Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The short, dramatic tale of Mona's paper chameleon (Babble)

Mona often makes what she refers to as her ‘paper creations.’  She draws, colors, and cuts out animals from paper and bends and tapes them into little three dimensional playthings.  They’re quite wonderful, but easily lost or damaged, so occasionally I swipe some of my favorites while she’s not looking and hide them in a bowl in the living room in the hopes of preserving a few.  I think it’s interesting that she’s found a way to be artistic that is distinctly different from what her sister does.  Aden is often praised for her artistic abilities, so Mona’s developed a style that is not in direct competition with the kinds of things her sister likes to make.

At school, between assignments, Mona has been working on a paper creation out of recycled materials from a scrap box.  When she needs time to herself after a group activity, she likes to retreat into her own private projects, and this week she made a chameleon.  It was a pretty impressive little piece of work (said the proud mom who may be overstating things but is not apologizing for it).  The chameleon had thickness in the body composed of tape wrapped in bundles, and the tail was coiled paper that could actually hold onto a pencil and allow the paper lizard to dangle.  It came with a green leaf to stand on, and a matching cover to place over the chameleon so it would look like it had changed color to blend in with the leaf.  It was clever and fun, and unfortunately it attracted the attention of some of the other children.

Mona, even though she has moments when she enjoys the spotlight, does not as a rule like being the center of attention.  She gets flustered and shy among too many people.  She also doesn’t like to disappoint other children.  So when a couple of the kids in her class asked to have Mona’s chameleon she wasn’t sure how to say no.  Apparently she did give it to one girl for awhile who told Mona a sad story about her grandfather not feeling well and how much he would like to see such a lovely chameleon, but Mona managed to get it back later. 

When I picked her up after school she was crying because she was feeling pressure to make chameleons for everyone and she didn’t feel up to it.  I tracked down her teacher to try and get the full story (because Mona is cute but doesn’t always lay out a clear narrative that I can trust to be accurate), and then we both told Mona that she doesn’t have to give away the things she makes if she doesn’t want to, and she certainly doesn’t have to make everyone a chameleon who asks.  The teacher suggested she point the other children toward the materials she used and tell them to make chameleons for themselves.

In any case, I was hoping that would be the end of the drama about ‘Lizzy’ the paper chameleon, but the excitement continued today when Mona was trying to smuggle the thing back into the school (I don’t understand how her mind works that she even felt that was necessary, but okay), and she somehow lost it between the car and the classroom.  From the way my husband relayed it to me, she had the chameleon under her shirt when she got out of the car in the morning, and by the time she got to her room it was gone.  They went back to the school after swimming lessons and searched for it on the playground, but to no avail.  (I asked her why she had it under her shirt in the first place, and she said she wanted to put it in her backpack but there was no time.  That’s very Mona.)

Then tonight after everyone was supposed to be tucked in, Mona climbed onto my bed, snuggled up, and declared she didn’t think she could sleep because she kept thinking about Lizzy.  I opened my laptop and said I would tell her chameleon’s story on my blog.  I told her I couldn’t promise anything, but I was sure if someone found it on the playground and then read this, they would realize it was hers and get it back to us.  She looked pleased, and then asked, “But what if no one reads it?”  I told her it was a long shot, but we never know until we try.

So I don’t know if this post was entertaining to anyone out there, but it got my daughter back into bed with a smile on her face, and in my book that’s some fine writing.  (I wonder what next week’s chapter in paper creation theater will bring.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Everybody Sing (Babble)

Since my daughter was about eighteen months old, I don’t think a single day of her life has gone by that she hasn’t sung.  That’s not hyperbole, she really sings every single day.  She’s always been able to sing on key, and she has a pretty voice and an excellent memory.  Music is part of who Aden is, not just something she does.  She makes up little recitative-like narration to her games, she comes up with jingles (there’s one she developed for the drive to the YMCA that is particularly catchy) and she loves to sing along with CD’s.  The natural thing was to sign her up for choir, and that’s been good so far.

Mona sings in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir along with her sister, even though when she started she was technically a bit young for it, but they let her in anyway as a kind of sibling preference deal.  She wants to be a part of whatever Aden’s doing, so I don’t think she would do choir of her own accord, but I’m glad she’s involved.  She has a sweet, little girl’s voice, and when combined with Aden’s the sound is one of the most beautiful things I know.  When Mona was small she used to only sing along with the instrumental portions of the CD’s we listened to in the car which was weird and amusing and very interesting.  Like her sister, she often sings as she plays by herself.

Quinn is chatty more than he’s musical, but he can carry a tune well.   He does like to belt out a song as we ride in the car.  The favorite for most of this summer was Belinda Carlisle, Heaven is a Place on Earth.  (He really puts a lot of heart into the line “I’m not afraid—anymore!”)  We got that on a CD that came in a kids’ meal from Wendy’s and it was in heavy rotation for months.  (Another song on that disc is Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell, and I once spent an amusing evening lying in my bed listening to my kids down the hall debating about the lyrics.  There’s a line about the IRS, which Aden was hearing as the ARS, and she and Mona were coming up with theories about what that could be and why it was supposed to be funny that the singer was worried about it.  Quinn is like a little echo machine and he repeated both parts of that conversation as it was happening.  Eventually I told them it was the agency that collects our taxes, but they still weren’t sure about the joke.)  In any case, there are only four songs on that CD but it was like a little 80’s revival every time we got in the minivan.  The other big favorite this year has been the Here Comes Science CD by They Might Be Giants.  My personal favorite on that disc is their song Meet the Elements, but really all the tunes on that one are good.  It’s one of the few kids’ CD’s that I have on occasion put in when the kids weren’t even around.  I’m impressed that even my three year old can remember all those complicated lyrics.

But what I really wanted to touch on with this post is that there are many things–singing among them–that I’m glad my kids are still able to enjoy without being overly self-conscious.  Something about becoming an adult for many of us means feeling we are no longer qualified to participate in certain kinds of activities, and I think it’s a shame.  Often people hit a certain age and decide that they can’t draw, or dance, or sing, even though these are all things as kids they probably derived great joy from and didn’t worry what others thought.  I’m not saying that everyone has great untapped talent in these areas, I just don’t think you should deny yourself something fun because of some outside standard.  I talk to people in my music store all the time about how they would like to play the violin but that it’s probably “too late.”  Too late for what?  How many people started at the “right” age and did not become professional musicians?  You play because it’s fun and satisfying and a beautiful challenge.  There is no “too late” for that in my opinion.  People forget that drawing is fun.  A lot of people think that only people with some kind of magical gift can draw, but it’s skill based on work.  Talent is where you start, not an endpoint.  People with true genius have the added spark that transforms all that talent and hard work into art, but it’s still work.  (Brilliant people just make it look easy, but it isn’t.)

Watching my kids throw themselves into creative endeavors with great abandon is inspiring.  They like to sing loudly, they like to dance fast, and if they decide some toy animal would be better with wings they find spare materials lying around and just go ahead and make wings. But my girls are starting to hit ages where if the labels “singer,” “dancer,” or “artist” aren’t bestowed on them from an outside source, they are likely to doubt their abilities in those areas, and possibly let them go even if it’s with reluctance.  That makes me sad.  I want them to feel as limitless as I know they are.  I want them to feel entitled to pursue what interests them regardless of outside scrutiny or other people’s expectations. 

