Monday, December 28, 2009

All Kinds of Hectic (Babble)

In our home most of the Christmas activity happens after the 25th.  We’re not attached to any particular date, so it helps that different members of the family can spend Christmas day wherever they need to, and then everyone can gather here for a big event.  Right now in my house I have seven people staying with us (I think–it’s easy to lose track), plus a few more visitors who prefer the privacy of a hotel while they are in town.  It’s crazy and pretty great.

The most satisfying thing is seeing how happy the kids are.  Aden is the ring leader, and we can hear all the little footsteps following her about the house.  There are serious and exciting games involving tiny bobble head toys and insect trivia happening all the time, and lots of jokes that don’t make any sense.  (Quinn botched one the other day at dinner by doing a knock knock joke about a banana, and the punchline was something like, “Banana I had an orange for you?  The banana?”  He’s cute enough it still gets a laugh.)

The best holiday present I get every year is that my mom cooks all the dinners.  She plans out elaborate and tasty meals that will satisfy the vegetarians among us as well as the omnivores.  (Tonight’s dinner was a wild rice/mushroom/dried cherry thing served in a half a squash with toasted almonds on top, and salmon with capers and olives and other good things that I didn’t recognize chopped up, and bread from the local bakery and salad….  I’m not always sure exactly what I’m eating but it’s always amazing.)  The kids never eat much more than a little bread when the food looks too interesting, but I’ve been pleased this year that they sit politely at the table and try a few bites and eventually ask to be excused without complaining.  Tonight they just scrounged some yogurt from the fridge on their own when they got hungry later and that’s fine with me.  As long as they aren’t rude to the cook and eat something at some point I’m happy.  It’s an incredible amount of expense and work for my mom to prepare a week’s worth of meals for so many people.  Makes me feel extra guilty for how unpleasant I was to live with from ages two through twelve, but I certainly appreciate my mother now.  If I can manage to be half the mom she is I will be very proud.

My favorite event so far has been all the children teaming up for a surprise party for my brothers.  Barrett told them about Arno having a birthday and Aden got to work with streamers and gifts, and then I mentioned that it was her Uncle Barrett’s birthday, too.  I don’t know what they think the word ‘twins’ means, but that bit of information took them completely by surprise.  They got up very early to start work with the Easy Bake Oven.  They made the world’s smallest cake and covered it with every candle they could find.  It looked like a festive baby porcupine set on fire.

We’ve had a creative limbo competition, Santa/Barrett made a wacky appearance, the kids have taken a hike to the North Pole (which looked strangely like our back yard) and we’re still hoping for a trip to the aquarium and sledding in the park in the next couple of days.  This is the kind of hectic I llke.  Mix and match fun with relatives, where any way people get paired up is a good time, and there is a ton of activity in every corner and late into the night.

Unfortunately, there has been a bit of hectic on the other end of the spectrum as well (including the untimely destruction of the new mirror ball, which was sad but not unpredictable).  I’ve had to juggle a lot of unexpected things since Ian left right after Christmas, but I think I’ve got it under control.  It’s helped to have family here for some of that.  It makes all the difference in the world to be loved, and I am the most fortunate person I know to be loved by so many remarkable people.  I hope my husband finds support where he is.  He’s kind enough to always say I have the harder job, but I have my family with me, so I have it better by far.  It pains me to imagine him alone while I’m surrounded by so many people we care about.  I wish I could bottle the hilarity of the limbo contest and send it to him.  I took a bunch of video, so I’m hoping that will help a little at some point.

I was thinking about how having a hectic week full of relatives would be such a nice distraction for my kids, but I overlooked how much I would need it myself.  As I sit here quietly in my room, away briefly from my houseful of guests, I’m struck by how powerfully I miss my husband.  I wish he didn’t have to go.  I don’t know when I’ll see him next.  I don’t think I’ve ever missed him more than at this moment.  I think I’d better go join the pleasant mayhem again or I might cry.  (Off to find a limbo stick and a kid to hug….)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traditions and Ruts (Babble)

There are traditions, there are ruts, and then there are just unfortunate patterns that repeat themselves by no one’s choice at all.

The lovely thing about traditions is that they provide us with a familiar framework for an event that grounds us in the present while connecting us to both the past and the future.  I’m fortunate that in both violin making and playing music I feel part of some level of tradition every day.  It gives meaning to my life that I appreciate deeply.  This is not to say traditions by definition are good.  I had an argument once in college with a roommate who believed such a thing, and I told her I was sure the KKK had loads of traditions to pass on, but that didn’t make them good or worth continuing. 

Traditions can be comforting and fun, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reexamined periodically, and there should always be room for something new.  I love handing down recipes and stories to my kids that I had as a child, but I’m just as excited about the addition of new things unique to my family.  For instance, as of this year, our family apparently needs a mirror ball in the kitchen as part of our celebration.  I’m hoping one day to see my great-grandchildren reverently unpack the family disco ball as a necessary part of the season.

