Saturday, November 28, 2009

Birthday Season (Babble)

People talk about feeling busy during the holidays.  We think of it as birthday season.  In the span of six weeks we have Quinn’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Mona’s birthday, Aden’s birthday, Christmas, my brothers’ birthday and New Year’s.  Somewhere a week into January I’m finally able to take a deep breath, but until then I’m running.  I don’t even think about Christmas decorations until well past the middle of December.

So right now we’re just heading toward the hump of birthday season.   Quinn’s birthday was low key and fun.  He had a chocolate cake with lots of purple frosting and a candle in the shape of a ‘7.’  (My kids almost never pick the candle that has anything to do with the age they are going to be, so it’s a good thing I date our photos because trying to deduce anything in the future from pictures of the cakes would be difficult to say the least.)  He got some nice presents from his grandparents, and Aden read him all his birthday cards out loud.

Thanksgiving was wonderful.  We ate too much and enjoyed nice company, just the way it should be.  Mona had the best line at dinner.  After showing her all the available food the only thing she liked enough to put on her plate was a bit of turkey.  So when we were all seated at the table and my neighbor raised her glass and said, “A toast!” Mona perked up and said, “I’d like some toast!”  It was great having Ian home, even for such a short visit.  It’s amazing how time can feel erased in certain circumstances.  As soon as he was in the house again it just felt right and normal and as if he hadn’t left us back in September.  All those nights of going to bed without him felt like a dim memory.  I have to take him to the airport tomorrow morning.  I don’t want him to go.

Coming up soon is Mona’s birthday, and she’s been begging since last year to have a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.  I relented, primarily because the idea of only cleaning up the house for one party instead of two appealed to me.  Chuck E. Cheese’s is only a few blocks from our house so we can just walk there.   The place gives me a headache, but it makes the kids really happy.  Aden is currently the perfect age to enjoy it because she’s just old enough to apply some skill to the games and develop a strategy for getting as many tickets as possible, and just young enough to think all the cheap prizes she gets for those tickets are fabulous.  I’m already looking forward to leaving that party.

Aden will be turning eight the week after Mona’s birthday, and her party theme this year is ‘dancing to records.’  I showed Aden last year how to use our record player and she’s crazy about it.  She plays Peter Gabriel and Hermans Hermits and her favorite thing is the B side to a Soft Cell 45 that I got back when Harmony House sold vinyl.  I remember how much fun I always had using my record player as a kid and messing with the different speeds, so I broke out some of my old LPs one afternoon and taught Aden the fine art of dropping the needle down between songs.  She’s been enamored of it ever since, despite being limited to the music her dad and I thought was cool back in high school, and whatever my dad brings her when he visits.  I’m still not sure how to structure her party so that the other kids have fun, because Aden has some idea in her head about a dance contest with some pretty specific (and somewhat annoying) sounding rules, but I’m sure it will work out.  I’m trying to find a mirror ball and we may make some kind of sash for the dance contest winner.  Not sure yet.  But she does want a rectangular cake with the music to Happy Birthday written out, and that I can handle.  (I asked her if I could just make a round cake that looked like a record, but for some reason that didn’t fly.)

After the dust settles from Aden’s party I’ll start to panic about Christmas presents for everyone.  My mom has often mentioned around this time of year how inconvenient my “planning” has been, that all the birthday and Christmas presents have to come about the same time for all my kids.  It is an awful lot of present overload, but after a childhood spent watching my poor brothers share a birthday a few days after Christmas, I am determined to keep my kids’ birthdays a distinct event from the other big gift giving day.  (There were few things that seemed more unjust as a child than a single box labeled “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas to Arno and Barrett.”)  The nice thing for us about Christmas is that (aside from my parents) everyone comes right after the actual day.

There have been years I got our tree for free because I didn’t need it until the 24th.  We get to spread out the fun from Christmas Eve all the way through New Year’s Day, with a big family party for my brothers in between.  Milwaukee is not the most accessible place for my relatives to gather, but the up side of my “planning” is that no one felt I should have to travel with a newborn in December.  Everyone’s in a habit of coming to us now, and no one seems to have noticed yet that the newborns are all walking, talking, potty trained people.  (I love having everyone here, so don’t tell anyone we could travel now, okay?)

But the best gift this season is that Ian may get to come home again one more time before he ships out to Iraq.  Nothing is ever certain with the Army, so I’m not banking on it, but the chances are good.   As I type this, he’s downstairs playing with the kids for the last hour or so before bedtime.  It’s a comforting thing, just knowing he’s down there having fun with them.  When they wake up tomorrow I’ll have already taken him to the airport, and we’ll go back to life without daddy for awhile.  With a little luck, by next birthday season he can help me with the pizza and the cake and the dancing and whatever else the kids come up with to keep life festive this time of year.  Definitely something to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankful (Babble)

I love Thanksgiving.   I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.  Ian’s coming home for the weekend.

We aren’t allowed to know when Ian officially ships out to Iraq because any information that could lead to an ambush or any kind of sabotage is classified.  But he took a gamble and bought tickets home for Thanksgiving day in the hopes he’d still be in the country, and it worked out.

