Monday, May 31, 2010

A Memorial Day Note (Babble)

As a resident military family voice here on Babble I felt I should speak up today.  But weirdly I may be the least qualified because I’m not good at this day of remembrance.
I got a lovely call from a relative thanking both my husband for the work he’s doing with the Army in Iraq right now, and me for supporting him and keeping our family together while he does his job.  I appreciated that, because she loves us and cares about us, and her opinion is one I value.  I also appreciated that she attended the local Memorial Day events near her home.  I can’t bring myself to do that, so I’m glad when someone else can. 

When I see parades of uniformed men and women I experience alternating waves of pride and anger and despair and I don’t know what to do with myself.  I try not to let my children see me cry, especially when it’s about feelings so confused that I can’t even explain it to them.  So we avoid military parades.

I have incredibly mixed feelings about the pomp and circumstance associated with all things military.

There is no single category of people who deserve praise across the board merely because they share the same title, whether that title be American soldier, priest, doctor or mom.  I don’t want to lump the service my grandfather did in the Second World War with any of the people who disgraced their uniform by committing atrocities at Abu Ghraib.  I accept the gratitude strangers ask me to pass along to my husband because I know the service he’s doing is honorable and he has earned the praise he gets.  I don’t make blanket assumptions like that about other soldiers, but I give them the benefit of the doubt the same as I do in general for many, regardless of their profession.

The people I admire most are the ones who quietly and consistently work to help others using whatever talents or resources they have.  Some do that as soldiers, others as firefighters, some as scientists or artists or musicians or teachers or nurses or compassionate neighbors.  Many people who deserve to be memorialized are not and never will be.  I’m thankful beyond all measure that there are people like my husband willing to risk their lives so that I may have the freedom to speak and work out my thoughts on such matters without fear of my government.  I appreciate my way of life and understand the sacrifices so many have made so I can enjoy it.  I don’t take that lightly.

But I also believe that we have squandered and abused the willingness to sacrifice of many soldiers and it upsets me deeply.  Just because someone is ready to give his or her life for this country doesn’t mean he or she should do it now or for just any cause.  I am willing to lay down my life for any of my children, but not to throw my body in front of a bus for something like being on time to school.  The cause must be worthy or at least perceived that way.  This particular cause my husband is involved in may be worth his time, but from my point of view it’s not worth his life, so I hope every day it doesn’t come to that.

The medals and ribbons and flag waving and parades are in part sincere tribute, and I’m glad it’s offered.  Part of me is suspicious that it is also there to lead people too young to grasp what their lives could be into joining an organization that seems to offer them glory and respect but that may simply lead to death.  Every time they run an ‘In Memoriam’ segment on the news listing the names and ages of soldiers killed recently, I want to look away and I can’t.  I wouldn’t want people looking away from my husband’s name if it were on such a list.  I end up sitting on the kitchen floor crying, hoping the kids continue playing happily in the yard and don’t stumble across me.  Because those aren’t good teachable moments.  They are moments when I’m too vulnerable to monitor what I say, and my children are too young to be burdened with their mother’s darker thoughts, which are these:

Every day is someone’s Memorial Day.  My grandfather served in the Navy, but I try to honor him every day.  I grieve for him every December 2nd which is when he died.  I’m not going to let someone else dictate when I should remember my grandfather or for what.  And many people grieve for loved ones who died for nothing.  War should not be celebrated and made to look exciting or noble.  War is something the human race should be ashamed that it sometimes must resort to.

As I say, I’m not good at this holiday.  But I think my husband still loves me anyway, and his is the only military opinion I care about.  On this Memorial Day I’m going to go downstairs after I shut my laptop and make my kids blueberry pancakes.  I don’t want them to think about war just because the calendar says we should.  We will play in the yard and maybe go swimming at the Y.  We will read books and make music and live the kind of life people have made great sacrifices to make possible.  I’ll choose my own day to mourn the dead.  That’s not today.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Moving In, Moving On (Babble)

We have new neighbors.  They’re in our old house.  It’s nice to see it looking lively again because I didn’t like looking across the street at an empty place, but it’s also a little sad.  But also a little exciting.  But also a little weird.

The closing went well.  It takes a lot longer to sign so many papers when you have to add all of that extra power of attorney information to everything.  There was a brief moment of bureaucratic panic when someone noticed Ian’s signature on the power of attorney form didn’t match the printed version in some way, and I thought that was insane since they let me take out a mortgage and buy a house with that signature, so was it really a problem to let me sell one now?  But it all worked out.

The kids came along to the closing.  Mona made a beautiful card to welcome the buyers to the neighborhood.  Aden decorated the envelope, and Quinn helped me bake cookies for them.  We made sure the new neighbors had our number in case they ever need anything, and I gave them a folder of all the manuals I could find for things in their new house, like the washer and dryer and the sump pump.  The whole thing took over an hour, which got boring for everyone, but overall my kids were good.  By the end when we were just waiting for our check I got them all playing hangman with me on a pad of post it notes and that kept them happy and not roaming the halls.

The only unusual element to the event was handing over the keys.  I gave our new neighbors the two garage door openers and about a half dozen keys, and then I explained there was one more.  Aden got her very own house key from her dad as a gift when she was seven.  It’s attached to a large shoelace and even though she’s never used it, she loves it.  When I told her the day before that we had to give the key to the new owners of the house her eyes filled with tears and she said, “But, it’s from my daddy.”  So I let her bring it to the closing and I brought a mill file in my purse, and I told her if the buyers objected to her having a working key I would just file down one of the bumps on it so it wouldn’t work anymore.  She didn’t want me mutilating her key, but she agreed it was better than having to give it up entirely.  Of course the new neighbors not having hearts of stone said she could certainly keep her key from her deployed dad, and Aden promised she would keep it in a safe place.  (I’m sure by next week they’ll have changed the locks anyway, but I think it was important to be honest.)

The night before the closing I went through the house alone.  Ten years is a long time to live somewhere, and Ian and I worked so hard on that house.  I thought about how big it was when it was just the two of us.  It was still roomy when Aden came along.  It was decidedly not roomy after we brought Mona home.  And with five people and a violin making workshop it was officially cramped.

