Friday, January 22, 2016

Just Keep Tryin',You'll Get BETter! (Or Why We Endure Travel With Young Kids)

Today's heading is brought to you by Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, one of those annoyingly catchy animated cartoon characters that PBS does so very well. The show's themes tend to be quite pro-social: practice in order to get better, it's ok to be sad; feelings come and go. Did I mention how damn catchy the songs are? One listen and you'll be humming repetitively until bedtime (ad over, not that I'm trying to sell it to you!).

We just returned from another weekend tourist trip with the children. We've been making it a priority in the last year to travel to low-key settings to change our scenery and explore new places. Low-key to me means we drive no more than 4 hours each way and stay in a rental house or hotel (vs. camping).

In the past year, we've visited the mountain towns around Asheville, Greensboro, Oak Island, Washington DC, and most recently, Richmond, VA. Matthew and I have taken grownups-only trips to Miami, Savannah and Charleston as well. I mostly enjoy travel research-wading through page after page of web material, weeding out the tourism board shills selling tours and time shares, to gather a paper list in my orange notebook of what I think our family will enjoy.  Sometimes I get it very wrong; that great-looking museum is dusty and dated, that mountain swimming hole is icy cold, even in summer. Often the greatest thrill is something decidedly not on the official sights list: riding the DC subway or the see-through elevators at the fine arts museum in Richmond, the thrill of entering an Air B n B property and discovering....other people live differently than we do! And hey, what's in this closet?!

Richmond was artful, gorgeous murals on building sides everywhere we looked. 
We moved FAST through Fine Arts Museum but saw several incredible things.

There are many challenging moments in traveling with our kids. I don't think I'm alone in this sentiment. The all-family, all-together at all-times can quickly stress me out. On our latest trip, the kids woke up at 6 am and began wrestling. Something about this spacious (and dumpy) apartment inspired them to grapple constantly and we worried about the noise for the downstairs neighbor. We had to physically restrain them at times because they were having such a damn good, very loud time. We wouldn't have cared about neighbors nor early morning wake-ups at home because they can find their way to the cartoons and Cheerios. They had even more intrusive questions and commentary than usual, offered unhelpfully at moments when Matthew and I were debating directions while whizzing along at 60 mph, whether that No Parking time range on that sign includes the precise time we are wanting to park there, should we eat now at an off-peak hour or after the next activity when restaurants may be busier? M. suspects they feel some anxiety about the unfamiliar, like what if we get in trouble for parking in the wrong spot? I suspect they are extra curious and exploring in our new setting, exactly the reason we travel to new places, oh yeah...don't you hate that?!

We keep trying and we are getting better. On the whole, there are more moments of happiness than struggle while we travel. There is deep learning and lots of conversations about what we are seeing. For the first time, Noah really appreciates the violence and heartache of war (he's had a rather storybook/superhero/good guys vs. bad guys concept of war until now). We watched a video at the American Civil War Museum with black and white photography of battlefields during the Civil War (Richmond was an important city in the war). I've been reluctant to show him images of war because modern photography and videos are more graphic and potentially traumatizing than black and white still imagery from 150 years ago. He was quiet and serious after, and asked many questions about war in the car ride home: why do people fight in wars if they might die?, what happens to people who aren't soldiers when there is a war in your town?. We discussed whether war is sometimes necessary (like, in the matter of ending slavery in the US), the concept of a draft, our families' experiences with the military. Rich stuff and we're still discussing. .

I think there is something about changing your usual scenery and daily routines that stimulates a new, more curious point of view. Where shall we explore next?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Pillow Talk

 Well....what if...?
Things Ezra wanted to discuss this morning while snuggling in bed (all in a loud stage whisper because Papa was trying to sleep next to us):
  • Who is your Mama?
  • How do babies come out of 'ginas?
  • But how did they get in there? (there were ten additional back-and-forth questions on this theme, referencing eggs, semen, sperm, fluid, why aren't there little fishes in the toilet when I pee?). We will be watching some gentle birth videos today to help clarify the getting born part of the mystery. I forget that older brother got an intensive "How Babies Are Born" months-long seminar at age 3 in preparation for Ezra's birth at home and I've neglected Ezra's education in this important topic!
  • What do you need to grow?
  • If you don't sleep, will you die?
  • How long does it take for a house to be built?
  • How does the wood stick together?
  • Where are the tubes that give us hot air in the winter?
His big question for bedtimes seems to be on the other end of the continuum: how do people die?