Typically we team up for the Thanksgiving meal with our neighbors across the street, which works out nicely since the amount of food we want to indulge in is easier spread out between two families.  Our neighbors are kind enough to host and do the turkey and cranberries and corn and rolls, and we do pies and appetizers and mashed potatoes and green beans.  This year my parents are coming (it’s late Wednesday night and they should be here any minute!) because they didn’t want us to feel too alone.  When they found out Ian was coming, they told me they would leave town earlier than planned so we’d have time together.  I’m trying to convince them that if they really want us to have time alone, they need to stay!  Ian and I will simply be buried under a heap of kids all weekend if no one takes them for a bit, and I really want to be able to finish a sentence or two with my husband before he has to fly back to Louisiana.

The kids are excited.  Aden had her harvest play at school this afternoon, which was incredibly sweet.  She was a pilgrim, and their play was interesting because most of the Native American characters in it were not happy, and some of the pilgrims were distrustful.  It was refreshing to see an elementary school class acknowledge a little reality in a Thanksgiving play.  Made me like their school just that much more.  We had a minor nut allergy moment during the feast afterward, but resolved it quickly.  (I reminded Aden that she can’t trust other people’s cookies no matter how tempting they are.  A tough lesson when chocolate chips are involved.)  I got to steal Mona early from her kindergarten class to join us in the snacks, and Quinn was just thrilled to be doing something in the big kid school for the afternoon.  They were all proud to tell people that their daddy would be joining us for for Thanksgiving.

After school we went to the violin store where I met with a couple of customers while the girls made things out of paper (Mona does lots of birds and turtles) and Quinn ran in circles.  We headed home and after dinner and baths I got to work on some projects and pies.  Aden wanted to help, and it was one of those moments where I was proud of both of us.  It would have been very easy to just brush my daughter aside in favor of simply getting things done.  I’m far more efficient cooking alone, and when she asked if she could roll out the dough herself I hesitated.  The part of me that wanted to get the pies out of the way started to tell Aden, “No,” and then I had sense enough to tell that part of me to take a hike.

What on earth are pie baking tradition moments for if not to share with your kids?  We had a blast.  Aden peeled all the apples and I cut them up.  I told her how her great-grandmother had said the secret to a good apple pie was to cut the slices thin.  But her grandmother had taught me the secret to a good apple pie was to keep the slices thick.  My lesson to her was that apparently you can’t mess up an apple pie based on how thick or thin you cut the apples. 

Aden rolled out the pie dough herself, and the first time it came out weird but we made it work.  The next one came out better, and the last one was excellent.  She opened one too many cans of pumpkin, so we have extra deep pumpkin pies this year.  Mona wanted to crack eggs, so I had her do it in a separate bowl in case we needed to fish out any bits of shell.  Turns out we didn’t need that precaution because she did a perfect job.  Mona also measured sugar and sang songs to us.  Quinn was just happy knowing all of this activity would result in pies.  It’s so easy for me to forget to slow down a moment and let them help.  There are days I don’t have time for it, but I’m thankful for evenings like this where I’m able to be the mom I want to be.

As I’m finishing up this post, the pies are cooling, the girls are in bed, and Quinn is passed out in my arms.  (Typing is not easy like this, but how many years are left where he’ll fit in my lap at all?)  My parents will be here soon after a long drive from Detroit.  They love us a lot to travel in rainy darkness for so many hours.

And by this time tomorrow I should have Ian by my side.  I am so thankful for that opportunity I don’t even know how to express it properly.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone!  I wish everyone as much to be thankful for as I have.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kids and Music Lessons--Free Advice! (Babble)

As a violin teacher and owner of a music store, I get asked all the time about when or if kids should start playing an instrument.  In case Babble readers happen to have those same questions, I thought I’d take a moment to share my thoughts and opinions.

The first question I get from most people is:  “How do I know when to start my kid on an instrument?"

When the kid asks.  Interest is the first indicator of talent.  Some kids see a cello and they just know that’s what they want to do.  It speaks to them.  Depending on how old or responsible the child is determines how deeply you can dive in, but if they show an interest, do something.  Find recordings, see live players, go to a music store and let them touch whatever it is that got them excited.

As a player and a teacher I have to say the most important thing is that it has to be the child’s idea.  That may sound obvious to a lot of people, but having taught children who were forced into violin by a parent, it’s not obvious to enough people.  There are lots of ways to expose your child to music, like by going to concerts and visiting friends who play, and certainly getting him or her involved in some kind of lessons or class if he or she asks for it, but performing is not necessary for appreciation. 

Forcing children into something as difficult as violin will often turn them against it.  I once asked a boy with a lot of talent during a sample lesson with me if he even wanted to play violin.  He was so openly hostile with me at every turn, and he looked me right in the eye and said, “No!”  I asked him what he’d rather do, and he said wistfully what he really wanted to play was guitar.  I took his mom aside and told her there was nothing wrong with guitar.  Guitar is wonderful.  She was really perplexed because he was good at violin and felt it was her duty to make him continue.   I told her it seemed to me that there was no joy in it for him.  If that was true, what was the point?  If guitar made him happy, what was wrong with letting him use his talent there? 

Now, I have also been approached by parents with kids (usually in the twelve to sixteen year old range) where the kids wanted to quit, but had nothing else to replace it with.  I grilled a girl once who wanted to quit piano about what she would do with that time instead.  Basketball?  Pottery?  Chemistry?  Ornithology?  No, she admitted openly she wanted to just lie around and watch TV.  I told her whiling away half-heartedly at piano was better than nothing so she should keep playing until she found her passion. 