Ruts are habits people get into that feel like traditions, but are really just things nobody thought enough of to change.  We have ornaments on our tree that have stories attached that we stop and admire every year, and hanging those is a tradition.  Then there are other goofy things that no one cares about, but they keep ending up in the box and they just wind up on the tree.  Those are the rut ornaments.  A few of those have managed to move up in status as the kids single them out for attention and assign meaning to them purely because they remember seeing them the year before.  Good enough for me. 

Other ruts in our season include using the same weird blanket that doubles as a painting drop cloth under the tree just because I never remember to find something nice until it’s too late, wrapping things badly because I lose patience with it, and sending cards to some people I never see or hear from because I can’t think of a good reason not to.

Then there are the unfortunate patterns.  When I was a child we drove from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio every Christmas.  The time spent with grandma and grandpa in their home, eating spritz cookies and stollen was a tradition.  The four hours of driving on dark, icy roads on Christmas Eve was just an unfortunate byproduct of that, and now I always associate the holidays a little with motion sickness.  Not my own–I don’t have that problem–but both my brothers used to rock back and forth the whole ride saying they didn’t feel good.  (Actually, one would rock and chant, and then the other would throw up.  Probably a less glamorous twin thing.)  We have been fortunate that for as long as we’ve been in our house that all the relatives have come to us, so my kids don’t associate Christmas with travel.  (That’s for Easter when we go to New York.)

My kids enjoy several unique holiday traditions (including my brother making casts of their feet every year) and some basic ones such as getting excited about Santa.  There are a lot of opinions out there about how parents deal with the Santa Claus question–whether it’s right to lie to kids, or if since it’s all in fun it’s okay.  I find it interesting because it’s not much of an issue for us.  Aden asks if Santa is real, and I tell her it’s a story some people believe and some people don’t, and she can do with it what she likes.  I don’t know if she really believes there’s a Santa, but she likes the stories and she leaves him healthy snacks (explaining he’s probably sick of cookies by the time he gets to us).  She said she saw the real Santa at a concert she went to with her class the other day, and Mona was jealous. 

However they think of it is fun for them and they don’t need me pretending to make reindeer sounds on the roof, so I leave it to them.  We don’t have specific gifts from Santa or anything along those lines, just lots of fun stuff already piled up under the tree.  We don’t put anything in their stockings until Christmas morning, so maybe they think those things are from Santa.  I don’t tell them anything one way or another and they seem fine with that.  My brother, Barrett, always dresses up at least once during the holidays in a nasty old Santa suit he got for free when he was living in the Ozarks for awhile, and it’s pretty hilarious, but the kids know it’s their uncle and he’s just being funny.  I think Aden plays along with the idea because it’s fun, but I don’t think she would be crushed if anyone told her it wasn’t true. 

There are Webkinz toys (that they’ve been looking at longingly for months in the store) for them to unwrap in the morning and modeling clay and markers and ‘jewels’ in their stockings that I know will make them happy.  The rest of the time will be about including their cousin in their endless pretend games all over the house and putting on an elaborate puppet show for everyone.  I’m hoping to make my grandmother’s spritz cookies by the light of the mirror ball.  Those are traditions Santa can’t really improve upon, so we don’t worry about him.

I’ve been reflecting on these ideas more than usual this holiday because things are in flux.  Our offer was accepted on the house across the street (YAY!), so we are on track to move in February.  (Coming soon will be the true test for those who have said, “If there is anything you need….”)  It makes saying goodbye to Ian this time that much harder, not just because I fear for him in Iraq, but because it’s the last Christmas with him in this home.  It’s also been a difficult holiday because Ian’s mother was in the hospital in a different state and he struggled with whether or not he should cut his time short with us to be with her.  After much consideration and hours on the phone arranging for appropirate care it was determined he didn’t need to fly out there, but contemplating the mortality of a parent is troubling.

For myself I would say this has been my most emotional holiday season, except I have a pretty good memory so I know better.  The Christmas during the last deployment was much harder.  In December 2006 Ian was in Iraq and we knew we wouldn’t see him again until at least August.  Quinn was just over a month old on Christmas morning and I was sleep fatigued and nursing.  The girls had just turned three and five.  One of my brothers was in the initial stages of a divorce.  My grandma was visiting for what we all suspected would be the last time before she moved into an assisted living apartment.  There were disturbing rifts within the extended family that were making us all sad. 

Yet, I always love time with my parents and my brothers and uncles and aunts and cousins even when things are not simply happy.  I think back with a strange fondness on the night my parents watched all my kids and I took a long midnight walk in the cold with both my brothers as we discussed sad, important things.  My brothers are the reason I wanted more than one child, because I can’t imagine navigating the world without siblings.

