Because I Wanted To

Yesterday I took the kids to the Andy Warhol Museum. An art museum is a risky move on a Thursday after school, but I figured if we went during the last hour of the day at least it wouldn't be crowded, plus I had to be downtown later that evening and planned to pass the kids off to M when he was done with work.

Frankly, I didn't care whether they got anything out of it. I wasn't interested in visiting the kid-friendly areas, or teaching them anything about Andy Warhol and objects as art. I just wanted them to be well behaved long enough for me to check out the Corita Kent exhibit.

It's easy to slide into a space where you forget about what you want when you are a full-time caregiver for your kids. It can get relegated to every other Tuesday when you go out with your friends, or maybe a few hours a month when you go to yoga. Blogs advise to wake up before your kids do to get your time, and some parents are adamant about the hours they are afforded after a strict early bedtime. And while I agree that time away from your kids is pretty important to maintaining sanity, I have found it very rewarding to prioritize my needs and interests and make them come along with me to something that I want to do. Sometimes it backfires, like the time I took Laurel to my neighbor's concert where he demonstrated his amazing opera singing (opera pieces turned out to be a bit long for her attention span that evening).

But other times, like yesterday, they rise to the occasion. Also, I promised to take them to Chipotle if they were good. We practiced walking through the art gallery without touching stuff. Sitting on the benches to get a good long look. Keeping our voices low to preserve the piece. When we got to the floor with the Corita Kent stuff, my kids gravitated towards an interactive area which was way above their abilities. They parked themselves at this table and asked me to read the prompt, grabbing sketch paper and pencils. And then they got busy and I had a solid half an hour to look at the exhibit, while they wrote poems inspired by ads in magazines. Well, Marko drew "ovals" and Laurel wrote words about what she saw. Poetic in their own way. I was really happy to be able to genuinely thank them for coming along with me and I'm now scheming up all kinds of things we can do this summer.

Corita Kent was an activist/artist/art teacher/Catholic nun/designer/feminist. The exhibit is running at the Warhol until April 19, and I totally recommend checking it out if you are in Pittsburgh.


We Walk

It snowed overnight but the sun came out the next afternoon, melting all of it and revealing the green tips of daffodils, tulips, crocuses everywhere. We took the long way home, stopping at the library on the way. Laurel eased her way in to another mother's read aloud. Marko found the pop-up books, and sat there paging through one after another. Nobody needed anything from me, so I read my book.

Sunday night, they couldn't fall asleep, so I resolved to make them walk more this week. After the library we hopped on a bus that let us out at the gate of the park, instead of the one that drops us on our corner. Their pockets were filled with many little rocks and bits of mulch by the time we got through that stretch. Every time I turned around, one of them had stopped to bend over and examine something interesting on the path. I would walk past all of it, if not for them. They make it look not only interesting, but important. Worthy of study.


The Long Game

Last night I went to a dinner party at my friend's house. A real adult dinner party, as in we ate late and long, and I had marvelous conversation with people I had never met before.  Part of the reason for the gathering was to celebrate her son's 18th birthday and I thought it was a really neat idea that she had us gather in a circle and each give him a bit of advice. The advice people gave really reflected their most formative experience or their biggest challenge in life. Having friends with older children is so helpful to me...not only in hearing their challenges from various stages, but also seeing how both the parent and the child have grown as a result of their relationship. Sometimes parenting books for little kids make it sound like a one-way street....you apply certain techniques to your child and sort of mold them. But the only strategy I have found that consistently works is taking a second to walk in their shoes and imagine what they are thinking or feeling.



Days like today are why I like this city best of all. The cyclical changing of the seasons. That first day when you bundle up or strip down. How 65 and partly sunny is all we need to reset from a too-long winter.



Honey, we're going to travel, she says to him. They pile into the play car at the playground. Do you want music or talking on the radio? Ok, first you drive, then I'll drive. 

They play, acting out all the mundane and fantastic scenarios from our life. They use our words and add their imaginations.

The hotel they dream up today has a robot who will check you in. Breakfast is at nine. Are any of you vegetarians? They spend a lot of time fiddling with an imaginary lock on the imaginary door. Marko builds a vacuum cleaner out of a stick. 

Then suddenly, it's time for school in this fantasy world. I'm the principal. Laurel sends Marko. He has a red smiley face, she says, grimacing. He was not resting peacefully.

