Monday, August 30, 2010

The Small Light Project (Babble)

I really don’t know if this is a good quality or a bad quality, but I get fixated on certain projects and don’t let them go until they are done. It’s tempting to declare this a good thing, but now that my husband’s home and I can see myself partly in his reaction to the things I do, I’m not so sure. 

He was sort of stunned the other night when I took it upon myself to rearrange the attic before going to bed.  Our attic is really like a big closet next to our room, and it’s not like I went all out, but I wanted the things that belonged in there out of the hallway, and at this stage of my life I just can’t stand dumping things somewhere without a plan.  There were about half a dozen large empty boxes piled up making it impossible to put things in a decent place, so I cleared them out and re-stacked the remaining boxes so I could actually get in there and put the stuff in the hall away finally.  It was bugging me, and it made more sense to take ten minutes and get that done than it did to pile up stuff and have it add to a bigger problem later.  Anyway, from Ian’s point of view I looked sort of insane because it was late and I should have just gone to bed.  (From my point of view leaving it until morning meant it wouldn’t happen.)

It’s a good thing he wasn’t around when I worked on sealing the floor.  A few months ago I decided I wanted a few more coats of polyurethane on my bedroom, dining room, and living room floors.  I simply did a small section each night before I went to bed, moving furniture around as needed, and in a few weeks it was all done.  The only flaw in this plan was (and why my husband would have thought this was crazy) is my hair.  My hair is in everything.  I don’t how I’m not bald but my hair is everywhere.  And I’m so, so sorry, but just by reading this post my hair is probably in your house now, too.  Don’t ask me how, it just works like that. 

Anyway, I got pretty good at sanding out bits of my hair that got sealed to the floors as I worked, but I’m sure my DNA is now preserved as part of this home.  That was a nice, satisfying project that kept me occupied for awhile, even if it looked a little nuts to the people who knew I was doing it.

But whenever possible I try to find projects where I get to include my kids.  I’m still pleased with our big clock, and it felt good to put our mark on the new garage.  My latest project has been to solve the problem of the light over the china cabinet area in our dining room.

There is a pretty archway over the top of the built in china cabinet and buffet that was once wired for a light but that spot has been capped over for some time.  A friend checked the wiring and said it could be made to work, but would need a pull chain because there was no decent way to put in a switch.  So for awhile we’ve had bare wires there, which was annoying, and then recently a base with a bulb and chain, but no decent fixture that would work over the bulb.  It’s not an important thing, but that bare bulb kept drawing my eye to it every time I walked into the dining room, and I just kind of wanted that finished already.  We tried different light stores, none of which could accommodate the pull chain for some reason, and after not finding anything I liked for that space I decided the only way out was a crafty sort of solution.

We picked up a six dollar fixture at the hardware store that could be screwed into the base and the kids and I started sorting beads.  We have a ton of beads, and in fact one of the great organizational boons of this house is that there is a butler’s pantry that we use entirely for art supplies.  I love having abundant supplies available in the house so the kids and I can do anything we dream up but that stuff can get so out of hand.  It looked like an artroom dumping ground before.  Now we have it better under control, and that gate leg table from Ikea is awesome because it has six drawers and if we need to open up a surface just for an art project we can.  (Having enough space for our stuff finally has made such a dramatic difference to my sense of peace.)

Anyway, we went through the box of glass beads and picked out all the green and clear ones to match the stained glass in the dining room, plus a few other random colors here and there if the beads were extremely pretty.  It was fun to have Quinn on my lap picking beads out of my hand and telling me excitedly if they were green.  I put Aden to work on stringing some of the beads in an attractive pattern.

After the kids went to bed I struggled with trying to find a workable way to make the bead strands drape around in a nice dangly way, but that just wasn’t going well, so I finally hauled out the glue gun and wrapped the beads around the light cover.  It came out well, I think, and the kids are pleased that they helped with it.  It’s hard to take a picture of the light fixture that looks right, but this is a shot of it when it’s off:

And here is what it looks like on:

So that’s our small light project!  (The only kink is that if we leave the light on for a long time the bulb heats up the glue and it gets soft again, so I need to find a cooler bulb or a way to seal in the beads and the glue….  Or just not leave the light on for hours on end.)

Ian likes it, too, even though he’s still not sure why I had to stay up until midnight to finish it and why I was screwing it into place before the glue had even cooled, but that’s okay.  It’s not like he didn’t know I was crazy when he married me.  And at least it’s the kind of crazy that results in organized closets and working lights and shiny floors with only a modicum of hair in them.  I like having a home where the practical elements are also personal.  It just sometimes takes a touch of obsessive crazy to get that to happen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Aden the Cook (Babble)

I’m not feeling well this morning.  All night I had a dizzy thing going on.  I felt (feel) a bit queasy, and every time I opened my eyes the room was spinning around like I’d just gotten off a tilt-a-whirl.  Very weird.

Anyway, Ian decided not to go do work at the violin store today until I’m feeling more normal and told me to just stay in bed for a bit.  I’m still kind of in the mindset I had when he was gone that I don’t get to rest because there are kids to take care of, so it seems odd to be just sitting doing nothing.  I took some ibuprofen, I checked email.  Ian told the kids I wasn’t feeling well so they played more quietly than usual.

I was glad when Mona conveniently forgot she wasn’t supposed to disturb me and came bounding onto my bed.  She and Quinn cuddled up while we did “school” on my laptop.  We’ve been trying to get them ready for school starting up next week, so for the past few weeks we’ve had a rule about no screen time until all of them have had a half hour of school review.  We have a white board propped up in front of the fireplace and Mona works on writing her numbers clearly and writing out her full name and copying words and sentences.  Aden works on spelling and writing her address and multiplication tables.  (Although the most important thing I’ve probably taught her in the past couple of weeks was how to play Heart and Soul on the keyboard.  She’ll get some good social mileage out of that in third grade.)  Quinn can write out most of his alphabet and numbers, and he likes learning about telling time.  (My favorite was the morning I asked him to write the numbers one through ten, so he carefully wrote a one, and then a ten, and said he was done.  I knew to explain it better for next time.) 