This year, aside from the worry over Ian’s mom, things are okay.  Ian will get to see his kids unwrap their gifts, both my brothers are the happiest I’ve known them in years, and I’ll have relatives to laugh with in the house all the way up to New Year’s.  The rifts within the extended family we are still sad about, but the pain associated with them have dulled a bit with time.  A cousin promised to deliver our gifts to my grandma at the nursing home on Christmas Day.  I miss my grandma.

It’s been so deliciously normal to have my husband home for a little while.  Not everything was perfect, and we did have an embarrassing failure in communication that resulted in neither of us picking up the girls after school one day (we got a call from the office, but Mona loves being there for some reason so I don’t feel too terrible), but overall it was a marvelous holiday treat to be a whole family again. 

And if Ian has to leave I think it will be good timing for him to go when he does because the kids will be distracted for a week before his absence is truly noticable.  By the time their uncles and aunt and cousin and grandparents all head back to their own states, the girls will be returning to school and jumping back into our no-daddy routine, so this transition is about as easy as I think we can make it.  But I’m hoping this whole ‘daddy in Iraq’ thing does not remain one of our recurring holiday themes.  War is a pretty lousy rut; this one has been going on for the entire time my children have been alive.  They deserve better traditions than that.

Merry Everything!  Thank you for checking in.  I am really enjoying writing this blog and feel so fortunate to have made connections to so many thoughtful people through it.  I wish you all great joy in 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Care Package Pitfalls (Babble)

This is a post I wanted to make sure to write while my husband is still visiting before he ships out to Iraq soon.  This is not me speculating about this topic, this is me reporting what some actual soldiers think while I have one reading over my shoulder to make sure I’m being accurate.  So here it is:

Many care packages sent to soldiers overseas are well-intentioned but lousy.  It’s a harsh truth I haven’t seen addressed anywhere, because I know nobody wants to make a person feel bad for trying to do something so nice, but in many cases all the time and effort and expense put into care packages for soldiers could be better spent elsewhere.

I’m not talking about personal packages to specific soldiers.  My husband loves getting articles from my dad and cookies from my kids and amusing things from my brothers and letters from me.  That’s all fine.  Pieces of home are a welcome distraction and a reminder of what’s important.  No, the care packages I’m talking about are the ones organized by churches and classrooms and local businesses and scout troops.  By people who want to do something because they have good hearts and want to make someone in a tough situation feel a little better. 

That’s such a lovely thought that I’m sure people will think I’m a monster for even suggesting that there could be anything negative to this, but here is the part those people don’t consider:  Someone, somewhere is risking his or her life to deliver that package.  Notes from strangers and decks of cards and flavoring for coffee are not worth that risk.  I even make sure to consolidate as much as I can into a single package when I mail things to Iraq because I don’t want that on my conscience.  I plan for a package every six weeks or so, mostly with a DVD of the kids and some of their art and some cookies for him to share and any letters anyone wants to add.  As sweet as it sounds to send a little note every day or every week, I see that as profoundly selfish and irresponsible.   The only kind of regular communication I try to keep up with is email.  it’s erratic, but it poses no one any harm.

There is probably a soldier who doesn’t get mail who likes these random boxes, but I’ve never met one.  I would love to make you a list of useful items that any soldier would be happy to get while deployed, but I can’t name any.  Friends and family sent my husband some books last time that I know he appreciated, but so much of what gets sent there has to be abandoned.  It’s a hard place to keep anything with you, and a lot of things aren’t worth shipping back home.

So where would people’s good will and fund raising efforts be better spent if they want to really support the troops?

The best services offered to Ian while he was deployed were through the USO.  They understood what soldiers really needed better than anyone.  The USO, besides putting on shows, also provides internet cafes so soldiers can stay in touch with home better, recreation tents for when they have down time, and little lounges at major airports so they can relax while in uniform with a bit more privacy.  Ian said these things have been crucial to helping soldiers preserve their sanity and have helped far more than any random package ever did.  If you want to help soldiers, the USO is a worthy place to volunteer or put your money.

And many soldiers will tell you their real worries aren’t for themselves anyway, but for their families back home.  Anything you can do to help out the family of a soldier is the real gift, because they can’t be there to do it themselves.  Ian is happier and better able to focus on his job if he knows the kids and I are okay.  War may be hell, but it’s apparently nothing compared to feeling helpless after a call to your loved ones and finding out something is wrong and there’s nothing you can do.

I know it sounds self serving for me to say ‘if you mow my lawn you’re helping your country,’ but honestly, I don’t even care if I’m the one who gets help.  There are people in need all around us all the time.  Help someone nearby instead of helping the idea of someone far away.  Maybe if all of us did more of that there would be less need to deploy soldiers at all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is This Crazy? (Babble)

The house across the street recently went up for sale and we’re trying to put a bid on it.  I can’t believe I might be moving while my husband is gone.  On the one hand it sounds insane, and on the other it could be an awesome distraction.  Or not.  Good grief.