But for the most part, try not to project your own musical hopes onto your kids.  I let Aden beg me for a violin for a year before I was sure she really meant it.  Mona plays because she wants to be like her sister and I know once she’s old enough she will jump ship for trumpet.  Which is fine.  I can’t help her with trumpet, but I’ll support her as best I can when we get there.  (Quinn likes being like his sisters, and since I own a violin store he’s got a 1/32 size to play with, but he isn’t ready for lessons.)

Which brings me to the next question:  “How young can they start?”

Depends on the instrument.  Violin and piano primarily involve finger dexterity, so you can start as young as the child is willing.  I have a violin in my store that’s a 1/64 size in case there is ever a one-year old with the maturity to handle it, but violin in particular is only limited to the abilities of the child.  Other instruments that involve using your mouth, such as clarinet or trumpet, you need to wait until closer to age nine generally.  From what I understand from my wind and brass friends, the structure of your jaw, etc., play a role that requires you to be more developed, plus there are no fractional sizes that are an appropriate weight or size.  That’s why you don’t see prodigy trombone players, but you do see teeny tiny violinists or pianists at talent shows and on TV.  As I said, Mona has been eyeing the trumpet since she was really small, but she knows she has to wait.  In the meantime, violin uses the same clef, so at least she’s learning to read the right music and developing her ear.  We visit trumpets periodically, and she’s looking forward to turning eight because that was the magic age I said we could give it a try.

“Do you really need a teacher?”

Yes.  You really do.  I have taught too many people who had to unlearn some horrible habits to feel comfortable telling anyone to just mess around on their own at the start.  Bad habits on violin prevent people from reaching their musical goals and make the whole experience less enjoyable.  Violin is worthwhile, but hard.  There are a million picky things that you won’t catch by yourself without training.  Get a good foundation, then mess around all you want.  It’s less frustrating that way.  If you are lucky enough to have strings offered at school it’s a great way to start, but to really advance it’s good to have private lessons too, and use the school experience as a supplement.

“How do you find a teacher?”

Most music stores, if they don’t offer lessons on the premises, usually have lists or business cards of teachers.  Ask around.  Talk to parents who have kids who play.  And ask for a sample lesson!  You need to find a teacher that your child clicks with.  Don’t be afraid to switch if it isn’t right.  I know some parents who never keep their child with a teacher for more than a year or two just because they want him or her to experience different instructors.  Sometimes talented high school students are even up for giving lessons at a much cheaper rate, and that can be a good deal for everyone.  Once you start looking actively, you’ll likely be surprised at just how many musicians and teachers there are in the average community.

“What about Suzuki Method?”

Here’s where my own personal opinions will probably get me in trouble.  Suzuki supporters tend to be very vocal, but I’ll say what I think anyway.  I’ll start by pointing out that any child with talent and enthusiasm will probably thrive using almost any method, as long as he or she gets exposed to all the skills needed to succeed.  That said, I have issues with strict Suzuki method.  Now, most people when asking about Suzuki are really asking about violin or piano for young children.  They don’t know specifically what Suzuki means, just that small children they’ve heard playing it sound great. 

And they do!  Suzuki materials are wonderful, I use the books myself when I teach because they are affordable and universally recognized by other teachers and students, but in traditional Suzuki method players learn to play by ear before they learn to read music.  The concept is that we learn to speak before we learn to read language, so in music we should rely on our ears first, and our eyes second. 

Maybe in certain circumstances that works, but from my observations, it leads to problems.  You can play many instruments like guitar without reading music and it may never matter, but to play a violin family instrument and not be able to read music easily can be a disaster.  I have met more musicians who took Suzuki method than I care to count who told me they played through high school and then finally had to quit because the stress of not being able to read the music made the whole experience too unpleasant.  And some of these people play beautifully!  But reading was such a low priority early in their education that they never developed a comfort level with it to make orchestra or chamber ensembles possible.  If no one played their part for them first so they could hear it and try to commit it to memory, they didn’t know what to do.  And who has the time to memorize the entire viola part to a Dvorak symphony?  My own practical experience playing weddings and concert halls tells me that reading is essential to having the most opportunities open to you as a string player. 

Does that mean you should avoid signing a child up for Suzuki lessons?  No.  Because Suzuki generally involves work in a group and that can be a lot of fun for kids and if the teacher is dedicated and nice it will probably be great.  But tell the teacher you want to make sure your child will learn to read music.  Even a lot of classes listed as Suzuki are often hybrids and the teachers incorporate reading earlier than is traditional for the method.  Some people call themselves Suzuki teachers because they have the specific training for it and they know people will know that means they teach children, but it doesn’t mean they actually teach that way.  Ask, and go with what seems reasonable to you.

“Should I buy or rent an instrument?”

At my violin store I usually recommend for anyone in a fractional size or just starting out that they rent at first.  It gives you a safe way to try it out for a bit and see if it’s even something you want to continue.  If you plan to use a small instrument for a really long time because you expect to pass it down to other children, then it can make sense to buy one, but otherwise I don’t see the point in getting saddled with small violins that you don’t know what to do with later.  See what kinds of programs your local stores have.  Lots of places have buy back programs or rent-to-own opportunities.  There are also some online companies that rent to anywhere, so if there isn’t a store in your area that rents there are still ways to get started. 

