Monday, February 28, 2011

And then we tried to go to the circus... (Babble)

One of the things I remember best about when we had our first baby was developing the “one thing” strategy of coping.  That first baby can feel overwhelming because it’s such a dramatic change of lifestyle, and previously simple tasks seem insurmountable.  So Ian and I both decided that in a typical day home alone with the baby that it was possible to keep the baby alive and also do one thing.  Sometimes that one thing was to make dinner.  Sometimes that one thing was to clean a closet.  That one thing could be a trip to the grocery store, or even to just to take a shower.  Sometimes the one thing was not possible to get to, but that was okay.  It was just one thing anyway.

The learning curve on parenting is really remarkable, though.  You get past those precarious beginnings and into surer footing, and with time and subsequent children become someone different and stronger.  After dealing with three small children alone during Ian’s deployments there is not much in the day to day life of regular parenting that I don’t feel I can handle and still get in a shower, get to the grocery store, make dinner AND clean a closet.  I flew to New York and back alone with my kids when they were five, three, and five months so I have graduated beyond the “one thing” level long ago, but still, some days I’m impressed with how much we can do.  Like Sunday.

On a typical Sunday we don’t do much.  I work on Saturdays and just want to have lazy time at home with my kids come Sunday.  We eat breakfast late, we cuddle, we lounge around.  Sometimes we’ll get out to something special and that saps all our energy and then we are extra lounge-y when we get back home. 

But this Sunday was ridiculous.  I don’t know why I have to drag all my children out of bed on a school day, but on the weekend they are up and noisy at 6:30 in the morning.  Sunday was no exception, and they were up and squeaky, and Mona wanted to help me make popovers for breakfast.  She’s good at cracking eggs and melting butter in the microwave, and she asks me periodically as we’re cooking how far I would be without her help.  Usually I tell her I would be only at the point of opening the recipe book and she looks very pleased.

Anyway, we made popovers with strawberry butter (that’s just butter whipped together with strawberry jam but it’s really tasty), and then we all went to the Y.  Ian got in a run on a treadmill while I played with the kids in the small pool, and then he played with the kids while I swam laps.  On a typical Sunday a trip like that to the Y would be enough of an event.  But no!

Ian decided we should drive to Madison.

The protests taking place at the capitol have reached historic proportions, and he wanted the kids to see it.  With all the upheaval in the Arab world right now, with so many people risking everything to reshape their governments, he wanted our children to see what a healthy disagreement looks like in a stable democracy.  We know people with strong feelings on both sides of the issue at hand, but most of them side with unions being able to retain their collective bargaining rights. 

Personally, I do too, because at its core it seems rooted in the basic freedoms to assemble and speak.  I don’t have any interest in joining a union, but I think everyone should have that right.  The fact that teachers and other state workers have agreed to all of the pay cuts the governor has asked for and are protesting purely to retain the right to collective bargaining suggests to me that this is less about budget issues and more about destroying unions.  The governor is overreaching and I understand why people are upset.

So we packed a lunch for the car and drove the 90 miles to the state capitol.  Somehow Ian managed to find us a parking spot only two blocks from the statehouse and we marched the kids toward the protest signs and drum circles.  It was very interesting.  The giant crowds of reportedly 100,000 people were on Saturday, and that would have been difficult to navigate with the kids, but there were still long lines of people waiting to get into the capitol building.  Everyone was friendly.  There were people handing out bottles of water to protesters.  One man was dressed as Santa and there were dogs wearing banners so there was a lot to see.  Ian told the kids to take a good look because a real protest of great size in action was a rare event.  We walked at Quinn’s slow pace the entire distance around the capitol building, reading signs and fighting off the cold.

It was fascinating to watch Aden.  Since she’s old enough to understand what is going on we did our best to explain to her specifically what she was seeing.  (Mona’s cute, but she thought we’d left Wisconsin entirely, so we still have some basic information to drill into her before she’s ready for a good civics lesson.)  All the kids kept asking why people were chanting, or carrying signs, or drumming, or making noise.  We kept reminding them that they were trying to draw attention to themselves.  The whole point of a protest is to be noticed, and those were all ways to be peacefully heard and seen. 

Quinn trudged behind and Mona kept running ahead, but Aden stayed by my side, asked me to explain some signs, and smiled when she understood the meaning of some on her own.  She was looking for her teacher or some of her friends, but I told her most of the people from her school came out on buses on Saturday instead.  Most of it made her uneasy.  I could see that, because usually large numbers of police officers at a gathering implies something unsafe. 
But her main concern turned out to be the same as mine.  She felt it wasn’t quite right to observe an event where people were trying to make a difference and not help.  I felt a little awkward just being there to observe as well, but I reminded her that being counted among the numbers was helping.  I pointed out all the satellite trucks from the news stations lined up nearby and explained they would not be there if it were not for the large crowds, of which we were a part at that moment.
When the kids became too cold and tired to find the protest interesting anymore we popped into the nearby children’s museum for a moment.  It was way too crowded to be a comfortable refuge for longer than warming up our feet but we promised we would bring them back there and check it out soon.  Instead we got them back in the car and headed for Ella’s Deli.  We hadn’t been there since the day Ian returned from his most recent deployment in Iraq.  It’s filled with carnival and game themed everything and it’s a real treat for the kids whenever we’re in Madison, so that was an event in itself.

