Friday, June 29, 2012


Years ago, back when the idea of Ian getting deployed to a war zone was only an abstract concept, I had it in mind that a good way to deal with such a situation would be to travel.  If Ian were going to be gone for a year or more, maybe it would nice to take the kids to live for a few weeks at a time with or near different friends or relatives.  Give my kids a chance to see what it was like to live in my old neighborhood with my parents for a month, or learn from my brothers wherever they happened to be at the time, or explore a new city where old friends could show us around. 

I liked the idea of a distraction wrapped inside an adventure disguised as a learning opportunity.  Making memories, seeing the world, too busy to be terrified that my husband might never come home.  There was not a day Ian was in Iraq that I didn't live in fear of soldiers coming to my door with unthinkable news.  If I wasn't home those soldiers couldn't find me, and somehow we'd be spared.  If there was a better excuse to travel I couldn't imagine one.

Well, being two months pregnant with our third child when Ian got called up initially pretty much destroyed the idea of uprooting ourselves for any significant length of time.  Between doctor's appointments and Aden starting at a new school and all the challenges Mona threw at me during her preschool years, the more routine in one spot the better.  (I did fly on my own with all three kids when Quinn was only five months old to New York City and back, which taught me I can handle more than I ever thought I was capable, but that's its own crazy story within a story.)  The nomad plan was out, the entrenched in the house plan was in.

But there is something about just being Elsewhere.  Most of the time home is easiest.  Except when it isn't.

When not on active duty Ian usually has at least two weeks away in the summer to do Army things.  He's been as far away as South Korea for training, and as close as Ft McCoy here in Wisconsin.  But no matter where he goes, when he's gone life at home becomes a gymnastics event of scheduling for me.  A gig suddenly involves finding a sitter (and for a long time that sitter had to be able to get herself home without my help which decreased the available pool of candidates).  Being with my kids means arranging to have someone cover me at work.  Work means either fighting with the distraction of my kids or waiting until they fall asleep and staying up very late to get anything accomplished.  Everything takes more planning and work when there is no one to split the responsibilities and chores with and I don't sleep well when Ian is away.

I can deal fine anymore with a short stint of single parenting, but it's awkward.  I'm surrounded by the things I should be getting done, but I can't reach them.  Normal life looks like an obstacle course and the frustration can get demoralizing.

So generally what we do is go Elsewhere.  This time Elsewhere meant Ohio.  My cousin's daughter just turned two and I hadn't seen their new house, and there were other relatives and friends I missed.  I made a few suggestions for places we could visit, but when I left the final decision to my kids they wanted to go to Ohio.  Road trip!

This is only a real option because my kids are great on the road.  I don't know why they are so good on all day car trips, but I'm thankful they are.  We even forgot the right cord for their portable DVD player and they couldn't watch movies like they had planned to, but they were fine.  They shared snacks, sang little songs, and somehow kept themselves amused for eight hours across four states.  (My brothers and I were never nearly as good.  There was a lot of car sickness as well as accusations of people looking at one another, none of which made for fun road trips.)

The theme for this vacation was that it was entirely optional.  I told the kids if after the first hour in the car they wanted to go home, we would go home.  There were no plans that had to happen.  So with no pressure about when to arrive anyplace, we stopped at the Mars' Cheese Castle on the way out of Wisconsin.  We drive by it all the time and have never been.  This time we did.  We bought cheese.

Once in Ohio we stayed with a friend and her family, which works out well for several reasons, not the least of which is that we can take over their entire basement with its playroom, bedroom and bathroom and not feel like we're completely in the way.  They also live very close to where my grandmother did, and I like being in the area again, although I can't bring myself to drive by her house.  (I made that mistake a couple of years ago and it was too painful to be on the outside of a place that used to feel like home and is now off limits.)

