Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dear Ian, (Babble)

We’re excited to hear that you are wrapping up the last of your responsibilities in Iraq. 
Not long until you’re home!  Here are a few things to ponder on the flight to the United States:

Omega Burger closed down.

I threw out any of your clothes that had holes including that one nasty pair of sneakers.

The top dozen slots of our Netflix queue is just episodes of Mad Men.

That empty retail space near the violin store was briefly some kind of gym and now it’s empty again.

The birch tree you didn’t know we had has been removed.

Be prepared to address many computer issues when you arrive.

All the kids can use the microwave themselves, but still need to ask how much time to heat things for (unless it’s ravioli–they have that down).

Aden eats grape jelly, Mona eats strawberry.

Aden likes onions on her hamburgers, Mona likes pickles, Quinn would rather die than have either of those things with his meal but he does like salad.

The violin store is pretty messy, and there is a big stack of mystery papers on your desk there waiting for you.  Also that pole next to our building that I don’t know what it was is now gone.

The play structure in Humboldt Park was torn down awhile back, and they just started building the replacement.  Aden is upset because it will be different.

I will be asking you to move rocks in the backyard.  (But you’ll get two kisses for every rock and there are a million rocks, so it should work out in your favor at some point.)

The little girl ringing our doorbell repeatedly is named Karla.

The radio was stolen out of our car again.  (Ha!  April fools!  I didn’t have you around on the first of April so I’m getting caught up on that now.)

I have no idea where your keys or library card are.  (That’s not an April fools joke.  Sorry!)

Mona has four loose teeth.

Quinn has forgotten all his geography information but can talk about planets and write his own name.

Remember to turn right instead of left at our intersection.  The blue and white house may look like home, but the new neighbors will be very surprised if you show up there.  We’re across the street at the house with the lawn that needs mowing.

We’ll need to shop for a lawnmower.

Neighborhood Recess is every Thursday at 5:00.  Wear good running shoes.

I’m claiming the side of the bed near the windows.

All those giant army boxes you shipped home are stacked in your little study room.  (Good luck getting into your little study room.)

There is supposed to be a new garage out back when you get here.  (Right now it’s a muddy mess that I like to think of as ‘the moat.’  That’s nice too, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a garage.)

The kids want you to select the new Rock of the Week.

Aden doesn’t need a booster seat now, but she still likes to use one.

The grill has sat untouched since you left.  We all want you to grill stuff.

Don’t let the kids use the sidewalk chalk on the bricks outside the violin store because apparently that counts as grafitti and our landlord will get fined.

The squirrels are more entertaining on this side of the street.

Aden desperately wants to go to Incrediroll.

Tony and Megan have a baby girl with lots of names but they call her Katie for short.
Smokey Joe, Mrs. Coleman, and our mailman have all died.

Quinn’s favorite color is still purple, but Aden’s is now blue, and Mona is conflicted about the whole concept.

I apologize that the change from the glove box feels funny.

We have a garbage disposal now, so you don’t have to flinch when I toss egg shells into the sink anymore.

We may be picking you up in a brainless rental van.

We love you more than you remember.  We’ve missed you like crazy.  The kids are bigger than when you left so be prepared for some power hugs.

I love you.  I’m proud of you.  See you soon.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Accommodation vs Overindulgence (Babble)

There are very few absolutes in parenting.  Many of us have similar goals but employ different methods of getting there.  The one element of parenting I had never considered in more than very basic terms until I became a parent myself was how vulnerable that role makes you feel.  It is the one job that we want to do better than any other, the one by which we are most closely judged, and the one where we are guaranteed to be seen as failures along the way by someone. 

Some of us parent more successfully than others, but I have never met a parent who was satisfied that he or she was doing it as best they could.  I’m proud of myself if I get through a day without having raised my voice at my kids, but before I had children I would have thought that bar to be set pitifully low.  I love being a parent, and my children are wonderful, but it’s hard.  And part of the reason it’s hard is that many of us grapple with feeling inadequate as we do it.

The real problem with that sense of inadequacy hovering over what we do as parents is that it creates a vulnerability that makes us more likely to be defensive.  I think that’s the root of where most of the snarkiness (often called ‘the mommy wars’) between different parents comes from.  If you’ve spent a long time researching an issue (breast feeding, daycare, co-sleeping, organic food, homeschooling, vaccinations, television….) and have reached a conclusion that you think is the best choice for your family, it is very difficult to accept that the opposite choice can also be fine.  It throws everything into question at a time when we’d like to feel certain.  To see other parents making very different choices can make us feel like they are undermining our own.  Accusing someone else of bad parenting is often just a means of making ourselves feel more secure in an attempt to prove our choices are superior.  The reality is, as painful as it is to admit, the opposite choice made with loving intentions can be equally valid.

One of the trickiest areas where I see a lot of judgement tossed around but haven’t seen it discussed anywhere to my memory, is the line between accommodating a child’s needs or whims, and overindulging him or her.  This is an area where I know I feel particularly vulnerable and try not to take other people’s opinions too personally.

Every day when my kids ask for something or just start behaving a particular way, I have to balance in my mind not just whether it’s good or bad, salubrious or unhealthy, but if it’s something I should care about at all.  Unfortunately that’s where most of parenting lies.  Most of the things our kids do minute to minute don’t matter, and the degree to which we feel the need to control those things as if they do varies wildly from parent to parent.  If a child wants to use a red crayon instead of a yellow one, most of us don’t offer an opinion, but what if a girl only wants to wear pink?  Some parents actively fight against that and others would encourage it.  Now imagine a boy who wants to wear pink.  Suddenly there are people who see meaning in that and either feel a need to defend or condemn it, even though to a kid it’s probably just a shirt and not a statement about anything.

How much do we let our kids make certain choices on their own?  It comes down to how much meaning you personally think that choice is imbued with.  Most of the time when I find myself going head to head with one of my kids about something, I ask myself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” and most of the time the answer is no.

When Mona taught herself to escape her car seat at age two, that was a battle I had to win.  We had a painful month of not being able to drive on freeways, and a five minute trip could take me an hour with having to stop and re-buckle her every few feet, but I was willing to go to the mat on that one.  But most situations aren’t like that.  That was a clear safety issue where my opinion was the only one that mattered and the two year old shouldn’t have a say. 

