Friday, June 27, 2014

summer parenting

Back when Daniel and Anya were really little (which wasn't so long ago, actually), I used to roll my eyes at parents who complained about summer vacation. What in the world would they do with their kids All Day Long now that school was out?? Big freaking deal, I wanted to say. Or, Welcome to my world. And, I bet your kids sleep past 5am, too, don't they?

I kind of get it now. Sort of.

I mean, as kids get a little older, the independence they have can be freeing. Mine are ages 6 and 8. For my own personality and parenting style, things are generally going much better for me than a few years ago when they wouldn't nap or eat anything normal and I was bored stupid and no one ever slept through the night.

At the same time, they are old enough to be more social. Daniel, especially, is at an age where spending time with your friends is preferable to hanging out with your mom. They are both now also accustomed to being in school most hours of the day, where there is, generally speaking, more structure and routine than at home.

I have some firmly held personal philosophies about how kids spend their time, both from my own growing up years and my observations of children I've known from years of teaching music and being acquainted with the peers of my own kids.  I believe it's good for kids to have plenty of unstructured time to work out their own problems and find their own interests. I believe it's good for kids to be bored because it forces them to find their own creativity and independence. I believe kids need to spend a lot of time outside, and have a lot of time to read. I believe kids need to learn responsibility.

All of that looks really good on paper, but in practice, hoo boy is it hard. It would have been so easy for me to sign my kids up for camps and sports teams all summer long to keep them busy. Believe me, it was tempting, since that's what a lot of their friends do. (Side note: I am fully aware that parents of single-parent families and dual-earner households have no choice but to find camps and daycare for summer vacations. I have no intention of igniting a Mommy Wars conversation. No judgment here.) Instead, I've chosen to go with the bare minimum: swimming lessons (assuming they let us into the next session after getting kicked out of the first one, arg), piano, a couple weeks of summer enrichment classes with the school district, and borrowing lots and lots of books from the library for the summer reading program.

It's hard because they need to figure out what to do with their time. Daniel is reading Harry Potter (finally!!), and Anya wants to learn how to sew. I want to teach them how to cook. I'm making them carry all their own stuff around, which is more of an adjustment than you'd think, alas. I plan to do a few fun day trips to some state parks, and we're trying to meet up with their friends from school and the neighborhood as often as possible, since social time is more important than ever.

It's a new stage of parenting (aren't they all?) for me. I need to hand over more responsibility for everything from keeping track of daily piano practice minutes to finding the all-important stuffed animal at bedtime. It doesn't mean I'm less engaged. I'm just stepping back a little, and it's harder than I thought.

Monday, June 23, 2014


Our summer routine was thrown off a little this morning when we got kicked out of swimming lessons.

No one was being unruly or anything, but when we showed up and asked for help finding our instructors, we were told that since we missed the first week of lessons (due to being out of town), there was no longer a place for us. The guy I talked to gave me a lecture about how people were turned down for swimming lessons because there were more requests than slots available and we shouldn't have signed up…and frankly, while I understand the policy (it's unfortunate to turn people down, I get that), I'm still a little pissed off. The deadline for the first session of swim lessons was way back in April before I even knew we would be out of town. I turned in our lesson forms well before that deadline, and dude, it's summer. People go on vacation. I've talked to plenty  of people at the pool in past years who missed a week of lessons due to travel or illness or whatever and weren't penalized, so I had no way of knowing that they were going to start enforcing this policy right now.

Mostly I'm sore that the guy was so grouchy with me. We're all adults here and there are few things I hate more than being talked down to. Not to mention, a pool membership is no trivial expense for a family like ours and I am sad that we won't be able to take full advantage this time around. At least there is another session next month, so the kids will get three weeks of lessons in July and won't miss out entirely.

For all I know I was the third or sixth or tenth person of the day to enquire about swimming instructors a week after the lessons started, so I'm not going to hold it against this guy for being testy, at least, not for more than the next couple of days. Also, there is a new manager this year, so maybe they're cracking down on ragamuffins like us who don't happen to live in the exclusive neighborhood surrounding the pool and go camping for a week instead of showing up to the first few swimming lessons.

It's ok. I'll get over it.

Anyway, this has left us with more free time than I'd anticipated, at least for this week, so I'm trying to come up with ways to keep us busy. This afternoon, I took the kids' doors off their bedrooms and painted them with chalkboard paint. This is an idea I had way back in the fall when I worked so hard on redoing Daniel's bedroom. I'd even bought the chalkboard paint for the door but didn't get around to the project before it got too cold and wet to work outside. When we got home earlier than expected this morning, he suggested we paint his door, so I said, "Sure, why not?" and Anya wanted hers done, too, and so we did.

