Farewell to 2015

I'm watching Max sleep right now and his cheeks are starting to get fat baby jowls. His legs are stretched out straight which make him look twice as big as he did three weeks ago when he was born. Three weeks?! It's only been three weeks? It feels like a minute and a half, but also an eternity. Sleep deprivation will do that to you. In the other room Laurel and Marko are playing some elaborate game of pretend. There's a cell phone and a grocery order and some otters involved.

M and I had a great plan to order Thai food for dinner tonight, but the restaurant was either closed or too busy to answer their phones. We had just been to the grocery store and were on our way home when we tried to order. All 5 of us together in the truck...it's crazy. Everybody is within arm's reach now and it's a complicated affair to get all the buckles ratcheted down correctly when we get in. I took Max to the cafe area (grocery stores have bars and cafes now, apparently) and fed him, while the rest of the crew went to find some pork roast for tomorrow's dinner.

2015 was a good year for us. No major calamities and a healthy baby boy at the end. M placed 1st or 2nd in a number of ultramarathons this summer and PR'd two marathons. He also reached his goal of completing a hundred mile race, and finished well under his projected time, earning the coveted belt buckle. Laurel started kindergarten, lost a bunch of teeth and learned to ride a bike. Marko went from toddler to imaginative little boy and I feel safe in declaring him potty trained. We took a very long road trip to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, where we got to visit some of our favorite cousins (and aunt and uncle!) and a good friend who now lives in Baton Rouge.

I had a good year but my accomplishments are more subtle and hard to write about. I did absolutely nothing I would list on a resume. It was all tiny little domestic and neighborly acts - delivering banana bread and writing for the neighborhood blog and shoveling someone else's sidewalk. I babysat other people's kids when school was closed on Election Day and did a run for 412 Food Rescue and gave away 75 ice cream sundaes on National Night Out. I wiped a lot of butts and did a lot of laundry, and of course spent the majority of the year gestating a human.  I'm really good at making tortillas after a year of Taco Tuesdays. I repaired all of Mrs. Schreiner's Montessori mats and volunteered to be the assistant leader for Laurel's Daisy troop. I took a lot of walks in Frick Park at kid pace. I gave away children's magazines to fussy little kids on the PAT bus and restocked the Little Free Libraries with some of my favorite books. I sent a lot of messages to 311 and served on a traffic safety committee. To be honest, it often felt like nobody cared or even noticed what I was doing and when I first sat down to write this blog post I was wondering what I would say about my year. Half of the things I did got undone fairly soon. I thought I had accomplished nothing. But in fact, I grew into my role as mother and joined the ranks of generations of women who just keep things going in their homes and neighborhoods and schools. At this point, it feels like a year well spent.

Happy New Year!


Welcome, Max Benjamin!

I am very happy to announce that we welcomed a new baby boy to our family. Max - inspired by the book - and Benjamin in honor of my grandfather who passed away just about a year ago. My due date was actually on the anniversary of his death. He would have been delighted to have another great-grandchild.

Max was the biggest of our kids at birth - 8lbs 3 oz - but also the easiest birth, and it's been a pretty smooth transition. The day we got home from the hospital it already started feeling like he had been here forever. Marko and Laurel adore him. M was able to take some time off work. His love language is food, I think. He starts cooking whenever he has some free time. In addition to the roughly 50 pounds of sauerkraut he made, he also kept me well fed with pot roast and tacos and soup. He also got to spend a lot of time with Marko, who is pretty hilarious at this stage. (For instance, he has renamed himself "Markoooo" and has an amazing range of acting skills. Ask to see his "surprised" face.) I spent 2 weeks in bed or close to it, as I vowed to do this time. I feel pretty well rested and relaxed as a result.

Next week might be a different story. M is going back to work and school is closed for winter holiday. What do I do with a 6 year old, 2 year old and 3 week old in the dead of winter? What are the odds that we'll eat anything more complicated than peanut butter and jelly? Will I be able to get them all in the car by myself?

One afternoon this week, M went out to run an errand and took Laurel with him. Max is pretty mellow but sometimes he just wants to nurse for hours on end, so I was camped out on the couch with him, "watching" Marko. The plan was to put on some tv and just chill out. But he didn't really want to watch tv. He peed his pants. I sent him upstairs to change and he came down wearing a pair of terry cloth, vintage-looking undies that said "I'm somebody special!" on them. And nothing else. What made it funnier (or more disturbing, I suppose) is that I have never seen this pair of underwear before and have no idea where they came from. He absolutely refused to put any other clothing on, although he did go back upstairs several more times before M got home, each time bringing another batch of trains or blocks or blankets. The living room was a complete disaster within minutes. He also took advantage of my position on the couch to go rooting around in the fridge. He did this pretty stealthily because I only knew where he was when I heard the alarm go off on the fridge door. Another time I thought he was playing in his room, which has a 4 foot high gate on the door. I was just on my way to go check on him when Laurel came down. When I asked what she was doing up there, she said, oh I was just talking to Marko. Oh, yeah, I said, what's he up to? He's just coloring on your bed with Sharpies, she said nonchalantly.


Well, it turned out he grew just tall enough and just smart enough to unlatch the gate himself. So much for that purchase. Luckily, he was coloring with Sharpies ON PAPER while sitting on my bed. So, no harm, no foul.

Max is super chill so far and sleeps through a lot of the chaos in the house. I think he looks exactly like Marko and when he's sleeping, like a tiny version of M's dad. Having a third kid is awesome because you enjoy all of the cuteness of the newborn phase with about a tenth of the anxiety. I'm looking forward to many adventures with our family of five.


Screen Time

When I was pregnant with Laurel, there were lots of things I worried about. I was convinced that vaccinations and formula would irrevocably damage my baby. And I definitely wasn't going to let her watch tv until she was 5. Or maybe never. Our pediatrician, a wise and unflappable man, made some very good arguments about what the research actually tells us about vaccines, and was simultaneously supportive of breastfeeding while staying on top of our slow-to-gain-weight babies. But mostly, he taught me what to get worried about and what to let go.

My kids watch tv, and despite my original ideas about children's television, I'm actually rather impressed by some of the programming available. Marko is definitely learning the alphabet from Superwhy. Martha Speaks has a great approach to robust vocabulary instruction...pretty much what I learned in grad school! Wild Kratts frames each episode with a focus on an animal's unique adaptations so it's not just random facts about animals. And we are also pretty fond of the David Attenborough narrated nature programs as something the entire family will watch together, although nature can be shockingly harsh sometimes.

So, tv isn't killing my kids after all, and it was time to let them - well Laurel anyway - get a tablet. We bought her a Kindle Fire for her birthday and she really, really loves it. A lot.  I resisted this purchase for a while, but then I thought about the fact that in a few short years we are going to have to give our kids cellphones and better to build good habits and ingrain some internet safety practices while we have more control.

What I like about the Kindle Fire is that you can create different profiles and the parental controls are pretty easy to use. I've been browsing the amazon app store for free stuff and the selection of ebooks and audiobooks that are available from the library's collection. I do the downloading and then approve which content she can see from her profile. So far, I like Monkey Word School Adventure and Starfall and everything else I looked at was utter crap. These apps are definitely supporting the kindergarten standards she's learning in school. It's basically worksheets that provide immediate feedback and saves me the bother and bore of drilling her on sight words and phonics patterns. I'm still figuring out the Overdrive app for ebooks and audiobooks, but it's definitely better than borrowing those little PlayAway things from the library.

But beyond using the Kindle to read and listen to books and practice basic skills, I want Laurel to be able to use technology the way M and I do...to learn about things that interest us and solve problems we face in daily life (like what to do with the 85 pounds of saurkraut sitting on my kitchen counter right now!). I also use the internet to stay in touch with faraway friends and family, and to share my thoughts with the world (as I am doing on this blog post). But once you open up access to an internet browser, you are entering this whole other world. We're still trying to figure out how to give Laurel some freedom to use these tools, but still monitor what's going on with them. Because she's 6, after all. She really likes taking a video of herself talking and I think it would be cool for her to do a little podcast. She checks the weather app and I downloaded the school lunch menu so that she can check that independently.

The best I can figure is that she can read and listen to books on her own, but the other stuff has to be done alongside one of us. 

I'm still a big fan of old-fashioned, paper books and always will be. Especially for little kids. When I watch Marko and Laurel page through the National Geographic encyclopedias we have, I can see that they are interacting with the information in a way that is very different than screen based information. And I get a special thrill from how worn and soft the pages are of our favorite books. But there's definitely room for both.


Real Life, Misc.