But what about getting dressed?  All my kids went through a naked phase.  (Actually, I just watched a naked little Quinn go by carrying the bingo set to ask his sister if she wants to play, so he’s still in it.)  I know this is not something my mom is comfortable with, and I can feel her biting her tongue when she visits and watches a naked little person walking around the house.  This one doesn’t bug me so I’m not inspired to fight it.  Am I being accommodating or overindulgent?  Depends on your own arbitrary stance.

I know there are many people who feel I overindulge my kids.  I don’t make them do chores but they help me when I ask.  I don’t put any significant limits on the TV but there are days I announce we’re leaving it off and they don’t mind.  They have too many toys but most of them aren’t from me (and frankly, I like toys too), and they are very good about sharing them.  I figure as long as they are respectful and kind they are entitled to make choices that appeal to them and get on with enjoying being kids.  They are good people and seeing them look delighted is what I live for most days.  I don’t want to get hung up on too many irrelevant details. 

But I’m constantly amazed by ways other parents feel they are simply accommodating their kids.  The main example that comes to mind is when people let boys act out on the playground simply because they are boys.  My definition of what is acceptable behavior is not gender based.  I once had a problem with a little boy who kept shoving Mona out of his way on a play structure, and after telling him firmly a few times to not touch my daughter I asked him where his mom or dad was.  He pointed to the woman sitting behind me on the grass a few feet away who had watched the whole thing.  I told her I thought her son was being too rough and she just shrugged and said, “He’s a boy.”  I make a point now when I see boys on a playground who are polite to my kids of telling their parents that I’m impressed.

I show my kids how to set the table, but remind myself it’s not a law, and that whatever way they do it makes just as much sense.  I would rather my kids stand when they practice violin the way I make my students do, but if sitting means less fuss to get them to play then I let it go.  It’s pointless to get anxious about play dough colors getting mixed together, or Mona wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, or Aden not being ready to put her face underwater at the pool yet.  There are just days I’m better at reminding myself of that than others. 

I’m sure there are other parents who feel there are underlying issues of control that need to be enforced in order to teach children respect or to just be able to make things run in a more orderly fashion, but that’s not me.  It makes me uncomfortable to watch other parents enforce some standard on their children that I would find unnecessary, but most of the time I trust that they are doing the best they can with what they believe is right.  Just like I expect them to let it go if I bring Mona to choir dressed as a kangaroo.

So my biggest challenge when I’m out in the world and confronted with other parents and the choices they juggle minute to minute is to remember to ask myself if whatever seems overindulgent to me really matters.  On rare occasions it does, but most of the time it doesn’t.  I think it’s important to give other people the benefit of the doubt because we don’t have all the information.  I hope other parents do the same for me.  It’s hard, but I think if we can recognize our own feelings of vulnerability we may go a long way toward extending compassion toward the people around us and stop being so defensive.  (In the meantime my kids have gotten eerily quiet, so this post is done.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rain Rain Rain and Basement Cards (Babble)

In the Midwest of the United States we are spared things like hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, dramatic earthquakes, and even dangerous insects.  But hoooo boy do we know about thunderstorms.  As I’m typing there is a huge storm raging outside with lots of thunder and lightning. We just spent the last hour in the basement because we heard the tornado sirens go off.  It’s nice to be upstairs again.

My children are easily spooked by crisis.  Their lives are pretty easy going, so when something dramatic happens they take it very seriously.  There was an Amber alert all over the television a couple of weeks ago and Aden kept finding me wherever I was in the house and breathlessly telling me about the two children who were missing.  I told her it didn’t really concern us since we were just at home and not likely to spot them here, but the concept of kidnapping injected into her afternoon cartoon deeply affected her.  After the third time the Amber alert popped up, Aden came and found me again, clutching her pink bunny, tears in her eyes.  I asked what was wrong and she said, “I’m scared of kidnappers.”

I sat her down and told her that there are indeed scary strangers out there who take children, and that’s why I need to know where she is and why we review not going off with people she doesn’t know without telling me, even if they seem nice.  But then I told her those cases are extremely rare, and I asked, “Do you know who most often kidnaps children?”  She shook her head.  “One of their parents.” 

Aden’s eyes got wide and then she laughed because that sounded so odd.  I explained that sometimes things get messy between moms and dads who don’t live together, and sometimes those moms or dads take their children at a time they are not supposed to and people get frightened.  I went over the rules one more time about dealing with strangers, and told her the secret word we have in case we do send someone she doesn’t know to pick her up somewhere so she’ll know that person really is safe to go with, and reminded her that she may run and kick and scream if a kidnapper ever did try to grab her. 

I added, “But statistically the most likely person to kidnap you is daddy, and he’d just bring you here.”  We both agreed that would be awesome, so she really didn’t need to spend time being scared.  That night on the news they reported that the children from the Amber alert were fine.  They’d been taken by their dad and returned to their mom.  Aden felt better.

Anyway, today my kids were getting really freaked out by the weather alerts on the television.  Neighborhood Recess got cut short because of lightning, and my kids were worried all through dinner about tornadoes.  When the sirens went off at about 7:00 they all looked panicked.  That’s where the real test of being the grown-up comes in–being the one to guide them calmly through the fear if possible.  I grabbed a book, my laptop, a phone, a stack of games and some marshmallows.  It’s hard to think of any situation as a crisis when there are marshmallows available.

Our basement gets pretty wet when it rains.  Not knee-deep flood water kind of wet, but water trickles in from all edges of the house toward the drain in the center of the floor.  The kids took turns jumping over the dozens of little rivers running all over while I set up a card table and chairs in the driest area.  We watched a bit of a Buster Keaton movie on YouTube.  We called to check in on a neighbor.  But the kids were still concerned about the tornado warning and all the thunder we could hear from overhead, so I pulled out the big guns.  I invented Basement Cards.

I’d grabbed Operation, Boggle and a bag of what I thought were Uno cards before heading into the basement.  Aden didn’t want to hear the buzzing of the Operation game right then, so I opened the bag of cards only to discover it was a weird mish-mash of things.  In addition to the Uno cards there were parts of several different regular decks, bits from two Old Maid decks, instruction cards from various games, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards, an aquatic themed Crazy Eights deck, and one card from the game Cadoo. 