Just as with teachers, though, don’t feel you can’t switch.  Just because you get sucked into one store’s program and have some kind of discount available doesn’t mean when you’re ready to buy that you shouldn’t look elsewhere.  Ask a teacher to tell you if he or she thinks an instrument is good enough; is it easy to tune, is it comfortable?   You can’t tell everything by the price of an instrument, but obviously the more expenisve it is the more likely it is to have fewer quality issues. 

That said, violins under $200 tend to scare me.  Most of the outfits I rent retail for about $450, but there are certainly decent ones out there for less if you look.  Most people looking to buy a full size violin when they move on from renting tend to budget between $1000 to $2000 for their first decent instrument. That’s considered cheap in the violin world, so be forewarned!  (The ones I build myself cost around $4000.)  Also, not that it isn’t possible to find a good instrument on ebay, but I’ve never seen one walk into my store.  People find crazy things that they think were a good deal and then bring them to me to fix up, and most of the time it would have been cheaper to buy something in town that already worked.  Craigslist can be a better way to go sometimes, since it’s local and you can see the instrument and possibly even take it someplace to be looked over before you buy it. Students need something reliable that is in good enough condition that they aren’t fighting it all the time.  I’m amazed how often adult students in particular are willing to assume odd sounds they make when practicing are their fault, when many times it could be the instrument itself.

So those are the most common questions about starting music lessons that I get.  (Not counting the most common one which is “Do you give lessons?” and the answer to that is I’m not taking any new students right now.  That was one of the things I had to give up to be home with my own kids while Ian is away.  I had the most wonderful studio of little viola students in the Progressions program at the Milwaukee Youth Symphony, but my own kids need me more right now, so I resigned at the end of the last school year.  I miss those kids, but the new teacher they got to replace me is excellent, so I know the kids will do well.)  I love music and I love helping other people get involved in music so I’m always happy to field more questions if anyone has any.

Making music has been one of the great joys of my life.  Watching the greatest joys of my life make their own music has been astonishing.  I’m sure I’ll cry at every recital.  (Even if Mona switches to trumpet.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weighting It Out (Babble)

I actually struggle about struggling with my weight.  I need to lose weight, but I don’t want my kids to really notice it.  I do and I don’t.  I am careful not to criticize myself in front of them by using words like ‘fat.’  We talk about exercising in terms of needing to be healthy and strong, not in terms of weight.  I want to be a good example without somehow drawing attention the example I’m hoping to set.  Body image can be such a minefield, and I don’t want to contribute to potential problems in that area for my kids.

I’ve never been particularly happy with my weight, but I have height on my side.  According to various charts I’m technically obese, but I have lots of room to carry that weight on a five foot, ten inch frame, so I don’t look to most people like I’m that bad, but it’s not good.  I gained a lot of weight after I had Aden because I was concentrating on the baby and I was home all the time.  Aden was a very easy baby, and we did go for walks across the park when the weather was nice, but most of the time we were just in the house and there were long stretches of boredom. 

After I organized everything I could think to organize I got into cooking.  My mom’s recipes were all geared toward a family of five, so they work great for us now, but when it was just two of us and a breast feeding child, it was too much.  I wasn’t looking at myself anymore because I was looking at the baby, plus breast feeding made me hungry.  I’m sure it’s true for someone somewhere that breast feeding helps you lose the pregnancy weight, but it was the opposite for me.  I was ravenous all the time when I was breast feeding.  Under normal circumstances I’m in trouble because I don’t seem to have a working switch anywhere the tells me I’m full, but when I was hungry all the time it was hard not to keep eating.

When I took a good look at myself just after Aden turned one and breast feeding her was over, I was pretty horrified and got serious.  I got into a routine of swimming and walking and kept track of what I ate.  It was going pretty well, and apparently I was looking pretty good because I soon got pregnant with Mona.  After having Mona I went right back into my exercise routine.  Ian was home so I didn’t have to spend all my time in the kitchen.  I could escape to the pool or Curves or anyplace that wasn’t the house.   Even though I breast fed Mona for a year, I was careful about what I ate and lost over forty pounds.  I was really happy about it, because I felt good and clothes fit nicely and I felt like I’d gotten control over something that had always bothered me.

Then came the double whammy of getting pregnant with Quinn and Ian getting deployed.   I was really stuck at home in a way I’d never been before.  I had two kids who needed to be fed regular meals, and between cooking and cleaning and dishes and even art projects, I felt like we never left the kitchen.  The pregnancy put pressure on my sciatic nerve which made walking incredibly painful.  After Quinn was born it was a little easier, but I was still trapped.  Food was one of the few things that was fun and available and made me feel better.  I liked baking with the girls and trying different recipes.  It was cozy and simple and very fattening.  I gained back all that weight that I’d worked so hard to lose.  I was aware it was happening and just surrendered to it.  There was so much stress in my life and I just couldn’t feel pressure about one more thing.  I bought bigger pants and enjoyed the snickerdoodles.