All my kids like these flash cards I picked up from the dollar bin with landmarks on them, although they can’t remember the Alamo is in Texas and they think Big Ben is in the United States somewhere.  This morning I just typed sentences on my computer for Mona to read out loud, mostly about dogs and purple bunnies to make her laugh.  Quinn typed out the alphabet of his own accord, and then everyone left again and I realized I was hungry but too dizzy to want to go downstairs.

(Mona on a typical morning doing “school.”)

And then, Aden appeared.  She’s so grown up lately.  I just can’t get over how tall and capable she is anymore.  She’d made me breakfast in bed.

Now, Aden is a sweetheart, and she has been making me some form of breakfast in bed for years when I’m not feeling well or on my birthday or some such occasion, but she’s old enough now that it’s not just cute, it’s good.  When she was three she once brought me two uncooked eggs on a plate, a fork and a napkin.  Today she brought me rice crispies in milk with a spoon, a hard boiled egg on a plate, toast, butter on a bunny dish with a little knife, and a cup of water.  It was just what I needed.  She sat with me while I ate and we looked at pictures of cute animals doing cute things on my laptop.  She said she was worried about me trying to walk down the stairs but thought I might be hungry.  I told her someday she’d make a great mommy and she looked very pleased.

I’m so impressed with the person she is and the adult she’s becoming.  She’s got a few habits and quirks I wish I could wave a wand and fix, but the same is true of myself so I try not to hold her to too high a standard.  I love that she wants to do more things on her own and still be my little girl.  She makes a really good omelette.  And yesterday she and Quinn asked if they could make sugar cookies and they did everything on their own but put the cookie sheet in the oven.  (I’ve even told Aden I trust her to do that, but she doesn’t want to, yet.)  I could hear them in the kitchen together with the recipe book, cracking eggs and running the mixer.

Aden made cookies the first time essentially on her own when she was four.  She wanted cookies and I needed to work (and Ian was deployed for the first time so he wasn’t available to help), so I had the recipe next to me on the violin bench and I would explain each step as needed and she’d run off to the kitchen.  I’d tell her to do things like find a measuring cup with a 1/2 on it and fill it with flour five times in a row, and leave her to it.  She followed rules like ‘no adding things to the mixer while it was running,’ and I figured the worst that could happen was a messy kitchen and some nasty cookie dough that we have to do over, but aside from a delicious smelling accident with the vanilla she did fine.

(Aden on Christmas in 2006 with her first Easy Bake Oven creations.)

(Aden a couple of weeks ago with a perfect omelette.)

In any case, I’m feeling a lot better than a few hours ago.  If I have another dizzy night tonight I’ll call the doctor, but today breakfast prepared by my daughter and served on a tray that used to belong to my grandma seems to have set me right.

Aden wants to tackle pancakes next.  Sounds good to me!  By next year breakfast in bed might be really something.  I love my Aden the cook.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Major Guest Blogger (Babble)

I am so fortunate to have spent over half my life with my husband, Ian.  I’ve written about him before in an introduction, a post about how we met, and another about our wedding.  He followed how we were doing here at home by reading this blog while he was stationed in Iraq for the past year, and now that he’s home he’s agreed to do guest post.  So here we go:

Er…uh…(shuffle feet)…is this thing on?
The first thing to know is that coming home is not one transition. It’s
about a dozen, and arriving home is actually one of the last ones. There
are the transitions from doing the job to turning in equipment and
preparing to leave, the transition to a transient existence during
movement back to the United States, the transition from the
Expeditionary Army with loaded weapons and real missions to the the
Garrison Army with funny black berets and lousy food and off-post
WalMarts, the transition back to a bureaucratic world of budgets and
important papers and Veterans Administration benefits, and finally the
transition from a unit -a temporary family- back to the world of
individuals and the real family I chose.

And then, finally, the transition to a lonely observer in a family that
seems weirdly familiar but pecks at each other in all new ways. The kids’
awe at my return lasted almost to the exit gate of the Army base. Then I
was no longer a novelty but a familiar friend-of-the-family for about an
hour. Then I was not-quite-Dad (perhaps Dad-but-like-he’s-sick) for a
couple days, present but not terribly useful, which I encouraged. Now
we’ve moved to somewhat-lazy-Dad-who-passes-the-buck-to-Mom-a-lot.
Finally, next week when school starts, the clouds will part and
independent, strong Dad will finally return and shine down upon the

And most of those phases are deliberate. To prevent frustration. To
kids, a big man frustrated is frightening…and I play for the full
dramatic effect (yes, it’s one of my many flaws). It’s like being the
slowest kid in class all over again, the frustration of watching
everyone else in the house breeze along knowing things you are fighting
to just learn, and the kids don’t need that. The Army likes to assign
you a mentor and time for a transition. The family tries, but a
six-year-old just isn’t a great mentor about the new laundry system.
Older kids – lots of new rules and behaviors that I don’t know. How can
I control or discipline the kids fairly when I don’t know the rules?
When do they go to bed? What’s the routine? What do they eat? What
aren’t they allowed to eat? Who leaves the doors unlocked? Who sneaks
out the unlocked doors? Who showers and who bathes? Where are their
clothes? Where are their toothbrushes? Where are their shoes? Why don’t
they wear socks? Do they have socks? Where are their socks? Why doesn’t
Aden put her bike away? Who are their friends now? Who is allowed to
cross the street? Who do I need to watch most…and why?

New house – Kory knows where everything’s right place is, but I’m not
psychic and so forever looking in the wrong place for silly everyday
stuff like trash bags and towels. It took a week to find my old wallet
with my hardware store card. My old car keys -with my grocery store card
on it- are still missing (and I still miss them). Which new key opens
which door? What are the little tricks to each old door in the house?
Where does the floor squeak at night? Where are the light switches in
each room?

Why is there a drawer of weird light bulbs in the dining room china
cabinet? And which bulbs are for which lights? Why are they all
incandescent – what happened to my compact fluorescents? Why are there
two mysterious ‘utility’ drawers in the kitchen, with identical tools in
them? Why is Kory mopping the kitchen all the time? Am I supposed to do
that, too? What dishes aren’t dishwasher safe, and how can I tell? How
the hell do you program the washing machine? Am I supposed to be mowing
the lawn now? What maps and equipment belong in each car? How do you
open the garage door?

