11.16.2014

Kid Party

Laurel wanted a "glow in the dark" birthday party for her friends this year. For the last several years she's obsessed over her birthday party for at least six months before it happens. If she had her way, every year would be a "blow-out" and everyone she ever met would come. We tried to scale back those expectations. I bought a 100 pack of glow sticks and looked up some recipes for glow in the dark playdough. I never made playdough before, but this recipe was really easy, though I bought decoupage instead of paint and it didn't glow very well.

To give the kids something structured to do during the party, we started off actually making up batches of playdough as they arrived. This was sort of messy, but the kids were surprisingly engaged for at least a half an hour. I gave them all aprons to put on, and covered my table with a layer of newspaper and a plastic tablecloth that I just stripped off and threw away when we were done. The parents who stuck around were able to just chill out in the living room during that time, which I'm sure they appreciated. Next we gave everybody pizza to eat. They also liked the veggie tray we made (Laurel's idea). It looked sort of like this.

Next we broke out the glow sticks. While they were making crowns and bracelets and necklaces to wear, we shut all the curtains and converted our living room into a night club. We have black-out curtains because we live on a busy, well-lit street corner, so it was pretty easy to make it dark, even though it was a sunny afternoon. They danced like crazy. The adults danced like crazy. We probably could have kept the dance party going for way longer, but in the interest of keeping our party to 2 hours, we opened presents and dug into the Dave and Andy's ice cream cake.

I didn't take any photos or videos. I think M got a couple, but mostly we were just hanging with the kids, keeping the activities going and having a good time. I think I was smart to limit the guest list. Our house isn't super huge and more than 20 people would have been uncomfortable. She invited about 10 kids. Eight came and with siblings and parents we were at just about 20.

Planning and setting up the party with Laurel was a lot of fun. She assembled goody bags, and helped to test the playdough recipe and arranged the veggie tray. We talked about etiquette and she learned how to open the door, greet her guests and take their coats. Today we'll write some thank you notes. She got some really awesome gifts and it was cute how excited each guest was to show Laurel what they brought for her.

11.14.2014

Lockdown

Laurel's school was on lockdown at dismissal time yesterday and the police situation (which was around the block and had nothing to do with the school) wasn't resolved for some two and a half hours. Of course I had taken the bus over there and it started snowing and I had no snacks and only one diaper because the plan was to grab her quick and get home to our warm house.

Marko gets a piano lesson
while we wait for Laurel.
Plans. I rarely make them, and this is why.

But grace surrounded us. After we stood there for a while, as other parents arrived and squinted at the hand-written note taped to the side door, it became clear that waiting outside may not be a good idea, especially for those of us with younger children in tow. First of all, it was snowing harder all the time and I had deliberately left Marko's mittens at home, because I am searching for the mitten clips that my Aunt Mary sent to Laurel because I know he will try to take them off and we will lose them forever. Everyone was getting a little chapped in the wind. One of the mothers suggested the church basement across the street. She had a key. A group of us marched over there together, texting as we went, because people's mothers and spouses were getting wind of the situation and inquiring about our safety. (There were a ton of police officers closing off the area, but it's not as if bullets were flying.)

The church was beautiful. We walked through a chapel, hushed by the wall to wall carpet and the dome high above. Marko and I stopped at the alter. I'm used to a dying Jesus holding prominent place in front of a chapel, but this just had a cross and a bible open to Thessalonians. It was very quiet and Marko said "shhhhh" and put his finger to his lip. Amen, I said. Amen, said Marko.

Then we went through another hallway and there was a room with a stage and a piano, and then a playroom where babies were rolling about on a carpet and toddlers were climbing on a miniature jungle gym.

A little girl stopped what she was doing and asked, "What's that boy's name?"

"Marko," I said, and she replied, "Marko. I like that."

She was four, I learned, and she made an equally complimentary remark about the name of every other child that showed up.

Then a cheerful man, who looked just slightly older than me, came in and told us to help ourselves to anything. He had to go out and pay the mechanic for his car and could someone fetch his son if this was all resolved soon? He rushed out shouting, there's grape juice in the kitchen!

