Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My five favorite blogs

Adventures in Babywearing (
Steph has this gift of taking the most mundane little things in a standard day and turning them into something beautiful. Almost all of her blog posts have breathtaking photography - usually of her kids - and sometimes very few words. Sometimes the picture just says it all. I was lucky enough to read in a production she directed this past May called Listen to Your Mother. She’s a mom of many talents. When you follow her blog you just sometimes feel like you’re sitting right there in her living room experiencing it all along with her.

Five Kids is a Lot of Kids (
Ok, look at that URL. Anyone who would choose that one has to have a sense of humor. I was initially drawn to her blog by the title alone. She has five kids. I have five kids. I wanted to see how she was faring. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s pretty normal to feel like you’re losing your mind on a daily basis when there are five kids at your heels all the time. She is funny. No, she is downright hilarious. But when she’s not, she expresses these tender and heartfelt moments that make your eyes misty.

Two Moms, a Little Time and a Keyboard (
Ok, that’s a mouthful. It didn’t even fit on one line. I love that this blog covers lots of areas. It is mostly about things to do and see with your kids in the Chicago-area…right up my alley. I’ve been doing travel writing for a dozen years and a lot of it involves local attractions. I’m always looking for new material and ideas on new places to visit and I like to get the little tips that moms want to know before they go. But they also cover travels outside the area. And recipes. And crafts. And restaurants. And product reviews. So, it’s kind of a one-stop shop. And it’s always something I enjoy reading.

Nameberry (
I’m a total name nerd. Writing about baby names is one of my favorite topics. Each year I check out the list of top names put out by the Social Security Administration. I’m proud of the consideration that went into choosing the names of our five boys. I love meeting new parents in my job taking pictures of babies in the hospital…and I love finding out their new names and meeting all the new Masons and Logans and Avas and Isabellas of the world. I also get regular e-mails from and I love to read their take on popular names, suggestions of new trends and news on the latest celebrity baby names.

Live Your Love Out Loud (
I think I love this blog so much because I met the person before I read the blog. I know Heather personally and she just has this natural exuberance about her that makes you fall in love with her. I enjoy reading her ramblings about life with her two little girls and all her motherly adventures. I also subscribe by e-mail so that I don’t miss posts and smile every time one shows up in my inbox. Oh, and she and I were in that Listen to Your Mother show together. In fact her reading came after mine, so we were seated next to each other. :) What a great person to sit with. She whispered words of encouragement before I went on stage and when I returned. She rocks!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Live like there's a power outage

Have you head the Tim McGraw song where he talks about living like you know you're dying ? Where he asks what you would do. Go skydiving? Rocky Mountain climbing? Go 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu?

I'm not going to pose a question quite so philosophical.But I am going to give a bit of advice on how to live life a little better. And it's not by looking at the Xray of doom. It's by living as if you're Amish. By that, I mean ditching the electricity. Not all the time. Just for a little while. When things are hairy and you're feeling out of sorts and not so grounded. That's when it's time to pull the plug. Why this epiphany? Well...

This morning I was awakened by a loud burst of wind of raindrops banging against the air conditioning unit over my head. I rolled around a little and couldn't fall back asleep. I knew it was morning by the bits of dampened sunlight peeking through the corners of the shade. But I new it was early morning. I didn't feel rested enough to start the day. I glanced over at the alarm clock. 7:05. I rolled around a little more and dozed shortly. When I rolled over again, I heard my husband ask what time it was. I looked over again. The clock was dark. No power. After a few minutes, I was curious. I went downstairs and got my phone. It was 7:45.

It really was time to get up and start the day, but I was still drowsy. After lying wide-eyed, I finally fell back asleep. When I woke again, still a dark alarm clock, but my phone said 9:45. 9:45!!!! I can't remember the last time I slept that late. It felt good. Maybe it was the fact that it was quiet. No noise from air conditioners or fans and the windows were still closed, not letting in the sounds of birds or kids or passing cars. It was silent. Maybe that's what did it.

I felt a little lost when I woke up. My usual routine this summer has been to make my way to the bathroom, take note of who is awake and who is still sleeping, find out if they've eaten breakfast and then sit down in front of the computer to check my e-mail, check Facebook, poke around online to see what's in the news. If I don't see much of interest, I go get the newspaper off the porch, take a look and then get back to the computer for a bit.

First thing I did was grab my iPad thinking I could check e-mail on there. Duh! No power means that the wireless router is down, so no Internet access on the iPad. Oh, well. So, I did some things I probably wouldn't have done on a normal day. Hubby and some of the boys were outside assessing the damage, so I went out as well. As they went to work picking up sticks and branches and picking up the recycling that had scattered all over the street, I picked up some recycling items as well and looked at the garden. The storm wasn't kind to it. It also took the roof off of the kids' playhouse. I spent a little time outside with the kids. That's not something I do first thing in the morning.

Next, I reached for my purse and realized how overstuffed it was. I took time to dump all the contents out on the table and clean it out.'s funny what you find in the bottom. A toothpick. Sunblock. Three tubes of lipstick. Stray change and receipts. Expired coupons. I counted 18 pens. And 2 pencils. And 3 Sharpies. A mini first aid kit. And lots of other junk. Feels good to know what's in there now.

