Laurel went to Girl Scout camp last week. It was a 5 day sleep away camp about 2 hours from our house. She had never been there before and she didn't know anyone there. But aside from some anxiety about the swim test they gave at registration, she was pretty relaxed about being left there. We helped her make her bed in the cabin and then she basically pushed us out the door.

My heart ached the whole week. I missed her, but it was more than that. I think it was the first time it really hit me that my kids will grow up and go off and do their own things. I won't have as much control or knowledge of what they are doing. This is the natural progression of things, and of course I "knew" that was part of having children. But I didn't know that letting them go, even a little bit and in the absolute best of circumstances, would ache like that.

She had a great time at camp, of course. I knew she would love it. She got to ride horses, which is her favorite thing in the world. Plus smores, camp skits, making friendship bracelets and swimming. She was also pretty proud that she did a lot better at archery this summer than she did last summer.



There always seems to be something you can buy or sign your kids up for to make parenting easier. What first comes to mind was this ad for a "sumo suit" for a baby. Basically it was like a padded swaddling pajama thing that was supposed to help them sleep better. For like $45. Max and Laurel were both terrible sleepers as babies. Very restless, and up frequently at night for years. I was definitely very close to buying that thing for Max, out of sheer desperation, and also out of fear that I wasn't doing it right. Harming my child through my ignorant approach to sleep, or something.

Laurel sleeps like a rock now, 10-12 hours at a time, and even Max at 2.5 years old, sleeps most of the night in his own bed. Even without a sumo suit, or really any particular gadget or white noise or anything. A great deal of the troubles you experience with children simply pass after some time.

I obsessed over methods and gear during my first few years as a parent, mostly to maximize efficiency. Since Max came along I have settled in with the idea that time is the best commodity I can provide them. It's hard to talk about the sheer quantities of time I spend side by side with little kids, dropping pieces of laundry individually into the washing machine, sifting through gravel to find the perfect rock, coaching someone tying their shoes. What do you do all day, people ask. Often I feel like I'm getting nothing "done." But the days pass and the thing that is getting done is kids growing up, our family structure solidifying, and building trusting relationships with other people's children. Worth it, for sure, even if my IRA doesn't think so.

Running Club is possible because of that time. Once a week in the summer (third year now!) we blaze a trail in the park by tying ribbons to trees. We currently have 43 ribbons in 2 colors, just regular ribbons from the fabric store, cut into strips. A few steady regular families join us, plus others who show up once or twice to try it out. After they follow the ribbons, kids organize themselves into games of tag, or run the trail again or catch daddy-long-legs in the field. We end with a cheer....2-4-6-8 Running Club is really great. It's not like the organized sports teams or family 5ks or really anything else I've ever been to. There's definitely an emphasis on being active and being in nature, but I don't really feel like the point is to exercise or get fit. Some kids will run laps and get kind of competitive with themselves, pushing harder each time. But one of my favorite memories is from a particularly hot and muggy evening when the kids made up a version of freeze tag where you can't get up from being frozen until someone else sits down next to you and tells you a story. Lots of sitting in that version of tag. Running Club is a weird mash up of elementary school PE and a Hash without the alcohol. It's what happened when my kids said "what if we had a club that...." and I said ok, let's do it.