Because for me to lose weight it has to be at the forefront of my mind all the time.  It’s tedious and dull.  There are so many more interesting things to think about, and I hate wasting my attention on it, but I’ve reached a sort of crisis point again where I have to do something.  I write down everything I eat so I can keep track.  I don’t deny myself anything in particular, I just make conscious choices about if the cookie is worth it at that moment (it usually isn’t).  I’m making time for the treadmill at night after the girls are in bed.  About ten pounds from now when I’m ready to put on my bathing suit again I’ll start taking Quinn with me to the Y in the mornings while the girls are in school.  I’ve done this before so I know I can do it again, and this time I won’t get sidetracked by pregnancy, so that’s something.

The trickiest thing is eating with the kids.  I still want to sit down to the table with them at meals, but their needs are different from mine.   I had a revelation a few years ago about why it’s so easy for stay at home parents to gain weight.  I think of it as the ‘juice box factor.’  I was reading an article in National Geographic about how much portion sizes have changed in the US, and they made the point that if you simply added one juice box a day to a normally healthy routine, by the end of the year you would have gained ten pounds. 

The hardest part about feeding kids while trying to lose weight is embracing waste.  The left over fish stick?  The last bite of mac and cheese?  There’s the juice box.  It’s hard to throw those last bits of food out, but I do it.  At dinner I do my best not to prepare more food than we need at a meal, but that is far from an exact science with three kids.  I’ve taken to not really planning to feed myself at mealtimes.  I help myself to whatever vegetables or fruit we’re having as we sit together and eat, but I only have whatever rice or fish or anything else from what they leave.  If they eat it all, great.  It’s easy enough for me to make myself something else afterward.

I know one of the up sides for Ian about being at Fort Polk is being out of the kitchen.  He struggles with his weight when he’s the one home with the kids, too, and he has the added burden of the Army weighing him periodically.  He’s in better shape now in Louisiana than he was before he left because he’s able to make reasonable food choices and he can go exercise without having to arrange for child care.  I promised him when he comes home from Iraq we will hammer out a better routine for both of us this time.  The problem is neither of us actually likes to exercise, so it’s easy to talk each other out of it.  Maybe when all the kids are in school and we can do it together we can make it fun.  (Or at least less boring.)

So I think I’m on the right track again.  And with a little luck I won’t feel like writing another blog post about my weight, even thought it’s too much in my thoughts.  I’m hoping by writing my good intentions in a public forum that it will help keep me honest about it, but even I’m bored by my own weight loss struggles.  I can’t imagine it’s interesting for anyone else, so forgive me for putting it out there.

But as a parent, I do think about my kids and how their own feelings about their bodies will evolve.  I marvel at my children’s perfect little legs and arms and tummies and wonder when they may develop dissatisfaction with them.  I hope never, but that’s not realistic.  Aden did have a boy tell her once in kindergarten that she was fat.  When she told me about it, I asked what she did, and she replied, “I told him I was just right!”  And she is.  I was proud she knew it.  Chances are there will come a day when such a ridiculous comment from a boy may not roll off her so easily.  It makes me sad.  I wish they could always see themselves the way I see them and know with certainty how amazing they are.

And as a result, I’m kinder to my own self image.  I’m someone’s child, too, and it would pain my parents if I were not happy.  It’s a disservice to them and myself not to appreciate the body I have.  I’m not at the weight I want to be, but I can aim for something better without hating where I am.   Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares (Babble)

Aden called to me from her bed the other night.  Bad dream.

We taught her a couple of years ago about lucid dreaming, and how she could control the contents of her dreams a bit if she needed to, but lately it’s been getting away from her.  She told me several weeks ago over breakfast that she’d had a bad dream “Not like a nightmare, nothing bad was happening in it,” but it was uncomfortable.  She didn’t like the color of the clothes the people were wearing, or the length of their sleeves, and she wasn’t able to change it, and that bothered her.  I told her if nothing scary was happening it would probably be more fun to just let it go and be surprised by whatever the dream wanted to be.  She thought about that for a moment and agreed to try to be surprised.

But her dream the other night was just downright scary.

She said there was a doctor trying to hold a frantic little creature and it kept eating straight through his hand.  I agreed that sounded gross and freaky and told her I’d lie with her in her bed for a little while.  She loves that.  She smiled and made as much room as she could for me and I put my arms around her and she was content.

Someone told me years ago, before I had kids, that when a child wakes up from a nightmare you never ask them to tell you about it, because then they relive it and it becomes harder to shake.   On one level that sounds reasonable to me, but on another it doesn’t.  I’m actually less likely to talk about a good dream, because all dreams seem somewhat ridiculous when described out loud and I’d like to hang on to some of the nice ones.  Even my worst nightmares were drained of at least some of their power once I told them to anyone.  I’ve had some pretty frightening dreams that have stayed with me a long time, but all of them have to be acknowledged as fiction once they’re out of my head.

With my kids’ dreams, there is the added factor that I’m just curious.  And if they’re dreaming about things that stem from fears in real life I want to know.  But as with everything to do with parenting, it depends on the child.  Aden almost always tells me her dreams and nightmares if I ask, and Mona refuses.  The last time Mona had a bad dream after seeing a cartoon that scared her a few months ago, she could barely stand to admit she needed comforting.  I was supposed to sit on the bed and look the other way while she huffed and said she was fine until she fell back asleep.  If Quinn wants me in the night he comes and finds me himself.  He has no fear of the dark.  All of my kids as babies looked as if they were dreaming about eating during most of their sleeping hours.