The other day, Marko was trying on our glasses. When we couldn't find them later, we asked them where he put them. "On the table without the sausages," he said, completely seriously.  Well, ok, then. Two days passed as we checked all the tables that did not have sausages. Eventually I found them in a small hamper where I throw clothing that needs to be mended.

Laurel recently learned the phrase "Waking up on the wrong side of the bed." And truly, this girl does wake up cranky almost every day. I'm trying to help her figure out ways to ease into her day. I think self-care is probably a really good skill to learn. Although, I wonder about this because I definitely spent at least a decade of my life working too hard and partying too hard and being completely oblivious to self-care, which led to many, many mornings of waking on the wrong side of the bed. But it was also a time that provided the most intense pleasures and pain and learning experiences. We formed life-long friendships and collected crazy stories and dared to do things that well-rested people would have said no to.

I kind of miss that.

I'm wrapping Christmas presents right now. That's kind of insane because it isn't even December 23rd yet, which is usually when we start thinking about shopping. But this year, we have a plan and a budget because with a lot more humans to take care of, you have to watch your money more closely if you ever want to do anything fun again. Also, when the third baby is about to arrive, you remember vaguely that it will be hard to take a 5 minute shower for a month or so, let alone do anything else.

I panicked over not raking the leaves up last week before it rained, but then a big wind came and blew them all away. Anything left was basically mulched into the grass by the force of the wind. So, sometimes it's better to wait and see.

I'm still working on the Road Safety Audit committee and we are banging away at getting some of the recommendations approved. And funded. And actually constructed. It is extremely tedious to work with multiple boroughs and Penndot. But one thing I've recently observed is a complete failure by most drivers to stop at a stop sign. Almost everyone coasts and yields. When I learned to drive, we were told to brake completely, count to three, look in all directions and then go. Is this a Pittsburgh thing or an everywhere thing? I'm trying to think of ways to get people to stop completely.



Our girl is six!

I love seeing the ways she is drawn to certain activities. She loves making art and will spend hours or days working on a series. She's creative with her use of materials, often layering paper and cloth or bits of trash from the recycling bin. She plays around with attaching things in different ways. She doesn't ask first, how to do something. She dives in. Sometimes it's messy.

Her knife skills are improving and she can help with chopping fruits and vegetables.

Last year at this time she wouldn't even ride on the balance bike, but a friend's birthday party at the Wheel Mill - an indoor bike park near our house - helped her gain some confidence, and by spring she was riding a two wheel pedal bike with no training wheels. She ran a race and got a trophy for first place in her age group. She runs through the woods so light on her feet that even M is impressed. She can climb up and over anything and when she jumps down from something high, she reminds me of a cat. Wednesdays are her favorite day of the week because that is the day for gymnastics class.

She learned to read. Her penmanship still needs work, but she spends lots of time writing. She leaves us notes, grocery lists, copies of her daily schedule and stories. I often find post-it notes around the house, labeling various objects. She reads short books on her own, but also is really into listening to audio books - which for some reason we all call "books on tape" even though none of them are ever on a cassette tape!  We read chapter books to her before bed. We've read nearly the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series together this year.

She loves listening to the classical radio station and asks us lots of questions about things she hears the DJ's say.

She started kindergarten. Even though she was attending a public Montessori school for the last two years that was a "big kid" school in many ways, this seemed like a huge milestone. She started at a new school right in our neighborhood that has a pretty heavy environmental focus. Her interest in animals and plants has deepened and I learn a lot from her. She lost two teeth. She became a regular customer for a few vendors at the weekly market and handled lots of transactions completely on her own.

We moved her into her own room when cousin Sam moved out. I think it's really good for her to have her own space, away from Marko. She still sneaks into our bed some nights, though.

She still talks all the damn time and is quite forward and friendly with anyone she meets when we go around town, friend or stranger, child or adult. Our annual ice cream social was the highlight of her summer and she went door to door to invite neighbors. She is quick to find playmates, but she doesn't have anything like a best friend. She can have a quick temper, with us especially. She stomps and throws things when she's mad, and has a very low tolerance for anything she perceives as unfair. She's a great big sister, maybe a little too bossy sometimes, but is right there for her brother when he needs her.

When I think back six years ago, to the weeks and months when she first came into our lives, her Laurel-ness was apparent from the beginning. It's so obvious in retrospect, but I remember all the daydreaming and wondering that I did about what she would be like once she was out of the baby stage. But in so many ways, she was telling us who she was even back then.

Our job as her parents is not to train her to be a certain way, although that is sometimes tempting to me, but rather to help her be the best Laurel she can be. Now that the early labor-intensive years of hands-on parenting are more or less over with her, we are easing our way into the next stage. It involves more emotional pain on my part, because it means letting her make her own mistakes and sometimes these are hard to witness. But sometimes those mistakes lead to such incredible growth or take her in an unexpected direction, and it makes me look forward to the years ahead.

Happy 6th birthday, Laurel!


Baby Books

Do people still fill out baby books for their kids? My mother recently shared the one that her mother wrote for her, and I've been browsing through it. The cursive writing is difficult for me to read. The voice is very much that of my grandmother, and the notes range from the typical recollection of first steps to musings on personality. I could imagine what it was like to parent my mother, which was a little bit weird to think about. I don't have baby books for my children, but I suppose this blog is one. It would be difficult to look back and see exactly when they lost their first teeth, but I can certainly tell you what it was like to live with them at various stages. And perhaps more interestingly, how I have changed as a person in that time frame.

Marko has been very challenging lately, so I went back and read my posts about Laurel at this age and low and behold, they contained many of the same themes. Messes. Yelling. Illogical demands. Yesterday we were trying to get things ready for Halloween. M's family always comes over for trick or treating and to celebrate his mother's birthday. We cooked a big batch of tomato sauce in the tradition of his grandfather and did our best to straighten the house and finish various errands. At one point, we heard Laurel shriek, "He's naked!" and sure enough, Marko had stripped down entirely and was parading around the living room. You could tell he felt great being naked. It then took another hour of power struggle before he was fully clothed again, because I'm trying to get him to dress himself. I know he is capable of doing this, because he does it sometime. But I'm not sure he always sees the point of getting dressed. I tried a sticker chart for a while, but he just isn't motivated by extrinsic rewards. If you try to bribe him with a tv program or a piece of candy and he doesn't feel like complying he just says "no I don't like tv" or whatever.

I think he is getting some molars right now. He weighs 29 pounds, up a few from his last check up in July. He fits in almost all of his clothes from last winter except his shoes. Laurel was much louder, but Marko is funnier and sillier.

He hurt his leg last week and went through a strange few days of crawling on all fours. He's started to walk again so I think the doctor was right in that it was a sprain or a strain or something not too awful.

He does not like to go to bed by himself. He tells everyone about the dinosaurs that are in his room at night. We have given up for now, and just let him stay up until we go to bed. I put a gate on his bedroom so he can stay in there and read books or play quietly with the lights on until he's ready to fall asleep. I think maybe he's just not tired until 9 o'clock or so.



M took the kids on a quick overnight camping trip this weekend. I declined to go because I recently developed some sort of crippling problem with my sacroiliac joint. I cannot walk without hobbling, turn over in bed without gasping or sit for very long periods of time unless it is on an exercise ball. I got a referral to physical therapy, which is very helpful, but the only cure is to birth this baby and that is potentially a month away, or further. (I hereby offer my apologies to any miserable pregnant woman I ever arrogantly suggested should "try a little yoga for that pain." I had no idea, I'm sorry.) But all things considered, it's certainly doesn't fall into the calamitous category and maybe it's even a good thing to be forced to rest a bit more in your third trimester.

So, while M was chasing after the kids in the pouring down rain, I was at home, moving from couch to exercise ball to kitchen. I baked this cake, chopped up all that remained of last week's CSA and made a soup, and roasted and froze 6 quarts of pumpkin. I slept for about 10 hours straight. I watched a lot of "Call the Midwife" and read the entire Sunday newspaper in one go. They had a good time and slept in the car instead of pitching a tent. The pictures M took show smiling children holding hands in front of a backdrop of peak leaf season. I think it was also really good for M to get some time on his own with the kids, which hasn't really happened much lately.

Last Friday a cyclist was hit and killed on her way home from work. The initial headline of the story that appeared on the local news referred to something about "delayed commute times." I think that was before they knew she was dead, but still what a horribly crass way to gloss over something really crappy. I made the mistake of scrolling through the comments. Never read the comments on a story about a traffic accident that involves a bicycle. M usually bikes to work, so it hits close to home. He's very safe and law-abiding. Always wears a helmet and lights up his bike like the sun. He had a close call with a bread truck last spring (not his fault) and has lots of stories about hostile drivers shouting at him (also not usually his fault). I remember last year, when we came back into town after pedaling to Cumberland, getting tsk'd tsk'd by a crossing guard for having my kids in a trailer behind me. In a bike lane on a designated bike route!