We visited COSI (the science center) with my friend and her boys, walked around Antrim Park Lake with my mom who drove down from Detroit just to see us for the day, bought books from the Village Bookshop, and hung out with our relatives in Marysville.  I have really fond memories of Marysville because not only has it been the source of many wonderful family gatherings at my uncle's home, but I lived there the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at OSU.  In some ways the town has changed dramatically, and in other ways it never changes at all.

My kids playing with their cousin in Marysville.

The most unusual bit of fun we had would have to be our visit to the courthouse in Marysville.  My aunt is a judge there, and she let each of my kids try on her robe and sit at her bench.  They all loved banging the gavel, and each got a chance to be cross examined in the witness box by my cousin the lawyer which was incredibly funny.  But the person with the best judge look (aside from my aunt the actual judge) was Mona:

There is probably more to write about our trip, but I'm tired after the long drive home.  Suffice it to say we had a wonderful time.  My kids wept in the car after we hugged everyone goodbye and they told me they didn't want to leave Ohio.  I told them I would miss everyone too, but we needed to head home.  Besides, we had a dog (being watched by our neighbor) who probably missed us.  That convinced them to get back on the road to Wisconsin.

They do love their dog.

Aden and Chipper, reunited, wagging tail all a blur

And they do love to be home.  So do I.  That's the best part about Elsewhere.  It turns coming home from routine to bliss.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fifteen Years

Today was my fifteenth wedding anniversary.

Ian's at Ft McCoy.

For our tenth anniversary he was stationed in Iraq, so I prefer him just a few hours away, attending classes on military history instead of participating in it.

Back when Ian and I got married we were in a phase of life where most of our friends were getting married.  I felt like I was constantly trying on bridesmaids' dresses and everyone was pairing up and settling down.

Now we are in a phase where it seems like more and more couples we know are coming apart.  In the past week I've helped two different friends in the process of divorce move their things out of their former homes.  I've watched as they've struggled with difficult emotions and tried to find new ways to do the best they can by their children.  Both were couples we liked very much and never suspected they were troubled.

It's so strange putting other people's lives in boxes, labeling bits of their history for storage.  It's sobering.  And it can't help but make you reflect on your own life and the path you're on.

My friends' homes and possessions are strikingly similar to my own.  I boxed art supplies and children's keepsakes and moved many books.  If you'd asked me a year ago I wouldn't have guessed their marriages where much different from mine either.  You just never know.

I can't fathom what it must feel like to have to ask permission from my husband to step foot into a home we made together and raised children in.  I can't imagine not having him on my side anymore.

I don't know why after fifteen years my husband and I are still happily married.  I love him more now than I ever have.  I hate that he's away tonight.  I was pleased he called me to tell me how his Army classes are going and I can't wait for him to come home.  I feel like I'm biding my time somewhat while he's away.  The kids and I are having a nice time together, but it's not complete without their dad in the picture.  I can certainly get by on my own, but it feels off kilter.  There are gaps in our family without Ian here.  He helps me to be my best possible self.  I like that he tells me I'm stuck with him.

Back when we first started dating over half our lives ago, we used to joke about giving our relationship another two weeks.  That didn't seem like an overreach, so every Thursday on the anniversary of our first date we'd say to each other, "Another two weeks?" and decide to go for it.  It used to just seem funny, but now I don't know at what length you can make such predictions.

Can I say for certain we'll last the next fifteen years?  No.  All I can say is I want to, and hope with all my heart we get to continue down this path I've enjoyed so much for the past fifteen. 

(Ian?  If you're reading this out there between Army classes, I love you.  Another two weeks?)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Journal Paradox

I have tried several times in my life to keep a journal.  The idea appeals to me so much, to chronicle my thoughts and the moments both big and small that shape who I become.  Events and people I'm convinced I'll never forget fade from memory, and having some record of all of it to refer to later is reassuring.

Blogging has been my most recent stab at keeping a journal, and arguably my most successful in that I do it regularly, but it's not the same.  I like putting a pen to real paper and having something to store on a shelf that I can pull down and page through.  I often take a blank journal with me when I go on an interesting trip to jot down my adventures and to have a place to store things like ticket stubs or park passes, and reading through all of that later is incredibly satisfying.