I dealt them all out, told everyone to make a neat stack, and then just made things up.  Quinn laughed so hard he kept slipping off his chair.  Aden looked annoyed at the randomness of it all until I announced she was winning, and then she was all into it.  Mona’s squeals drowned out any thunder.  I ordered people to trade cards, pick cards, put cards on their heads….  By the end it was kind of like Slap Jack or War where I was having everyone put cards in the middle at the same time and then I would tell them who’d won that round by deciding Quinn got all the cards because his pig card beat the ace of clubs, the rules to cribbage and Autoworker Alan.  They were all sad to leave the basement by the time the tornado warning was over.  (Quinn ran up to me a couple of minutes ago while I was typing to say, “I love Basement Cards!”)

I asked Mona to run up the stairs first and tell me if the house was still there.  She ran up excitedly and started yelling, “Yes!  It’s all still here!  Hooray!” and then went off to play with legos.  Aden was still scared of the lightning.  I asked her why, and she said, “Because we have so many big trees.”  I said, “Do you know why they are so big?”  She shook her head.  “Because they’ve never been struck by lightning.”  That made her feel better.  I also pointed out that the abandoned smoke stack on the next block by the old tannery was the tallest thing around and no lightning would be attracted to our house while that was available to strike.

I didn’t tell her about the NPR program I once listened to about lightening that made it sound as if it would practically come hunt you down in your bed while you slept.  Those nightmares are for another day.  I have a terrible time sleeping with Ian gone, so at least if my kids sleep I feel good about that.  I remember during the first deployment lying in bed, pregnant, listening to a terrible storm, and wondering how I would know if it was bad enough to wake up the girls and drag them into the basement.  I kept thinking about how everyone who has ever heard a tornado says it sounds just like a train, and then it hit me that I live down the street from railroad tracks.  How would I possibly be able to tell the difference between a tornado and a real train?  Then I really couldn’t sleep.

Anyway, I hope the rain lets up soon so I can go move the car to the right side of the street for overnight parking without getting completely drenched.  Not that I think the overnight parking checkers will be out in force tonight with so many people stranded in all the flooding all over town, but with my luck lately I’d be the one person they’d find to ticket.
I left the card table set up in the basement just in case I hear sirens in the night and need to move the kids to safety and another round of Basement Cards.  If I get too bored lying awake in the dark I may go down there and invent Solitaire Basement Cards, but that doesn’t sound like as much fun without the kids laughing their heads off. 

On days like today it’s hard to imagine the rain will ever end.  Just like July seems to be stretching on forever.  Thunderstorms are more fun with Ian home, even with Basement Cards to distract us.  I wonder if he’s awake right now, wherever in Iraq he is.  I wish I knew.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Influence (Babble)

I have a BA in music with distinction in Music Cognition.  I’ve been playing violin since third grade and viola since high school.  I’m employed at a conservatory, play with Festival City Symphony, and founded my own string quartet that was awarded ‘best in weddings’ for our region by the magazine The Knot two years in a row. 

I am not bragging because I know how much practice I sorely need to become the musician I aspire to be, and in the music world pecking order I rank very very very low.  Yeah, now think even lower.  No, I mention all of this just to stack some weight on my side in order to salvage a bit of my ego when I say–with all seriousness–that the greatest musical influence on my children has been my husband.  Ian.  The guy with the engineering and economic geography degrees.  It’s ridiculous.

Not that you have to have degrees in music to have your opinions or preferences on it be meaningful.  That’s insane.  Musicians strive to make music that is appreciated by a world primarily populated by non-musicians.  Without an audience the final step of what we are trying to do is obliterated.  I spend a lot of time telling non-musicians that their opinions count and not to be intimidated by snobs.

What I am trying to say, is that music is such an important component of my life that I made the (apparently crazy) assumption that when I had children, I would be the one to introduce them to the wonders of it.  I would have an impact on their preferences and could lead them down a musical path that I was familiar with.  Ha.

Turns out I can’t compete with my husband.  Ian could have been a jingle writer.  He comes up with catchy/annoying little tunes that stick in your head he and used them for reminding the kids to do things.  He made up one for telling the kids to brush their teeth, and one for washing hands, and one for eating corn….  He used to organize little dance-a-thons before bedtime to wear the kids out so they would sleep better, and he would drag out his Art of Noise records and play them songs by the Cranberries on his computer.  They knew all sorts of music he liked by heart.  During his stinits as stay-at-home dad the kids were introduced to all sorts of songs I didn’t even know.  It was silly to let it bug me, but there where days it did.  You can’t always control what rubs you the wrong way, even when you know better.

I’ve been thinking about this more than usual lately while we prepare for my husband to return home.  I will admit I have taken advantage of his absence to commandeer the CD and record players.  I can’t be accused of forcing too much of the stuff I like on my kids, especially since in the car I try to let them pick the music, and more often than not we find a middle ground between what they will enjoy and what I don’t mind listening to again and again and again.  We listen to a lot of They Might Be Giants, particularly ‘No’ and ‘Here Comes Science,’ but they can also sing along to quite a few Barenaked Ladies tunes now.  My kids know a lot more music from the 1980’s than is probably normal, but that’s because they like to run the record player themselves and that was the last time I bought any records.  (When Aden has friends over the ‘Ghostbusters’ soundtrack often ends up on the turntable.)

It’s been so long since Ian was a part of any routine here that all the little tunes he sang have faded from the kids’ memories.  Aden might remember a few of them if she heard them, but I don’t think Mona or Quinn would.  (It’s amazing what kids forget.  Mona used to have all of Mary Poppins memorized–every bit of dialogue, every song, every gesture–and when we ran across it in the video store recently it was completely new to her just a few years later.)  It will be good to have all the little songs back, and probably new annoying ones to get stuck in our heads when Ian is a real live present member of our family again and not just some kind of ghost who calls us on a satellite phone from time to time.