He's a church elder, said one of the mothers. He seemed young to be an elder, but he was so pleasant with the little ones and happy to be able to offer his church building to us. I immediately wanted to join this church. People were just hanging around, texting and playing with the kids. Another call came from the school informing us that nothing had changed and our children were fine. Eating snacks and nobody was scared, they said.

The church elder soon returned with grocery bags. We poured milk for the little ones and stood around eating cheese and apples. It got dark. The snow stopped.

I thought about the man, barricaded inside the apartment down the street. They said he was older, and that it was dispute over an eviction. He had a shotgun and was refusing to leave. It's a changing neighborhood, property values going up. This happens a lot, said someone. Not the gun part. The eviction part.

I've never been pressed that hard by circumstance. I can't imagine clinging to our house like that. But it's cold and what if we had nowhere else to go?

Some people felt scared that their children were so close to all this police activity. They were angry at the man. Some people just felt angry at the inconvenience of it all. The angry people were mostly waiting outside. They would come inside for a moment to give a report, and then return outside to pace and badger the police officers directing traffic at the corner. A long time passed before the school called again. Eventually, everything was "resolved" and we were permitted to line up inside the school building and get our kids. Marko fell asleep on my shoulder as we walked to the bus stop together. Laurel cried because she was exhausted and confused.

The only thing to be done was to talk about it and order a pizza. M and Laurel read a book about leopards. Marko woke up briefly to eat and then went back to sleep.

Today, the neighborhood was back to normal when we approached the school, but Laurel didn't want to go in. She begged to stay home, then came up with a series of excuses. I finally negotiated her down to an early pick up, which satisfied her enough to take her coat off and join her classmates on the carpet. 

11.13.2014

November

It is noon, but it could be dawn. It could be dusk. A ceiling of thick gray clouds is a Pittsburgh sky. It stays all day, maybe all week. The bare trees, the periodic shower of snow flurries, says winter (or spring or fall). You can lose yourself in this bleakness. Down the street, the beeping and humming of construction vehicles shuttling dirt around, turning housing project into parking garage. But here this corner has rusty light poles and faded paint and the bus never comes on time.  Marko is strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, not too heavy but just getting a little too bulky to carry him like this. Legs dangle and his winter coat and mine make for a snug fit. But he's sleeping and his head still has that sweet baby smell. There is no rush to get anywhere and no point fretting anyway. It's just me and the Pittsburgh sky, same as it ever was.

11.10.2014

So My Family Had Its First Same Sex Wedding

Over the weekend my aunt was finally able to marry her partner of 11 years, giving legal recognition to what was already a long established family and household. 

It also gave most of my extended family a chance to attend their first same-sex wedding. 

Basically, it was simply a really nice wedding and we all had a blast. The venue was out in the country, lovely with the lingering fall leaves. Cousins and aunts and uncles arrived from all over the country, some in time to join us to celebrate Laurel's birthday on Thursday. All of the great-nieces and great-nephews (my kids included) were the flower girls and ring bearers, which made for an adorable start of the ceremony and much enthusiastic dancing throughout the reception. My brother and cousin played some music together, the scripture passages were fitting for the day, and everybody cried when they exchanged vows. We ate, drank, danced and posed for pictures. 

However, in what I thought was a lovely speech, they did acknowledge that it might seem a little different and strange. I believe their choice to marry went beyond a declaration of love and commitment toward each other, although that much was certainly obvious. It was also an act of bravery. They didn't know how everyone would react, and in fact, there were some who chose not to come. But while those folks might have been missed, the love in that room was just way too big to worry about what was missing.

That notion of it being "weird" went right over Laurel's head, by the way. She knows that families come in different configurations. I asked her once what was different between our family and my aunt's and she said, "They have a cat." 

As families around the country experience what we just did, I hope it helps to soften the discourse on marriage equality. When we talk about marriage we are talking about real people, who mow the grass and babysit their nieces and nephews and host Christmas dinner and pay taxes. It's not weird. It's not even really that different.