Then as I went to put my pens in my little caddy, I looked at how disorganized it had gotten during the school year. There are six compartments that hold pens, markers, pencils, erasers, scissors and crayons.  I emptied it all out and got it in order.

As I looked at all the pens, I decided to write some letters, something I haven't done in a long time. I got out some stationery and wrote to my aunts and my husband's grandmother. I used to write often to all nearly all my aunts. When I first got married there was Aunt Ramona and Aunt Marilyn, my dad's sisters (I don't really know my other aunt - his brother's wife, who lives in Florida and I have never met) and my great aunt Harriett. Then on Mom's side was Aunt Nila, Aunt Carolyn, Aunt Ellen and Aunt Lora. Nila, Carolyn and Ellen are no longer with us. There's not as many letters to write these days, but I've always enjoyed that handwritten correspondence. I've always loved getting back handwritten letters from them and have saved a good number of them.

It was also my son's birthday (son #4) and he turned 9. With no air conditioning and high humidity, I wasn't too keen on the idea of baking and thought perhaps I'd take the easy way out and run to the grocery store for a cake. But then he started throwing out ideas of all the cakes he was thinking he'd like. I showed him one in a cookbook I had borrowed from the library. It was a Texas sheet cake. The picture along side the text was a decadent piece of chocolate Heaven. He was sold. So we got to work on the cake. As I got out the ingredients, I straightened out the pantry a bit.

As I walked around the house, the boys were putting together Legos and playing with Matchbox cars rather than watching television or playing video games, which they very likely would have been doing had we not had a power outage. If they weren't playing inside, they were outside, doing more cleaning up in the yard.

I kind of felt like I was the mouse in that book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" But my story was something like, "If you give a bored lady who is fidgety because of lack of Internet access an overflowing purse, she'll clean out the pens and pencils. When she sees the pens and pencils, she'll decide to put them away. When she puts them away, they will remind her of writing with them on paper. She'll pull out some paper to write a letter. Then she'll start to write. When she starts writing, she'll realize she needs an envelope. When she looks for an envelope, she'll find her box of greeting cards. She'll decide to organize it. She remembers it is her friend's birthday and writes out a card..." and so on. One thing led to another, but it was all little stuff that isn't all that major or time consuming, but just stuff that I don't take the time to do on a regular basis.

Within four hours of getting out of bed, the power was restored. But I felt like I'd accomplished a bit. I had:

Gone outside and collected some stray recycling
Cleaned out my purse
Organized my school supply caddy
Written three letters
Written out a birthday card
Baked a cake
Straightened out the pantry
Washed some dishes by hand
Cleaned the stove
cleaned off the kitchen counters
Put away two baskets of laundry
Made some phone calls I'd been procrastinating about to the insurance company, doctor's offices, etc.

Compare that to yesterday morning where in my first four hours awake I'd checked e-mails, written a blog posting, checked Facebook, left to do a photo shoot, returned home and checked more e-mails and Facebook. Today felt much more productive.

I really need to have more mornings like today. Once school is in session again and there is more of a set routine, I'll become a bit more productive. But for now, I think I need to wake up and live each day like there's a power outage. Think Tim McGraw could make a country song out of that? :)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Having an economic pity party

Ok, once in a while I catch myself having a little pity party. I don't do it often because I catch myself and remind myself to be grateful for all I have. I am very grateful for what I have - most importantly I have a husband and five sons who are healthy. I also have both parents who are still living and are close by. They aren't in perfect health, but for being in their mid-70's things could be much worse. That's the most important thing I have going in my life - the people I love.

Then there's the other stuff. I have a modest home. I have a vehicle to get me places. We have food on the table. Those are the cheery optimistic answers. The realistic answers are a little more complex. We have food on the table, but it's always either generic or purchased on sale and sometimes with coupons. It's a treat to be able to stop at the drive through for burgers or order a pizza. I have a vehicle, but it is 8 years old and was used when we purchased it. It's nearing 100,000 miles and won't be paid off for a few more months. And it costs about $90 to fill the gas tank, so it doesn't go too many places that it doesn't have to. My husband's vehicle is 13 years old and we keep nursing it along because two vehicle payments would kill us. There's no extra money for luxuries. Clothing is usually hand-me-downs or the occasional new stuff at the start of the school year or at Christmas that gets shuffled around on credit cards when there's a 30 percent off sale at Kohl's. My husband has a good job. I work two jobs - one doing freelance writing and another part time at a local hospital. However, at my husband's work there was a pay freeze going on for a few years and increased insurance costs at the same time that gas prices pretty much doubled and the prices of everything at the grocery store and department stores went up as well as a result. And the property taxes have also skyrocket in recent years. It sent us from floating along pretty well to barely scraping by. Sucks to be there, but we are.