There are just two people there again, and I can easily imagine their excitement as they fill the house with all their things.  We primed some rooms for them before we left so they can get right to painting as soon as they choose colors.  I’m sure they’re already discussing what to change and what to keep.  It’s a house with many possibilities–as long as you’re not cramped.

While I was walking around it one last time I looked in the upstairs hallway at the stripes I painted there with the leftover colors from the living and dining rooms.  I thought about the crazy hundred year old wallpaper we uncovered while working on some of the walls downstairs.  We tore down fake wood paneling and re-plastered walls and built baseboards and ran wood through my bench top bandsaw on the living room floor to make our windowsills.  We were so young then, back in 2000, just after I graduated from violin making school, before deployments or children or health insurance.

I didn’t cry.  I expected to cry as I walked around with my camera and took some photos to show to Ian how the house looked on the last day it was ours.  But then as I was coming down the stairs I snapped one more picture while thinking about each of my babies learning to climb those steep steps, and the flash illuminated all the dirt in the carpeting.  Every infant and toddler atrocity that happened to that carpet came flooding back and instead of feeling sentimental I thought “Eeeww” and was glad to get back to my new house where I’m blissfully ignorant of whatever horrors have happened on those floors before we got there.

The kids didn’t want to go in.  Actually, Aden didn’t want to go in, and her siblings just tend to follow her lead.  Aden walked around the old house once with me a couple of weeks ago when I was checking on some work being done, and she was disturbed by how it looked empty.  She cried when we were standing in my old room (which was once her nursery) and said, “I can’t really remember it the way it was.”  I know that pain.  Not wanting to let go is not the same thing as not wanting to move ahead.
I sat on the porch steps before heading off with the kids to transfer ownership of the house to new people.  I finished painting that porch alone in time for Ian to admire it when he returned from his first deployment.  The view of our neighborhood is different from that side of the street.

It’s been fun watching the new people start unloading their stuff.  It’s obvious they are happy, and I’m happy for them.  As interesting as it is watching them moving in as we are moving on, it’s peculiar to be so close by.  There is comfort in seeing our first house right outside our windows because the memories are nearer.  We will never be surprised by driving past the old house and realizing we remembered it differently, because it’s right there.  But it’s strange to see things happening to it and not have it be any of our business.  I’ve unlatched the gate to the backyard a million times and now I’m not supposed to.  I can’t pick the peonies when they bloom there in early June, but I’ll see them from my bedroom.  The transition is incomplete somehow, even though it’s officially done, like breaking up with your roommate or giving your dog to the person next door.  The ghosts of habits will linger for longer than they might if we had moved away from our neighborhood entirely.  It will be awhile yet before the urge to turn left instead of right at our intersection fades from memory.

But it’s good and it’s right.  This house is now home, and we create more family history here every day.  Houses are like good violins in that we become chapters in their stories.  We are merely caretakers of certain things in our own lifetime.  I’m hoping the stories we make here with our lives will be passed down as neighborhood lore after we’re gone and it makes people smile.  I know I’m smiling already.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So Many Roads (Babble)

Whew.  I did a lot of driving this past weekend and I’m still feeling a little dazed.
My cousin and his wife are expecting a baby in June and they had a shower for the occasion in Ohio on Saturday.  I love my cousin and I’m very excited for them and thought to myself how hard could driving out there for a quick visit be?  Ha.  The only real problem with the timing was that the series finale of Lost was on Sunday and I had planned to watch it with my mom.  She’s in Michigan.  So I added a trip up to Detroit to the itinerary, checked a couple of DVDs out of the library for the kids to watch in the car, packed a bag and an air mattress and we hit the road.

I pulled the kids out of school on Friday and did the all day drive with many potty stops and a meal at Denny’s in about ten hours (I think–I lost track with the time zone change).  We were planning to stay with a relative when we got to Columbus, but halfway there we found out she was about to bury her adorable but ancient dog Smokey Joe who had died a couple of nights before.  I didn’t want to burden her with house guests while she was so sad, so we called a friend who we trust really means it when she says, “Come stay with us anytime!”  Short notice indeed for a minivan full of freeloaders to just arrive and stay two nights, but my friend couldn’t be nicer, and she really didn’t seem to mind.  (She even seemed a little sad we couldn’t stay longer, which means she’s also a little crazy, which means I love her even more now.)

I think it worked out for the better that we ended up at my friend’s home.  My kids are comfortable there and toys are abundant.  But the nice thing for me was that I was able to leave my kids playing happily for a couple of hours while I visited my grandma in a nearby nursing home.  She’s been moved to a higher level of care since I last saw her, and it was good to be able to spend a little time with her quietly, without my kids along as a distraction.

Seeing my grandma anymore is surreal.  She’s fading away.  She seems to live in a dreamlike state, and I hope with all my heart that it’s pleasant for her.  But in certain surprising moments she’s still my grandma, and during those moments I realize just how much I miss her.  She asked me several times (each time as if it were the first) when Ian is coming home.  I would catch her up on how he’s doing, but all that talk of a beloved husband returning to Milwaukee from a war kept morphing into grandpa in her mind.  It’s hard to know when she makes a comment what she’s actually commenting on.  We could carry on a conversation, but I have no way of knowing if we were sharing the same one.  I told her how Ian asked if we could please go to the cottage in Michigan for a little vacation when he gets back from Iraq and she looked delighted.  My grandma loved her cottage, and after a few moments of thinking about it she started talking to me as if we were there.  I suppose if you can live in a nursing home but in your mind live in your favorite place from any moment in time, that would be the silver lining of what’s happened to my grandma, but it still makes me sad. 

I miss her so much, and it’s confusing to miss her most when I’m holding her hand in my own.  It usually upsets her when I tell her I’m leaving, so now when I go I just tell her the next thing I’m doing in lieu of goodbye.  I told her Saturday when I took her to the dining area for lunch at the end of our visit that I was going to check on my kids.  I don’t know if she waited for me to return, or if she even remembered I was ever there a few moments after I was gone.  I just don’t know much about my grandma anymore.  But I’m certain she still loves me, and for that I’m humbled and grateful.
(My gram and me.  We’ve both looked better but it will have to do.)

