Monday, March 29, 2010

Moving In Slow Motion (Babble)

I think there are only a few easy ways to move.  All of them involve either not being attached to a lot of possessions, having a lot of money, or some combination of the two.  You could up and abandon everything because you are really spiritually developed or brain damaged and it doesn’t upset you, or you could not care about any of your things but afford to buy everything again in the new place.  You could love your millions of things and be able to pay some team of people to lovingly pack them all in a matter of hours and completely arrange them in a fresh location while you go off and distract yourself at the spa.  That sounds lovely.  That’s not happening here.

What we have on our side to ease this move are time and proximity.  Those things help, but not enough to put moving from one house to another with three kids and a deployed husband under the category of ‘easy.’   We’ve been at this moving thing now since the first of February, and I’d say we’re about halfway there.  (Maybe a little more than that, but possibly less….  I have no idea anymore.)  In the new house we have all the beds, my entire in-house violin making shop, many odds-and-ends-type storage items, photo albums, all the kitchen stuff I apparently don’t use, everything of Ian’s, art supplies, new tables and chairs, anything we own that resembles a couch, all the books and art, and a lot of toys.  In the current house we have the old tables and chairs, our dressers and clothes, the computers and TV, kitchen essentials and food, bathroom things, all the violins, and we sleep on mattresses on the floor.  It’s like limbo.  We’re moved, but we’re not moved.  We live here, but often spend hours over there.  We’ve reached a point where I’m not sure which house certain items are in sometimes.

However, having a second house across the street is more often than not pretty convenient.  When realtors want to show people the current house we can just dash over to the new house and can see through the windows when the coast is clear.  But because it’s so close, it lacks a certain urgency that would help get the move over with already.  The new house is there, I can see it, some days I never get in it (although I do have to pop over and check the mail) and we have a comfortable routine where we are that is hard to want to mess with.  Little things like shooing the kids out to the car in the morning won’t work the same way at all in the new house, so I’m loath to tamper with a system that functions.

Our current house is on the market and there are showings nearly every day, but there is no timeline for leaving yet.  And the new house is still in the middle of a lot of projects.  Many rooms are nearly done, but nothing is quite finished.  We could live there right now, but I’d rather wait until the outlet covers are back on and all the switches work.

As confusing as living in two houses can sometimes be, I will admit that it’s great to be able to work on fixing something up and making the new house our own while still having someplace else to retreat to when we need a break.  I let the kids help paint their own rooms which I think will make a difference in how they feel about living in them when the time comes.  Aden decided her side of the room would be ‘irresistible iris’ and Mona’s is some kind of blue with the word serene near it.  (Mona wants her side to look like the sea.)

Luckily I think the colors they picked work okay together, although these are not colors I would have chosen myself.  But it’s their room, and at least we didn’t end up with Aden’s first idea which was red with giant white polka-dots which might have given me seizures in the morning.  (The door leads out to their terrace.  They are already completely crazy about the terrace and have had little picnics out there, even though it’s still pretty cold here in Milwaukee.)

Quinn wanted to use the leftover paint from Aden and Mona’s room, and threw in leftover green from the kitchen for good measure.  He has some story about the green being the rain and the purple is the ground….  Who knows?  Looks like a 1970’s daycare center to me, but he likes it and that’s all that matters.  It’s easy enough to change paint one day if he develops a different sense of style later.

The only sad bit of redecorating so far has been painting over our exisiting kitchen cabinets.  They were covered with Aden’s handprints and Mona’s footprints from five years ago.  Aren’t they cute?

But they are only cute to me because they were done by my kids.  I got some sweet pictures of the girls posing by their cabinets and then painted them over after they went to bed.  I will admit the new look makes the house more salable, but it broke my heart to paint over those little hands and feet.

The most stressful element of my life at the moment is trying to keep the current house clean for showings.  That’s hard with three kids, but moving all their toys to the other house helped.  I told them I couldn’t keep picking their stuff up all the time and still be nice, so they were going to have to be content with just a few toys over here.  They agreed, but an hour after I cleaned up the family room I returned to find they had simply made their own toys out of aluminum foil and cotton balls.  They’d constructed lizards and snakes and crazy little structures and I don’t even know what else.  The room was a mess and I was simultaneously impressed and annoyed.

But we’re getting closer.  Ian is due home for a short leave, and the kids and I decided we wanted to spend our last night in the old house and our first night in the new house with him here.  I’m looking forward to that.  And we won’t have to worry as much about their dad disrupting the routine in the new house because there won’t be one yet.  Everything will be new and I’m glad we’ll get to share that.  I wasn’t looking forward to settling into a different home without him, and this way we’ll have his input before we get entrenched in a new way of doing things, so the timing is good.

I wonder how the kids will remember this move.  I moved when I was three and still recall bits of that experience.  Quinn’s that age now, so I bet he’ll remember something about it.  Mona will proabably deal just fine, but with her it’s always unsafe to make predictions.  I’m sure Aden will say something guilt inducing for many years to come as she gazes across the street and recounts things that were better in the old house just out of loyalty to her young childhood self.  The new house is a way better fit for the teenagers my kids will one day be, so I have no regrets.  We will be hosting her next book club meeting over there, and I think having so many friends over will help as she starts creating new memories.

I just hope whoever buys our current house will love it like we have.  I’ve seen several young couples looking at it over the past couple of weeks and I imagine them starting their own little families here.  That would be nice to see.  It’s a good place to bring new babies home to.  I know that first hand.  (And if they ever need ideas for adding visual interest to those kitchen cabinets, I have a few.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

In Defense of Handwriting (Babble)

There have been several articles here and there recently about whether or not children should still be taught cursive in school.  The first time I came across one I didn’t give it much thought.  My reaction was some version of “whatever” and I didn’t dwell on it.  I had a vague question in my head about what that would mean for how people would develop their signatures for signing documents in the future, but beyond that it didn’t seem important.