Part of the reason I wanted them in a real choir was not just for the learning experience, but to feel ownership of their voices in a way that they feel ‘qualified’ to sing anywhere, even as other children start to believe singing is only for a select few.  Their teachers openly acknowledge their artistic abilities which makes me glad.  I always tell them how much I like whatever new move they’ve added to their dance routines, but I’d like to talk them into trying a ballet class again for fun next summer.  I’m hoping the echoes of that kind of approval will resonate with them when they are older.  That if they have a memory of themselves as being officially artists or singers or dancers, then those might be outlets they don’t divorce themselves from prematurely someday.  I want them to enjoy being alive and not deny themselves ways of expressing that just because they might risk embarrassment or because it’s not part of their assumed identity.

I admit, this is primarily a pep talk for myself.  I am hopelessly self-conscious, even though I know it’s a waste of time.  My brothers live life without vanity and as a result have incredibly interesting experiences.  They never worry about if they look silly, and as a result even when they do look silly it comes off as pretty cool.  I’m not like that, even though I know in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I look silly.  I love to dance, but only alone, which is stupid.  I can trace it back to the day after a school dance in Jr. High when a boy I thought was kind of nice imitated how I danced to get a laugh.  I was deeply embarrassed and have never been able to dance in public without feeling self-conscious since.  Although my husband pointed out all these years later when I told him that story, that I missed the main point.  It wasn’t that the boy was making fun of me, it was that the boy had been watching me at the dance.  This perspective did help mend my ego a little, but not enough that I’m ready to hit the dance floor anytime in the near future.

I’m trying not to be as shy about singing.  I don’t really sing (there is a reason I play instruments instead) but boy it’s fun.  On the rare occasions that the kids don’t tell me to stop singing along in the car (why are parents never allowed to sing along?–I still get uncomfortable when my mom sings along so that kind of embarrassment must be hardwired) it always improves my mood to sing.  It feels good.  When I think about how much we encourage our kids to sing, from Twinkle Twinkle and The Itsy Bitsy Spider to holiday songs, all the way up to my kids’ choir or eventually school musicals, it’s amazing how few of the adults around them ever do it themselves.  It shouldn’t matter if we know someone else does it better.  Someone else always does whatever it is better, and those at the top are chasing the ghosts of talented people of the past most of the time.  That shouldn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves in the present.  Singing is fun, even if we don’t do it as well as we’d like or in a way that we even think is presentable.  I think many of us would be better off if we participated in more of the things we enjoy seeing our children do.  Life’s too short not to sing.  (Even if for cowards like myself it’s often just in the car.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Transition (Babble)

Ian’s been home from Iraq for about a month and a half now.  The time feels longer.  I can remember clearly enough how things were two months ago, but the anxious feeling that accompanied his being deployed has grown very distant.  When things are how they are supposed to be they tend to click into place and work as if nothing has ever been any other way.  I like that feeling.  Unfortunately reality is such that this kind of transition is not as easy as that.  It’s confusing when emotions click into place and habits don’t.  The disconnection between what used to be and what still is can be difficult to reconcile.

Now, I am quite certain that we have been, and are, adjusting better than many.  It’s sort of like when I read about marriage being so hard for a lot of couples, and I believe them and sympathize, but I can’t relate directly.  Ian and I don’t have a volatile relationship.  We’ve always been supportive of one another and we’re both pretty calm people.  We have moments like any couple trying to coordinate different lives together where we aren’t on the same page, but at least we’re usually using the same book.  I know many families welcoming soldiers home have it much harder than I do, where financial situations are tight or there are medical issues to struggle with or the amount of change that took place in that period of absence was life altering and the resulting homecoming is incredibly stressful.  I’m thankful our lives aren’t that challenging.  Our struggles to reintegrate Ian into our home again are minor.  But they are there.

The most awkward adjustment is still that we’re in a new house.  It was the right move to make and a big improvement that one day even Aden (forever loyal to her past) may admit to be true, but for the kids and I to have had a jump on making it home is still hard.  Not just for Ian, but for me as well.  I set up everything alone and got used to where it all is.  Ian uses things differently, and to have him change anything feels like it shouldn’t be annoying, but it still hits me that way.  We had to have a discussion about the pots all being in a jumble because we each had a different idea of which things went on what shelf.  He doesn’t like where I put the accessories for the mixer.  I’m not sure where to put the vacuum now that he’s using his little office space so it just spends a few days in each room as if cleaning the floors is imminent.  The first year in a new house is like a grand experiment anyway, figuring out how everything works with the changing seasons, but that sense is heightened with Ian’s late arrival on the scene because it was like reseting our experience.

And then there are old problems that I forgot about while he was away.  Little things that we don’t agree on that vanished while he was in Iraq.  Like the dishtowel dilemma.  I put up a small hook in the kitchen just to hold a dishtowel to dry my hands after I use the sink.  He’s always wetting the dishtowel for something and hangs it back up to dry.  Every time I go to dry my hands the dishtowel is all soaked, I grumble to myself and replace it and then toss the wet one in the back hall to go down to the wash.  This drives Ian crazy because he’s taken over the laundry since coming home, so he’s the only one who actually walks in that back hallway and doesn’t appreciate the ever growing pile of wet dishtowels back there.  It’s a charming little cycle we have going.  Of course I’d rather have Ian home and doing laundry than spending time by myself with a dry dishtowel, but it doesn’t make the dopey little problem less irritating.  And then I get to have a flash of guilt for not being anything but grateful that my husband is back safely from the war and I should let him hang wet dishtowels everywhere if it makes him happy.  (But boy that would be annoying.)

Then there is the fact that life doesn’t usually take a break just because you may need some extra time for adjustment.  We have a friend who served in Iraq before Ian did, and when Ian got home from his first deployment our friend told us that the best thing he could recommend was to do what he did and just take a month off and travel as a good way of making the transition back into American life.  Sounds fabulous. This man is a marvelous person whom I admire greatly, but as you probably figured out he has no kids.  I remember standing there listening to the suggestion that Ian leave us again after fifteen months away, our children ages 5, 3 and 9 months making noise around us, and squeezing his hand tighter and tighter as I panicked that he might decide a little travel was, in fact, just what he needed.  Ian knew better than to even entertain the thought, but it was hard to argue that a break really would be ideal.  The hard truth is that there are still frustrating elements to running our business and bills to sort out and dentist appointments to arrange and a thousand little trouble spots that go with having kids and a house and cars and everything else our lives involve, none of which care if we need time for transition or not.  Ian’s had to kind of just hit the ground running, and I’m doing my best to assist but some troubles can’t be helped.

Ian’s written already about how the first month home was for him, but he didn’t describe too much of how things have been going with the kids.  I think he’s handled jumping back into the parenting role better than anyone could ask.  He was very good about stepping back from any kind of disciplinary role for the first few weeks.  The kids needed time to get used to the general sound and sense of having him around first, and I believe it’s helped.  But pretty much from the first week he had long stretches alone with them while I would run errands or go to work, and he was his funny, reliable self and had no trouble being dad again.  He’s much more willing to give them time at the park or to set up play dates than I’m usually prepared to do, and they’re very happy with that.

Aden loves having her dad back.  She was worried for him while he was in Iraq.  She’ll hug me at random moments and whisper to me that she’s glad her daddy is home.  Her biggest adjustment is having to suffer through the same lectures twice if she does something we don’t like, and sometimes her dad will offer up treats or exact a punishment in a way that I wouldn’t and she finds it a tad confusing, but that’s just the reality of having more than one parent.