Who are all these new friends and neighbors? Who does Kory really like,
and who are we merely polite to? Who does Kory owe favors to? Who’s
garage door opener is that on the kitchen counter?

And we haven’t even touched on upcoming school, swimming safety and swim
lessons, meals and cooking, handling household bills, dentists, work,
car repairs, energy conservation, hobbies, holiday planning, exercise,
the weird list of projects (Why does she want me to move that pile of
rocks? They look heavy) and a thousand other important issues.
And over all of those thousand details is the most frustrating one for
everyone else at home: I simply don’t know what their priorities or
schedules are. Should I be mowing the lawn or feeding the kids lunch?
Should I be writing this blog post, or picking up the dratted crab
apples, or cleaning the kitchen, or moving those heavy rocks? I can do
them all, but which should be first? It takes weeks to learn the
*context* to everything again.

And finally, don’t forget that once I do learn everything, our family
might renegotiate it a bit. So there’s mild tension brewing. Much more
than you’d expect from normally dull issues like: Where should the
vacuum cleaner be stored? What meals should we plan? Can the treadmill
block this window in this room? Can these toys move to that room? When
should our exercise times be? We’re discussing change to The Way Things
Should Be to several family members…but I have definite opinions too.
So that’s what Transition Back To American Life is like – after many
changes even before coming home, it’s a balance between the frustration
of learning a thousand things you think you should already know, the
frustration of relearning the context of your spouse and family’s
priorities, and the frustration of learning it all -despite the best
efforts of my fabulous family and friends- mostly alone. But as I
approach the end of the transition, I have these amazing kids who can
read and draw and ride bikes and swim and want me to go with them, and a
spouse who still claims to like me enough to let me continue sleeping
with her…but she’ll like me even more once I get those heavy rocks
moved. So get to it, Hercules.

Kory has been amazing, giving me plenty of time to get adjusted. Trying
to get the family on more regular sleep cycles. Feeding everyone.
Keeping the household clean and running while I lumber along trying to
learn how. Telling me it’s okay to back off and rest. She understands
that it’s hard to learn. It’s hard for everyone else, too, to adjust to
this familiar man suddenly in the house.

Being in Iraq, and the transition to/from home life is neither easier
nor harder than being a parent. They are different, and most comparisons
are false. For example, the Army makes sure soldiers get plenty of
regular sleep, food, exercise, and other ways to counter stress (better
than parents), but very few parents get blown up by roadside bombs or
mortared in their bunks (better than the Army). Sure, I lost weight in
Iraq, and did good work fighting corruption…but I was also under a lot
of stress and in cramped quarters with other stressed out people, and we
had terrible food and lived in an atmosphere among the Iraqis of
complete uncertainty and hopelessness. It wasn’t harder than waking up a
2-year-old in midwinter to bundle him up and pick up older kids at
school at 5 below zero, but it wasn’t easier either.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Housework Reconsidered (Babble)

I’ve never considered myself to be someone interested in housework.  Anyone who ever saw my room as a teenager could testify to that.  But my mom keeps a beautiful home, and so did my grandmother.  My whole life I’ve observed how they both knew how to keep their homes neat and welcoming.  Despite the time and energy it took to help run a small business, pursue a serious art career, and raise three children, my mom was probably most famous among my friends for always keeping the cookie jar in our home stocked with homemade goodies.  My grandma’s house was always almost comically free of dust and her basement was better organized and less cluttered than most people’s main rooms.  I wondered for a long time if I got some different combination of genes that kept the development of those skills from sparking my interest.

When we bought our first home my mom gave me a giant book by Cheryl Mendelson called “Home Comforts” which is a gigantic housekeeping tome with almost 900 pages that covers everything from what to stock in your pantry to how to organize your laundry schedule to how to wash a floor.  It’s a nice book, but at the time as I flipped through it, I mostly felt inadequate.  Besides, I generally associated housework with wasted time.  Repetitive chores using up hours of my life that could be used for more important and lasting things just did not take priority, and according to this book I would probably do it all wrong anyway.

But now I have the right house and I get it.  I finally get it.  I have never owned or collected things that made sense for the space I was living in.  I acquired things that would work in the place I one day hoped to be.  I am finally in that place.

Housework everywhere else was frustrating because there was never a place for everything.  There were always things being shifted from one spot to another, but there was never a final spot for everything to rest.  That’s stressful, and there is no way to keep things organized like that.  Ideally I should have only kept objects with us that worked in the various places we occupied, but it wasn’t possible.  Violin makers collect a lot of wood and tools and books over a long period, and my husband put up with a bench and a band saw at one end of our bedroom in our second apartment in Pennsylvania.  I’ve never really had a decent practice space, even in the other house, because wherever I wanted to play viola was borrowed space and I had to put everything away when I was done.  When you share too small a space with other people, their possessions are almost offensive.  Ian’s meager collection of books bothered me anytime I was short on shelving, and that’s just beyond unreasonable.

But now we have enough space for our things and it makes all the difference.  I have some empty shelves and drawers since the move which is like a miracle has happened.  There is a ton of storage space left for the kids to grow into.  I have a music room.  It’s not a giant room, but I don’t need a giant room.  I need a space where there is enough elbow room to teach, a spot to sit, and room for a keyboard.  Because I have a dedicated music room I can hang all our instruments up.  I have practiced more often since moving into this house than I did probably in the past two years in the last one because the ease of just pulling my viola and bow off the wall and playing for a few minutes here and a few minutes there is wonderful.  Getting everything out of the case used to take up all the time I had to practice with most days, so I didn’t bother unless I had to.  Practicing is fun again.

(Our music room!  See the violins and violas hung up on the wall in the back corner?  Super handy.)