Tomorrow I want to get a shitload of strawberries to make into freezer jam, so we'll either go to a U-pick place or buy some already picked. I've also invited my friend's kids over for the afternoon so she and her husband can move into a new apartment.

After that, I'm not sure what we'll do to keep ourselves busy. A 6yo and 8yo should be able to keep themselves entertained to some extent, and I always have outdoor projects that need tending to. Summertime always makes me ask myself just how structured our time should be. Is it better to keep ourselves really busy, to make sure we don't get bored? Or is it good to be bored, to learn about introspection and self-reflection, and finding ways to keep our minds busy even when our waking hours are relatively free and unscheduled?

Personally, I lean towards the latter, but the parenting part of me is thinking it's a good way to go nuts during summer break.

What about you?

Saturday, June 21, 2014


Last week I did a bold thing: I took my kids on a weeklong road trip to Niagara Falls without Stuart.  My friend Amy, whose older son is one of Daniel's best friends, came along with her two kids - also sans husband. Of course, we would have loved to bring Stuart along, but 1) he couldn't take the time off work, and 2) with all the camping gear and snacks there wasn't room for him in the car anyway. Amy was in the same situation with her husband, so it was the two of us with four kids.

Why Niagara Falls? Well, quite simply, it was all Daniel's idea. He wanted to after reading a book about Niagara Falls several months ago and got it in his head that we should go there sometime. After asking me repeatedly when the trip was going to happen, I said, "What the heck, let's go when school's out!" and so we did. I've always loved traveling, and now that my kids are old enough to be out of diapers and [ostensibly] responsible enough not to do things like wander aimlessly into oncoming traffic and eat stuff off the ground, I feel comfortable traveling with them solo.

It was quite the adventure! We stayed in campgrounds the whole time, tent camping in Michigan on the way there and back, and rented a yurt in Fourmile Creek State Park in NY for three nights during our Niagara stay.

We had such a great time. I have to admit I find detailed blog accounts of travel kind of wearisome, so I'll just share some highlights with you here.

1: I need more practice building campfires. Seriously, this is a project of mine this summer, to get better at fires. I was more or less in charge of the fire every night, though Daniel and his friend would have been more than happy to be put in charge, judging from their constant poking at the fire and incessant advice as to what I should be doing to get those flames going better: add more paper, rearrange the sticks, light another match, find a fire starter, here, put this in, just poke at it over and over... One evening, it took an hour, an entire book of matches, and many sheets of newspaper, not to mention a pile of frustration and unsolicited advice from a pair of 8yo boys, to get the fire going. Granted, it had rained earlier so even though the wood was dry, the ground below was plenty wet, so I don't think it was all due to my incompetence, but since our dinner depended on it, I was feeling quite impatient.

2. We roasted hot dogs over campfires every night of the trip except the last one. They were good. Don't judge me. Don't you dare.

3. It's possible to fit all you need for a weeklong camping trip into a Toyota Prius. Only if you leave your spouse at home, though.

4. Daniel and Anya took some really great pictures (using waterproof cameras they got for Christmas):

5. The boat tour is worth it. (The picture below is actually the Canadian boat. We left from the U.S. side, where everyone was wearing blue ponchos.)

6. Home sweet yurt. Yes, we stayed in a yurt!  When I was looking for campsites in the Niagara area, I found that the closest campground to the falls, Fourmile Creek in New York, had a couple of newly built yurts to rent. Each yurt has bunk beds that sleep up to six, has electric outlets and a fridge, and is quite reasonably priced, especially when you consider splitting between two families. Not knowing what weather awaited us on our trip, we reserved on yurt for three nights, and boy were we glad we did! The second night of our stay, there were storms and torrential rain that saturated the campsite and flooded a lot of the tents. With two moms and four kids, it was a relief having a roof over our heads. Plus, it's way fun to say "yurt," as in "Time to head back to the yurt!" or, if you're my children, halfway through southern Ontario, "Are we therrrrrrre yet? How long till we get to the yurrrrt??"

7. We went hiking at Whirlpool State Park. It's just a little ways from the falls, but a nice change from the over-developed touristy nature of Niagara itself. The kids didn't complain about the hike, surprisingly, even though it lasted a couple of hours and it was well past lunchtime when we finished. The views were spectacular.