But here is why keeping a journal always falls apart for me:  The moments when you have time to write are seldom the moments most worth writing about.

When I read through any of my journal entries from when I was in school they are all a depressing ramble about being a lonely misfit.  My plans fell through and I was stuck at home or in a dorm room feeling sorry for myself and there was lots of time to wallow in that and get it all down on paper in excruciating detail.  But what about the nights I was up with my friends laughing until I couldn't breathe?  Or exploring something new on campus?  Or working hard on a great project?  No time to write about any of that.  I was too busy living it.  And then it slips away and seems like old news by the time there is a moment to get it onto paper.  Even those trip journals skim quickly over any experience of the Eiffel Tower to go on about doing laundry in a youth hostel.  Finding the time to write skews what you write about.

Same thing happens with blogging now.  Between the kids getting out of school and Ian leaving for a couple of weeks of Army duty I've had no time to write.  And there has been so much to write about!  In my head I've started about a dozen different posts, some of which are on topics that will keep, but most of which seem time sensitive and are lost if I don't do something with them.

For instance, writing about Father's Day after Ian gets home and I have time to write about it is weird.  That will be around the 4th of July, and at that point I'm sure I'd rather write about that.  So, without any great detail, here is a shot of Ian and the kids on Father's Day on the bridge in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum where I was performing with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra before Ian had to rush off to Ft McCoy:

I could write a whole post about the museum.  Or the art fair.  Or what the kids made for Ian for Father's Day.  Or whine about how the Army took Ian away on Father's Day.  Or playing mandola on stage.  Or how cool Lake Michigan is.  Or how Mona complains about squinting in the sun.  Or Quinn's butterfly shirt.  Or the state of the kids' shoes.  Or eighty-gabillion other things that I find interesting but I have no time to reflect upon.

I plan to write a post about Quinn's new Australia map that we made:

And I really want to write a post about my brother Barrett trying to give my kids a lesson in climbing trees:

But we'll see.

I'd rather enjoy a life well lived and forgotten than a worthless existence of navel gazing that is carefully documented.  Socrates may have thought the unexamined life was not worth living, but trying to keep a journal has taught me otherwise.  Self-reflection is a bonus, not an end in itself.

I have more to write, but a full day ahead.  I hope I find some time to tell you all about it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

End of the Half-Day Pickup

We are entering a whole new era.  Our youngest child just had his last day of morning only classes.  (!!!!!!!!)
Quinn showing me his latest map
Montessori has mixed aged classrooms, and the kindergarten has K3 and K4 children who leave school at lunchtime, and K5 children who stay the whole day.  It's a great system in that the younger kids don't get overwhelmed and the older kids get more serious attention in the afternoon.

Half-day pickup
It's a great system for the kids.  For the parents, not so much.  Especially if you have a mix of kids at the school for half-day and full-day.  We drop the kids off at 7:40, then come back for the 11:00 pickup, then back again at 2:20.  That half-day pickup kind of breaks up the whole day into unworkable parts.  The morning stretch is not quite long enough to do anything involved, and then we can't go far after the half-day pickup because we have to turn right back around and do the end of the day pickup.  It can be a bit limiting.

Since Ian is the stay-at-home parent most days, he's had to deal with the brunt of the school chauffeur duties.  He missed the one year with no half-day pickup when Quinn wasn't in school yet and Mona moved to full-day, but that was my one saving grace during that deployment, not having to chop up my day with another drive to the school at lunchtime.

I will say, however inconvenient, there is nothing cuter than the half-day pickup.  Watching the procession of three and four year olds being herded out of the building and onto the playground in uncertain rows, most of the year bundled in brightly colored coats and hats, is adorable.  It unfailingly makes me smile, regardless of anything else happening in my day.