So, congrats to my aunts for making it official! 

11.06.2014

Happy 5th Birthday, Laurel!

Laurel turned 5 today and we went out to breakfast at the Square Cafe. She ordered babycakes, of course, because she always does. Five year olds know what they like.

I especially enjoy Laurel at this age with the contrast of Marko, who is nearly two. He doesn't talk much, other than to name objects, and is utterly impossible to reason with. If he doesn't want to hold your hand when crossing the street, he collapses into a toddler puddle, leaving you to drag his limp body as onlookers tsk and impatient drivers inch close to the crosswalk. Laurel, on the other hand, can understand consequences, even things that are somewhat abstract. She can imagine scenarios other than the one we are in. Plus she has five years of experience to draw upon. She holds your hand without asking because she knows which intersections are particularly dangerous and that collisions can and do happen.

We are storytellers in this house, so our adventures are told and retold and Laurel knows them. "Remember when I was 2 and we drove to Key West and I ate a key lime pie on a stick and it was a DISASTER?!" she says gleefully.

I do. And it was a sticky mess. I paid a hundred dollars to get the car detailed after that trip. I remember the first time she went down a slide by herself and bouncing all night on a yoga ball to keep her from screaming and the way her newborn fingers clutched mine the day she was born and I knew her name was Laurel for all of the Laurelness we saw in her eyes that day. I remember her standing on a stool in the kitchen with M, kneading dough. I remember her first day of school last year, and this year, and how she suddenly turns shy and standoffish at the oddest moments.

This year she ran her first race (placed third) and tried ballet (hated it).  It feels appropriate that she's off at school by herself right now, instead of with me, because this is the direction her childhood is going. She has her own gigs now. She spends six and a half hours a day in the company of peers and adults she is not related to. When we go to the park to play she can roam far from me, without me worrying too much. She can go as high into a tree as she can without assistance and it doesn't bother me.

Her favorite things are My Little Ponies, climbing on just about anything, writing stories and watching Wild Kratts on tv. She loves all things sparkly and pink and purple. She does chores around the house and goes to bed easily. She still crawls into my lap for stories or when she just needs a snuggle. When she is unhappy, she is able to clearly articulate why and offer a solution.

And for Laurel to be five means I have been a mom for five years. Half a decade. A blink of an eye, but also, that's a lot of bandaids and sleepless nights and patty-cake. I like being a mom, but I don't really like talking about it anymore. The first couple of years I suppose I didn't really know what the hell I was doing, so it made sense to obsess over car seats and introducing solids and sleep training. I felt bad and guilty a lot of the time because I would try these things and they didn't work the way they were supposed to. Nonetheless, we muddled through and everyone is still alive and well, although I think that can be mostly chalked up to luck, vaccines and abundant supplies of potable water.

The core work of mothering now feels more like building relationships. Here is the thing that nobody really talked to me about before I had kids....you are inviting real human beings with distinct personalities into your life. You don't know who those people are going to be, although they will hold some of your most vexing attributes (as well as your most charming ones, no doubt). So of course, a big part of mothering is getting to know your own kids and building a really secure and loving relationship with them.

But what I didn't understand until Laurel started to talk about her feelings and personal struggles was that all those other relationships you have really, really matter. Your kids are watching how you navigate conflict with your spouse and parents. They see who you spend time with and what you talk about and how you support each other. They learn how to cultivate....or how to terminate. They see you mess up, and repair it, or neglect it. If I watch them closely, I can see what I am unconsciously teaching my kids because children learn what they live. They carry it out on the playground and with each other.

So, I guess after 5 years, that is what has been most challenging for me, but also what I'm most grateful for.

Happy Birthday, Laurel!



11.03.2014

Daylight Savings Cont.

The kids were practically staggering by 6:15. More snuggles for me!

11.02.2014

Daylight Savings Time

6:59 and everybody's toast.