Lying with any of my kids in his or her bed at night is amusing to me.  All three of my kids currently share one room, and I’m always unprepared for how noisy it is.  I had a room to myself growing up.  There were times I thought it was lonely, but overall I liked having my own room and it took time to adjust to roommates in college.  My kids are so used to all being together that they’ve gotten good at blocking out sounds of restless shifting in other beds or the soft snores and breathing of their siblings.  Mona occasionally yells at her sister in her sleep, and Aden never stirs.  Quinn sleeps through an amazing amount of loud squeaky girl games in the mornings.

I stayed with Aden until she seemed relaxed, gave her a kiss, and told her I had to go back to my own bed if I were going to get any sleep myself.  She understood and went back to sleep.  I think she mostly just needed to know I was only one small cry of, “Mama!” away.  She keeps asking if we can invest in walkie talkies so she can call to me at night, and I keep reminding her that I hear the slightest peep from my room next door without any electronic gadgets at all.  The bad dreams my kids have are few and far between, and I’m relieved that a brief snuggle has been enough to fix them.

Personally, I used to have a lot of tooth nightmares.  I’d have a dream about once a week about my teeth falling out.  The last really vivid one I remember involved me holding in one of my canines while being driven in a cab to a dentist at night, and by the time we arrived I discovered that while I was holding in the one tooth, all the others had fallen out without my noticing.  There is no way to receive adequate pity for such a dream because it’s too stupid.  I remember the feeling of horror that accompanied it while I had it, but even I know it sounds laughable when I describe it.  Every once in awhile I’ll come across another piece about dream analysis that will include something about what tooth nightmares are supposed to represent, but they are all over the map and none of them sounds reasonable.  I sincerely think I’m probably nervous about losing my teeth and in this case the tooth shaped cigar is just a cigar.  The tooth nightmares, along with my daily bout of hiccups, both mostly disappeared once I got pregnant the first time.  I don’t have a clue what that’s about.

In any case, I haven’t noticed any increase in nightmares in the kids since their dad left, and I’m glad.  It is among the greatest gifts I can offer my children that they feel safe in their beds at night.  Ian’s deployment may have complicated their daylight hours, but at night there appears to be no change.  Most of their dreams remain sweet.
I hope it’s a long time before they realize that true nightmares happen when you’re awake.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flagged (Babble)

I don’t own a flag.  Flag waving tends to make me uncomfortable.  I love my country and I believe strongly in our constitution, but symbols of such complicated ideas can be easily abused.  My wedding ring may be a convenient symbol of my marriage, but it isn’t my marriage.  My wedding ring cost six dollars, and I stopped wearing it when it started irritating my finger.  Having a ring is nice but it doesn’t matter.  Symbols should not be more important than the things they represent.

Ian isn’t a fan of flag waving either and prefers to demonstrate his patriotism through his contributions rather than through displaying symbols on our home.   But the military is filled with symbols: ribbons and medals and coins that are earned through time and effort and sacrifice.  I think it’s nice he was awarded a bronze star, but I’m proud of him for his actions whether he’d gotten it or not.
(Aden, 4th of July during the last deployment)

I’m not saying symbols don’t have power.  On the contrary, I think they have too much.  They are often misused and misread.  People want to make assumptions about my husband because they have an idea in their minds of what his uniform symbolizes.  Sometimes they are right, and sometimes not.  The casual manner in which some people use swastikas to add drama to their propaganda turns my stomach, but the fact that we live in a country that tolerates the use of such a notorious symbol as free speech is what I try to focus on and appreciate.  Symbols are too often a substitute for critical thinking and that makes me wary.

The one time in recent memory that I wished I owned a flag was September 11th, 2001.  I was pregnant with Aden.  I could feel her squirming around inside of me as if there were no comfortable spot in which to settle, while I stayed glued to the TV and I cried.  Ian was called to the Army Reserve center for the evening as some kind of emergency measure, and watching him put on his uniform and be driven away with other soldiers was frightening.  It was my first glimpse of what the consequences of that uniform could mean beyond occasional weekends away from me.  I stood on the porch, alone except for the baby in my belly, and watched my neighbor put up his flag.  At that moment I wanted one too.  My country had been attacked, I felt attacked, and there was something comforting and resilient about those stars and stripes.  But the flags of my neighbors were enough.  None of the other houses on my block offered up a soldier.  Some commitment isn’t adequately summed up by flags.

Currently I live in slight fear of flags.  I have recurring nightmares of being handed a folded one in place of my husband.  I used to like to buy pretty picture frames at Target, but they have triangular flag frames in that aisle now and they always spark a sick feeling in my stomach when I spot them.  I don’t know if they always carried those flag frames and I just hadn’t noticed before, or if I just started seeing them because I’m aware of how much I hope to never need one.

I wish I didn’t have such mixed feelings because I like the American flag.  It’s a very attractive flag.  I remember asking my dad when I was a child why we didn’t get one to hang outside like some of the neighbors did, but I don’t remember getting a straight answer.   I’m enough my father’s daughter that as an adult I think I understand.  Children love flags.  They are bright and simple and fun to wave.   But a child’s eye view of the world is less complex.  I think back to visiting the Statue of Liberty the first time and watching the film at the visitors’ center.  It talked about what the statue means to so many through lots of little interview clips.  The repetitious pride was somewhat forgettable, but James Baldwin saying sadly that for black people the Statue of Liberty was a painful reminder of the freedom they were denied stays with me.  It was the first time I’d ever considered another side to all of those patriotic symbols I was surrounded by every day.