When everything is organized it’s much easier to take care of and keep nice.  The funny thing about finally being relieved of all the clutter is that looking for things isn’t very dramatic.  When I lost my camera I spent more time digging through the minivan looking for it than I did in the house.  In the old house there would have been many searches through piles of stuff several times over.  Now I stand in the dining room briefly and think, “Well, it’s not here.”  Because when all the surfaces are clear and you know that this drawer is just light bulbs and that one is just extension cords, there just isn’t anywhere worth looking.  I hadn’t realized how nicely organized things were until I did that search because I literally went through every room in the house like that.  It was peculiar and satisfying at the same time.  I like that things are neat and I enjoy keeping them that way now.

A big help with clutter is the fact that Quinn has his own room and a huge closet (his closet is crazy–we could literally fit a twin size bed in there if we chose) that he doesn’t use yet.  He has always shared a room with his sisters and isn’t comfortable sleeping in his own room, so in the meantime it’s toy central.  Most of the toys live in that one room that I don’t have to walk through or look in and it’s amazing.  My kids used to play in a family room at the top of the stairs in the old house, and keeping a path clear so we could get down to the bathroom in the dark without killing ourselves was a constant battle and one I resented.  It’s still obvious when you walk into our house that we have kids, but now the living room holds a dollhouse, a train set, a box of legos, and a pachinko machine, all of which can be used and then put away without making our house look like a daycare center.  The struggle against the tide of toys used to wear me out and make me really grumpy.  There is room for kid space and grown-up space alike in this house, and that is sanity saving.

The next thing that makes a difference is having such a pretty house.  It has been so beautifully preserved with its original woodwork from the 1920’s not covered in gloopy paint or the stained glass ripped out and sold at some point.  The house is full of pretty details and it’s a privilege to live here.  I don’t want it to fall to rack and ruin under my watch.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like everyplace we lived before was unpresentable, because everyplace else was fine in its own way.  I have never lived anywhere in a manner that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with people seeing.  I could keep things neat enough, but in terms of charm, most of that we had to bring to the places we lived by what we put in them and how we used the space at hand.  Our last house was nice, but people usually commented on the things we did with it rather than on the house itself.  The new house is simply a beautiful house.  People have liked what we’ve done with it, but everyone’s initial reaction when they come here is to admire the architecture and the layout and the details.  It’s interesting and lovely without us having to do anything.  I’ve also never lived anywhere that anyone envied.  That’s an odd adjustment, but that’s also a different post.

The point is, this house not only needs to be cared for in a way that requires an understanding of good housekeeping skills, but it’s fun to do.  Making sure the woodwork gleams is fulfilling in its own way, and doesn’t feel like wasted time.  Also, you can see things differently in this house.  The rooms are bigger and you can see things from farther back and at longer angles than I’m used to.  Dust is much easier to spot in this house on the dark woodwork.  I remember my former neighbor when she lived here saying something to me about dusting and I thought to myself, “Who dusts?”  Well, Ian and his allergies are thankful that this house does in fact need regular dusting to look right and I don’t really mind doing it.

Technology helps a lot, too, in terms of embracing certain housekeeping chores.  I’ve finally arrived at state of the art 1950’s technology and have a dishwasher.  How did I live with three kids and no dishwasher?  Between that and the garbage disposal I feel like I’ve been released from some kind of dishwashing prison.  I scrape the plates into the sink and put them in the dishwasher.  I know most of you just read that sentence and are not impressed because you do it all the time, but seriously, I scrape the plates into the sink and put them in the dishwasher!  I push a button like Jane Jetson and walk away and the dishes get clean!  I read to the kids before bed and at some point randomly stop and say, “Guess what?  Right now I’m doing the dishes!” and they cheer and we go back to reading.  Or playing.  Or doing any number of things I couldn’t do with them before because I was chained to the sink scrubbing plates and forks.  I used to wonder how much better it could really be, since you’d still have to handle all the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher so I wasn’t sure how it would save much time, but it does does does it really does.  And the garbage disposal is good because I grew up with one and never got out of the habit of peeling potatoes into the sink, etc.  Now it’s okay.  Washing dishes is not frustrating anymore and I love to unload the dishwasher.  Maybe the thrill will wear off at some point, but right now it’s magical.

Plus there are ingenious old features in this house that help.  We have a laundry chute.  What we used to have instead was piles of dirty laundry.  Now everyone gets undressed and puts things down the chute, so the floors and tops of dressers are easier to keep clear.  Aden likes to help do laundry because the new washer plays a little music at each step, so a couple of times a week I’ll ask her to switch the laundry and bring the clean things up, and it makes a difference to have someone pitch in.

Now let’s talk floors.  I tried really hard to keep my husband’s needs in mind while setting up this house without him here, and part of that was getting rid of window treatments that trap dust, and getting rid of any carpeting.  We have one big rug in the living room, one decent sized rug in the family room, one that you can’t see under all the toys in the girls’ room, and the rest is hardwood floors.  I did splurge for a Dyson vacuum after the responses to my post about dealing with styrofoam so I can keep those rugs as clean as possible, and the rest of the floors I sweep a lot.  But the most dramatic floor change for me is in the kitchen.  I love my new kitchen.  I used to HATE my old kitchen because I could never find anything and there was no counter space and nothing fit in there properly.  The new kitchen is so much easier to use I can’t even do it justice with my words.

(Counter space!  And a breakfast nook!  And the spice rack area on the wall used to be an old ironing board cupboard.)

Anyway, my old kitchen floor looked like this:

And my new kitchen floor looks like this:

Aesthetically the first floor didn’t do anything for me, and the second one amuses me and I’ve never seen another floor like it which is kind of cool.  But here’s the important difference:  The second floor is FLAT.  Flat is wonderful.  The first floor was some kind of heavy duty tile that’s only redeeming feature was that it was the color of dirt.  Which was handy because there was no good way to clean that floor short of getting down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush or something.  It had grooves, and waves, and stippling, and my little swiffer mop was powerless against it.  When the kids spilled orange juice it ran down a crazy path in the grooves and left sticky spots that remained until I could find the time to get down and carefully scrub along all the crevices, which was never.  Trying to clean that floor after every meal or art project the kids did over it was a housekeeping nightmare, because even if you don’t mind clutter, you have to make some attempt to keep a kitchen clean, and it was a Sisyphean task.  But did I mention the new floor is flat?  Sweeping up and running the little swiffer mop over it is so easy it’s almost fun. 