We've discussed how bodies get old and eventually they stop working (hearts stop beating, lungs stop breathing) and you die. He's not experienced a loved one's death, though he knows his two grandfathers and a previous dog have all died of illness before E was born. It's not a subject I am willing to fantastify (say, with stories of afterlife paradise or a promise that I won't die) and he's incredibly clear on the links between growing (even the growth between ages 3 and 4) older and death. He's sobbed himself to sleep repeating, "I don't want to get old and die." Kid - I feel the exact same way as you!

I love this opportunity in parenting to ponder big questions but from a totally fresh state of mind where anything is possible and reality is just one option among many. I relish the challenge to explain these big ideas in a simple way that my kids can make sense of, with the bonus of doing so at the same time with kids who are 3 years apart in age. And I love the funny and sometimes inane connections they draw from random bits of information: "Ezra, you were born because Daddy peed in  Mommy!"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Letting Him Make Mistakes

The nearby mall offers free morning movies during the summer and I've intended to take Noah to one of the better offerings all season. Today was the last day of the program so I seized the opportunity to have a little 1:1 date to see Penguins of Madagascar (which has many hilarious moments).

 I checked in on whether he wanted to go a few days back and he was positive about attending, but his energy was more fixated on the prospect of movie theatre popcorn than the film itself. I want to buy a large one, he declared more than once. I told him he could use the money from his "spend" jar (we like the save-give-spend formula for allowance) but I was not thrilled with the expenditure. My disapproval of his decision was more directed at his happy consumption of a torso-sized bucket of chemicalized popcorn doused in toxic liquid "butter" (let's be clear, it's definitely not butter) than the lousy use of my his money.

I value thrift and I value natural foods eating; movie theatre popcorn violates both these values. I also value allowing my child to make decisions for himself, even if he chooses differently than I wish. One major reason for beginning an allowance this year was to give him opportunities to make regular decisions about how to use money. I did share my reasons against movie theatre popcorn (for one, we have 20 pounds of popcorn in our pantry at home, right now, plus real butter, and that is not an exaggeration) but I didn't want to pile on unpleasantries to what was, for him, a really notably fun event. I felt the need to mute myself similarly early this summer when he blew several weeks of allowance on a remote-control car that he played with for all of 4 days.

The kid really enjoys food and I completely relate. He'll sometimes make embarrassing moaning sounds of pleasure while eating a taco in public. At 6 it's simply not realistic or right to control all aspects of his intake. Not-so-little dude ninja-climbs the counter in the mornings to reach food high above the fridge while I'm still snoring in my bed, slices his own bread with a serrated knife, and can load and reload his flimsy paper plate at potluck spreads with no help from me. Most recaps of parties he attends have to do with the kind of tasty food he consumed!

After all these years of being mostly in control of his diet, it's difficult for me to see him waste money and ingest crap food into the growing "temple" of his body (I laugh saying that for this kid is often-naked, riddled with scabbing chigger bites June through August, and still forgets to wear underwear or brush his teeth, so he doesn't exactly evoke the "my-body-is-a-sacred-vessel" vibe). And yet. I trust that he'll find his way to healthy eating and sound financial spending by watching his parents make these same decisions each day (having children really pressures me to walk my talk in a big way!). And by making mistakes - lots of them.
A meal worth moaning over -Thai Boxzing food truck

Almost ready to hunt his own rations

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mountain Pilgrims

We just returned from a great family camping trip in the Western North Carolina Mountains. Three Augusts in a row now makes it our tradition, or at least that's the way we're starting to describe it. It's a chance to suck in cool mountain air before we return to Durham and suffer through the last weeks of sticky heat and mosquitoes of summer. Little mountain towns are beginning to look familiar, we almost know the route without cursing over an unwieldy paper map ('cuz GPS won't help ya out in those parts), we're developing favorite varieties of the heritage apples we always pick, and I notice very distinctly the ways my children have changed over the past year(s).

The change I enjoy the most is that my children have the perseverance and physical stamina to hike longer distances before growing fatigued. Little Ezra made it 2.5 miles round trip to the gorgeous Crabtree Falls with nary a complaint and both children beamed with pride and appreciation as they took in the falls. Last year we were still wearing Ezra in a carrier and limiting hikes to under a mile. What really excites me is the possibility of beginning to backpack with them!

