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


Race Season - Done!

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

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

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


Made it!

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

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

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

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


Camp Skymeadow

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

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

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

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

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


Summer Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Solstice, 2017 version

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

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

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

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

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


One Day Left

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

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

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

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

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


The Piccadilly Herb Club

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

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

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

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

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


Spring Sprung

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

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

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

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


Screens and Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Life with Three

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

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

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

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

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


Spring Break!

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

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

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

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

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


Toddler Time

Max is a delight. I think he's everyone's favorite. Laurel, who dislike waking up under any condition, happily eases out of sleep if we send Max into her room to give her a hug in the morning. He laughs when he farts. He laughs when we make fart noises. He laughs when we put him in bed at night to be tucked in, a funny little chuckle that tells us he had a good day and he's good and tired and it feels so nice to lay down. (And then he sleeps for 12 hours, waking up only once to drink a cup of milk. Hallelujah!) He gives really great hugs. He loves cucumbers. He recently started looking at books quietly on his own when he's in his room while the rest of us are getting dressed. M and I have enjoyed parenting him through this first year and almost-a-half, which is not to say the other two were harder, just that we have more confidence now.  Most mornings, M gets up with Max at 5:30 or 6 and they eat breakfast together. M never sets an alarm. Max just wakes up and starts shouting "DAD! DAD! DAD!" from his crib until M goes and picks him up. I pretend to be asleep, but really I'm laying there listening to them talk to each other while M makes coffee and slices up bananas. It's one of my favorite things.

But some days I feel a little guilty about the things I can't do with Laurel and Marko because we have a toddler in tow. Every single trip out of the house is complicated by all the stuff you have to take along for Max. (The epi-pen and benedryl first aid kit plus diapers and a change of clothes.) I always try to stay home during his afternoon nap time, which often interferes with potential playdates with school friends or outings that take the whole day. In wet spring weather, he goes directly for every mud puddle, plops right down into it and starts drinking it...if I let him out of the stroller at the park he walks way too slow, but if we want to go at the pace Laurel and Marko prefer, he ends up being trapped in the stroller. He spends a lot of time dumping containers out so that he can use the container as a ladder. It's not unusual that we find him on top of the piano. He's a total basket case by 6:30 and wants to go to bed, which is right smack in the middle of the time the rest of us would rather be eating dinner. I seem to miscalculate this every single night. When he was a baby, he definitely got dragged along with the rest of us, but now that he is a toddler, he seems to be setting the tone.



Laurel is getting a knitting lesson from Marlene, our neighbor who walks her to school each morning. Laurel has been desperate to learn. Several other girls from school have been getting together for lessons from one of the moms. They show up with shaggy balls of yarn that have been knit and unraveled, knit and unraveled. Occasionally, one of them triumphantly shares a completed project...a scarf or a headband. They are only in first grade, so I'm impressed. I taught myself when I was about 20 years old. At the moment, my broken finger is nagging me too much to demonstrate. Marlene kindly offered to come over and give some lessons. I've been chopping up cabbage for slaw in the kitchen, trying to stay out of sight so they wouldn't lose their focus. I can hear Marlene's firm and gentle voice, but I hear almost nothing from Laurel.

Laurel's one of those naturally redshirted kids, all my kids are actually. With an early November birthday, she's one of the oldest children in her class, among the first to read and most of the skills of first grade come very easily to her. I've been concerned about this because when things are challenging or don't come very quickly to her, she gives up. She has a quick temper so this often happens in a very dramatic fashion. But with this knitting thing, she's so motivated to learn that I can see her moving through that frustration, coaxed on by Marlene's insistence. Marlene's mother taught her all the domestic arts...crochet, knitting, sewing, embroidery. I never met her mother, but I can sense Marlene channeling her.

I hope this doesn't sound too creepy, but one of my favorite things about this stage of parenting is eavesdropping on my kids when they are off playing or learning something. How they act outside of my direct sphere of influence tells a lot about what I have actually taught them.


Who is in your wolf pack?

I just found a little book Laurel made out of post-it notes. "Laurel's Book of Happy Picshrs and Wrds." it said. One of the pages included the title "wolf pack" and listed all the kids she runs around with after school. There are a few families who pick up their kids and end up hanging out for a while. Sometimes they actually do howl like wolves, but within the context of playing out these elaborate make-believe worlds. They drag around tree branches and stones and dig in the dirt and everyone takes on a pseudonym or sometimes an animal persona.

Our kids don't do too many formal activities. Laurel is in Girl Scouts and Marko just finished a session of gymnastics, but that is pretty much it.  Sometimes I worry that they are missing out, because kids around here tend to be enrolled in a lot of classes and lessons and camps. But mostly I am grateful for the space it leaves in our lives right now.