A friend recently looked at me in surprise when I said something about my new routine and said, “You mop every night?” and I didn’t want to freak her out by admitting I sometimes do it after every meal just because it’s so easy.  (It’s not like I’m really mopping–I just squeeze a button to wet the floor and push the pad thing around any spots that look gross for a second.)  There was no satisfaction in it at the old house.  Now it’s simple enough I don’t mind.

Now, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this overly long post is truly insane because most of the things it lists as weekly chores I’m lucky to get to every six months (she wants us to clean and sterilize the garbage cans every week!  And when she cleans the fridge she unplugs it and pulls it away from the walls and scrubs everything and that’s just not happening), but it’s interesting.  No one wants to hear that the best way to clean the floor is on your hands and knees, but it’s true.  It’s a fun read now, even though the main thing I’ve learned is not to invite the author into my home because I will never meet her standards, but would I like it if my home operated the way she suggests and the pantry was always stocked properly and there were always clean sheets on the bed?  Sure!  It’s like a housekeeping fairy tale and one that I’m enjoying reading through.

I am not ready for anyone’s white glove test, and like any household there are always projects that need to be tackled and things to be organized, but for the first time in my life I feel like I’m capable of keeping house nicely.  Things aren’t perfect, but the house is usually in a presentable state at any given time because I can keep things tidy.  It’s not a waste of time because overall it saves me time to not be searching forever for what I need or trying to clear space to get something done.  Clean spaces are like invitations to do something interesting, like pull out a board game or create something or (Aden’s favorite) invent a new cookie.  I never thought it was hip to be messy, I was just never in control of an environment that I could manage before.  I’m not even claiming keeping house will hold my interest now that my husband is back and I want to spend time with him instead, but my attitude toward the whole idea of it has changed.  It only took 40 years, but I may finally be following in the housekeeping footsteps of some of the women I admire most.  (There’s even occasionally something good in the cookie jar.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All in a Row (Babble)

Welcome to our land of lines.  My son, for as long as he has been able to manipulate small objects, has been laying things out in rows.  I know my daughters did something like this as well, but not to the degree I see it in my son.  (Or maybe they did, and it’s been swallowed up in my memory with so many of the funny little things kids do that seem like they will last forever while they are happening, but then vanish without announcement like so much ephemera.)  As much as I know my girls laid things out carefully when they were younger (and to some degree still do), Quinn lays things out in rows with a consistency that I find noteworthy.  For him there is something compelling about laying things out in rows, and it becomes a part of every game.

This is Quinn making a store for some of his toys:

This is a typical sight on our deck:

Here’s Quinn at the Independence Day Parade laying out his candy haul.  (I don’t remember any candy at 4th of July parades when I was a kid, but my children do about as well at our local parade as they do at Halloween some years.)

This is his idea of helping me in yard:

At least when Quinn gets toys out the mess is sort of organized: 
I do wonder how much this tendency will translate into a personality that appreciates order when he’s older.  Not that I have delusions that he’ll keep his room neat as a teenager or anything, but you never know.  My brothers used to actually make their beds as kids, so such a thing can happen.  But I know I’m happy when I get a chance to lay out all my tools in a row at the violin shop, and I like it when my spice jars are evenly displayed on their shelves in my kitchen, so his penchant for lines isn’t foreign.  He probably got it from me.  There are certainly worse things he could have inherited!
However, this was his idea of putting away the things from the dollhouse when I asked him to pick up the living room before he went to bed, so my hopes aren’t high for too much order in the future:

In the meantime, at our house, you can count on the fact that all our ducks (and trucks and magnets and marbles….) are all in a row.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Random Parenting Things That May or May Not Have Helped (Babble)

When I was pregnant for the first time I got a lot of advice, most of it welcome, some of it weird.  One friend who gave birth to her first child six months before I did gave me a book she read that she credited with helping get her daughter to sleep through the night at three or four months old.  I appreciated the thought greatly, and my friend is one of the more graceful and inspiring mothers I’ve ever met, but I read the book and disagreed with it.  I did the opposite of what it said, and my daughter was sleeping through the night at three or four months.

The main thing I learned from that experience is that it can be very hard to tell what works.  Parenting habits, particularly when dealing with the mysteries of a baby, develop a lot like superstitions.  There are a lot of healthy well-adjusted babies who would probably sleep through the night at three months as long as you weren’t doing something ridiculous.  (And for those of you with kids who never sleep through the night, I have great sympathy and I’m not for a moment suggesting you are doing something wrong, I’m just describing my own situation.) 

If the night your kid finally sleeps happens to coincide with the same day he or she had rice cereal for the first time, you might be inclined to think that had something to do with it.  Or if you tried a white noise machine, or swaddled the baby differently, or stood on your head next to the crib all night.  Who knows?  Babies change so fast it’s very hard to pin down causation for many behaviors.  But we want to feel like we understand as much of it as possible, and human beings instinctively look for patterns, so often when I hear parents swear by things that worked with their babies I always remain a little skeptical.  All of my babies slept through the night at three or four months.  Lucky me I think they were all wired that way.  I don’t take credit for it, only for managing to not get in the way of it.

My children are not perfect by any stretch.   Aden is always negotiating everything and it’s exhausting.  Mona has no volume control.  When Quinn is tired he will look for any excuse to be upset so he can run from the room screaming and put himself to bed and have it somehow be my fault.  (Once my offense was to ask him if he wanted a spoon so he could eat his soup, and he looked at me, lower lip trembling, and finally burst out with, “How could you ask me about the spoon!?!? before he ran up the stairs and passed out on my pillow.)  They don’t know how to separate when they get on each other’s nerves.  They leave the back door wide open and then whine to me about the bugs that got into the house.  They leave their shoes everywhere.  But honestly, they are WAY better than I was as a kid, so I know better than to complain.  I get many compliments on my children out in public because they are generally cheerful and polite and kind to other people.