We have a home, but a very modest home - one that is really a 2-bedroom, but we managed to squeeze two bedrooms into the basement to accommodate the whole gang. We're in the process of splitting our living room in half to add a bedroom there. At this time last year we had a roof over our head, but one that was leaking. We held out until the income tax refund arrived and spent it on a new roof and new chimney. We have only one bathroom. It's drafty in the winter and stuffy in the summer. We've done some improvements over the years, like adding a driveway and a larger garage, adding a wooden porch on the front and painting the exterior. But there's tons of work to be done. There always is when you own a home. It was meant to be our starter home, yet we're still here and there's no light at the end of the tunnel indicating we'll be able to move into a different house or a different place.

We purchased our home 20 years ago. Five years ago we went to look at a larger house - a big Victorian three-story in town that would have suited our family well. There would have been lots of room. But, it needed a lot of work and taking that into account, we made a low offer. They weren't interested in even negotiating. At that time, an appraisal of our home came in at almost twice what we'd paid for it. Fast forward a few years to the rotten housing market we have now. Now, the several foreclosures in our neighborhood have gone for less than half of what we paid for for our house. Basically, that lowers the value of our place - if we were lucky enough to find a buyer.

What we could get for the house is probably significantly less than what we owe on it. I try not to think about it. It just makes me want to cry. Why? Because we did everything we were supposed to do. We married and immediately purchased a home. The line of thinking at that time was that there was no way you could lose money on real estate....and in the 80's and 90's and early in the 2000's, you almost couldn't. Renting didn't make sense. You got nothing for it when you moved. Buying a home was an investment in your future - the best investment you could make, we were always told. We both worked hard and bought our home when I was 18 and my husband was 21. This is going back a few years when it was not easy to get a mortgage and interest rates hovered around 10 % -- before the recent years of mortgages being handed out like candy to anyone who could sign their name with no money down.

And I try not to judge or to blame, but in seeing the circumstances of others, I get a little miffed sometimes. I feel bad even saying that, but it's true. I know several people who have had homes go into foreclosure in recent years. We all hear the sad stories highlighted on the news about desperate circumstances of elderly people living alone who are about to lose their home because of a balloon mortgage or a father of three who gets laid off and finds himself and his kids living in his van. But, it's not always happening that way.

Of the many I know who have been in the situation of facing foreclosure, none of them ended up homeless and in some cases, they ended up better off. One family stayed until the last moment when eviction was imminent after not making a house payment for over two years and they then went to live in a home that had been sitting empty that had been inherited from a relative - add had some added square feet to boot. In another case, a single guy simply decided to stop making payments because he was planning to move in with a lady friend anyway and continuing to pay on a home that was worth a third of the price he paid for it didn't make sense. With the extra pocket money he had, he purchased recreational items and other luxurious items that he couldn't have afforded before. In another case, a family living in a very nice home (over half a million dollar home, I believe) in an affluent area stopped making payments when the head of the household got laid off. Other jobs came and went, but it was too hard to catch up, so essentially it was more than two years of living in a huge house for free. I don't wish those difficulties on anyone. But, hey, I wouldn't mind living in a McMansion for free for more than two years. Or for one year. Or heck, for even a month. Or a week.

In some cases, I think maybe they took the easy way out. And on the other hand, I wonder if maybe they simply did the smart thing - the smartest financial thing they could have done. If you do the math, someone with a $2,000 mortgage saves nearly $50,000 if they stop paying their mortgage for two years. If they struggle to keep up and then sell their home for much less than what it was worth five years ago, they are probably losing at least that much. Sometimes I think we are the dummies for doing what is supposed to be the right thing. No matter how you look at it, it's a lose-lose. We continue paying on this house, which won't be paid off for a dozen more years and pour more and more money into a home that will not be valued at what we paid for it 20 years ago. Or we put our house up for sale, eat tens of thousands and then try to also save up enough for a down payment on a different place while keeping up on the bills and living paycheck to paycheck. Just think, had we ignored all the sound advice about investing in owning home and we had rented all these years, we would be money ahead. We wouldn't have blown the income tax check on a new roof, the landlord would have. We wouldn't have ended up taking a home equity line to replace a garage that was nearly falling over. If we had rented, we would be financially better off. We haven't been irresponsible. We have paid our bills on time. We don't take luxurious vacations. We don't drive fancy new cars. We wear clothes that have lots of wear in them. We have always done the right thing...or what we thought was the right thing. I hate to be a complainer, but it just seems we sure lost out because of trying to do what we are supposed to do. How about a bailout for those who have done the right thing all these years?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tiger Mother worth a read, even for a kitten mom

So, the summer is when I do most of my reading. Things are more laid back. I don't have lunches to make, permissions slips to sign, outfits to prepare for the next day, so when it's bed time I can settle in and read. The other night I read Inside My Heart by Robin McGraw. It was interesting. Last night I started Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Tonight I finished it.

Why did I finish it so quickly? Well, I read the first quarter of it last night. And it made me mad at first. I really get bothered by condescending people who think they are better than others and by those who have acquired the attitude that education entitles them to be arrogant. That was the first impression I got as I started reading the book. The author thought that Western parents were weak and undisciplined, that those who didn't play violin, get straight A's or attend an Ivy League university were uncultured and uncivilized. I felt insulted.