Our country reflects us, and since we are flawed, it is flawed.  But the beauty of our country in my mind is that it is structured in a way that addresses those flaws, and changes are possible if we choose to make them.  The fact that when my grandmother was born women couldn’t vote is unfair, but the fact that a few generations later my daughters watched women involved in the last presidential election is the America I believe in.
Several weeks before Ian left he attended a family readiness meeting.  I found a lot of pamphlets and folders from it when I was cleaning out the car at some point, and in the pile of mostly redundant information was a deployment flag–one of those little banners with a red border and a white field with blue stars in it to represent how many soldiers from your household are currently deployed.  I stared at it a long time, not sure what to do with it.  Ian knows me well enough that he understood I would have problems with it, which is why he left it in the trunk.  I don’t like having my husband reduced to a single blue star on a banner.  I don’t like advertising his absence on my house as if I support the idea of war.  But this deployment isn’t only about what I feel.  My whole family is involved and everyone’s feelings count.

I gave the flag to Aden.   I told her it represented her daddy being gone, and that she could do with it whatever seemed right to her.  I figured whether it became a doll blanket or ended up in a drawer, as long as it gave her comfort on some level it was doing its job.  For a week or so it traveled.  She hung it next to her seat in the minivan when we drove to school and brought it inside to put in her bedroom window at night.  That started to get awkward, so I told her if she wanted it up to just pick one spot.  It now hangs in our kitchen window next to her seat at the table.  I still have mixed emotions when I look at that little banner, and displaying it would not have been my choice, but whatever set of clashing ideas it represents to me, to Aden it simply means one thing.  To Aden, it’s all she has right now of daddy.  And she may display that with pride anytime she wants.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fear at Ft Hood (Babble)

For the past several weeks when people have asked how I’m doing, I’ve been able to say, “It’s hard, but it’s not scary–Ian’s still just training down in Louisiana.”  But now I’m scared.

Listening to the news about the shootings at Ft Hood on the radio while running errands with the kids yesterday was unsettling to say the least.  My husband spent time at Ft Hood during his last deployment, but this time he’s at Ft Polk.   I never considered he might be in danger while still in the US.  Now I don’t know.

I felt the strange, conflicting pieces of emotion I remember from last time.  There is a low level sense of fear that is always present when my husband is deployed that is impossible to shake.  It’s like a stalker.  I’m supposed to go about my life and not worry my kids, but I have the sense that I should be looking over my shoulder.  What I’m afraid I will see if I do is uniformed soldiers with grim, sympathetic faces telling me they have bad news.  It mkes me want to scream.

Yesterday I had to pick up a package in a place I was unfamiliar with and I got lost.  Quinn was asleep and the girls were playing in the back.  I try very, very hard not to ever yell at them to be quiet when they are simply having fun, but I was on edge.  The sketchy bits of information about Ft Hood on the radio were not really informative, only frightening.  I kept telling them to keep it down, please, but Mona is incredibly squeaky.  When one of them accidentally clocked the other in the eye and there were wails and shouts from the back seat, I yelled at them to look out their respective windows and not talk to each other for awhile.  I told them I was sorry for yelling, but I needed quiet until I figured out where we were going.

There is no reason for them to know what happened at Ft Hood because it doesn’t have anything directly to do with their dad.  I’m not even sure why I’m as nervous about it as I am.

I do know that I have the same guilty feelings as before, whenever I found out that soldiers in Iraq who were hurt or killed were not my husband.  There is relief in knowing someone you love is safe, but grief that someone else is suffering.  I feel like a horrible person for being glad it was someone else, and not Ian.  I don’t know what to do about that.

My heart is breaking for those soldiers’ families today.  What a nightmare.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Garden Fairies and Other Magical Beings (Babble)

The first few days of Ian’s deployment were surreal.  The first steps of a long journey don’t feel any different from the first steps of a walk around the block.  Everything felt normal with an underlying sense that it shouldn’t.

After a couple of weeks we were in a new and fairly predictable routine.  That felt good, like I was in control of things, and Ian being gone wasn’t going to be too disruptive.  We could miss Ian, but still lead our lives just fine.  It was inconvenient but doable.

Somewhere about a month in is when the true effects of having a deployed spouse start to hit.  Certain things began to get away from me at about the three week mark and I started to get frazzled.  I may have a handle on most things inside the house, but the outside is another story.  There is nowhere in my schedule to do anything with the yard.  I would make a mental note on the walk from the house to the car that the hedges looked awful and the peonies needed to be cut down and the mulberry tree that seemed to be growing right out of the foundation of the garage needed to be chopped back into submission.  But when?  Quinn is next to me practically every minute, and between shuttling girls around (to school and violin and choir and birthday parties) and running my business, there is just enough time left to go grocery shopping and do other basic errands.  Something had to give and that something was the yard.

Luckily, I know incredible people.  I think we all do, but most of us are never in a circumstance to call on them for anything.