8. We took a sunset walk by Lake Ontario, just steps away from the yurt.

9. We walked around Old Fort Niagara. Fort Niagara has historical significance in that it was an important military establishment during the French and Indian War, and also has the only French-built castle on U.S. soil. I have a feeling every school kid in the Buffalo/Niagara area has a field trip here at some point. When we were there, though, there were only another dozen or so other people walking around. The kids loved it - there were cannons everywhere, and unlike many historic places where things are roped off, in this place you could go anywhere you please and touch just about anything, from cannons to wooden beds, to historic military costumes. We walked below ground into storage bunkers and on top of manmade earthen escarpments, looked out of high windows onto Lake Ontario, and watched a dude fire a musket. It was way more interesting than I expected, to be honest.

10. We went tent camping in Michigan on the way to and from Niagara. And the mosquitoes were awful. Holy cats, I've never experienced mosquitoes like that. We coated ourselves with bug spray, put on jackets and they still assaulted us at every opportunity. It was awful. Still, the camping part was fun and we stayed at Fort Custer SRA, which was otherwise very nice.

11. I would absolutely do this again, but it's good to be home. I loved this trip, but it's nice to sleep in my own bed and be able to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and get to the shower without having to traipse through the mud with a flashlight.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


School's out and I'm about to embark on a camping trip with my kids, plus another set of siblings and their mom. We're either crazy or very adventurous. I meant to write more about this earlier, but I totally over-scheduled myself this weekend with gigs and chicken-sitting and putting off an important car repair until today, so all I can do at the moment is drink a beer and contemplate how that giant pile of camping gear and a cooler full of food is going to fit into my little Prius tomorrow morning.

I'll tell you all about it when I get back, I promise.

Monday, June 09, 2014

so many meetings

I spent my entire evening at a meeting at the kids' elementary school. This has been happening a lot lately, and it's kind of making me crazy. I don't much like meetings where not much gets accomplished, but "not much" is still more than "nothing," which is why I went in the first place. As a parent, I have to be an advocate for my kids and their teachers, so I go to the meetings and I listen and occasionally even speak up.

What the meeting was about, specifically, really isn't that important. In fact, in some ways it was rehash of the same conversations we have over and over at the district level, the state level, and the national level about just how we can adequately address the overwhelming academic and social needs of our students.

I learned far more in the hour-long informal chat I had with other parents after the meeting than during it, because it's in those spontaneous conversations where you figure out what's actually going on in the tangled web of local politics and district policy and layers of red tape that at the end of the day have very little to do with the actual teaching and learning going on in the classrooms.

I always leave these meetings alternately energized and drained. I can speak up. I can be an advocate. I can make a difference. I can also see the things that really won't change until we trust the professionals in the classrooms and trust our kids' desire to learn and acknowledge that educating children is an incredibly complicated, imperfect process that can not be quantified by test scores and sophisticated jargon.

I always leave these meetings feeling both that I'm glad I'm not a teacher, and kind of wishing that I were.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

house update

I've had a few people ask me how things are going with the addition/remodel project, so I thought it would be worth an update here. Last time I posted about it, which was months ago, we were feeling very discouraged about the potential cost of the whole thing and worried about how long it would take and were just generally unsure how to proceed. Not long after that, we talked with the builder, who made a tentative rough schedule to do the work in the fall, and promised to bring subcontractors over to work on a more detailed estimate for us.

That was a little while ago and nothing has happened since. We still don't know how much the project  is going to cost, but an estimate will be coming in late July and we've worked out a financial strategy that should be manageable, assuming the actual estimate isn't way more than we're anticipating. I admit that all the waiting is frustrating, not because I'm all that eager for the process - having a giant hole dug in my back yard and walls knocked down is not going to be fun - but because I'm sick of this house being so small and crowded and shabby. I'm also worried about the cost. I've spent time lately in other people's homes that are much more spacious and nicer than ours and it has sparked some envy.

Yes, I'm admitting to being shallow and materialistic and envious. This isn't my whole outlook on life, understand. I'm generally pretty happy. But I'm so tired of the cramped kitchen and old paint and craptastic decor in the living room; the curtains, which are ugly and ripping apart, came with the house when we bought it ten years ago and all of the furniture was bought on the cheap when we were both graduate students.

I really, really want a bay window in there. I wonder if I'll get one or if the price tag will nix that idea.

I also want a new bathroom floor. I hate the ugly vinyl one we have so much I'm tempted to rip it out myself, though considering my lack of skills in the home improvement department, that's very unwise.

On the upside, I've been spending a lot of time working outside, so much time, in fact, that I've gone through a whole bottle of sunscreen in the last few weeks and I still have a pair of angry red crescents on my back where I couldn't reach around a tank top strap. I have perennials and herbs and a few vegetables in my front yard, I have a straw bale garden in the back yard (which isn't as easy as they say, but that's a whole post in and of itself...), I have a community garden plot, and I've spent many, many hours at the kids' school coordinating the garden program, finding volunteers, and planting flowers and vegetables with students in the garden plots. There is a lot of dirt under my nails these days.