Mona seems to have made the smoothest adjustment, but mostly because she exists in her own little world to start with.  She was old enough during this deployment to remember her dad in his absence, but too young for me to want to explain to her that her dad might be in danger while he was gone.  Dad was gone, now he’s back, and there you go.  I asked her recently what she thought of all of that, and she said, “Well…. The bad thing about having daddy away was that we miss him and you get more grumpy, but the good thing about him being away is he’s doing a good job with Army work and I have more time with you.”  Mona tends to be more intuitive than verbal, but sometimes she finds exactly the right words.

With Quinn it’s been very interesting.  Ian’s approach to Quinn has been not to stand between us.  He figures if Quinn wants mommy, he gets mommy.  It was hard, at first, for Quinn to have another guy in the house competing for my affection.  Once the three of us were hanging out on our bed chatting about something one afternoon, and when Ian draped his arm over my leg, Quinn literally reached over and moved it off.  He was visibly uncomfortable with any kissing or hugging between us, so we tried to be sensitive to that.
I did my best to prepare Quinn for weeks before Ian’s return that when daddy came home that there wasn’t going to be room for three of us in the big bed.  Quinn had been sleeping in Aden’s bed, sometimes Mona’s, and even occasionally in his very own bunk bed, but still from time to time curled up with me.  I just wanted him to understand that the choice to sleep with me was going to get more difficult with daddy home.  Ian’s first night home we hadn’t planned for Quinn to be in our bed, but as we were all turning in my little boy came marching into our room  hugging his stripey blanket.  I reminded him that, “Don’t you remember, sweetie, that you need to go sleep in a different bed now that daddy’s home?  Can you go sleep with Aden tonight?” and I could feel my heart break as his eyes filled with tears and he silently ran off to his sisters’ room.  I couldn’t believe that he did what I asked, even though it hurt his feelings.  I looked at Ian helplessly, and he shrugged and said, “I understand.  Go get him.”  So I found Quinn quietly weeping at the end of Aden’s bed, and told him we would make room.  He hugged me hard as I carried him back down the hall and fell asleep with his head pressed up against my neck.  We spent a long, uncomfortable night trying to make that work, but Quinn needed it. 

Since then we’ve explained that if he falls asleep in our bed we’re going to move him to his own bed before the morning, and that’s been fine.  He’s used to his dad being around now, and since he knows that my hugging Ian does not result in fewer hugs for him, he’s not as possessive.  I’ve been extremely impressed with Ian’s patience in the whole matter.  He’s an amazing husband and dad.

But I think the hardest thing to explain to anyone about Ian’s return is that there are things I miss about when he was gone.  I certainly prefer him home, but I will admit to missing the complete control that comes with being the only adult in the house.  I’m not going to say it was better, but I did things in a way I liked and I got used to it.  I liked staying up late to get through serial dramas on DVD.  I can’t really do that now.  I’ve been going through past seasons of Madmen on Netflix which doesn’t interest Ian at all, so I watch them in little bits while I do certain chores while he’s not in the same room.  I miss my private movie marathons, but they were something to do to make up for Ian not being around, so it doesn’t feel right to do them that way anymore. 

I miss my kids on the days I’m at work.  I don’t miss having them with me at work (although that still happens sometimes after school), but I liked being with them so much.  They were all mine.  I know it made me crazy some days, but overall I enjoy their company, and I’ve been going through a weird kind of withdrawal.  On the rare days I get to pick up Quinn from half day kindergarten I hug him so hard I fear I’ll break him sometimes.  And as much as I’m glad I don’t feel like a burden to my friends and neighbors now that Ian’s back, I miss seeing them.  I don’t get to talk to them as often now, because for some reason it’s easier to make time for people in a crisis but not just for pleasure.  I need to find a way to fix that one.

It’s hard to admit to having liked anything about the deployment enough to miss.  It reminds me a little about how when we grieve we don’t want to acknowledge any pleasant moments mixed into that time because it feels like a betrayal.  I remember the first time I miscarried how I felt like I would never stop crying, but then I had brave little Aden with me, trying so hard to make me happy, and how could I not be looking into that beautiful face?  The juxtaposition of that kind of sadness and joy was painful but ultimately soothing in its own way.  When Ian was gone it was scary and exhausting and frustrating.  It was also challenging, sometimes liberating, and often sweet.  I’ve had trouble letting go of some of my habits and routines that don’t fit with having my husband home, but not terribly.

All of life is a transition, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, from being the child to being the parent, even just from weekdays to weekends.  This particular transition just happens to get more attention than average and comes with government supplied pamphlets if I need them.  But I don’t need them.  At some point the kinks we are experiencing will have to go under new headings, like growing pains or midlife crisis or just plain old family dynamics.  We won’t know the day that the return from deployment transition is done because life just keeps rolling on.  As long as we keep rolling together I’m happy, no matter how jumbled the pots may get.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Going Swimmingly (Babble)

We’ve settled into a nice routine here in our busy house.  It was hard trading the flexibility of the anything goes summer schedule for the necessary rigidity of our fall days, but I think we’ve all adjusted to it.  I have to keep a breakdown of each day posted in the kitchen so I can keep everything straight, but so far so good.  We’ve mapped out which days each of us cooks what meal, who does the drop offs and the pick ups, choir, violin lessons, neighborhood recess, bath nights, rehearsals….  It makes my head spin a little, but writing it down seems to help make it look less overwhelming.

I’ve never been someone interested in scheduling my kids for organized activities, but it just seems to happen.  I prefer coming up with our own fun, and my kids put together dinosaur picnics and create dragons from paper and like to do puzzles and and play with clay, etc., so they don’t lack for things to do on their own, but some things just require us to sign on, pack up and head out.  Both girls do violin lessons and choir, and Quinn and Mona are in swimming lessons.  If you count family movie night on Fridays and the optional neighborhood recess, there is something on every day of the work week.  Seems a bit much to me, but everyone likes everything so there’s no reason to cut any of it out.

There are two very nice things for me and Ian in the new schedule, though, and we’ll have to figure out a way to keep them when we have to reconfigure the schedule next year when he starts working for the Army again a couple of days a week.  The first thing is that each of us gets one day off during the week.  Mine is a designated building day where I get to work in my home shop building my own instruments.  I’ve started a new violin and I’m really happy about it.  On my day I get to sleep in and I don’t have to make any of the trips to the school unless I feel like it.  So far on Ian’s day off he’s mostly put in time getting filing and computer work done at the violin store, but he’s off kid duty at least, and he knows he could choose to do something else if he wanted to.  Of course, we each still end up helping each other out and playing with Quinn after lunch and running errands, but it’s nice to know on one day you have permission to opt out if you really need to and not feel bad about it.  I love my day off.  It makes all the demands on me the rest of the week far more bearable.

The other thing is that we’ve firmly put exercise time into the schedule.  Three days a week we go together to drop off the kids at school and then drive straight to the YMCA to swim.  (The true advantage of running your own business is being able to set your hours to fit your life a little better.  We don’t have to open until 10:30, so there is enough time to exercise and change before going to work.)  I had high hopes for trying to get in better shape while Ian was away, but once I started the process of moving whatever extra time I didn’t have to start with, vanished.  I gave up any idea that it was even possible to exercise at that point because I couldn’t handle one more thing.  I ate cookies, avoided the scale, and tried not to think about it.