My neighbor from across the street offered to mow my lawn, which he did on a Sunday morning and I was grateful.  When I came home with the kids later in the day, the hedges were also trimmed and the garden cleaned up and the pots overturned.  The house didn’t look abandoned anymore and I was really happy.  That bit of help came at a time when I really needed it, and I sent a note across the street with Aden to thank him for doing so much.  My neighbor called a minute later saying he couldn’t take credit for the additional yard work because he hadn’t been sure what he should touch in the garden.  It was Garden Fairies.

The kids and I speculated at dinner about who could have done it.  “Sophia’s dad did it once, so maybe it was him!  Or Anna’s dad, or maybe Julie since she has to look at the garden from her window anyway…. ”  Between the girls and myself (with Quinn echoing everyone for good measure) we came up with several likely candidates for the Garden Fairy Brigade.  I pointed out to my kids how lucky we were to know so many nice people that an act of kindness toward us could even be a mystery.  We all smiled as we finished our dinner and as I went to bed I still couldn’t narrow down in my head who the Garden Fairies might be.

The very next day I found myself in a minor mini-crisis at the violin store.  I’ve been doing pretty well at spreading out the work I need to do so I don’t get overwhelmed, but a surprise rehair showed up.  (A rehair is when you put new horsehair on a bow.  Violinists need their bows reahaired every six weeks to two years depending on how much they play.)  It was an expensive cello bow that I’ve done before that takes a lot of concentration to do well, and I agreed to work on it because I’d just gotten back from the library with Quinn and he had a new movie to watch and a snack to eat.  I figured he would be distracted long enough for me to do the job even though I hadn’t planned for it.  Of course, the minute I cut the old hair and there was no turning back, Quinn had a meltdown.  He wanted to climb in my lap, and when I told him ‘no’ he turned into a wailing puddle.

After about ten minutes of Quinn thwarting any chance of my doing the rehair I was starting to feel panicky. I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, and just then a friend walked into the store to buy new strings for her instrument.  It was my girls’ violin teacher, and I found myself telling her I was getting frustrated with Quinn keeping me from my work, and she offered to take him with her on some errands for a little while.  It was like a miracle.  Quinn was perfectly happy to take her hand and we put his booster seat in her car, and they went to the post office and the bank together.  He can be lovely company (if you’re not trying to rehair a bow), and he was happy to get a lollypop from the bank teller.  I was able to do the rehair in peace and get it done on time, and I felt so…light.  That half an hour of quiet exactly when I needed it gave me a whole new lease on life.  I was glad to have my son back again when they returned and he was glad to have a happier mommy.

The week before Halloween I was lucky enough to have my brother, Arno, and a friend of his, come visit for a few days after they attended a brain conference in Chicago.  Arno’s friend was one of the sweetest guests imaginable, and he fixed little things around the house for me and the kids.  His family was back in Boston, and that he was willing to take a little time away from his own daughter to play with my kids was incredibly nice.  (They miss you, Satra, if you happen to read this!)

But the reigning champion of selfless helpers these days has to be my brother, Arno.  The day his friend flew home we had a disaster involving something called the P-trap in our basement.  Sewage everywhere.  It even blew up out of the basement toilet.  Roto Rooter came and fixed it, but left us the mess to mop up, and there is something so impossibly disgusting about knowing it’s not just human waste you’re wading through, but other people’s waste, that it makes me gaggy just thinking about it again. 

I went out and bought a giant container of bleach and a couple of sets of disposable gloves, and I fully intended to spend some disgusting mopping time down in my basement, but Arno did it all.  I figured we’d feed the kids and put them to bed, and then the two of us could go at it, but Arno decided it couldn’t wait.  I made dinner while he went down with plastic bags wrapped around his shoes and cleaning tools we knew would have to be sacrificed to the cause.  He scoured everything and used up the entire container of bleach and made extra sure that the whole bathroom and the path to the washing machine in particular were CLEAN.  When he was done he threw away his pants and he headed straight for the shower.

The amazing thing about having my brother here is he actually made me laugh about the whole mess.   I love him so much.  And as much as I felt like the world’s worst hostess to have Arno clean up sewage on his visit, the truth is he was there to help.  I could not have needed it more!  If that had happened while I was alone with the kids I would have cried.  I’d have had to wait until the kids were asleep and stayed up all night alone mopping my basement, trying not to throw up and alternately weeping and cursing.  But instead I baked my brother pumpkin pies.  We laughed at the incredible grossness of the whole thing.  I made a joke about how he didn’t owe me presents ever again because he was good for all my birthdays, and he misunderstood and thought I meant I wouldn’t give him gifts anymore (since how do you top a sewage cleaning experience as a present?) and we laughed so hard I almost peed myself.  To top it off, after giving the kids a lecture about not using so much toilet paper (the likely cause of the disaster to begin with), Mona used the toilet and waved to the bowl after she flushed saying, “Bye bye!  See you again soon!”  Who knew sewage backup could be so funny?  (Says the woman who didn’t have to clean any of it.)

Oh, and the Garden Fairy?  Turned out to be my friend Carol who seems to be making a career out of saving my sanity on a regular basis.  She is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known and I’m so proud to be able to call her my firend.   Her husband recently fixed a door in my house.  I paid him in apple pie.

I went out and bought a supply of disposable pie pans this week.  I have a feeling if these first couple of months are any indication, before this deployment is over I’ll have a lot more baking to do.