The rest of that day I spent out with the kids at the baby shower.  The jumble of emotions at that event was bizarre.  I was still reflecting on my visit with grandma which was bittersweet, I was thrilled for my cousin and his wife, sad about the dog that had died, proud of my kids for behaving well, anxious about being shy around all the people I didn’t know, happy to see relatives I’ve missed, and depressed that Ian wasn’t there.  It was a wonderful party and well worth all the driving, but I was emotionally wiped out by the end of it.  If I were to write the experience down as fiction people would complain that juxtaposing large themes of birth and death and love and loss into such a condensed setting would be unrealistic.  But life is really like that more often than we care to admit.

That night my kids got to bed way too late because I’d tried to read the new kids’ book club selection to Aden (The Witches by Roald Dahl) and it made her so scared she cried.  I was up telling amusing stories about our old pet rabbits for a good hour so the kids would go to sleep happy instead of upset.  Poor Aden.  Part of me appreciates that she’s so tenderhearted, and part of me thinks I need to toughen her up fast or the real world will destroy her.

The next morning we hit the road again and made it to my parents’ house by mid afternoon.  I do have to say that my kids are troopers in the car.  It’s hard driving for such long stretches, but it would be infinitely worse if my kids weren’t so nice to travel with.  They watched movies in the backseat and laughed and sang and slept while leaning on each other, and I couldn’t have asked for them to be better.  I was never that good so I don’t know where they get it from.  Must be their dad.

Anyway, when I arrived at my parents’ house and mentioned something about looking forward to watching the last episode of Lost on the big TV, my mom said, “Oh, no, we only use that one for DVDs because it needs a converter box.  We’re going to watch on the little TV in the kitchen.”  I let out a small scream and said I did not wait six years and drive all those miles to watch my one show wrap up on a small kitchen TV.  No no no.  I don’t ask for much (my husband is reading this on another part of the globe thinking “Except for a newer bigger house….”) but Lost has been my one little entertainment luxury that I cling to desperately, and even though it was rude I said we needed to find a better place to watch.  My mom, being awesome, called a neighbor who was out of town to get permission to use her TV.  This turned out to have the added bonus that I got to watch without my kids in the same house, so it was a really nice break.  (There was also the amusing element of a friend of my mom’s watching with us who hadn’t seen the show in years and asked me to get him “caught up.”  I told him there was no catching up on Lost.  You either invest yourself in it or there’s no point to it.  It’s just not a casual show.  I found myself doing some impolite shushing during the program that I’m embarrassed by, but you just can’t jump in at the finale and ask me what’s happening because I barely know myself and need to pay attention.)

So getting to watch Lost with my mom was fun, and my kids got to draw with my dad which they loved, and then first thing Monday morning we were back on the highway.   The things I was reminded of during this leg of the journey was how amazing it is that there can be nothing appealing on so many radio stations across much of the midwest, and that there is no good time to drive through Chicago when the sun is up.  We got home in time for a late dinner and even later baths.  The nice thing was I had hired some friends to install a few sorely needed outlets in different rooms in my house while we were gone, and coming back to little improvements was like getting gifts from unseen elves.  (Electrician elves are among the best kind.)

That was my weekend.  I’m glad we did it, and I’m glad it’s over.  (And it got me fantasizing again about how marvelous a transporter a la Star Trek would be for certain trips.  Someone is working on that for real, right?  Please?)
(RIP Smokey Joe.  We loved you.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Change of Toon (Babble)

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed since my kids and I started doing Friday Night Movie Night is just how much children’s programming has changed.  In a lot of ways for the better.  Yes, there are some great things from the past that I want to share with my kids, but I think it’s a very recent phenomenon that any real consideration has been put into what might be not only appropriate, but beneficial for small children to see in movies or on TV.

The first time I gave this much thought was back in 2006 right after Ian left for his first deployment.  Aden was 4 and Mona was 2, and since I was pregnant and tired all the time I decided to invest in a bunch of DVDs we could watch together for when I was too torpid to move.  I picked up a newly released box set of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons I grew up with, because hey, wouldn’t that be sweet and fun?

Now, I’m not someone who tries to shelter her kids particularly.  Bugs Bunny is just a funny cartoon.  But I was really taken aback by all the guns in the Looney Toons shows.  Until I found myself sitting next to Aden who was asking me about all that shooting I hadn’t realized how much of it there was.  There’s a ton.  And you don’t see guns in children’s shows anymore.  Even in programs for slightly older kids, only bad guys might have guns.  Good guys usually know martial arts or have special powers or are simply clever.  I know Bugs Bunny is over the top and it’s silly and I watched those cartoons endlessly as a kid and I came out fine, but it was a little alarming after years of nothing more volatile than Blue’s Clues to see characters getting shot in the face.  And blown up.  And behaving in a way that was, well, despicable.  I don’t know if you could make a cartoon like that for kids today.  Which is probably good, because as much as whiney Caillou grates on my ears, I see my kids emulating the gentle behavior they watch on that show, and it’s nice.  Dropping anvils on people?  Not so nice.  Admittedly, Bugs Bunny wasn’t written for kids (much like the Simpsons today), but it got used that way when I was growing up and no one seemed to mind.

When we do see guns in old programs I make a point to talk to my kids about it.  I explain to them that daddy carries a gun in the Army, but that the Army takes guns very seriously.  Guns are dangerous.  Daddy has never brought a gun home.  Guns exist to kill, and if they see one they are not to touch it.  When I felt sure that they understood that the way the guns were being used in the cartoons was just as unreal as a talking rabbit or a duck having pronoun trouble, I let them watch Bugs and the gang to their heart’s content.  But I’ll never forget how uneasy I felt watching those cartoons with my kids the first time when all I was expecting was to enjoy a little nostalgia.