When I was a kid, our next door neighbor never even turned her car off. She just pulled in and out of the driveway a million times a day to shuttle her four kids around. They ate in the car. I always thought they were over-scheduled, but it recently occurred to me that if my kids each do just one sport and the seasons overlap, that could be a practice or a game every single day of the week. I could be stuck in my car for weeks at a time.

But for now, we have days that feel very full, but require little in the way of rushing. And wolf packs.


Managing Vs. Connecting

Sometimes I spend too much time looking at my kids as something to be managed. And truly, if I don't manage at all, terrible messes and much chaos falls upon our home. However, thinking of parenting as an opportunity to build a relationship is a much different way of looking at it. Max is one. I can control a lot of his behavior because I can control his environment. Put things out of reach and so forth. Plus, he's with me all the time. Laurel was once one, but is now seven. When I type that, it seems like she's still young, but when I look at her, she looks like she's practically a teenager. The ways that I am able to control her environment are quickly disappearing. She already lives a lot of her life beyond my watchful eye. I'm not going to stop paying attention avoid setting reasonable boundaries, ever. But now is the time to establish some good communication habits, and time set aside for private and quiet conversation. Today we went out for coffee/hot chocolate. We took journals and books and hung out for a good long while, plus there is a nice mile long walk to the coffee shop. No little brothers in sight. She's different in this setting. Nothing serious came up...this time. But I don't want our only 1:1 time to be when something serious is happening. 


Day in the Life

My life is not particularly interesting or unique at the moment, but it feels like I'm doing the right things. And possibly even the Right Thing. That is to say, I am doing the Work I am called to do, and can achieve some level of flow in carrying it out. I'm not sure I'll remember this in 10 years, so I wanted to record it somewhere.

Max woke up before 6. If he wakes up crying, I can usually coax him back to sleep. But if he stands up in his crib and starts saying "Dadadadadadadadada..." then it's no use. M got up with him and they ate breakfast together, which apparently included a lot of blueberries (I learned this later in the day and you can guess how). I got up around 6:30. I think I can sense when M has finished making the coffee. Laurel and Marko are somewhat self sufficient in the morning when it comes to getting dressed and putting their pajamas away, but we always fix them breakfast. Breakfast is a total free-for-all in our house right now...not the way I'd like it to be, but haven't figured out a way to make one breakfast that everyone can eat. Max is allergic to eggs. M and Marko love eating bacon and eggs. Laurel is basically a vegetarian and usually won't eat bacon. Marko always asks for toast but doesn't eat it. I never fix my own breakfast and just dine on rejected breakfasts. Today Marko ate a bowl of cheerios, Max ate blueberries and toast, Laurel ate two English muffins (toasted, with jam), M made some kind of egg-thing, and I drank a lot of coffee. Later in the morning I was cleaning out the fridge and I ate a cheese and pickle sandwich someone had made and packed up but apparently forgotten. It was delicious.

Marko had preschool, so I drove him there and dropped M off at the busway on the way. We had a few extra minutes, so I stopped at Target because the kids ran out of toothpaste. I stopped by my friend's house for a short visit. Her daughter is just a little younger than Max, but has a very articulate "hi," which she pairs with an enthusiastic wave. Max ate a banana there and we tried to make plans for a better hanging-out time but were thwarted by our conflicting nap schedules.

I thought Max would fall asleep in the car so I went to the car wash, but it scared him. He was still awake when I got home and so I put him down for a nap and then spent the next 45 minutes carting boxes of things-to-be-donated that were piling up in the basement onto the front porch and scheduled a pickup from the VVA. I washed the breakfast dishes and made a lunch for Marko to eat. I wiped down the pantry shelf I had just cleared out because we had peanuts in there at one point and we just found out that Max is allergic to peanuts. I listened to a podcast but kept wandering too far away from my computer to really hear it so I don't even remember which one it was. When Max woke up he ate some oatmeal and mixed vegetables and a hot dog. He seemed like he could keep going, but it was time to pick up Marko so we headed back to the car.

Today I had to babysit, so after picking up Marko we went to get our neighbor, who is 5 and also goes to preschool, but a different preschool, so picking up both of them at noon is always a rush. We sing Scout songs in the car on the way home. I stopped on the way to pick up my grocery order. It was very warm so I nixed the idea of stopping at the park on the way. Would have been fun to play but I had 2 gallons of milk in the back of the truck. (And yes, my house goes through 2 or sometimes 3 gallons of milk a week.)

