Things are not perfect here. A bit of a disaster at the moment actually, depending on your standards for hot water and places to cook. However, I am really thankful for having a table that folds out large enough to accommodate anyone who wants to gather around it, and the wits and resources to be able to cook a meal to put on said table. For woods to run and play in. For a year so healthy that we have nothing to deduct on our taxes and a row of happy sleeping children lined up in the bed I'm about to crawl into. For a circle of friends and family that surround me with help and support and kindness and fun. For the blessing of a 20+ year relationship with M that is never easy, never boring, but always feels like the right path. For being able to give my kids all the time they need to stop and smell the weeds.


Race Season - Done!

I spent the weekend in Oil Creek State Park with M at the Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs, wrapping up the race season, and enjoying the fall colors. My parents took the kids for the weekend, and I brought my bike with us up to the park so I had a great time biking between aid stations and around town. Oil Creek has a 9.7 mile bike trail that is paved and pretty flat and winds alongside the creek. I didn't take a single picture, but imagine the paved path edged with bright green moss, trees towering overhead with yellow and red leaves and the gentle sound of a wide shallow creek. Saturday morning started out foggy and dreary, but the skies cleared around noon and it got quite hot. M ran the 100 mile event for the third year and had a good race, finishing third and in just over 20 hours. His friend Jeff came up to pace him for the last 25 miles. I spent a good part of the day (and night) hanging out around the aid stations and meeting the families and friends of other runners. There are a huge number of volunteers who come out to mark the course, keep track of the runners, cook food for them, provide first aid when needed and cheer them on. This is pretty common in trail ultras, which is why I never feel too bad when I send M off to a do a race on his own. But it was fun to be there.

One of the interesting things about these trail races is the impact they have on the public parks and lands where they take place. The volunteers at these races are also the people who clear blow downs and repair fallen side hill trail and perform incredible feats of engineering by moving heavy boulders into place to create a natural stairway and keep the rain running off in a certain direction. They pick up trash from lands that have long been used as dumping grounds and turn them into pristine pockets of nature.

Oil City and Titusville were literally the center of the world's oil boom and all of that land the Oil Creek State Park currently sits was pretty trashed by that boom. So it's cool to see that a group of locals have managed to rehabilitate it into a really nice recreational space, and the trail race helps to highlight that and also keep some interest and money flowing towards supporting the ongoing efforts to keep it nice.


Made it!

Second grader ready to roll!
Laurel started second grade yesterday and suddenly my house feels very quiet. I babysat for three families this summer, so we almost always had some extra kids around. It was great fun, a little wild at times but mellow at others. We had some good adventures. I think the best part was learning how to catch salamanders and crayfish in the creek, and watching them all relax on my porch together, painting and reading and watching the world go by. We sang a lot of Raffi and Girl Scout songs. I also think it was very valuable (although the kids might disagree) that I let them get bored, and then let that whole whiny what-can-I-do cycle play out until they figured out something interesting. One day it led to an elaborate game of dress up. Another day it was a lemonade stand. Last week they started making fishing poles out of the weeds in my backyard.

The "Little Brother"
It's one of those things I'm glad I did, but am not sure I'll do again. First, my house was constantly trashed and I pretty much did only emergency triage cleaning for 2 months. I'm not even that fussy about dirt but it's grossing me out. Second, the kids I watched were all Marko and Laurel's age. Trying to manage activities on their level, while also keeping a busy toddler occupied, was a real challenge. If we went on a hike, he had to ride in a backpack because he couldn't keep up with their pace, but then he would be very antsy from not getting enough exercise. Any art supply we brought out ended up in Max's hair (there's actually a semi-permanent pink tinge to it right now from a mysterious source). There were positives, too, of course. Every kid became a surrogate sibling to him and loved to read to him or teach him songs. He adored them all and learned to say their names. And finally, 5 or 6 kids is a lot of kids no matter how wonderfully behaved. Just the sheer number of pretzels consumed, the weight of all those water bottles in a backpack, the number of lost shoes, the time it takes just to get everybody to the bathroom.

In the spring I started making a lot of plans for summer. However, once it got going, I really just put out one new activity or toy each day and planned one outdoor/gross motor activity. Every so often we would bring our lunches and water bottles and bathing suits and go out for a big "wander" and discover new libraries, spray parks, corner stores to spend the spare change we found, trails, and playgrounds. They could be out for 4 or 5 hours at a time with no problems as long as I really listened to and honored their requests to stop instead of pushing them to get to the place where I thought we should stop.

Overall, I would consider it a success! But I'm going to need a few weeks to recover.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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."


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. 


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.