And after all of that we attempted to go to the circus.  We had a couple of free passes to the last night of the circus in town, and not only have my kids never been, I found out Ian’s never been to the circus either.  I felt like we should try.  We gave the kids one more round of snacks and headed to downtown Milwaukee.  Unfortunately the lines were too long and after waiting for about 20 minutes we decided we were never going to get in and I promised the kids I would make it happen next year.  They were so good about it, and frankly had been so good all day that we took them to Leon’s for frozen custard.  Because that’s what you do in Milwaukee when it freezing cold; you wait in line outside for a frozen treat.

We went home, the kids got into their pajamas and brushed their teeth, and then I found some clips of the circus on YouTube that we watched snuggled together on my bed.  On a school night that worked out for the best anyway.

It’s so easy to lose sight of how lucky we are to have the way of life we do.  When you live in a country with real freedom and are fortunate to be among those with the resources to enjoy it, you can start to feel as if this is the natural state of the world.  I’ve talked to people who have expressed discomfort with Ian’s role as a soldier, and I remind them that the only reason they have the luxury to live the way they do is because people like him are willing to defend it.  It does not have to be the case that my daughters are encouraged to get an education.  It does not have to be the case that when we disagree with our leaders we can say so publicly.  It does not have to be the case that I could make my own reproductive choices, live where I want to live, marry whom I want to marry, and run my own business. 

It sounds like a little thing that we went to the Y, or took the kids to Ella’s Deli, or that we waited in line for the circus but went for a treat instead.  But that’s not little.  That’s everything.  That’s more than most people in the world could ever hope for, and for us it was just an unusually busy weekend.  I’m hopeful as I watch the uprisings taking place all at once in countries where people have suffered so much and not known real freedom.  I hope one day those families have so many good choices that they can take expecting basic human rights for granted.  I hope in the not too distant future a protest against the government is just another activity they can take their kids to on a Sunday afternoon.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Second Thoughts (Babble)

My son is having his tonsils out next week.  Back in November when he went in for his annual check up I asked the doctor about his tonsils because they seemed huge to me, plus he was snoring.  He wasn’t sick and his tonsils weren’t inflamed, they were just really large, and when he said “AH” they practically touched. His cousin had her tonsils removed because they were blocking so much of her airway, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought to ask about it.  I’ve only ever associated removing tonsils with being sick.

The doctor agreed that his tonsils were huge and referred me to a specialist over at Children’s Hospital.  The Children’s Hospital here in Wisconsin is one of the very best at what they do, I think ranked third in the country.  We have always been impressed with treatment there and I trust them.  The specialist looked in my son’s mouth and said on the one to four scale of tonsil gigantitude (I’m sure that was the official term)–one being smallest, four being really huge–Quinn’s tonsils were a four.  She recommended removing them and part of his adenoids.  The concerns had to do with potential speech problems and trouble breathing at night, as well as possible complications when infected.

We went ahead and scheduled the surgery.  It seemed like the right thing to do.  To my husband it still seems like the right thing to do.  Now I’m not so sure.

Quinn’s tonsils still look large, but of course as soon as we scheduled him for surgery his one real symptom of that being a problem essentially disappeared.  He stopped snoring.  So now what?  I’m uneasy to say the least about the idea of my four year old boy going under anesthesia and having something cut out of his throat.  If it’s not necessary I don’t want to do it.  I know that it’s a surgery that is easier on younger patients, so if it has to happen it makes more sense to do it now than later.  But what if he doesn’t need it?  What if something goes wrong and it was not a necessary risk to begin with?

Okay, I know I just sound like a panicky mom.  Probably because I am a panicky mom sometimes.  But it’s hard when your gut is telling you one thing and doctors are telling you another.  I’m in control and I have the power to stop this, but I really don’t know if I should.  As of this moment we’re still on course for surgery, but I want to feel better about it.  I’m nervous.

Quinn seems to be okay with it, but I can tell he’s nervous too.  We went to the hospital yesterday for an orientation of sorts, where someone showed Quinn photos of what to expect and things doctors wear and use for him to touch and ask questions about.  We put monitor tabs on his stuffed toy and a mask over its face.  Then I took Quinn to the gift shop and told him to pick out anything he wanted and we would buy it when we came back to the hospital.  I wanted him to have something to look forward to about returning there.  After his recent trip to a different hospital to be hooked up to an IV for an afternoon he’s skittish about going.  I told him when they put in the IV this time he will be asleep and won’t feel it.  I also told him he could pick out four flavors of ice cream to eat for when we get home and he said he wanted all of them to be chocolate.  (That’s my kid!)