When we got home, they were too excited to play...they absolutely could not focus on lunch. They kept leaving the table and I am being super strict about eating at the table because of this food allergy thing with Max. So I put their lunches away and they went upstairs to set up a tea party. Max had a graham cracker and then we danced enthusiastically to Party Rock Anthem. Well, I danced and Max did deep squats, which is his toddler version of dancing, I think. Sometimes he does some fancy footwork, but he didn't break that out today. I gave him the whole container of poker chips and he poured them all out and then stacked them up and knocked them over. We did that for a while, and then Max went down for another nap and I made the preschoolers eat their lunches. Then we built a giant train track loop, but they started fighting over the engine that has a battery in it. I let them duke it out and went to chop vegetables for dinner. When I came back they were cutting a piece of wrapping paper into ten million teeny tiny pieces with scissors. I thought about stopping them, but they were getting along so well and very focused and that's a fine motor skill.

Max woke up screaming, but quickly calmed down. I had just enough time to change Max's diaper and give him a cup of milk before getting everyone into shoes and coats and out the door to pick up the big kids....Laurel from school and our neighbor from the bus stop in front of our houses. It was pretty warm today, so we played outside for a while. By the time I have gathered everyone from school, I have 5 kids in my care so the last hour or two of the day is just about maintaining harmony. Mainly this involves slow, deep breathing on my part. I was successful in getting dinner into the crockpot earlier in the day, so I could actually really pay attention to everyone and the afternoon passed without too much chaos. My own kids always behave worse than the neighbors. They swear more, yell louder and run in the house. But today wasn't too bad and by the time the neighbor kids left, mine were ready for dinner and bed. My kids seem to really pay attention to the daylight; when the sun sets early, they go to bed. In summer, they are able to stay up later. This means we don't really do much or see people in the winter months, but I'm starting to be ok with that.

I made Sloppy Lennies, which is like a vegan version of sloppy joes. Everyone ate it, with minimal complaints - definitely not the norm. I recently made Laurel and Marko binders with a list of their morning and evening chores, and Marko picked up all of those little paper scraps he cut out earlier and Laurel ran the vacuum. I told them they could use their Kindles if they were showered and in pajamas by 6:30, and they actually did it. By 7, M was home from work and helped finish putting the kids to bed. Max was having trouble falling asleep (I actually think he was waiting for M) and Laurel and Marko like to have M read them a story (they are doing the Hobbit right now). I washed the dishes and watched some youtube videos on how to fix the derailleur on my bicycle.

And now it's 9:00pm and time for bed. Not having the jobs I used to have means not having a stack of IEPs to write or lessons to plan after I get the kids in bed. And how blissful it is without the steady stream of text/email/phone replies on my to-do list. I definitely do not miss that life. My email inbox can actually be ignored for days at a time without calamity. I volunteer with the Girl Scouts right now and there's a few things I need to do for that, but I can do them tomorrow. Today was a pretty good day...I made some cash babysitting, played with kids, cooked a nutritious and affordable meal, got some fresh air, and have somehow convinced a 7 year old that vacuuming the house is a privilege.


America, the Beautiful

The first thing I can remember learning about America was that people came here to escape religious persecution. My family was very religious so this narrative made sense to me at age 8 and I felt personally grateful that I was free to go to church. The second thing I learned was that America was a melting pot. This was an appealing idea as well, although as a child I had very limited experience actually living alongside people with different languages, cultures, religions or skin tones. Obviously, these lessons were a bit on the overly simplistic side. As I grew up I discovered all the ways that make it hard to live next to people who are different than you are and all the ways people can fight about it and offend each other, and how this is a human problem and not limited to my country.

The next thing I learned about America was how beautiful she is. I fell in love with her as M and I traveled thousands of miles by car and on foot. A lot of that is captured on this blog. I can still remember the first time I saw the land start to drop away into canyons as we drove into Texas. Hugging redwoods in California. Catching my first glimpses of the Smoky Mountains from the AT. Katahdin rising up over the lakes of Maine. All along the way, we experienced incredible hospitality and a lot of our preconceived notions about people from a particular area were changed.

Now with three children of my own, I view every issue through the lens of Mother. I can't help it. I sympathize with parents around the world who want to keep their children safe and fed and healthy but are out of options in their home countries. What if I had to watch out for suicide bombers when I got on a bus or went to the market? What if Laurel couldn't go to school or vote or have a job when she grew up? What would it be like to get on a raft with them and cross a sea? How would I handle it if I had to be separated from M? It makes me absolutely sick to think of every political conversation, policy, law and speech that does not explicitly acknowledge the fact that we are talking about PEOPLE, who are all pretty much just trying to do the best they can with what they've got.