When I have big decisions to make I do an agonizing game of mental ping pong.  I know it makes Ian nuts, and it’s probably not much better for my family and friends whom I call for help with input.  People talk about having a lot of imagination as a good thing, but when you can picture too many possibilities and they all seem real it can be paralyzing.  So rather than feel stuck, I ping pong.  Come enjoy my game of mental house moving pros and cons:

(And keep in mind we’re not really house hunting, we are just interested in this particular house.  I like the idea of staying on the same corner and keeping our neighbors and our two block walk to Target and all of that.  We like where we are, so this would be changing the house but not anything else, and that’s appealing.  Also, not needing a moving truck sounds good to me.)

On the pro side of the new house:  Much bigger.  There would not only still be a room for my in-home violin building shop, but a seperate space for music practice and teaching, a bathroom upstairs, and enough bedrooms on the second floor that we could all sleep up there together.  (The plan in the house we have involves me and Ian moving down to a tiny room on the main floor next year so Quinn could move into our room upstairs, but I don’t like the idea of us sleeping on different levels.)  And there’s a dishwasher.  An honest to god appliance that would wash dishes for me.  Can you imagine?  And counter space, and a little reading nook just for Ian and CLOSETS.  There are walk-in closets just littered about like it’s nothing.  And it’s very pretty inside–Arts and Crafts style from the 1920’s, built-in china cabinets, fireplace, leaded windows…. I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty banister, too, and this house has that.  The second floor of our house is really a converted attic, so the stairs are unusually steep and in a closed hallway.  From the outside, the new house is unassuming, but inside it has an efficient yet elegant grace.  I love the whole idea of waking up each morning in such a pleasant environment.

Things we like about our current house better:  The garage is much nicer–holds both our cars and all the bikes, etc.  (New house has a tiny garage and one car would always be outside, which isn’t nothing considering how much ice and snow removal we’re talking about in the mornings, and the fact that once the radio was stolen out of our car when we had to park it on the street one night.)  I love having a big front porch with a swing.  We’ve spent many a thunderstorm on that porch watching the rain, and the new house doesn’t have a way to do that without us getting very wet. 

Our current house has a fun family room at the top of the stairs that is just a wide open play area that has been great for all kinds of things.  Space is cut up more in the other house, but there is still a little family room at the back where the TV and toys could go, so I’m sure we’d get used to that, but it’s been very handy to have the whole upstairs level be a play haven for kids.  There is a lot of important running from the bedroom to the family room that goes on whenever the kids are home and I’d miss that.  Since we bought our house we replaced all the windows, the roof, and remodeled the laundry room.  And this may sound silly, but more often than not our house feels cozy rather than cramped.  We can call to each other from anywhere in the house and be heard, and I like how connected everything feels.

My biggest problem is I’m deeply sentimental.  I love our house.  We bought it after I graduated from my violin making apprenticeship, and it’s the ultimate symbol of my trust in my husband because I let him buy it without my seeing it first.  (I was getting too attached to houses while we were searching and I would get really depressed when we didn’t get them each time, so Ian was trying to save my sanity by doing all the looking alone.  Of course, I would have picked a house with a bathroom on the second floor….

That was a lot of pregnancies of tromping up and down those stairs a million times a night.)  This was the house we brought all of my babies home to.  This was where they all took their first steps and fell down the stairs and got bathed in the kitchen sink.  This was the last home of mine my grandmother will have ever visited.  A friend built my front porch steps.  I painted the lower half of the house alone in the dead of night over the course of a month so it would be clean and pretty for Ian’s homecoming in 2007.  We have put so much work and time and laughter and tears into this house….  How weird would that be to see it across the street being lived in and changed by other people?

And speaking of weird, I asked Ian if it would be too strange to come home from Iraq to the house across the street.  How would it feel to come home to a new home?  Would that even feel like really coming home?

Of course, Ian insists home is wherever I am, so he may turn the wrong direction at our corner a few times by mistake, but aside from that he’d be fine.  So he has no passion about the house question one way or another.  Ian’s no real help in discussing any of this because he loves me and will do what he thinks will make me happy.  He doesn’t struggle with trying to figure out how to make our house work for five of us, so it’s all the same to him.  He would like it if we moved, but given his way we’d keep our money in the bank and stay where we are.  It leaves me feeling sort of selfish for wanting to go into debt over closets.  I don’t want to be shallow, and compared to the space my brother in New York lives in, I have nothing to complain about.  But Milwaukee is not New York and our needs are very different, so I try not to get distracted by that thought.