I also appreciate how much they relax into our camping experiences. They begin the trip as the loudest people in the park, seemingly unable to tamp down their sounds. By night 2, they figure out how to make a "home" in a shared public space (and the public campgrounds off the Blue Ridge Parkway are exceptionally popular with sites crowded closed together. I am motivated to find camping options with more privacy for our next trip). Minus distractions, they begin to rely more deeply and harmoniously on one another for companionship and look to found objects from nature to fuel their imaginative play. At one point, my boisterous babes were crawling on their hands and knees in silent pursuit of a butterfly they hoped to "pet."

Absent from this trip were those moments of total exasperation from traveling with children: of a toddler tyrant insisting that the car windows be rolled up (this, after our AC failed us on the 2014 trip, making for a very hot ride home), of kids growing more irritable by the day because of trouble sleeping in an unfamiliar setting, of hunger-fueled meltdowns because the limited camp rations don't match the variety of a full fridge and pantry.

Dare I say it? Our children are becoming good travelers!

The kidlets maybe becoming good travelers, but our new dog, Pippi, is a great traveler! I was a bit nervous about taking her, as we've only had her with us for 3 weeks. She did not bark once, happily hung out tethered at the campground when we needed her to and made us all laugh with her ability to sleep wedged in the most improbable places, including with her head resting atop my coffee mug in the console.
Crabtree Falls, Milepost 339 on the Blue Ridge Pkwy

Not pictured: Chula Dog, who is not such an easygoing traveler

Bedtime reading by the campfire

Picking (and eating and eating) "June" and "Ginger Gold" apples at the Altapass Orchards

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Dog, The Woods and Me

Walking with Chula Dog in the woods around the Eno River is one of my favorite activities. I like woodswalks with people but it's a different, chattier experience. There is something soul satisfying for me about silence and to share nature with a mostly silent companion is the best.

I like to see the transformations that occur on these walks. Chula starts off hyper-alert, looking all around for imagined dangers, making quick, furtive forays into the river lest she be spotted by a predator in a place of vulnerability.  After a while, when we take a rest in an especially scenic spot, she becomes mellow and focused: she's the predator now - stalking fish, pouncing toward movements in the grass, munching greenery for a power boost. She lowers her whole self into the water, swimming for the joy of it.

Her transformation mirrors my own nervous system's shift on these walks: I move from a giddy, cerebral state (planning the hike [beginning with the perpetual, nagging question of, Is this the best use of my limited childcare?], trying to remember how long is the trail and where does it begin, again? Will I have time to make it to Costco between the hike and the nursery school pick up?) to a calm, harmonious state. I tune into my breath and the subtle signs of animal and plant life all around -the plop of sunbathing turtles slipping into the river from their rocks, the swish of poplar tree leaves swaying, the fish that become visible only when all is still. There is so much energy in the woods and river on a summer morning - the place is practically buzzing and crackling - but it takes quieting down and being still for me to notice.

I noticed something else on this last hike: Chula is getting old and soon the kinder choice will be to leave her home from these multi-mile hikes. She can no longer hop into the back of the car without assistance, and limps for a day following each walk. This realization led to a bold move: I submitted an application for our family to adopt a second dog from a rescue group. We have been wanting a second dog but it's easier to do nothing and so a year has passed since our initial conversations about it. I want Chula to be part of training a younger dog in the ways of the woods (it's ok to explore but you must return to your people!) and so it's time to move forward.

Maybe my next post will feature a new silent trail companion!

Chula Dog in the Wild, Age 10

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer Slow 2015

I'm enjoying the slow rhythm of summer, with Noah out of school. Oh, how I have missed him! Wide open days lend themselves to leisurely play and unfolding projects, uninterrupted by scheduled activities. The boys become each other's best playmates again and we gain so many damn hours to our days. It's not that we don't go anywhere but there is a looseness to the going out - we tell friends we'll be at the park around 10 and maybe don't actually show up until 10:30 because the kids were so engrossed in fashioning weapons out of broomsticks and sand rakes I didn't want to move them along before they were through.