Of course for lots of immigrants, the situation is not that dire. Perhaps they just want to be a part of America...go to school, run a business, practice their religion, or live in a place that has such natural marvels as the Grand Canyon, or just live around a great big mix of different sorts of people and be generally free to be yourself. I think people coming here - and bringing their religious beliefs, languages, food and culture - makes my life better and improves our country as a whole. (The food/restaurant situation in America without our immigrants would be terrible. No falafel?? No green curry??)

Am I worried about somebody harming my family? I'm a mom, so yes, I worry about everything. But foreign terrorists are waaaay back in the line....behind car wrecks, lead poisoning, cancer, and accidental shootings by toddlers because these are all higher on the list of things that are actually likely to happen to us...or have already happened to us.

One thing I wonder is if it makes sense to teach kids an idealized version of America when they are little and let their understanding of the complexities evolve over time. Or, do they need the full story from the beginning....


Back to Life, Back to Reality

Remember that time I went away for 7 days by myself? Yes, it was amazing. Yes, the kids were fine with M (Well not "fine" since a stomach virus went through the house, causing massive loads of laundry and lack of sleep, but fine in the general sense that he just handled it. As parents do.) And yes, I missed my family. Max especially, because we are usually together. He formed a stronger bond with M, though, and that was kind of neat to see. I also remember that happening sort of naturally with each kid as they got out of the baby phase. I remember the first time Laurel got hurt and ran to M instead of me. It was Mother's Day 2011.

However.... it was amazing to sleep for 7 days, uninterrupted, and wake up on my own. I marveled at how easy it was to get dressed and leave the house. Traveling alone is a totally different experience. I basically had to stop myself from asking the other passengers if they needed to go to the potty. I read three books and two magazines, and subscribed to three new podcasts. I also just sat in silence and stared out the window quite a bit. My sister and I went to the aquarium in La Jolla and spent hours staring at the fish tanks and not moving on until we found every single fish or anemone that was on the sign. I get to do lots of educational trips with the kids at home, but there is usually a steady 1-2-3 count going on in my head (or 1-2-3-4-5 if I'm babysitting) as I track the kids.

I knew that Max was probably not going to move immediately into sleeping through the night, but he's gotten a lot better. Most night, I only wake up with him once after I've gone to sleep. I don't feel like a zombie anymore. I'd like to wean myself off the serious coffee habit I've developed over the past year, but other than that, I'm feeling pretty good.


Greetings from Not So Sunny San Diego

Never mind, the sun did just peek out! Even a rainy day has some moments of sunshine here, apparently. I'm writing from the Treehouse, a brightly painted backyard-shed-loft sort of place I found on AirBnB. I spent the last four days visiting my friend Leah and her family in Oakland and am now in San Diego to visit my sister.

It surprised me, how easy it was to arrange, once I had it in my head that it was possible. Partly I was craving the visits with two people I am very close with but rarely see in person. The other part was certainly the ease of being alone, a rare experience for me over the past year. Seven days of this seems outlandish! How will they survive without me?! But of course they are fine at home with M. This trip came about mostly because I needed sleep. The first four nights I slept 8 or 10 hours but still woke up feeling the same way I have been all year. I actually started to think that maybe it wasn't sleep deprivation after all. But this morning, I woke up feeling truly rested, clear headed and the world suddenly made sense again.

Besides sleeping, I've had a chance to publish a dozen posts that were written over the past year and a half but forgotten in the drafts folder. Forgive the grammar and spelling, as I did very little editing. I posted them with the dates that they were written, so if you want to see what we were up to, you can scroll back through the archives of 2016 and 2015. While in Oakland, I had a chance to meet some of Leah's friends who have read the blog over the years and they were very complimentary about my ideas (thank you!) but they also reminded me about how much I love writing here, and how much I treasure the ability to look back. It's the yearbook for my family. There are 1,050 published posts on this blog and it is over 10 years old.

On Tuesday I went for a long walk around Oakland, following a loose checklist and directions that Leah made for me. I ended up spending most of my time just walking around people watching and window shopping. At one point I got a little lost and consulted my phone, which then directed me right through a rose garden. It was mostly dormant but there was one bright red rose. The other fun thing about that garden was that the road ended at a staircase and then resumed at the top of the hill, reminding me of Pittsburgh. I found many bookstores and many book sales. By the time I get home on Saturday, I'll have read 3 books and 2 magazines and that is more than I read in the past year, other than children's books.

The skies have now cleared and I think it's a perfect time for another little wander, plus I need to get away from the airplanes. #flightpath #cheaptravel