Monday, May 30, 2011

Adventures in Swimming (Babble)

I do my best to find time to swim a mile as many days a week as I can.  Except Saturdays, because the kids are home in the morning and I work all day and it’s just too much.  And then there are days my swimming ambitions are thwarted because either I or one of my kids is sick, or a project gets in the way, but typically I would say I swim at least three times a week.  I don’t know how much good it’s doing, but it can’t hurt, and it sounds like something I should be doing, so there we are.

Anyway, since all that time at the pool is taking up a sizable chunk of my life it seemed worth a blog post.  At least, it seemed like a good idea in my head as I was going back and forth in the water for 45 minutes one morning.  Here’s everything I have to say about swimming:

The big advantage to swimming is that even when something hurts during any other exercise (like my left knee, which I think one of my kids leaned on too hard when I was sitting cross legged and it’s been painful for months while I walk) I can still swim.  And I like a form of exercise where I come out cleaner than I started.  The disadvantage is I’m dependent on going somewhere specific to do it.  (I envy that a runner can just kind of open his or her door and go.)

There are two places I swim.  The first is the Y.  (I joined the Y back when Ian was deployed the first time because there was a free six-month membership offer for families of active duty soldiers at the time.  We didn’t do much then beyond hang out in the play room when the weather was bad and I needed to get the kids out of the house, or occasionally sign out a racket ball court and let the kids have at it smacking balls off the walls and ceiling.  Anyway, we’re finally getting our money’s worth out of the place with as often as Ian and I go now, so that’s good.)  The pool at the Y is small, and it takes me 36 laps to do a mile.  There are three lanes (out of six) designated for lap swimming that get squeezed down to two during water aerobics in the morning.  The Y is usually crowded in the morning.  Sharing a lane at the Y gets a little tight but most of the time it works out okay.  The exceptions are if I end up with Splashy Guy (who is a middle aged man who swims at a good clip but lets one of his arms drop straight down onto the water in such a way when he does the front crawl that he sends water everywhere) or Blind Andy.  I like Blind Andy, and I’m impressed by anyone who can swim blind (although I suppose crossing the street blind would be scarier) but he uses flippers and a snorkel and moves way faster than I do.  I know I slow him down when I share a lane with him because he waits to hear when I get to the end so he knows when it’s safe to move again.  Ian uses the treadmills and the weight room at the Y, so I go there when the two of us are able to get out and exercise at the same time.

The other place I sometimes swim is the county pool.  It’s closer to home and it’s bigger.  The lanes are wider, there are eight of them, and it only takes 32 laps to do a mile.  If I go there to swim in the afternoon I sometimes literally have the whole place to myself.  There have been days I’ve seen the poor lifeguards watching me paddle back and forth and wondered if they hate me for making it necessary for them to stay there, or if I give meaning to their lives by being the only swimmer to potentially save.  (I suspect the former, but can’t prove it because they are always unfailingly polite.)  The county pool also has diving boards and a basketball hoop.  I go to the county pool if Ian and I are exercising at different times and I don’t need to go all the way to the Y, or after school when we can fit it in our schedule with the whole family.  I do laps while Ian and the kids play, and then I join them when I’m done.  The big advantage of family swim is if I get the kids’ hair washed in the showers it counts as bath night.

The biggest differences between the two pools are the amenities.  The Y has towels (although I tend to think of them as ‘exfoliating towels’ but they are still towels I don’t have to lug there myself), more private showers, a scale, a hot tub, bigger lockers, lotion, a TV, hair dryers….  Plus if we go to the Y with the kids there is a small pool for them nearby that they prefer because it’s warmer.  The county pool is more utilitarian, but in some ways smarter.  I’ve never understood the carpeting in the locker rooms at the Y because they just generate a damp mildewy smell, and the county locker room is all tile which seems more practical to me.

The Y also has a thing that’s like a salad spinner for swimsuits.  There are all these instructions on it about pushing your suit far enough down before pressing on the lid which starts it spinning to get the bulk of the water out of your suit.  I learned the hard way that it really means what it says, because I nonchalantly put my suit in there any old way one morning and the thing ripped my suit to shreds.  Now I’m kind of paranoid about shoving my suit all the way down.

Luckily I buy my suits online so it wasn’t hard to replace.  I hate shopping for swimsuits, but doing it online is less painful.  The great irony about wanting to swim to get into better shape is that so few suits seem designed for swimming, particularly if you are not a size eight or under.  There are serious swimsuits for people already in shape, but bigger suits tend to have goofy straps that fall off your shoulder if you move too vigorously.
To keep my hair from becoming completely fried from chlorine I put a bunch of conditioner on under my swim cap.  I’ve seen no difference between special swimmer’s shampoo and what I normally use in terms of helping my overly chlorinated hair, but the conditioner under the cap thing helps more than anything I’ve tried.

My skin always smells like chlorine, so I started using a floral scented body butter for when I get out of the pool.  Now I smell like flowers that have been watered with chlorine.
For the most part swimming is a fairly safe activity, but once I left my razor in my bag facing the wrong direction and sliced the crap out of my thumb in the shower at the Y one morning.  That was no fun.  I couldn’t stop the bleeding long enough to get my bra on without making a mess, so I ended up heading home essentially naked under my coat which was way less sexy than it sounds.

One of the more unexpected results of all my swimming is that the bottoms of my feet aren’t cracked anymore.  I’ve had problems with cracked heels my whole life, and as a kid my toes and heels used to bleed.  I’ve always wanted cute feet and have tried any number of lotions, but I think the regular soaking in chlorine has killed whatever caused the problem.  Who knows?  Anyway, I finally have cute feet.  Not the bodily improvement I was expecting for all the effort, but go figure.

The biggest obstacle to fitting exercise into my life isn’t time so much as boredom.  I hate wasting time, and I find exercise frustratingly dull.  It’s very hard for me not to think about all the other things I’d rather be doing.  So I’ve been arming myself with gadgets to help combat the elements of exercise that I find irritating.

My first, best gadget is a lap counter.  I Googled the idea one day when I couldn’t stand spending all my time in the water keeping track of what lap I was on anymore.  I found this, which is a waterproof device I can wear like a ring, and I push the button on it with my thumb every time I reach the wall at the shallow end of the pool.  Now I can think about whatever I want, and somewhere around the 45 minute mark I check the lap counter to see if I’m done or not.  I love the thing.

The more extravagant gadget I treated myself to for Mother’s Day this year.  There is a company that waterproofs regular iPods, so I ordered one with a set of waterproof ear buds.  I’ve never owned an iPod so it took awhile to figure out exactly how to get it going.  The first problem was that my laptop’s version of iTunes was more than five minutes old so my iPod Shuffle was mystified.  We got that solved, then had to figure out how to find what I downloaded once we got it onto my player.  My first swim with the thing I listened to a 15 minute Freakonomics show and then it started repeating.  Now that I’ve had some practice I’m on track and can listen to interesting things like This American Life or Fresh Air.  I know most people would probably use it to exercise to music, but I have to choose music very carefully or it will bother more than it will entertain me.  (A few years ago I used to go to Curves, and as much as I liked the exercise routine I don’t think I could go back there and literally face the music again.)

Swimming while learning something and not having to count laps has been a big improvement.  Anything that helps me keep it up and not want to quit is useful.  And I feel good on those family swim days that my kids see me diligently getting my workout in.  Plus it’s more fun to watch them splashing around and waving to me as I go by than it is watching the synchronized feet of the water aerobics people at the Y.