But now Ian is home and Quinn is in school in the mornings, so it’s a whole new world.  Three times a week I swim a mile.  I’d like to work something else in, too, someday, but for now this works.  And my approach is different.  I don’t have time to concentrate on getting in better shape as if it’s another job.  I’m not counting calories or weighing myself.  I’m going to try just eating what looks reasonable and keeping up with our exercise routine, and if in a few months I don’t notice any difference I’ll reevaluate what I’m doing, but until then I’m content that this is a lifestyle I can maintain.  It’s a start.

I’m hoping my kids will be the kind of people who enjoy exercise.  They are certainly active, and they love swimming at the Y and biking and running around, and I encourage all of that.  But I hate exercise.  Swimming is the only activity along those lines that I can tolerate.  It comes easily and I’m cleaner at the end of it.  Running drives me crazy because I think loudly to myself with every single step how much I hate running.  Walking is fine but only if I have a place to go.  I’m too goal oriented to walk just for the sake of walking.  Same thing with biking–I need to know where I’m going first or else I get irritated.

But swimming is nice.  I don’t like being up early to do it, and that initial shock of getting into the water never improves, but I once I get going I can splash along for 45 minutes to do my mile with no problem.  The one thing I’d like to fix, though, is an easier way to count my laps.  Counting gets so boring, and it would be nice to let my mind wander a little.  I sometimes do different strokes for odd vs. even  laps just to help keep straight where I am, but ideally I’d like to let the numbers go.  I keep envisioning some kind of abacus like contraption to put at the end of my lane so that I can just flick beads across each time I reach that end so I don’t have to keep numbers in my head.  Or a bracelet that does something similar, where I slide beads over and when I’ve moved 36 of them I know I’m done.

In the meantime I use my memory.  Not just to remember the actual number, but to keep the number interesting.  While I swim I try to think of something relevant to do with whatever number I’m on.  One I don’t need help remembering, two is how old I was at the time of my first memories, three is Quinn’s age, four is how old he’ll be soon and I think about what he wants for his party, five is how old Aden was when her dad came back from his first deployment, six is Mona, seven was yellow on a puzzle I had as a kid, eight is Aden, nine is how old she will be soon (I can’t believe my baby is going to be nine), ten is all my fingers and I think about the scars on my thumbs or the ring I’m wearing…. at fourteen I had a Rubik’s cube themed birthday, at fifteen my kids will have driver’s permits….  at eighteen they’ll vote….  what did I do on my twenty-first birthday?….  The writers of the Sid Caesar Show thought thirty-two was the funniest number and I think they’re right….  at thirty-four I had Mona, what will Aden be doing when she’s thirty-five?  Thirty-six is the last one yay yay yay!  It’s a little disconcerting that the number of my current age is higher than the number of laps in a mile in the YMCA pool, but oh well.  If I wanted to count really high I could keep track of lengths instead of laps and go up to eighty-two, but that sounds like too many distracting thoughts rattling around my brain during one swim.  The result of this kind of counting is I finish exercising feeling a little nostalgic instead of just tired.  For someone who doesn’t like to exercise in the first place that’s the best I’m going to do.

I like that Ian and I are trying to set a good example for our kids regardless of our own inclinations about incorporating necessary physical activity into our lives.  If we’re lucky, our kids will grow up thinking that’s just what you do, you make time in your schedule for things like swimming.  I just hope they develop a joy for things like running instead of a grudging resignation.  Despite my genetic input, it could happen!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Yelling (Babble)

I don’t hit my kids.  I don’t believe hitting kids is a rational thing to do.  If I’m not legally allowed to strike a fellow adult as a form of discipline I can’t imagine how that can be an acceptable thing to do to a child.  But that’s a whole loaded topic unto itself that maybe I will address another time.  I bring it up solely because it’s an example of something I have decided is not something I want to inflict on my children and I am capable of following up on that decision.  I have made the choice that I am not someone who will hit my kids and therefore I don’t hit my kids.

But yelling….  I can’t figure out why I am not able to have the same level of control over myself when it comes to yelling at my kids.  I am always ashamed of myself when I yell at my children.  I don’t mean raising my voice so they can hear me from a different floor of the house or down the block, or even to snap them to attention if they are in danger because of traffic or touching something hot.  No, I mean when I’m frustrated or annoyed to the point where I blather in a loud, scary voice intended to reduce my kids to a more submissive state.  I hate that.  It makes me feel like a bully.

It’s better now that Ian is home.  When he was deployed and I never had more than maybe two hours a week away from my kids (literally Quinn was on me 24/7 except for an occasional mandolin orchestra rehearsal) it was extremely stressful.  The talking and touching is cute until it hits an overload moment, and when you are with your kids all the time that feeling of overload comes up often because there is no real chance to cool down.  So I would yell at my kids at least once a day because I was too tired to keep repeating myself nicely and it was the only thing that seemed to get their attention sometimes.  Most of the time it was about getting dressed or into the car because we were late, and sometimes it was about simply following up on something they promised to do (usually picking up toys or clothes).  The most idiotic thing in the world is to yell at them about making too much noise.  Even as I hear myself shouting up the stairs, “I told you to be quiet because your brother is sleeping!” I think to myself that it would be hard to be more ridiculous.  What is the point of that?  Why do I do it?

Now that Ian is back and we can take shifts with the kids I don’t yell nearly as often.  If I’ve been at work all day I miss them and everything they do seems charming instead of annoying.  I’m able to write about them sweetly when I blog because they aren’t in the room with me when I write, so I miss them, and there is nothing left but fondness for them in their absence.  When I get a break from them I’m able to appreciate just how good they are. 

My frustrations with them don’t come from them being disrespectful or mean or anything actually bad.  Anyone is annoying after an excess of contact, and it’s hard not to want your child to stop saying, “Look at me!” for the millionth time at the playground even though it’s meant with sincere love, simply because it would be nice to finish a thought of one’s own and not be interrupted all the time.  Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt toward my children, but grumpiness, yes.  And even now with breaks from my cutie pies I still lose it from time to time, and I never feel okay about it.  If I yell at them before bed it haunts me all night long.

I think a lot of parental guilt gets misread as good parents obsessing over an inability to achieve perfection.  I don’t think that’s it.  There is guilt inherent in knowing you should be grateful and appreciative of extraordinary things every moment, and it’s not humanly possible.  I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have the life and children I do, and when I’m reduced to petty emotions about mundane things it feels wasteful.  I strive to be a better person, a better parent, than the one I am, but there are limits to patience and sometimes small problems evoke disproportionate responses.  I think parental guilt stems from feeling resentful and angry over things that look meaningless out of context.  It’s hard to justify yelling at your child over spilling a cup of water by mistake, even when it’s the last straw in a long chain of events.  We feel guilty when we know we are being unfair.

And I do think most of the yelling I do is unfair to my children.  I apologize later and my kids always forgive me, but I want to get a better handle on it.  I know I would not yell at other people’s children even if I had to tell them a hundred times to pick up the legos, but the third time repeating it to my own children I lose it.  The fact that I can make a conscious decision to stay calm with everyone else in the world is evidence that I shouldn’t need to resort to yelling at my own kids whom I adore, and yet I keep doing it.
I think to some degree it’s how the kids have trained me, not that that’s an excuse. 