I still have my tonsils, despite all kinds of infections in first grade that I remember vividly.  My brothers both had theirs removed when they were young. My grandma had the tonsil story of horror though, because she had them removed as a child and they grew back.  When her doctor told her as an adult that she needed to have her tonsils out, she told him he must not be a very good doctor because she’d already had them out.  But they were back, and he used a local anesthetic and operated on her while she was awake–and then it wore off halfway through the operation.  She said there was no choice but to keep going, and that that pain beat out childbirth and anything else she could think of.  (To add insult to injury, the doctor told her later that, “I wouldn’t have let someone do that to me.”)  Gives me shivers just thinking about it.

So!  That can’t be helping me while weighing everything in my mind.  I just want to do the right thing for my little boy.  Am I being overly concerned?  Do I sound silly?  I think I need to call the doctor and have a chat.  That will probably confuse things more but it’s worth a try.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tough Enough (Babble)

Aden and I got to pick the next book for our mother/child book club meeting in April.  I suggested Little House on the Prairie because my taste in children’s literature tends toward old classics.  I got Aden reading The Boxcar Children recently, I’m looking forward to reading The Secret Garden with her someday, and down the road maybe Jane Eyre.  I don’t think I’ve read Little House on the Prairie since I was about nine myself, and from what I could remember of it I thought Aden would enjoy it.  She was excited about the book–until we actually started reading it.

The first chapter seemed to leave Aden rather bored.  From her perspective the descriptions of selling a house and packing up to move elsewhere probably looked like grownups dealing with grownup problems and dragging the kids along for the ride.  I, however, was left dumbstruck.  They packed up to move from Wisconsin in the WINTER because the rivers and lakes would be easier to cross while frozen.  (We have trouble traveling in the winter here in Wisconsin and we have roads.  And heat.  And salt trucks plowing the way ahead of us.)  They traveled in their covered wagon over the Mississippi and down into Iowa and Missouri all the way to Kansas with two little girls and a baby.  A BABY!  How did they do that?  Why did they do that?  (Actually, I looked it up and found out in real life the baby was born while they were living on the prairie, but that doesn’t sound much better to me, and I don’t doubt for a minute that someone didn’t attempt something similar anyway so it’s still incredible to ponder.) 

They purposely wanted to go where there weren’t any people and start from nothing.  I can’t imagine doing that no matter how hard I try.  I’m in awe of what they did, but when I think about how tricky I found it to move from one house to another just across the street during a Wisconsin winter with two little girls and a toddler, I’m amazed all over again.  Pa builds their whole house and somehow makes a door without nails, and Ma cooks and cleans and IRONS THEIR CLOTHES in the middle of nowhere.  (My kids have only seen me use an iron for melting perler beads.  I don’t think they know it’s for clothes.)  It’s absolutely crazy and I was enthralled from the first page.

Now, the book didn’t stay boring for Aden, but unfortunately it got upsetting.  The Ingalls family has a dog named Jack who runs along under the wagon the whole journey (“Mom, why can’t the dog ride in the wagon?”) only to be swept away while they are all crossing a raging river.  Aden fell apart.  Normally when I read to her and something makes her sad or scared she starts repeating over and over “This is a kids’ book, so everything will come out okay in the end.”  But she knew this book was based on a true story, so when her sister tried to reassure her that everything would be fine, Aden said, “But this is a real life story, and real life doesn’t usually turn out okay.”  She wanted me to stop reading.  She cried about Jack the dog and said we never should have picked this book.  She didn’t want me to go on to the next chapter.

Honestly, I couldn’t remember if Jack would be found again or not.  I couldn’t promise Aden that the dog would be fine if we just read a little further.  So I took the opportunity to have a conversation with her about being so sensitive.  I told Aden I was glad she feels things deeply, and of course it’s sad when a dog is lost or dies.  But I also told her that I was starting to worry that I was doing a bad job as her mom in preparing her for the world if she couldn’t make it through a story where anything bad happens.  I’m afraid that if I shield her from too much that I will one day send her out on her own and she will be crushed to pieces.

I told Aden about how her great-great-grandmother here in Milwaukee had to drop out of school and go to work to help support the family at age nine, and that life can be hard.  Our own lives are so easy by comparison that we don’t get the benefit of learning from rough events.  Life usually isn’t fair or easy.  Everything dies, everything ends, and the lesson we must take away from that is to cherish beauty and life all the more because it is fleeting.  If I had only focused on the loss I experienced after my miscarriages I never would have had the strength to try again and we wouldn’t have Quinn.  It’s fine to grieve but not to be incapacitated. Aden looked at me, her face covered in tears, her knees pulled up to her chin.  She shook her head when I told her I was going to read the next chapter.