Then as I read on about her methods of getting her children to do what she wanted them to, I was really appalled. I was shocked at the lengths she'd go through to control her children's lives.

I'm glad I read on today and finished the book. It ended the way I hoped it would - that the author would realize she was making some errors and take action to correct them. And that she did. I won't give away too much for those who haven't read it, but in the end, she became a bit more flexible and backed off and her family seemed to become closer and all the better because of it. But it was a lesson that was hard to grasp and took a tragic family illness and being alienated by her teenage daughter to realize that what works with one child may not work with another. She eventually came to realize that creating a comfortable, happy atmosphere for your child can have as big of an impact as forcing six consecutive hours of violin lessons. In any culture, parents want what is best for their children. In different cultures, the definition of  what is "best" can be very, very different.

Do I agree with her early methods? I can't say I do. But that really doesn't matter. I can't tell her how to parent any more than she can tell me how. She did some things right and did some things wrong. So have I. It takes a lot for a parent to admit to making a mistake. It shows character when a parent takes measures to correct a mistake. I have to give her props for her honesty. I write a lot of columns about my parenting experiences. But I don't share everything. Some things are private or are painful and I'd rather not disclose them. I'm sure she knew there would be some backlash over the book and she chose to expose herself to that criticism.

I had a hard time getting past the screaming matches she said she'd have with her children. That's because I didn't hear much yelling as a child. I don't raise my voice very often with my kids. For someone who was raised that way, it would not be abnormal. I grew up with what was probably the opposite of a Tiger Mother. My parents piled on the praise. They were patient and kind and loving and affectionate, with lots of hugs and kisses and not a lot of boundaries. Sometimes I wished I'd been pushed a little harder. Sometimes I wish there would have been more discipline. But, all in all, we turned out pretty good, I think.

I was never yelled at or called names or belittled or spitefully compared to my siblings. There were not a lot of stated expectations. We just knew we were supposed to be good kids and make our parents proud. We didn't behave and get good grades out of fear or because of threats of punishment. We simply were motivated by making them happy and making ourselves happy. The only fear I had was that my parents would be disappointed. And one time my dad actually told me I'd disappointed him. It crushed me. I was disappointed in myself, too.

You can't fault her for raising her children the way she was raised. Patterns are repeated, good and bad,  inherited or acquired. And you can't deny the success that comes from her parenting methods. I don't want to bash her any more than I want to be bashed for my more Western-type parenting practices. She did what she thought was best for her children. Just like I do. We go about it in different ways. And along the way, I guess it was inevitable that a little bit of this Western culture rub off, especially since she married a non-Chinese American.

Maybe it is a flaw of Western parenting that we can accept mediocrity. I want my children to try things. I don't expect them to be the best at everything. And I applaud the other kids who are good at things my children may not be. Not everything in life has to be a competition. Sometimes the greatest lessons come from failure. I expect my children to try the best that they can. When my first child was younger (like preschool and early elementary school-age,) what I wanted most was for him to be well-rounded. I wanted him to be smart and artistic and athletic and compassionate and eager to learn new things. I signed him up for everything under the sun. He did baseball. He did soccer. He was in the choir. Band. Basketball. Gymnastics. Art class. Music class. Karate. He did volunteer activities with me. So many times, he sat and watched what was going on and barely participated. Other times, he resisted going. My attitude was that if I signed him up, he had to finish whatever program it was he was enrolled in. I didn't often ask if he wanted to try it, I just signed him up. Once he had little brothers, I just couldn't keep up the pace. I was more judicious in selecting activities. I asked for their input because I only wanted to invest the time and money into activities they were passionate about or at least were thoroughly engaged in.

I discovered that just because one son liked baseball, it didn't mean the next one would. And I realized that just because one of them was good at something, it didn't mean they'd want to continue it. I could have put my foot down and not given them a choice. But, another thing I learned as the years went on and as I had more children was to pick my battles. Making a 3-year-old go to gymnastics if he didn't want to wasn't worth the battle. Dragging a 7-year-old out of the house to go to a sports practice he didn't want to be at wasn't really worth all the aggravation. Well, sometimes it was worth it. I got good at gauging if the battle was worth it. There were many times they've put up a fight and I didn't give in. Then once they arrived, they really enjoyed it. But sometimes it's a hard call. You live, you learn.

I do admire Chua's dedication in diving into her children's music lessons and sitting in on them. I always have had the attitude that when someone you love has a dream, it becomes your dream as well. You should show an interest in and learn about it. And in the book, the author struggles with the question of whether she is helping her children follow their dream or if she is doing it to satisfy herself. I do jump in and learn more about what interests the kids and play an active role in supporting their endeavors, but I have really never been as absorbed my children's activities as intensely as she was with her children. I encourage them when I feel they've found their niche. But, I can't say that I could ever picture myself driving four hours every Sunday for a one-hour music lesson and then going home and sitting beside my child for six hours of non-stop piano practice. I think I'd go batty after an hour. She does display dedication and is willing to work as hard as her kids to see them succeed. Back when I had only one child, I probably could have done it. Even when I had two kids it might have happened. Today, probably not.