The truth is I only really yell at Aden.  If I raise my voice at Quinn or Mona they are instantly reduced to quivering puddles, so not only do I feel like a monster but it’s counterproductive.  They only really get caught in the crossfire of the yelling.  Aden can get so distracted and lazy that it pushes me to the brink, but she just stands there and takes whatever shouting I apparently need to get out of my system and then does the thing I wanted her to do that would have prevented all the yelling in the first place.  So with Aden the yelling works, which is probably why I repeat it, but I don’t want to do it.  There are other, better ways to accomplish the same end, I’m just too lazy myself sometimes to pursue them. 

For instance, as I’m working on this, my kids are supposed to be cleaning up their toys.  I took a break from writing a few paragraphs back to help, and what we did was get out the video camera and turn the cleanup into a magic act.  I would film Aden pointing a wand at a toy, she would freeze while I stopped the camera, and Mona would swoop in to pick up and put away the toy, and then I’d restart the camera.  When it goes right the movie looks like Aden is making toys vanish, and when it goes wrong (and Mona doesn’t wait for her cue) we see bits of Mona blink in and out as well.  It’s hilarious, and a much more fun way to clean a room, but it takes forever and has to be an event in itself.  Some days I’m up for making the chores into magic, and other days I just want the silly toys picked up already.

I’m nowhere near perfect, but I only feel like a bad parent when I yell.  Today, like on so many other days, I’m resolved to cut it out.  I want to show my children that I think better of them than that.  I don’t want to teach Aden that part of being loved involves people screaming at her.  I want her to steer clear of people who act like I do when I’m yelling.  Like everything with parenting, I have to learn to be the right thing in order to teach the right thing.  It’s hard, but it’s worth it.  (Maybe I should go buy a punching bag….)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nature in our Neighborhood (and falling from the trees) (Babble)

People in cities often overlook the nature that exists in our own space.  It’s regarded as decorative or something to tame, but not as real nature.  A maple tree downtown seems somehow less authentic than the same tree would up in the north woods for some reason.  I try not to look at the nature in our yard that way.  I am constantly delighted and surprised by the animals and plants I see right here at home, and make a point of teaching what little I know to my kids about it whenever I can.

And when you pay attention there is a lot to see, even in the middle of Milwaukee.  There is a fox that lives near my violin store, and I’ve seen it trotting down the street when it’s deserted early in the morning.  (It was bigger than I’d pictured a real fox would be.)  We have amazing numbers of seagulls in our area, but not too many pigeons.  (Which is too bad, because I like pigeons.)  We’ve smelled and occasionally seen skunks around.  Raccoons and opossums are harder to spot, but they are here.  There are deer, and Canada geese that seem to have forgotten how to migrate.  In the pond in our park there are mallards and a blue heron from time to time.

On the tiny level there are insects and other arthropods.  One of my brothers has a doctorate in entomology, so our family has a different relationship with the buggy side of things than most.  It’s hard not to mentally apologize to Barrett when any of us kills an insect no matter how justified we feel in doing it at the time.  (Although even Barrett has says we have every right to swat a mosquito.)  When we find interesting insects outside that we can’t identify we try to get Barrett on Skype or at least email him a description.  When my kids freak out about a spider in their room I usually say something along the lines of, “Oh no!  You’re scaring it to death!  That’s why it’s hiding up there!” and then they get very conflicted because they still don’t like it, but they feel protective of it as well. 

The truth is I have a bad reaction to spiders myself, but they don’t scare me they way they did before I went to India and had to use a squat toilet in the dark next to truly impressively huge spiders that stretched out bigger than my hands, so spiders here barely qualify as spiders anymore.  But my gut reaction to most arachnids and insects is negative despite knowing better, and I’m trying hard to not pass that along to my kids.  Barrett is right in his wonderment and enthusiasm for those tiny creatures, and I want my children to understand that, even if I have to feign at least a nonchalance to help the cause.  So we pay attention to ants and inchworms, butterflies and lightning bugs and try to pay them the same respect we do the other animals in our neighborhood.  We have a no bug stomping rule on our property.  (Except for mosquitoes, which have tried to suck Mona completely dry this summer.)

One of the surprising differences in our lives that came with moving across the street is that we have much closer interaction with the animals in our neighborhood.  I’d never noticed before that even though our old house had a few trees around it, none of them were on our actual property; they were all city trees set back past the sidewalk.  Our new house has about a dozen trees all right up close, and it makes a difference in what we see when we look outside.  The coolest thing we ever spotted from the old house was some kind of hawk in the tree outside my bedroom.  Quinn was sitting next to me on the bed while I was on my computer, and he kept saying, “Mama, I see a bird.”  I kept responding with essentially, “That’s nice, dear,” until I finally looked up and went, “Oh my god, you weren’t kidding, that’s a big bird!”

I called the girls in and I got this (not so great) photo and we all admired it for as long as it sat there (which was until Mona tried to open the window and scared it off by mistake).  It reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when there was an owl hooting somewhere across the street and we spent a good hour or so hooting back at it as convincingly as we could.

Now the trees are so close we can see even small birds clearly.  There are cardinals and robins and woodpeckers and finches and all kinds of things in our trees all the time.  The girls know which birds make what call because they can see them when they sing.  (Where have all the blue jays gone, though?  When I was a kid they were common and I now don’t remember the last time I saw one.  Did they get taken out by the west nile virus like a lot of the crows did?  Maybe they just don’t have as many in Wisconsin as in Michigan.  It’s sad sometimes what we take for granted.  I would love for my kids to see blue jays.)

But the most entertaining occupants of our trees by far are the squirrels.  The squirrels are hilarious.  When our old garage was torn down it destroyed part of the path some of the squirrels were used to taking, and my neighbor told me she watched a group of four squirrels run across her garage, hop into the birch tree, and then the one in the lead went sailing toward where our garage used to be and it hit the ground with a startled splat.  All the other squirrels stopped in their tracks, dumbfounded.  For the rest of the day freaked out looking squirrels huddled on our garbage can (which was now the highest thing in our part of the alley) and looked at where the garage used to be.  My kids kept calling to them across the caution tape that there would be a new garage soon.

And as much as I’d like to tell you the most memorable event for my children this summer was the return of their dad from the war (and it really was, if they really stopped to think about it I’m sure, and someday looking back it will be), they would likely tell you if you asked that it was the day the baby squirrels fell out of our tree.  We have a framed picture of those squirrels in our living room now, because they want to relive that moment at every opportunity.  I have to admit it was pretty cool.

A few weeks ago I came home from work and Ian said something to me about nature being sad and pointed out a tiny squirrel lying motionless in the grass with flies buzzing around it.  There were at least two baby squirrels that had fallen out of one of the trees in front of our house and the kids were pretty upset about it.   A big storm the night before had probably damaged their nest and the mother hadn’t found them.  I decided nature might be cruel but I wasn’t, so I scooped up the one squirming around near the side of the house and had Ian dig out an old pet carrier from the basement for it.  I looked it over for any sort of lice or wounds and didn’t see anything bad, so we put it on a towel in the carrier and the kids gathered around, thrilled to have a live baby squirrel in the house, and they started debating what to name it. 