I turned 39 today. To celebrate I planned a weekend bike trip to a rail trail I wanted to explore. Originally I planned to park at one end and bike to the other and back over two and a half days. The trail is only about 62 miles long so this wasn't terribly ambitious, but I have never really "bike camped" before so figuring out how to jam all my stuff into two pannier bags was a bit of a challenge. Turns out, I didn't even end up doing that. A mudslide on the trail closed a portion near my first campsite and I ended up skipping that section entirely. My friend Rita came with me and we decided to make camp at a state park near the trail and just leave our tent there instead of taking it down and setting it up in the rain. We biked 50 miles the first day and 25 the second and did a hike up the canyon to check out some cool waterfalls. It was a wonderful weekend, despite steady rain and cool temperatures. We saw tons of wildlife including a bald eagle, a bear and an otter! Too many birds, some that I'm still working on identifying. On our hike up past the water falls we saw more jack-in-the-pulpits than I've ever seen before and there were even some trillium still blooming. It wasn't the trip I planned, but I was happy with how it went. When I started writing on this blog, I wanted people to know that you don't have to have all the answers before diving into an adventure. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was a pretty big adventure, and still one of my proudest accomplishments to date. Before I set out on that trip, I had backpacked exactly 3 times. Now I carve out smaller pockets of time to try new things. I'm glad that I still feel brave enough to try new things. For this trip I was worried about running into a bear or having a mechanical problem with my bike that I didn't know how to fix. Well, we did run into a bear, and on the second day I could pretty much only ride in one gear. We gave the bear some room and he eventually wandered off. And it turned out there was a piece of very thin stick jammed in tight and rapped around the gears and that all it really needed was a good cleaning.


The No Homework Post

Laurel's school has a no homework policy for their primary building, which houses K-3. It has been a blissful experience to not have to deal with a packet of worksheets every single week. I used to be in charge of curriculum for an organization that provided after-school care at many different schools around the city. It was an ongoing fight to ever get the staff to do anything fun, enriching or related to a book, because of those damn worksheet packets. It's not that they weren't interested in enrichment, it was just that the worksheets endlessly flowed from the children's backpacks. Nobody was ever done. And we spent a lot of time deciphering directions and examples and having conversations with the children where they swore they had never seen a problem like that in their life.

I also spent 5 years as a classroom teacher and yes, I must confess to have sent home some pretty dumb homework assignments. Nobody is a good teacher in their first year, or usually second or third. But I learned over time and also tried to find ways to make sure my students did their own homework assignments, as it had become a bigger and bigger problem over the years with parents getting a little too involved with them.

All that to say that I think homework is usually pretty dumb, and kids who have spent most of the day inside, around lots of other people can probably benefit from being outside, or alone with their thoughts, or perhaps both, if you can swing that. I was very pleased that her school had this policy.

I pick her up from school a little before 4pm, so there isn't a lot of time. We play outside unless the weather is truly terrible. She reads or draws while I make dinner, or sometimes plays Legos or some other make-believe game. She reads before bed every night. None of it is very structured, but I know from years of curriculum-writing how every one of those activities aligns with a standard, strand, anchors and eligible content.

But this year, her teachers were sneaky. They started out by sending email attachments of "optional" homework. Then a month or two after the start of the year, they sent home a permission slip asking if we wanted to "opt out" of the optional homework. I opted out. No thank you. Parents in the school yard agreed, little kids need time to play. But later  found out they all opted in. I felt pretty dumb about that.

And then the worksheets started coming home in the folder. I wasn't really sure what to do with them, so I just put them in another folder and stuck them on the bookshelf. The folder started getting really fat. At conference time, they said Laurel was doing well, excelling in all her subjects, reading above grade level, etc. etc. Very positive. No mention of the homework, or lack of completion.

Then one day, Laurel started working on the sheets that came home. She said she had to or she would have to go down to the lower math group. For the most part, she now seems personally motivated to get the work done at home and it's clear that they are spending time during every math class going over the answers. I dislike how this came about, but I don't have a problem with her doing a developmentally appropriate amount of homework on content they actually covered in school.

In my humble (yet experienced) opinion, all the math homework that kids do from kindergarten until they hit algebra or so could be skipped if kids had a lemonade stand (or sold Girl Scout cookies!) or got an allowance and handled more cash. If they used analog clocks to tell time a little bit more, and cooked on a regular basis, following and doubling recipes. Play some Battleship, the card game War and its variations, add in a little sewing or woodwork and you are set.

I'm a big believer that you should go all in with support for your kids' teachers and school. Do what they ask, as a sign of respect for their professional opinion. I was just mad about the fake "no homework" oh-no-wait "optional homework" no-actually-it's "required homework unless you want to be in the dumb math group policy."