The truly absurd thing about all of this is that the Ingalls family had to be tough enough to actually live through all of these adventures, and I was only asking my child to find the strength just to hear about it.  I hadn’t appreciated how soft our lives are in general until I realized how simply reading about real hardship was too much for my (not so) little girl.  Because of her dad’s deployments I had no choice but to talk with Aden earlier than I would have liked about war and its consequences, so it seemed right to spare her any additional upsetting ideas if she didn’t feel up to them.  I live in dread of the day I have to explain the holocaust to her and let her know of all the relatives who lost their lives in that unfathomable nightmare.  She is so innocent of true horror and pain, and I wish she could remain that way, but if I don’t help her build a thicker skin reality will break her mind and her heart.  I want her to be able to cope.  I had to start somewhere, so we were going to deal with Jack the dog.

I opened Little House on the Prairie and read to Aden as she peeked out at me from behind her knees, clutching her pink bunny for comfort.  And, of course, by the end of that chapter Jack had returned, having survived being swept downriver and tracking their trail and nearly being shot by Pa who thought he might be a wolf sneaking up on their camp.  Aden was elated.

So what lesson did I teach?  I have no idea now.  Maybe that when in doubt you go ahead and read the next chapter anyway.  That’s a nice one, but probably not closely related to toughening her up.  I could rent Old Yeller but that would probably kill her.  I suppose I’m not really worried because in the long run no one’s life is easy and Aden will have to deal with any number of hardships that will come her way, I just don’t want to leave her completely unprepared for surviving them.  How tough is tough enough?  I suppose somewhere between building a little house in the middle of nothing and being able to read about it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Goodnight Gallery (Babble)

I remember years ago telling my friend, Linda, how much I enjoyed reading Goodnight Moon to Aden from the same copy that was read to me.  Linda’s children are much older than my own, and she smiled as I talked, and then she said, “Oh, Goodnight Moon.  You never know while it’s happening when you are reading it for the last time.” 

That thought has stayed with me more powerfully than almost any quote I’ve ever come across.  It encapsulates so much of what it means to raise children.  There is so much joy and chaos and repetition and change, and just as you think some routine or quirk or circumstance will continue indefinitely, it ends, usually without fanfare or notice.  One day the baby is sucking his fingers incessantly, and the next he stops, and eventually it’s hard to remember it was ever a concern.  Despite thousands of digital photographs and home videos much of what is ending goes undocumented.  We often don’t get the benefit of acknowledging certain endings, because it just happens that one day you stop pulling Goodnight Moon off the shelf.

But some goodbyes are very clear and planned for.  This Valentine’s Day was one such ending for our family.  My parents owned and operated their own art gallery in a suburb of Detroit for nearly all of my life.  The Arnold Klein Gallery opened on Valentine’s Day in 1971, and 40 years to the day it officially closed its doors.  It was time, because my mom is ready to move on to other projects, and both my parents deserve more freedom in their schedules after so many years of running their own business, but their contribution to the area will be missed.
What the Arnold Klein Gallery managed to do was special, and a great inspiration to me and how I run my own storeMy parents were not good business people in the sense that they generated wealth.  Money is important and you need enough to support yourself and your family, but beyond that I don’t think it is the measure of success in a business.  My parents struggled along with everyone else in Detroit as fluctuations in the auto industry dragged all commerce up and down.  That my mom and dad kept an art gallery viable for 40 years is amazing. 

But what is more amazing is that they stayed in business that long while being honest and compassionate in a field that often isn’t.  My parents love art.  They care about conserving things that are beautiful and encouraging fellow artists to create.  Those ideals always meant more than money.  The Arnold Klein Gallery was a place where you could get trustworthy appraisals, a perfect archival framing job, and see some of the finest work currently being produced in the area alongside stunning prints from the past.  It was a place that cared about art and artists in a way I’ve never seen anyplace else.  It was unique, just like my parents.

All the preparations for the final show were a great deal of fun.  For a bittersweet occasion I have to say we laughed a lot.  Both my brothers and their families were there, along with my family and a couple of cousins and an aunt and uncle and the world’s cutest dog.  Everyone helped to hang things from the walls and ceiling and make decorations.

It looked great.  It was fun without being too silly.

This was the wall of gallery memorabilia, complete with announcements from past shows, photos, articles, and portraits of my parents done by Donella Vogel:
The final show of art was interesting.  My dad had in mind back when he first opened the gallery that one day when they closed he wanted to have a show of canceled prints and lithographs.  Back in the 1800’s when most of the etchings he had on display were made, artists would finish an edition by crossing it out and producing one more (usually unsigned) to prove it was concluded and to prevent others in the future from possibly trying to print additional copies and pass them off as part of the original set.  In my dad’s words he saw it as a show of, “Canceled etchings, canceled prints, canceled gallery.”