I have no idea how Ian and I will fit exercising into our lives once school lets out because that three hour block of time in the morning has been so great for us getting out together.  Above and beyond my gadgets the biggest motivation to exercise has simply been that my husband goes to do it with me.  His encouragement has made a huge difference, and that extra time we get alone together on the drive to the Y and back has been really nice.  With summer vacation comes the return of our tag team lives, but we will find a way.  Besides, I’ve gotten used to smelling like a bottle of bleach.  How can I give that up?
(No way could anyone ever pay me enough to get me to post a picture of myself in a swimsuit, so here is Mona a few years back during her hat phase.  Nothing says born in Wisconsin more than a winter hat in the pool.  Or something.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Little Voices, Big Music (plus a perfect trip to the fair) (Babble)

My girls just had their big end of the season choir concert on Sunday and their final rehearsal for the season this week.  Aden’s been singing with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir for three years now, Mona for two.  They both have pretty voices that sound even prettier together.  They both sing to themselves around the house every day.
But this may have been their last concert with this choir.  Aden passed the audition necessary for her to qualify for the next choir level, but Mona is too young to move on yet.  If they sign up for next season Aden would be in a new group, and Mona would be on her own in the old one.  That makes each of them a little nervous, but the biggest problem is that as much as they like choir, they don’t like getting up and going to choir.  My kids love just being at home and doing their own projects or playing games or biking around the block.  They don’t like the hassle of having to be carted off to an activity.
I know exactly how they feel.  I have a terrible time tearing myself away from the kids after work to go to mandolin orchestra rehearsal, and subsequently I’m always late because I literally have to peel Quinn or Mona or all of them off me to leave so it takes me longer to get out the door without feeling like a bad mom.  (Luckily the mandolin orchestra is a forgiving group.)

I reminded my girls of how much they always enjoy choir once they get there, the same way I’m always happy to go play my mandola even though it’s hard to want to leave our home to do it.  But they are tired of the structure.  They love to sing, they like the people, but they don’t like uniforms, they don’t like standing for a long time or waiting for the other choir groups to finish singing at the concerts.  So we’ll see.  After a summer break they may change their minds, but I’m not going to push it.  I’m glad they’ve had the experience of performing on a stage in front of a large audience and being part of a polished show.  Aden has the option of being in the 4th-8th grade choir at her school next year and that may be a better fit for her, and maybe it’s time to sign Mona up for something new.  I think she’d really enjoy pottery.

So knowing it may be their last big choir event together I teared up more than usual at this concert.  Something about children singing can be so moving it’s hard to describe.  They are their most endearing selves when they sing, without any of the obnoxious messy bits that can be so frustrating.  Sort of like how perfect they seem when they are sleeping and you wonder how they could ever provoke you into yelling or needing a break from them.
The youngest choir sang first, and my favorite song was “Make New Friends” which they did as a round.  That had me crying enough that Quinn who was in my lap wanted to know what was wrong.  (I told him they were good tears, but he looked doubtful.)  They ended their set with a creative version of “This Old Man” that made everyone laugh.  I was impressed with how complicated some of the music they tackled this year was.

(Blurry photo from the dress rehearsal.  Mona is in the front row with her hands together looking the wrong way.  Aden’s two rows behind her to the right of that pole.)

In the second half of the program the more advanced choir sang two pieces composed by Paul Caldwell who was there to conduct them in person.  He talked movingly about a little girl who survived the genocide in Rwanda who inspired the pieces, and how he wanted to write a lullaby for refugees who had no one to sing to them.  If that doesn’t make you weepy nothing will.  All of it was beautiful, and frankly a nice show even if you didn’t have a kid of your own up on the stage to admire.

Also this last weekend we visited the little fair that sets up in a parking lot a couple of blocks from our home for a couple of days every year in May.  It’s small but flashy.  There’s a big slide and and tilt-a-whirl, a couple of stands where you can win prizes and spot where you can buy funnel cakes.  It’s the kind of event that can quickly turn from simple fun into nightmare with little kids.  The lights and the music and the rides and the cheap toys are so attractive for about twenty minutes, but it’s expensive and nauseating and wears kids out fast so we have to be careful not to go over that hump into disaster land.

That’s the beauty of it being within walking distance of home.  If you go all the way to someplace like the State Fair and pay for parking and admission, there is a lot of ground to cover, and it’s easy to overwhelm small kids past the point of it being any fun at all because you want to stay long enough to justify the trouble and expense.  But the weird little traveling fair?  We can go for ten minutes, walk home to use our own bathroom and eat dinner, and go back for funnel cake for dessert later.  So it was just enough fair, and it was great.

The only heart wrenching moment was when Mona wanted to win a toy frog.  There is a game called the Duck Pond, where you pay three dollars and you get to choose three plastic ducks.  On the bottom of each duck is a number, and whatever total the three ducks add up to determines which prize you get.  Mona won an odd floppy tiger thing the first time when just the two of us were visiting the fair.  Later that evening when we returned as a whole family, Aden won a similar floppy tiger and Quinn won a blue, very flammable looking dog.  Mona voiced her desire to try the Duck Pond game again because she was smitten with the stuffed frogs in one of the prize bins, but she didn’t beg or whine.  She seldom asks for anything and she was being so good I told her I would give her another three dollars to try again, but that she should know that the odds of her winning the toy she wanted were very small.  She accepted that and was very excited to try one more time, and promised not to complain if she didn’t win the frog.

Of course she didn’t draw the right numbers to win the frog, and she was so disappointed she burst into tears and buried her face against her dad.  He told her he was sorry, but that that was how the game worked.  She said she knew and tried not to cry.  She did not beg or complain.  Mona was not trying to manipulate anyone and she fully accepted that she got what she got, but the loss hit her hard and it was obvious her tears were genuine.

The Duck Pond lady simply handed her the frog.

I could have hugged the Duck Pond lady.  I know we essentially just payed three dollars for a toy that was probably worth a nickel and it didn’t really cost the fair anything to let Mona have that frog, but that woman must deal with endless numbers of kids who barter and beg for something different from what they won and occasional parents who aren’t much better, so I’m sure she normally stands firm.  But Mona’s sincere appreciation of that toy (which she has dragged to bed with her every night since) made bending the rules the better way to go and I’m glad she did it.

Aside from that brief bout of tears there was no downside to the fair.  The Dizzy Dragons made us dizzy.  The slide was slide-y.  The funnel cakes were as delicious as they were bad for us.
(Mona in the Dizzy Dragon)

And the added bonus was that on the second night of the fair, after the choir concert, Aden used her own money from her piggy bank.  I don’t mean bonus because I didn’t have to pay (although that was nice), I mean I got to see Aden at her best.  She doesn’t really have expenses at nine, and she doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to spend money she gets in her birthday cards, so she was excited to use some of it, and she used it on her siblings.  She bought Mona a ticket for the Dizzy Dragons so they could go on together, and she gave Quinn a ticket to ride the little car carousel.  Then she bought a funnel cake to take home for everyone to share.  I found that really touching.  Aden drives me up the wall when she drags her feet or doesn’t do her homework or pick up her stuff, but she’s one of the dearest people I know.

It’s so nice when something that is supposed to be fun actually is fun.  There are so many things that seem like a good idea until the reality of navigating them sets in.  So many outings with kids turn into adventures in using public toilets or futile exercises in compromise among siblings.  This year’s trip to the fair was perfect, frog tears and all.

(Side note:  This series of photos has me noticing Mona’s new trend of smiling with no upper lip.  I suppose it’s a step up from the old cute face pose, but I look forward to the return of that lip someday.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What do your kids eat? (Babble)

The second time Ian was deployed in Iraq a relative in town offered to make dinner for my family one night of our choosing.  Food is always a nice gesture to offer a stressed household, and in this case it was particularly welcome because she cooked the meal in our home and joined us at the dinner table.  I loved having adult company and no responsibility for cooking and cleanup for a night.  The only stumbling block came when she asked me ahead of time, “What do your kids eat?”