Even walking Laurel a short distance to school, I can feel the hostility and indifference of people inside their cars. Looking right past me as they roll through the stop sign and crosswalk, pretending not to see a heavily pregnant woman holding hands with a toddler and a five year old. Sometimes I am the driver, but I have to put a post it note on my dash board that says "25" - a reference to the most common speed limit in my city, but really a reminder to drive like I did when I was first learning. Two hands on the wheel, keep a gap between you and the next vehicle, constantly scan ahead and the mirrors. Everyone is in a hurry and I know I was that way not too long ago, glancing down at my phone to check emails at stop lights, and hitting the gas to pass the 71C. I never hit a cyclist or a pedestrian, or even another car, but I can't say I haven't had close calls.

Today when we came back together, the four-almost-five of us ate soup and chocolate cake. Everyone was tired and a little cranky. We muddled our way through the rest of Sunday. The house is still a mess but at least the trash got put out.

And this, all of this, is what parenting is turning out to be. Yes, we are still mired a bit in potty training and bedtimes and the things I read in books when Laurel was a baby. But it's mostly figuring out how to all live together without going nuts. Figuring out ways to balance everyone's needs, not just the children. Giving them more responsibility to take care of themselves and our house and our world. Explaining horrible things that happen. Showing them how to give help and to receive it. Calculating risk for all of us. There are no books for this part, just feeling it out with each other. We mess it up sometimes. Then we fix it.


It's the Dishes

I know exactly why there are so many dishes, and it's because there is a lot of cooking. I was thinking about this while Marko stood next to me on a stool at the counter. We were shelling roasted peanuts that were leftover from baseball season to add to something we call peanut butter spinach, but that rarely contains spinach. Marko is terrible at shelling peanuts because he pretty much just eats the nuts as he goes. However, it is a valuable early childhood fine motor activity. I was throwing in a variety of greens we got in our CSA last week, the tomatoes that were just a little bit soft, and a tiny bit of onion. The scrapings of a peanut butter jar, and then these peanuts. We ate it on a trip to Uganda many years ago and it turns out a little different each time. Cook until soft, blend in the food processor. Serve with rice. Cooking with a CSA takes some practice, especially if you are amenable to taking the farmer's "seconds" or produce not quite good enough to sell at the market. This is often free or very cheap, but also sometimes needs to be cooked, or prepared to be stored, immediately. Last week I got a fantastic deal on red bell peppers, so I blanched and flash froze them. One of the reasons I like being a homemaker right now is that I have time to do this and our freezer is always stocked with something interesting. But it makes a lot of dishes. And a lot of compost. We don't have a dishwasher, so everything has to be handwashed and dried. Every five or six days I make it to the bottom of the dish pile, putting everything away, wiping out the sink and storing the drying rack. But normally, there is a stack waiting in the dishpan, nagging at me.

The dishes are a metaphor for much of what happens in this job as stay-at-home-parent. It's busy all day long, but you have very little of interest to say about it to anyone else. Everything you do must be redone in a day or a week. What you make is consumed, used, dirtied. With the right mindset, this repetition can be meditative. Having little kids around punctuates the chores with lots of silliness and fun. The kids also remind me that even though the daily tasks make it feel like there is no end in sight, that this phase of life is finite. They will grow up, be out of the house more, take care of their own chores. They will stop dumping everything out of every container in the house when I'm not looking and won't pee on the toilet seat anymore. I won't run the bath water for them. We won't sing silly songs when we are cleaning up. There is a season for everything.

Marko is deeply engaged in imaginative play these days. He rescues animals, carefully scooping baby ducklings and chicks into his hands in such a convincing manner that the other children at the playground run to see what he has. He pantomimes putting on a stethoscope, his gaze drifting to the side as he pretends to listen to a heartbeat. He cooks them elaborate meals made out of scrabble tiles and poker chips and pots and pans he sneaks out of the kitchen. The other day he built a campfire out of sticks he found in the park, then reached deep into his pocket to pull out an imaginary lighter, flicking it with his thumb and holding it for a few seconds before releasing it. I could almost feel the heat. His play is his own take on us. He adds his own elements, performs the tasks with a unique touch. But there's so much of M and I that I see in our kids, especially in this sort of play. They are always watching.


Things Marko Got Mad About Today

1. I wouldn't let him eat a raw egg.
2. The squirrel he was chasing ran up a tree.
3. I put his left shoe on his left foot.
4. We have no more cheese left.


What It's Like to Watch a Hundred Mile Race

Laurel has another school holiday so both kids are home today and I'm trying my best not to jump in when they start to argue. It does seem to work itself out in a matter of 3 or 4 minutes, which feels like eternity and would definitely drive most people bonkers. But I have saintly levels of patience, developed during my years as a special ed teacher. This has turned out to be a handy attribute, both in stay-at-home-parenting, and in being married to someone who turned into an ultra-marathoner.

This past weekend we went to Oil Creek State Park so M could run in a hundred mile race. Yes, 100. Miles. I don't want to make it sound like it was easy for him, because dang, that's a really crazy thing to take on, you know? But the whole weekend was really fun. I don't normally go to his races, because of the kids, but this weekend my parents offered to watch them. It will be like a babymoon, I joked.

Girls in the woods! We are not
running a hundred miles today
because we are pregnant. Yes,
that's it. Also, we are not crazy.
Watching a hundred mile race involves a lot of waiting. I'm sure there are scenarios in which this would be terrible, but it's peak leaf season up in Oil Creek right now and the weather was quite pleasant. Plus several of our friends showed up to help me "crew" so I had lots of company. Many thanks to Sarah, Greg and Ruthie, and Caveman of Ohio for keeping me company all day. The course had 3 big loops of approximately 30 miles and one little loop to make up the difference. Two aid stations were accessible to family and crew, which meant for every 3 or so hours of running, we saw M for about 5 or 10 minutes. Bring a lawn chair. The sun started to set around the time M finished his second loop, and that's when his running buddies showed up to run with him as pacers. I had never met Jeff or Paul before, but they all run together in Frick Park before work every week or so, and share an equal passion for running on trails.

The other part of watching a hundred mile race is acting as "crew." This was a really well supported race, with lots of snacks and water available at the aid stations. You could definitely run it on your own. We brought some extra food - soba noodles, tofu, rice pudding, bacon and nutella. The other thing you have to do as crew is be prepared to prop your runner up if they get dejected over their admittedly crazy decision to take on such a challenge. To be honest, M looked pretty rough to me when he got to the aid station. He had run 62 miles, further than he had ever gone before, and had been up since about 4am. His gait didn't have the usual bounce to it. The sun was setting and he was facing almost another 40 miles, in the dark. For the first time I could remember, he looked a little bit tired of running. "This is kind of hard," he said to me, while I was shoving a cup of noodles and a peanut butter and bacon sandwich into his hands. Jeff and Paul immediately lightened the mood. "You look great!" they told him, and started talking about his pace and shoes and other technicalities that runners can go on for hours about.

Jeff and Paul, dishing post-race. I need
to point out that these guys just ran 40
miles collectively alongside M. In the
dark. And they don't even look tired.
Paul took off with M with a plan for Jeff to meet them at the next aid station. Paul kept sending the most hilarious text messages with updates on their progress. ("He's singing Taylor Swift!") I realized they were seasoned enough runners to remember to make him put on a dry shirt and a warmer layer at the next stop. I felt satisfied he was in good hands, and crawled back into the truck to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up, they were about to head out on the final, much shorter loop, and there was a real celebratory feel at the aid station as finishers were starting to trickle in. I dragged my sleeping bag out to the finish line and camped out with a couple of other families who were waiting until we saw those headlamps bobbing in. And finally M cruised in looking like he usually does at the end of a run...a little bounce in his step, a smile on his face, beard streaming behind him.

He finished way faster than his goal, in 20 hours and 19 minutes, placing 6th. Well, his goal was to finish. Period. He blew that out of the water. The cutoff time was around 33 hours so while he was done by about 1:30am, there were tons of people out on that course until well into the next day. I have a lot of respect for people who can keep going through two sunrises.

Well, if you run fast enough you get a
"golden" belt buckle. So shiny.
The final thing about watching a hundred mile race is that some people just won't get it. They won't understand why someone would want to do such a thing, and they definitely won't understand hanging around and watching them do it. Or maybe they think it comes easily to some people (I assure you, it does not. Finishing one of these things is pretty much pure stubbornness and grit.) There is an element of privilege in being able to run for sport, but there's no greater purpose to it, not even any prize money usually. You get a belt buckle and a t-shirt. Personal satisfaction. The urge to keep running. It doesn't seem like many people run one and then are like, oh that was great, I think I've achieved all I want to in distance trail running and I'm going to retire. They may eventually give up races, and just go out with their friends. But they do not stop running.