Between choir and TV, school and their friends, I don’t kid myself that I will have much influence on my kids’ musical lives in the grand scheme of things, but I’m trying to decide if there are a few more tunes I can worm into their little heads before their dad comes home and his influence becomes dominant in that area again.  I may be able to play along with them as they practice Bach and occasionally sneak some old Paul Simon tune onto the CD player on the ride to school, but I know where their true source of musical inspiration usually lies.  I can’t fight the tooth brushing song.  And at this point, I don’t even want to try.

Things That Go CRASH in the Street (Babble)

I always wonder when I pass an accident on the street when it will be my turn.  The odds are just too great against every driver paying attention all the time.  Well, today was my turn, and as far as such things go I think we got off easy.  No one was hurt, it wasn’t the most impossible time or place to deal with it, and there wasn’t any annoying insult added to the injury by it raining, or my somehow having gone out in my pajamas or anything.  It’s just inconvenient.  I have bigger things to worry about and this was just a fender bender.

Of course, any accident with your children along shakes you up a bit, and they were more amazed it had happened than I was.  When I realized the minivan was not drivable and it was going to be stuck in traffic for awhile I got them all out and made them wait on the sidewalk.  They just stood on the curb saying over and over, “Our car has a flat tire!  Our car is dripping!  Our car has a flat tire!  Our car is dripping!”

Flat tire and dripping.  And yes, that is a now squished picture of a green brain on the fender.  That was a magnet I got from my brother the brain mapper that made spotting my van in a parking lot a little easier.  We got hit in the brain!

And look what I learned about the inside of my bumper!  That white stuff is styrofoam!  And all the bits that snapped off my car are plastic!  I’m sure other people knew this, but I honestly didn’t know that I was driving around with a bumper that was just an oversized packing peanut.  I think the packaging my children’s toys come in is tougher.

I’ve only ever been involved in one other real accident before and that was about fifteen years ago.  That was complicated because Ian and I may have been living in Pennsylvania, I think the car still had Ohio plates, we were driving in Oregon, and we were hit by someone from Washington.  Oregon was a no-fault state so nobody cared that the other guy ran into us, and I’ll never forget the insurance person in Portland saying that the cost of the repairs to the door would exceed the value of our car so she wanted us to give her the keys.  We had no transportation back home if we did that so we refused, staring at her outstretched hand in disbelief.  The car still worked and was not unsafe (just unsightly and the driver got a little wet when it rained), so we struck some deal that we couldn’t ever file a claim but we could keep the car and our insurance.  Yuck.

Anyway, this time I’m hoping the other person’s insurance pays for everything, especially since the cop who wrote the accident report agreed I had the right of way.

The other driver was pulling away from the curb after I had stopped at that sign you can kind of see between the two cars and had made my left turn.  She was really mad and kept saying I hit her.  I understand that the street I was coming off of was in an awkward place for her to see, but when she kept repeating, “I looked over that way and didn’t see anyone coming,” I just kept thinking, “I believe you didn’t see me!” but that doesn’t help her case since I was obviously there.  I wish my minivan had the kind of pickup while loaded down with all my kids and the air conditioner running to reach the kind of speed after a stop that she thinks I managed, but it’s just not true.  I felt bad for her because it was a frustrating situation all around, but I was not about to cave and say it was my fault just because she wanted to see it that way.

I don’t know how people who don’t have anyone who cares about them get by in life.  I was able to call my friend Carol to come out and help me, and I’m not sure what we would have done otherwise.  (I learned the hard way, though, that there is a dead spot for my cell phone right where we crashed.  Trying to read those sixteen digits on my card to AAA before the signal cut out was impossible.  After my third failed attempt to reach Carol I convinced the woman who hit me to let me use her phone and she was none too pleased, but I give her credit that she wasn’t so unreasonable as to leave a mother with three kids stranded there in the road.)

Carol loaded my kids in her van after two of them announced they had to pee and she took them back to the violin store a couple of blocks away, which worked out well because I was supposed to meet a customer there and she was able to handle all of that while I waited for the tow truck.  She even had the most perfect timing in the world when she returned for me, because the tow truck driver had just asked me for the key to the van and I realized I’d handed all my keys to Carol in order for her to get into the store.  She drove us home and made me laugh, and now I have yet one more reason to add to the collection of thousands that I am grateful she is my friend.

My kids are so sweet.  After they got over the shock of “Flat tire!  Dripping!” they played with sticks they found on the ground for awhile, and when I said something about the damage being expensive to repair, they looked serious and stopped playing to stand by me.  Aden took my hand and said, “You can use our money.  I don’t know where some of it went, but we can look for it in our room and you can have it all.”  Her brother and sister nodded in agreement that that was a good plan.  I told them that was very kind, but that they didn’t need to worry about it.  So they didn’t and went back to their sticks.

Luckily we do have a second car and not too many places to be anytime soon, so we’ll see.  I just hope dealing with the other person’s insurance company isn’t too hard.  I’m not sure how any of this works yet.  I still think it’s funny that AAA wanted me to tell them the name of the auto body place I wanted to be towed to before they would dispatch a truck.  Why would I know the name of an auto body place off the top of my head?

Anyway, supposedly my van is waiting like a crumpled Christmas morning surprise at some car shop within a couple miles from my house that I have to track down.  Not my first choice for use of my time, but the kids and I will try to make an adventure of it somehow.  (And some people wonder why I don’t build more violins….)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Just A Quick Note (Babble)

You know that glove box on top of the dashboard of a minivan?  Gets pretty hot in there apparently.  Normally I keep change for tolls in mine, but a stray red crayon made its way in there at some point, and the first really hot day in June it melted and made my change stash look like a crime scene.  I mopped that up as best I could when I discovered it, but I am still pulling waxy coins out of that compartment.

(And how antiquated is the term ‘glove box?’  Does anyone know if there is a more modern term I should be using in the twenty-first century?)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things that are easier with two adults in the house (Babble)

I’m looking forward to my husband coming home for all kinds of obvious reasons, but there are lots of little ones that present themselves every day that seem highlighted as we get closer to that magical date.   Here are the ones that jumped out at me in the past couple of weeks:

Changing a futon cover.  This is much harder when the only people around to help were born this century.