No TV, No Problem

We gave up tv for Lent, and by tv (it's 2018 after all), I mean that I unplugged the Roku and threw all the Kindles in a closet in the attic. I keep my laptop and telephone out of the way until the kids are in bed. Definitely we were watching a lot of television shows, but also overuse of youtube videos to answer every little question and obsessive checking of the weather report. TMI every second of every day. I didn't realize how much the kids were looking at screens until they weren't looking at them at all.

At first, it was terrible and I'm rather inclined to still think it's terrible every day around 5 o'clock when I'm trying to cook dinner and I can't park them in front of some Netflix. Now I have to slow down the dinner prep to give them time to chop a few veggies or stir the pot. Efficiency be damned.  Sometimes it's fun. Our new kitchen layout makes it a lot easier to lay ingredients out in the mise en place fashion, although that requires a certain level of planning that is not really my natural strength. We are playing way more games. Solitaire with a real deck of cards. Chess and dominoes. Lots of puzzles and Legos.

With a conscious effort to keep my own screen out of sight, I've found it's difficult to keep up with some friends and I'm starting to be really terrible about getting back to people on text or Facebook. I guess it makes sense, my goal was to be more present with the kids, and I'm definitely doing that. But being present here, now, makes it feel like there isn't really room for much else.


Front Row Seat

Today a car ran into the gas pump across the street. Apparently the driver had a prosthetic leg that got stuck on the accelerator. The car was up on its side when the fire trucks and police arrived. I don't think anyone was hurt too badly, as they all got out of the car, but the tow truck drivers couldn't figure out how to get the car out of there. Nothing blew up, luckily. I was babysitting and all the kids stopped what they were doing to look at the fire trucks, but other than that, they were not impressed. City kids.



Laurel wore her nightgown inside out last night. As she is prone to distraction during all activities involving hygiene and housework, I assumed she just grabbed something out of her drawer and threw it on without looking. But in fact, her teacher had instructed the class to "wear your pjs inside out and flush an ice cube down the toilet." I used to work with a woman who always told the kids things like that, and I suddenly missed her and that job when I thought about the fun we had. I was skeptical of the winter weather warning - the storm looked like it was going north to me- but school was already canceled for the day when we woke up. It's a heavy wet snow, mixed with rain. Heart attack snow, some say, because it's so heavy to shovel.

The people in my neighborhood seem to have given up on clearing their sidewalks. Another degradation of civility? There is a $300 fine for not doing it, but I take it more as a matter of courtesy to those who need to walk by your house. One of the agreed upon social norms of urban living. But now there are great stretches of the neighborhood that seem to go uncleared for as long as the snow lasts. Pedestrians pack the snow down into little icy patches, dogs leave pee trails, litter gets lodged in it. You can tell exactly where the transitional living apartments are, with their institutional grade salt and completely clear sidewalks.

I was pretty bummed about school being canceled, because that meant the boys' preschool was also closed and I have really grown to count on those three mornings a week to stay sane. I just really need to be alone sometimes.

We did make it outside and I was very pleased with the performance of Max's new full-body rain suit. He wouldn't stop eating snow off the driveway though. "This is soooo yummy, Mommy."

I helped the kids work on Valentines for their classmates. I cut out hearts from construction paper and they signed their names and decorated them with stickers. And that's as fancy as we are going to get this year. We had a dance party. Marko finished building one of the LEGO sets from his birthday. Laurel read all the e-books I put on her kindle. Max dumped things out, climbed on furniture, tried to reach the knives, ate playdoh, and then told me he wanted to "sleep in the buggy. With milk." So he's asleep in the stroller now, and I sent the other kids off to watch tv.


Sounds and sights, of the miscellaneous variety

There are Legos everywhere. Bursts of squealing, screeching, shouting, crying, then it settles into quiet voices as they get back to playing together. They tell stories to each other. "Pretend you are the dad and you went to mow the grass and there was a horse in the way..."

"Pretend you are a cheetah and your brother is coming over with some juice...."