Kids reveal everything in their play.y You know what they've heard and how it makes them feel.


Spring In the Air and other Misc. Thoughts

Over the weekend, we played in the snow for what I kept thinking might be the last time this winter. We met Pete and Megan and Lucy for walk in a little park near their house. It was awesome to see Laurel explore the frozen creek bed, and to see all the chunks of ice jammed up where it flooded during the last thaw. I'm pretty sure we only walked about a half a mile, but between that little hike and building a snow man, we were outside for a while, enjoying the warming temperatures. I think it was about 30 degrees that day. It was -2 on Friday, but right now it really feels like spring is in the air. I even have my windows open! I am really looking forward to hanging out outside with the kids without having to worry about frostbite.

Whoever invented Daylight Savings Time hated toddlers. And their moms. Marko is absolutely nuts right now. I had a friend over for tea and world domination plotting. I carefully set up some activities that would keep hiim busy while we visited. He helped me bake muffins before she came. He was fed. His diaper was changed. And yet, he behaved as if he had been awake for 24 hours. Tantrums, trying to eat from the sugar bowl, moving from one toy to the next and then demanding that I get out all the rest of the toys.  Not his usual laid back personality. (I'm kidding about the world domination, although we are in the beginning stages of planning a project to serve youth in our area.)

This story about screen time and blocks for little kids was making the rounds a couple of weeks ago. We received a big set of wooden blocks from M's parents a few years ago and they continue to be one of the most popular toys in our cupboard. The kids build towers and castles, but they also use them in imaginary play - they pretend they are food, or use them to build little beds or tables for their stuffed animals.


Snow Day

There really is nothing
cuter than a small girl
using trek poles. 
It's March and I have Springer Fever. Not to be confused with Spring Fever. It is probably highly unpleasant for any thru-hiker starting out in Georgia this week. M and I spent only a few unpleasant days breaking trail on the AT and it was exhausting. And cold. Do you know how hard it is to stop and pee in snow? Nonetheless, I do have that urge to start walking and keep walking. I've been watching this movie on Youtube while I wash dishes. Daydreaming and scheming. Anything is possible. In the meantime, we live near a 500 acre park, and Laurel's school was closed today. When I am working, snow days are the pits. Two hour delays, too. That's one thing I think a lot of working parents don't budget for...the layers and layers of backup childcare you need to keep your days flowing. And when you don't have anyone to cover you? Then comes the laughable "work from home" scenario, in which one attempts to follow conference calls while on mute because, while your children are mesmerized by Wild Kratts 99% of the time, the ONE time you need them to shut up, they refuse to watch it, and instead insist on wrestling around at your ankles. But I digress. Today, the snow day was cause for celebration and some much-needed outdoor time. It was really cool to hear the spring songs of some of the birds who have started returning.

Dress for success. Layer it up.

 Last week I read this article about German parenting, taking special note of the following quote: “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
I disagree with the Germans to some extent, or perhaps we actually have crappier weather than they do, but if it is below 10 degrees or freezing rain or lots of ice on the ground, we stay inside and watch Netflix all day. (But also, if we just had heavier coats, ponchos and crampons we probably could go out then.) Balaclavas and windproof/waterproof gloves have been key in taking our outdoor comfort to the next level. I haven't found good gloves in Laurel's size yet, so I just carry a spare pair in my pocket so she can swap her fleece ones out when hers get wet. There was a lot of ice underneath the snow today, so we took trek poles. Marko rode in the backpack. We headed through the park with the plan to obtain a few groceries and stop by our usual Thursday morning playgroup. Having everybody bundled up is very important because kids walk slow and want to stop and look at a lot of stuff. Therefore, you can't rely on body heat to keep you toasty, the way you might if you were just going out running or something on your own. 

We saw several people cross-country skiing in the park, as well as a few hard-core dog-walkers out. Everyone who was outside today seemed to be very happy to be outside. "Lovely day!" neighbors called to us as we passed. The woods were serene, with all the branches covered in snow. Every sound was muted. Our stop at the neighborhood store warmed us up. Maggie gave us free samples of the wedding soup and she put on a fresh pot of coffee for us. 