One thing that my husband and I make a priority in our household is rest. We make sure that our kids have a  routine bedtime and get enough sleep. We are pretty diligent, but that doesn't mean there aren't ever exceptions. In one part in the book, the author says that she has kept her kids us past midnight practicing piano or violin if they weren't playing it perfectly. I just have the attitude that kids need their rest and it's a necessity for them to sleep well so that they can concentrate and succeed. I cannot fathom forcing a kid to continue playing a piano at 1 a.m. and then for them get up for school the next day and be expected to perform to the best of their ability. There have been times my kids have been up that late, but it was for something like New Year's Eve or for an occasional sleepover (Insert gasp here - that's a no-no in Chinese culture.)

I do believe that each child needs to find their niche and it's a parent's role to help facilitate that and nurture it. With some kids it is obvious early on what they are destined to do. Others take longer to figure it out. In looking at my five, each has different interests. My oldest has played guitar for six years. He loves baseball. And he wants to be a firefighter (I can her the gasp of the Tiger Mother already and see her shaking her head -- a civil service profession? what shame she would attach to that!) To me, it's a profession to be proud of. He was a bright child and we knew it early on. He was reading well at age four. He had an outstanding memory. At age three, he had every piece of apparatus from the local fire department memorized. Every fire hydrant in town had a number on it. He knew where every one was and he knew his way around town. You could ask him where fire hydrant #64 was and he'd tell you that it was at 178th Street and Maple and then he'd proceed to give you directions. At age three. I felt that he was gifted, but I was his mother. All moms think that, don't they? Maybe I should have pushed a different direction. Or maybe I was right to let him lead me in the direction he wanted to go.

The other boys seem to have also found their niche. Son #2 is the artistic one. He likes to draw. He's also somewhat introverted. He likes literature and art and music and I can see him someday expressing himself through one of those mediums. Son #3 has been on a bowling league for several years (that's another thing the Tiger Mother shunned. She was relieved her daughter took up tennis "It's not like it was bowling..." she said in the book, as if it was the lowliest and most barbaric of possible extracurriculars.) Hey, I think bowling is fun. I bowl in a league myself. So, that's his thing. He's also taken up soccer. He's the reader and logical one. He gets involved in Harry Potter books and can't put them down. And he loves documentaries and will rattle off facts about machinery, military history or other topics that he stores away in that little brain that never seems to shut off. Last year's summer class involved learning some Spanish and he really enjoyed it. Son #4 is the dramatic one (Yet another area that a Chinese mother like Chua would consider to be a waste of time.) He is always singing and seems to enjoy being on stage. The past two summers he has taken a summer musical class that ends with a big production and he's great at it. I look forward to seeing him on stage more in the coming years. Son #5, I'm not quite sure about yet. It's hard to tell. He's 7. He's going into second grade. A Tiger Mother would probably have already had him mastering an instrument and doing high school calculus. Me? I'm content hearing that he's reading two grade levels ahead of his classmates, is above average in math and watching him play T-ball and do bumper bowling. Sure, I'd love to hear him play Pachelbel Canon in D for me, but perhaps that will come one day. And if it doesn't it's not the end of the world. In the Chinese world, the thought may be that time is wasting. In the Western world, there's still lots of time to help him figure out who he is.

I have had regrets over the years of not pushing a little harder or forcing them to do something I thought they were good at. Time will only tell if they'll hold that against me. I think they might hold it against me more if I made them spend years toiling away at something they didn't really want to do. Sometimes there are mixed signals. Chua's daughter constantly fought back with her mom and told her she hated violin and wanted to quit. Yet at times she talked about how much she loved playing the violin. She probably did love it, but rebelled because she didn't love how her mother handled it.

The book did make me think twice about some of the paths I have taken with my children and has even caused me to think that I should place higher expectations on the kids. Sometimes being a parent means taking the path of unpleasantness and not the one of least resistance, which parents these days often do. And which I know I have done at times. There's something to be said for committing to something and seeing it through no matter how tough and impossible it may seem and there's such a sense of satisfaction that comes from that.

There's also a time to know when you're in a losing battle and you have to look at the situation and ask yourself if you're digging your heels in because you're doing what's best or if you're doing so just to be right. Sometimes continuing the battle isn't worth it. Chua recounted how no matter what was going on, her children had to practice their instruments for several hours every day. No exceptions. That meant that while traveling through Europe, there were sites they missed out on or had their visits shortened so that they could sit inside a room and play something over and over and over. What do you think those girls will recall most from the trip? Do they say to themselves, "I'm so glad that I spent only an hour an a half exploring Rome because I spent the rest of that day practicing piano and arguing with my mother over playing piano." Just because a parent has the power to be in charge, doesn't mean that demonstrating that power at all costs is the best thing to do. You need to pick your battles and make sure they are something worth fighting for. Everyone needs a break sometimes, especially when you're half a world away from home. That's what vacations are for.