Back and forth, they exchange scenarios while they build what they call "set ups" - little arrangements of figurines and cotton balls and tape.
Footsteps and muffled voices outside the door. I'm naked, in a hospital gown, waiting for my supposed-to-be annual skin cancer screening. The PA comes in, greets me while looking right past me. "Any concerns?" She tsks at the scar on my shoulder. "Who did this?"

I don't say anything. She was the one who performed that procedure. The scar looks like shit. It healed wide. I'm not the type to mind, but I do catch people staring at it if I'm in a swim suit. She tells me she needs to check the pathology report and leaves the room. When she comes back, she checks the rest of my body and doesn't say anything else about the scar.

"Good for another year!" she practically shouts, as she disappears into the hallway. I get dressed quickly, inhaling deeply when I catch a whiff of the mud caked on my boots when I bend over to tie them. It smells like disinfectant in there, and the floor looks clean, but I'm reminded of my mom's stories about her aides throwing soiled linens right on the floor.
Ever since we started looking at camper vans and RVs, I've been noticing people living in their vehicles. On the street near the boys preschool, in the parking garage at the Target. Once I was walking around the corner from my house and the side door on a nondescript work van was open, revealing some shelving with clothes on it, a little bed and a stove. I think I could very happily live in a van, even with the three kids, but that it would be difficult to live the way we do now.
I haven't heard a siren, the entire time I've been typing this. I noticed this fact because I thought they were a near constant presence on my street and I thought I might write a little something about the differences between Pittsburgh EMS and Eastern Area and the number 17 fire engines. But either it's  a slow day for overdoses and accidents or I am overestimating the general amount of first response traffic on my street.


Night Hike

A few months ago we started going on "Night Hikes" before bed. We mostly walk a little loop that takes us down some quiet streets onto a portion of the bike path that runs through Frick Park. We walk this route all the time, but everything looks really different in the dark. Right now there's snow packed tight on the trail, and the woods are a lot less threatening with their blanket of snow. Sometimes we see deer and once we spotted some eyes up in a tree, a possum or raccoon maybe.

I wasn't planning on taking them out tonight. I babysat the neighbors after school, and then after they went home, started rolling out pizzas. But things got out of control, as they do when cooking with kids. Flour everywhere! Cheese everywhere! Legos everywhere!

"Night hike," I told the kids, "Suit up."

They scurried around getting snow pants and mittens and things calmed down a bit immediately.

I thought about trying to tidy up a bit. At least right the tipped-over furniture and pick the pizza crusts off the floor. Then I thought better of it. M walked in the door and happily was into the idea of a night hike. We all set out, flashlights in hand.

My favorite part is how we walk so closely together, often holding hands. The kids don't stray very far, we never have to yell for someone to hurry up or stop. Our voices are a lot quieter, the kids ask all sorts of questions and even though we live in a city neighborhood, we hardly ever see another person.

Tonight Max kept saying, "the Maxie shadow big!" because Marko was walking behind him with a headlamp on.

Laurel was thrilled with every icy patch we crossed.

Marko brought his hiking stick and used it for balance as well as to knock icicles out of trees.

We were all a lot happier and calmer when we got back inside.

I used to go on some pretty grand adventures. Sometimes it takes a little effort to see the value in very small adventures like these, but I definitely think it's there.

Blank-wet and other things I want to remember

The other day we were all talking about first words. We could remember funny things each kid would say when they were small, but could not remember anybody's first words. It's probably here somewhere on these thousand blog entries I have typed over the years. Here are a few more things I want to remember.

Max pronounces blanket as "blank-wet." He wakes up very early every day and likes to watch Daniel Tiger while we snuggle on the couch.

The other day I picked the boys up from preschool, and even though they spent the morning right down the hall from each other in their respective classrooms, they still embraced and said I MISSED YOU, looking genuinely happy to be reunited. Another mom asked me if they were always so affectionate. (Answer, no, we are a family of intense high and lows.)

We finally had a week where Max walked into his classroom by himself and without tears.

Laurel just got the cutest haircut with bangs. Along with her glasses, she looks like an entirely different child. It's fun to see how different family members show up in her face depending on how she wears her hair.

There's more, but if I don't hit publish, this will never happen.