Trying on clothes.  It’s not just hard when your kids are little and scrambling around the dressing room, it’s also annoying when they are old enough to share their observations and opinions while you’re trying things on.  (Not that they are wrong, I just don’t enjoy the critique.)  With the exception of a few things I ordered through a catalog back in the winter I have all the same clothes I had when Ian left.  Not that I’m a big clothes shopper, but I just have a feeling if Ian was stop-lossed for the rest of our lives I would be wearing the same six outfits until the kids left home or I died, whichever came first.

Finishing any yard work.  Impossible.  I know there must be single parents who do this, but I can’t figure out how.  Inside chores I can handle because if all the kids are in the house with me somewhere I’m not worried about them.  Keeping track of three kids running loose outside is trickier, especially since the younger ones want to follow the older ones into dangerous territory.  Yard work has to be done in daylight, so it’s one of the few things I can’t do after they go to bed.  I can whack weeds for a few minutes at a time at best before someone wants to bike someplace out of sight, or needs help crossing the street, or I have to restrain Quinn from flagging down yet another ice cream truck.  Our yard will look so much better when Ian comes home.

Attending parades.  This probably wouldn’t come up too often anywhere else, but one of Milwaukee’s nicknames is ‘Festival City,’ and there are events and festivals all summer long.  (Summerfest, Asian Moon, Indian Summer, Irish Fest, German Fest, Pride Fest, Festa Italiana, South Shore Frolics, Bastille Days…..  Good grief if you are bored and within driving distance of Milwaukee you have no excuse for it.)  There are fireworks almost every weekend and lots of parades.  We skipped a big parade and street festival with fireworks this weekend and my kids didn’t care because we just did a lot of that for 4th of July.  I knew the Independence Day events in our neighborhood park would be trouble without another adult along, but I didn’t see a good way out of it.

4th of July (even though all of this was on the 5th for us for some reason this year—Milwaukee is not famous for doing holidays on the actual days) is something our city definitely does right.  I’ve always liked the 4th of July, but when we moved here I was absolutely charmed by all the festivities in our neighborhood park.  The day starts off with the parade, then there are kids’ games in the park and a contest for decorating bikes and wagons and baby buggies, a talent show, live music, and fireworks after dark.  We also sometimes have giant sausages that run races and dancing dogs, but that’s a different post.

Anyway, without another adult to help with potty breaks, etc., I told the kids we could do the parade and the fireworks, but we’d have to go home in between.  I knew even that would be too much in the heat, but how can you deny kids a 4th of July celebration?  You can’t.  So we went, they got tired, and when Quinn asked for water and I gave him some it was the beginning of the end.  I don’t know if the bottle was the wrong color, or if I gave it to him with the wrong hand, but when a three-year-old hits his limit you can do everything right and he will still fall apart.  I ended up carrying his bike while he stomped along by his sister and hollered, and a block from home Mona had a wipe out on her scooter and scratched up her face and her knees.  I instructed Aden to work on getting her grumpy brother the rest of the way home while I went ahead and tended to Mona’s wounds.  On top of it all my Birkenstocks betrayed me and my normally most comfortable sandals cut up the tops of both my pinky toes.  I had to bandage myself up along with Mona before I could go back out and scoop up screaming Quinn and dump him on the couch where he slept until almost dinnertime.  Fireworks went infinitely better because we went with my neighbor.  It’s so freeing to have that second adult along!

(Mona snuggled up with Julie at the fireworks show.  Those aren’t rosy cheeks on my little girl, those are her scooter accident scratches, poor thing.  She heals fast, though, and now looks fine.)  I am done with parades until Ian gets home.

Watching scary movies.  I’d really like to see Shaun of the Dead but I keep bumping it further back in my Netflix queue.  Until there is another adult around I can’t afford to be thinking about zombies while there is laundry that needs doing in the basement.  Someone needs to be a grown up around here, and scary movies make me less of one for short periods.

Taking naps.  Sometimes I could really use a nap, but unless I can convince a quorum to do it with me, there’s just no way.

Parties.  I can do play dates and I can handle people staying with us no problem, but I’m still relieved Ian happened to be home during Aden’s birthday bash.  If I had to throw some kind of emergency party between now and when Ian comes back I would have to enlist another adult to help out.  On the actual 4th of July (not to be confused with all the excitement on the 5th) a friend came over for the afternoon with her two kids and they stayed for dinner.  Just being able to split the work up a little by having her set the table while I cooked, or having her cut up the watermelon while I stirred things on the stove was pleasant and civilized somehow.  I felt less like a zookeeper and more like a hostess.

Going swimming at the Y.  Quinn is the only child in the world who has never peed in a swimming pool.  This is good, but it means at least once when we’re in the pool I have to take him out to use the bathroom, and depending on how busy the pool is I usually end up dragging both girls out to go with us.  Plus having all three kids with me in the changing room can be a bit much.

I would say grocery shopping, even though it’s definitely easier to do that alone if there is someone to leave the kids with, but this is one area I have finally mastered, primarily due to the convenience of Aden being older.  Aden pushes one cart with her brother in it, and they make up stories about the different food items in the cart (“Oooh!  The watermelon is your new friend!  Should it have a play date with the cheese?”) Mona pushes a second cart, and I walk ahead and pretend I’m trying to lose them as I look for what I need.  If I act like they can’t keep up with me, they actually pay attention to where I am and stick pretty close.  (This is especially handy in Target when they are getting pokey–I just slip into the next aisle saying, “They’ll never find me over here,” and next thing I know they are all at my side.) 

Anyway, no matter how good I am about making them use the bathroom before we start shopping, someone has to pee by the time we are on the other end of the store.  This used to make me insane because the hassle of getting everyone to the bathroom in time and leaving the cart outside the bathroom, etc. was never ever fun.  Now either Aden can take herself, or take one of her siblings if they need to go, and they catch up with me in frozen foods.  So it’s still an event to go shopping with all three kids all the time, but it’s never bad anymore.  They don’t whine or cry, they are just slow and distracted because they are kids.  I’m used to it, but I’m still looking forward to buying food by myself again from time to time.