But I’ve had more time to consider it, and I’m coming down squarely on the side of teaching handwriting to children.

I started thinking about this in more detail after a debate I had with one of my brothers over the holidays about spelling.  One of the tangents that discussion took touched on handwriting, and he thinks it’s pointless.  His arguments were that it was time wasted in school that could be used for better things, people use keyboards now, printing is clearer, not enough bang for your educational buck essentially.

My brother and I come from different places in our fields of study which likely affects our perspectives on many issues.  He’s a scientist and is accustomed to stripping things down to quantifiable elements.  Things he deals with need to be efficient, practical and show clear benefit or progress.  Music has other aims.  I want to capture something from the past with most of the music I play.  I want to participate in a living tradition of musical knowledge passed down from one generation to another.  I experience the value of doing things simply because they are beautiful in a way that doesn’t touch my brother’s work life in the same way.  Science and music speak to different parts of the human condition and both help us understand our world and our place in it, but I think they prime our reactions as to what things are important quite differently.

So I’m leading with my weakest argument in favor of handwriting because it makes sense to me.  (I’ve got practical points in a moment if this one seems irrelevant.)  Handwriting done well is beautiful.  There is value in that.  How impressive is it that we remember John Hancock on the strength of his extravagant signature?  That’s some handwriting with impact.  There was a girl I went to school with named Nicola, and I didn’t know her well, but I still remember her handwriting.  It was sophisticated and gorgeous.  My brother sarcastically suggested that we should keep cursive because “that’s how grandma did it.”  But that’s not a joke to me.  I like doing some things like grandma did it.  There’s value in that too.  Finding small ways to connect us to the past makes us less likely to forget our history.  I’m not someone who thinks the past was better–I’m thrilled to be living in the here and now–but I also don’t think everything has to be streamlined to be good.  Efficiency isn’t always an improvement.  Sometimes it’s just cold.

If that’s too ethereal, here are the practical arguments in favor of handwriting.  Sometimes you need to write by hand.  That’s just true, regardless of technology.  And it makes sense to learn to do it in a way that is both quick and understood by many.  I have a dozen legal pads scrawled with my notes from four years of violin making school.  That was not an environment that lent itself to taking notes on a laptop or other such device.  I did transfer my notes at the end of each week onto my computer to print out in a more easily accessible form, but my original notes were invaluable.  I have nice printing, but it’s slower.  Cursive writing on paper was the most practical way to record the information I needed, and that’s been true for much of my life.  I would be unhappy working on a novel that way, and I love typing these posts, but for writing on a post-it, or for jotting down information in an unexpected place, or slipping a note under a door, you still have to write.  Electronic gadgets for writing are superior in many cases, but not for everything, and why limit yourself?

My favorite recent example of a moment when handwriting proved superior to technology was during the holidays when my whole family took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I ended up watching all the tots in the kids’ area and had to be content with other people’s reports of the fabulous things they’d seen, and both my brothers had enjoyed the exhibit on the Arts and Crafts movement.  Barrett pulled out his pamphlet with pictures of some of the more impressive furniture on display, and in one of the margins in his distinctive and lovely handwriting he’d put down a William Morris quote that moved him and that he wanted to remember.  Arno also had recorded a quote that he wanted to share, but he’d spent a long amount of time typing it into his phone and it didn’t seem to have saved properly so I have no idea what it was.  (He preferred to ignore the irony in this when I brought it up during our discussion later.)

Besides being a basic skill kids should learn because writing legibly is practical, I think there is something to giving them a way to train their hands.  It takes practice to learn to control and strengthen the muscles in your hands well.  More people should be trained in basic drawing skills because drawing is extremely useful (and is another area of education that is too thoughtlessly dismissed), and I think writing for many is the closest a lot of us get to drawing.  If you develop the skills it takes to make clear curves and straight lines you have a lot of possiblities at your fingertips.  Why not do that with writing?  If you are going to spend time to learn to take an image in your mind and successfully get your hands to transfer it to the page, why not practice that with something so useful?  You can’t expect kids to type on keyboards and then just magically know how to use their hands for something else.  It doesn’t work that way.  Practice is necessary, and that is not time wasted.

Writing things yourself also helps you process them in a different way.  I know I make the most progress in teaching people to read music when I make them write it out themselves.  Just because they’ve seen a treble clef and recognize it, doesn’t mean they have ever really taken the time to process what it really looks like.  Making them think about it and engage different parts of their brain to write it out helps them learn.  Writing helps teach you how to see.

And lastly, it’s personal.  My brother tends to focus on the information that is being communicated as the central point.  He doesn’t think the means by which an idea is displayed is relevant in most cases, and resents it when people’s ideas are judged unfairly based on presentation.  I can see that, but the method does matter.  That’s why even when typing you have to consider the font or color, etc., because it will affect the impact of your point.  Ideas are important, but they are not everything.  Sometimes you just want to hold something that you know another person held.  When you take the time to write certain thoughts down, the mere act of writing them with your own hands is powerful.

I have probably a hundred fascinating, well-written, gripping, touching emails from my husband during his last deployment.  I’m glad he shared those thoughts.  But I also have two hand-written letters just to me from that same time, and which do you think I come back to most often?  I don’t want to print out an email that says, “I love you” that looks the same as if I’d written it to myself some lonely afternoon.  I want a piece of paper that was in Iraq with my husband, that he wrote on in his own slightly scrunchy handwriting, that tells me he was thinking of me when he put that pen to paper, and that is a unique reminder of the man I love.  The idea is not always the same when you change the delivery.  Sometimes the delivery is the idea.  An education that does not prepare children to communicate their ideas in a way that is powerful and personal, efficient and beautiful, is not a full education.