And then there was the big wall of Valentines.  There were hundreds of handmade Valentines so that anyone who wanted to could simply take one home with them to remember the gallery by.

The party on Valentine’s Day was a big success.  We couldn’t have asked for a nicer send off.  The place was packed with people there to say goodbye to the gallery and wish my parents well.  It was funny talking to so many people who still remember me at my children’s ages.  I played viola for background music.  My brother, Barrett, showed a 16 minute movie he made of interviews with my parents about their 40 years in business that was touching and funny.  My sister-in-law, Deepanjana, graciously served the wine all night.  The kids wove in and out through the crowds to help themselves to cookies and crackers.  The food was fabulous.  My mom baked cookies, but I couldn’t believe how many friends brought dishes to share.

In the end what makes things important is people.  I love that my parents worked in the gallery together.  I enjoyed playing in the gallery with my brothers growing up.  Watching my own children and their cousin running around that same space was extremely moving to me.  There was a lot of love and affection in the Arnold Klein Gallery.  Valentine’s Day could not have been a more perfect occasion to associate with it.  Here are some of the people I love best in the world who helped make the closing night of the Arnold Klein Gallery one I will always remember fondly:
Driving away the day after Valentine’s Day knowing I’d never step foot in the gallery again was surreal.  There is still a lot of hard work for my mom and my brother to do getting it closed down and cleared out, but for me it’s over.  The next time I go to Michigan the gallery won’t be there to visit.  From the moment I drove away it began an existence of pure memories.  And they are good ones.


Goodnight gallery.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Making Advances While Defenses Are Low (Babble)

I think one of the hardest things sometimes for a mom to do, is to do nothing.  To not jump in when we see our children struggling takes real restraint.  One of the philosophies of the Montessori school my kids go to is to let children try things for themselves at a very young age.  Three year olds are expected to walk themselves into the building and to their classrooms.  (Aden had issues with this, but Mona and Quinn did just fine.)  You are supposed to give them room to try things and discover what they are capable of.  Independence is considered as much a part of the lesson as anything else.

In this regard, Quinn is a perfect fit for Montessori.  He is an extremely capable four year old.  When he was two he was able to serve himself yogurt from the fridge if he was hungry and even put the spoon in the sink.  For a long time now he has been able to dress himself.  He gets up in the night to use the bathroom if he needs to, and he doesn’t mind walking through the house while it’s dark.  He’s taught himself cursive.  He’s a boy with a strong sense of pride.  He’ll ask for help if he needs it, but the moment he is confident he can do something himself he becomes offended by assistance.   For the most part, since he wants to (and can) do so much on his own, he is very easy to care for.

Except for Ian.  I mentioned recently how Quinn is still adjusting to having his father home from Iraq, and how difficult that transition has been for the two of them.  I’ve since talked to many parents who wonder how much of this struggle is deployment related and how much is just a run-of-the-mill-small-child-clinging-to-a chosen-parent phenomenon which is common.  It’s hard to know.

I had sort of hoped during my recent trip to Detroit alone for a week and a half, that time without me around might help.  But it didn’t really.  Quinn went about his life sometimes managing to be polite to his dad, and sometimes not able to keep that up if he was too tired to be reasonable.  There wasn’t the kind of ‘bonding’ I was hoping for in my absence.  So I figured the solution would have to be time.

But this week Quinn is sick.  And things are different.  Not entirely, because my son is stubborn (can’t imagine where he gets that from, she wrote, hoping her mother doesn’t happen to read this post), so he clings to ideas with a ferociousness of habit longer than he should sometimes.  (As a matter of principle he says he doesn’t like his sister, Mona, either, but anyone who sees them playing together knows this is obviously not true.  He stands by his statement just the same.)

Sickness isn’t just inconvenient.  Sickness strips you of a degree of independence.  Sickness means you need someone.  For Quinn, sickness means for the first time since Ian returned from the war he is needed by his son in a way Quinn can appreciate.  I would prefer my son weren’t sick, but we have definitely seen a silver lining.

I listened the other day as Quinn needed help.  I wanted to go to him, but Ian was already there.  So I managed to stay out of it.  I listened instead.  I heard my husband being patient and kind.  He offered assistance but was careful not to force any help on Quinn.  Quinn, in his sweet little voice, explained where he hurt, asked for medicine, asked to be carried.  His daddy obliged.  He did not make too much of it.  He was exactly right and exactly what Quinn needed.  It was hard not to go scoop up my little boy myself, but the fact that he was accepting real help from his dad was like seeing sunshine after a long difficult night.