One of my "rules" about M's running is that it can't interfere with family life and responsibilities too much. So, if he runs a marathon, he's got to save enough energy to mow the lawn when he gets home. But this time we just pretty much lounged when we got home. I think we both needed that, and the race gave us a good reason to. Now we're just hunkering down for winter and getting ready for this new baby.

If you want to know more about the Oil Creek 100, check out the website here, or the Facebook group here.



My mother was actually the one who taught me to make corn tortillas.  I use a tortilla press and Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina, mainly because it's organic and gluten free and they sell it at our neighborhood grocery and we live in that kind of neighborhood. I shake it out of the mason jar where I keep it so the mice don't get into it. A pinch of salt. Microwave a mug of water and pour slowly until it looks too wet. Never measure. Then I let it sit awhile and it firms up. I pinch off bits of dough and roll them into balls. The blue plastic Giant Eagle bags are the best liners to use to keep it from sticking to the press. Last year, our friend Jack moved to Portland and gave away all his stuff. We got a little dish from him - metal on the bottom with a glass dome lid. It fits our tortillas perfectly and can hold a healthy stack. They steam up in there. I used to fry them in my cast iron pans, but now I use our electric griddle because you can fit more on at one time.

The table set with taco toppings is one of my favorite household scenes. Shredded pork or chicken, maybe some pinto beans. Rice. A red cabbage slaw. Cheese and sour cream. Tiny lime wedges in a wide brim coffee cup. Avocado slices, if I can find a ripe one - not an easy task around here. Sauteed red and orange bell peppers. Salsa. Kohlrabi or finely chopped turnips depending on what Margaret puts in our CSA. All the plates in the house stacked up, mismatched and with chips around the edges. A colorful pile of napkins.

The kids will be too loud and will drip the taco contents onto the floor. Two or three will squeeze onto the piano bench. Someone will hold a baby. I have my regular guests, but try to invite other people, too. Tuesday nights are busy, but you can eat and run, we won't be offended. If lots of people show up we just make more tortillas. Stretch everything out with some rice and beans.

Tuesdays are what I had in mind when we bought this house almost 7 years ago. I didn't know it would be tacos or that there would be so many kids underfoot, but I wanted to feed people around my dining room table. Making the same basic thing every week makes preparing the food a meditative experience for me. Often Marko is next to me, rolling the dough into little balls. Laurel sets the table. Making it a weekly event keeps me from the temptation to cancel if I'm tired or something. And I'm always glad we did it. Every single Tuesday.


Kindergarten, how's it going?

Laurel has been in school for 8 weeks now and we are feeling pretty good about our decision to send her there (and grateful to have won a lottery seat for a very small amount of kindergarten slots). The word that keeps coming up for me is "thoughtful." A great deal of reflection and planning seems to go into a lot of what she does. The communications from the school to home make sense. That's kind of a low bar to set, but last year I volunteered to be a classroom parent at her old school and 90% of what I did was track down information because fliers came home that were vague, or dates weren't correct and if you asked anyone for clarification they would sometimes have no idea what you were talking about.

As a former public school teacher, I just feel bad for everyone who is muddling through situations like that. I'm starting to be far enough removed from my classroom experience that I feel like I can start writing about some of the things that happened. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell stories, especially if you are in special education, because you don't want to violate your students' privacy. Or lose your job. Worse than that would be to make your principal angry with you so they don't back you up when sh*t goes down. So in the past, I would write about the cockroaches that would fall out of the ceilings at my first job, because it was too complicated to get into why we were illegally instructing children in their first language because everyone knew that was the right thing for those kids to keep making progress. Just FYI, math is the same in Spanish as it is in English. And often I revert to talking about how terrible it is when teens lose their lives to gun violence - which it is. But that keeps me from talking about how PPS has classes that are labeled "AP" in their course catalogs, but then only read 1 or 2 novels the entire YEAR in AP English and nobody passes the AP test. It's not just a slacker teacher at fault. Talk to the teacher and you'll find out how they have never taught the same course two years in a row and have maybe been pulled into that classroom because they meet some technical certification requirement but haven't actually ever studied how to teach that subject. Ahem, that would be me. Teaching high school math because I passed college calculus once upon a time. (I was actually a certified Reading Specialist and took ONE class in a post-bac teaching certification program about teaching math.) It's an icky, sticky mess and an uncomfortable one to discuss because I have to take responsibility for actions I took - however well-intentioned - that were probably not the best path to serving an underserved community.

But this self-censorship is ultimately very damaging to the many kids and families who are dealing with complete crap. I always knew Laurel would get a better deal than the kids I was teaching. I feel guilty about it everyday. But I also want to tell you about the cool stuff that she gets to do.

Every Friday they go on a hike in the nearby park. I am thrilled just that they are getting outside for a little fresh air and exercise, but when they go they usually have a purpose. At first, they talked a lot about traffic and safe pedestrian behavior. Then they started to observe wildlife. They learned to do scientific sketching of their observations and her art and sketching at home became much more realistic. PE is often outside and her teacher is apparently telling her a lot about general health practices and not just teaching them to play dodgeball, or whatever they let kids do nowadays, because she comes home and talks about heart rate and started to get really interested in "eating a rainbow" of vegetables.

Science and Art are an integrated class they call "Thinking Lab." I also get a weekly email from this teacher that has the guiding questions for the unit. They interview and record the kids as part of their ongoing assessment, although I haven't yet heard the recordings.

There is no homework until they get to the upper school in 4th grade. We get a paper every week that says what phonics and sight words she is learning. We are encouraged to read every day. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to not have to deal with a thick "packet" filled with worksheets that will never be thoroughly checked by an overworked teacher and can't be done independently by anyone because the directions are puzzling and were written by some unemployed teacher freelancing for Scholastic or Pearson and making $10 an hour. This also means that we have time after school and on the weekends to do whatever we want.

And school lunch? I will save that gem for another day. It's freshly prepared, recognizable food. You would happily eat it.

It's not a utopia. The school day is long and I think that's a little hard on her. She gets super excited and talks too much and gets in trouble for it. Cliques are real and they start in kindergarten or before. They told us that they would take the kids out in "all weather" but that doesn't seem to be 100% accurate as recess has been indoors a couple of times.  They don't have a librarian or even a library.

Laurel goes to a publicly funded charter school that happens to be in our neighborhood, but we didn't get any preference to get in. We don't pay tuition and it's open to anyone in the district (but lots of people want to come, so there's a random lottery held each winter to see who gets a slot). Lots of people think charter schools are terrible because they pull the "better" kids out of the main public school population and suck resources from the districts. There's an interesting breakdown of Facts/Myths on this Facebook page and unlike most comment sections, these are pretty thoughtful and not a cesspool of internet trolls. Her school claims to spend $14K per pupil, far less than the PPS average of $20K, but it's a little hard to compare those figures directly.

Pennsylvania is currently at an impasse with the budget and this is really hurting all schools, but her school was recently informed that PPS wouldn't be making full payments until it's resolved. I think they'll get 50% of what they are supposed to.

I'm going to really go down a rabbit hole if I get any further into this budget stuff, but I would urge everyone who reads this to review how your public schools are funded from local, state, federal and random Mark Zuckerberg investments (I guarantee that unless you already work for a public school district in a budget department, you will learn something new). And while you are at it, look at a district that has a higher population of low-income kids than yours does and check out their revenue streams. More money does not always equal better results.

Laurel's school journey (and eventually Marko's and their soon-to-be-born little brother....eek! 9 weeks until  my due date!) is always going to occur alongside my own journey as an educator and advocate. It's a tough space to want the best for your kids and to also keep in mind the needs of all your neighbors' kids.


On the Topic of Urban Violence

Mostly, I felt exhaustion seeping through his writing. Elwin Green, who runs Homewood Nation, a hyperlocal citizen journalist project, does not always sound this way. Often there are updates that sound hopeful, news stories about the many positive things that happen in this neighborhood just down the street from my front door, reminiscing about old friends and great restaurants. That's his goal, really. Telling the whole story. But last week, there was yet another shooting on Race Street, just days before a block party was to take place there, and he wrote an account that left me feeling sick all day.

It wasn't all the Race Street shooting. An eighth grader at Laurel's school was shot last week and died. A 15 year old died in a separate shooting around the same time. I know from my previous work with teens in this city that for every shooting that gets the prescriptive 8 line write-up by the local news stations, that there are more happening daily, maybe without fatalities, but still scary. Many never even get reported to the police. What we hear about is repetitive. Critical condition...one dead...no arrests have been made. Props to WTAE reporter Wendy Bell for posting a tribute to DeSean Fountain that said more about the tragedy in these shootings than I've ever seen broadcasted on tv or in the newspaper.