My children go to a public Montessori school, and there they start cursive in kindergarten.  I love seeing Aden’s homework all in cursive.  She’s got a good hand and she’s improving all the time.  I prefer a hand drawn and written birthday card from my daughter to something she could have printed out on the computer or bought in a store.  I have a feeling my brother is just playing devil’s advocate with me on some of these points because I’ve seen the binder he has of all the letters his wife wrote to him from India before they were married.  And his five year old daughter composed an inspiring ‘list for life’ that is moving because it was written in her own hand.  The ideas are wonderful, but typed out would lack authenticity.  Seeing the words “Be kind to people” in her childish printing gives it a heartfelt charm that the idea alone lacks.  Her innocence shines through, and the sentiment is her own, not something anyone might have said.

Having given it this much thought, I’ve made an effort recently to work on my own handwriting.  I tend to print because it’s clearer, but if I take a moment and use care, there is nothing about my handwriting that is hard to read.  When I take the time anymore to write a real letter, I do it in cursive.  Just like grandma did it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Breathing Room (Babble)

I’m having a really good week.  My brother’s girlfriend came up from Texas just to help me out during my current busy rehearsal schedule, and having her in the house has been such a relief.  Kristie is sweet and funny and generous and my kids adore her.  I have an adult in the house to talk to again, and someone around to help keep track of the children.  I’m able to relax a bit for the first time in a long time.  I can breathe.

I’ve been trying to explain to people why relieving my stress isn’t as simple as “Go hire a babysitter.”   That’s the first thing most people say to me when I express any frustration about dealing with the kids, and it kind of stops there in their minds as if that just never occurred to me before and now all will be well.  There are several reasons why this is not as simple as it sounds on the surface.

First off, I do use babysitters.  I have rehearsals I need to attend and concerts to perform, and there are moments in my schedule where of course I need to get out and have someone else be responsible for my children for awhile.  But part of single parenting means my pool of available babysitters is usually reduced to whoever can get themselves home afterward.  Once my kids are asleep, I can’t leave the house.  I either need sitters with their own transportation or who live within walking distance.  This drastically limits whom I can call, especially since all my rehearsals fall on school nights and go quite late.  Could I hire someone from a service so this isn’t an issue?  Probably, but I’m going to chalk that up to my own trouble with leaving my kids with someone I don’t know.  It would make me nervous, and my nerves can’t handle much more.

My biggest help in the neighborhood is my friend Julie (who is across the street or next door depending on which of the two houses during the moving process I happen to be in).  She volunteers to come put my kids to bed every Thursday evening so I can go to a rehearsal with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra.  When I’m in a bind she rearranges her work schedule to help me out.  She is wonderful and somehow always makes me feel like I’m helping her by letting her hang out with my kids.  I already depend on her so much I don’t want to push it, but for keeping up with my obligations, rest assured I do have people around to watch my children.

But I get the impression that what some people think I need to be doing with my valuable babysitting time is to go get a massage or something that sounds relaxing.  Trying to relax is not relaxing for me.  To achieve the sense of calm I desire I need to feel like I’m making progress on some of the many projects I’m interested in, or that I’m caught up on something.  If I try to sit and read while I know the kitchen is a mess or there is violin repair work hanging in my shop, I can’t enjoy it.  I read when I’m caught in situations where I’m stuck anyway, like waiting in my car prior to the after school pickup.  As nice as having a couple of hours to read a book for fun sounds, the idea of hiring a sitter so I can do that just to be up that much later at night to catch up on the laundry makes my head hurt.

And here is my biggest problem with the whole “Just go hire a sitter” idea for helping me relax– I can’t predict when I need one.   For instance, most days at work I’m able to handle having Quinn there with customers pretty well.  I have people schedule appointment times so I can pace what I do with my son.  It’s nice.  I can rehair a bow in the time it takes to watch a typical DVD, so if I know when to set Quinn up with a snack and a movie, I’m fine.  But there are days like one last week where the customer was supposed to arrive at 8 in the morning, and then couldn’t get there until 11:30.  That throws off everything.  Juggling Quinn and work into lunchtime after we’d exhausted all the ‘sit quietly in one place’ options was impossible.  I would have loved a babysitter at that moment, but how could I have known I would need one?

Also, most of the projects I want to tackle for my own enjoyment are creative endeavors, and I can’t schedule them.  I write best when I wait for the moment to strike me and run with it.  There are days playing viola for fun would be marvelous and others where it would be torture.  I can’t just give myself a couple of hours to work on building a violin because there are days my hands are up to it and others when my focus just isn’t there.  I need time to settle into a creative mood in order to really enjoy some things.  The elements of my life that I indulge purely for my own pleasure are not things I can coordinate with a sitter.  They have to be allowed to just happen when the moment is right, not forced and scheduled into a block of time when the meter is running.

This is why having Kristie here for more than a week is making me feel like myself again.  Not only do I not have to make complicated arrangements for leaving one child with a sitter while taking the girls to choir and having someone else drive them home while I go to rehearsal (etc. etc.), but I have the freedom to be distracted at unscheduled moments.  I have to be so vigilant caring for three kids alone that it’s hard to turn that off in the space of just a couple of hours.  I need real time to be able to let some of that go.

It’s not just knowing I can pop out to the store alone for a minute because someone else is in the house, but to be able to take that a little for granted that makes a difference.  If someone is here for a matter of hours and says, “Quick!  Relax!” it’s just not going to happen.  But to have the luxury of picking my moment, and to have my thoughts to myself when I choose is lovely.  I can’t find those random moments of peace when I hire someone to watch the kids.  I need my money’s worth when I use a sitter, and I need to cram important errands and deeds into that time.  But the fifteen spontaneous minutes of extra practice I got in on my viola the other day while Kristie played with the kids in the next room?  That was golden.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Living in the Squirrel Cage (Babble)

I love my children, I really do, but there are days when the constant squeaky noises make me want to just set them loose at Chuck E. Cheese’s and not look back as I drive away, hoping they grow into successful adults among the blinky lights and a diet of pizza.