That sounds like such a simple question.  And I suppose it is a simple question, it’s just the answer that gets complicated.  My first response was, “I don’t know,” which sounds insane.  I’m the mom and I fed them every day so how could I not know? 

I realized that the problem wasn’t that I couldn’t name things they ate, I just couldn’t name anything healthy that they ALL ate.  At the time the only thing all three of them ate was spinach quiche.  Spinach quiche has been our go-to dish at least once a week since Aden was about two.  I don’t know why they magically all liked spinach quiche, but we were grateful they did because it isn’t hard to make and it covers all the major food groups in one dish.  But besides that?  I didn’t have an answer.

“What about broccoli?” my relative asked.  Mona and Quinn eat broccoli.  “Peas?” Aden eats peas.  “Mashed potatoes?” Aden and Quinn eat mashed potatoes.  I finally told her that, honestly, she should just make whatever she wanted, I would like it, different kids would like different parts of it, and if they didn’t find anything to eat among the things she served they would get over it.  That’s not a satisfying answer to give a cook who wants to please everyone, but it’s just life with feeding kids.

Many kids get into weird picky eating patterns.  I know for people without kids or who have forgotten what life with small kids is like it can look like overindulgence to acquiesce to certain food demands, but I think we overlook the fact that most of us aren’t that much better, we just get to choose the food.

Of course I like everything I serve because I made it!  I have an inflated sense of my own culinary adventurousness because I’ve had over 40 years to sort through what I like and what I don’t, and it’s rare that something unfamiliar gets set in front of me. 

When I was in Southern India I remember sitting at a table set with banana leaves for plates and my brother looked at the menu in a language we didn’t know and just kind of gestured to the waiter that we’d take one of everything because there was no way to predict what any of it would be anyhow.  The yellow ball of goo tasted the best, but I had to get past that childish sense of anxiety about the unknown.  It’s a big leap of faith to put a strange food in your mouth when you don’t know what to expect, I don’t care what age you are. 

I don’t think kids are silly to be wary of that.  Even when my kids were in a phase where we had to have three kinds of ravioli on hand because one ate meat, two ate cheese, but of the cheese eaters one only ate round ravioli, I don’t think it’s that crazy.  I was at the store the other day with a craving for unsalted sweet potato chips and couldn’t find them, and then I laughed because there were dozens upon dozens of different chips in every variety you could imagine and yet I still was not satisfied.  Somehow if a toddler makes that kind of specific demand we think they are crazy, but honestly, I would be very unhappy if someone else picked out all my food all the time and I didn’t get a say.

I’m fascinated by how other families eat.  It’s such a basic thing, and no two homes do it the same way.  We inherit certain recipes or patterns of eating from where we grew up and add to that our own preferences and experiences and eventually develop a unique manner of eating and preparing food that becomes the new pattern that gets passed down.  I think that’s why there is such a strong nostalgia component to certain foods for people because few things evoke a sense of what your specific home is more clearly.  It’s like each family has a food fingerprint.

I never think about that in any detail until we go stay in someone else’s house and the things we take for granted aren’t there.  A different house means different bread, different peanut butter, and different jelly, so even a lunchtime staple looks new.  I’m always touched when we go to my brother’s home in New York every spring that his wife, who is a lifelong vegetarian (and has a bumper sticker in her kitchen reading ‘Friends don’t let friends eat meat’), always stocks up on whatever will make my kids happy, even if that means ham or hot dogs.  On our last visit she asked Aden in the grocery store what she wanted and Aden said ‘meatballs,’ and my poor sister-in-law knowing nothing of meatballs looked for them in vain on the shelves because she didn’t know that was something people make instead of buy, generally.  Food is a quick way to either divide people or bring them together, and I’m grateful the people I love do their best to have it be the latter.

So what do my kids eat?  Well, not surprisingly, desserts are universally popular.  Whenever we use the grill we make s’mores for dessert and that always goes over well.  I can get a lot of toys and laundry picked up by the kids with the promise of s’mores after dinner.  Strawberry shortcake, pumpkin pie, cookies, any kind of cake, ice cream…. 

Everything you’d expect kids to eat too much of given the chance, they eat.  Our only issue is that Aden happens to be allergic to tree nuts (including coconut) so she has to be wary of mystery cookies and pastries outside of our home.  In our house dessert is at most a once a week phenomenon.  There are enough candy laden holidays and birthday parties and bake sales floating around that adding extra sugar to their diets is overkill much of the time, but occasionally it’s still fun to work with the kids to make an apple pie or a batch of snickerdoodles.  We are not anti-dessert, we just don’t make a habit of it.

Beyond the sweet things?  That’s where the agreement breaks down.  And sadly the rein of the spinach quiche finally ended a couple of weeks ago when Quinn declared out of the blue that he no longer likes the spinach part and would only eat the crust. Now when we serve spinach quiche he gets himself out some yogurt or a slice of turkey ham to bring to his plate.  At the moment they will all eat hamburgers, although the last time we made them Aden inexplicably peeled off the outer layer of her bun and ate nothing else, so I don’t know what that means.  They will all eat my matzoh ball soup if I serve Mona’s without the matzoh balls.  They all eat mashed potatoes, just not at the same time.  Usually either Mona or Quinn will decline but I never know which one it will be.  Sometimes they all eat spaghetti.

I’m amazed by the phases things go through.  Aden used to be crazy about these chicken and mushroom stuffed crepes I would sometimes make and Mona wouldn’t touch them.  This year it switched around, and I served them one night at Aden’s request and she decided she didn’t like them, but Mona scarfed them down.  Now we make them per Mona’s request from time to time. 

Things they were crazy about will go out of favor if they’ve been out of the menu rotation for more than a few months.  There is a chicken and wild rice casserole that they used to love that I’m sure they would be suspicious of now.  Zucchini-crusted pizza remains unpredictable, where they either eat it all or don’t even want it on their plates.  Aden used to be a huge fan of salmon until she ate some while she had a stomach bug and threw it up, and now that’s done.  Mona still asks for salmon, and Aden just looks sullen when we serve it.  I may have the only kids in America who don’t ask for mac and cheese.

If I want to push a certain food I serve it in a pattern.  If I need to use up some bananas, for instance, I cut them up and arrange them on a big plate in the shape of a spiral or a star which attracts their attention, and then they find it amusing to ruin the pattern, forcing me to arrange the remaining slices into a smaller pattern, until it’s gone.  My kids are also more likely to try something if I just serve it to myself and tell them about how they used to steal whatever it is off my plate when they were little (which is true).  Often after a few bites from my plate where they think they are being silly and I pretend to act annoyed that my food is disappearing, they ask for some on their own plates.

Renaming things often helps.  If I buy the carrots with the tops still on we call them bunny carrots, and suddenly they all want carrots so they can pretend they are bunnies.  If I can throw the word ‘yummy’ or ‘cheesey’ onto something, that spikes interest.  We call baked beans ‘sugar beans’ (which is pretty accurate when you get down to it) and that gets Aden and Quinn to eat those.  Parmesan is ‘sprinkle cheese.’  If it sounds like something a cartoon character would eat then they are more likely to try it.

The rule in our house is that dinner is dinner, and for the most part we don’t make separate extra meals for people.  There are some exceptions, such as if we order in Chinese food, Mona doesn’t want any but asks if she can have ramen.  It takes about one minute to cook her some noodles, and on a night where we don’t have to cook anything else it’s not a big deal.  But most nights we just try to serve enough of a variety of things on the table that there is something for each person to eat.  They may not try the main course, but if there are peas and potatoes and cut up bananas on the side, everyone will get something.  If they don’t like what’s on the table they still have to sit with us during dinner, and they are allowed to supplement if they do the work themselves.  If they want to heat up some ravioli or make some toast or a sandwich, that’s okay, as long as Ian or I don’t have to do it and they come eat it at the table.