Next year I will get to wait for my son on the other side of the building at 2:20 like we do for his sisters.  I'd go anywhere, anytime, to be greeted with that smile--but I'm glad we won't be doing it at 11:00 anymore.
Quinn is now officially a K5!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Aftermath and 80s Day

There are days when we choose to take a moment and reflect on events past, and there are days where such reflection is thrust upon us.  I've been mulling over an odd variety of things the past few days.

I'm relieved the recall election is over.  Despite whatever overblown declarations are being made in the national media, on a local level people seem to be trying to deal with their emotions and just move on.  There was a lot of understandable disappointment on Facebook right after the polls closed, and a welcome lack of gloating from the other side.  (At least among my friends, so this is an admittedly biased sample.)

I am willing to concede that a recall effort under the existing facts was unwarranted.  (However, given the opportunity to vote against someone I disagree with was still something I was willing to indulge in.)  Such efforts should be saved for clear legal failings on the part of our elected officials.  I may not understand why a majority of people in my state approve of this governor and his policies, but I can accept that I must live under them at this time.  I will still speak my mind if I think what is happening is wrong, but I accept the results of the election.  (I expect the same of people who dislike Obama.)

Now that all is said and done, it's clear to me why things got to the point they did.  Passion drove the recall more than legitimacy, and if care had been taken on the other side it could have been avoided.  No one wants to be disrespected and treated like the enemy for simply trying to express what they believe.  No one wants to feel bullied or cornered.

If you believe that dismantling teachers' unions will improve education, then state your case.  I will listen.  I may still disagree, but if I think the motives come from a reasonable place and the majority want to go with those assertions, then I will hope for the best.  I happen to believe dismantling teachers' unions has nothing to do with education and everything to do with political funding, but I would like to be proven wrong.

However, do not go at this issue by calling teachers lazy, and saying the benefits they worked for are undeserved.  This was so hostile and cruel it made people angry.  There are bad and lazy people in every profession, but to demonize teachers as a group was uncalled for.  I'm originally from Detroit and I know about failing schools.  People here don't appreciate just how good the schools in Wisconsin are, and part of that is paying teachers well and giving them a voice.  I see firsthand day after day how hard my kids' teachers work, and I'm grateful for all they've done.  Calling them glorified babysitters was beyond insulting.  No wonder they and the people who appreciate them rose up to defend themselves at the state capitol.

All of us who supported the recall felt attacked on a personal level.  That didn't have to happen.  It shouldn't happen.  I think the governor should have said, "Thank you for agreeing to all of the conditions I asked for that I think will help our state budget, and let's revisit the collective bargaining question next year after seeing how my plan is working."  But at no time was there room for compromise or even a show of interest about why people were upset.  He should have explained himself better and let people feel heard.  That's part of his job.

The week before the recall I got a letter, in error I'm sure, from the Walker campaign asking for money.  I found the letter shocking and aggressive.  It defined all of his opponents in ugly terms.  I was truly horrified that someone who supposedly represents me would be so disrespectful and rude.  I wrote him a letter stating as much.  I'm not a fan of ad hominem attacks or mischaracterizations of Republicans either.  (I don't care about someone's weight or age or hair, I care about their policies.)  I'm not saying there weren't people going at it the wrong way on the anti-Walker side, but it's different when an actual elected official who is supposed to be looking out for my interests in his own way sends a letter into my home essentially telling me to shut up.  That was uncalled for.

So, I want to take the governor at his word that he wants to heal the state.  I want to.  He scares me, though.  Because I'm still waiting for evidence of compassion in his policies.  For instance, trying to kill hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples seems to me to have nothing to do with the economy, or jobs, or taxes, or anything.  It's just government intruding where it doesn't belong.  I want him to explain that to us, and I want to feel that he's listening when some of us say we think it's unjust.  We'll see.  I don't think what he's doing is working, but again, I'd like to be wrong.  I'm not going to root against my own state and my own neighbors just because I don't like the side the ideas came from.  I want us all to succeed.