I think the single biggest difference between typical households with kids and ones without, is the noise level.  It’s tempting to say the mess, or the amount of mac and cheese in the cupboard, or even how often cartoons are on, but I know plenty of adults without kids where all that is true.  But if adults without kids want quiet, they can usually find it.  There is no quiet to be found in my house.  Not behind any door or around some corner or out in the car.  The constant little voices follow me in a way that makes me think about the plight of schizophrenics.  Except if I try to block out the little voices I’m being irresponsible because I have to pay just enough attention to be aware if something is wrong.

There are a lot of things about parenting without a partner around that are difficult, but the most insidious is to not get a break from the noise.  It grates on me, and there are days I deal with it better than others, but lately I just want to wrap my head in my arms and scream.  Instead I smile and remind them I’m going crazy and they really need to be quiet.  But they can’t.  They THINK they are being quiet.  They hum and tap and for some reason they all squeak.  There is a ton of pretend play in our house all the time, and most of the imaginary characters they create all have high pitched squeaky voices.  It makes me nuts.

My least favorite games of my kids are the ones where the characters they are acting out are fighting or acting mean.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shouted up the stairs to break up what sounds like a problem, only to have them all say innocently, “We’re just playing!”  I tell them regularly to play something nicer, because I can’t tell the difference between the play crying and the real thing.  Fabulous if they want to win an Oscar one day, but not so great for my nerves right now.

They’re not trying to drive me crazy.   They want to help, but they are wired to keep making noise just for the sake of making noise for some reason.  I lost it the other day in the kitchen on our way out the door because the jibber-jabber-squeak-a-thon had been non-stop over a four day weekend and I couldn’t think straight anymore.  I waved my arms and said loudly and hysterically that they needed to not sing/whistle/clap/stomp/chatter/squeak/squeal/laugh/cry/whine for just five minutes.  They walked silently to the car, buckled themselves in, and sat in complete silence as I backed the minivan out of the garage.  By then the quiet was starting to freak me out a little and I told them singing was okay, and they cheered and started right in on a song about the sun they all like.

That’s the true irony of the noise problem.  As much as I crave a little quiet, the minute they stop making noise it’s unnatural and eerie.  It either means they are doing something they know they shouldn’t, or they are dead, so I can’t enjoy the quiet.  I have to investigate and usually start the noise going again.  It reminds me of driving a kid with croup to the emergency room in the middle of the night.  I had to do that once with each of my kids as babies, and the only thing more awful than suffering through each tortured breath from the backseat on those drives in the dark was the quiet between each breath.  I met each wheezy new breath with a mixture of relief and concern anew.  (Makes for an impossibly long drive.)

Aden asked one time why every once in awhile I want them to be quiet.  I sighed and tried to explain that it didn’t have anything to do with them doing anything wrong, but that all the noise makes it hard for me to think, and I have many things I’m supposed to think about.  I told her sometimes in the car in particular when they are all being squeaky and restless that it feels like I’m in a squirrel cage.  Aden laughed at that image and was so entertained by whatever cute squirrels she had conjured in her mind that I think she missed the main point, but that’s okay.  I remind myself when I want to flee the noise that there will come a day when they grow up and move on where the silence will be deafening and I will miss the squeakiness.  (Yeah, I tried to believe that last line as I wrote it, but no, I won’t miss the squirrel cage.  Noise is easy to find, and if I want to feel nostalgic about the squeaky sounds I can pull out the home movies.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

I've been dumped for someone younger! (Babble)

No, not by my husband.  By my little boy!  My little Quinn who likes to snuggle at night has ditched me for his older sister.  It’s a good thing, probably, but I miss that little warm body in the bed.

About once a week I have an evening rehearsal and my neighbor comes over to put my kids to bed and sit in the house until I get home.   Quinn has never been happy about going to sleep alone, so sometimes I would come back and find him still up with the neighbor waiting for me to arrive, and sometimes he would have passed out wherever he was despite his best efforts to stay awake.  But in the past couple of weeks he figured out a new solution:  Share Aden’s bed.

Aden also loves a good snuggle and seems to like adding a real live boy to the pile of stuffed bunnies she hugs all night.   After a couple of rehearsal evenings in a row the pattern was set.  Quinn now expects to crawl in next to his sister for the night and so far they are both happy about the arrangement.  They giggle and hunker down under the covers and somehow don’t get in each other’s way once they fall asleep.

There are several advantages to this new system.  The first is that Quinn is going to bed at a reasonable hour for a change.  He used to follow me around until I went to bed, no matter how late I stayed up to wash dishes and get the house in order.  His sisters go to bed somewhere between 7 and 8, so this is better.  It also means he gets up in time for breakfast.  In my bed he would just keep sleeping until I scooped him up to put in the car when I drive the girls to school.  Now that he’s in the belly of the squeaky beast he gets up with the girls before 6 in the morning and gets caught up in their squeaky start of the day playtime.

I like not fighting anyone (however small and dimpled) for covers, and stretching out as far as I want in bed, but I miss the company.  I liked the giggle time and the way Quinn nuzzled up behind me as he slept.  I liked seeing his little blond head first thing in the morning and hearing him tell me sometimes that it was daytime outside and I needed to get up.

It’s funny, because I used to feel a bit disapproving of people who let their kids sleep in their bed.  Not disapproving in a harsh way–I just didn’t understand it and couldn’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t correct that right away.  With Aden and Mona I used a co-sleeper when they were first born.  It was nice to have them conveniently within arm’s reach of the bed without being in it.  It made nursing them easier and gave me more opportunity to rest than if I’d had to get up and go to another room in the night to find them. 