A few people have recently asked me about our ability to get up and out of the house in time to do morning activities. For instance, I regularly take the kids to Phipps before school starts, when there is a two hour delay. We also walk or take the bus a lot of places, which takes some added time and so people see us out and about, throwing snow balls and playing tag. They admire our lovely Facebook photos of Quality Family Time. It is true...we really are having an awesome time together. But I must dispel the myth that we must be superhuman, super organized, or have super well-behaved children. It is just a matter of prioritizing. When you prioritize, something gets neglected. In our case, we tend to just leave the house a total wreck and worry about it later. I feel bad about our filthy habits. But not enough to sacrifice my outdoor time to actually clean up before we leave. You can't have it all, friends.

I'm assuming no children were harmed
in this toppling of the high chair. If they
were, they did not tell me about it.
This doesn't actually look too bad, but it illustrates my point. If you zoom in, you will see sandwich crusts everywhere, and smears of what is hopefully peanut butter. Notice the toppled over high chair. We are the type of people who will pick up the high chair the next time somebody wants to actually sit in it. Until then, it will remain tipped over as if our house is part of a wax museum display about an earthquake that suddenly struck and caused the residents to flee. The dishes have been cleared, but unfortunately they are sitting in a half-full dish pan. Not pictured, because it's disgusting. The kids got the memo to put their dishes in the sink, but not to scrape them first, so when I return home, there's always a pan full of disintegrated bread and yogurt cemented onto cereal bowls. I curse myself and swear that the next day I will wash the dishes before we head out, but....yeah, it never happens. 

Also, we miscalculate sometimes. Stay out too long. Read the wrong weather report. The kids cry. Marko was out in a sleet storm without a hat the other day, super miserable and with good reason. They get hungry and we don't have a snack with us. They have to pee and there is no place to go. They fall down and we don't have a bandaid. Nosy old ladies admonish us for their snotty noses and red cheeks. Every moment is not magical. I just don't usually pull my camera out then. 

I only put this out there because some moms feel bad when other moms are doing awesome things. They worry that there is something wrong with them because their day unfolded differently. No you aren't doing it wrong. Jealousy is a misguided beast. Usually when that feeling tugs on my heart, I realize that the person who has something I want, has given up something else to get it. 


How Do You Make Your Kids Sit Still For So Long?

Also, they're strapped in.
Obviously M and I love a good long distance trip - whether by foot, bike or car. We have this map hanging in our dining room with a sharpie line drawn for every route we've taken. We love seeing how the terrain and vegetation changes. When you travel through rural parts of our country, you also get a sense of the sheer volume of land and resources that are taken up by our consumption. Oil refineries line the coast around Houston and into Louisiana. Massive barges are loaded down in the Mississippi. Trains pass by constantly. You see pipelines and towering electrical lines, and a steady stream of 18 wheelers. Soybean and corn fields stretch to the horizon. 

Sometimes great clouds of migrating birds pass by overhead. Mountains loom in the distance. The land and sky change color constantly as the sun moves. In other words, there is a lot to look at. All of these things make us ask questions and then we look at maps and look stuff up online if we have a connection and talk about it. Honestly, the hours passed quickly for us. Six hours of driving per day seemed to be a good limit. Breaks - long ones - every 2 hours also helped. We would look for a playground and a running trail. We had the kids' bikes in the very back, so they were easy to get out. This is not to say they were perfect angels. At the end of every day, the backseat was a sodden mess of sandwich crusts and orange peels. The magazines were wet. Everything was wet. We could never find their socks. We always ended up carrying some of our stuff into the hotel in garbage bags. And we often seemed to be driving just a little too far, a little too late into the night. 

Travel Bingo Cards!
I just read this essay in the Washington Post about a family that banned screen time during their cross-country trip. Our DVD player stopped holding charge, so our trip ended up being sort of screen-free too. At least for the kids. (We were on our phones all the dang time, reading Yelp reviews and looking for road food.) I don't know if this is good or bad for them, but I do think it forced them to look out the window at least, and for better or worse, we were together and present as a family for a loooong time. A long time. Luckily, we all like each other.

I know a lot of people looked at us like we were crazy when we said we drove 3,000 miles with our kids. I don't think that my kids are any better behaved than anyone else's, and they were crappy sometimes on the trip. I think it sounds ten times worse to go on an airplane where other people can bear witness to your family's craziness.

