ever book.  The book is in French and it is called Super Bobo.

Learning to Read English:

My hypothesis from the beginning was that I needed to teach Basil to read in French early because he would pick up reading English without even trying.  As it turns out, he seems to have picked up reading English more on account of being able to read in French.  The consonant sounds are largely the same.  The vowel sounds are different but not too different.  His superior knowledge of English allows context clues to help him figure out words that aren’t pronounced the same way as English.


To this point Basil is able to read many of his favorite books in French – and I mean READ, not retell from memory.  He is also able to read most of his favorite English books, as well.  Unknown French words are decoded with phonetic knowledge.  Unknown English words are figured out mostly through context clues and using the phonetic clues from his French knowledge.  Basil is not conversationally fluent.  He understands much more than he can say, and this may be due to my laxity in responding to his English rather than expecting him to speak to me in French.  Still, it has been scarcely more than a year (maybe a year and a half) and he can understand and read much French.  With Macrina I began when she was about 1, and with Emilia I will be starting from the very beginning.  I don’t know what difference this will make since the amount of English input is larger for Macrina than it was with Basil – she has two people at home who speak English to her during the day while he had only one.  Still, there are other methods for trying to balance the input, such as the Alliance Francaise classes, French day at the zoo, a French performance of Eric Carle books, and the occasional viewing of a 1980’s Canadian program, called Téléfrancais (Basil’s only screen time).

My Own Study:

In order to do all of this I had to up my French from when I graduated from college in 2006.  To do this I watched, read, and listened to French news through the internet.  I attended one review class at the Alliance Francaise.  I went to local French discussion groups, and I even found a local French-language playgroup (though we have only attended once so far).  In this whole process I thought that perhaps I should think about teaching French professionally – a thought that never entered my mind as I graduated with a French degree and started in the teaching profession.  I subsequently took courses at a local university and became licensed to teach French K-12.  I don’t know if I’ll take a French job, however.  My fluency is still low, in my opinion, and I think it would be a lot of work!

Please feel free to ask questions if I left out details you want!


A Changing Taste for Bikes

September 25, 2013

Recently I got a new bike, and it marked a turn in my life as a biker.  I thought I would run through how I have changed recently because I find it interesting.

When I was young I had bikes, but the only bike that I remember is an adult tricycle that I rode for a while (a year, perhaps?) until it broke.  Later in high school I got a Diamondback Hybrid that I enjoyed riding quite a bit.  I rode it all over my town several times listening to my earphones.  It wasn’t hard to retrace the same sections of town over and over when it’s only 2.4 square miles.

(something like this Diamondback)

Sometime after having been in college for a year or two I brought my bicycle up to Chicago.  Within short order it was stolen.  I don’t remember the circumstances, but I don’t think it was my fault.  I shortly thereafter bought another bike (used this time), which was promptly stolen out of my back yard, and this time it was clearly my fault because I left it hidden but unlocked.

With two bikes being stolen I stuck with my car for the next few years.  After moving to Minneapolis something led both me and Elizabeth to look for bikes.  I bought a Raleigh 3-speed, and she bought a Rollfast 3-speed.  I was specifically looking for a bike that would have an upright ride because I was very wary of riding a bike where I would have to hunch up my shoulders and lean over a lot.  If I wasn’t comfortable I wouldn’t ride, I thought.

Somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to be more local and to ride more often – with Basil, our only child at that time.  We bought a used Burley trailer, and Basil just hated it.  My mother bought us a Bobike Mini, and he and I both loved it by comparison.  However, my knees hit the seat, and I had to lean down over him to get to the handlebars.  The shoulder hunching I feared was happening.


I didn’t feel comfortable on the Raleigh and sought a better solution for family hauling.  This is when I started learning about Dutch bicycles.  It appeared that they were more comfortable, waterproof, and indestructible, and some were really meant for family transportation.  I wanted to find a bike that could do it all – a weekday commuter that could take the whole family to church and get all the groceries.

I convinced Elizabeth to let me buy a Workcycles Fr8, with the hope that we could both ride it with the kids.  Quickly after getting it we found out only I could ride it, which was a major disappointment.  However, it was an absolute joy to ride with Basil on the front – for him and for me, and it was extremely comfortable.