10.29.2014

GAP Bike Vacation: Traveling With Kids

In October 2014, we rode the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and back, approximately 300 mile trip. Read more about that trip here:
Part 1
Part 2

Lots of people ask us about traveling this way with kids. At the time of this vacation, Laurel was 4 and Marko was 1. We decided to pull them in 2 Burley trailers that we bought off Craigslist. Laurel doesn't really ride a bike too well yet (she just mastered a scooter) and we only had 6 days to do 300 miles, so we thought she wouldn't last for that mileage on a tag-along. Plus, our kids are pretty small for their age. Marko's about 21 pounds and Laurel isn't much over 35. Very towable.

Snug as a bug.
A Family is More than the Kids
First, let's establish this...neither of our kids was like, "hey, can you pleeeease take us on a 300 mile bike trip? pretty please?" This was something M and I have wanted to do for a long time. Our desires and interests are just as important as those of our kids.

Basic Needs
Our first priority was to make sure they would be warm and dry enough. The trailers were awesome for that. I packed tons of fleece blankets and just padded them up in there. I got some books on tape for them to listen to, but that was kind of a bust. I also packed some small toys and books. Mostly they just looked around or fell asleep while we were moving, which frankly is not all that different from a car trip. Looking out the window is not a bad way to pass the time. If it had been raining, we would have closed the rainfly and they would stay snug and dry.

Our second consideration was keeping them fed. This is no problem on the GAP as there are country diners and stores every 10 or 20 miles. We ate a ton of pizza, ice cream and french fries. I packed little baggies of cheerios and crackers that we could toss at them if they got hungry along the way. Everyone had a water bottle they could reach.

Train-themed playground in
Connellsville, PA.
Balancing the Activity
One of the challenges was that M and I got a ton of exercise along the way. The kids, on the other hand, needed to run around. We tried to stop every hour or two and find someplace where we could sit and they could run. We also kept them up a little later at night and just all went to bed together. They napped plenty during the day so they weren't too cranky with this arrangement.

We also made sure that Laurel got to do some of her favorite activities so we stayed at a hotel in Cumberland that had a pool. The visitor center at Meyersdale had lots of model trains, as well as a real caboose to explore. She usually just climbed on rocks or fence posts when we stopped, though.

Sometimes They Will Cry


He wanted milk. (This is milk.)
Just the other day, Marko threw himself on the floor with rage because I would not give him an extremely hot pepper to eat. Laurel is now more in the can-be-reasoned-with stage, but she still bursts into tears several times a day. My job is not to keep them happy or entertained 100% of the time. Usually we can help Laurel talk about what's really bothering her and help her find a solution. With Marko? He still doesn't talk enough so we have no clue what he's thinking. We usually just give him a hug and that clears things up.

Will They Remember?
Some people wonder if it is a waste to take your kids on cool trips when they are little because they might not remember it. However, this trip is now part of our family narrative. Laurel, at least, has a slightly deeper understanding of how the rivers flow and can trace that on a map. They both must have gotten something out of the experience of having the sights and sounds and smells of autumn all around them. Marko loved seeing real trains and the river (two of his words that he shouted over and over again). Maybe it mostly matters that M and I will remember this trip. I think we all just genuinely like hanging out with each other and it was 6 days where we got to do that.



Lessons Learned
1.) Pay attention to weight. Just because you can haul a hundred pounds of stuff doesn't mean you should. This was hard mostly because of how heavy the load was.
2.) Plan 40 mile days instead of 60 mile days (at least if you are going in the fall or spring when there is not as much daylight).
3.) Try camping along the way.
4.) Pack healthier food. Fried got old.
5.) Just go for it! We weren't sure how this would turn out, and had lots of challenges along the way and it was still fun.

GAP Bike Vacation Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

It was a pretty ambitious plan to try to get from Cumberland to Confluence in one day, especially with M being sick. We needed to make 62 miles plus another mile off trail to our B&B that night. And all before 6pm when it started getting dark. Just as I was about to throw in the towel and book some train tickets home, M rallied. We figured we would at least start up the mountain and then, if he wasn't well enough, it would be an easy ride back into town and the trail didn't leave until 7pm.