One night early in the summer, I woke up to gunfire across the street. This never happens. Homewood and Wilkinsburg are close enough to hear the gunfire if the traffic on Penn Avenue is quiet. But, it's almost always There and not Here. Marko was sleeping with us and our bed is near the windows. In an instinctual (and probably unnecessary) way I grabbed him and rolled out of bed onto the floor before I even woke up fully. The shooting itself was over very fast. Many cars had converged on the gas station, bang, bang, bang, and then a man screaming. Before we even realized what was happening, most everyone was gone. Marko never woke up. I could not for the life of me have offered a description of either people or vehicles involved, or even how many shots were fired altogether.

The police cars and ambulance slowly trickled in. Without fanfare, they loaded the man who had been shot in the leg into the ambulance and drove away without turning the lights on. The police taped everything off and poked around on the ground. Several months later we found a shell embedded in the sidewalk across the street. Robbery is what our community liaison officer told us. No arrests were made.

This week, I attended one of our neighborhood association meetings. The commander of our zone was there. The officers are very patient and attentive to our audience. The crimes in our census tract are mostly theft (people steal stuff off porches, bikes and what-not) and speeding. It's strange to live in such proximity to constant violence, to be able to literally hear it happening night after night, but to never really have to deal with it. Even when it was outside our front door it was not about us at all.

After the meeting, I went directly to the commander and asked him what we could be doing to support the neighborhoods around us on this issue of violence.

"Unless you see something you can report, I don't know," he said, "I wish I did."

Of course, it's far more complicated than just locking up the bad guys. When you have time, dig into this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. A moderated comments section has been set up to debate the points he makes.

More people were shot in Homewood this week....three at a vigil for another victim. Elwin Green says to pray. Maybe there is nothing else to do.


Going the Distance

As you know, M really loves to run, and he loves to run far. We opted not to go to with him to the Baker Trail UltraChallenge this weekend for logistical reasons, but he did really well even with the heat... Second place, with a time of 8 hours and 42 minutes for 50 miles! He said the race director did a great job with this one, and there was camping on a little farm where the race finished. Hopefully we can all go to the next one. This is his third really strong finish this summer. He has one more marathon and another ultra before winter sets in. Despite breaking his elbow in May, it's been a good summer for him.

Once upon a time, even 2 miles seemed a distance too far to walk. The only time we walked anywhere when we were in college was if we left the bar after the buses had stopped running. Hiking the AT really changed that for both of us. At this stage of my life, I'm not exactly up to 50 miles, or really running at all. But yesterday I got a chance to take a long walk in the park. (We are super lucky to have a 500 acre mostly wooded park near our house.) After I hit about 5 miles, I started feeling my gait relax. I prefer barefoot style shoes and feeling my feet sort of melt into the dirt single track was amazing. I could have walked all day. I rarely get a chance to walk at my own natural pace anymore. Laurel is pretty fast now, but Marko has to stop and look at everything, especially ants, rocks, sticks, dirt, etc. You know, all the stuff that you see pretty much every 3 feet or so when you are out walking around the park. This stage is temporary, though, and I get a little thrill every time I think of our kids as teenagers and maybe doing a thru-hike somewhere with them.


Miscellaneous Thoughts on Sleep, Jackhammers & Kindergarten

Penndot placed a sign in our front yard a while back that said "Road Work Ahead." But no construction crews appeared. We wondered about the upcoming project. Weeks went by.

Until one night, around 10 pm. And they brought jackhammers with them. It was very loud that first night. Worse than the jackhammers were the honking cars out front. Switching the traffic light to the blinking red setting makes everyone lose their minds. And to be fair, it's really hard to figure out who is supposed to go next at a four way stop when two four lane roads intersect. Then weeks went by and we heard nothing else. Last night they were back. With the jackhammers.

Luckily kindergarten is taxing enough to Laurel that she was not bothered by the noise and fell promptly to sleep.

As for Marko, well, remember when he slept for like 20 hours a day during the first 3 months of his life? And how awesome it was when I got to "sleep train" him to stay in his crib after that? (It's really fun to sleep train a baby when you lay them in bed and say "fall asleep"...and they fall asleep.)

Well, he's not like that anymore. His antics in the hours between 7 and 10pm are hilarious. His demands are unique and constantly changing. He goes on at great lengths about the various beasts that are going to eat him in the dark if we leave him alone. He needs to go to the bathroom. He drinks a ton of water, and then needs to go to the bathroom more. He demands to sleep outside, to build a campfire, to sleep at a Hampton Inn, or to play the piano. Once, he asked me for a beer. If one of us is tired enough to actually go to bed, he just snuggles up against us and goes to sleep. However, he is strongly opposed to the idea of sleeping in his own bedroom.

I suppose we could just weather this phase by simply going to sleep with him. That's what we did with Laurel and she turned out ok.


And that was that....

It's still only August, but Laurel started kindergarten today. No more long lazy days and ignoring bedtimes.

Laurel was surprised at how much they had to sit in their seats. (Quite a bit different from Montessori.) She stripped off her school uniform jumper at some point in the day so arrived to the pick up line with just her shirt and a pair of bicycle shorts on. "It's very hot in there," she told me. It did not seem to be a big deal to anyone. She went to something called "Thinking Class" and drew a picture of a tree.

And that was that; the first day of kindergarten come and gone. There seemed to be a wide range of kids in her class....some who were clearly having their first experiences with school, and others, like Laurel, who are very comfortable in institutional settings. Laurel prefers being around lots of people. One of the things that was sort of exhausting about this summer for me was providing that for her. Seeking out the playgrounds with the regular crowds of big and little kids and going to the pool was a daily requirement for her. Marko and I definitely prefer smaller groups or hanging out by ourselves. I think this is a personality thing and not a developmental thing because Laurel has always thrived in her daycare or preschool settings and craves the stimulation of a crowd.

Marko missed her today, but we went to his playgroup and did some grocery shopping. I found it vastly easier to get chores done with him just tagging along and not having to moderate any play/fights. He was even more helpful than he has been for most of the summer when it came time to clean up. For his "early childhood enrichment" we counted the peanuts I was shelling for dinner. I believe he can recognize amounts up to 3 without counting, but is sort of spotty with any one-to-one correspondence. He wanted to play Set, but that was way beyond him. We also read Fire Fuego, Brave Bomberos, which switches between English and Spanish. I noticed the other day that Laurel was teaching Marko to recite numbers to 10 in Spanish and he seems really interested by hearing words in other languages. The French baby books that my aunt has supplied us with are almost always one of his picks for bedtime reading.

So, summer is a wrap and I am trying to shift into a schedule for the school year. I'm coming up on a one year anniversary of becoming a stay at home mom, and while it doesn't really make sense for me to start a new job right now, recent events have reminded me that one always has to freshen one's resume and be on the lookout for opportunities. On the other hand, it's actually pretty challenging and fulfilling work to manage a home and be directly responsible for the early childhood education of our kids.


Behold, Virginia!

We went down to Charlottesville to visit my great aunt last week and then spent the last couple of days exploring the Grayson Highlands area in southwest Virginia. It was refreshing to get out of town, although M did have to work for half the week. Working from the road poses its own set of challenges, but at least we get to be all together and we are the kind of people who need a change of scenery (especially if that scenery can include some mountains).

My aunt planned all kinds of great kid-friendly activities, the best of which was probably visiting her friend's farm where they got to feed some chickens and collect eggs, and look at horses and cows. We also visited her local toy store, found a nearby playground and walked her dog. Laurel surprised me by even picking up the dog poop in her efforts to prove to me that she is mature enough to get her own dog. (I must admit, I'm wavering on that one now....)

M did a couple of long runs on the AT. We all drove up to Shenandoah together and my aunt, the kids and I explored the big meadow while M ran. The next day we headed out to southwestern Virginia in search of a remote campground and the Grayson Highlands. I really recommend the Hurricane Campground if you use tents or small trailers. It's about 20 miles from the interstate and some of that is on forest roads, but they were well maintained. Some sites are reservable and some are first-come-first-serve. It was really clean, with big gravel tent pads at each site and a nice picnic table and fire ring. We camped along a creek and the noise from it was very soothing.

The Grayson Highlands is a busy state park, with lots of well marked trails and a visitor center and developed campground. Not really our scene, at least to camp in. But it does offer access to the Appalachian Trail and has amazing views of the surrounding mountains via some easy trail.