Okay.  That's the end of my reflection on that.

Now, reflecting back yourself, do you remember way back when you read the title of this post I mentioned 80s day?  Now we're talking some deep reflection.  Back to stirrup pants and leg warmers and preppy shirts and some really big hair.

Aden's class decided for an end of school event to have 80s day.  So I had to educate my daughter in the ways of jelly bracelets and neon colors.  I made her try on one of my Police concert T-shirts that looked pretty cute on her and she acted like she was going to cry.  (The girl was not cut out for an 80s look.)  We consulted Google and I showed her the variety of unfortunate styles to choose from.  We got it down to a hot pink short skirt with an oversized (because its mine) green shirt with a collar (no Izod alligator, though), clip-on hoop earrings, and a headband with a hot pink flower on it.  We also washed her hair and put it in lots of braids to undo in the morning so she will look more like she's had a perm.

I told her, though, that what I wore?  Was pretty much what I'm still wearing: T-shirt and jeans.  I had one Izod shirt in eighth grade, and one neon pink T-shirt in high school.  And I still own my Dream of the Blue Turtles sweatshirt, but never wear it because I want it to look good when it's keeping me warm in the old age home one day.  But fingerless lace gloves?  Parachute pants?  Red jacket with random zippers?  Uh, I didn't think those were a good look at the time.

I remember clearly during spirit week at Ferndale High walking through the commons with my best friend, speculating about what a school 80s day might look like in the future.  Since we knew the 50s and 60s days we were supposed to be participating in probably didn't reflect those times accurately at all.  Poodle skirts may be iconic, but my mom said it's not like everyone had them. 

"What will people wear?" we asked each other.  "It's all so normal, what's there to latch onto?"  We decided neon and anything to do with Michael Jackson, even though that didn't reflect what we had on or what we saw around us.

But boy, looking back on Google with Aden it all flooded over me again--the shoulder pads, the use of color blocking....  There really was a look, wasn't there?  And it wasn't good much of the time.

Aden has her outfit ready to go.  If she consents to letting me post a picture I'll add it.  I did suggest she borrow a Rubik's cube.  "That's something people carried around in the 80s," I said, and then Ian kind of smiled and made a throat clearing noise, and I added, "Well, I carried one around."  (And I still do.  I guess some things are hard to shake from any time.)

UPDATE:  My girl did not take a cube, but she did say I could put up her picture.  I am stunned every time I see her anymore at how grown up she is.  She was a tiny baby in the crook of my arm once.  Hard to imagine.

80s Aden

Monday, June 4, 2012

I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like....

We've been biking to school as a family whenever we can the past few weeks.

The upper elementary kids had a series of bike safety classes in May and Aden was inspired.  In mid-May there was a (school-wide? city-wide? national?) bike to school day.  Of course on that morning it rained, but we gave it a shot the day after.

Aden ready to ride
I love activities we can do as an entire family, but it can be complicated when you have kids of different ages.  There aren't a lot of games or physical events that work easily for both the ten year old and the five year old.  I didn't really think biking would be among them for some time.

Mona was resistant to the idea of learning to ride a bike (preferring her scooter) until recently.  But she got a new hand-me-down bike from a friend that she was excited about, and Mona, being Mona, didn't want any help and taught herself to ride that bike over the course of a couple of hours and a few nasty spills that we were expected to ignore.  Now she bikes fearlessly as only Mona can.

Quinn with his scooter fresh out of the box
Quinn learned to ride a scooter this Spring.  His tricycle is too small and he needed something to ride, and I was nervous about him having a scooter with only two wheels, but of course he wants what his sisters have.  Now he zips around the block, gracefully when he's well rested, tumbling and ripping holes in the knees of his pants when he isn't.

So all my kids have wheels, but mixing bikes and scooters doesn't work well if we want to stick together.  Aden was determined to get us all biking to school, however, and she reminded me we had a bike trailer in the basement.  I had thought of it as more of a toddler hauling accessory, but we pulled it out and had Quinn get inside, and he liked it.  He sings back there, and keeps treasures in the side pockets.