I don’t believe in fighting about food, but dessert is only for people willing to at least try some of the vegetables.  If they know there is dessert coming they will point out that they are eating the broccoli or the beans early in the meal so they get credit.  My kids are actually pretty good about fruits and vegetables.  We try to keep grapes and apples and bananas around all the time in easy reach, and they can always have a piece of fruit (or a vegetable) without having to ask.  They will turn to things like crackers for a snack first if we have them in the house, but are just as likely to eat grapes if they are there.  Quinn loves cucumbers.  Mona eats a lot of bananas.  Aden likes carrots.  Mona surprised me at a pasta dinner at her school where she helped herself to salad on the side.  I knew she loved tomatoes, but I didn’t expect her to choose salad when it was optional.  She told me she always has some of the salad when they offer it to her at school!  And she ate every bite.  Who knew?

Because of the random levels of pickiness among the three kids we serve a lot of deconstructed dinners whenever we can.  Taco night and BLT night are both examples of serving all the individual components on the table and letting everyone pick and choose what they want.  Mona makes a full BLT and adds Swiss cheese.  Quinn sometimes skips the bacon, and last time forgot that he doesn’t eat tomatoes until he was halfway through one and handed me the rest of it.  Aden uses only the bacon and calls her sandwich a BOB (bacon on bread).  None of my children will make a taco, but they all eat bits and pieces of everything on the table and usually turn the tortillas and cheese into quesadillas on their own.

Whenever I have the kids with me at the grocery store I let them pick out some fruit or vegetable to try, and that’s been a good way to get them interested in more unusual things.  Aden, we’ve discovered, loves steamed artichokes.  Every once in awhile we’ll have a little artichoke party where we eat a couple of them together after school.  Last time Quinn joined in, but Mona steers clear.

When Ian and I take the time at the beginning of the week to plan our meals they go much better, but we’re not as consistent about that as we’d like to be.  We try to let each of the kids pick one meal a week, but they aren’t good at it.  Quinn can never decide what he wants and half the time shrugs his shoulders and the other half just says pizza.  Ian makes good pizza dough, and often on pizza night the kids get to make their own.  We mostly use pineapple on our pizza.  Mona nearly always picks spinach quiche for her dinner night.  Aden, if she can’t think of anything better, tends to pick spaghetti and meatballs. 

Other typical meals are chicken and rice, or sloppy Joes.  When the fridge is looking too messy we have a leftover auction for dinner, where we clear out as many of the little containers of old food that we can.  We try really hard to eat a home cooked dinner together whenever possible, but every couple of weeks there will be a time crunch where no one is home between work and shuttling kids around to different activities and we just pick up pizza and call it a night.

During the school year we don’t think about lunch very often, but a typical lunch at the moment is some combination of sandwiches, yogurt, hard boiled eggs if we have them, fruit…  They all like grilled cheese, but for Mona that means a ‘grown up sandwich.’  I like to make a grilled sandwich that has mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and avocado on it, and the first time Mona saw it she was curious and asked what it was and I told her it was a kind of grown up sandwich rather than a kid sandwich.  She tried it and was hooked.

Breakfast is probably more elaborate at our house than seems typical among people we know, but I think that goes back to my childhood.  When I was a kid, my mom (who is the most amazing cook, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my mom–ask anyone who has eaten at her house and you will hear the same thing) had an idea for teaching her three kids to cook.  She came up with a schedule where each of us would help/learn how to cook a meal.  The first week I was on breakfast, Barrett was on lunch, and Arno was on dinner.  Dinner was the busiest assignment, and lunch was kind of the freebie week because we were in charge of our own lunches anyway.  It was a great plan, but life being the busy mess it is we never got past that first week, so Arno learned some decent cooking skills, Barrett learned nothing, I became pretty good at breakfast foods, and that was that.

So before school my kids are used to things like banana pancakes, French toast, crepes, something called a David Eyre Pancake which is a German style pancake you bake in a skillet until it gets puffy and curls up on the edges.  On the weekends when there is no rush to get to school we do waffles or popovers.  (When we make popovers we serve them with strawberry butter, which is just butter blended together with strawberry jam, but it’s really good.)  It sounds like I’m pulling some weird Martha Stewart stunt, but the truth is even crepes are easy if you are in a habit of making them.  I timed it once, and from the minute I step into the kitchen to the time I can get pancakes made from scratch on the table is ten minutes.  Crepes take longer only because they are bigger and I can’t fit eight of them at once on the griddle like I can pancakes or French toast, but the girls have started making the batter on their own so that speeds things up from my end.  I told them anytime they want to get up early and make the crepe batter I will cook it for them.  Saturday I came downstairs to find crepe batter portioned out in three bowls, each one tinted with a different food coloring.  Pink, green, and blue crepes don’t look that appetizing to me, but hey, I’ll still cook them.

I don’t have any interest in whether things are supposedly organic, but I do like buying things from our local farmer’s market in the park in the summer.  It’s only a few blocks from my violin store, so I try to walk over there and pick up some things before we open on Saturdays when I can.  We don’t keep soda in the house but occasionally buy it for birthday parties.  For the most part we just drink water from the tap.  We’re not vegetarian, but there are enough vegetarians among our friends and family that we regularly cook meals without meat.  All of us look forward to funnel cakes at the fair in our neighborhood every year.

I have my own complicated issues with food, but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids.  They are interested in the idea of healthy food and are more likely to try something new if we tell them it’s good for their bodies.  I like passing down family recipes and having the kids help me make banana bread.  I’m glad that Aden is getting more self-sufficient in the kitchen all the time and that Quinn will always at least try something before he decides he doesn’t like it.  I’m sure the way we eat looks different from what other people do, but as long as the food fingerprint for our family includes some healthy meals and the house sometimes smells like pie I think we’re doing okay.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Misunderstood (Babble)

Misunderstandings are the fuel for most sitcoms.  As a child of the 70’s and early 80’s, I remember the point when I figured out that any episode of Three’s Company could be summed up by saying, “It was a misunderstanding!”  People not quite in sync with one another and not interpreting each others’ meaning on any kind of stage can be funny.  And if it accidentally makes any of the characters emotional it can be downright hilarious.  But some of that urge to laugh I think is a release of nervous tension connected to a personal place.  Because in real life few things are more painful than being misunderstood.

I’ve bumped into this truth uncomfortably a few times in the past several weeks.  It’s something I don’t think comes up as a typical parenting topic, but once you focus on it, it’s pervasive.  I’ve written before that I think the root of most of what gets labeled ‘the mommy wars’ has to do with our own vulnerabilities, but being misunderstood is close kin to that.  When people start arguing about knee jerk parenting topics they often stop listening.  It can be easy to get drawn in, but then become frustrated if you don’t feel you are being heard.  Worse is when someone else hears what you say in a manner you didn’t intend at all.

One of my favorite authors is Deborah Tannen, who writes books about misunderstandings from a linguistics point of view.  Her work was a revelation to me about giving people the benefit of the doubt.  She seems to start from the assumption that in most cases everyone has good intentions, but subtle differences in communication can lead to problems.  It’s a gracious way of looking at how people interact that I remind myself to employ as often as I can.  I try not to jump to the conclusion that people are trying to be offensive most of the time, and if they have rubbed me the wrong way I try to see from what angle they thought they were being nice.  I hope people do the same for me.

