7.25.2017

Camp Skymeadow

Laurel and I just got back home from Camp Skymeadow, where we went with some of the kids and moms from our Girl Scout troop. This was my first summer camp experience, and the first time we did a sleep away event with the girls from the troop. Camp Skymeadow is one of four camps owned by the Girl Scouts of Western PA. It's actually only 30 miles or so from my doorstep, but with almost 371 acres of hilly forest and meadow, it feels much further away. Our city girls were delighted by our green surroundings, the songs of the birds that woke us up, and the frogs and bugs they found when hiking around. The highlight, of course, was the horse riding lesson. When we sold cookies last winter, we donated some of the money to an organization for homeless girls and women, and then had to decide as a group how to use the rest. The girls wanted to go to horse camp and it was kind of an organizational challenge to figure out how to make that work. In the end 7 of our 10 girls were able to come, we had 3 older girls from other troops that meet at our school at the same time, and five moms and leaders. The 15 of us slept in a lodge, which had room for far more, but we were the only ones there. The camp we chose to do included all of our meals and activities, so all we had to do was show up.

The camp counselors were all in their teens/the early 20s. A bunch of them were from Wales and Scotland and all of them were fun, enthusiastic, patient with our little girls and knew tons of Girl Scout songs. The camp is fairly spread out, so we had to do a lot of walking. Just getting everybody from place to place required lots of extra time so they could stop and look into the pond, or count fireflies or look for hiking sticks. We chose to do horse riding, archery, arts and crafts and swimming. The adults got turns at all the activities, and it was definitely a chance for everybody to relax and have fun together. The first night we went to an all-camp bonfire, and the second night we had our own. Smores both nights, obviously. It was fun to teach the little girls about gathering kindling and stacking logs. Our older girls set the fire and led songs and organized marshmallow roasting.

The communication from GSWPA was pretty terrible. Basically non-existent. We didn't even get an emailed receipt that we had paid or confirmation that we registered. My co-leader spent the week before trying to track this information down to make sure they actually had spots for us at Skymeadow. We found the link for the health and code of conduct paperwork on our own. It almost seemed like the camp staff didn't know we were coming or what kind of camp experience we had registered for her. To their credit, they made us feel welcome immediately and got us an agenda for our activities. Two of the women in our group are very experienced with Girl Scouts, so they were annoyed by the lack of information, but not too surprised by it. They knew it would work out and it did. I wonder if maybe we're all just used to Too Much Information all the time and we feel awkward and scared when we don't get all the details in advance, color coded and cross referenced against standards and safety checkpoints. It's camp. Keep it simple.

This was Laurel's second camp experience this summer, and I honestly think she would be ready to go for a week by herself next year. Girl Scouts as an organization can be kind of maddening, but the Girl Scouts themselves? The women who show up year after year for crappy salaries to cook food and train teenage staff and handle maintenance and just generally keep these camps going are some of the most interesting and skilled people I have ever met. The teens and young adults who work as counselors are smart and have strong opinions but are all a little bit weird (in a good way, like they don't care what the world thinks of them). I'm really looking forward to the next camp trip we do with our girls.

I would definitely recommend this camp, but with the caveat that you have to expect some disorganization from GSWPA and you are just going to have to roll with it. It will be worth it, though.

7.14.2017

Summer Activities

This week Marko and Laurel went off with some friends to the $1 movies (bless the mom who took 5 children to the movie theater, she is a saint), and I took Max for a walk. We went toddler pace, a rare opportunity for Max. He loves running but isn't too steady. He is getting the hang of staying on the sidewalk, although he hates to hold hands when we cross the street. We walked so far that he got tired and I had to carry him home. He perked up when I let him hold the house key during the last block. He was very surprised when we returned home and the house was quiet. He only knows pack life. I used to think birth order couldn't possibly matter that much (How much does one's parenting change over time?), but now I can see how it plays out...depending on how close in age you are to your siblings and how many of them there are, it really does matter how you come into a family.

I took some food and water to the panhandlers on the corner. It actually hasn't been that hot, just humid, but they all look terrible. Don't do drugs, kids. But be compassionate to your fellow man, whatever state he may be in. I have a lot more to say about hustling for cash like that, and heroin, and gentrification, but I only have 2 minutes to write this so I'll come back to that.