And it’s not just guns, it’s a comfort with the idea of violence in general that doesn’t come up very often nowadays in programming for children.  My kids enjoyed Pete’s Dragon when a friend lent it to us, and I remember seeing it in the theater as a kid, but the whole first song is a dirty bunch of hillbillies (that was cringe worthy in and of itself) describing all the things they would like to do to Pete when they find him.  I had to listen to Mona and Aden take turns asking things like, “What does string him from a tree mean?  What is fill him full of lead?  Why are they saying let the pup drown?  What is strap him?  Why would somebody hurt a kid?”  Youch.

The other big theme that doesn’t come up in modern children’s movies or TV is characters getting drunk.  I never realized what a recurring presence alcohol was in so many stories until I found myself having to explain what drunkenness was to my kids anytime I popped in a cartoon made before 1992.  I had to talk to Aden about what a hangover was for the first time while we were watching Dumbo.  The idea of Clifford the Big Red Dog on a bender or Dora the Explorer getting tipsy is only imaginable as a Youtube spoof.  I can’t think of a single character created for my kids during their lifetime that was shown drunk on a show.   (Possible exception being Homer Simpson and his friends, but that show isn’t actually aimed at kids.)  That’s fine by me.  I don’t want them seeing alcohol abuse as some funny, harmless thing because they saw it all the time on TV.

Then there are the obvious problems of racist and sexist content to deal with.  Peter Pan is a disturbing example.  I let my kids watch it at someone else’s house, but I told them the song about the Indians was mean.  I’ve always been bothered that Ariel in The Little Mermaid was willing to trade her voice for a man she didn’t even know.   There’s some weird stuff in Popeye and Betty Boop I don’t even want to go into. 

In today’s cartoons there is a much better balance of both race and gender on TV.  My kids are growing up at a time when they know their president is black and their principal is hispanic and several of the soldiers their dad went to Iraq with are women.  I think children’s programming now reflects that because less diversity would look unrealistic to them today.  But it’s complicated having to explain how people used to think back when other movies we watch were made.  And I’m sad to tell them many people still do think like that.

There are unexpected issues that come up with the older shows, too.  We rented the first season of Fat Albert recently because I loved it as a kid but don’t think I’ve seen it since the 70’s.  My kids spent the first three episodes completely fixated on the fact that Fat Albert was fat.  “Why is he so fat?  Does he exercise?  Why does he look even fatter on the disc than on the show?  What does he eat that makes him so fat?”  Characters may be more diverse in some ways on TV today, but only in ways we see as healthy.  The only fat characters I can think of in kids’ movies and on TV today are actual pigs.  I can name more characters in wheelchairs on the shows my kids watch than ones with weight issues.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  I just think it’s intersting that while watching Fat Albert none of my kids were curious why everyone spent all their free time in a garbage dump.

I’m obviously not one of those parents who bans TV for her kids.  In our case I don’t see the point.  I like TV, and my kids like TV.  If my kids weren’t also keeping up with violin practice and going to choir and biking around the block and using their hula hoops and learning to cook and putting on magic shows and doing about eight hundred million other creative endeavors, then I would worry that TV was causing them to miss out on something.  But I watch TV or DVDs in the backgroud while I work or fold laundry, and no one ever tells me I lack creativity or don’t do enough in an average day.  I have one friend who told me he grew up without TV because it broke one afternoon and his parents never replaced it.  He felt the result was the development of bad time management skills, because he had all day to get a few things done, and kids he knew who squeezed in time for TV were more efficient at more tasks.  I don’t know if I buy that, but it was a take on kids and TV I hadn’t heard before.

In any case, I appreciate that there are enough decent shows on today that I don’t have to worry much about what my kids are watching when they turn on the TV.  I love Word Girl, and Cyber Chase isn’t bad, and even though the new Electric Company doesn’t look anything like the one I grew up with, my kids get excited by it and always learn something.  The Saturday morning cartoons they watch are junk, but so were the ones I liked as a kid.  There is a value to having that kind of cultural touchstone in one’s life, even if the result is having a bunch of dialogue from the Brady Bunch permanently lodged in my head (or for Aden a lot of Pokemon information).

The biggest challenge with popular media for me is trying to help my kids avoid things they don’t want to see.  They choose not to watch things that are upsetting, but so many things that aren’t appropriate for them are marketed in a way that seems to include them.  They know to turn off Family Guy or South Park if they run across them even though they look like kid shows, but there are so many new things all the time that look fun to them that I have to screen and it gets tiring.

Someone lent me a copy of Avatar recently and Aden asked if she could please watch it.  I told her I would watch it first since I didn’t know how she would react to it.  Personally, I found the film disappointing, maybe because I was seeing it following too much hype.  It was very pretty, and if you like one kind of chase scene after another there were a lot of those, but it felt most of the time like I was watching a video game.  The plot was so thin and the characters so flat (ironic for a 3-D movie) that if you stripped away the visuals there wasn’t much there.  Not one character did anything unexpected.  Anyway, I didn’t forbid Aden from seeing it, but I told her there were some things I knew she wouldn’t like.  She’s sensitive enough that watching the big tree come down would have her crying for days and I don’t see the point. 

But my big problem with it was how awful all the military people were.  Every man in uniform was cruel and thoughtless.  My children don’t need to see images of people dressed like their dad killing innocent creatures and destroying beautiful things with no remorse.  Maybe there are soldiers like that, but I haven’t met any.  The first friend I had who got sent to Iraq works as a naturalist here in the Milwaukee county parks system.  He led a team of army firefighters and in his spare moments documented the wildlife he saw.  I may not agree with our use of the military in many situations, but individual soldiers are still people.  Avatar would have done better not to paint soldiers with such a broad and ugly brush.  But then, decent character development would have taken time away from the pretty pretty pictures, and I’m a violin maker not a professional film critic, so I’ll just let that go.

Regardless of any challenges there are helping my kids navigate a world full of TV and movies, I’m glad we live during a time of so many choices.   PBSkids does a great job, and I’ve learned as much from the kids’ Signing Time DVDs as they have.  (Now if I can just find them a Shirley Temple movie where I don’t have to explain about wars or slavery we’ll be set for a good Movie Night some Friday.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rock of the Week (Babble)

My children are still young enough that they think their parents are cool.  Poor things are in for a shock someday when they realize knowing a lot of Dr Who and Star Trek trivia won’t likely help them with their social status, but hey, in the meantime their dad is pleased all his kids know what a dalek is, and I’m trying to teach them a little bit of everything that interests me while they are willing to listen.  One of the things I love best in the world is rocks.