In business the problem of being misunderstood can be very tricky.  I know my words are weighted differently in my store when it comes to particular topics.  I like selling violins, but I don’t want to talk someone into buying the wrong violin.  If I think they will like the selection someone else has better, I send them there.  It really is more important to me that a player have the right instrument than that I make a sale, but why would someone who doesn’t know me believe that?  I lack credibility in some ways when I give an opinion because there is a perceived conflict of interest.  When I say to a customer, “I think you deserve a more expensive bow” I worry that they hear, “I want your money for my kids’ college fund.”  (Or worse yet imagine I have some kind of boat payment due.)  I hope they don’t think I’m doing some typical salesman routine, but I can’t be sure.

But everything has to do with context, much of which we are not privy to.  We can’t help but judge things from our own frame of reference.  I remember once in college making a comment about a silly thing my dad said and I meant it as an example of something endearing, but the person I was talking to frowned in sympathy and replied with a statement about how difficult family can be.  From her frame of reference, silly words from fathers were not endearing at all.  My brother once turned down the chance to go camping with a friend because, he explained, he had a get together planned already with his cousins.  The friend asked, “Plans with cousins?  Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?”  Particularly with family, one can never make assumptions about the context.  There are no universal frames of reference for something so complicated, but we often make the mistake of believing there are.

And of course online text interactions are rife with the opportunity to be misunderstood because tone of voice and gestures are absent.  I’m impressed as I use Facebook more how civil people make an effort to be, despite wildly differing views, but that is still an easy forum to accidentally step on virtual toes.  Aside from the usual problems, there are individual quirks that can get in the way of being correctly understood.  I’ve noticed that if I use an exclamation point some people take it to mean a vehemence that is not what I was aiming for.  I tend to use exclamation points when I’m being less than serious, and I forget that other people use them to provide emphasis.  I never use an exclamation point when I am making a real point because I think they look too hysterical.  That’s an easy way to get misunderstood.

With my children, when we experience a misunderstanding we try to talk it through.  When they were smaller it was almost comical how often certain problems had to do with them not knowing particular words yet.  I once gave a whole lecture about responsibility and how disappointed I was that they weren’t living up to theirs, and after listening patiently to the whole thing Aden finally said, “What’s re-spon-si-bi-li-ty?”  A few months ago when Quinn was sick I asked him about half a dozen times if he thought he might throw up again before I let him have the cereal he wanted, and he kept saying, “No” and after he started eating he asked, “What does throw up mean?”  Their idea of what I expect when I say “Put your clothes away” is not the same one I have in my head, and everyone is upset because I think they’ve ignored me and they think they’ve done what I asked and didn’t get credit. 

There’s also the way Mona seems to channel every kind of emotional upset into something that from my end looks like anger, but I don’t always read it correctly.  When I figure out it’s embarrassment, or shame, or frustration, it changes drastically how I interact with her, but only if I understand what’s going on.  I have already started talking to Aden about the ins and outs of how easily misunderstandings among girls at school can lead to hurt feelings.  I’m hoping by getting her to consider asking people directly about things, rather than relying on the weird form of rumor communication many girls tend to resort to, that she can avoid some of the misunderstandings and pain that that can cause in school.  I don’t know how much hope there is for averting some of that angst, but it’s worth a try.

The times in my life when I have felt most desperately unhappy were when I felt I was being misinterpreted or dismissed.  There is nothing like knowing people believe something about you that isn’t true.  The injustice of being viewed unfairly hurts.  I hate being in a position where I can’t defend myself, or try to set the record straight.
I thought about that a lot during my kids’ toddler years, because I bet a lot of the acting out they do at that age has to do with feeling misunderstood when you think you are being clear.  It has to be confusing and disturbing to finally figure out how to say what you want and still have the answer be no.

There is a wide range of responses to being misunderstood.  In some cases it’s worth the fight to try to be heard.  In others it’s best to let it go.  Sometimes an apology is enough.  Sometimes an apology signals the end.  I recently emailed a friend a response to something about her child that came across to her as flippant and she was hurt.  She felt the need to point it out and I appreciated it.  I had phrased my words the way I had to suggest that the concern at hand was unlikely, not that I didn’t take it seriously.  In this particular case the topic was one I could appreciate the gravity of.  I was glad my friend felt comfortable enough with me to let me know. 

In another instance a couple of years ago I wrote a mass email where a particular line offended someone, and in that case when the aggrieved party spoke up I did not take kindly to it.  In that case the seriousness with which the topic was being perceived I could not relate to, and I was offended that my intentions could not be clearly discerned.  I found it simpler to cut off further communication rather than risk being misunderstood again, which seemed likely.  Sometimes it’s hard to sort out what is the right thing to do.  I’m sure I’m often wrong.

I remind myself as I observe my children that, as much as I love them and adore them and take in every quirk and motion and giggle and sob, I don’t know them the way I think I do.  We are each of us fixed in one body from which to view the world and we are only guessing at what others see and know.  We are all misunderstood.  All I ask is for the occasional benefit of the doubt, and that however they hear what I’m saying, my kids know it comes from a place of sincerest love.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mulit-Cultural Fair (Babble)

First, I need to take a moment to complain that it is mid-May and here in Milwaukee it is freezing.  Like, winter coat wearing rainy grey windy wet nasty stay in the house and drink cocoa weather, which in May is becoming unacceptable.  On some level cold weather feels like jail, and I want to be free!  Free I say!

Second, I need to quickly jot down a Mona story, because if I don’t I will forget it.  When my kids and I snuggle at night before they go to bed sometimes we play “three questions,” which just means I get to ask each of them three questions, and then they get to ask me three questions.  I usually want updates on what they want to be when they grow up, etc., but tonight my last question to Mona was: “Of all the people in the world that you know about but have never met, who would you like to meet?”  I expected her to say something along the lines of the Kratt brothers from the PBS nature shows she likes, but instead she answered, “Well, there was this one time I played with these two girls at the park back when I didn’t like spiders, and now I just don’t really like spiders if they are close to me, and we were playing with this spider and we accidentally squished it so we made it a grave.”  I’m not sure how that went with my question but I was glad to have heard the tale.

Anyway, the big event this past week at my kids’ school was the annual Multi-Cultural Fair.  It’s always crowded and there is never enough time to get to all of it, but it’s fun.  Each class picks a theme to research and puts together a presentation in their room or the hallway.  Some things are always the same, like Mona’s old kindergarten teacher does a display about Alaska which includes a little area where kids can pan for “gold.”  There is another room that always seems to do Hawaii, and Ireland and Mexico always get representation.  Last year the weirdest thing was a room that did both New Orleans and India as part of the same project, which I didn’t understand, but I enjoyed the food samples they served. 

Everyone gets a program to the event that includes a passport section where you can get a stamp from each place you visit as you travel around the school, and at the end of the evening there are a few performances in the auditorium.

Quinn’s room did China.  When I asked him about it all he would say is that sometimes the map of China is on the wall, and sometimes it isn’t.  So that was China.  He didn’t really want to stick around his own room while visiting the school after hours, and Poland down the hall had some really delicious pastries so I got dragged away before China got much of a chance.  (The one room he wanted nothing to do with was Brazil.  It was a big party of confetti and drumming with upper elementary kids smiling and saying, “Come to Brazil!” and Quinn just gripped my hand and slowly backed away.)

Aden’s room did salt.  Yes, salt.  I didn’t know what that meant either the first time she said it, because salt is neither a place nor a culture, but it turned out to be very interesting.  They studied the history of salt in the ancient world and what it meant to the Roman, Celtic and Egyptian peoples.  Aden learned that the word ‘salary’ is derived from salt, and that salt was a very valuable commodity.  She was supposed to dress as an ancient Egyptian (and of course waited until we only had half an hour to tell me we had to make her costume but that’s a whole separate story of frustration).  I was amazed by how much information she was able to rattle off when I found her at her display.  The food sample at her table was some way over-salted cucumber slices.  She talked about salt being used in the preservation of mummies before Quinn dragged me away again.