When we were waiting for M to show up at our rendez-vous spot on Saturday, Laurel - in her typically friendly fashion - introduced herself to lots of people. "Have you seen my dad? He is a runner. He has a big beard." She squinted her eyes at some distant rocky peaks and spotted a person climbing on them. "I don't think that is my dad, because he is a professional runner but not a professional rock climber." She met some horse back riders and they got off to let her pet their horses. She looked everywhere for the wild ponies, but they had moved to another part of the park just ahead of us. Marko kept calling the mountains "beautiful" and when we were driving on those windy, steep country roads he put his hands up in the air and shouted "wheeeee!"

Whenever anyone asked me what my favorite part of the AT was, I always thought of southern Virginia, but hadn't really been back there since we volunteered for Hard Core in 2008. It was great to see it again, even if just for a couple of days.


August Updates

All I wanted for this summer was to spend a lot of time with my kids and pack in as many quintessential summertime activities as we cared for, while keeping it simple and close to home. We wander through the park quite a bit, and carry a picnic blanket to spread beneath shady trees. Laurel's improved her bike riding and swimming skills quite a bit and Marko has uncanny upper body strength on the playground equipment. We eat Italian Ice at the farmer's market on Mondays and go to the science center or museum whenever we need some air conditioning. We got in a little hiking and camping and swimming in the river. M ran so much the kids started playing "running" as a game. We floated - and sunk - a lot of little boats. The list that Laurel and I made at the beginning of the summer is pretty much checked off. So, it has been a really wonderful summer as evidenced by their suntans and bleached hair and the amount of dirt we scrub off our toes at the end of each day. My phone memory is maxed out right now because I took so many pictures of us doing awesome things. However, the days are long. The Perfect Childhood Summer should always wind down in August with a few too-long days and a little bit of boredom.

Today was such a long and tearful day that it seemed appropriate when Laurel's classroom assignment arrived in the mail, along with a thick packet of forms to return. She will start kindergarten in two weeks.

I was standing in my yard yesterday when I met one of our neighbors, coming down the street from the grocery store with her two little boys. She had that look about her, the look I've come to recognize that hits stay-at-home-moms around 4 o'clock. Moms that go to a job during the day look slightly mentally refreshed at 4 or 5 o'clock. I think it must be the transition and those 15 minutes of quiet in the car before you pick your kids up from daycare. Moms who have been with their kids nonstop all day seem much more acutely aware that there are a solid 4 hours until bedtime is remotely possible. (And I say moms, but my next door neighbor is with his kids all day and I know we are in solidarity on this one.) We exchanged phone numbers and immediately started texting and arranging play dates.

I wonder what I look like at that time of day. I don't even want to explain the situation I got into with Marko today when I needed to stop him from wrapping tape around a chair outside and get him into the bathtub. The time period between 4 and 8 is filled with me uttering the most ridiculous directions because my kids are doing weird, annoying or destructive things and misusing all sorts of household objects.

And then finally, everyone is scrubbed clean and inspected for ticks and we sink into bed with a pile of books and all is right with the world again. We talk about our day and recently, Laurel has been begging me to tell stories of my childhood. And from this, Marko has started telling stories about when he was "a kid". (Generally, he's telling us about something that happened last week, or this morning.)

I love the sounds of August...conversations drifting out of cars passing by and the crickets and cicadas in the trees all around us. It's pleasant company for me after everyone else is sleeping and I'm still working on the perpetual pile of dishes. Summer has been different for me this year. I'm really grateful I've been in a position to enjoy it for what it is.



This weekend we camped on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Ohiopyle campground, which was especially fun because we were there with Laurel's friends from school and their families. However, the campgrounds are super crowded in the summer and kind of noisy. It's less than a mile from the parking lot to get to the 653 Shelter so we did a sort of hybrid backpacking trip. We didn't hike very long, but we were far enough away from our car that we just carried in sleeping stuff and water and a few snacks. Marko would have made it, except we were running out of daylight so M threw him up on his shoulders for the last part of it. We made a fire and ate some pistachios.

The next morning, we woke up and hiked out (Marko made the whole distance this time on his own two feet. Yay!). We took them down to the river in Ohiopyle for a while and they splashed around, collecting sea shells and drawing in the sand with sticks.

I don't have a single picture of the weekend. I never carry a camera anymore and my phone doesn't really work in Fayette County so I just left it in the car. We didn't really have any toys or books with us, and it was fun to see the kids find stuff to do. The overnight trip was a total reset for all of us....a chance to hang out without a lot of distraction and enjoy each other's company and the beautiful surroundings.

Not that it's all bliss and relaxation. They cry, they fight, they won't go to sleep at the right time. Marko needs to stop a lot when we hike and we still have to carry him sometimes. I have to be prepared to clean up poo and then haul it out. Everyone gets really dirty, there's poison ivy and ticks. I've learned to never, ever run out of snacks, but sometimes it still happens. And the car is utterly trashed every single time we go anywhere. It kind of creates a lot of extra work for me. But still, I'm always glad we went.

I love that we have a place to go. The kids are getting to know the trails we frequent and the terrain and features of the region. They recognize the landmarks on the way to our favorite places, and Laurel especially understands how everything changes throughout the year and depending on the weather.


How to Raise an American

Last night we met up with some family at the park where I spent every 4th of July (and most days of summer) as a kid. The weather was pretty terrible, but we still had a good time, sharing a picnic and watching the kids play together. We ended up leaving before fireworks started, as it was raining pretty heavily, so Marko and Laurel have yet to experience that part of Independence Day.

It's complicated to explain the meaning behind this holiday. You can't really talk about any of our patriotic celebrations without talking about war. To a child, it may just seem to be about picnics and fireworks.

Last night I read this essay in the Atlantic about E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy list. When I was a kid, my aunt bought me the kid's encyclopedic version of his list (it's been revised several times since). I remember paging through it well into my high school years, and comparing the items that I was familiar with from school to those I had not yet encountered. Hirsch was criticized for the heavy "dead white male" presence on the list, and the essay in the Atlantic really explores that criticism. Having spent most of my education career working with Latino and Black children, and now raising my own white children, I am sensitive to the subtle messages that underpin every textbook paragraph or discussion about historical events, and the way those messages have different effects on children from different backgrounds. But still, it resonates strongly with me that having a common body of knowledge is important for our country and for preparing the next generation of citizens.*

The thing that I always liked about Hirsch's work, and what I found most relevant to my own work as a teacher of literacy, is the idea of schema. No matter what might be on your "list" of things to teach your kids, each item is sure to provoke curiosity of a whole web of other topics. Exploring those schema can often lead to alternative accounts of historical events, exploration into stories that were once important to Americans but now forgotten. The "list" is fluid, ever-changing, just like the composition of America itself. I'm sure Pearson and Scholastic and the marketers of Common Core hate that idea, because it becomes impossible to publish it and sell it to schools.

At the end of the essay, the author challenges us to think of just 10 things - not the the 5,000 on Hirsch's list - that every American should know. I'm only going with 5, because my kids are little, and my list is sort of centered around Independence Day and words they might hear. I'll look these up on Wikipedia, do an image search, look for flags when we're out and about, and check out some books from the library the next time we go.  I'm probably going to accidentally tell them something inaccurate, or leave out a relevant detail. The point is not to make them experts on the term, just to familiarize them, one story at a time, one evolving list at a time.

Stars and Stripes
Thomas Jefferson

*Even using the word citizen caused me to pause. I used the word to mean "someone who participates in society" in a very general sense. But I started thinking about the people my kids know who are not US citizens, or who took different paths to citizenship. It's important that we all have an accurate definition of terms like this, or it becomes impossible to understand or participate in discussions about it. 


Right Now: Liveblogging the last moments of the day

It's light until very late in the evening right now. The kids will not go to bed until 9 at the earliest. Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to make them go to bed earlier, but I am rather lazy, and would rather not put forth good effort on a fruitless task. (The downside is limited adult time in the evening, but that's not fun anyway if they keep popping out of their beds.) So right now, I'm lounging in my low-boy camp chair, typing this blog post and trying to see if the kids will actually clean up the random mess of felt pieces, pipe cleaners and Legos they have scattered across the living room and dining room.

I think our camp chairs are actually the most comfortable pieces of furniture that we own. What does that say about us?

I'm playing their favorite music to inspire them...a strange mix of Wiz Khalifa, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Taylor Swift. I had the marvelous idea to call our dinner "Pasta Bar" and serve the ingredients separately. I think that's why Taco Tuesday is so successful. Everybody ate with enthusiasm (except M, he isn't home from work yet).

My other summer evening trick is to not turn on any lights when it starts to get dark. So it's very dark in here, and I actually have no idea how many pipe cleaners are left on the floor.

Laurel seems to know all the words to Blank Space.