I went back out to look at the one we assumed was dead on the front lawn, and it turned out the flies were just attracted to the fallen crab apples on the lawn and the squirrel was fine.  I scooped it up and put him by his brother.  I had the kids come out with me and check for any more, and we found one last baby squirrel squeaking in a clump of pine needles.  Three baby squirrels.  My kids could not have been more excited.

We called my brother who had recently tried to save a baby squirrel, and got advice from both him and the internet, and we were able to keep the squirrels warm and hydrated over night.  I think after much back and forth my kids settled on the names ‘Tiny,’ ‘Tim,’ and ‘Tom.’  The problem was our little refugees from the trees were so, well, squirrelly, that it was impossible to keep them sorted out.  Not that I cared about their names, but all their squirming around each other made feeding them tricky.  I would pick up one and get it to drink for a few minutes, put it down and grab another, but then have no idea which of the two in the carrier I’d already fed.  It was like watching a fuzzy shell game seeing them nose each other around, and it made perfect sense why they fell out of their nest.  I would do seven feedings at a sitting in the hopes that each squirrel would have gotten something.

In the morning I gave each of the kids some time with Tiny, Tim, and Tom before we took them to the animal rescue people at the local humane society.  The kids wanted so badly to keep them, and they were so funny and cute I was vaguely tempted myself, but it’s not legal, and it wasn’t in the best interest of the squirrels.  Besides, I already have an idea of what it’s like to live with three squirrels, and three more would do me in.

A few years ago when Aden was five, Mona was three, and Quinn was just a toothless cutie in a stroller, we were at the Bronx zoo together.  It’s an amazing place (if a bit tough on tiny legs), and I’ve always been particularly fond of the rain forest exhibit where you can get close enough to the panthers to see their black on black spots.  I was excited to be showing this wonderful place to my children, but the thing I remember best about that visit was that despite lions and tapirs and camels and chimpanzees, all my girls would get excited about were pigeons and squirrels.  Every time they spotted a pigeon or a squirrel on the path they would exclaim in delight and rush at it and be sad when it ran for safety.  It was baffling at the time, and cracked me up to no end, but I understand it now.  There was no hope of real contact with the lions or the tapirs.  They may as well have been on a television screen as far as my kids were concerned. 

But wild squirrels running free within arms reach?  That was thrilling and real and worth exclaiming about.  The possibility of touching something wild is like nothing else.  I’m just as glad as they are that we got to hold those little squirrels.  I’m proud of us for keeping them hydrated and getting them to a safe place.

One of the greatest gifts of being around small children is seeing things again through their eyes.  It’s nice to be reminded to actually look at things like squirrels and find them fascinating and not just dismiss them as bushy tailed bits of scenery.  My kids think seed pods are exciting, and cat tails are worth stopping the car for, and if they spot a fuzzy caterpillar that’s good for a whole day’s worth of activity following it around.  But now in addition to just observing, my kids look up hopefully at our trees and think about what cute creatures might fall to earth and need our help.  Once was enough for that particular experience, but if it happens again at least I’m sure we’ll know what to do, and that my kids are more than happy to help.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Good Old Days (Babble)

Years ago, before running our own business, before graduating from violin making school, before children, before 9/11 and thoughts of deployment, Ian and I used to take walks together on the east side of town.  I loved those walks.  We could go anywhere and not have to be back in time for anything or anyone.  We were poor but not in debt, uninsured but healthy, and we would hold hands and talk as we strolled around Milwaukee.

Talking with Ian has always been interesting.  Even after twenty years our conversations surprise me.  I feel on a very basic level Ian and I agree on important things, and our core philosophy about life and our place in it is similar, but the details closer to the surface aren’t the same at all.  We are distinctly different people, and even though we may be able to finish each other’s sentences in regular conversation and can make decisions for one another with confidence much of the time, I am still getting to know him.  He has degrees in economic geography and engineering, and I’m Ms Music and project building person.  We come at problems from very different places.  His ideas and perspective give me much to think about when we’re apart.  He helps me challenge my own thoughts and see things from other angles.

I’m often surprised about where each of us falls on certain issues.  When I recount conversations I’ve had about the war in Iraq to him he usually responds with his own take that is far less diplomatic.  When I encounter people who express discomfort with the whole idea that my husband is in the Army and tell me they hate the war, I generally tell them it’s not a conflict I agree with either, but that simply wishing it away isn’t a solution and that Ian is exactly the kind of soldier we would want there trying to fix things.  Ian’s response is something closer to, “I don’t think you’re mad enough about it.  From what I saw, it was an even bigger waste than you think.”  Ian’s take on things is always informed and seldom what people expect.  I never worry that talking with Ian will be boring.

On one of those walks a lifetime ago in the mid-1990’s, I remember him speculating about the economy and saying to me, “Right now, these are the good old days everyone will look back on later.”  That really stuck with me, and I think of it every time I’m confronted with more news about the recession.  We have been very fortunate that our own small business is doing fine, but I know we are not typical and that fortune can turn on a dime and have nothing to do with how hard you are willing to work or what is fair.

Today when I look back on us holding hands on the east side, it’s a sweet memory, but empty.  I’m in a very glass half full kind of place at the moment.  I’ve never liked the question about the glass being half full or half empty, because in my mind the answer is entirely dependent on what came before.  If the glass started out empty and now has something in it, then it’s half full.  If you started with a full glass, and there is only half left, then it’s on it’s way to being empty.  Ian and I alone were a pretty nice glass, but we’ve since added the experience of building a home together, and I don’t even want to imagine life without my children.  I loved my life back then, but it is so much fuller now I wouldn’t want to go back.

I am acutely aware that right now, these are the good old days.  We are a family with all its parts in place.  We are healthy and busy and together.  I enjoy my work, I love being home, my husband and I are partners in building this life and there is no one I’d rather do that with.  And all my children are here.  When we lie in bed in the morning and listen to them play together, to the amusing symphony of squeaks and thumps and clattering noises that are their improvised games, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty that is this place in time.

The good old days aren’t the big events.  They are the fabric of the ordinary.  The same way my wedding was wonderful but not the best day of my marriage, the birth of each of my children was not the best day of my life with each of them.  It was amazing and life changing, but my best day with Aden or Mona or Quinn is today, because it includes everything they are.  If I get to have tomorrow with them, that will become the best day.  I hope for a certain amount of adventure still to come in my life, but I am glad the baseline of what my life is like is all I really need.  The waking up sleepy kids up in the morning, the breakfast dishes, the nagging everyone about their shoes, the discussions about house projects or bills, wiping down the counters, the bedtime routine….  Just hearing the people I love best in the world moving around the house.  This is it.  I’m not waiting for something else, I’m enjoying this moment, this time, this place.  This place is magic.

Someday having all of us gathered in our home will take a concerted effort, but right now it is our natural state, and it’s wonderful.  My glass is completely full.  These are the days I will look back on and know that I was once the luckiest person in the world.  It doesn’t get better than this and I know it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Job (Babble)

I just wanted to take a moment on this Labor Day Weekend to reflect a little on my job.  I am a very lucky person because I love what I do.  I don’t know enough people who can say that, but I’m excited to go to work, and I’m always a little reluctant to leave.

After earning a music degree with specialization in music cognition at The Ohio State University (anyone who has been there knows the importance of including the ‘The’) I went on to do a four year apprenticeship in violin building here in Wisconsin, and stayed on in Milwaukee to do repair work, teaching, and freelance viola playing.  When my husband returned from his first deployment in Iraq we decided to open our own business using the money he’d earned overseas, and ‘Korinthian Violins‘ was born.