When Aden hit the three or four month mark and started sleeping through the night we moved her to the crib.  I waited a couple of extra months past that with Mona just because I was concerned about the girls sharing a room and waking each other up, but that turned out not to be a problem.  They tune each other out as they sleep.  I cried the first night they each spent in the next room and I was left with the monitor next to my bed instead of a baby.  It was hard, but it was for the best.  I believed (and still do) that parents should have privacy in their own bed and kids need to learn to sleep on their own.

But there are few absolutes in parenting, and you can never make assumptions about what things with the next kid will be like.  Quinn has always been a different story.  He was born during my husband’s first deployment and was about 8 months old when his dad came home.  Without Ian in the bed there wasn’t any particular need for privacy, and I had concerns again about possible room sharing issues since three kids in one room seemed like a lot.  I enjoyed having Quinn next to me at night and starting the day with his little hands on my face and his smile as my alarm clock.  He almost never cried and was my happy constant companion.  I didn’t start trying to move him over to his crib until about a month before his dad was supposed to come back from Iraq.

I’m trying to remember now during 2008 and most of 2009 how Quinn slept.  It’s funny how things that consume your life fade when you move past them.  We converted his crib to a toddler bed when he was about 18 months or so, and eventually got him a big kid bed with drawers underneath like his sisters and he was very proud.   With Ian home we tried to get Quinn out of our bed.  I’m remembering a lot of nights where we’d wait for him to pass out next to me and then we’d move him.  There were some nights Ian would give up and sleep downstairs rather than wait Quinn out.  If I wasn’t home at bedtime, Ian reported that Quinn simply went off to his own bed at the same time as his sisters without a fuss.

Quinn had some trouble warming up to his dad when Ian came home from that deployment.  I think he mostly sees Ian as competition for my affection and attention, and he doesn’t like it.  I’m expecting similar problems in the fall when Ian finishes this deployment.  It made simply kicking Quinn out of the bed difficult, because we didn’t want him to resent his dad even more.  How do you convince a child that he’s not being pushed aside in favor of some strange man, when you are literally pushing him aside to make room for some strange man?  I didn’t want his dad’s return to be a bad thing in his mind, but he was happier with the way things were before his dad came back, and part of that was sharing my bed.

In any case, before Ian left again Quinn was pretty good about sleeping in his own bed, but as soon as space opened up next to me at night he slipped back into it.  I don’t sleep well by myself so I didn’t mind.

But now I’m on my own again.  It takes me longer to fall asleep and bad dreams creep in more often without my cuddle boy there to ward them off, but I recognize it’s a step in the right direction.  The fewer things that Quinn has to adjust to when his dad eventually returns, the better for us all.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the new house.  Quinn has a few sleeping options aside from crawling in bed with me or one of his sisters.  He has a little mattress on the floor of his sisters’ room in case he wants to use it, and in his own room he has a new little bunk bed he picked out at Ikea recently.  That makes six different spots to crash upstairs alone so I’m sure something will appeal.  In the meantime, it’s nice watching my kids treat every night like some happy sleepover event.  That’s better than the sweetest of dreams.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Mom Is Awesome (Babble)

Today was my birthday.  It wasn’t stacking up well against other birthdays.  I miss Ian.  My kids were bickering enough to get on my nerves.  The line at the grocery store was really long to pay for food to make my own birthday dinner that I knew the kids wouldn’t even eat, and everything was just too ordinary to feel like a real birthday.

But my mom drove all the way from Detroit and sat through boring Chicago traffic jams just to get to me and bring me a homemade cake.  She loved the dinner I made.  She helped bathe the kids.  She’s going to help me organize my new kitchen tomorrow, and move a bookcase with me, and roll up her sleeves and dive into any other project I point to.

I was sitting here before going to sleep, thinking about how she made my birthday, when I remembered she made ME.  My birthday is just as much her day as it is mine.  I can’t believe I got to share today with my mom.  I’m the luckiest person I know.  What a great day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Looking Back on Yesterday (Babble)

I’m in my room listening to my kids downstairs in the kitchen.  They told me not to come down to make waffles yet because they are making a clam out of tin foil.  It must be a pretty funny clam because there is a lot of giggling going on.  And a lot of squeaking.  (There is always a lot of squeaking.)  Seems like a good moment for me to reflect on the ups and downs of yesterday.  Yesterday was hard.

When your husband is in a war zone you don’t feel entitled to bad days.  Any whining sounds petty, even in my own ears, even if I’m the one struggling.  It doesn’t matter if the balance tips on a day like yesterday where there were so many annoyances that it took effort to look for positives.  People still think (and sometimes say to me), “Well, at least you’re not the one in Iraq.”  Yes, I know, I am lucky that nothing I go through here measures up.  That doesn’t change the fact that my reality still reduces me to tears on days like yesterday, but I just get to feel undeserving of them.  I end up feeling bad about feeling bad.

Yesterday wasn’t terrible.  It would be easy to put a funny spin on a lot of it after the fact, but I’ll just do the blow by blow.

The kids were off school, which automatically makes for a longer day.  We still had to get up early because the girls both had doctor’s appointments.  Mona just finished ten days of medicine for strep throat and was still in pain, and Aden has been coughing enough that the school nurse has been calling me.  They both act healthy and fine and go about their running and playing so it’s hard to know when they need medical attention sometimes, but I figured the day off school was my perfect opportunity to see a regular doctor and not end up in the weekend urgent care we’ve been frequenting.  (My kids only have need of medical attention on weekends or at night, but that’s a whole different post.)

Keeping three kids entertained at the doctor isn’t easy.  They always end up touching the floor which makes me crazy, and yesterday they just could not sit still.  Aden kept running water at the little sink and Mona and Quinn fought over the spinning stool and they all want me to help make them balloons out of rubber gloves.  On the up side, with an early morning appointment the wait wasn’t too long and the doctor concluded that Mona needs stronger medicine and Aden needs to be nebulized three times a day.  (Mona also has a medical mystery on the backs of her hands, but that’s also a whole different post.)