I finally chopped down the jungle of weeds that was taking over the backyard today. I promised to pay Laurel $5 if she filled a whole garbage bag with weeds. But she wandered off after about five minutes and joined Marko in filling and dumping out various water bottles and buckets in the kiddie pool. Then after I picked up all the weeds she was hysterical over missing her opportunity to earn money.

Wow, they really like Uptown Funk. If it wasn't so dark in here, I would take a video of the dancing that is going on. There are still a lot of pipe cleaners on the floor, though.

I'm not sure it's going to get any cleaner in here, so it's time to call it.

No wait, Marko just showed up with the broom. There is hope yet. At least all the pipe cleaners might make it to one corner of the room, along with any stray pasta.

Yep, this is going to be as clean as it gets.

We do baths everyday because we spend a lot of time in the park and I'm paranoid about deer ticks. I'm very excited to read a few of our library picks from today. Marko got "Squirrels" and "Fire Trucks." Laurel and I will continue on with "The Long Winter" - which reminds us how good we have it. And the it will be dark and everybody will fall asleep right away. Probably including me!

Taco Tuesday and the Little House on the Prairie

Laurel and I have been reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. It kind of blows my mind that I have a kid big enough to listen to chapter books, and it's delightful to revisit something I read in childhood. Ma runs the household with this air of confidence that I truly envy. My primary reaction to adult life and parenting has been "I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS!!" In every chapter, I'm amazed at what they make do with, and how fast their chores get done. Ma makes their own brooms, for goodness sakes. My chores, on the other hand, are literally never done. Ever. And I have no shortage of supplies.

But there are times when I feel more confident about my homemaking skills. Every Tuesday for the past year or so, I've mixed up a bowl of masa harina, salt and warm water. At first, I carefully measured, to ensure that I would end up with the right consistency and the right number of tortillas. But in the last few months, the process has become more intuitive. My mom showed me the trick of using a plastic grocery bag to line the press. I feel the dough, add a little more water, or let it sit a little longer. Instead of needing to carefully divide the dough with a knife, I pinch off the right amount before rolling it into a ball and placing it in the tortilla press. Taco Tuesday started after we watched the Lego movie, kind of as a joke. It continues because it anchors our week. We usually invite some guests, but that often comes together last minute. If more people show up, I mix up more dough. It only takes a minute or two to cook a fresh batch of tortillas, especially now that we have the Griddler. Marko and Laurel are familiar enough with the process that they are actually pretty helpful. I clear out the half-full containers of leftovers in the fridge, and see what will make a good combination in a taco.

Tacos are the key to becoming more like Ma Ingalls. By that, I mean that she only ever cooked a few different meals. Routine and repetition made her a master at her job.


Summer Vacation: Don't Overthink It and Don't Overdo It

Yesterday I took the kids to North Park for some bike riding and pool swimming. Laurel recently learned to ride a bike, but our neighborhood is really too busy for a five year old to ride safely in. And the next neighborhood over appears to be safer, but two years ago I saw an 8 year old kid on a bike get crushed by an SUV (he survived, but had pretty serious injuries), so I'm a little wary about that street, too. I figured we could get some street riding practice in - as well as braking practice - on the loop around the Pie Traynor field. Lots of senior citizens were out walking, and were luckily amused by Laurel's exuberant use of her bell as she practiced passing "On your left!" Marko rode along in the trailer and cheered us on whenever there was the slightest incline. He also greeted every dog.

After the bike ride, they played at one of the many shaded playgrounds and then we went to the pool. I wondered immediately why I wasn't totally grossed out by swimming pools as a kid. But Laurel and Marko loved it, and since the baby pool was only 2 feet deep and really big, I could relax somewhat instead of constantly preventing my non-swimming children from sinking to the bottom and drowning. I feel kind of bad about Laurel not knowing how to swim yet and it's one of the items on our summer list.

This video is old, but I like it. I'm going to try this approach, and if it doesn't work, then I'll seek some professional help. But I've heard from way too many parents that they've taken their kids to lessons and their kids still don't swim very well, so I don't want to waste my money.

One of the things I wanted to make sure that the kids had this summer (and always) is plenty of unstructured time to play, especially outdoors. This is really important during the preschool years, and I actually think this is a bigger influence on the development of vocabulary and comprehension skills later on than anything academic you do. What you read is never really about just what's on the page. Any experience you can draw on to make a comparison or connection helps to make sense of the words.

So, I remind myself that learning to ride a bike, splashing in a pool, climbing the slides at the playground and digging in the dirt in the front yard are doing great things for them.

The other important lesson we learned from yesterday's outing is that Marko really needs to take a nap from about 12 to 2. Also, it's just dumb for fair-skinned people to be out in the sun from 12 to 2. So, for the rest of the summer, I'll be more careful about getting home in time for lunch and nap, and planning our outdoor activities for either the morning or late afternoon.


Summer Vacation: Building Themes

One of the problems with school is the lack of depth of study on any one topic. I used to work at a school that had only two classes a day...language arts/social studies and math/science. The whole grade focused on one "expedition" per semester, centered around a guiding question. But this was the only place where we really stuck to a topic for more than a week or so.

My principal preferred engaging students to pleasing bureaucrats but nonetheless there were standards to address and it was always kind of mind-bending work to label our lesson plans with the daily strand and objective in the state standards. I'm sure some well-intentioned person had a great reason for thinking that large groups of chronologically grouped children ought to be mastering the same thing on day 84 of the school year. But I digress. 

Summer vacation is a perfect opportunity to dive deeper into something-even if you don't know exactly where you are headed at the outset. This week we built some boats out of corks. The next day we went to the library and I checked out several books on boats. One of them had some projects in it, so we used that to build a new kind of boat out of a yogurt container, some clay, a straw and a piece of heavy paper for a sail. Back to the pond we went and the kids wee amazed at how fast this version went zooming around the pond. Laurel thought maybe the sail was better at catching the wind. I thought it being heavier might have been helpful. 

Lest you think our summer break is full of idyllic learning moments, the children were slightly less enthusiastic about the hike to the pond the second time.

I didn't bring snacks and they were not amused at my joke that being unable to walk two miles without some crackers is a first world problem.

Anyway, today we went to visit the science center, which has a great exhibit on water including this sand pit.
You move the sand to create different terrains and topographic lines are projected onto it. Then you hold your hand above it and it makes "rain" - your hand blocking the sensor puts a projection of water on the sand and it runs down into the valleys.

They also had a model of a lock and dam. It provided a very easy to use way to move boats (or rubber ducks!) from one level to another on a water table.

So, we're building a very nice theme around water here and I plan to keep going deeper. I'd like to visit the creek in our park that flows to the river and see what's in there. I will look for some fiction and/or nonfiction books about traveling by sailboat. We'll keep making little boats. I'll check out Netflix to see what kid-friendly documentaries there are. We'll go kayaking on the river. Maybe befriend someone with a yacht. (Laurel's suggestion). We could draw a map of our watershed. I've heard you can take a tour of the sewage plant. We could volunteer with our local watershed conservation group.

I'll be on the lookout for all of the above, but it's a broad topic so I'll also be paying close attention to the kinds of observations and questions the kids bring up.


Summer Vacation: Cork Boats

Today we made little boats out of old wine corks, toothpicks and paper towels. We took them down to a little pond in the park to see how they would float. Laurel said she knew they would at least float because she knew that corks float. (We drink enough wine in this house that corks are a frequent bath toy.)  It was really interesting to see how the different designs were able to catch the current, or how some just got knocked over in the wind. We spent about an hour at the pond, dropping the boats in from various points and rescuing them before they floated out the other side. It was really windy and that gave us a lot to observe about the little sails we put on the boats. Laurel started modifying her boats with little rudders. As soon as we got home, she started fiddling again, and gathering new materials...trying plastic straws instead of toothpicks for instance. I encouraged her to make some sketches of the the ones that worked but she didn't want to. I think messing around with the materials was the most fun for her. Marko only wanted to decorate the boats with pom-poms but he liked watching them float around. I think this was a fun activity because I did it with them but I didn't try to tell them how to make their boats even when I thought their design was bad. Using the corks ensured they would at least float and we could think about other factors that affect water navigation. I was also very happy that Marko walked the whole way there and back with no complaints.


Things I Said

Today I took Marko to the science center and he spent a good 20 minutes watching this lizard and talking about his eyes, his skin, his claws, his jumpy movements. This is one of my great joys of being a full-time caregiver now...all these little moments where I don't have to rush them on to anything else. I can join them in looking and listening. "Extirpated" was a word I kept saying to myself today because next to the lizard Marko was so enthralled by was a tiger salamander, which used to live in Pennsylvania but no longer does. Extirpation means the local extinction of species. 