I don’t have a huge rock collection compared to people I know with serious rock collections, but I have a lot of rocks.  I particularly like pieces of petrified wood, and I’ve always been a sucker for pyrite.  Pyrite (iron sulfide) is more commonly known as fool’s gold, and at the gem and mineral fairs I used to go to with my family as a kid it was shiny and cheap and I loved it.  I like fossils, I like fourite, I like calcite and malochite and gneiss and shale….  I took all the geology classes my music major schedule would allow back in college and I still happily browse through my old textbooks when I run across them.  There’s something marvelous about holding an object that is so incredibly old in your hands, and knowing a bit about how it was formed.  Rocks are neat.

For years my poor husband has had to help me move boxes of rocks. We’ve lived in 4 different apartments and a house together since we met way back in 1989, and he’s helped haul my rocks over state lines and across time zones.  (He loves me a great deal.)  Unfortunately we’ve never lived in a space that actually allowed me to enjoy my rocks because there was just never enough room, so they stayed in storage everywhere.  Until now.

I busted out my big box of rocks the other day and had a wonderful time sorting though them and rediscovering all the wonderful things I’ve collected over time.  Some of the prettiest things I bought at different fairs, but a large number of them are things I found on my own.  I have some fabulous quartz I picked up in India near the Ajanta caves, and some beautiful large stones from Cape Bretton, little chunks from a pumice desert in Oregon, and a handful of colorful pebbles from the lake where we spent our honeymoon in Michigan. There are my rocks from Alaska, a hunk of marble from the streets of Rome, and little polished stones I’ve had as long as I can remember.

Quinn was particularly intrigued with the shells I also have, many of which I picked up during low tide at the Bay of Fundy when Ian and I were there about 15 years ago, long before kids but in geologic time not even the beginning of a blink.  Quinn and I had fun looking at each little item (except for discovering the remains of one of my old pet hermit crabs in one of the shells, but at least that’s one mystery from 7th grade solved at last).

The girls were so thrilled with all the different things that when I suggested we implement a ‘Rock of the Week’ event they were all over it.  Mona got to pick first and selected a trilobite fossil.  The plan is that every Sunday each kid gets a turn at picking out any rock to feature in a prominant place and we get to talk about what it is and enjoy having it on display for the whole week.  I have no clue if this will hold their interest past the first month, but I like it.

So now we’re a rockin’ kind of family, just not the kind anyone would put on reality television.  (Rock of the week!  I’m a happy mama.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Temporary (Babble)

One of my kids’ favorite books is called ‘Too Much Noise’ which is about a grumpy old man who thinks his house is too noisy.  A wise man tells him to fill his home with all manner of loud animals and things get much worse.  When the noise reaches its peak, the wise man then tells him to get rid of all the animals, and the orignal sounds that used to bother the old man now seem not just tolerable but pleasant.

I feel like I’ve reached a point like that in this deployment.  I had too much to handle when my husband left in the fall and it was overwhelming at times.  Running the violin store, teaching lessons, and caring for the kids seemed like more than I could do.  Then I decided to sell our house and move into the one across the street.  That added a ridiculous amount of work into a schedule with no room for it, and now that the move is done and our responsibilities to the old house are winding down as we get nearer to the closing, I feel more calm than I have in a long time.  All I have to do is run the violin store, teach some lessons, and care for the kids.  I’m not in danger of being bored, but I have to say it just doesn’t feel as hard as it did back in September.  Things are going well right now.  It feels jinxy to write that, but I don’t want to be a superstitious person, so I will just admit that things are fine and let it be.

There are still some kinks in the system, however, and in my newfound quiet moments I’ve been thinking about what they mean.  When I step outside myself a little and try to see what other people see, I realize some things don’t look set up as well as they could be to function in the best way.  And the reason is because this phase is supposed to be temporary.

One of the hardest parts of living on this end of the deployment is that I have to operate as a single parent, but not redesign my life to really be one.  I have to be self-sufficient, but still leave room for Ian for when he comes home.  As impractical as it sounds, I don’t want to be too self-sufficient.  When I stumble in my routine because my partner is missing, it helps remind me that he’s needed here.  I don’t want to erase the necessity for my husband in our lives.  I could make certain things easier, but I need to need him.

Part of it is just me being stubborn.  For instance, I don’t want to learn the more businessy sides of my business if I don’t have to.  Ian is good at things like Quickbooks and all I want to do is fix violins, so we’re a good team while he’s here.  When technical things with the business get complicated I hold my breath and think, “Just a few more months….We just have to get by for a few more months and Ian will know what to do.”  If Ian were never coming back, I’d have to dive in and make myself learn it all.  And I know it’s that vaguely superstitious part of me surfacing again, but I don’t want to do anything in a way as if he’s never coming back.  He promised me he’d come home in one piece.  I live with an underlying terror that he won’t.  Not learning Quickbooks somehow means he has to.

Mowing the lawn is another thing I approach haphazardly.  Currently I rely on a boy who is about ten years old who just sort of shows up when the lawn looks shaggy and I give him five bucks plus a tip.  That’s working, but if this weren’t temporary I would find a way to do it myself.  Same goes for learning to use the grill, figuring out certain computer things, and cleaning up the garage.  (I’m sort of horrified by how much the division of labor in our house has fallen down stereotypical gender lines, but it just kind of happened.  I honestly hadn’t noticed it until Ian got deployed the first time.  I still own most of the cool tools, though.  My kids know the bandsaw is a mom thing.)

I’m not helpless by any means, and I don’t want to make it sound like without a man around I can’t get by because that’s just not true.  I think I’m managing pretty well, considering.  But those coarse edges here and there feel necessary.  Certain things aren’t supposed to be easy.  I’m not a masochist, but I accept that there are things that are supposed to hurt.  Knowing my husband is working in a dangerous situation in Iraq hurts.  Watching my kids growing up a little more each day without their daddy here to see it hurts.  Ian matters to us, so his absence is hard.  The only way it wouldn’t hurt is if we didn’t care.  The hurt is part of how we know we do.