The distance to the school is just over a mile and a half, and there are a few busy streets and intersections along the way.  We picked a simple route where we could primarily use sidewalks and did a practice run in the evening to time ourselves.  It takes our odd little convoy about 25 minutes from door to door.  (Alone, Ian or I can do it in a bit less than ten.)

The first morning we biked to school Ian had Army responsibilities, so I had to take the kids alone.  Hauling the trailer uphill with Quinn is hard, and I was a little frazzled trying to give directions and keep everyone in a little group while monitoring all the morning traffic.  I had Aden lead, and I stayed in the rear listening to Mona chatting away.  I prefer when Ian joins us and can haul the trailer, but I'm pleased with myself for managing to get all the kids to school on time with the bikes on my own.  Since that first morning we've gotten better at it.  The kids are familiar with the route now, and their biking skills have improved.  (Although there was a day last week right after a rainstorm that resulted in a lot of sticks on the ground, and I swear to you Mona hit every last one.  I considered asking her if she really was trying to hit them all but then I decided I didn't want to know.)

It takes extra planning and work to get ourselves out the door in time to make it to school before the last bell, and we can't bike in bad weather, but I'm glad we've gone as often as we have without the car.  With the half-day pickup that's six trips between our house and the school every day.

We had been at it about a week, some days proving more conducive to biking than others, when I came across a PBS program one night that caught my attention.  I watch a lot of TV, but not on our actual television, and one evening when I got home late from work and made myself a little something for dinner I decided to eat it alone in the family room and just flip around with the remote awhile for fun.  I stopped on a program about families dealing with childhood obesity and what people can do to change, and most of it was stuff I knew (like not eating alone in front of the TV) but the one line that jumped out at me was a doctor saying that many people have the mistaken idea that a healthy lifestyle doesn't take work.  He said that families who are able to do a successful job of eating the right foods and being active are exceptionally organized.  They plan, they make sacrifices, and they make it a priority even though it's difficult.

You know what?  That really made an impression on me.  Because I think I did have a sense that maybe there was something wrong with me that trying to incorporate more of the activities and choices into our daily lives that seem healthier were also an incredible amount of work.  That maybe I wasn't cut out for it somehow.  Cooking decent meals takes planning so produce doesn't go bad and some days our schedule is really tight.  Getting around with the kids by bike takes a lot more thought and effort, and some days we can do it and some days we just can't.  Having someone not just say, "This is good for you and your kids, you should do it," but add, "It's going to be a lot of hard work but it's worth it," makes a difference.  It changes your expectations.  I don't feel like I'm a failure if I can't do it all the time.

So I'm proud of us for making the effort, even though it's not easy, and the truth is when it all goes according to plan it's great.  As the school year winds down for us in another week I will miss getting the kids there by bike.  It's been lovely, really, despite middle-schoolers letting the air out of the girls' tires on the playground one day, or the occasional squabble about who leads and who follows, or stopping to fuss with a bike chain.  I think it's been good for our kids to see us solving problems as they arise and sticking with it.

There's a level of independence that comes with being on a bike that's also positive.  Aden even got to bike home alone one afternoon when she stayed late to play with a friend on the school grounds.  She was confident enough about remembering the route back that when she called to say she was ready to head home she said she wanted to do it on her own.  I won't lie that it didn't make me nervous because some of places she'd have to deal with traffic scare me, but I'm proud of her for doing it.  She did fine.

My favorite part of our commute is where we cut through the park, and in the middle there is a large pond that at this time of year is teeming with red-winged blackbirds singing in the reeds every morning.  It's beautiful.  And worth the extra work it takes to get us there.

We'll have to find new destinations to bike to as a family once school is out, because now that we've gotten into the groove of it I don't want to give it up.  It is worth the effort.  And my kids agree that the world looks better when viewed from a bike.