Last weekend we went out to the Laurel Highlands. M went on a long trail run. I took the kids on a hike, armed with some Audubon guides and a couple of Clif bars. All they could think about was the Clif bars and we spent the first half an hour looking for a rock or log to sit on and eat the Clif bars. We probably traveled about a quarter of a mile in this amount of time. I was trying to hold them off...keep the Clif bars as bait to get them to return to the car or something. But eventually I caved and they were happy. With the Clif bars eaten they were free from distraction and could focus on finding flowers and caterpillars and poison ivy.

We ran into a trail runner out there and he said wow, you've got little ones here and gave them both high fives. They wanted to be trail runners then and we covered more ground for a little while. 

One of the reasons extirpation is so interesting to me is that we have these Audubon guides and try to identify various species with it. Sometimes we're certain we've found something but it shouldn't be where we found it. But of course our planet is heating up and ecosystems are in constant flux anyway and have been for billions of years, with or without human influence. Balance is not static, it is ebb and flow. When we wander through the Laurel Highlands we come across boulders left behind by glaciers. Rocks that used to be at the bottom of an ocean. What we observe right now is also all sorts of evidence of what is long gone.

Of course, along with this philosophical musing on nature, I also said things like, "please don't smash your crackers with that hammer" and "who drew on the windows with crayons?"

Children are wise and curious but also defiant and destructive.


Weekend at Laurel Hill State Park

We spent the weekend camping with my parents and brother at Laurel Hill State Park. It's a large state campground with a little man-made lake and beach and lots of hiking trails, about an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh. Memorial Day weekend is pretty busy at most of the state campgrounds and this one was pretty much filled up. We went on a really nice kid-friendly hike on the Hemlock Trail and saw a stand of old-growth hemlocks. Laurel had a good time identifying flowers using our Audubon guide. We saw jack-in-the-pulpits, violets, bluets, trillium that were done blooming, foam flowers and some interesting fungus. A portion of this trail is slightly treacherous for the 3 and under crowd, so if you take little ones be on guard for that. The stretch isn't very long - maybe a quarter of a mile up, but we had Marko in the backpack and I wouldn't have wanted him to walk there, because of the steep drop down the side of the hill. I know not everyone has a 2 1/2 year old that is still small enough to easily carry around, though. M got some good long runs in, as the Laurel Highlands trail passes through the park here. My brother had the excellent idea of renting some canoes and going out on the lake, where we saw a bird fishing. We think it may have been an osprey. It was impressive to watch it soar above the lake and then dive down into the water. It made about 3 dives before it got something big enough that it carried it away into the forest. The beach provided a lot of entertainment for Laurel and Marko. Laurel caught tadpoles and made friends with every kid there. Marko moved sand around with his tiny shovel and rolled in the sand, telling us he was a turtle.

We camped in a tent loop and I'm always pretty satisfied with the noise level, even when there were thousands of people there like this weekend. Things do settle down once it gets dark and it's really quiet after 11, other than the occasional crying kid. (Including ours, from time to time.) It was freezing cold on Friday and Saturday nights, but I expected this so the kids had long underwear, coats, hats and mittens, which they slept in some combination of.  We lucked out and had no rain at all. Laurel is big enough now to let her join the throngs of children roaming around the campground. Occasionally kids would stop by our site, and my mom taught a couple of them to play bocce.

As for camping with kids, it's definitely getting easier and more fun now that they are a little older. We go to sleep with them when it gets dark, and usually end up splitting up because we have two backpacking tents that are not really big enough for all four of us anymore. We make s'mores at the breakfast fire so there's no pre-bed sugar rush. I take a lot of baby wipes and don't bother trying to really bathe them properly. They get incredibly filthy, regardless of what you do. A thorough tick check, including scalp, should be done when you get home. My parents can be sort of fancy when they camp...so it was fun to be with them this time and have full meals. My dad was all about the bacon-wrapped gourmet hot dog this weekend. We often just eat Clif bars, apples, pb&js and will maybe roast hot dogs. For entertainment I brought sketch paper and colored pencils, a soccer ball, 3 Audubon guides and a couple of Ranger Rick magazines. Laurel also had her razor scooter. Mostly, they dug in the dirt and enjoyed lighting sticks on fire.

I brought a red quinoa salad and it really traveled well. You can check out the recipe here. It was very easy to make and filling if you have vegetarians along.

I'm glad we kicked off the summer season with a camping trip and I hope we can get out there a lot in the next couple of months.


8ish Years Ago, Somewhere in Virginia

Yesterday our refrigerator broke. Well, I could probably say that several months ago, our refrigerator began to break, and while M&K are great at many things, home maintenance is not something that comes naturally to us. We are greatly inclined to ignore the compressor ka-chunking after every cycle. Until we realize the ice is not frozen. And actually, most of the food is not cold. (Good thing we don't ever stock up on meat.) Then we are motivated to take action. We spent this morning at the Scratch and Dent, selecting a suitable replacement. It was actually the first appliance we have ever purchased. And a side note about the Scratch and Dent....is this a Pittsburgh thing? Literally everyone from friends to neighbors to the crossing guard at Laurel's school recommended that we go there. Actually it all sounded more like, "Yinz have to go the Scratch n Dent!" (Even if they don't normally speak in a Pittsburgh accent.) Anyway, we found a fairly unscratched and undented model and they will deliver it on Thursday. Until then, it's ice chests and everyone has to clean their plates. No leftovers. In other news, the post office has lost a package M was expecting and the PWSA still has not issued us a water bill since February. The dental office charged the wrong insurance account, and I had to straighten that out. Marko is in a "dumping out" phase. The weather has suddenly turned hot, so I need a bigger diaper bag to take when I go out to make sure I have enough water for all of us. And that was pretty much my week so far. Yes, life is indeed exciting right now.

Cheers! From the AT, 2007
Here you can see a picture of us from about 8 years ago. Clearly slackpacking on the AT, since we seem to be carrying a bottle of wine. I believe we are somewhere in southern Virginia. I remember I saw a scarlet tanager that day. There was a lot of sidehill trail. Hiking without a pack felt effortless. A couple of '07 thru-hikers that we know are on the PCT right now and posting updates on their Facebook feeds. Watching my friends' adventures unfold reminds me of the many adventures we have had. Some folks we know are moving to Phoenix, which stirred up all these memories of late-night stir fry at Johnny Chu's and watching Akron/Family sweat in Modified Arts. The homemade tamales my teacher's aide brought me, and walking across the entire South Mountain Preserve with Leah and Kristijo. And my cousin Lisa is moving cross-country and just texted me from the road, which made me think of cooking blueberry pancakes in the Bitterroot Mountains with Lance and M, for some reason. Not sure why. They are nowhere near Idaho. I guess it's just the adventure. Rolling into a place that you've never been and seeing it with fresh eyes.

I think I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on, but there's so many different ways life can go. Actually, I guess I don't even believe in a "supposed-to-be path." This is just where I'm at. Enjoy it, or change it. But when my fridge breaks down before we're ready to do the rest of the kitchen upgrades, or someone asks me what's new and I have to say that I spent most of the day on hold with the water company, or sweeping up cheerios, I sometimes think, "seriously? How did I get here?"

The other night, M took me to see Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, we went on a date to see an astrophysicist give a lecture. Trust me, he's very entertaining, although I just can't get into Cosmos. He was speaking about something he calls the Cosmic Perspective. It was very interesting to see his slides zoom in on DNA strands and zoom out to theoretical models of multiverses. You can read more about his ideas in this essay. I think I was most moved by the interconnectedness of it all, and the way that patterns repeat themselves across nature and space. He's right that if you are musing about the cosmic perspective, you have it pretty good because it means you aren't mired in day to day survival.

And for all the mundane chores that must be done and redone, I have this incredible gift of watching a two year old and a five year old navigate the world. They pick up a shard of a buckeye nut and bring it to me. Which tree did it come from? Who ate the rest of it? How did they crack it? Can a tree still grow from this part? Can we put it in our mouths? Things I would just step over become reasons for curiosity and conversation. Last night and today we had a lot of wind, and little sections of new leaves from the chestnut tree had blown down all over the school yard. Marko spent a half an hour gathering them up as if he had found something amazing. He probably doesn't even remember last fall, so this idea that leaves coming down to his level, where he can examine them and touch them was sort of mind-blowing. Plus, he insisted on wearing this blanket as a cape, so it was very cute to watch. Laurel is reading more and more everyday and seeing her eyes light up when it "clicks" is just as rewarding as it was when I watched my America Reads Challenge mentee.... little six year old William in...gulp...1998, do the same thing.

So, that's life right now. Good as ever, but not because it's perfect or easy. It's just amazing when you stop to think about it.