IMG_6451   IMG_6446

That is… when it was on level ground.  I found when I went to work and back on this bicycle that it was very difficult getting up hills.  This was undoubtedly due to it’s being nearly 75 lbs unloaded.  Just after getting it put together at a local bike shop I took it back to have the cables adjusted and asked if it was normal to have so much rolling resistance from the dynamo hub.  The bike just didn’t seem to *go* very easily, even in its easiest gear of 8 (Shimano Nexus internal hub).

Shortly thereafter, I found a used Gazelle on Craigslist that I decided was a great deal and was worth getting as a winter bike.  I did get it but didn’t think it was as comfortable as the Fr8.  The handlebars did not go as high, and the frame size was actually too big, making it hard for me to put my feet on the ground and balance myself at stops.

(something very much like this Gazelle)

Now with three bikes I never rode the Raleigh and ended up giving it to my brother when he moved to town.

The bike shop guys convinced me that if I rode the Gazelle during the winter I would destroy it and it was “too cool” of a bike to trash in that way.  The creator of the Fr8, in Amsterdam, seconded that opinion by email.  I decided to ride the more weatherproof Fr8 during the winter, and on January 7th I slipped on some ice and broke my ankle under 75 lbs of bike.  The bike, of course, didn’t have a scratch on it.  Quite a tank.


I had a lot of time to think about bike riding as I lay on my back during the recovery.  Slowly it occurred to me that it was perhaps the weight of the Fr8 that contributed to my injury.  It also occurred to me how intimidated I was to ride my bike any great distance from my home because of what a chore it was to get around – and I was completely intimidated to go anywhere that involved hills.  I have never yet gone to the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, because I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up on one of their rides.  Almost every time I rode it to work and back I would have pain in my knees for the rest of the day.  I would comment to Elizabeth on those few days I didn’t feel knee pain, as if I was building strength that would eventually make that pain go away.

Before I had fully recovered I had decided to sell the Fr8.  But what was I going to get instead?

I thought what I wanted was a folding bike – a Brompton.  Why?  Because it was the opposite of the Fr8 in almost every way.  It was small and light, and I could take it anywhere, whether by carrying it or riding it.  It might not be able to carry children, however.  I spent many hours reading about them and trying to figure out how to use one to carry children.  When I was finally up and well and able to test ride one for a couple of hours I decided that it wasn’t as comfortable as I was hoping.  With that major drawback I had to ask myself how often I would actually need to fold it, and the answer was a very clear never.

I started then to look at much less expensive options for replacing the Fr8.  I wanted something lighter but still with low maintenance.  If possible, I wanted hub gearing, hub brakes, and a  hub generator.  Low and behold something popped up on Craigslist.  It was another old Raleigh that had all of these features.  I went to take a look at it and it needed a little bit of work, which helped to lower the price a bunch.  I then invested money in the bike to replace the handlebars (increasing cockpit room for comfort and child hauling) and grips.  I also replaced the cog on the internal gear hub to make the Sturmey Archer better for riding up hills.


This bike has been a fantastic bike for almost everything.  It is a joy to ride with children and without.  The cockpit is not as large as the Fr8, so I do hit my knees on the front child seat occasionally, but I have never hurt my knees going to work and back.

I decided to take this bike on the St. Paul Classic bike ride with my friend, Dan.  Each of us took our oldest child, as well.  That meant I took Basil on a 30 mile bike ride around the city of St. Paul with my 3-speed.  Well, after a big hill at around the 15 mile mark, my knees gave out on me, and I was in a lot of pain.  I had to walk the bike a few times, and I really slowed Dan down (he was towing a trailer and had a lot of gear options).

That experience convinced me that as much as I love the simplicity of a 3-speed internally geared hub, it is not enough for me to ride around the city of St. Paul without injuring myself.  I finally wanted to move beyond an internally geared hub.  I wanted something I could ride all around the city without being intimidated by hills.  I started looking for a 10-speed road bike.

A Fuji?  A French bike like a Peugot?  An old Schwinn or Raleigh?  I had no real idea where to start or what to look for.  I didn’t even know what kind of handlebar positions or brake levers were important.  Where do you put your hands with drop bars?  I didn’t know what size I would need, and I thought it ridiculous to pay someone to measure me.

On Craigslist I happened to see one day a listing for a Surly CrossCheck at what seemed to be an amazing price.  It was more than I was planning to spend, but it appeared that it could be an investment, even if it did not fit and I learned to hate road bikes.  I drove to Minneapolis that very day to check it out after work, and it was light, smooth, and responsive.  I wasn’t sure it was the right size or that I would like riding it, but I reminded myself that at that price I could easily get my money back.