I’m so lucky that most of my problems aren’t really problems.  Life without Ian is inconvenient and not as much fun, but we still have a very nice life.  It’s just not the life I want most.  Many people never gets anywhere near this close to what they want, so I don’t take that lightly.  Life is great.  I can hardly believe it’s about to get better.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fears (Babble)

I’m having trouble sleeping, even though Quinn is lying here next to me in bed.  Normally his soft breathing and his little arm across me as he sleeps makes the nights without Ian here better, but not tonight.  For some reason I’m having more trouble than usual quieting my fears enough to shut my eyes.  Rather than ignore them tonight I feel like laying them out like change on a table, and sorting through them for a little while.  Maybe listing them will make them look ordinary and dull and then I’ll sleep.

The obvious fear that everyone can understand is that I worry my husband will be killed in Iraq.

But since I live with that fear over an extended period, it grows and fractures and that particular fear gets broken down into parts.  I fear the initial shock of the idea of soldiers coming to my door to tell me.  If I let my mind linger there too long I wonder if I would be polite and let them in, or in such denial and distress that I bar the door and hide inside.  I don’t want to think about the funeral I’d have to be responsible for.  I recoil at the thought of what it would do to my kids.

But there are other fears about what could happen to Ian that scare me about as much.  I worry about him becoming a different person because of this experience–a person who scares me or that I couldn’t live with anymore,  I fear what would happen to him if he were responsible for the death of someone else, or if someone under his command were hurt or killed because of decisions he made or failed to make.   What if the person who comes back to me from the war is someone who hates himself now?  At what point do the unspoken vows to my children override the vows we made to each other at our wedding if his mental state makes him unsafe to our family?

I fear injuries that change everything.  Brain damage that robs me of the man I loved but will continue to care for for the rest of my life.  I fear missing limbs and destroyed skin and blindness.  I fear PTSD.

I fear that decisions that I had to make on my own while he’s been gone will have been wrong.  That he’ll be disappointed in me somehow, or that I’ve neglected important things that make his life harder when he comes home and he resents me for it.  I fear that adjusting to this life after the war will be dull.  I fear that after having so much responsibility and respect, that the drudgery of caring for small children will be frustrating and leave Ian feeling undervalued.

Okay, it feels good to lay those out.  Fears always look larger when trapped inside my head, and now I can be more rational.  Ian came back from the last deployment still the guy I knew.  He still sounded like my same Ian last I talked to him, so I’m crossing my fingers that the next few weeks don’t throw any dangerous surprises his way.  I don’t really think he’ll be disappointed in me for anything, but his opinion matters and I haven’t lived with him in what seems like forever so I don’t know if the husband in my imagination is accurate anymore, and it makes me uncertain.

The thing I remind myself about the fears of injury and death is that it’s not all that different from regular life.  I’m haunted by stories I hear on the news from time to time about soldiers who return safely from Iraq or Afghanistan only to be killed in a car accident on the way home, or something similar.  I remember very clearly a cold morning in February when I was still commuting 40 miles every day to violin making school hearing a news report of a man who had been killed in his car on I43.  He was in between two trucks, and when the one in front of him stopped the one behind him didn’t and he was crushed.  For some reason my first thought was that there was food in his refrigerator that he had expected to eat and never would.  There were a million details of his life waiting for him at home and he would never go back there.  None of us knows when our last day will be.

When Ian was deployed the first time and we had only six days to prepare, one of the things we had to do was sit down and go through all his important papers including his will.   He skimmed it for me and said, “It says here if I die then everything goes to you….” etc.  I didn’t pay too much attention until I heard the words, “And if you die while I’m gone….” and my jaw dropped because it had never crossed my mind that I could die while he was at war.  All I could think was, “What do you mean if I die?!  I can’t die!  I have to take care of these kids!”  But it was a good reality check.  I could be driving along between two trucks and never get to eat that lunch waiting for me in my fridge.

So my circumstance may seem extreme to someone else just living a regular life, but it’s not that much different really.  All of us are here temporarily and none of us knows how long we have.  It’s important to connect with the people we care about as often as we are able and to appreciate the time we have and use it well.

A quote that occurs to me often is, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”  It’s easy to focus on the fear.  That’s primal.  What takes courage is to get past that and to focus on the love.   I can’t stop the fact that things will end, but the days I’m most proud of myself are the ones where I really stop and enjoy how glorious the love I have is.  Even if it’s just for a moment, like when my kids are showing me a caterpillar and the pure delight on their faces makes any of the mundane things I’m preoccupied with most of the time disappear.  I make a point every day to hold each of my kids and consciously appreciate how glad I am they are in the world.  Even when they are driving me crazy.

Quinn is nuzzling up next to me.  He’s able to pat around and find my arm to wrap around himself even in his sleep.  I’m the luckiest person I know.  I’m tired of fear.  I’m tired period.  I’m ready to close my laptop now.  I think I’m okay to sleep.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Contact (Babble)

Someone asked in a comment thread something I get asked in person all the time:  How much contact do I have with my husband during his deployment?

The answer is not much, but way more than people had before email.   My grandmother actually gave birth to her second child while my grandfather was off in the Navy during World War Two, and there was no way to tell him he had a son.  She wondered for very long periods of time if her husband was okay.  That sounds unbearable.  By comparison, the longest stretch I’ve gone without hearing from Ian is maybe a month.  I’m able to scan things to show him if I have questions about bills or taxes.  He sends me brief notes on important days like anniversaries.  A couple of times we’ve been able to talk to each other on Skype, which is interesting because we’ve gotten to see the room where he lives and works, but the time difference is a problem.  Iraq is nine hours ahead of Wisconsin, so he’s usually going to sleep as we’re getting up, and there is no good time to talk.

I feel badly that I haven’t sent him as many packages as I should.  I sent one big one before his leave and one after.  I usually send DVDs of the kids, photos, artwork the kids made, a local paper of some sort, cookies, a letter, and anything else lying around that would remind him of home.  The hard part about putting together a package (besides making sure any food won’t melt or rot in the 135 degree heat over the two week journey) is sending things that are meaningful without being too precious.  Ian worries about leaving things behind when he comes home.  I assure him the photos are replaceable, the kids are always cranking out artwork, and none of us would mind if he passed on little gifts to people there. 