We were most personally involved in the events of Mona’s room this year.  Her teacher is new and doesn’t have as many supplies or entrenched routines for navigating Fernwood Montessori’s many events as some of the other rooms.  I offered after the Christmas concert to help if they ever needed music again, and Mona’s teacher took me up on it.  (I was impressed, to tell you the truth, because it’s not always easy when you are the one in charge to admit there is something you don’t know and ask for assistance.  I don’t pretend for a minute I could do her job, but kids and music?  That I know, and I was glad to help.)

Mona’s class studied the Andean region of South America, including Peru.  I gave that some thought and decided it would be fun for the kids to make their own pan pipes.  We picked up some small PVC pipe and different colors of duct tape, and then (thank Google) I cut the pipes to the right lengths to form different chords.  I figured if each kid had a set of pipes that played a specific chord, when it was that kid’s turn to play he or she could blow on any note and it would fit.  We made sure the kids assembling the pipes were using the right color of duct tape for their chord so they would be easier to organize.  (Red for A-minor, green for C-Major, and black for F-Major.)  The kids loved making the pan pipes, they loved decorating them with stickers, they loved that they got to keep them, and some of the kids got really good at playing them.  It was fun going to Mona’s class and helping organize a little pan pipe sweatshop.

The bigger challenge was putting together the musical piece.  I need to research what other parents from Mona’s class have any musical experience for future performances because there is only so much I can do and backup is nice.  For this event we didn’t have a lot of time so I had to work with the people I know, which would be my husband and my kids.  Ian got a crash course in guitar, and Aden got an even crashier course in autoharp because I needed chords under all those pipes. 

You know what’s lovely about Aden, though?  At nine, she is already a reliable musician.  She can keep a steady beat, she could follow the music, and her phrasing instincts are very good.  I put her on autoharp the day of the performance because Ian couldn’t make the rehearsal and I needed help.  She was so good I asked if she would mind being on stage that night and she was happy to oblige.

The tune we did was El Condor Passa, which was written in Peru in the early 20th century and made famous by Simon and Garfunkle.  (Think “I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail, yes I would…”)  I played the melody on violin and the teacher conducted the kids to switch between chords on their pan pipes.  The kids wore tee-shirts in red and white to match the Peruvian flag, there was a rain stick, and a couple of people on drums.  Was it the most polished thing ever?  No.  But!  Things I have learned from being in the audience at so many school concerts that make for a successful kids’ number are:  Look coordinated (matching shirts), familiar is good (a tune people recognize), and for the love of all that is holy keep it short.  The cute factor only lasts so long when the kids on stage are not yours.  So by those measures I think it went well.  By the measure of Mona’s class enjoying themselves it was definitely a success, so I’m happy.

The Mulit-Cultural Fair is the last big school-wide event of the year, which means we are within a stone’s throw of summer vacation now.  Not that it feels remotely like summer is coming, but regardless of the weather it will be nice to switch gears for awhile.  I’m ready to not have to rush out of the house with the kids by a certain time in the mornings, or to have to check backpacks for information, or throw together costumes or bag lunches or snacks on short notice.  Summer will be nice, even if we’re still in our winter coats.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Over and Out (Babble)

The final, last little bits of shutting down the Arnold Klein Gallery finally took place this week.  My poor mom has been working for months at the Sisyphean task of clearing out thousands of books and pieces of art and the countless odds and ends that went into 40 years of running an art gallery.  The big closing day show and party was back on Valentine’s Day, but between the amount of stuff that needed to be organized and moved and my father’s illness it’s taken until now to finally be done.  I’m still not sure how my mom managed it, but my mom is amazing like that.

So as one final tribute to my parents and all their decades of hard work running an art gallery in a city that did not make that easy, here is the short film my brother, Barrett, made that we viewed at the closing party.  My mom is great, and how adorable is my dad?  At the party most of the things my mom said in the film were hard to hear because they usually followed some funny gesture of my dad’s that made everyone laugh.  I love my parents.  And I’m proud of them.  If you have a few minutes this little movie is totally worth your time.

And I have been trying for days to embed this video and it won’t stick to my blog for some reason, so just click this little link and you will be in YouTube land watching which is just as easy as clicking the play button on an embedded video, so don’t miss out just because it’s a link!  Click!  Enjoy!
Arnold Klein Gallery turns 40!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Just when you think you know your kids... (Babble)

I spent Mothers’ Day this year under a big heap of kids.  It was an especially clingy day, which was fine, except that my hope for the day was to get one thing done.  Anything.  I have so many projects lying unfinished everywhere it gets me depressed if I think about them, so I thought picking one and seeing it to completion would be great.  But no, that was not meant to be.  (But I suppose the same way I tend to work on Labor Day, being in total mom mode on Mothers’ Day rather than getting a break seems about right.)

That small issue aside, it was a lovely day.  Aden brought me breakfast in bed, which we shared.  (Toast, omelet, and water, plus a flower in a vase–that girl has gotten good at this!)  Then an hour later I got another breakfast in bed because Ian made waffles, so that was nice too.  The girls curled up with me for awhile to listen to a few more chapters of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which we are trying to finish up in time for book club.  Then we did about a dozen trips around the block on bikes and a scooter.  I tried to follow Quinn because age four seems a bit young to keep pedaling out of sight, so I kept cutting through the alley in the middle of our block to head him off and keep track of where he was.  It was beautiful out, and a good day for kids to be essentially rolling along in circles (or, I guess technically squares).
(Kids pausing just long enough for me to snap a slightly blurry photo.)

I also pushed Quinn on the swing for awhile, which he will happily do forever if you are up to it.  You can push him until he literally falls asleep in the swing.  Anyway, the funny thing about our swing set is that last year when we put it in, we installed it on top of a spot where there used to be a garden.  I had someone move all the bulbs to a different area of the yard, but apparently he missed, well, LOTS, so until the tulips are done we are down one swing because the kids don’t want to hurt the flowers.

Anyway, the big event on Mothers’ Day was my girls had a violin recital.  I would have sworn to you last week that I could have written the post about it ahead of time and just scheduled it to run on the day.  They’ve had two violin recitals in the past and they both went the same way.  Aden gets nervous but overall does fine.  She usually makes some odd mistake, but after a pause plugs ahead, finishes her song, and takes her bow.  And for Aden that was pretty much how it went this time too, except that instead of fretting about having made a mistake, she saw that others also made mistakes and didn’t beat herself up about it afterward, which is good.

But Mona’s experience was new, and I never could have predicted it.  In the past Mona was the first player on the program.  She would get in front of the audience wearing her velvet dress and shuffling along carefully in her high heel shoes.  She would beam at everyone, play her song, not care if she made mistakes, smile and bow….  Mona is charming on stage and always took recitals in stride. 

But this year was different, and I’m kicking myself for not being better prepared, both as a mom and a violin teacher.  I did not grab her book before we left the house because she could not have had her piece better memorized.  She has been working on it for weeks and playing it up to 20 times a day in anticipation, but I should have known better and just brought the book along.  The other thing was I had Aden run through her piece outside before the concert to help her warm up, and I should have done the same with Mona.  But since Mona has never been nervous about performing before it didn’t occur to me.

This year Mona was third on the program.  When it was her turn to take the stage, she shuffled up in her high heels, faced the audience, and froze.  I could see it all over her face that she blanked on how the song went.  If I’d been sitting closer I would have offered her, “A, A, one, one….?”  But I couldn’t help her.  Her teacher asked if she’d like the book, but it was not the copy Mona was used to and had none of the pencil markings in it that would have jogged her memory.  She looked sadly at the book with her instrument under her chin, but didn’t know what to play.  My heart broke for her.