It helped to talk to my friend Gabby.   She’s moved a few times since she started having kids and I asked her if it was hard leaving a house that felt special.  She said matter of factly that a house is just a building and that I should have a dishwasher.  Another friend told me today that if I’m still thinking about it so much I should just do it.  She says if I didn’t feel a connection with the new house I wouldn’t keep coming back to the idea.
The funniest objections come from Aden.  She is sentimental about some crazy things, and her big points about staying in our current house are all concerns over how we could possibly move anything.  How can we move the curio cabinet without all the little things falling over?  How would we ever move her bed?  What would we do with our couches?  The TV is mounted to the wall, so how would we move that?  What about her toy kitchen set?  Hmm?  HMMM?  Talking her through some of this does make me look at my concerns in a clearer light.  Some of the things I cling to look just as ridiculous to other people, I’m sure. 

But Aden’s warming up.  I think she didn’t realize that our neighbors’ stuff would be leaving that house first, and we keep explaining that everything we own that she mentioned is all stuff we brought into the house in the first place, and can just as easily be carried across the street.  I told her if we moved she and her sister could have the bedroom with the little balcony.  (Mona got so excited and said, “A balcony!  We could have the balcony!  …What’s a balcony?”)  She could have her own plants to grow out there, and she could make snowballs to throw down below, and maybe we could put out a birdfeeder right by her window.  I think that did the trick, because she came up to me the other day and said quietly that if I really really wanted to move, she would come too.

So we’ll see.  Real estate issues are complicated and expensive and confusing, and nothing is settled until it’s settled according to lots of pieces of signed paper.
All of this would be better dealt with a year from now, when we’d have more money saved up and our business would have more time to get established, and Ian would be home.  But we don’t get to pick the timing of certain opportunities.  It’s a little like when I talk to people about waiting for the right time to have kids.  There is no right time to have kids–you prepare the best you can and dive in. 

I will share the one thought that haunts me, though.  As much as I lean toward moving across the street, I worry about what that means if Ian doesn’t come home next year.  If the worst comes true, and my husband dies in Iraq, I would want to live in the house he picked out for me, closets be damned.  I know that’s a dark way to look at things, but it’s the reality of having a spouse off at war.  Any of us can have our lives permanently changed at any moment, but being married to a soldier is like living under the threat of swift change all the time.  So buying a new house is a way of looking forward, not back, and embracing the hope that we will all be together again by this time next year.  Maybe the healthy thing is to buy the house.

(That sounds settled, doesn’t it?  But I know at about three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the ping pong game will start over again.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adjustment (Babble)

Okay, so let me start off by clarifying that it is amazing having Ian home for a couple of weeks.  I love him, we love him, he loves us, home is where he belongs, lots of wonderful things here.  The following post is not me being ungrateful or whiney–it’s me trying to explain to others what the reality of our situation is.  People are often content with what they imagine things are like elsewhere, and if left unchallenged those ideas take hold in people’s minds and start to look real to society at large.  That’s why I think it’s good when parents are honest about the boring and irritating parts of raising children, because it’s difficult and should be acknowleged as such.  Otherwise when we struggle alone we think we are crazy.

I’m sure anyone who hasn’t experienced it believes having a deployed spouse home again is all wonderful.  The reality is not that simple, especially for a visit.  First of all, the whole concept of ‘visiting’ your home is odd.  I cleared my stuff out of Ian’s dresser so he could use it as before, but things just aren’t set up with him in mind anymore.  Because he’s not usually here and that’s just the truth.  And we can’t go back to carving out space for him everywhere just yet because he’s leaving again soon, and that would be ridiculous.  I want him to feel ‘at home,’ but I don’t know how settled he can really feel here.  The logistics of a visit can be awkward.

Emotionally it’s also complicated.  The kids are thrilled to have daddy back, but they have their own expectations about what that means, and too much emotion of any type can be exhausting.  After a day or two of hugs and excitement and everyone trying to tell daddy important things all at once, all the kids kind of fell apart.  They all need naps at unexpected times lately which is throwing their sleep schedules out of whack.  They are quicker to cry right now.  There are times they want to want to be with daddy, but they are more comfortable with me.  Mona was torn last night when I asked if she wanted to come with me on an errand or stay home with dad.  Her first reaction was to stay with daddy, then as I was walking away she looked alarmed and said, “No, be with you!”  They’re not used to having a choice and it’s confusing.

Ian’s been concerned that even though he now has training in climbing out of overturned armored vehicles and administering an IV in the field, his skills in the parenting department have become rusty.  There are so many little things that change in a couple of months away from small children that you can’t just jump right back in.  Children like routine and the routines have shifted since Ian was involved.  The kids are used to something other than what he provides.  Aden asked why the noodles tasted different last night when Ian made dinner, and I could see it hurt her dad’s feelings, as if he had done something wrong.  I explained to Aden that daddy makes them differently, and I pointed out to Ian that his daughter wasn’t being critical, it was an honest question. 