So, we started up the mountain. On the way up, the train passed us twice, as did lots of folks on bikes. I have no good photos of this stretch because I had to just keep going. No stopping. No thinking about the mile markers slowly ticking by. The weather was perfect, the scenery gorgeous, and several hours later, we were back at the Eastern Continental Divide. All downhill from here!



We paused again at Meyersdale for some lunch and to let the kids play in the caboose. And it really was noticeably downhill into Confluence. We went much faster and with much less effort. M started to feel better. When we got to Stepping Stone Farm, the kids were delighted to find playmates (grandkids of the owners) and chickens!

Chickens also roamed around the yard.
The owners, Vicki and Larry, had actually been in Frostburg the day before and saw us there. (Our trailer train made quite a spectacle wherever we went.) There were 3 other families staying at the Farm that night and we had a campfire with smores. In the morning, they showed the kids how to milk a goat. Breakfast was delicious and included raspberries and pears they had grown, as well as a taste of paw-paw fruit. The weather was once again warm and sunny and we coasted back through Ohiopyle and Connellsville on our way to our final stop of the trip, West Newton.

Rocky cliffs line the trail.
That night we stayed at Bright Morning B&B, which sits directly on the trail. The room was large and had a really comfortable king bed and a private bathroom. The B&B actually takes up 3 separate houses and we had the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, that night I slipped and hurt my calf pretty badly. I couldn't even walk! But luckily there was a drug store and a restaurant only a few hundred yards from where we were staying. Ice on my leg and a cold beer improved my spirits. The next morning I found that I could still pedal. We were only 30 or so miles from Pittsburgh, so it seemed a shame to not actually finish the trail at that point.

The final stretch of trail takes you past steel mills and scrap yards. Busy train tracks parallel the trail. Stacks of rusty old pipes and mill equipment lay everywhere. The air is tangibly gritty and the noise from the mill in Braddock is deafening. I cannot imagine living in this valley when it had many more mills and factories. I started to think about the "new" Pittsburgh, reborn from the ashes, as they say. We are a tech and ed and med city now, right? But the 20 or so miles into town tell a different story. From the bike trail, you can really see and hear and smell what the effects of industry are. I'm not saying they shouldn't be there....I have a house and a car and use plenty of fossil fuels and plastic and steel. Over the last five years, I've spent a lot of time getting to know how food ends up on my table. I've adjusted my expectations about what it's worth as a result. I haven't really done this for the other resources I use, but this trip definitely made me think more about it.

The GAP ends downtown, at the Point. It was exhilarating to finally be back in Pittsburgh, but also stressful. Signs marked the way, but there were no sharrows or bike lanes so it was a little unclear where we were supposed to use sidewalks and where we should be on the street. Construction vehicles blocked the right lane on portions.

You can go no further.
Point State Park was under construction for a long time so I haven't hung out there much, but it really is beautiful. Even if you don't want to go on a long distance bike ride, it would make a great destination for a town ride, and you can stick to trails if you start on the North Shore. We hung out at the fountain for a while, and then had another 8 or so miles back to our house. M ran this app on his phone to collect mileage data for our entire trip, so he'll post our stats. (Slow and steady is what you'll see.)

Fall is a perfect time to do the GAP. Enough leaves had fallen that we had excellent views of the river and mountains along the way. We lucked out with the weather, but even if it had rained or was cold there are plenty of places to stop along the way to eat or warm up. Overall, I was really pleased with our lodging options, but I think next time we'll take advantage of some of the adirondack shelters and do a little camping. People from the towns along the way were friendly and very excited to see our kids. We learned a lot about the geography of southwestern PA and western Maryland, railroad history, coal and coke processing and saw a lot of birds. Other than the actual pedaling, the trip was pretty undemanding. There is something extremely therapeutic about spending so many hours a day outside, just watching leaves float down from above and listening to the river churn.