(I hear cereal being poured downstairs.  Mona was just here and she is a terrible liar.  I asked her just now if they were making me breakfast in bed to cheer me up and she looked alarmed and said, “We’re just doing a secret something for someone.  You don’t need to come down and make breakfast.  How about I snuggle with you!”  I told her she could go back down and she ran off saying, “WHEW!”  Two sets of people are coming to look at our house this morning so I’m not looking forward to seeing how much I have to clean the kitchen before we head out today.  Anyway….)

After the doctor we went straight to Target to pick up prescriptions and then I had an eye appointment.  I’ve been noticing a difference between my left and right eyes when I focus on things close up.  The eye exam with three bored kids along was really frustrating, and the doctor said I should have had glasses years ago.  He made me sound blind as a bat, which is just not true and was not pleasant news the weekend of my birthday.

(Awww….  So the kids just came up with my ‘tray’ which was the lid from a plastic box.  Rice Krispies with way too much milk, toast with sides of butter and jam but no knife, and sliced up bananas.  Mona helped me eat the bananas and the toast, Quinn helped me eat the cereal.  They are making it hard to complain about them from yesterday.  Aden made me an oyster from tin foil wrapped in scotch tape with a little cup like area to hold a necklace I love with a single pearl on it.  It looks like the oyster is open and showing off the pearl.  I was worried at first that Aden had taped my necklace into the whole display, but the chain just piles inside the cup and the pearl sits on top.  I asked if this was for my birthday tomorrow but they said they have something else planned for that.  This was a “We’re sorry we don’t listen the first time” breakfast treat.)

A nice woman helped me pick out frames.  She observed the circus act I travel with and handed me a pair of glasses saying, “These are very durable.”  I ordered a pair and put them on for Mona, who winced and said, “You look horrible!”  Another customer nearby assured me they looked fine, but sheesh.  It will be hard enough adjusting to glasses without knowing my kids hate them.

After Target we couldn’t go straight home because since our current house went on the market last weekend we’ve had people going in and out every day, and someone was supposedly there right then.  We went to the new house where I tried to get a bookshelf assembled but had to abandon that project because the kids couldn’t get along.  When the coast was clear we crossed the street to the old house.

I gave Mona her new medicine which caused her to vomit everywhere.  Aden had to be prompted several times to nebulize.  I cleaned up the house again for the next viewing and we headed to the violin store where I had several appointments lined up.  I had to pump up one of the tires on the car.  We stopped at Subway to pick up something for lunch, and when we got to the violin store I discovered that somewhere in our meager travels both Aden and Quinn had stepped in a ton of dog poop and tracked it all over the car.  Not just the floors but the backs of the seats, and they leave so much stuff on the floor that their coats are now all in the wash, and the changes of clothes I bring along in case of disaster were all dirty, and the car seats….   It was just such a stupid waste of time when I don’t have any time to spare.

I had them leave the poopy things in a heap on the sidewalk and go inside to eat.  I scrubbed the car and put everything that needed washing into a garbage bag.  I left several messages for the doctor to figure out what to do about Mona.  I tried to get some work done on a cello bridge that I’m behind on, worked with customers, answered calls, and then nagged the kids about picking up their messes.  My store used to be a kind of sanctuary of order and neatness, but now that the kids are along all the time it looks like someone forgot to clear a daycare center out of the violin shop before I moved in.
I worked as long as I could before the kids made that impossible, but we couldn’t go home because the house was being viewed again.  We went to Leon’s instead.  Leon’s is a frozen custard stand that is open all winter long.  It’s the kind of place that reminds you why the show Happy Days was set in Milwaukee.  There is always a line at Leon’s no matter how cold it is here, the custard is just that good.  An ice cream break is always a good thing, and between that and the kids singing together my mood improved.

I did laundry.  I made a dinner no one came down to eat until it was cold because I didn’t feel like repeating myself or yelling anymore.  (Quinn was so wiped out he slept through dinner and movie night.  No wonder he ate all my cereal this morning.)  I did dishes and helped with violin practice and we watched ‘Ponyo’ for Friday Night Movie Night.   I liked the end of the day snuggle.

See, it doesn’t sound like a terrible day at all, does it?  Just a busy day with kids.  But the stress of keeping the current house unnaturally clean all the time and constantly breaking up noisy squabbles and always feeling behind on everything wears me down some days.
And all of it reminds me I miss my husband.  When I just need a little extra hand at unexpected moments, or when I go to bed upset with no one to talk to and put things in perspective, I get angry at him for not being here.  And then, of course, I feel like I have no right to be angry.  Because he’s the noble one at war and I’m just supposed to be thankful that I am here and we’re safe and relatively healthy.  I’m supposed to be better than I am.

Deployment adds a thin layer of guilt and sadness to many things I do.  It colors every day in a way that isn’t easy to see or describe, but it’s there.  It keeps tears closer to the surface than they would otherwise be.  I get upset more easily, so days like yesterday hit me harder than they should.

But hey, today started with breakfast in bed and an oyster to put on my nightstand.  My kids are trying to help and that means the world to me.  Now I have to go clean everything up for the next house viewing and take everyone to work with me again.  We may need a nother trip to Leon’s.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Totally Lost (Babble)

I am one of those crazy people completely devoted to the show ‘Lost.’  There are programs here or there that I enjoy but I watch them all on my computer.  Lost is the only TV show I must watch in real time.  Lost is both ridiculous and great.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, you should see it.  But not this season.  You have to go back and start from the first season and watch everything from the beginning.  I purposely got my mom addicted to Lost because I had to have somebody in my family to talk about it with, and neither of my brothers even owns a TV.  I watched the first season with my husband, but both he and a friend I used to work with decided they preferred my summary and analysis the next day better than actually watching the show.  That’s sort of flattering, but not very satisfying.  Ian would patiently read in bed during the show and then ask me to tell him the episode I’d just seen after it was over.  Now he’s completely out of touch with it, so he listens to me spout off about random things that make no sense.