The girls like the idea of daddy helping them with violin practice, but they are used to my approach so we make sure I’m the one to do that in the evenings to avoid frustration all around.  Ian’s not sure what the current rules are for the kids regarding the TV or cleaning up their toys or doing homework.  It’s all stuff you don’t think to explain until there is a problem–so we bump into a hundred little problems before things get straightened out.

The final stressor that looms over everything is accepting that this is temporary.  I want to enjoy being with Ian without somehow thinking about the upcoming goodbye, but I don’t know how.  It makes me want to hold him tighter and push him away at the same time.  The kids may be going through some version of that themselves, and it’s hard to know how to help.  It would be easy to get too comfortable with parenting as a team again.  It’s lovely to not have to do everything all the time.  It’s nice to let Quinn sleep in because his dad can stay home with him while I drive the girls to school.  It’s nice to have someone else cook a meal or run a bath.  It was great during Aden’s birthday party to be able to play with the shy kid on one end of the house while my husband kept the masses entertained upstairs.  Those are luxuries I don’t want to give up before the start of the new year, but I know I have to.

So there has been a lot of adjustment these past few days, but overall, the pain is minor.  It’s like an intensified version of normal life, which when we remember it is short can hurt on any day.  We only care about loss when something matters.  We love Ian, and we love our life with Ian, so being confronted with a specific number of days to be together is as hard as our love is great.  But we will make the most of the time we have.  The way we all should every day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Counterbalance and Birthday Fun (Babble)

Getting to know my children as they figure out who they are is fascinating to me.   Each one is unique, and yet I spot bits of myself or my husband in them all the time.  Sometimes that’s good, but often I cringe a little inside when I recognize some behavior or trait that I know will lead them toward complications.  It’s hard to see wheels beginning to be set in motion and not be able to do anything about it.  I suppose some lessons have to be learned anew each generation, and no amount of cautionary tales from mom can help.

One of those traits I see in all my kids is a need to counterbalance too much joy.  I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who can enjoy the moment I’m in without reservation.  But I’m not built that way.  I can appreciate it if someone does something nice for me, but I don’t want to be the center of attention.  If everyone around me is happy I feel myself ratcheting down a bit.  On the flip side, if everyone is down I’m usually successful at cheering people back up.  I guess I want things level, but I couldn’t tell you why.

My kids are a little like this, most noticeably Aden.  She was happy when I went into her room this morning and wished her a happy birthday–for about two seconds.  Then she started telling me how much she was going to miss being seven.  I told her seven had indeed been great, but that eight was nice too and to give it a chance.  She perked up as she got dressed, and when she found I’d made pancakes in the shape of eights for breakfast she was delighted–for about two seconds.  The more you try to make her happy the more likely she is to get a bit down.  If we’re not careful and we try to do something too great she ends up alone in her room under the covers. 

There are times I want to shake her and say, “No!  Just be happy!  There are real things in the world to be sad about and this is not one of them!”  But there is nothing to be done.  She is who she is, and part of who she is happens to be me.  Poor thing.  But again, on the flip side, if someone is sad or in trouble or hurting, no one rises to the occasion better than Aden.  She is ready with a hug or a picture or a joke.  She will stick by your side like smiling glue until you are okay.  I think she likes things level, too.  She only indulges in being sad when everything else is fine, so that’s something.  There is a practicality to her counterbalancing act that must be imprinted in her genes and my own somewhere.

Mona at her own birthday party loved running around Chuck E. Cheese’s with her friends and she liked getting a medallion and a crown, but the more the guy in the mouse costume tried to engage her and make her feel special the flatter she seemed to get.  Several people asked me if she was tired because she’s normally so bouncy and bright, but I don’t think that was it.  She didn’t want the attention.  The calmer things were around her the more energy she seemed to have.  At Quinn’s little party we weren’t supposed to sing to him.  He loves being three, but if you try to congratulate him on it his mouth turns down and he sinks toward the floor.  He was happier when he got to share his toys than he was opening them.

We would all make terrible politicians I suspect–none of us able to bask in our own glory or talk ourselves up.  But that’s fine.  My children are all nice people with good hearts, and I like the way my life has turned out, so maybe things I perceive as flaws in myself will help them out in the long run.  I hope so.  I want them to be happy, but maybe that’s the wrong thing to wish for.  More than anything I want them to have purpose and be fulfilled.  There is a different kind of joy in that that I know I do have.  It’s probably not as much fun as being swept away in the moment, but it gives me a grounded sense of peace that I cherish.