He’s sent a couple of things to us, including a toy camel, some pretty chai sets that the girls adore, a small vase….  My favorite things are the rare letter, and the last deployment he sent me a simple necklace with a pearl on it that I wear quite often.  I don’t write him as much as I should, but he does follow this blog, and I do email notes reminding him he’s missed and we love him.  I figure with limited time on my hands my priorities have to be with my kids and our life here.  He’s an adult and I trust him to take care of himself and to remember we love him even if we don’t get to tell him every day.  If I have a choice between playing a game with the kids or writing to their dad, I hope he understands that I need to focus on the kids.

The hardest thing about communicating with my husband while he’s overseas isn’t the how, it’s the what.  We can stay in pretty good contact using a combination of letters and email and Skype and occasional phone calls, but time apart makes what to say harder to come by.  It’s often easier to find things to talk about with someone I saw yesterday than it is to someone I see rarely.  That seems counter-intuitive, since there would be more to catch up on with someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, but you lose common ground.  The flow of conversation is harder to establish when there is too much to tell.

With Ian it gets very frustrating because we are used to talking to each other easily, but after so many months apart once we say, “I love you, I miss you,” several times, it’s hard to think of anything to add.   He doesn’t have a current idea of what our lives are like at this point–small changes add up and turn into big changes.  Anyone with little children knows how much is different in just a few months, let alone a year.  We’ve moved, the kids are older, there are new people in our lives he doesn’t know….  I’m sure I’ve changed in ways I don’t even realize.  And the thing is if I try to describe things really well, in some ways I think it only highlights for Ian how disconnected he is from us now, rather than helping him feel included.  No one wants to have home explained to them.  In the meantime I can’t relate to what his days are like at all.  Most of what he describes I either don’t understand or don’t want to know because it scares me.  He doesn’t want to add to my stress, but everything about him being in Iraq causes me stress, so what can he say?  Not being able to find things to talk about makes us both feel bad, so just because we can talk doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.

We’re also both limited by what we are allowed to say or simply shouldn’t.  From his end, my husband is an officer, and privileged to sensitive information.  He can tell us a little bit about what he’s doing, but sometimes in emails he has to change names of places and people.  Email is convenient but not private.  We have to assume whatever we write may be seen by others.   That could include the people he’s fighting, so for safety reasons he can never tell me when he’s coming or going. 

On my end, it’s unfair to burden him with any problems he can’t fix.  It’s a nice idea to keep him informed of important details, but I can’t tell him about a trip to the emergency room, for instance, until it’s resolved.  I can’t tell him anything with loose ends because it’s cruel.  I don’t want him distracted because he has dangerous work to do.  Complaining to him about my problems would be selfish, but I don’t want to lie to him either.  If I told him everything was perfect he would worry because he would know that wasn’t true.  So I keep him informed after the fact.  Quinn was sick but now he’s fine, the insurance thing at work was messy but now it’s taken care of, selling the old house was tricky but now it’s done.  When I talk to Ian on the phone there is a time delay not just in the sounds we’re hearing, but in the topics we can discuss.  It’s awkward, but it’s what we’ve got.

Our circumstance may or may not be typical.  He tells me for most soldiers it depends on time and opportunity.  He knows other people who contact home every day because they have the free time to do it.  Ian tends to be extremely busy with no days off.  (People always seem surprised when I say he doesn’t have days off, and I remind them it’s a war.)  It’s usually inconvenient times like midnight or very early morning or dinnertime here when he would be available to chat, and most of the time that doesn’t work out well.
Recently we had a discussion where he asked if I could please find a way for him to talk to the kids one on one when he calls.  I’m used to having all the kids with me all the time, so when he calls I tend to put him on speaker phone and then it gets to be a mess.  I explained to the kids that we’d have to take turns and be in different rooms, and they agreed, and the last call went much better.

In terms of making decisions, my husband trusts me to make choices that are good for our family and our future.  That’s part of why he loves me to start with.  When it comes to our home or the kids’ school or major purchases, he knows I’m not going to get us into debt or do something ridiculous.  The craziest thing I did was move, and it was the right thing.  It was hard to do without him, but I’m glad I did it.  I can take care of everything with him gone, I just prefer to do it with him.   Some things he definitely does better than I do (he doesn’t cry about computer problems, for example), but I know for a fact he doesn’t really want to pick out rugs or futon covers.  We make a good team.  I’m just looking forward to the team all being in the same time zone again.

(A picture Ian took of us almost exactly one year ago when I was first putting together this blog and Babble needed photos.)

(This is a photo of us exactly one year later taken by Aden’s friend Karla.  My baby isn’t a baby anymore, Aden seems more grown up, and Mona’s clothes don’t stay on very well.  But it’s still us.  I think Ian will know us when we finally meet him at the airport and decide we’re worth coming home with.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

One Month (Babble)

One month.  That’s somehow four weeks which is really 31 days.  (Kind of like how pregnancy is nine months, but 40 weeks, which I have never quite figured out.)

One month means four movie nights with my kids.

One month is about two dozen loads of laundry, assuming someone pees on something unexpectedly, which is a safe assumption.

Over the course of a month I get to watch my son point out the entire cycle of the moon.

Over the course of one month I notice my hormones push waves of sadness over me at predictable times that I try to keep in perspective.

One month is four sets of violin lessons to take my girls to.

One month is supposedly how long it will take to build my new garage.

It costs $20 to rent a violin from my store for one month, $35 for a cello.

One month is four mandolin orchestra rehearsals.

One month is about 500 trips around the block for Mona on her scooter.

One month is how long it took me to just watch all five seasons of Angel on DVD.

One month isn’t long enough for me to learn the piano part to the Minuet Aden’s working on.

A tank of gas lasts me about a month if we don’t travel anywhere special.

This month there will be four free concerts in the park near our house.

One month is enough time for the digital clock running slow on my oven to drive me batty.

In one month there will be four opportunities to participate in neighborhood recess.

One month is about 200 kisses I will plant on my son’s head that he will try to wipe off while he laughs and tells me to stop it.

One month is about two jugs of bubble solution and a good size pack of sidewalk chalk.

One month is at least two dozen calls home to chat with my mom or dad just because.

One month is about eight trips to the grocery store.