There's no denying that her daughters will be highly successful. My son might not be able to play Mozart on a violin, but he can play AC/DC or Queen on his guitar. He may not be going to Yale, but he's learning a lot by working hard at his part-time job and saving his money and is learning many life lessons in doing so. He might not end up having his M.D., but he may end up in a profession where he saves lives. Does that make her child more valuable to the world than mine? I think her children and my children will find their own kind of success. Not every kid is going to be a musical prodigy with a perfect grade point average. Ok, maybe every Asian kid is. Mine are going to be more ordinary. Maybe even more happy. They're not going to be the best at every single thing they set out to do. And somehow I'm totally fine with that. I guess I'm just more kitten than tiger.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sometimes there's a more important lesson

Perfect attendance. One year in school I got that award. But only once. Sometime during each year, I usually had a cold or got the flu or pretended I had an ailment to get out of gym class or a science test.

As a mom, I've always made school a priority. Sometimes I get a little soft. Sometimes I'm a little too rigid. There have been times I have let them stay home when they may not have been vomiting, but seemed to genuinely not feel good and it may have been more emotional than physical. And there have been times they whined that they didn't feel like going to school, but I told them that if they didn't have a fever or I didn't see them throw up, they were going to march out the door and go to school.

My kids have had some quarters or semesters where they've had perfect attendance. There has even been a couple years in there where one or more of them had perfect attendance. Early in their educational careers, I really strived for that. I thought it was really important to show that you're committed to your education. I still believe it, but I also believe that sometimes there's a greater lesson that will make more of an impact than what they may miss in a day at school.

There was one time I recall when I wasn't sick, but my parents excused me from school. It was an election year and one of the contenders was having a political rally not far from home. My dad thought it would be a good lesson for his teenage daughters and we all went together. The school even fought him and told him it would be an unexcused absence, but he persisted and said he was taking us on an educational field trip. They finally changed it to "excused," which allowed us to make up our work. And since one of my sisters was competing for the top spot in her class, it was a big deal that she be able to make up the work and get a grade for it. It was a cool experience and I'm so glad my dad did that. I remember it much more than anything I learned in a book that year.

I remember the first time I let my kids miss school for something that wasn't for illness. It was 2006. I was home schooling my oldest. My second son was in first grade. My third one was in preschool and I had an almost 3-year-old and an almost 1-year-old not yet in school. We had been talking about taking a vacation that summer. Most of our trips until that point had been under a week in length. We traveled a lot, but mostly for overnight getaways or long weekend trips not too far from home. We'd taken a 10-day trip through Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada when my oldest was a year old. And then another 10 or so day trip when he was 3 through Tennessee and Kentucky. It had been 9 years since that trip and would be our first long trip with all five of our kids.

My husband, on the recommendation of a co-worker planned a trip to South Carolina. It would be our kids' first experience seeing the ocean. It would be a week at a beachside resort and then we decided that on our way back, we'd spend a few days in the Smokey Mountains. When we started pricing it out, we knew it wouldn't be possible. Until we looked at the off-season rates. There was a significant discount if we'd go before June 1st. I was torn about them missing school, but we figured we could go the week before Memorial Day and minimize the days missed. Since our oldest was homeschooled, I could work his lessons around it. And the preschool year was almost done. My son would only miss two days, but would also miss the end of the year picnic. My first grader would miss a whole week of school. We'd leave on Friday right after school and we'd be gone 11 days, but he'd miss five school days. I talked to the teacher about my concerns. She said that he was in no way struggling with anything she was teaching. She said that the end of the year was mostly review and he wouldn't miss anything significant. She's a great teacher and great person and put my mind at ease. I let go of the guilt of him missing some school for the trip. I knew he'd be missing some lessons, but in place of that would be wonderful family memories and a ton of new experiences. I finally felt it was okay. He's 13 now and still talks about that trip. It was well worth him missing a week of first grade.

Since then, there have been a few times I've allowed my boys to miss school. Once I knew my son was having a hard time at school with classmates. I knew he needed a break. I called him off school one day and he, my husband and I took a day trip and went to lunch together. He's a good student and wasn't having any issues with learning anything at school. I thought that a day like that was what he needed and I needed that time with him, too. He went back the next day feeling much better and more confident.

I let one of my sons miss school one day to take him to a baseball game. Not just any baseball game. I had four tickets, compliments of my sister, to take a lady and her son to a game. She was someone we met through sending care packages overseas when she was deployed to Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard. In our correspondence, I found out she was a Cubs fan and now that she was home, she wanted to meet me and I arranged for us to go to the game. We had a great time. It was an honor to meet her. Our sons had a good time together. It was an experience and lesson I thought took precedence over whatever history or math lesson was being taught that day. And I'd totally do it over again in a second.