But I still hope Aden smiles tonight for more than two seconds after she opens the over-priced pillow pet thingy I bought her that she wanted so badly.  Maybe if I stub my toe first she’ll keep smiling just to distract me….  Not that it matters.  Her real gift she gets this weekend.  Her dad’s coming home for a visit.  She’s planning to take him to show and tell and I’m sure she will be smiling the whole time.  I know I will.  Some kinds of happiness defy counterbalance.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Taking Sides (Babble)

I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s probably unusual that Ian and I never staked out certain sides of the bed. Most couples I know who share a bed seem to establish fixed sides. It makes sense, especially when you have nightstands on either side to store your things. My dad’s side of the bed has always had a crossword puzzle next to it, and my mom’s a book and the alarm clock. Ian and I always just went to sleep wherever on the bed. If I’m there by myself I’m in the middle, and often (when he’s home) if I’m there reading or working on something, Ian will stand at the end and say, “Well, which side am I on?” before he gets in.

When we started having kids, we dubbed the two sides of the bed “The Working Side” and “The Vacation Side.” Whoever was in charge of getting the baby in the middle of the night took the working side, and whoever was allowed to sleep through it got the vacation side. As the kids got older, the working side mostly meant whoever was going to make breakfast. Before Ian left for his deployment he tried to give me the vacation side of the bed as often as possible. After he left, the whole thing was just “the bed” and it didn’t really have sides anymore. It seems too big when it’s just me in the middle, and often when I have the bed to myself I sleep diagonally just to use more of it up.

But after Ian had been gone a few weeks, Quinn asked more and more often if he could sleep in my bed. He has a twin size bed in the same room as his sisters, and at first he would let me put him to bed when they went down for the night because he liked the ritual of it, but after a minute he would get up and come into my room. “Can I sleep in your bed, mom?” he would ask in his sweet little voice, holding his stripey blanket and beaming up at me with his dimples and his squinty eye. How can I say no? There is plenty of room and he is a sound and gentle sleeper. After a few nights in a row of letting him come to my bed, I came upstairs to find he’d simply set himself up with his own pillow and a blanket, a few stufffed animals and a book. He gave me the proudest smile when I found him there. He’s been there pretty much ever since.

I was worried it would be a problem when his dad came back for Thanksgiving, but he was surprisingly good. I explained every night for more than a week beforehand that when Ian was here he’d have to sleep in his own bed. Quinn did stay in his own bed all three nights of Ian’s visit, but I also promised he could come back to my bed if he wanted when daddy left, and I think that was the key to his compliance. The day Ian flew back to Fort Polk, Quinn set up all of his things again on the far side of my bed.

I know a lot of people have issues about letting kids sleep in your bed, and normally I tend to agree with that. When Ian is home there isn’t room for an extra body in the bed. I make exceptions for when one of the kids is sick or has a bad dream, and Ian and I kind of draw straws to see which one of us is headed for the couch downstairs rather than all of us being uncomfortable in one bed. More often then not, however, the girls prefer their own beds, and I’m glad. I like that they like thier beds.

But things have always been different with my son. During the last deployment, I was pregnant with Quinn for a good chunk of time, so he was technically with me in the bed then. I used an Arm’s Reach co-sleeper after he was born, so he was next to me for months. After I started putting him into his crib at night, he’d still want some cozy snuggle time in the morning in my bed. He was nice company then and he still is. I’ve heard people say that letting kids sleep in your bed does not count as spending ‘quality’ time with your kids, but I disagree. There is a lot of cuddling and giggling, and I like that I’m a source of comfort even when he’s not conscious. He likes to press up against me at night, and if I move off into my own space he pats around in his sleep until he finds me and cuddles up again. It’s nice.

And frankly, I don’t sleep well alone. By myself I lie awake and my thoughts tend to race around. I obsess about things both big and small and I get restless. On bad nights I even scare myself with where my thoughts go. When Quinn snuggles up I’m just happy. He’s warm and dear and he reminds me I’m loved in the middle of the night when I’m most likely to feel lonely. I like to think I do the same for him.

By the time Ian returns from Iraq next fall, the plan is to shift around all of our sleeping arrangements anyway so that Quinn will finally have his own room. With a little luck, all the crazy transitions happening then (Ian being home, Quinn starting school, moving things around…) should distract from the fact that he’s not sleeping next to me anymore. We’ll see. It’s impossible to predict what his needs will be in a year on a lot of levels, not just surrounding sleep.

In the meantime, barnacle boy remains by my side both day and night. There are times during waking hours where I dream of a break, but never at night. The bed feels better with him in it. So after years and years of sharing a bed with my husband and not developing a habit of staking out a particular side, I now share the bed with a bitty boy who has become entrenched on one side, with his toy cat and his copy of ‘Caps for Sale.’ It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I am always on the working side.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What the Army Thinks Is Helpful (Babble)

The Army is trying hard to stay in contact with me during my husband’s deployment.  I appreciate the thought–I really do.  And I try to be polite to the people who call, but they aren’t listening to me when I say I want them to stop.  I have repeatedly told Army people that unless there is information I need to know to leave me alone.  Email is okay, but don’t phone me, and don’t mail me things.  The contact is intrusive and unwelcome.  I don’t need it.