Which isn’t saying much because very little of Lost makes sense, but it’s a whole lot of fun.  It’s the ultimate TV watching experience for nerds like me who like keeping track of tiny details and drawing from a broad base of liberal arts knowledge.  Any scraps of information you know about philosophy or mythology or the bible or Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland all pay off.  It’s nice to feel in on a reference that isn’t spelled out for you.  It’s nice to be treated like an intelligent viewer.

But the most fun for me is that nearly every week I am surprised.  I am so seldom surprised by stories told in movies or TV or even many novels that it’s a treat to gasp and then call my mom on the phone and ask, “Did you see that coming?!”  And we never see it coming, because it’s insane while still seeming smart.  The cliffhanger from the last season was the biggest cliffhanger I’ve ever watched on anything.  I couldn’t even begin to guess what would be happening this season.  Then the new season started and I still don’t know what’s going on.  It’s fascinating.

And it’s a fabulous distraction.  For one hour a week I don’t think about if my husband is in danger in Iraq or if there are bills to pay or how I’m not exercising like I should be or all the things I could have done better with my children or at work.  Lost throws too much at me in an average hour.  It’s extremely diverting.  As deeply as you want to look into anything there is a payoff.  If there is a TV on in the background on that show, it’s usually showing a connection to someone else you know about.  Numbers pop up that seem meaningful.  Names on signs are anagrams that provide clues to some plot point.  The central themes are all about faith and science, destiny and the connections between people, evil and light and our sense of purpose.  There are polar bears and hieroglyphs and a frozen donkey wheel and a submarine and enough other absurd sounding things that you sound like you’re just making stuff up if you try to explain any of it to the uninitiated and uninterested.  But if you are into it, it’s both thoughtful and exciting.  The body count is unbelievable.  So while you are contemplating the differences between the philosophies of Locke and Hume to gain insight on a certain character’s motivation, someone onscreen is being strangled or shot with flaming arrows or knifed in the back unexpectedly.  Six years in and I still don’t know who the good guys are for sure.  I love it.

The kids have been pretty accommodating about my request for my one show.  They know when we get back from choir practice that they must go straight to the bathroom to brush teeth and then go to bed.  For the girls it’s what they would do anyway, but they know to be more efficient about the whole bedtime routine when the clock is running down for the start of Lost.  Quinn doesn’t want to go to bed that early, but he agrees to it on the condition that I promise to come get him if there is a ‘kid part.’  I always tuck him in and assure him the second a kid part happens I will open the door and let him know.  (There are no kid parts–did I mention the body count?  And as cheesy as I find the Smoke Monster it would scare my kids silly.)  So I get an hour to myself.  (Well, myself and the biggest cast of characters I’ve ever tried to follow on one show, plus my mom on the phone saying, “What does it mean?”)

There are only a handful of episodes left before the program wraps up.  I’m hoping after this many years of investing in one crazy storyline I’m not disappointed (still grumbling under my breath about the finale of Battlestar Galactica), but it’s been a fun ride regardless.  I’ve got my kids so well trained on Tuesday nights I’m tempted to let them think the show is still running past May.  Maybe I can use that hour to read or write or just sit in silence without anyone asking me for anything.  It’s a Lost hour I don’t want to lose.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Positively Frustrating (Babble)

‘Positive Reinforcement’ is one of those things that sounds great in theory before you have kids.  It makes so much sense.  It seems reasonable and sane to ‘catch your child doing something good and praise him or her for it.’  Because if you want good behavior, you need to reward good behavior.  Isn’t that nice?  Sure.

In practice, in our house anyway, I find this isn’t useful advice.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think children should know you appreciate good behavior, but that whole catching them in the act thing has never worked for me.  I must be doing something distinctly wrong, but I have never gotten the whole positive reinforcement thing to work at all.  I find it does help if later I tell them after the fact that I’m proud of them for being good.  If we get off to school peacefully I’ll thank them for it at the end of the day, or if they are especially nice to each other I’ll mention it as I put them to bed that nothing makes me happier than seeing them be good to each other.

But if I bring it up while it’s happening?  I ruin it.  For instance, I love hearing Quinn sing in the car.  It’s completely adorable when he’s belting out some song in that sweet little voice.  However, if I so much as glance at him and smile in the rearview mirror while he’s doing it, he gets huffy and stops.  If Mona is doing some new dance move and I tell her to keep it up, it’s over.  Done, finished, kaput.  Most of the things my kids do that I want to encourage, they don’t want to be intruded upon while they are doing them.  It breaks the mood and destroys the flow and pulls them out of what was happening.  Even if they are playing well together and I point out how nice that is to see, it’s as if I drew attention to something fragile and they become overly aware of it and it breaks.  Those little bursts of positive reinforcement almost act as an overjustification effect, and sucks the purity of those moments right out of them.  I’ve learned when they are good to just let them be.  Goodness is its own reward.  They don’t need me butting in.

Another way I’ve failed at this concept is with dispensing little treats or prizes.  I had an idea about a year ago where I was trying to influence the girls’ behavior in a specific area.  I went out and bought all these little ‘pocket pet’ toys they were interested in, and lined them up on the top of my doorframe.  There were about a dozen of these toys which I told the girls I could add to anytime.  The deal was that there would be no punishment for when they did the behavior we didn’t want, but when they did the right thing they could select a toy.  Sounded great in my head.  But the problem was every day that they didn’t earn a toy they acted like they were being punished.  They pined for the toys on the doorframe and bemoaned the fact that they hadn’t earned one every time they came in my room, to the point where I had to make up other reasons to award the toys and be done with it.