We are in the phase of parenting where we can see what life without babies will be like. Some of our kids are pretty independent. I took Laurel to Hartwood last weekend and I felt so relaxed even as she ran around pretty far away. She knows my phone number by heart and how to navigate her way through a crowd. We stayed until the very last song and the band was Tank and the Bangas so the last song was very long. All the songs were very long. She was tired on the way home and the next day but instead of acting like an insane hyperactive beast monster, she just took a nap and then returned to normal. I've heard from so many people that elementary aged kids are a real sweet spot in parenting and I can totally see that.

But we're not quite there yet. When you have babies, especially a few in a row, you get used to some very messed up things. Like occasionally waking up soaked in someone else's urine. And since it's 4:23 am you don't want to get up for the day or create any sort of commotion that would cause others to believe it is day, you just take off your shirt and curl up in a drier corner. M and I both did this last night/early this morning and nobody batted an eye over it!!  I've been washing clothes and sheets all day though. Thank goodness my mom came by for a visit.

Next up on our agenda is Girl Scout Camp (round 2...we're going with some girls from our troop) and then it's Ice Cream Social time!

I am really digging the slow pace of our days this summer. We also got AC so we can get some good rest at night, which is a real game changer.

6.24.2017

Roles

Recently an old colleague contacted me for a job reference. I was pleasantly surprised to hear professional words roll off my tongue when the woman from the HR department called because I spend all day with a not-very-verbal toddler. I miss talking about literacy to adults, although I have the very rewarding experience of delivering early literacy instruction to my children.

Max has really challenged me lately. He still doesn't talk much, and he's in a stage where he just can't be reasoned with, or bribed, to be quiet or to wait. I made the mistake of trying to go to a zoning commission hearing a few weeks ago. I took some jelly beans with me, thinking that would keep him chewing and therefore quiet. Nope. He just shouted "Bean!!" the whole time. They asked us to leave. This week, I thought I would drop off a present for our cousin's new baby, who arrived early and is mostly healthy but spending a few days in Children's Hospital until he gets the hang of feeding. Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking. Max started screaming as soon as we got into the room. He either has a serious phobia of hospitals or is scared of little tiny sleeping babies.

I have to get the grocery shopping done in 20 minutes or less (thank you, Aldi). He takes his shoes off and tries to throw them out the car window pretty much every time we go anywhere. If I try and put him in a back carry in the Ergo, he pulls at my hair and claws at my neck.

I shouldn't be surprised. I did name him after Maurice Sendak's character.

I was working full time when Laurel and Marko were this age, and was thus spared from the full immersion in Young Toddler Life. Sometimes I feel like he gets dragged along, sometimes it feels like he rules the roost. I suppose both are probably true. Last night, he woke up with a nightmare or something and crawled into our bed, pulled the covers up and rolled over and went back to sleep. He slept until 6am (very late for Max). This was the first time he did that, but both the other kids spent a year or more terrified of the dark and sleeping in our bed.

I say all this to remind myself that this current role is challenging but it is finite.

6.21.2017

Solstice, 2017 version

Summer solstice means early sunrise. Max calling my name. Day! Birds! Mama! I toy with the idea of making him stay in his crib until 6, but I think he would just get bored and try to climb out. That should be a rule though. He peed on everything, the crib is soaked, he is soaked. The room stinks of urine. He's cheerful nonetheless. Change him, do a load of laundry. Give him a banana. He wants to watch tv. I don't want to turn the tv on because it makes the big kids wake up and come downstairs like zombies and they were up late last night. I give him a funnel and a cup and a bunch of little cut up straw pieces. He pours the straw pieces through the funnel and then dumps them back out and does it again. This is fun! He loves it. It buys me enough time to make a cup of coffee. When he gets tired of this we stack couch cushions and then knock them over. He asks for cheerios. He asks for a banana. He eats most of it, and only dumps a few things on the floor before I catch him and snatch his bowl away. Kids get up, eggs and toast for them. More coffee for me. We set up a fort in the back yard and everyone plays happily together for a while. Max sits in his play yard with a tupperware container full of water and a scoop. He pours from this container to that. I scrape the paint off another section of my porch. It's going to take me ten thousand years to finish this project. The man from the air conditioning company shows up to do a final piece of work on our unit. The police show up at a house behind ours, and it looks like rain so we go inside. We watch Alison Krauss videos, sing along. I feed them banana bread for lunch, sliced up apples, cups of cold milk. Then we make limeade for dessert. It takes a very long time for them to juice the limes.