So I’d like to believe I’ve done something right.  But what?  I have no idea.  For the most part my parenting philosophy is to keep my kids relatively safe and healthy, provide them with lots of opportunities to learn about the world, love them, and otherwise stay out of their way.  They will teach me who they are.  I can let them know I expect certain things, like respectful behavior, but I don’t feel it’s my place to mold them in any significant way.  As a result when people ask what techniques I may have employed to achieve certain outcomes, I usually come up blank. 

And the truth is, I only know how to parent my own kids.  I can’t even parent Aden the same way I do Mona because they are very different people.   I have doubts that whatever may have worked with them might translate to another kid, but maybe it could.  So here are some things we’ve tried.  Some of them may have worked, and some may have been coincidence.  Here are some random child rearing stories in areas where we seem to have done okay, offered up for your consideration or amusement, and if they help, I’m glad.

Sharing:  When Aden was a baby we used to hand her things, take them away, and give them right back.  We wanted her to develop a sense of not being in a panic when something was taken away, because its absence was temporary.  We have always explained sharing to our kids to mean that “You get it back.”  Each of our children is entitled to one or two things that they do not have to share, just like there are things their dad and I have that they can’t touch.  Aden will still, on occasion, share her precious pink bunny with her brother if he needs cheering up, or with a visiting child if she believes it will improve a situation, but I think it helps her to know she doesn’t have to.  We have very few issues with sharing in our house (or anywhere).  On the rare occasions where the kids are bickering over some object, I declare it’s mine and I get to keep it until they can work something out amongst themselves.  (I’m amazed how often they look relieved and let me just keep it.)

Sleeping:  When all our kids were babies we made noise during the day.  I did not want to have to tiptoe around during nap time, so all my kids learned to sleep with the bandsaw running or the radio on or us walking around doing what we needed to do.  The only problems we’ve ever had with naps were related to the unfortunate timing of school pickups, etc., and we never found a good solution to that.  For sleeping at night, I used to feel pretty strongly that kids should sleep in their own beds.  We had a co-sleeper for all of our kids as babies, and somewhere between three and six months we’d move them to a crib in the next room most nights.  I never let my kids cry in their crib because I didn’t want them to associate it with any negative feelings.  (My kids only really cried if something was wrong, anyway, so to have ignored it would have been a very bad idea.)

All of them moved to real beds at around eighteen months.  (We’d start with just the mattress on the floor, then in a couple of months put it up on a frame with a rail.)  All of my kids share a room and have learned to block each other out in order to sleep.  Recently Aden was unhappy that Mona kept turning on the light after I put them to bed, but when I talked to Mona about it, it turned out she just wanted to draw on her magnadoodle before going to sleep.  I lent her a small headlamp for awhile and that helped, and then a few weeks ago I actually discovered a magnadoodle that comes with a little flip up light!  Now she uses that and Aden can roll over in the dark and go to sleep.  But for the most part, they prefer to sleep in the same room, and sometimes they even have sleepovers in each other’s beds.  If something happens in the night and they come to my bed to cuddle, they nearly always go back to their own beds on their own before the night is over.  They like their beds. 

The glaring exception to all of this is Quinn, but he’s spent so much of his life with his dad deployed it makes it hard to know what to do with him.  There was a stretch between eighteen months and about two and a half years old where he slept in his own big kid bed, but then Ian left and we moved and blah blah blah, so now the kid’s a nomad.  I ask him each night where he wants to go, and his sisters are nice about making room for him in one of their beds if he wants to crawl in with them.  I suppose we could put our foot down about making him use the bunk bed he picked out at Ikea, but frankly I don’t care.  I think it will sort itself out soon enough.

Bedtime:  When Aden was two we used to have issues with her wanting to get up after we put her to bed.  We had a couple of strategies for this.  The first was, if possible, we all went to bed at the same time.  Then when Ian and I were sure she was out (usually about half an hour later), we’d get back up and have grown up time for a little while.  The only problem with that was often we were so tired ourselves that we’d pass out and not finish any of the things we’d planned to get done. 

My favorite solution was to convince Aden there was nothing worth getting up for.  She once insisted she wanted to do what I do, so I sat with her in the dark facing the wall in the family room.  She was very patient and I almost cracked it was so boring.  She kept suggesting we could turn on the TV or play with some toys, and I kept telling her we couldn’t do any of those things at night.  I told her when she went to bed, I sat like that in the dark until it was my bedtime.  It took over 25 minutes, but eventually she decided grown up time was not worth participating in and she never left her room without a good reason after bedtime again.  We’d hear her, sometimes, awake in her room, but she never bothered to come out.  Why would she? 

Now that they’re older and they know we’re not staring at walls, the rule is if they come out after bedtime they have to help clean.  It’s nice, because every once in awhile Aden or Mona really can’t sleep, and they come find me and ask what they can help with, and we end up having a nice time picking up toys or folding laundry together.  If I pick a chore they don’t want to do they occasionally just put themselves back to bed, but most of the time they help and it turns into rare and pleasant one on one time.  During summer I don’t believe in bedtimes.  (Ian’s been known to keep them up so late they beg him to let them go to sleep.)

Manners:  This one I think is just pure modeling.  I say please and thank you and you’re welcome, I remind them to say please and thank you and you’re welcome….  They are very good about it.  I’ve often overheard them together in the breakfast nook asking each other politely to pass things and saying, “Oh, that’s so kind of you!  Thank you!” and “You are very welcome!”  Lately Quinn has taken to just saying things like, “Water,” and then I usually pick my own noun and say something like, “Ceiling.”  If he’s tired he gives me an irritated look, but most of the time he rephrases it to include a please and make it at least sound like a request.  (I admit complete failure, however when it comes to how Mona eats.  She can’t stay in her seat very long and she uses her hands instead of utensils way too much, but most people understand, and we’re working on it.) 

I’ve had to work with Aden a bit about being nice when accepting gifts she didn’t like and she’s got that one down, finally.  Mona loves almost everything so it hasn’t come up the same way.  (She once opened a birthday gift from Ian’s mom and it was wrapped in bubble paper.  She exclaimed so happily about getting bubble paper that when I told her there was something inside it she looked at me as if I’d just told her she could eat chocolate for dinner the rest of her life.  That was a very satisfying birthday.)