This is what I brought for the kids: 

A small box of Duplos - big enough blocks to not actually get lost in the car
Magna Doodle - a favorite for Marko
Sketch pad and colored pencils - markers and crayons are banned from the car because they melt
Lots of magazines (Baby Bug, Highlights, Ranger Rick - thanks everybody for sending these!)
Lots of books - I went to a couple of Little Libraries before we left to get new-to-us books
Travel bingo cards - a gift from Grandma a few years ago, they love these!
Maps of the US to color 
Magnifying glasses
Four matchbox cars - banned from circulation because Marko chucked one at my head
A small pouch of very tiny animals - inspired by Leah
Tangos - too hard for them, actually. Plus the pieces slid around.
US State flash cards - they destroyed these and that made me super sad

Delicious Strip Mall Food in Alabama and Other Travel Delights

Boudin balls. Fried Shrimp.
More food than we can possibly eat!
Boudin balls and cracklin. Po'boys. Gulf shrimp. Torchy's tacos. One of our favorite things about road trips is finding the regionally unique...well, cuisine is maybe the wrong word, since a lot of what we love is food truck or little country diner type places. I love that segment on The Splendid Table with the Road Food people. However, their web site is sort of hard to use along the way. We relied on our friends and family for suggestions and sometimes used Yelp. I really like the feature of the Yelp app that allows you to pull up a map of your location (or someplace you might be later in the day) and search for all the nearby restaurants. You can also filter by places that are currently open or if they are good for kids. What I did was scroll past all the Arby's and Applebee's that would show up along the interstate and look for something with an original name. Then I would run a search to see if any local food blogs or magazines said anything about that place.

PBandJ - the other road food.
That is how I found the D' Road Cafe in Montgomery, a tiny little place in a strip mall next to a dollar store. They were busy getting ready for Puerto Rican night (each Friday, the owner features a different Latin American style of cooking). When we came in, after fussing over our kids, she said, "chicken or pork?" And then returned with plates laden with roasted potatoes and rice and meat in interesting sauces. She also told us about the detoxifying health benefits of various herbs and spices that she uses. An excellent choice for us since we had been feasting on barbecue and oysters in Mississippi. And while the food was good, what I really enjoyed was watching the other table...a group of ladies finishing up lunch, who clearly knew the owner and came in all the time. That was a rough day. Just after leaving Montgomery, we drove into freezing rain and snow that lasted pretty much the entire rest of the trip. We had the good sense to reserve a hotel room, because when we finally got to the exit, all the rooms were sold out, and every restaurant but the Waffle House was shut down. We passed dozens of car accidents that day and the next. Luckily, we had our trusty jar of peanut butter and squeeze bottle full of jelly.

Should you ever find yourself in Ocean Springs, MS, you must try a Tatonut. It's a donut that has potato flour in it. Apparently the townspeople were getting a little too rowdy during Mardi Gras, though. The Tatonut closed up shop in protest.

You will probably never find yourself here on purpose, but Ronnie's is a good place for lunch, provided you are not a vegetarian. You should probably try the cracklin' just so you can say you did.

M says there is some kind of secret menu at Torchy's. But I was so fond of the Democrat, I ordered it twice. Street corn is good, too.


Ghosts on the Coast

I became a little obsessed with Katrina history when we stayed in Ocean Springs, MS. This whole stretch of the Gulf coast was pretty much destroyed in that hurricane. As we drove there from New Orleans there were places that still, and this is 10 years later, seemed devastated. Old debris was tangled up in the marsh grass and rusting-out boats lay on their sides next to concrete pads. Not a structure to be seen anywhere. And then there are towns like Biloxi and Ocean Springs that look really charming and shiny. I'm used to Pittsburgh, where lots of things - bridges, light posts, etc.  - are rusty and old-looking. And that's pretty much the way the rest of the south looks as well. But I had a

M and I were paying a lot of attention to the coverage of Katrina in 2005. We were living in Phoenix, where I had been assigned by TFA. New Orleans was the second choice on my application, and we wondered how things would be different if we had moved there instead. A year later, we drove through the area and briefly volunteered with an eclectic group called Emergency Communities.

I noted a selection of hurricane themed children's books in the library we visited. Plaques on the sides of buildings. As we walked to the beach, an occasional bare concrete pad sat between two carefully manicured yards. A shadow of a gravel driveway leading to nothing. A tiny local museum featured Katrina art.

I read this thorough account of the storm surge, which included lots of NOAA maps and before and after pictures. So much of the disaster was made worse by poor handling of it. People unprepared to fend for themselves and the government proving that it was not something to be relied on. The feelings of betrayal linger even a decade later. But most of the rest of the country has forgotten.