10.28.2014

GAP Bike Vacation Part 1

M and I have wanted to do the bike path from Pittsburgh to DC ever since Matt and Loren did it back in 2007. But aside from an overnight trip to Connellsville and a few day trips around Ohiopyle, we never did much traveling on bikes, although M commutes by bike to work. But we finally got some time to do it this month. We decided to haul both kids and our stuff in trailers and to avoid the hassle and expense of shuttling our stuff back from DC, we planned a round trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and back. The trip took us 6 days and was about 300 miles.

I look happy as I am about to go down
the big hill. Panic about getting back up
will set in shortly.
Most people don't do this because there is a mountain in the way, and who wants to go over that twice? The elevation change is actually very minor, but you definitely feel it when towing a trailer.

On the first day, we set out from our house on a harrowing ride down Browns Hill Road to get to the Great Allegheny Passage in Homestead. The weather was chilly and overcast and a little windy. The trail winds along the Monongahela River to McKeesport, and then up the Youghiogheny. There were still plenty of leaves on the trees. We saw a whole line of coke ovens and other decaying structures from the Pittsburgh Coal Company along the way. The signage along the trail isn't terribly detailed or informative, but I was prompted to read more later. This article describes the Darr Mine disaster, and I also learned more about coke ovens here. (More about the history of the Steel Valley later.)

As for us, we mostly looked like this:

Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal.....














The trail in this section passes through many small towns and we stopped and ate lunch in Smithton. The kids were pretty chill in their respective trailers and listened to books on tape when they got bored of looking at beautiful fall scenery.


That night we stayed at a cabin at the River's Edge Campground in Adelaide (MP 92). The next day we continued our uphill climb with a plan to reach Meyersdale. Between Connellsville and Ohiopyle is one of my favorite stretches. The trail sits high above the river and you start to feel like you are in the mountains. We stopped at our favorite place in Ohiopyle for breakfast after knocking off the first 20 miles of the day.

With 58 miles planned, this was a hard day, I'm not going to lie. I may even have cried a little bit and I definitely cursed out all the stuff we had loaded in the trailer. We also had to keep on moving because the sun sets pretty early in late October. We stopped for a snack in Rockwood, at the Opera House, which has a very interesting collection of things in their shops and excellent pizza. As we got closer to Meyersdale the trail opens up and you can see a lot of farms. We passed by some grazing cows and could also see the windmills lining the ridge. I had been looking forward to the Salisbury Viaduct, and we hit it right before sunset. It's crazy the degree of effort that was put into building the railroad here.

Salisbury Viaduct
That night we stayed at the Morguen Toole Company, which was a cool space, but at $140 it seemed a bit pricey. They did nice things like turn on the space heater to warm our room up before we got there, and there were ample towels and a nice bathroom with a shower (no tub). One bed was very comfortable, the other one sagged. The rooms were clean. However, their continental breakfast sucked. No coffee.

The next morning I woke up feeling confident. We had a short day planned into Cumberland and it was mostly downhill. Hands down, my favorite part of the trip was going through the Big Savage Tunnel and then coming out to the view of the valley. We coasted into Frostburg, just in time to see the steam engine come in, which is a big theatrical production. The only downside was that the town sits up the hill, but they have kindly made some switchbacks to follow, so you can avoid the steep country road. After that, we continued on to Cumberland, still coasting downhill. I actually found it sort of frightening to be going as fast as we were, because the path has a lot of loose gravel on it and I was afraid of wiping out. Riding in to Cumberland was weird after spending so much time rolling quietly through forest and farmland. We found Mile 0 and congratulated ourselves for finishing half of our trip.
View from Savage Tunnel

That night we stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites, which sits, literally, right next to C&O Towpath, and I really can't say enough good things about the place. They let us take our bikes into our room and found us a spot for the trailers downstairs. There was a pool and a hot tub and it was walking distance to a playground and some little restaurants and the train station.

Unfortunately, M wasn't feeling so hot. Actually, he was feeling really hot, then really cold. Turned out he had a pretty high fever. It looked like we were going to have to end our trip early and figure out another way to get home.