Why:  I think most kids hit a phase where it’s hilarious to see how much time you can waste by asking, “Why?” over and over.  I answer the questions for as long as they interest me, and then I usually end it by saying, “Zee.”  They just drop it at that point.

Practicing:  I think for most kids who do something like play an instrument it’s probably a good idea to do that on their own, but when they are small they need direction.  I like helping my kids practice.  It seems to help to keep it predictable, and until recently I used to do it in conjunction with bath time.  While one girl was in the bath I’d do violin nearby with the other one.  When they were starting out, to entice them to play we used to have practice time be dessert time.  They got a marshmallow after each little thing they did, so they loved to practice and developed a habit for it that now doesn’t involve any sweets.  Also, lately I’ve tried to learn the piano accompaniment to whatever Aden’s working on.  I don’t play piano so it keeps me humble. 

One of the best things I ever read was an interview with Isaac Pearlman, who said sometimes when he’s teaching violin and he finds himself getting frustrated with a student who can’t do what he’s asking, he switches his own bow and instrument to the opposite hands and remembers what it’s like to not be able to do it either.  I find that idea very useful in parenting, not just teaching, because we forget how much of what we do did not always come easily and had to be learned.

Shopping:  Because of Ian’s deployments I’ve had to do most of my shopping with at least one kid in tow.  In terms of them asking for things I have them pretty well trained to know that they are more likely to get something if they don’t ask.  They are good about not touching things if I talk to them about it before we go into the store and remind them about it in a nice way once we’re inside.  To get them to stick close inside a store I usually pretend I’m trying to lose them and they are on me like glue.  (If I feel like at least one of them is wandering too far away I say things like, “They’ll never find me over here!” and then they are all at my side again.) 

Parking lots are hard when you have more children than you have hands, so I usually tell the third kid to hang onto my butt.  I’m sure it looks absurd to other people passing by (assuming they even notice or care) but if it involves a butt kids laugh, and I know exactly where all my kids are.  I taught Aden very early how to ask a store employee how to page me if we get separated.  Usually if I don’t see Aden anywhere I start walking toward the service desk and halfway there I hear my name being announced over a loudspeaker.  She uses my name in those situations now, but when she was too little to remember I had an actual name I told her she should have people ask for “Aden’s mom.” 

In grocery stores I’ve always let them help find food or bag things or push a cart and it keeps them busy and happy.  When Aden and Mona were too young to really help, I’d let them think they were helping by asking them to find certain letters or numbers or colors around the store.

Restaurants:  The best tip I have if you end up in a nice restaurant with small kids (this happens to us when someone else without small children insists) is to let them order dessert first.  It comes quickly, they are happy, they sit still and eat while adults talk, and usually they have enough room left to eat their meal when it comes. Most of the time we aim for kid-friendly places if we have to eat out, but even if it isn’t we get a lot of mileage out of playing I Spy.  There are a couple of regular places we go to eat where I Spy is such a part of the event they launch in as soon as we are seated.  I Spy is good because it makes them stop and really study their surroundings.  (And it doesn’t have to be a real game.  When it’s Quinn’s turn he usually says something like, “I spy with my little eye, that lightbulb right there!” and then Aden says, “You mean that one?” and he excitedly tells her, “You’re right!”) 

If possible I bring something for them to draw on/with, and I usually have backup food like cereal bars or crackers in case whatever we order doesn’t work out for them.  My kids are very nice in restaurants, they always thank the waiter or waitress, and when they were small Ian and I took turns doing a walking tour of the whole place until the food arrived which helped a lot.  Always ask for extra napkins up front.  Assume something will spill, and when it doesn’t it feels like victory.

General Good Behavior:  I wrote awhile back about how the whole positive reinforcement thing wasn’t working for us, but I do tell my kids when I like what they do, I just usually do it at the end of the day or at some more random moment.  They love being told when they’ve done something right, just not usually when they’re doing it.

Me:  I’m never afraid to apologize to my kids if I think I’ve been out of line.  When I yell I tend to explain what drove me to it and how they can help avoid driving me to it again.  (But they must like hearing me yell, because the simple fixes they could be doing to make that go away never happen.)  I never say, “Because I said so,” but I do sometimes ask them to trust me and I’ll explain why later.  I never pretend I’m perfect or always correct.  I don’t pretend to give them choices when they don’t really have any.  I tell them I love them often enough that it should be boring but they still smile.  They know their dad and I are happy and in love and that nothing is more important to us than our family.  I want them to think of me as a safe place to be, and most of the time I think they do.

So if there is anything in there that you think you can use, go for it!  We all need ideas and new perspectives sometimes.  I could use advice about getting Aden to put her face in the water at the pool so she can take real swimming lessons.  Anyone been through that yet?  (And no, seeing her friends or sister do it doesn’t help.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Question for Readers (Babble)

My husband, an excellent writer and now home from Iraq for one week, has agreed to write a guest post for this blog.

So, my question is:  Would you rather he just write about whatever he feels like, or are there more specific things anyone would like to know?  I can’t guarantee he will answer all questions seriously, but it might help him to know what interests people before he starts writing.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The New Garage (Babble)

Thanks again to people who commented on my Garage vs Deck dilemma.  When I made up my mind on the compromise garage I decided I wanted it done before Ian got home.  That didn’t exactly work out (partially because of all the rain here, and partially because they had to special order a door that held everything up at the end), but the really important part of it was done in time which was the mural wall that faces the house.  We were able to decorate that with a ‘Welcome Home’ sign for Ian before he got back to Milwaukee.

To reiterate, the problem with the old garage was that it was very small and (inside) pretty icky, and starting to cave in on one side.  To make a two car garage the entrance would have to face the alley.  The problem with that is the city would require us to set the garage four feet back, which would have chopped deeply into our deck and put the garage uncomfortably close to the house.  So the design of the new garage would have a ‘reverse gable’ (which means the roof peak would run the other direction) and the part of the roof that hung over the entrance would be eight feet long to provide some protection for whatever car was parked outside. There was no way to have any poles to support the overhang and still be able to get into the garage, so it had to be done with cantilevers, which meant the garage ended up being extra tall to provide room for that kind of bracing.