Recently Quinn has also shown his dad how to get to some level on some Club Penguin game, and I’ve overheard several sweet little conversations.  It’s encouraging. It’s also nice to have Ian say after helping me clean up vomit the other night how much he likes the teamwork aspect of parenting together.  I think another man might have been called on to help with puking in the night and deemed it the lesser side of the family experience, but Ian said it felt good to be able to divide up the work so efficiently.  I cleaned up the boy and Ian stripped the bed and got everything in the wash.  That’s much harder to do alone, and I’m glad neither of us had to.

Unfortunately, on the health front, my poor little boy ended up in the hospital for several hours because he became dehydrated.  He was getting limp instead of better so I took him to the doctor and she ordered an IV.  Quinn was remarkably good about having his blood drawn the getting the IV line inserted.  He was unhappy, but he didn’t cry and he didn’t move.  He slept for about an hour while the IV did its work, and then ate a popsicle while holding a toy bunny he picked out in the gift shop.  Poor thing.  He’s doing fine now, except forcing him to take his antibiotic twice a day is turning into a wrestling match.  It tastes bad and he won’t take it.  Mixing it with yogurt got us through one dose, but he’s not repeating that.  We even tried mixing it with a giant spoonful of sugar a la Mary Poppins, but no luck.  Lots of gagging and spitting everything out.  At the moment we are down to holding him still while I put some at a time in his mouth and then using my fingers to shove it back in as he does everything he can to avoid swallowing any.  It’s awful.  Suggestions?  Please?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Be Careful Where You Hide Your Frogs (Babble)

There is a really nice natural history museum here in Milwaukee called, simply, “The Milwaukee Public Museum.”  It took me awhile when I first moved here to figure out what a “Public Museum” was, but now that I have kids we know it very, very well.  My kids have loved it since they were babies and it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon with children and not get bored.  There is a room of live butterflies, A ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee’ area, and displays about people and animals from all over the world. 

My brother, Barrett, who used to work as a model maker for The Museum of Natural History in New York, says our museum is a mecca, of sorts, for people interested in museum displays because it has a famously large number of open air exhibits and is home to the first diorama constructed by Carl Akeley (dubbed the father of modern taxidermy).  Apparently we have the famous muskrat exhibit.  In honor of my brother my kids and I always stop to admire it on our way to see the dinosaurs or the rain forest.  In any case, there is your bit of history for the day, and now when I refer to the Public Museum in the course of this post you’ll know what I’m talking about.

My kids with the Carl Akeley muskrat display:

Quinn in the butterfly wing:

The last big event we attended at the Public Museum was the traveling show on frogs about a month ago.

It was great and we all enjoyed it.  I learned all toads are frogs (but not all frogs are toads) and that apparently the terms ‘poison dart frog’ and ‘dart poison frog’ are interchangeable because we saw it both ways on official looking information.  We saw many frogs, and then on our way out through the gift shop my children all wanted to get something.  Having just cleaned their rooms and seen first hand how many toys they already owned I was not in a mood to add to that collection, but it had been such a nice day and they had been good and weren’t begging or whining, so I said they could get something to share.  They agreed on a tube of one dozen small plastic frogs.

Here they are looking as if they are unconcerned that they are about to be trampled by bison and horses, and Quinn is holding the tube of frogs:
They loved their frogs, played with them for a few days, and then when their dad was cleaning up one evening the frogs all ended up arranged on a shelf in the dining room in two little rows.  They looked cute there, 12 little frogs all lined up.

But then Quinn got on a scavenger hunt kick.  He likes to hide things in and near the living room, and all the things have to be part of the same category, like markers, or balls…. Or frogs.  Quinn pulled a chair up to the shelf and collected the frogs and asked me if I wanted to do his scavenger hunt.  It’s very sweet, because he’ll happily just tell you where everything is, or he’ll give hints like, “It’s under something!”  He just likes hiding things under pillows or in cups or shoes.  There were many many rounds of frog scavenger hunt for the next several days. 

The only problem was after every hunt there were fewer and fewer frogs returning to the shelf.  Quinn never kept track of where he hid them all, but would happily hide the remaining ones again and again.  Eventually we were down to three frogs.  Three frogs!

Well, recently I went on a couple of big cleaning sprees downstairs.  Each time I would uncover missing frogs, tucked into spare shoes or onto out of the way window sills or among books or magazines.  Before a meeting of Aden’s book club the other day I was particularly thorough and found a few more.  And I grouped them all together again.  And they looked like this:

Do you see it?  That’s 14 frogs.  14!  We are now up by two frogs.  This is either a testament to how well I clean, how fertile even fake frogs can be, or that my children’s taste in toys extended to small plastic frogs before the show at the Public Museum.  I suspect the last one.