A balanced life, for me, means I have space in my days to connect with others in an impromptu way: I can invite people over for dinner cuz I get to thinking about them that morning, I can say yes to caring for a friend's animals because it's low-key entertainment to have a young puppy in our midst. It means not scheduling every hour. As summer begins, the days are blanketed in heat and humidity, and my energy takes a ding, I want to rip any 'To-Do" or "Bucket" lists into shreds!
All-star dog walking team

Noah and I are taking piano lessons together on Thursday mornings. I am as much a beginner as he is, which is a wonderful shared experience. I don't seize many opportunities to be a true beginner, which is at least as much about not having lots of time to explore new areas of interest, as it is wanting to save face and appear competent in all things like a "good" adult should. Yeah, that's lame.

Don't believe everything you think!

In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few. - Shunryu Suzuki

I am feeling energized by the concepts of unschooling, roughly, the idea that learning can (should?) happen outside the confines of formal education. If you're like most adults, you can go a long time without learning something new if you're no longer in a formal student role. It's stifling.

With a lot more time together, there are more opportunities for one family member's interests to influence another. Noah and I have been diligent in our daily piano practice, and that has little brother requesting his turns at the piano, too. "Show me piano lessons, " he requests. And he shows keen interest in understanding how the instrument works.

Papa Matthew has long been the only piano player in the family and now he's almost having to beg for turns as it becomes a more popular place to be! Maybe we'll form family band, yet...

Thursday, June 11, 2015


My kids have a superpower and it's detecting the most minute molecule of sugar present anywhere in the house. We don't have a lot of treats and that may be why they explode with happiness when it's discovered. I want to treat popsicles and birthday party candy and muffins and granola bars and such as treats - something we enjoy as an occasional pleasure. When these items are in the house, however, the kids have a hard time not consuming them, asking over and over when they can have one.

 My reaction so far, to their sugar-seeking has been to enact strong limitations and I'm beginning to rethink that. For one, I find the limit-setting to be draining. For two, it's not possible to control their access to food outside the house, in the case of my 6 year old who regularly receives junk food snacks as part of his public school kindergarten day, and who goes on playdates and attend birthday parties without a parent. When he brings home a piƱata booty of 40 pieces of candy, doling it out to him (and younger brother, cuz fairness is paramount when you have more than one kid) takes 3 weeks at one per day. I have such better things to do with my time than rationing Pop Rings!

I have excellent self-control around food, now. A dark chocolate bar often lasts me more than a week (if it remains undetected in my underwear drawer hiding place, that is. There is an adult sugar-seeker in my house, too, and his initials are MY). I would love to eat an excellent pastry every day and down at least 2 glasses of wine in the evening but I've learned I wouldn't actually enjoy the experience so I don't. Having unlimited access to desserts makes me want it less and more than 1 drink of alcohol a night makes me feel like a dessicating rat, ruins my sleep and makes me feel dull the next day.

I came by my excellent self-discipline the hard way, by spending most of my Times Record (Troy, NY) newspaper route earnings on BlowPops and Tootsie Rolls and other corn syrup/food coloring concoctions when I was 10, 11, and 12. Do you remember Teeni drinks (see below)? -I could drink one of each "color" in one sitting!

There's a part of me that wishes I can simply impart good self-discipline to my children without them having to go through the learning part. Well, that's kinda ridiculous, isn't it? Does exposure to crappy food warp their palette in some irrevocable way or might my restrictions actually increase the psychological value of the restricted food?

I've been reconsidering the food restrictions, the idea that I have to set limits in order to encourage healthy eating. If popsicles are made of healthy foods like yogurt and fruit, do I really need to limit them to 1 each if they ask for more, for example? Why? Well, one reason is that it requires time on my part to prepare them and I'd like for the popsicles to last to save me the work of making more. If they eat pounds of expensive grocery store strawberries in one sitting, for example, there won't be strawberries for the rest of the week and Papa and I might not get any; that seems ungenerous. If they are allowed cereal before dinner, than they won't want to eat the meals I make and their diets won't be balanced. True?

I'm gathering information to better understand the dynamics. For instance, I notice Ezra tends to eat lots of one thing one day: he'd happily have dates and strawberries and an apple for his morning meal, but he also consumed 6 filets of flounder for dinner one night. Maybe his diet is balanced but over the week and not the day or meal. Noah will scarf ice cream and follow it with a salad chaser. My boys are very healthy, energetic, and (mostly) happy (except when I'm rationing their birthday party pinata booty!).

This is a timely topic as school ends today and the kids will be home and hungry much more during the summer months. I'll have more to share in time.

No limits to strawberry eating when we just picked 50 lbs ourselves!