The next day I rode it to work and my shoulders hurt from leaning over so much.  On the other hand, I zoomed up hills without a lot of effort, and I was nowhere near having knee pain.  It was incredibly liberating to not fear hills or distances.  Within two days the shoulder pain had disappeared.

I used to give myself 30 minutes to ride to school and ended up using almost all of them.  I think it was about 27 minutes by Fr8.  With the CrossCheck I think I’ve managed to get my time down to about 18 minutes, which includes an inconvenient detour.  Google Maps says my standard route should take 23 minutes, but I have no idea how they calculate this.

I’ve changed the rear cassette in order to have a couple easier gears for eventual hill climbing in other parts of the city, and I replaced the disposable pedals the fella sold to me on the bike.  I still think I should buy a high rise stem to make the bike fit me a bit better, but based on my current comfort level I don’t really think I have to.

After this experience, I don’t think I’ll turn back.  Perhaps I will become disenchanted with derailleurs after some major, expensive complication.  Or I will develop back problems from leaning over too much.  But the difference in my confidence as a rider changes my situation completely.  I want to commute by bike and get around as much as possible without a car, and while my previous bike preferences were super comfortable on flat ground, they restricted my range of distance far too much.

I now plan to keep three bikes:

1. The Gazelle will be a snow bike, equipped with studded tires
2. The Raleigh will be for child hauling with the mounted seats (these don’t work on the Surly)
3. The Surly will be for everything else

Do I really need to keep all three?

– I like the Gazelle better than the Raleigh for snow because it has a full chaincase, and I’m not sure I can get this for the Raleigh.  If I could I might be able to just switch out tires and ditch the Gazelle.
– I like the Raleigh best for child hauling because the Gazelle is unsafe with kids (large frame size), and I prefer bike mounted seats to the Burley (the Surly can take kids in the trailer)

When it’s snowy I will be restricted by riding the Gazelle, but I don’t plan to do a lot of snow riding outside of commuting.  When I’m taking kids I’ll rarely be going too far, but if I need to I can hook up the Burley to the Surly and go farther.

I don’t expect this to be my lifelong bike set-up, but I do plan to own a multi-speed road bike as my primary ride, and I have been avoiding anything even remotely like a road bike for the last five years.

Thank you, St. Paul Classic.  Thank you, broken ankle.


Ask My Why I Cycle Without a Helmet

September 17, 2012

–> Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation

–> The Vehicular Cyclist  – and its FAQ

Real Bicycling Safety Advocacy:

–> Dutch Cycling Embassy




May 2012

September 15, 2012

April 2012

September 15, 2012

March 2012

September 15, 2012

February 2012

September 15, 2012

Future Updates

September 15, 2012

It seems we have fallen off with the blog stuff.  My mom said it was just like her with the second child – only for her it meant less scrapbooking rather than blogging.  The next few posts will be an attempt to show you Macrina and Basil’s growth in these last few and important months.  Forgive the lack of commentary.


Little Free Library chez Saathoff

April 23, 2012

I first read about the Little Free Libraries in a Star Tribune article.  Since then I’ve also heard about them in a story on NPR, which has a bit wider reach.

From the moment I read about them I was hooked.  We needed one of those.  But without the tools or the know-how, I sent my father a link to the plans and asked if he’d be willing to put it together and then we could paint it.  This was about the time he decided I needed a circular saw.  So, I went to it.

The first layer was thick plywood, covered with several layers of poly to keep it rainproof.  The plans recommend using recycled materials, so I found some old shingles in the garage and old fence pickets.  I cut those down and created the exterior to the library.

Above you can see our homemade “Little Free Library” sign.  After we registered with the organization, they sent us an official sign that says “Charter  #0907.”  We both felt it had a bit too much text on it – too busy – so I cut off the bottom, and now it looks quite nice.

We had a couple neighbors come by just to say “thank you.”  Several neighbors have told us what a good idea they thought it was.  It’s the most fun for me to come home from work and see what’s changed inside – what’s been taken or returned or what new books have appeared.  When things get thin, we can easily replenish the contents from a nearby thrift store with a steady supply of good books.

My next plan is to grow some Boston Ivy at the bottom of the post to grow up on three of the sides.  I don’t know a thing about growing vines, but from what I’ve read they don’t take much effort.

Happy reading!