I remember when we first bought the bin system we use for organizing toys (instead of one giant box which was getting problematic) and I started separating them into categories.  A bin for cars, a bin for balls, a bin for doll clothes…. And to my surprise we needed a large bin just for toy snakes.  My kids own dozens and dozens of toy snakes.  Big ones, tiny ones, stuffed ones, plastic ones, wooden ones…. I had no idea how often we were indulging our children in some kind of serpent obsession.  So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve gotten plastic frogs before.

But if their numbers keep growing in the dining room, it may be time to bring some of the plastic snakes downstairs to thin the colony.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow! (Babble)

(I tried to think of a clever title, but really, that sums it up.)

Whew!  So, how is everyone else doing after the big storm?  (And I’m not talking to any smug people out there on warm beaches or someplace that missed the fun, because, well, I’m pretending we’re all in the same boat and that that boat is covered with snow.)
School was out, our street didn’t get plowed until very late so there was no way to get to work, and any plans to swim got swapped with shoveling for exercise.  But we had a good day.  I’ll write more about it in a second, but first, pictures!  (Because what fun is there in talking about a snowstorm without pictures?)

We will not be using this door to the garage until Spring:

And the front door was no picnic to dig out, but we need that one, so after I found the stairs I got that all squared away:

And this was the view of our house across the intersection.  If the railing and the headstone weren’t there I wouldn’t have known where to start digging for the sidewalk:

So the first order of business the morning after the storm was to look out all the windows and marvel at just where the snow was really high.  This was out our side window by our neighbor’s house (that’s all from drifting, not digging out):

Next, after feeding kids, was to head out and start clearing things up.  Which is actually pretty fun.  Ian and a couple of other people on our block got out snow blowers and started clearing the alley and all the sidewalks.

My neighbor, Julie, and I were just armed with shovels, so after clearing our own walkways went across the street to help over there.  It was funny shoveling my old corner.  I spent ten years clearing snow over there, so it was certainly familiar.  And my new neighbor in our old house was grateful for the help because there is a lot to shovel when you live on a corner.  I am a believer in random acts of shoveling, so I worked my way about five houses down until I connected with someone else’s path.  The snow was too deep to simply scoop straight from the ground, so it had to be tackled in layers.  And the funny part was that Julie’s dog, Toby, waited patiently as we cleared the sidewalk as if he had somewhere to be, advancing slowly with each new bit of exposed concrete.

I just assumed my kids would be all over the crazy blizzard adventure and don their snow pants as soon as they saw the winter wonderland that our yard had become, but they settled in to watch cartoons and were quite content to let the grownups brave the snow.  After a little while I decided they really needed to come see it all for themselves and asked them to come out.  Mona was all for it, Aden was skeptical, and Quinn looked at me like I was insane.  He snuggled down under a blanket and just shook his head.  But my intrepid Mona literally dove right in!

Aden complained after a moment that there was snow in her boots.  So then she grabbed a small shovel and tried to dig her way around the yard which was not really all that fun, so she soon retreated back inside.

Not that this is actually the biggest snow storm we’ve ever had to deal with.  We were living in Pennsylvania during January of 1996 when we got more than 30 inches in one night.  THAT was impressive.  It took us eight hours to dig out our car.  (It took us a long time just to find the car.)  The problem shoveling then was that there was nowhere to put the snow.  The buildings came right up to the sidewalks and the sidewalks were right next to the streets.  We had to walk each shovelful of snow down the block to dump it somewhere that wouldn’t be in the way.  The snow had to get piled straight up in most places, so walking around town was complicated because we couldn’t see over the eight foot walls of snow on either side of the sidewalk and it was easy to get lost.  The storm happened on January 6th and our street didn’t get officially cleared until Valentine’s day.  That was wild.  This merely shut things down for a day.  (I’m such a jaded old person now!  “Why, back in MY day….”)

So anyway, the lessons to take away from the big storm are:  It does pay to go to the grocery store beforehand if you get the chance, because being stocked up on bread and eggs, etc., makes being snowed in a lot better.  A warm hat helps.  Working together with your neighbors makes the whole world seem like a pretty nice place.  Always be friendly to the guy on your block with the snow blower.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Aden's Homework (Babble)

Aden is in third grade.  She attends a public Montessori school fewer than two miles from our home.  In Montessori education you keep the same teacher for three years and the classrooms are mixed age, so Aden has had the same teacher since first grade.  Montessori isn’t generally big on homework unless the individual child needs it or there is a special project due.  Aden usually has a little homework aimed at strengthening certain reading or math skills, and every day either her dad or I am supposed to read her school diary and correct any spelling or grammar problems.

(This is not Aden doing homework, this is her trying to dig fossils out of a fossil-digging block her grandparents gave her, but it’s the same place she does do her homework, and it’s the closest thing I have to her looking studious.)