(Mona at the violin store)

Normally I would shy away from that kind of eponymous approach to naming a business I was involved in, but I think my name makes a good adjective and it has a nice ring to it.  Most people aren’t even aware it’s my name on the window, because it sounds like some category of violins like special leather.  Besides, the truth is that the business is me.  I remember when a representative from one of my wholesalers came out to interview us before they would consider letting our shop carry their products, he listened to me describe the store and what it offered and he finally said, “So, really, what you’re selling is you.”  I thought that was strange at the time and didn’t know how to take it, but I’ve come to realize he’s right. 

The only thing my violin shop offers that is different from what other shops can offer is myself and my idea of service and quality control.  I do the repair work, I set up the instruments, and I give advice based on my experience as a player, a teacher, a mom, and a luthier.  I don’t pretend to have more expertise than I do (for instance, I don’t do appraisal work because that’s it’s own specialty), and if I don’t know something I’m honest about that.  Whatever I do know I’m happy to share.  I try hard to treat people the way I would want to be treated.  I know all too well what it’s like to be the customer on the other side of the counter in a violin shop, and it can be a vulnerable place.  I want people to be able to trust me that when I make a suggestion that it’s the one I would use myself.  And even then, I don’t insist that just because something is right for me that it’s right for everyone.  I give people options and try to provide them with enough information to make a decision they understand and can be happy with.

I like getting to meet so many musicians in the area.  I love talking to other teachers and players and hearing about what they are working on.  There are so many talented people around it just amazes me.  And fitting a small child for his or her first instrument is so much fun.  There are few things more adorable than a teeny tiny violin, and when a child is excited about playing one it makes my day.  I can’t believe anyone wants to learn to play the violin because it is so hard and takes so long to sound like anything, but there are new children all the time for whom it sparks an interest and I find that intriguing and wonderful.  I think many make a mistaken assumption that most people are probably pretty boring and just go home and watch TV at the end of the day.  You’d be surprised at the number of people out there pursuing something interesting.  I know many closet musicians who play purely for the love of it, and spend hours on their violin, viola or cello trying to create something beautiful by improving their own skills.  The more people I get to know in my community through my store the better I feel about where I live and the world in general.  I know that probably sounds beyond hokey, but it’s true.

Most of what I do in my job is repair work.  Repair requires different tools than building, so the shop I build instruments in is at home because I need about a billion different clamps and specialized gouges, etc. that I just don’t need at the store.  I was warned years ago that if I opened my door to doing repairs I would never have time to build again, because the flood of repair work never stops.  It is hard to find time to build, but I’m determined to do it.  Now that Ian is home from Iraq I’m setting aside a ‘building day’ once a week where I don’t have to work on anyone’s instruments but my own, and it’s great.  So far all I’ve done is dig out space in my home shop which has become a dumping ground for household items that need gluing, but I will get there.  Violins will be made in this house even if I have to put off a hundred other projects to do it.  Of all the creative things I do that’s the activity I like best.

But repair work is interesting too, just in a different way.  Building is all about imposing your own ideas on the wood and creating something that represents you.  Repair is the opposite, because if you do it well no one should be able to tell you did anything.  It’s a nice feeling to be able to help people keep their instruments in playing order.  My favorite projects to walk through my door are the sentimental instruments that other places often don’t see the point in.  The violin world can be rather snobbish, which I don’t appreciate.  I certainly have respect and admiration for elite instruments and the people who have earned the right to work on them, but I don’t think it’s kind to dismiss everything else out of hand as if other instruments have no value at all. 

A woman once came to me with a violin that her grandmother had played and she wanted it restored so her daughter could use it.  From an objective standpoint, the violin was worthless and not a good place to dump a lot of money into.  But sentimental value is real value.  The first place she took this violin they handed it back to her and told her to throw it out.  I found that really offensive.  That’s like looking at a photo of her grandmother and them saying they’d never heard of her so it had no value.  I told the woman that it would cost a few hundred dollars to get the instrument up and running, and that it should probably be regarded by her daughter as a spare instrument because for practical purposes she’d likely need something different.  But did I have an instrument in my store at any price that her grandmother had played?  No I didn’t.  If that meant something to her, then it was worth doing the restoration.  The instrument is now playable and they are very happy to have it in their family.  How can I not like my job knowing I got to help make that happen?

(Me and upside down Quinn at my workbench)

I do lots of bow rehairs, which is replacing the horsehair on a bow.  That’s a funny process, and it’s definitely more art than science.  A man once called me saying he had dozens of bows from a school that he need rehaired that day and could I put them in the bow rehair machine.  I told him I was the machine, and that I can only do a maximum of about four bows a day.  (I wish I had a bow rehair machine!  But no, a lot of things in the violin world can only be done by hand.)  I tried to teach doing rehairs to someone recently, and I found that I couldn’t do it while I was thinking about it too hard.  If I tried to explain it as I went I couldn’t remember what to do.  I had to have the guy I was showing just observe while I simply did it, and then had him ask questions afterward.  It’s a little different with every bow, and bows made of carbon fiber act differently from pernambuco (the preferred wood from Brazil used for bows).  Cheap bows are harder to rehair than expensive ones, but expensive ones are scarier.  There are a few bows owned by symphony players in the area that I only work on when I can lock the doors and not be distracted.  Someday I want to build a bow just to have had the experience of building a bow.  The shop I worked in before I opened my own store is run by a bow maker, and he said he’d teach me sometime.  I can’t imagine when either of us would have room in our schedules for that, but it’s a nice idea.

I wouldn’t have my own store without Ian.  It was hard to run the business without him for a year.  I get freaked out by anything to do with taxes or invoices or filing or quickbooks pro.  The part of the store customers care about may have to do with me, but the parts that keep it operational are all Ian.

(Ian at his desk making sure we stay solvent)

My friend, Carol, works for us running the rental program.  We hired her originally to take over for as much of Ian’s part of the business as possible while he was away, but the rental program has grown so much that we’re keeping her on to just do that.  I think many violin stores must survive based on their rental programs.  It provides us with the steady income we need to cover our basic expenses like rent, etc., because sales and repairs are erratic, and depending on those things would make budgeting for the business very hard. 

I’m pretty particular about my rental instruments.  I got so frustrated with most of the instruments my students were using when I had a full teaching studio at the conservatory that it used to make me crazy.  I love being able to finally provide people with the kinds of instruments I wished I had seen in my teaching studio.  They aren’t the best things in the world because rentals lead traumatic little lives so they can’t be too precious, but I make sure they meet a standard that I think is decent, and I use expensive strings.  If you are reading this and your kid plays violin, remember if you have to skimp on something, don’t let it be the strings.  I can’t stand the sound of tinny, squeaky cheap strings, and it’s worth the money to have something better.  My own kids use these instruments, and I have to listen to all these kids I rent to out in the community, and I don’t want to listen to cheap strings, so it’s worth the cost to me.

I try to keep my shop professional but friendly.  When people come in with small children I always hear them explaining seriously to them that they should not touch anything, but then they get inside and see the blocks and crayons and realize it’s not quite the china chop they envisioned.  The few things that are out that might be a problem never seem to interest small children anyway.  I want it to be a place where kids feel welcome, too, and so far so good.