When things get rough I just focus on getting through one day at a time.  During the last deployment when I was pregnant (and eventually toting around a newborn) sometimes I focused on just getting through each hour.  This deployment compared to the last one is a lot like the ‘Too Much Noise’ book.  Even with the move this experience has been much easier than before, primarily because I’m not dangerously sleep deprived.  And as I said, right now things are fine.  As fine as they can be with a husband-sized hole in my life.  But he promised me he’ll be back.  This is temporary.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Club (Babble)

The first real event I got to host in my new house was my daughter’s book club meeting last weekend.  I volunteered to host book club because I figured it would give me good incentive to get cleaned up and organized, plus I thought it would be nice for Aden to have so many of her friends over at one time in her new house.  I think everything went well.

The idea of a mother-daughter book club was first suggested to me by a friend years ago when our two oldest girls were both pretty small.  She said she knew people whose kids were in sixth grade, and that they’d meet every month to discuss a book, do a craft and have a snack.  That sounded so sweet to me that I asked her if she wanted to start our own mini book club using picture books.  It was nice, but we were only able to make that happen twice.  My friend and I have schedules that are hard to coordinate, so the little book club faded away although the idea of it stayed with me.

Then recently a different friend with better networking skills than mine asked me if I wanted to participate in a book club for Aden and some other kids in her class.  Most of the other kids in the club are boys so it wasn’t quite the same book club I’d originally envisioned, but I knew it would be fun, so we’ve been meeting about every six weeks since the beginning of the year.  We started out with some of the Magic Treehouse books, but whoever hosts the meeting gets to pick the book, and for this most recent meeting Aden chose The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

It’s a marvelous book, if a bit dark for second graders.  It has beautiful pencil drawings that function more like sections of a graphic novel rather than illustrations.  I’d read it to Aden last year and she wanted her friends to hear it too.  Since the story takes place in Paris we made crepes for the snack (which is not as elaborate as it sounds because we make crepes at home so often I could do them in my sleep), and since there is a lot in the book about clockworks we painted clocks.  (While looking around online for clock parts for my clock project in the kitchen, I came across a great sale where you could buy a whole unpainted clock kit really really cheap, so it was hard to resist.  Kids do so many crafts that you run out of room for, but a clock you can actually use so it seemed like a good way to go.)

I’m typing this on Mother’s Day, and that combined with thinking about the book club has me reflecting on how many wonderful moms I know.  One of my great regrets in life is that I don’t have the kind of time to devote to cultivating some of these relationships more deeply, but events like the book club at least give me a sense of what remarkable people are out there.  It’s been nice to take turns being in the homes of different families and to get to know some of the kids my daughter spends most of her days with.  All the moms in the book club are warm and talented in different ways, and seem like genuinely supportive people.  Even though I don’t know them as well as I’d like, I honestly believe if I were in a crisis and reached out to any of them, they would respond in a heartbeat.  That’s what good moms do.  Truly good moms have a quality about them that extends past the care of their own children to having a nurturing influence where it’s needed in their greater environment.  Part of how I knew I wanted to be a mom was that I had a protective sense about kids in general, not just a desire to have my own.

The book club provides a lot of good opportunities to talk to our kids about topics that don’t come up in an average day.  I’m always surprised and impressed at what the kids have to say about the books.  The favorite moments in the stories for the moms are invariably different from those of the kids, and that’s interesting too.  I think it’s good to have a forum with an equal number of kids and adults where everyone is listened to, and anyone can lead the discussion. 

Admittedly the adults usually set the pace and ask the questions, but a couple of kids in particular do contribute a great deal.  With The Invention of Hugo Cabret we were even able to explain to our kids a little bit about how they live in a privileged time where people often have kids because they really want them and hope to spend time with them.  The book is set during an earlier part of the twentieth century when many things were harder and the children in the book are not treated tenderly.  We got a chance to explain the word hypocrisy.  And then we got to eat strawberries and yogurt and nutella on crepes and paint clocks.  Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and I feel like the house has been officially broken in for entertaining.

I hope we’re able to keep the book club running for a long time.  You never know how things will work out with people’s lives and scheduling with families, but book club is worth making time for.  It’s always good to make time to read.  (And do a craft and have a snack.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Home (Babble)

(Mona, Aden and Quinn posing with our new headstone address marker.  We are so ready for Halloween!)

We’ve had a long, unusual transition from the old house to the new one.  This process has been out of the norm, so little of the typical advice about moving with kids applied, but maybe there is something in how our situation unfolded that could be useful to someone else, so I thought I’d share how it went.

Right after Ian got deployed in the fall, the house across the street from us went up for sale.  Not only does it have much more room, but it’s beautiful and I’ve always loved it and I knew we’d be happier and more comfortable there.  My husband agreed from afar to find a way to make that happen, and many power of attorney signatures later we closed on the new house at the end of January.  We started working on it and moving things over at the beginning of February.  (It’s now May, and although we are finally living in the new house, I still have some things to move over from the old one when when I find the time.)

Physically the move has been tedious.  It stretched out through snow storms, rain storms and a few really warm days.  There were spurts of big activity where volunteers would help bring the more massive things across the street, but a great deal of it was just me walking things over one at a time, usually in the dark.  The rule was anytime any of us crossed the street to the new house we had to bring something, and once it was there it didn’t come back.  (The kids had to think carefully about which toys to bring if they had to come along with me for an afternoon while I was painting or unpacking things.)

In some ways it would have been much easier to box everything at once and just have it all go to the new house in a day, and even though we just moved across the street we could have hired people to do that and had it over with.  But in our case I think that would have been the wrong way to go.  It was good to have time to remodel things a little without having to live in the mess or work around the schedules of the people doing the improvements.  And as easy as it is to think of a move primarily in terms of hauling and organizing objects, my biggest concerns were all about the emotional impact it was going to have on my kids, specifically Aden.