Aden’s school diary cracks me up.  Her cursive is good, her spelling is improving.  The content is usually bland because she’s just trying to get it done.  The first line is nearly always “I did my D.O.L.” which I think in Montessori-ese is ‘Daily Oral Language’ but I don’t know what that means, and if it’s not part of lunch or recess or gym it’s unlikely Aden will ever tell me.  Sometimes Aden gets bored with conventional writing and turns it into a code.  There will be a key off to the side with colored blobs to represent words such and “I” and “the” and then the diary entry looks like a row of Christmas lights strung together with verbs and nouns.  It’s harder to proofread, but very pretty.  Aden writes about group lessons or special classes, once in awhile about fun things she does with other students, but nothing particularly interesting.  No, the good stuff is all in the margins.

In the margins Aden draws.  She’s a good artist with an eye for colors and patterns I’ve come to trust.  I used to get in trouble for drawing in the margins of my work when I was a kid, but individual expression is encouraged in Montessori school, so as long as she finishes the writing part of the assignment she can add as many drawings as she likes.  In first and most of second grade it was all narwhals.  We saw a narwhal tusk in the unicorn tapestry room at the Cloisters on a visit to New York a couple of years ago, and Aden was really taken with it.  I don’t think there was another child anywhere who cranked out as many narwhal drawings in that span of time.  But the narwhals have faded from the margins this year and been replaced by drawings of little girls battling dragons with swords and other fantastical scenes.

If she doesn’t get around to showing us her diary to sign, sometimes she attempts forgery.  She’s getting better at that, too, but she still hasn’t figured out I never sign anything outside of personal notes with ‘Kory,’ so the teacher usually circles the suspect signature as a sign that it’s not going to fly.  I was pretty good at forging my parents’ signatures when I was younger.  The first time Aden signs my name in a way that passes muster I will be strangely proud.

Aden is a procrastinator, which is a trait that has my DNA all over it so I try to sympathize when she drags her feet, but it can make getting her to finish her homework frustrating at times.  However, she had homework this week that was very interesting and she did it right away.  Her dad mentioned it, because at violin lessons he’d run into another child from Aden’s class who was working on the same thing and having a little trouble.  I asked Aden about it over dinner, and the way she described it was she had a drawing of a person, and she was supposed to name five qulities you could notice about that person that would make you think he or she would make a good friend, three external and two internal.  Of course when I asked her what she listed it was two whole hours later so she didn’t remember, but she invited me to read the finished assignment when I had the chance.

As far as homework goes, I found it fascinating.  I thought about it for a moment and admitted to Aden that I don’t know what I would write if the same assignment were given to me.  In theory we shouldn’t judge people by what we see on the surface, but in reality we do it all the time.  We have to.  We don’t have time to do in depth interviews with everyone we come in contact with in an average day just to decide where to sit or stand on the bus or at the bank.  If I’m walking alone at night and I’m nervous I am less likely to cross the street to avoid a man in a suit than someone in grubbier clothes because I can’t imagine a mugger in a suit.  (I can, but it’s silly looking.)

But to choose a friend?  What external cues would I find important?  I suppose if someone were carrying objects I could relate to, like an instrument case or a really nice block plane, that would be a person I’d be more likely to start a conversation with.  Someone handing out cupcakes is someone I want to be near.  I’d be intimidated by a person dressed really well since that’s beyond me.  I would probably avoid anyone staggering around with a bloody knife or holding protest signs I disagreed with.  I do tend to talk with other people with small children because I suppose I feel a kinship there. 

How much would I discriminate based race or gender?  I would hope not much.  One of the few things I find disgraceful about Milwaukee is how segregated it is, and when I first moved here I remember striking up a conversation with a man fishing in a river near my apartment and he looked startled.  He was an older African-American man and I was genuinely interested in his experience fishing in the city, but he smiled at me and said, “You aren’t from here, are you?”  He told me white people from Milwaukee never thought to say ‘hello’ to him.  I hope living here hasn’t changed me in that way.  I don’t think so, but we are often poor judges of ourselves so I’m not sure.

Jewelry?  T-shirt slogans?  Shoes?  Matching gloves?  Two tickets to that thing I love?  I really don’t know what I would put down.  For the internal qualities, I would go with humor and kindness.  That’s easy.  If you are a caring person and you can make me laugh you might not be able to get rid of me.

When I asked Aden again what she wrote down she thought really hard and said for external qualities she included a nice smile, and maybe a cute animal on his or her T-shirt.  She said she would not want to be friends with a bully, and maybe someone like that would have blood on his or her clothes.  For internal qualities she said someone who is nice and made you feel included.

I think that’s what she said.  It’s hard for me to remember at this point because we’re gearing up for snow-mageddon-aclypse-a-rama or whatever ultra hypey language the news is putting onto this storm.  As long as we don’t have to go anywhere in it, it’s just sledding and hot cocoa weather to us.   I hope everyone else out there in the path of the snow stays warm and safe.