Naptime. I am desperate for a nap. I don't understand why the children don't appreciate this gift we have, of the potential for a midday rest. It takes some coaxing but Laurel reads books quietly, Max goes to sleep after yelling for a while. Marko refuses, even after I lay with him. I give up on a nap for myself and do dishes. I panic about not having a plan for dinner. I make a plan to order pizza. I google "do people really need 3 meals a day." I look up recipes for pancakes. I change the laundry again and check the chest freezer downstairs.

Naptime ends and there are more demands for water, snacks, milk. The big kids want to play at the neighbors but I don't want to go over there and watch them. I'm not sure if it is ok for them to just go over and play without me. I put Max in his high chair and feed him some watermelon. There is so much day left.

Eventually, I wait too long to order pizza so I make blueberry pancakes. The kids eat all 12 pancakes. We pack up to go to the park and lay a trail for Running Club. One loop marked with pink ribbons, one marked with blue. We go back up to the field and wait to see if anyone will come. Five families come, so there are plenty of kids to play Sharks and Minnows. Dragons and Knights. All variations of freeze tag. Some kids run the trails many times. Others lay on their backs in the field, in the freshly cut grass and stare at the clouds. This is not a very formal youth sports operation....pretty much anything goes.

When we get home, M and I scavenge for dinner options, as the pancakes have all been eaten. Showers, tick checks, stories, lights out, except the sun is still up. I sit in my dining room and watch the light fade and think about how the sunrise will drift back towards the south over the next 6 months.

6.15.2017

One Day Left

Tomorrow is the last day of school! Laurel grew and changed a lot this year. When I think of "first graders" in a general sense, they seem very young to me. Ramona Quimby comes to mind. But when I look at Laurel, she seems so grown up. Last year we started a tradition of cake for breakfast on the last day of school. It was sort of accidental, but the kids loved it so much they have been talking about it for the last month. Marlene, our neighbor who walks Laurel to school every day, will join us.

Laurel lost all of her teeth and new ones grew in to fill the gaps. She outgrew her school uniforms and got a lot better on her bike and shifted from reading out loud to reading chapter books, silently and obsessively. We have to check on her at night and make her go to sleep because she sneaks them under her covers with a flashlight. She has a lot of artistic talent, especially with conveying emotion with the figures she draws. Her Girl Scout troop moved from Daisies to Brownies, and she's going to 2 short camp sessions this summer, where hopefully she'll have good experiences with horses. She's been begging for horse riding lessons for years.

Laurel attends a fabulous school and her teachers do a great job of treating the kids as kids, while still challenging them with lots of creative and in-depth projects. During each unit of the year they produced something very tangible. For instance, they wrote a book about the school for incoming kindergarten students. They also built a miniature city, complete with transportation and water systems! They visited an apiary and the PWSA reservoir. They have lots of outdoor time and art time. I don't feel like I have to jam in a lot of "fun" learning activities for her during the summer. If anything, she just wants free time.

This summer, we're keeping it pretty simple and close to home. Library, spray park, hike, repeat. I babysit a few other kids, so we have some built in playmates. We have a microscope and some test kits to examine the water in our neighborhood. We will watch The Kid Should See This and then probably do some of the things we watch. We're all going to learn to play the piano and I set up some accounts for them to play chess online with each other and with bots.

The last day of school feels totally different as a stay-at-home mom compared to when I was a teacher! I'm not dreading it, but it definitely has more of a "game on!" feel than the "phew, we made it."


5.16.2017

The Piccadilly Herb Club

Tonight Laurel picked the recipe for dinner. Chicken and Biscuit Pie. She found it in this cookbook that belonged to me when I was little. A few years ago my mom passed it on to us. I had everything except the can of condensed cream of chicken soup, so I decided to cook up a quick bechamel sauce. When I opened the cupboard door to find some thyme, there was the little glass jar from the Piccadilly Herb Club. My grandmother Norine gave it to me many years ago. The jar had a few little sachet herb packets for cooking. I guess I had used a few of them right away, but after she died I never touched that jar. Sometimes it would surface when I cleaned out the cupboards or moved things around. She's been dead quite a while so I assumed that the herbs wouldn't even be good anymore. I didn't want to throw it away, but I didn't know what I was keeping it for. Tonight I threw the last sachet into the bechamel sauce and there was a surprising amount of flavor still left. 