There are times I tell people that I don’t understand what Aden is thinking when she does certain things, but the truth is I wish I didn’t understand as well as I do.  I see so much of myself in her, and how her creative and sensitive nature can make some things in life harder.  I remember how complicated it was to be a kid, even when you have everything that matters like a familiy that loves you and a safe, comfortable home.  The down side (if it can be called that) to a nice life is that it makes change hard to tolerate.  It’s painful to watch good things end.

I knew Aden was going to have the hardest transition to make.  I’m sad to leave our old home, too, but I also knew how much happier I was going to be in the new one.  I started talking to her about the idea of moving the night we got the call from the neighbors that they were putting their house on the market.  I told the kids at dinner that our friends were moving and that daddy and I might buy their house.  There were a lot of tears, and part of me wondered if it was a good idea to even talk about it before we knew anything for sure, but I knew if it did happen I needed to give Aden a lot of time to adjust so the earlier we started that the better.

I brought up the idea of the move regularly, and Aden would cry and come to me with what seemed to her to be logical arguments against it.  I would refute her arguments and give her hugs, and on less patient days tell her I didn’t want to hear about it.  She had a long time to get it out of her system and I think that helped.  When the closing date was set and things were certain Aden told me that we couldn’t move unless we all agreed.  I told her not in this case.  We may all have to agree on what movie to watch on Friday Night Movie Night, but really big things were up to me and her dad.  I told her what house we lived in was about my life, not hers, and that she had to trust that I would make decisions that would work for her too, but that I needed to live in a house that made me happy and the job of being a mom easier.  I reminded her that someday when she grew up she would have her own house and she would understand why her kids didn’t get to decide that for her.  And who knew?  Maybe if she really wanted, she could buy the house across the street back one day and we’d be neighbors.  That idea cheered her up.

After that there were very few tears.  We spent so many months where the kids got to explore every inch of the new house before we ever spent the night that there was nothing unfamiliar about it.  They knew its smells and its creaks and its best corners for hide and seek.  They had established where they liked to play with what toys and they had dropped many things down the laundry chute.  They had helped paint their own rooms, we’d eaten pizza several times at the new dining room table and ice cream in the breakfast nook, and had many hunts for chocolate eggs all over the living room.  It wasn’t foreign even if it wasn’t really home.  Every day after school we’d pull up to our intersection and I would ask, “Which house?” and about half the time they’d pick the old one, and the other half the new.  For weeks the two places were fairly interchangable, the determining factor usually being if they were hungry because all the food was at the old house.

One interesting thing about the slow motion move was that you could feel the shift from house to home.  The old house was home for a long time, and the new house was like an echo chamber.  As more things moved over the two houses balanced out for awhile, but then the house we were living in became stranger and the new one started sounding more normal.  Things started to look more familiar in the new house as it filled with our things, and the old house became more uncomfortable.  We were living in a space that had whole rooms with nothing in them and our footfalls would reverberate as we walked past.  We were sleeping on the floor for a month and a half and the kids had almost no toys.  While Ian was home on leave he moved the televisions and had our phone service shifted over.

By the time we spent the night in the new house, there was really nothing to miss in the old one.  It still held nice memories, but it wasn’t homey.  It was just a house.  The kids objected to leaving it more out of habit or in theory.  It was obvious they were ready to go be reunited with their things across the street and lead lives uninterrupted by having to evacuate frequently because of realtors doing house showings.

My last concern was getting them over the hump of the first night.  The first night in a new place is hard, so I promised the kids we would bake a giant pink cupcake to eat for breakfast the first morning there.  I figured if they woke up excited about a giant pink cupcake they wouldn’t focus on too much else.  We baked it the night before, they got to decorate it with vanilla frosting and every sprinkle we owned, and they went to bed buzzing about how in the morning they were going to get to eat it.  Worked great.  I didn’t hear one peep about how weird it was waking up in a new room, just about how cool it was to have cake for breakfast.  After that, their rooms were just their rooms, the kitchen was just the kitchen, and as long as the television works in the new family room they have no complaints.  I’m sure they could have handled a sudden move if we’d had to do it, but I’m glad I was able to make it a more subtle process.  They have enough disruption in their lives with their dad away, so that the move didn’t feel traumatic was important to me.
(Not a prize winning confection to be sure, but it sure was sweet.)

I’m so grateful that Ian was home on leave in April so we could all spend the first night in the new house together.  We got to buy a grill for him to cook on and use to make smores with the kids (and then the next day buy a cover for so it can sit on the deck until he gets back from Iraq because I won’t be using it).  I got his input on areas of the house that interest him, which has been helpful while picking out furniture and figuring out where things go.  But most of all thanks to his time here it’s now his home too.  When he comes back he’ll be coming home, and not to something completely new.  It was sad dismantling the home we’d made together without him.  It felt wrong.  Having him participate in the move even a little restored my sense of us doing this as a family again, and it’s made a big difference.

Another thing that has made this move less typical was buying a house from friends.  Having known this house and its previous owners for so long has meant that for quite awhile I felt like a bit of an imposter here.  Quinn called it “Paul and Melissa’s House” until just a couple of weeks ago.  Upstairs felt like ours first because we’d never spent any time there before we moved in so we only really know what it’s like our way.  Downstairs its harder not to picture how it used to be and to make it our own.  Every time we change something I wonder about what our friends would think, even though they would certainly understand that it’s our house now and we use it differently than they did.  Time will fix that, I know, but it’s still interesting. 

When I started sitting on the front porch steps once the weather warmed up, I felt out of place.  But after we moved our porch swing over from the other house the experience on the new porch changed.  We were using it in a way the neighbors hadn’t, so it didn’t compare anymore.  Little by little we’re claiming the whole house.  (Although, frankly, Mona claimed the whole thing for herself months ago, so this is strictly my problem.)

And I have to state what a huge role food plays in making a house into a home.  Baking that giant cupcake did more than provide a distraction for the next morning.  It made the house smell yummy and gave us a chance to create something together in the new place.  Since the food moved over, no one has asked to go back and visit the old house across the street, even though it’s still ours until the end of the month.