If I can't fix the inside of my house, at least I can work on the outside, right? I'm just so desperate to have some improvement, plus it's so satisfying to grow nice things and pull weeds when I need to vent frustration.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

camping adventures

Gah, that new picture on the blog header is huge. I mean, my kids are cute and everything (even with all those teeth missing) but that really jumps out at you, doesn't it? Blogger is really annoying for fixing stuff like that, though, so I'm leaving it for now.

Anyway, we went camping over the weekend. Camping is something we want to get better at and do more often. It's fun to build a fire and make s'mores and sleep in a tent. Plus, something always goes wrong so there's usually a good story to tell.

We were at Yellowstone Lake State Park, an under appreciated gem of a place near Blanchardville, WI.  One of the nice things about it is that it's possible to make a camping reservation at the last minute, i.e. when you have a pretty good idea of whether it's going to rain or not. It's a beautiful drive through the Driftless Area to get there. They have bat houses that host thousands of bats, ergo very low mosquito population. There is a small, very inexpensive restaurant that would make a vegan cry; the menu consists of ice cream, delicious local burgers and some fried stuff, all of which tastes extra-good when you've just come back from a canoe ride. Have I sold you on this place yet?

My good friend Stephanie lives very nearby so she comes over to the campsite to hang out with us all evening when we camp there. We roast hot dogs and s'mores, get the kids settled in the tent, and chat as it gets dark and the fire dwindles. Stuart leaves to brush his teeth and change, and as he is walking back to the fire pit, he startles a raccoon that had come to investigate a bag of chips on the picnic table we hadn't yet put away. Sneaky raccoons are a little spooky (I'm working on my persona as the tough outdoorsy type; right now I'm still a little squeamish around wild nocturnal types). Better put that bag of chips in the car straight away, we decide.

Stuart walks to the car. Doors are locked. Trunk is locked. He feels in his right pocket. No key. He feels in his left pocket. No key. Uh oh. He tries the doors again (as if they will magically unlock themselves), curses a little bit, and then the three of us - me, Stuart and Stephanie - contemplate what to do when it's 11:00 at night and you're in the boonies and you lock your keys in the car.

Stuart tries calling roadside assistance (we have this with our auto insurance) using Stephanie's phone (because our phones are LOCKED IN THE CAR) but after navigating an automated answering service and waiting on hold for 10 minutes, the call drops. We decide to wait until morning. Stephanie leaves to go home, we feel the wind change and we can tell it's going to rain. "I hope it doesn't rain too much on you!" she says as she gets into her truck.

We get in the tent. My mouth feels gritty and sour (because my toothbrush is LOCKED IN THE CAR). It starts to rain. The wind is gusting. Lightening flashes. Thunder rumbles. Anya is thrashing in her sleep and keeps kicking me in the head. I can't sleep, thinking about the locked car and listening to the rain and counting the seconds between lightening and thunder and dodging the fidgety feet of my restless daughter. I feel something move by the tent and I kick at it, sure it's the same damn raccoon come back to look for those chips.

Very, very early the next morning, we get up. I have had, at most, three hours of sleep. I go to the bathroom, hoping to find someone with a cell phone that works so we can call the roadside assistance number again. No luck. When I come back, it starts raining again just as we pack up the tent. We can't eat breakfast (because all the food is LOCKED IN THE CAR), the park office doesn't open for over an hour, but we decide to walk anyway, for lack of anything better to do.

When we pass a group campsite, Stuart flags down a guy who happens to have a working cell phone he's willing to lend us. The people camping there is a large group of Muslims. I feel awkward in my tank top and shorts. My head and shoulders are bare, and I don't know if any of them really care, but when one middle-aged gentleman dressed in a long linen tunic kindly offers us some crackers, I say "No thanks," and he replies, "No, not you. The kids." A few minutes later, a woman offers me some tea and it is delicious.

Eventually, Stuart gets a hold of a local towing service. They send a guy to our campsite. It takes him 3 minutes to pry open the door of the car just enough to slip a cable inside and open the door. This sets off the car alarm, so as the horn blares through the campsite, we scramble to find a set of keys to make it shut up.

The rest of the morning is delightful. The rain stops. Now that the car is unlocked, we scarf down some breakfast. We guzzle coffee-tinted water from the restaurant. We take a canoe ride (first one ever for both kids, and possibly Stuart), then hang out at the beach, and eat some cheap, delicious burgers and ice cream before heading home.

I can't wait to see what happens next time.