The children's cookbook is terrible, by the way. I'm not sure they tested the recipes. Their proportions are way off. Laurel was not bothered by it. We'll just experiment with our cooking, she said. Everybody liked the meal, especially the biscuits. They had never seen the kind that pop out of the can before. When I popped the can, Marko was amazed... Laurel and Max were terrified. 

I didn't know what to do with the empty jar. 

I wondered if the Piccadilly Herb Club was still meeting. I thought about the things my grandmother started to do after my grandfather finally died after an agonizing decade with Alzheimer's. Silver Sneakers. Tai Chi. I remembered the first time I saw her after she stopped dyeing her hair and it was all silver. When she gave me her red leather Samsonite luggage, barely used. How she never once asked me when I was going to have children in the years between my wedding day and her death. The pots of African violets on her sun porch. Seeing her standing in the doorway, watching a 12 year old me sit with my grandpa, hazy in the smoke from his cigarette. 

As I get older, I don't find that memories fade, so much as they get shuffled to the bottom of the deck.  Out of sight, out of mind. But then a word or smell invokes them again, and there they are clear as day. 

5.01.2017

Spring Sprung

Nope, no way, no, we will not put the air conditioners in the windows until May. At least. This is what I said on Sunday, when it was April. But now it is May, and I am definitely thinking about it. Especially because of the relatively early bedtimes for the kiddos. And the extremely loud motorcycles zooming back and forth on my street.

I used to be very judgmental of parents whose kids missed a lot of school. Sometimes they would have excuses I thought were pretty lame and probably made up. But now that I juggle my kids and other kids I babysit and 4 different school schedules, I can totally feel that mom who would just rather keep a kid home when the transportation gets too complicated. Like seriously, early dismissal for one school throws everybody off. And destroys Max's nap.

The weather was bad today. I don't mind rain, but lightning and falling branches scare the crap out of me, so we stayed inside. I brought out all the cookbooks, even Betty Crocker's Dinner for Two, 1976 edition. I gave every kid a cookbook and some sticky notes and told them to find the most delicious foods. This task kept them busy for a half an hour, which is a long time at 5 o'clock for a 4,5,6,and 7 year old. (Max did not get a cookbook, but I did let him have a sticky note.) It was long enough for me to mix up some flour and water and yeast for pizza dough. I meant to cook chicken chili tonight, but never made it out to get the green chilies. Pizza just seemed easier. I made one cheese, one pepperoni, one peach/balsamic/mushroom and one tuna/caper/ricotta.

Anyway, spring is here. We're going to start Running Club back up this week. I don't think it will get into full swing until school is out, but my kids are eager to run.

4.19.2017

Screens and Books

Earlier this week, I took Max and our 5 year old neighbor to the library for baby story time. There were about 50 people crammed into the little room, though, and Max said no thank you to that. At 16 months, he's sort of at the upper end of the age range for that particular program anyway. I will start taking him to the toddler program soon. We tiptoed out of the room and went back to the children's section, where both children did nothing but swipe screens and mash keyboards despite my best efforts to get them interested in books.

I despise the computers that are set up in the children's rooms. The toddlers are drawn to them like moths to a light, but are unable to interact in any meaningful way. At best, they navigate to some sort of tv program with overly shrill character voices screaming about the color yellow. THE SUN IS YELLOW! CLICK THE YELLOW SUN!

After all that, the book about colors is very boring to Max, I suppose. My neighbor was basically doing the same thing, on an iPad that was mounted to a little security post. App to app to app....she never found one she liked or could navigate herself and she didn't want me to help her. Swipe, swipe, swipe. That was the actual activity she wished to engage in.

I abandoned the idea of reading together in the library and just picked some books out to take home.

I was observing some 4th grade students in a classroom many years ago, coincidentally in a school that is right down the street from where I currently live. When I asked one of the boys what he was doing on the computer set up in the back of the room, he said "I click this button and it teaches me things." I asked him what he was learning. He shrugged, and went back to clicking "NEXT PAGE" without so much as glancing at the text. He had also learned to hit the Escape button to get out of the program when he failed to answer the correct questions and the "NEXT PAGE" button wasn't there.