The only real issue I had with the builders was the guy who was supposed to tear down the existing garage.  I was told he’d be there on a Thursday at 7:30 a.m.  That’s early for me in the summer, so I set my alarm so I could be awake and dressed to let the guy in to shut off power to the garage.  7:30 came and went, then 8:00, then 9:00….  I called the builders who tracked him down and reported he’d be there around 10:00.  When he finally arrived sometime after 10:00, he looked at the deck and the wall by the alley and shook his head saying, “Nobody told me about all of this.  I’d have had to be here at 7:30 to get all this done.”  I nodded and said something like, “Oh, you don’t say?” and in my head I thought something more like, “Well I was #$^&@&! up at @#!*!# 7:30!…. but I digress.

Apparently nothing could be done at 10:00, so he shut off the power so I wouldn’t have to be awake for that the next time he came, and he left.  The next day I went down to Chicago to pick up my brother for a short visit, and when I left at 2:00 my garage was still untouched.  I told Barrett on the drive up to Milwaukee that when we got here I might have a garage, or I might not.  Impossible to know.  What I had was a garage with no doors or windows:

Nothing happened Saturday.  Then Sunday morning at around 7:00 a.m. there was a ton of chainsaw noise and the whole thing came down.  It was weird to watch because somehow he did the roof last.  I guess it’s good I build violins and don’t demolish buildings because I would have done it from the top down, and apparently that would have been the wrong way to go.  It was a crazy amount of construction/destruction noise on a Sunday.  Aden suggested maybe the guy didn’t do it on Saturday because he could be Jewish.  I told her I thought it was unlikely, but an interesting hypothesis.

For a few days my kids climbed past the yellow caution tape to play on the remaining concrete slab.  I usually came out to find a folding chair and a hula hoop out there.  Not quite sure what that game was, but it kept them very amused.

Next, there was a noisy morning of tearing out all the concrete.  That left an amazing muddy mess that got rained on frequently.

Now, the funny thing at this point was the backyard has been so boxed in for so long that it was weird having it open.  I noticed many neighbors suddenly deciding to walk their dogs down the alley to kind of take a peek at the back of our house.  I actually started going out and picking up the toys a bit more just because, well, people could see.  The family room has a lot of windows that I never worried about before, because the garage and fencing made that whole space private.  It was nice to see out, though.  I have a friend who keeps suggesting I could continue the fence farther up along the side yard, but I’m more inclined to tear fences down than put more up.  I like having a private play space for the kids to use where they aren’t observable from the street, but my personal preference is for open spaces.  Anyway, the mud functioned as a barrier to the yard, so it was like having a moat.

After that came the new concrete, and I started to get a sense of how much bigger the new garage was going to be.  We expanded it back farther, and in toward the deck, and out toward the alley a little.  It’s funny, because it could easily hold two cars, there’s just no way to get them both in there.  Or maybe someday we could each have our own tiny Smart Car and we could get them all inside.  In any case, it will be wonderful to have room for things like bikes and a lawnmower, etc., instead of having those things strewn all over the yard like they are now.

After about a week of watching concrete dry, construction happened in a blink.  The kids watched a lot of it from above on the terrace.

Then I started getting panicky because the thing was looking huge.  Obscenely huge, and I was wondering if I’d done the right thing or made a big expensive mistake.  And it could have been more huge, because the day they came to pour the concrete they tried to talk me into cutting a couple of feet into the deck and I told them to change their design instead.  If I’d wanted to cut into the deck we’d have gone with a two car garage, and we’d already lost a birch tree that I was sad had to come down, so no cutting into the deck.  (Because of the last minute design change they had to order a different door, which is why that didn’t happen on time.)

My next door neighbor assured me it was going to be fine, even though the garage looks almost as big as her house.  She said I was probably just used to the open space after a few weeks, and we’d get used to the garage once it was finished.  She was right, of course, but that wasn’t a nice feeling that day, wondering if I’d made a giant goof.

My main concern at that point was getting the mural wall finished.  The kids and I had discussed what we wanted to do, but it all hinged on the caulk between the stucco boards drying in time for us to paint.  We bought almost a dozen sample size containers of exterior latex paint in lots of bright colors and kept poking the caulk.  After the kids were in bed I found a bucket in the basement of the same yellow the last owners had used to paint the house with a couple of years back.  I went out in the dark and rolled color onto the primed boards everyplace but the seams.  (Looks yellow here, doesn’t it?  After the YELLOW went on that the kids picked out for their mural, the background color didn’t look yellow at all anymore.)  It was funny painting in the dark, racing to finish a house project before Ian returned from his deployment. 

The last time he finished a tour in Iraq I’d spent a couple of weeks painting our new front porch on the old house every night until about 2:00 a.m. to get it done in time.  I thought of that as I swatted mosquitoes and tried not to drip paint on the deck as I worked.  I wondered why I wasn’t just doing it in the daytime like a normal person, but then when the kids were awake the next day and begged to help I remembered exactly why doing it at midnight was preferable.  There are many projects that I’m willing to find ways for them to help, but not on a deadline.

When the caulk was dry and the last of the background paint was up and also dry, it was time to be creative!  I sketched out some letters and boxes with a sharpie, and each kid got a box to paint however he or she wanted.  Then we all collaborated on decorating the rest of the background.  Even my neighbor, Julie, pitched in!  She did the morning glories on the left, which is good, because that’s the part she’s most likely to see from her own yard, so if she doesn’t like it she has only herself to blame.  (I think she did an amazing job and I love seeing her flowers up as part of our mural.)

The kids are really proud of the work they did.  It certainly personalizes the garage!  Ian loved it.  I made the decision to go with “Welcome Home” as the message, as opposed to ‘Welcome Home Daddy’ or ‘Welcome Home Ian’ because I figure the odds are good we may not get around to painting again anytime in the near future, and this way if it’s still up in ten years it just welcomes home anyone getting back from work or school or wherever.
And here is the finished garage!  (Sort of.  The electrician still has to come out and make it possible to, I don’t know….open the door.)  But to all outward appearances it’s done, and I’m glad.  There is still some finishing work to do to the deck to get it to work up against the garage, but that will be another project.  There is always another project.