Today I did it again. Two of my boys are taking summer enrichment classes. It's nothing mandatory, just something I enrolled them in to keep them busy this summer. However, they do stress the importance of attendance and the boys have been surprisingly eager about going each day. When my youngest got an invite to spend the night at Grandpa's, I didn't hesitate to let him miss a day. He's seven. He's taking a fun class where he's learning about sea creatures and underwater adventures. He's not missing ACT prep. Today, spending time with his 74-year-old grandfather, who in the past 3 years has had two heart surgeries and lung cancer is more important than a lesson on aquatic animals. Ten years ago, I may not have made that call. I may have denied my son's request in favor of perfect attendance. But I know now that crucial lessons and experiences take place outside of the classroom as well. And making significant people in your life a priority is an important lesson in itself.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Walking on sunshine

One more thing to cross off the summer bucket list. We finally made it to the beach. It just doesn't seem right to live so close to so many beaches and not enjoy them during the summer. We visited one I remember going to as a kid with friends of my parents who had a daughter a year old than me. I remember how much fun it is. I also remember falling asleep on a beach towel and getting the worst sunburn ever on that trip!

Anyway, I had been out that way for a writing assignment a couple months ago on an unusually warm spring day and had brought my 10-year-old along. We stopped by the beach for a little while and I took some pictures. I vowed I'd return when it warmed up. And warm up it did. The temp Tuesday was about 100 degrees. For the 4th of July it was 102 and 103 is predicted for today and another 102 day tomorrow.

So Tuesday, we packed up all the kids and all the gear for a visit to the beach. I just bought a new beach umbrella. We brought lots of buckets and sand toys. And towels. And water. And I brought a book. And my camera. And we brought all the kids, except my oldest. He turned 18 in May and chose not to go along. Sometimes it stings a little, but I've got to get used to doing things without him. It just doesn't feel the same to have a family day with a member of the family missing, but off we went...

Our spot was the Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton. It's such a large beach that even on such a busy day, there was plenty of spare sand to spread out on. My feet burned as we made our way to the water. Then we got into the water and it was instant relief. I can't understand how it can be so hot outside and the water still be so cold!

After a few minutes, I retreated to the blanket under the umbrella. I really wanted to read. Somehow I couldn't. I grabbed a towel to use as a pillow. I laid back. I took off my glasses. I closed my eyes. I loved the feel of the sun on my face and how even with my eyes closed, I could see the brightness. Between the heat and my allergies, I've just been tired lately and at that moment I was just drained. I couldn't actually sleep, but wanted to rest my eyes, if that makes sense. My dad used to always lean his head back and close his eyes. He'd always say he was merely resting his eyes, not sleeping. We never believed him. We insisted he was napping. Maybe he wasn't?

So, there I was peacefully laying on a blanket on the beach. Every once in a while I'd open my eyes to see my husband and my sons splashing in the water or digging in the sand. They were smiling. They were happy. My husband moved around the water chasing the boys or giving piggy back rides. They were the kind of moments you want to frame in time. The kind that just make your heart swell, overwhelmed with gratitude. I just watched from a little distance, them not aware that I was watching. "Wow!" I said to myself. "They are mine. How lucky am I?"

After a little bit I sat up and read a few pages. Then went back to cool off. Then later came out and laid down again to not sleep, but rest my eyes on the blanket under the blistering sun. After a few minutes, I thought that the only thing missing was some tunes. And just then, as the musical stage was being set up for the fireworks celebration that evening, music started to play. The song was "Walking on Sunshine." And I was.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A moment

This morning I was heading out to go to a local farmer's market and asked my youngest two if they wanted to go with me. They informed me that they were busy making a fort with blankets. My oldest was getting ready for work. My 10-year-old was still rolling around in bed. That left my 13-year-old. At first when I asked him to go with me, he kind of groaned like it was the last thing on earth he wanted to do at that moment. Then I told him that there were lots of chores and whoever stayed home was going to have chores to do. I hinted that the one that came with me would likely get out of a little work. That sealed it. He got up and got his shoes on in record speed.

The drive there was mostly quiet. I asked a few questions. I asked about who he was texting. Most of my questions were obviously annoying. He's at the age where he's parents are just generally annoying. I don't hold it against him. I was there once.

I ask him if he'd like to go to the pool or beach one day soon. He sounds excited at first, then backs off. I ask him why. He says he doesn't like to go to the pool and wear swim trunks. He says he thinks he's chubby. He's 13. He's 5 foot, 4 inches. He's not as thin as his big brother. But at around 115 pounds, he is far from overweight. I shake my head. If he was a girl, I'd really be in trouble, I think. Since when do normal-sized boys get so self-concious about that stuff? It makes me a little sad. We got there and shopped a little. He didn't have much of an opinion on anything. I offered to buy him a baked good. Asked if he wanted a cookie, a chocolate croissant or a muffin, he just shrugged, "Whatever."

I was perusing the last couple vendors when he asked if he could go back to the car. I was snapping pictures for my food blog and he hates it when I pause to photograph things. Back to the car he went. I felt a few drizzles of rain and ran off to the car a minute later.