Her teacher kindly ushered Mona back toward her seat and announced we would try Mona’s part of the recital later in the program.  Mona took her seat between her sister and me, and pressed her mouth against my shoulder to muffle her sobs.  My poor sweet girl.
After Mona’s tears were done, I detached myself from Quinn.  Quinn is usually well behaved in public settings like concerts.  He sits still and claps politely, but at this recital he just flopped all over me and kept repeating, “This is long.  Why is this so long?”  What happened to my cooperative little guy?  In any case, after managing to convince Mona to ditch her high heels for a minute so we could more easily slip out of the hall together, we ducked out back.

I hugged her and told her it was okay.  I put her tiny violin on my shoulder and played her song so she could remember how it was supposed to go.  As soon as she heard the notes her face lit up in recognition and she said, “Can I try it now?”  I handed over the violin and she played through her song perfectly.  Just like she’s been doing at home for weeks.  I asked her if she was ready to go back in.  She nodded, hugged me, and said, “Thanks mom.”  We quietly took our places in the audience again.

At the very end of the program Mona was ready to give her song another shot.  Her teacher invited her back on stage, and again when Mona faced the audience she froze and asked for the book.  But this time she pushed ahead.  She made a couple of false starts, but then with quiet, even tone and nicely in tune, she played her piece.  She bowed.  She looked happy.  She helped herself to many snacks at the reception.
When I think of Mona I think of her like this:
She can certainly be shy, but she’s often front and center.  She’s not usually concerned about what other people think, and although she’s flamboyant in her taste and expression, she does not seek drama.  Mona at one time was terrifyingly fearless, but she’s changed as she’s gotten older.  It’s hard to let go of old notions about people, even people you see every day who show you how they’ve evolved.  The Mona at the recital was not the front and center Mona.  She was a girl who wanted to be at the end of the line for receiving little ribbons to commemorate the event.  She wanted to blend into the background.  She was ready to take off her high heels when the performance was over. 
I’m so proud of Mona for hitting that stage again.  If she had left the hall without ever playing her piece I fear that experience could have stayed with her in a negative light for a long time to come.  Emotional events like that can be hard to shake, especially in a area like music performance.  But Mona played her piece all the way through and simply said, “Thank you” when people complimented her afterward. 
My little girl’s growing up, and I’m glad every day that I’m around to see it.  Best Mothers’ Day ever.  (Even if none of my stuff got done.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On Target (Babble)

(I suppose a brief disclaimer is in order to mention that Target doesn’t know I exist beyond what shopping I do there, and I am not mentioning a specific store as some kind of promotion for it.  It just happens to be the store in our neighborhood and we like it.  But if Target sees this and wants to send me gift cards I won’t say no.)

We have a Target store two blocks from our house.  We are there way too often but it is literally our corner store.  It’s hard to think of something handier to have just down the street, frankly (aside from maybe my kids’ grandparents, which is something I dream about some days).

When we first moved into our house, Target was our source for a lot of the new household goods we needed.  When I had my first baby I used to walk her there a lot.  Ian was in school most days, and hanging out at home with tiny Aden got claustrophobic sometimes and two blocks to Target was easy and fun, and usually necessary because we always needed diapers or wipes or something.  We only had one car, and if Ian took it on weekend drills with the Army, being able to walk to Target with the baby for something was a godsend.  In the winter it was a place to go that was heated, and in the summer it’s air conditioned.  Two blocks isn’t hard on tiny legs, and to be able to walk someplace with bathrooms and a changing station that kept the kids entertained and also allowed me to get some basic errands accomplished at the same time has been great.  To say it’s been convenient is an understatement.  There’s a snack counter, a pharmacy, and a photo lab.  I’ve breastfed my babies at Target, I’ve suffered a few impressive tantrums there, and we’ve had many an amusing lunch while playing I Spy and sipping Icees.  I know that store like the back of my hand.

Or, at least I did.  Recently the kids and I noticed a number of truck-sized containers taking up the south end of the parking lot.  We speculated about what they were for.  My kids were hoping for a carnival of some sort, just waiting to be unpacked and spread out in a dazzling display across the whole parking lot, but instead, the next time we went we discovered that the store is being remodeled.  They are doing it in little sections and I suspect mostly at night so that the store remains functional during the process.

It’s weird.  I hadn’t really thought about just how much time we’ve spent at this one store until they started messing with it, and it’s kind of unsettling, more so than it should be.  My kids don’t like change anyway, and outside of home, school, and the violin store, I would wager that Target is the other place they know best, so it’s awkward to have it transform into something unfamiliar.  That probably sounds sad to some people to say my kids and I are attached to a big chain store, but our neighborhood Target has always felt personal to us.  We’ve known the same employees there for years.  I’ve talked to people on our block who have lived here for decades and remember when the neighborhood protested the building of the Target store just up the street, and they all say once it opened everyone loved it.  It’s where we run into our neighbors and buy our school supplies and get medicine when we are sick.  It’s a place where we have fun while getting stuff we need.  Or don’t need (if it’s on sale):
(Mona at age 5 trying on high heels.  She still has them, and someday down the line they will be the right size.)

I was there the other night with Quinn because he needed pants.  Most of the pants he has have snaps on them, and he can’t do/doesn’t like snaps, so he keeps re-wearing the same pair of sweatpants over and over.  I figured we’d just pop in and find a couple of 5T pants without snaps and life would be good.  But Target has an insane habit of always stocking things way in advance for the upcoming season and seldom things that apply to the moment, so there were no boys’ pants, only swimsuits and shorts.  So we went ahead and bought some shorts because by the time it’s hot enough that he’ll need them Target will be on to parkas, so we grab what we can when we have the chance.  We eventually found one pair of pants the right size without snaps hidden deep in a clearance rack, so at least there are two pairs of something he can wear until Milwaukee warms up enough to break out the shorts (which could be July–that’s not a joke.  My mom still brings up the time she came to visit for Independence Day and we watched the fireworks in the park in winter coats.)

In any case, before we could find pants we had to find the boys’ section in general.  But the boys’ clothes area is now camping gear.  Camping gear is now bikes.  Next to bikes is going to be a small grocery store, which is new and is going to be great to have down the street, but my kids are wary of this idea because they don’t associate Target with bananas.  The fitting rooms have been blocked off for remodeling and in their place is a temporary structure to use.  The walls in the entry and photo areas are now red.  We’ve been to Target three days in a row this past week and each time there have been large noticeable changes.  Who knows how fast it will all be switched around?

So I took a moment to photograph my favorite quirk about our Target before it possibly gets removed:
I’ve always found it amusing that there is an express lane for people who like colloquialisms and one for grammar nerds.  That I even noticed puts me in the latter category, obviously.  All things being equal I try to use the “10 items or fewer” lane.

Anyway, I was sort of surprised when I started looking for photos on my computer that these were the only ones I have of us in Target.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, because we don’t tend to document the most ordinary aspects of our lives.  Trips to Target for us are as ordinary as it gets. 

But when I think back on my own life, I wish I had more photos of really ordinary things.  I wish I had a picture of the Red Barn restaurant where we used to eat before it became a video arcade and eventually was torn down to make room for 696.  I wish I had a picture of the giant slide from my old school playground before they tore out all the play equipment for a parking lot.  I wish we had more pictures of our house before the addition was put on.  Places where you make nice memories are special, even if they happen to be part of a big chain or look impersonal at a glance. 