One month isn’t long, unless it’s the approximate amount of time before this tour is over and my husband comes home from Iraq.  I struggle often with the concept of time when my husband is deployed because on the one hand I want the time we’re apart to go quickly so that we can be together again, but at the same time I want the time with my kids to stand still.  I can’t hope for any time to slip by me because life is short and there is so much that I am sad to lose.  Even as I exchange the toothless baby smiles for adorably gap-toothed grins and crawling for biking and coos for combinations of words I never could have come up with myself, I love being a witness to it all and the changes are exciting but each milestone is as much a loss as it is a gain.  It’s all so interesting and wonderful and it goes by so heartbreakingly fast.  With small children the days sometimes seem endless but the years go by in a blink.

So there is one more month that I have to operate as a single parent while worrying about my husband’s safety.  It’s exhausting, but there is also something satisfying about having gotten this far with all my kids in tow.  There is much I could have done better during this time, but overall I think I have a lot to be proud of in terms of getting our family through this unscathed.

One month.  I’m sure in retrospect it will go by quickly, but right now?  One month seems like forever.  In some ways that hurts and in some ways that’s okay.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Neighborhood Recess (Babble)

You wouldn’t think too much would change in terms of life in the neighborhood when you move across the street.  I mean, we moved a matter of feet away from where we lived for ten years, so the joke for awhile was about getting to know the new neighbors, which (except for the people who bought our old house) are obviously all the same neighbors as before.  But, weirdly enough, we do interact with different people on the new side of the street.

The first time I noticed this was when the girls were still in school and Quinn wanted to take his trike around the block.  When you have really small children it’s convenient to stick close to home, and where we live that means usually not leaving our specific block.  Crossing the street can be hazardous, so it’s less stressful to just go round and round the same sidewalk trail again and again which always leads us back to our house. 

We knew every inch of the old block.  Which houses had dogs, which ones had wind chimes in the garden to ring, which ones had friends we could visit.  The new block is, well…new.  And it’s a different kind of block because the whole back half of it is an apartment building and directly behind us is its parking lot.  It’s one big building whose inhabitants are mysterious to us still.  Even houses where you don’t personally know the people have a personality and you can figure out at least little things about the owners.  But the apartment building doesn’t offer many clues, other than the cigarette butts outside and an occasional abandoned beer or pop can.

In any case, when you travel around the same block a hundred times in a week you run into other people tethered to small children traveling the same path.  This was how I came to know a new collection of parents in the neighborhood, and it’s been the start of something really nice, namely Neighborhood Recess.

Neighborhood Recess was the brainchild of a couple down the street from us with two small boys.  After chatting with me a few times when I was out with Quinn, a dad from around the corner stopped by one evening with his kids and asked if my girls would like to come play kickball for an hour.  I couldn’t go with them because Quinn was asleep, but I told Aden and Mona they could go with the man with the baby strapped to his chest if they wanted to.  They were hesitant since this wasn’t someone they knew yet, but at some point you have to start trusting people, and the guy with the contented eight month old snoozing on his chest seemed like a safe bet.

It’s hard to let your kids venture into the world without you, but I think it’s important.  I know I keep a tighter leash on my kids than my parents kept on me when I was a child, but I get nervous.  And it’s not that I think I live in more dangerous times.  I grew up in the era of the Oakland County Child Killer, and my best friend lived not too far from where one little girl was snatched, and we still all just roamed the neighborhood and made our way home at dinnertime. 

But it’s harder nowadays when you can go online and find the addresses of all the registered sex offenders in your neighborhood to feel as trusting of the people around you.  When news stations replay scary stories about bad things happening to children again and again, it feels like it’s actually happening again and again.  I remember how much more fearful my grandmother got in the last few years in her house when she was in front of the TV too much.  I would remind her that if she only had what she could see for herself outside her own window to go on, she’d be convinced nothing ever happened besides the grass growing and the sun rising and setting.  We let other people define reality for us too often.  We need to be informed, but we also need to trust our own senses.  And my senses tell me that as far as keeping my kids safe, I trust my neighbors.

So back to Neighborhood Recess….  I mentioned there is a parking lot directly behind our house.  On the next block behind us, past the parking lot, is an empty field.  Because I can stand in my kitchen or yard and look directly over the parking lot to the field, it feels like the field is directly behind our house.  The street to cross to get to it isn’t busy, so I have no problem sending the girls out the back door to play in the field without me.  There are about three or four other couples who gather in the field with their kids one set evening a week for an hour and organize a game or two.  It’s a blast.  Any kids who wander by are encouraged to join in, and often they do.  Sometimes it’s kickball, sometimes soccer, sometimes freeze tag…. 

The best new game I learned was ‘Bear, Salmon, Mosquito’ which is kind of like a tag version of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors.’  (There are two teams, and each team decides as a group what they will all be when they turn around and face the other team.  Bears eat Salmon, Salmon eat Mosquitoes, and Mosquitoes eat Bears, so if one team turns around and pretends to be Bears and the other team turns around at the same time and pretends to be Salmon, the team of Bears gets to chase the Salmon and see how many they can tag to join their team, and then both teams pick something new and do it again.  Crazy fun.)  It’s nice because the parents are all clever about finding ways to include everyone, so babies get paired up with adults and toddlers always get a shot at the ball, and older kids like mine still get to play a real game.

Aden loves it and has made several friends.  Mona thinks she loves it until she gets there and then she gets shy.  Sometimes she participates, and sometimes she just gets her scooter and glides along the sidewalk on the fringe of the action.  Quinn, despite some nice experiences when I coaxed him out to the field with the rest of us, preferes to play in the sandbox in our yard, so I don’t get to go play as often as I’d like.  Most of the time I end up pushing Quinn on the swing and peeking my head over the fence every few minutes to catch a glimpse of Aden running up and down the field and laughing with the neighborhood kids.  It’s such a lovely idea, and I’m so glad someone was inspired enough to literally get the ball rolling.  When Ian comes home it will be a nice way for him to get to know some of the new people I’ve met since he left while getting some exercise with our own kids.

Neighborhood Recess has become another one of the those routines set in stone for my children that they look forward to every week (like Friday Night Movie Night).  Even Quinn who doesn’t participate very often thinks it’s important that we be home for Neighborhood Recess.  I wonder if everyone will be up to a snowsuit version come November….