Now, I’m sure there are people out there who have no one to talk to, who need these calls.  I know the Army is making an effort to care for families of soldiers.  I’m glad they are reaching out as a general policy to make sure people aren’t dangerously depressed or desperate or in serious trouble.  That’s fine.  But I am a very fortunate person who has a whole address book of friends and familiy I can call if I’m sad.  I don’t want to talk to a soldier I don’t know.  They always ask what they can do, but there isn’t anything.  I want to hold my husband at night.  I want Mona to eat peas.  I want someone else to take out the garbage once in awhile.  I want Quinn to wear a jacket.  I want the laundry to put itself away.  I want to not feel scared and lonely in the middle of the night when I can’t fall asleep.  The Army can’t help with any of these things. 

I have asked them directly what it is they are hoping to help with, exactly, and they always respond, “Oh, just if you want to talk.”  Well, I don’t.  Not to them, and not on their schedule.  They call when I’m bathing the kids or doing the dishes or making lunch.  They force me to think about the deployment at moments when I wasn’t expecting to.  They bring me down.  Some of the people who call do sound genuinely nice and caring.  Others fall far short.  The worst was a call recently where an Army person was trying to verify certain information about how many people live in our household, and the guy specifically wanted to speak to my husband’s “next of kin.”  It’s hard to think of a poorer choice of words when calling…. well, ANYBODY.  The call left me in a fidgety, unhappy mood the rest of the evening.

The worst part is now they are sending stuff to the kids.  I got a box full of the same old family readiness material I’ve been throwing out for months, and another Sesame Street DVD.  I think I own 3 DVDs now of the Sesame Street crowd talking to kids about deployment.  I don’t need Elmo becoming associated with the war in my kids’ minds, so we haven’t watched it.  There are other DVDs we will never watch in the box, along with sentimental dog tags that kind of offended me, and then these:

I think they are horrible.  I showed one to Aden and she found it really scary.  Mona and Quinn just thought they were ugly.  And they’re right.  We’re supposed to put a picture of Ian’s face on the front of the head, but frankly it looks like a voodoo doll.  Someone thought this was a good idea, and if it brought comfort to someone else’s kid, more power to them.  But I could have told them that my kids wouldn’t like these dolls, and I wish they hadn’t mailed them to me.  I don’t want any more scary soldier dolls showing up on my doorstep.  I need to find a more effective way to get on the Army’s ‘do not call (or send)’ list.

Again, I’m glad they are concerned about families, but they can’t know what is right for all of them.  The advice they hand out always sounds as if it’s universal, and you can’t expect anything to work for everyone.  For instance, something I hear suggested all the time is that when a parent gets deployed, let each of your kids pick out a nice frame and put a picture of the soldier with the child in it for them to have. 

Sounds great.  Except when I did that for Aden the last time the reminder of daddy by her bed upset her so badly she went and hid it under a pillow in the family room.  I decided to try it again this time and this is what happened:  Mona loves having a cute picture of her with her dad by her bed, it makes her smile, very nice.  Aden is traumatized and cries everytime she spots her picture, but she won’t let me take it away because she feels she should be sad.  Quinn looked at the photo I picked out of him and his dad together and he protested loudly, “But I want a picture of me and YOU!”  Three kids, three reactions: happiness, sadness, and indifference.  Parenting is not a one size fits all event no matter what the Army pamphlets want me to believe.

The problem in general with the Army’s attempt to help is that everything they do or send reminds us of the war.  Yes, Ian is a soldier, but that’s not how his kids know him.  He doesn’t tote a rifle or wear a uniform at home.  I respect and acknowledge the job he does so well, but even I get a little freaked out seeing him in Army mode.  I like my computer geek of a husband in an old T-shirt and jeans, carrying one of the kids on his shoulders and making me laugh.  When we think of Ian we don’t think of dog tags and camo themed items.  They are not comforting reminders of daddy, they are items associated with our fears and loss, so they aren’t helpful.

I feel (at this moment, anyway) that I have a pretty good handle on how best to get my kids through this experience.  We have a good routine with things the kids look forward to every day and every week.  I fill their days with opportunities to go places or do projects or just play and be kids.  I want them to focus on all the things they have that are wonderful.  They know they are loved and they live with the assumption daddy will come back one day.  They don’t need people or creepy dolls to remind them their dad isn’t here.  They confront that reality every time they see some other kid hug his or her dad at the after school pick up.  They each love their dad in their own way, and they each miss him in their own way too.  I respect that.  And I will distract them and keep them smiling as much as I can until he comes home–no matter how much the Army inadvertently undermines my efforts.

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.