School groups come through my store (Aden’s class came when she was a K5, and they just walked over from the school because it’s fairly close by).  People who are just curious pop in and tell me how their father or grandmother used to play the violin or viola or cello.  The store is in a residential neighborhood near a park, and people seem pleased that we’re there.  I remember once in the summer a couple of years ago Ian went in early to do some paperwork and had the door propped open at an odd time.  He was there about 20 minutes before the police showed up because two different neighbors had called to say that someone was in the violin store at a time that seemed suspicious.  I like that feeling of people watching out for us, and I’m glad people want us in their neighborhood.

The first week Ian was home I got out a bit each day and cleaned the violin store.  While he was gone I didn’t ever have time to clean there, and I always had at least one child with me who would undo anything I did anyway.  There was a lot of clutter and too many toys, and it felt good to shovel all of that out of there and get things in order again.  My store has always felt like a nice oasis of order because the hurricane that is my beloved brood didn’t disrupt it, but during the deployment I didn’t have a choice.  I worked and they played, and it got to be quite a mess.  Now it’s back the way I like it again and it’s a relief.
So that’s my job.  I hope it continues to work out for us for a long time.  It wasn’t anything I had planned on, but the pieces of my life fell into place in such a way that it seems like the most natural thing in the world to have come about.  Happy Labor Day!  I may celebrate by going to work.

(Aden playing her violin last summer in hopes of earning some money outside the store.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

School school school (Babble)

I can’t believe summer is over and all my kids are old enough to be in school.  Aden is in third grade, Mona is in first, and my little baby boy is a K3. 

They go to a public Montessori school, so the classes are mixed age (grades 1, 2 and 3 together, grades 4, 5, and 6 together, and kindergarten is a mix of K3, K4 there for half day and K5 for full day).  When Aden was in Head Start at age three, her teacher recommended that she would do well in a Montessori school, so we looked into it, and so far it’s worked out nicely. 

In Milwaukee you can apply to go to any school and there are so many choices it can be overwhelming.  There are charter schools and language immersion schools and schools that focus on art or science….  I even toured a traditional public school very close to home that offered ballet and it was so charming that if we hadn’t gotten our first choice I’m sure that would have worked out fine as well.  We’re fortunate that there are a few Montessori schools to choose from within the public system, and one of them is only a mile and a half from our house. 

When we applied to get Aden enrolled there as a K4 she was on a long waiting list and I agonized a great deal about exactly what to do.  It was hard, because Ian was on his first deployment, and I had to make the decisions about school alone, which didn’t feel right.  I was very conscious about setting into motion a path that would determine most of Aden’s friends and the people we would be involved with for many years to come.  Those kinds of long term consequences to choices tend to put me in a slightly panicked mode, but I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older not to be become paralyzed by them.  Experience has taught me that when faced with good choices it’s better to assume you can’t mess it up and just move on.

The nice thing now, is having made the choice years ago for Aden, we don’t have to agonize about schools again until she’s ready for ninth grade.  Sibling preference rules means Mona and Quinn had no trouble getting into the same school as their sister, and I haven’t had to repeat that same struggle. 

The thing I like about Montessori is that the kids are self-directed and the teacher teaches to the individual instead of the group, which means it doesn’t matter if, for example, other kids in Quinn’s class aren’t ready to start reading and he is, he’ll still get to learn what he’s ready to learn.  I remember being frustrated when Aden was in Head Start that her class spent the whole year learning the alphabet when she walked in knowing how to write that out on the first day.  We’d really only signed her up for the social experience anyway, since she wanted friends and Mona was too little at the time to make much of a playmate yet, so we figured it didn’t matter, but I’m glad for Mona and Quinn that they had a situation lined up that’s both fun and challenging from the start.

Aden loves her teacher and is glad to be back in her class again.  She was worried about whatever she thought the responsibilities of a third grader might be, but as soon as Aden was reunited with her friends she was very happy to be back in school.  I like the long term relationship we’ve had with her teacher.  She knows what to expect from Aden by now having had her in the classroom for the past two years, and on the first day had her working with a partner on a writing project and she’s excited about it.  I think Aden’s going to have a good year.

Mona spent the last three years in the same kindergarten room, so moving up to first grade is a big deal.  On the first day her old teacher called her over on the way to her new room to show her something.  The last day of school back in June, Mona gave her a picture of the two of them in a frame she’d decorated herself, and her kindergarten teacher has it on display above the fireplace.  I think Mona was pleased to see that she is a part of her old room even as she’s moving on to a new one.  She’s nervous, but her classroom this year is right next to her sister’s and I think that helps.  Her new teacher seems very nice and I’m sure Mona will do fine.  I can’t wait to see what she does this year!  Mona, however, becomes laconic when you ask her about school.  I don’t know why she doesn’t want to talk about any of the fun things she does there, but she simply doesn’t.  If I want to know anything aside from what she had for snack I usually have to get my information from other sources.

The big shock is having Quinn start school.  He’s my last baby, and I’m sure he will love half day kindergarten, but it’s hard for me to let him go.  He’s so smart and capable, and his teacher has been nice about emailing with me over the summer to get to know us a little bit.  She even let us come in and tour the classroom a week early with his sisters so it would be more familiar to Quinn on the first day. 

Academically he will be fine.  (He doesn’t get confused around 15 and 16 when counting to 20, and he spends a lot of time on his magnadoodle perfecting his letters and drawing what he calls ‘alphabet puzzles.’  He asked me the other day when working on his numbers why they don’t come in upper and lower case versions like letters do.  I’m still not sure why letters need upper and lower cases so I thought that was an interesting question.) 

I can’t picture yet what the social impact for Quinn will be.  Either having spent every day of his life with his sisters around will have prepared him well or it won’t.  We’ll find out soon enough.  He’s a very sweet little guy, and his classroom looks like an environment where his gentle nature will serve him well, so I’m hopeful that he will be happy there.  Now I have to keep myself from falling apart when I drop him off in the morning.

Luckily we have a sort of ‘breaking in’ period right now.  They stagger the start date for the different levels of kindergarteners so Quinn doesn’t really start attending class until after Labor Day, but he did get to go to an orientation for an hour on the first day.  He seemed reluctant initially to let me go when I dropped him off until I told him I’d be right back after a meeting for grown ups, and then he said, “Okay,” took his teacher’s hand, and went off to his new room. 

 It’s his first room that’s his and not mine, too.  He’ll have friends I don’t know and discoveries I won’t see….  Ugh this is hard.  But it’s good.  I still get to teach my kids whatever I want to teach them, but they deserve the right to be out in the world and learn things they wouldn’t learn from me or their dad, and to have relationships where I’m not involved.  I understand the appeal of homeschooling for those who do it, but I know for Mona in particular that having a classroom apart from her siblings and her parents has made an enormous difference for the positive in her life.

Anyway, Quinn told us more about that one hour he spent in school than Mona probably told me about everything all last year.  As we drove around as a little family of three doing errands while his sisters were still in class, Quinn told us he did a puzzle of a person and that it was easy, something else involving letters but that he couldn’t finish it because then the teacher told him to sit on the wooden part of the floor and they all had a snack, and that he ate a long carrot and some celery and that he really likes celery now and that another child near him didn’t like tomatoes. 

Seems like a good start to a new adventure.  I can’t wait to hear more when he starts for real next week, but in the meantime I’m glad I get to keep him to ourselves for a little longer.