I can pinpoint the first moment the new house felt completely right to me, and I could sense it click into place as our home.  The Monday after we got back from our trip to New York, Ian and I moved the last of the things from the girls’ room over while they were in school.  We also moved over the rest of the kitchen things, including the food.  The plan was for Ian to pick the girls up from school and take them straight to violin lessons while I stayed home and made spinach quiche for dinner.  I was having fun seeing what cooking was like with counter space to use when I heard everyone come home early through the front door.  Turns out I’d forgotten that I’d cancelled that lesson before our trip because I knew they wouldn’t have had time to practice for it (smart plan–too bad I couldn’t remember it), so Ian just brought everyone straight home when I wasn’t expecting it.  I heard Mona noisily toss off her shoes in the front room and bound upstairs to play.  Ian was telling Aden she needed to get moving on her homework before she even thought about getting on her bike or turning on the TV.  She responded, “Oookay,” in a bored voice as if she heard her dad say that every day.  They both came into the sunny kitchen and Aden plopped into a chair in the breakfast nook and opened her backpack–again, is if it happened every day just like that.  Ian started explaining to me about the cancelled lesson and I think started to tend to the dishes while I cooked.  Quinn was chattering on and on while running about.  The house felt so alive with activity and it was so amazing to have all of us together as a family that I remember clearly having a flash of deja vu but from the future.  I knew this was what the routine would feel like one day, even though at that moment it was new.

The thing about that home feeling is that when it happens it feels as if it has always been that way.  It’s a lot like becoming a family.  Before you have kids its a big mystery how that will work and what life will be like.  Then you bring that first child home and everything is different, and you can’t imagine life any other way.  It just feels as if it always was.  When a home is right it feels like an extension of your family.  That’s why it’s such a lovely compliment when people stay with us and they say they feel at home.  It’s like saying we’ve made them feel included in our family, not just in our house.  Few things make me prouder.

It’s good to be home.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Big Clock Project (Babble)

People say to me all the time that they are amazed at how much I manage to get done with my husband away while running my business and raising three kids.  All I see are the number of projects that lie neglected and so much I wish I could do better.  Most of the time what people point out as examples of my interesting accomplishments I see as evidence that my priorities are a bit askew.  I should be working on a new violin, or finishing a novel, or doing volunteer work, but anything that self-indulgent is really difficult while Ian is deployed.  I can’t be creative in the ways I’d like, so I come up with new smaller things instead.  Whenever possible I try to come up with something that involves the kids as well.  I think people assume when they see us tackling our odd projects that I must be caught up with housekeeping and work.  It’s not true.  But I’d rather obsess in short bursts about creative things than fold the laundry most days.  The most recent example of this is the Big Clock project.

Our new house has a nice little breakfast nook.  It has a big wall that faces part of the kitchen and that space needed something.  The problem was I didn’t want to hang any art that would fade there (since the space is sunny) or put up anything in danger of being splattered by an unfortunate food accident.  (Did you know once jello dries on something it’s almost like caulk?)

I thought about it for awhile, and finally decided the best use of that space would be a giant clock.  But not a solid clock, because there is a light switch on that wall in an odd spot and I didn’t want the clock to obstruct it.  So I ordered big clock hands online and told the kids they would each get to design or decorate four numbers each.

It took a bit of experimentation over the course of several evenings to work out the kinks.  The minute hand would get caught on the light switch or one of the numbers and then I’d go back into my shop and saw out another little block of wood and heat up the glue gun to make adjustments, but now the thing actually keeps reliable time.   I marked out all the spots for the numbers and put velcro there.  I told the kids they could modify or replace their numbers whenever they like, as long as they ask me to get them off the wall for them.
We went to a craft store where Mona and Quinn found ready made wooden numbers they liked and they painted them.  Aden decided to design her own numbers, and wound up making most of them out of aluminum foil glued to cardboard.  The finished clock has all of us pretty pleased.  They love pointing out which numbers each of them made whenever someone new comes into the kitchen.

This particular project was good for several reasons.  I got the hands while Ian was still here on leave and he helped me get them working, so I think of him when I look at the clock, too.  Then the morning we had to put him on a plane back to Iraq, I was able to drive straight from the airport to the craft store.  I let the the kids cry in the car for as long as my heart could take it, and then I said, “Hey!  Let’s go find some numbers to paint for our big clock!  Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to show pictures of to daddy?  Who wants which numbers?”  
Their faces were still wet with tears as we walked around the craft store.  But they were so happy and excited about their mom’s new crazy idea that it kept them really well distracted through much of what could have been a much harder day.  The discussion alone about who should have which numbers and why was serious enough to keep them occupied for quite awhile.  (We ended up with Mona on 2, 9, 11 and 12, Quinn on 3, 4, 7 and 10, and Aden was gracious about taking whatever numbers her younger siblings left her.) 
I always have some unnecessary project going on, and some work out better than others, but this one was definitely worth the effort.  I love the big clock.  (Now if I can just teach all the kids how to read it maybe we won’t be so late to school every morning.)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's Back! (Babble)

The internet is back!  I missed it soooooooo much.  Three weeks is too long without it, but it’s finally made the apparently arduous trip across the street to my new house.

Want to know what I was forced to do while it was gone?

I had to use the yellow pages.  The yellow pages!   I felt like I should be consulting them like palimpsests by candlelight.

It’s amazing how many times you can think to yourself, “Oh, I’ll just Google that….” and then be left with nothing.  When is that thing at school happening?  How do I get to your friend’s party?  Do they sell awnings anywhere nearby?  What time does the self-help trash station open?  What’s next in my Netflix queue?  Does our zoo have kangaroos?  What else has that actor been in?  Can I plant things on top of my tulips once they’re done?  And on and on and on.

And these are just my own questions.  My kids have endless questions about everything, and it’s so much more satisfying for me to be able to answer something like, “What is concrete made out of?” or “What do ostriches eat?” with an actual answer than to be left with, “I don’t know,” or “That’s one for your dad when he gets back from Iraq.”

And now the yellow pages can go back to being a doorstop.  Thank Google.