Sticker charts have always been the same way.  Not that Mona would ever have any interest in a sticker chart, but whenever we tried one with Aden she would get obsessed with the stickers she wasn’t getting.  When she was first learning to use the potty the sticker chart we tried along with that was a disaster.  She cried when she didn’t get one to the point where there was nothing positive about that kind of reinforcement and I let it go.
Lucky for me my children tend to be very good in general.  There have been some impressive exceptions, but for the most part my kids are polite and nice and I don’t have much trouble taking them out anywhere. 

We were in Target a few months back, having lunch together, and my kids were taking turns telling jokes.  I find the easiest way to get some kind of conversation going during a meal with my kids that avoids any bickering is to pick a theme and take turns.  For instance, they like math problems, so I’ll give Aden something to multiply, and once she’s figured that out I give Mona some simple addition, and then for Quinn’s turn he just has to tell me the next number when I stop counting (so if I get up to 12 and stop he shouts “13!”), and we go around and around like this until everyone is done eating.  I don’t know why this makes them so happy, but it does.  Anyway, they also like to go around in order telling jokes.  Aden is old enough she can actually tell a few real jokes, but Mona repeats things she’s heard in random order and they don’t make sense, and Quinn just keeps saying, “Knock knock!” and laughing until his turn is done.

They were happily going through their joke rotation while eating mac and cheese, and when I got up to get some napkins an old woman eating lunch at the next table said to me admiringly, “Your children are so well behaved!”  I smiled and said something like ‘Oh, thank you, I like them.’  And then she added, “You must be very strict.”  That took me by surprise, because as much as my kids would be the first to tell you I am not always a barrel of laughs as a mom, ‘strict’ is not a word I would apply to my parenting style.  I think I responded with, ‘Oh, not really, they’re just usually good,’ but I’ve thought about that word ‘strict’ ever since.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with strict.  To the degree it implies ‘predictable’ or ‘consistent’ I can get on board with it, but there is an element of ‘strict’ that strikes me as potentially unreasonable or inflexible leaning toward unfair that rubs me the wrong way.  I found it interesting that from the woman of an older generation it was meant as a compliment but that it struck me in a different way.

In any case, I’m grateful that my children are so nice.  They drive me up a wall sometimes and they are certainly not perfect, but considering how little handle I have on any actual parenting techniques for shaping behavior I lucked out that they don’t need much help in the niceness area.  All I can do is love them and point out right and wrong when I see it and appreciate the sweetness while it lasts.  (I’m hearing tales from the parents of teens that I better enjoy them now before they morph into surly willful creatures that will make me wonder why I thought being a parent was a good idea in the first place.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Things In Things (Babble)

I’m not sure if this is a phenomenon common to all children, or just my children, but all of my kids put things in things.  It makes life so much more…. let’s go with ‘interesting.’  I can never find anything because my kids are always moving stuff around to put into other places.  When people come to visit and ask where a particular kitchen item might be, I shrug and say, “Your guess is as good as mine.”  My kids routinely swipe things like the tea ball and put acorns in it and then put it under a pillow.  Or fill a small box with googly eyes and put it among my books.  This has not improved as they’ve aged, only expanded their reach to objects on higher shelves.

Sometimes it’s like living in that scene from the movie Poltergeist, where the woman turns her back for two seconds and when she turns around again all the kitchen chairs are inexplicably up on the table.  I took a stack of hangers out of my closet the other day, and then next thing I knew this happened:

This is making moving especially difficult.  Every time I try to pack something I turn around a minute later to find things have come out of the boxes and been incorporated into some eloborate game involving squeaky pets and a blanket that has been spread out over a large area.  It doesn’t matter how often I tell them not to touch something or stay out of what I’m doing, they can’t remember that for more than two seconds and things end up in things but not in any way that I would find useful.

This has been going on forever.  When Aden wasn’t even two I remember trying to clean up the kitchen and there was a toilet paper tube standing up on the table.  I picked it up to put it in the trash, and it turns out my darling daughter had painstakingly filled it with small beads.  I will never forget snatching up that tube and hearing the tremendous ‘CHHSSHHWWOOOOOOSHHHHHHckkkk k k k k k k ‘ of hundreds of beads cascading to the floor.

There are ponytail holders wrapped to the oddest things, I can’t tie my robe because the belt is used for too many important things (such as tails or vines for swinging from, and the last time I spotted it, it was in the back of the minivan for some reason) and forget keeping the pieces to any game together.  Aden is getting pretty good at chess, but we’re down one pawn because several of the pieces ended up in something at some point and that one white pawn never found its way back.  Hi Ho Cherry-O was decimated long ago because a chunk of those play cherries had to go into something else.  Quinn has been creating ‘parades’ lately, taking puzzle pieces and lining them up in rows that run through several rooms.  Now when we put together Africa we lament the absence of Burkina Faso, and we haven’t seen Iran from the Asia puzzle in a long, long time.  Much of the world ends up in cooking bowls now as my son stirs his global soups.  If we still have all of Canada by the time we get into the new house I will be amazed.

Anyway, I have unrealistic dreams that in the new house I might be able to contain some of my kids’ creative need to rearrange everything to certain areas, but in my heart I know better.  I will set up my pretty house in a way I think looks nice and functions well, but once we are all moved in and I turn my back, I know I will look around again just to see weird things like this that I don’t understand:

I wonder what it must be like for people who don’t live with children to have everything stay put all the time.  Must be tremedously dull to put your keys on the table and actually have them be there later when you need them.  I can’t even imagine that now, it’s just so far removed from my reality.

I think for my birthday sometime I want a day where nothing ends up in anything I didn’t know about.  A day of no surprises and nothing but boredom sounds better than winning the lottery to me.  In the meantime, at least the little culprits are cute.