On the way home, a song by Jason Aldean came on and I told him it was one his big brother liked. I said I was happy that his brother had this sudden musical change of heart and has decided in the past few months that he likes country music in addition to all the metal rock stuff of my childhood that he favors. 13-year-old informed me that he also likes country music. I've never heard him listen to country. I suspect he was just going with the flow and jumping on his big brother's bandwagon. I got excited and started to question him on which artists he liked, what style of country music he liked. He couldn't answer any of my questions. I said, "Well, do you like the old-school country or the twangy stuff or pop country or the country rock stuff?" "There's a difference?" he asks. I tell him that Taylor Swift is more the pop country. That "All Summer Long" is a good example of country rock. That Johnny Cash is old school country. "Huh? Taylor Swift is a country singer?" he says. "Um, yeah," I say. "We just listened to a Taylor Swift song. This is the country radio station."

We continue to drive. The start of the storm we just drove out of seems to be hanging over head. The sky is dark and the winds pick up. I spot an American flag flapping against the dark sky and pull over. I want a picture. His eyes roll again. I snap a couple shots and get back in the car. The radio is playing a song I love. Garth Brooks. Unanswered Prayers. I sit for a moment. I don't drive. I remember.

I tell my son that his uncle, who died before he was born, also loved the song. It reminds me of him. "That's the uncle that my middle name is after, right?" "Yep, it is," I answer. I could elaborate and tell him more, but my eyes are filling up and my voice is cracking. He can tell. I listen to the lines. Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. I just stop for a moment. And I listen. And then I drive off thankful for a few moments with my teenage son.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

We should have been farmers

My husband really should have been a farmer. He is an early riser. He'd adjust perfectly to getting up at the crack of dawn to feed chickens. He loves the outdoors. He loves gardening. His long-time fantasy has been to spend harvest time at the farm of my cousin and to drive big pieces of farm equipment. Maybe one of these days he'll be able to get a couple days off work when it's time to pick the soybeans.

I always admired the slower-paced farm life, but have always wanted to live closer to the action. Don't know if I could hack the non-stop, fast-paced, busy, crowded city life, but suburban life seems to suit me fine. As the kids get older (and so do I), life on a farm doesn't seem all that bad. Sure, you're a little isolated from the rest of the world, but hey, that's what the Internet is for. It's a lot of work. And there's no escaping bugs and critters. But it would just be much more peaceful. And a little more peace sounds oh so nice.

I've also come to appreciate the joys of ultra fresh produce. We've always had a small garden, but how nice would it be to have a bigger garden with space to grow all the veggies and flowers we like.

Our visits to farms have grown in numbers in recent years. We now make family trips out to farms to pick all kinds of fresh stuff and I really enjoy cooking with our pickings. I'm really thinking that I need to get into canning. The other day, we set out to pick blueberries...and we're getting a little better at it. Last year we picked 10 pounds. This year we picked 24. It seems like a lot, but I'm tempted to make another trip for more. I've found frozen blueberries are wonderful in pancake batter and muffin mix. Just throw them in frozen - DON'T thaw them. Once they heat up, they just "pop" and release wonderful juices that give great taste to what you're baking. Twenty-four pounds doesn't go as far as you'd think, especially in a household of seven.

The kids did start whining early on. "I'm hungry." "I'm tired." "It's too hot." "When are we going home?" "My brother just threw a blueberry at my head." When I offered a couple dollars to the ones who picked the most berries and the one who picked the biggest berry, they got hard at work. :)

Summer Bucket List update

Ok, so I posted my summer bucket list recently. Took a look back at it and I have a long way to go. Some plans have changed and some festivals I thought we'd attend I've dumped from the list in favor of other fun. The boys have two more weeks of summer classes, then I'm looking forward to a few weeks of lazy summer fun. Seems like it has barely gotten underway. I do know one thing - it is July 1st and I have yet to put on a swimsuit this season. I'll have to take care of that - STAT! Have you made a summer bucket list?

Summer Bucket List

Pool visit (maybe get passes)
X                     Sand Ridge Nature Center
Zig E’s Funland
Albanese Candy Co.
Deep River Water Park
X X X               Library visit
Chelberg Farm
Wicker Park Splash Pad
Calumet City Fun Center
X                     Indiana Dunes
X                     Frozen Yogurt Express in Munster
X                     Free Movie at Lansing 8
                        Zoo (Broofield or Washington Park)
                        Picnic at a local Park
X X                  Kite flying
X X                  Berry Picking (strawberries and blueberries)
                        Downtown day via Metra train
                        Roller Skating (free passes from school)
X                     Tyler’s Tender (free kid meal from birthday club)
                        Mini Golf
                        Wihala Beach
X                     49-er Drive In
                        Berry Picking (blueberries)
                        Green Lake Aquatic Center
                        Zoa Island
X                     Cubs game
                        Splash Pad (either Homewood or Valpo – one we haven’t been to)
                        Tyler’s Tender (take report cards – 5 tokens for each A)
                        Hollywood Park
                        Car Show
X X                  Out for a family breakfast/lunch
X                      Boat ride      
X                      Find a new park to visit
                        County fair
                        Minor league baseball game
                        Try Dairy Belle in Hammond
                        Hoosier Theatre
Try a new restaurant
                        Movie in the Park
X                      Attend a parade
                        Overnight at a campground
X                      Farmer’s Market
                        Summer Concert
X                      Dairyville
                        Vintage Base Ball Game
                        Navy Pier
                        Cruise Night