I have watched my kids grow up in that store, the passage of time marked in changing shoe sizes and new backpacks and little toys bought at night to put under pillows from the tooth fairy.  So is it silly to be attached to Target?  I don’t think so.  It’s not as lofty as wishing my kids knew our local art museum as well as they know the toy aisles at the back of that store, but it’s part of their regular life.  It’s certainly American.  For most people on this planet our daily experience is not ordinary looking at all, which I think makes it interesting in it’s own way.

So we will continue to watch with interest the developments of our corner store.  And after July we can also pick up bananas there.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A steal at only $1.02 (Babble)

My kids’ school recently had an arts and crafts fair to help raise money for the art program next year.  It’s always a nice event, with a silent auction and food, a craft area for kids to make things themselves, and lots of talented local people with pottery or jewelry or photography or other things for sale.

This year I volunteered to play viola for awhile by the makeshift cafe set up outside the food room.  I’m glad I went first, because the acts that followed were far more fun.  Solo viola music is just always going to be more somber than an accordion even if I wore sparklers in my hair during my performance, but hey, I can only do what I do, and it lent variety.  I will say, though, that I am always impressed by how many small children plunk themselves down in front of me when I play, happy to listen to Bach no matter how serious it is.  It’s always the parents who shoo them along at some point, never the kids who want to leave, which is interesting.

Anyway, I didn’t discover until I got to the fair that Mona’s class had made jewelry for it.  Her teacher had shown everyone how to make little things out of beads and wire, and the kids priced their work themselves and mounted them on display cards.  As soon as I heard about it I sought out the right table and looked for Mona’s contribution.
Took me a moment to find, but here it is:
I laughed when I saw it because $1.02?  How did Mona come up with $1.02? 
I don’t have pierced ears, rings and bracelets always end up bothering me, so pretty much all the jewelry I own is in necklace form.  I was glad to see Mona made a necklace and I happily handed over my money.  When I brought it to the craft area where Mona and Quinn were busy decorating toy snakes (because what we lack in our house is more toy snakes) I showed it to Mona and said, “Look at the beautiful necklace I just bought!”  Her eyes got very wide and she smiled and looked at me saying, “Mom!  I made that!”  She was so pleased I liked it enough to shell out $1.02.

Silly Mona.  For that smile I’d have gone as high as $12.50.

Monday, May 2, 2011

History In Your Hands (Babble)

Okay, I know this is a parenting website and not a forum about violins.  But not every parenting lesson comes directly from dealing with your kids.  Parents have identities beyond that one label, and I’m proud that when I ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up they have lists of things they want to do, which include being a parent.  My daughters always say, “Well, I want to be a mom of course, but also….” and words like scientist and singer and teacher roll off their tongues.  I feel that my job and my life outside the walls of our home shapes their sense of the possibilities out there.  That makes me happy.  I miss my children when I can’t be with them all the time, but I have no guilt about working.  And my work is all about violins.

Violins are complicated objects.  They are functional, but good ones have an artistic component.  They are delicate sculptures that are meant to be touched and performed with.  They have stories.  Many cheap violins lead short, tragic lives.  Some are hundreds of years old and are more famous than the people who play them.  Each violin is as unique as the trees that were cut to build them.  There are violins that are abused or forgotten, but many that are cherished and handed down for generations.  I work on violins in my store every day that are worth little in the general marketplace, but that were loved and used by someone’s grandmother or favorite uncle or dad, and that makes them priceless.  Violins are dependent upon their relationship and interaction with their owners for them to have any meaning.  They have a voice.

When I was in New York with my family over spring break I had the opportunity to look through dozens of violins that were coming up for auction at Christie’s.  My sister-in-law, Deepanjana, who is a specialist in Asian art there (although her official long title is Specialist  Head of Sale/AVP South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art–whew that wears me out as much as it impresses me), was able to get me in for a viewing a few days before the public showing so I could take my time and look at things quietly.
(Front door of Christie’s auction house in New York)

What an incredible opportunity!  There were a few mandolins and guitars to look at, but what I spent my time looking through were the violins and the bows.  I read the catalog carefully before I got there and made two lists:  One of things in my price range that I might bid on, and one of things that were impossibly expensive but was hoping to examine in person just because.  The violins valued at under $10,000 were simply laid out on long tables:
Some of them needed a great deal of work, others were ready to play.  The one I was most interested in I actually won over the phone during the auction.  (Although, ‘winning’ in an auction means I get to pay the highest amount offered for the item, so I’ve always thought that was an odd term for it.  But, hey, whatever you call it, that instrument is now mine!)  It’s a violin built in France in the mid 19th century that I thought was just lovely:

But it does need some work.  I will have to bush the pegbox, which essentially means plugging the holes the pegs fit into and creating new ones to go with new, smaller pegs.  All old violins need this at some point because the pegs work their way through the box over time making tuning more difficult.  See how fat and stumpy the shafts of the pegs look?  Once I bush the pegbox and fit it for new pegs it’s going to look and work much better.  (Plus it needs a new soundpost and bridge and the fingerboard needs planing….  Can’t wait!)

During the auction I was also able to get a couple of really nice bows that I’m excited to have in my store.  I’m often surprised by how many musicians don’t even realize how important the bow is to their playing.  Different bows not only handle differently, but they make different sounds.  A good bow is important, and I’m glad to have a couple of new ones for players in Milwaukee to try.

The people at Christie’s were unbelievably nice.  This impressed me because the place is elegant and everyone is dressed impeccably, and I, frankly, in my rumpled yoga pants, fleece jacket and sneakers looked like I’d been sleeping on the street.  I’m not a snappy dresser anyway, because there is no point when everything I wear just gets covered with sawdust and glue (sort of like the baby spit up years when you’re just asking for trouble by putting on a nice shirt), but combine that with living out of a travel bag that week and I was not a pretty sight.  The Christie’s people pretended not to notice and still handed me some of the rarest instruments and bows on the planet to examine as long as I liked.

It’s an incredible thing to hold a piece of history in your hands.  The jewel of this particular auction (and the instrument that graced the cover of the catalog for it) was a Guadagnini violin from 1740 that wound up selling for more than half a million dollars.  They had no qualms about handing it over to me simply because I wanted to see it.  The remarkable thing is that not only do the specialists at Christie’s care for these objects, but that they so readily recognize and encourage the enthusiasm of others for them.  They didn’t just let me hold this violin, they wanted me to hold this violin, even though they were perfectly aware that I would not be bidding on it.  Here are a couple of my own photos of the Guadagnini in the viewing room:

Non-violin people out there may not be struck by it, but the grace of those curves is unusually beautiful, and that maple back makes me swoon.  I got to look at that violin closely enough to appreciate how expertly those f-holes were cut and to marvel at the elegance of the corners and to be thoroughly envious of the varnish work.  I hope its new owner loves it and gets to play it in some amazing halls.

When all is said and done, with the commission and the shipping and the labor, I don’t make almost anything on the items I pick up at auction.  I need to make sure that anything I pass along to my customers is priced fairly, so I price things enough to cover my own costs and then tack on a tiny bit more so that at least the whole thing isn’t a wash.  From a business perspective I know this is not particularly savvy, but this is not a business anyone enters in order to be rich anyway.  I don’t care about being rich.  I care about being fulfilled.  I run my business well enough that I can afford to keep doing it and that’s what matters to me.  So the thrill of acquiring these pieces has less to do with any real good it will do my violin store’s bottom line, and more to do with having really interesting things to offer people, so they can also hold a bit of history in their hands.  The violin I bought at Christie’s is beautiful and old, and I can’t wait to fix it up.  I get to be the one to make it sing and find it a home.  That’s exciting, and it makes me glad I do what I do.

And that’s the kind of feeling I hope my kids will enjoy in whatever lives they grow up to choose.