M works for an educational software company, and I know there is much more that goes into designing and developing a good app for kids, including a lot more attention to accessibility to language and disabilities. (Also, many things have changed since 2003.) I'm definitely not opposed to kids using technology....I'm just frequently disturbed with how it plays out in real life.

Once we got into the car, the kids were both excited to read their books, and as the other children came home they were eager to page through the collection of books we had checked out.

My strategy for picking out books is to browse a section and just pull out a few books that appeal to me at first glance. If I like them, I look up the authors and see what else they have published and might go and find that.

This week I found "Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives" by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. This book is pretty simple, but informative. In addition to giving some good facts about how many babies certain animals have, or how many sets of antlers they grow, it offers a good explanation of how to calculate averages, and how an average does not necessarily represent a consistent and regular pattern over a lifetime. For instance, reproduction often peaks during a particular phase of an animal's life, or growth accelerates during youth but slows as they age.

Next time I will look for "Pick, Pull, Snap!: Where a Flower Once Bloomed," also by Lola M. Schaefer, and the Over and Under series by Kate Messner.

4.12.2017

Life with Three

I can still vividly remember the first car outing we took as a family of five. Well, I can't remember where we went, but I do remember loading up the kids, adjusting all the latches and seat belts, losing and finding and losing shoes, and involuntarily sucking in my breath when I finally shut the door because it didn't seem like everything was fitting. And of course, the crying. We have very loud children.

M and I were laughing but also agreeing that we would never go anywhere, ever again.

I was thinking about that today when I was loading up the kids...bikes, helmets, overnight bag, snacks, water bottles. I babysit the neighbors a few days a week and everybody is a different height and weight, so I have a revolving collection of car seats and boosters depending on who will be in the car. I know which ones go with latch and which only work with seat belts and when Max's rear facing seat has to be in the middle, which is a pain for getting him in and out, but works better for getting everyone else buckled. I have all these tricks now...keep shoes off Max until we arrive at our destination as he flings them all over the car. Books and magazines make the best entertainment and do not require charging.  TMBG's "No!" and pretty much anything by Raffi appeals to both children and adults. Put Max in the car first and then load it up so he doesn't wreak havoc in the house.

It definitely still takes a minute, but it feels like a totally normal part of life now.

Just like the conveyor belt showers at the end of the day, and buying 3 gallons of milk every week and not being able to legally book one hotel room anymore.

4.10.2017

Spring Break!

Laurel and Marko's schools are both closed this week, which is great fun, but also, whew a lot of energy in my house. This morning I took them to a new-to-us playground and on a hike down a creek bed. Everyone had fun on that part of the excursion and I can see us going back to that park a lot this summer. Then we had to go grocery shopping, which was fine for the first 20 minutes or so and excruciating for the last 10. I got that stupid race car cart which is impossible to push around without knocking over the old ladies. The boys loved it at first, but at some point Max decided he only wanted to steer Marko's steering wheel and they can squeal like little pigs when they are fighting. Laurel whined the entire time about not getting to ride in the race car cart, as if she would even fit in there if she tried. I haven't even been grocery shopping in like 2 months because I started ordering them and you just have to pull in next to the store and they load your car for you. But I remembered why it is definitely worth the $4.95.

Tonight we went full-yinzer and ate dinner at Primanti Brothers. Cousin Sam had some extra baseball tickets so M took Laurel and Marko, but we met up for dinner beforehand. We planned to go to the Peruvian chicken place, but they were closed, unfortunately.

Other noteworthy events of the day include Max saying "I love you" to me at bedtime and the kids putting away all of their laundry, without being asked.

We've been having "family meetings" once a week where we discuss problems our household is having and try to come up with solutions. I recently read this quote by Richard Branson (super rich business guy with an inexplicably bad haircut): "Train people well enough that they can leave, treat them well enough so that they don't want to."

Obviously my kids are not employees, but I've been thinking about all the skills and practice I want them to have while they are kids and I can sort of guide them through it, and also trying to treat them like valuable members of our family whose opinions we respect. There is so much that is just faster to do yourself when it comes to household stuff, but I want my kids to know how to make a bed and sew a button back on and cook mashed potatoes that aren't lumpy and rally neighbors to a cause and negotiate a good price on something. We're starting with laundry and dusting and scrambled eggs. They are catching on to the laundry.