Thursday, December 30, 2010

Toxic and Contagious Attitudes

Does everyone has pessimistic people in their lives? I have a few in my life that are just really hard to shake for one reason or another. Even though there are only a couple, and they aren't always negative (just most of the time) their unpleasant outlook on life is really contagious and after a short time of exposure, I feel like I am surrounded by bleakness. While I do love these people, I also can see that they can have really toxic effects on me. I don't know if I'm more influenced by negativity than anyone else, but I do know that a short time around bitter people leaves me feeling irritated and grumpy myself.

It seems to me a waste of the gift of life to walk around feeling annoyed and angry all the time, and I really don't enjoy feeling that way myself. There are certainly times when sadness or anger are valid and appropriate, but for the most part, I'd rather be laughing.

Since realizing the contagious nature of these toxic attitudes, I'm really trying to make a conscious effort to protect myself, and my family, because we all know that if Mama isn't happy, nobody's happy. I read something once about safeguarding our family from bad moods in the same way we would protect them from the flu. If you knew someone had swine flu or bird flu or whooping cough, most people wouldn't have their children spend a lot of time in close contact with the infectious person, at least not while they were ill. As parents, I would think that even if we were the ones with the contagious disease, we would want to limit our kids' exposure until we were better. The theory of applying this perspective to bad attitudes as well made some sense to me. Of course, we can't completely prevent kids from being exposed to all negative moods any more than we can keep them from ever catching a cold. I don't want to live in a bubble, but when the mood is downright toxic, I don't see a lot of benefit in making loved ones endure it.

I also recall reading that even though all kinds of moods can be contagious, bad moods permeate social settings sooner and last longer in social settings than good ones do. Since I'm not particularly organized or scholarly, I don't remember the sources to cite them, but they did appear legitimate to me and in any case, they made enough sense to me that I wanted to think about implementing the strategy in my own life. I know I'd rather have laugh lines than scowl marks on my face any day, and I'd much rather my children are surrounded by pleasant people than bitter ones. So, I've been looking at ways to limit exposure to toxic attitudes and people with them.
I think of this as a life skill, and I'm also encouraging this as something for my kids to think about when they choose friends, activities etc. While I have some control over these things in their lives now, they will be on their own someday, and I want them to have the skills to deal or get away from unpleasant situations and people. This will take practice for all of us I'm sure. Some cases and some people are just easier to avoid than others, so I'd love to hear how other people handle it. How do you deal with bitter relatives, negative neighbors, or just plain disagreeable, sour, poisonous or distasteful folks in your life- especially the hard to ditch ones?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Wrap Up

My family and I aim for thinking of and celebrating Christmas as a season, rather than just a day- a season of joy and light, like all the greeting cards say, rather than just of crowds and madness. Of course, it's hard to completely ignore the crowds and madness. People are everywhere, out in full force. We don't live in a big city, but it feels like one this time of year. Lines are long, but thankfully this year, I haven't seen so much of the short tempers.

What I have seen are some wonderfully refreshing examples of the true spirit of Christmas- kindness, sharing and love. My kids experienced Christmas caroling for a terminally ill woman. They didn't know her personally, but when they heard the situation, they responded immediately. While the woman was only semi-coherent due to her condition- she was in her last days- I think we could all see how much the gesture meant to her husband.

Some gestures seem small, but are still there- kids choosing to donate their time and their things, or to give up something they wanted. Boy child had really wanted a "real Christmas tree" as in a big pine or spruce. We hiked in the woods near our house to fine one, but when we noticed how few pines their were, he agreed with Girl Child that we shouldn't take one of the few. Instead, we took an alternative route and went with a native shrub that there are many many of. We overestimated the size of our living room and had to do some severe pruning. Dear husband was doubtful about our alternative Christmas shrub, but the end result was rather lovely, and the goats benefited with a feast from the scraps.

Even strangers giving up their place in line to other frazzled shoppers, people being patient with small, tired kids and elderly- a small boy at a holiday party saying "I believe in Santa... you have to believe, or his sleigh won't fly" - these things warm my heart and make me smile.

Christmas Day is past, and it was a good one. Lots of good food, and no drama. The gifts were nice and mostly well thought out.  My favorite comment of the day accompanied a pair of Skinny Jeans "I LOVE Santa!" Then, looking at the size label, "Hey, cool, Santa shops at Old Navy." While I know some kids got an Ipad (that they will probably be bored with in a month or two,) gifts at our house were not of that scale.

What is really awesome, (and although it seems slightly like something out of an after school special, I swear, it's true) is that both of my kids said "This is the BEST Christmas ever!" Boy Child's favorite gift was a Yo-Yo (even over a Lego Batman game for Wii) and he played so long his finger lost circulation and changed color (I suggested another activity at this point.) After a few rounds of Banagrams and Apples to Apples,  Girl Child curled up on her giant purple fuzzy pillow and some new books. I ate enough chocolate and Brie cheese to keep a small country alive for a year, a put on my new PJs and slippers to write. The cats chased ribbons, and the dogs endured being dressed up, then ate scraps of Roast Beast. Everyone was happy.

The celebrating is still going on for us. We have one more family dinner today, and I need to get off the computer because I still have to whip up some last minute craftiness to bring with us. I hope the season continues to bring joy and love to your families.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

Every year, my local homeschool group has a few people who feel compelled to warn the rest of us about the pagan nature of Christmas, and the multitude of plagues coming our way. I have no idea why they feel the need to have this annual rant (maybe they are genuinely concerned for us and not just wanting to squelch our fun) but while my family and I happily decorate the massive Christmas manzanita bush in our living room (we opted to go non-traditional and use what grew in abundance near our home,) we are happy to have so much to celebrate this Christmas. In fact, we're always up for adding to our list of celebrations. This year, I considered taking on Festivus.

Somehow, horribly crazy and dysfunctional people seem a lot funnier on Seinfeld than when they are in my life. Maybe it's one of those things where it's just better to laugh than cry.

While there's nothing like the holidays and family get togethers to inspire an Airing of Grievances, when I mentioned the idea to friends, for some reason, there were no takers. I probably spread the grievance airing enough throughout the year aready, and I'm not really up for Feats of Strength today, but Happy Festivus to all anyway.

How are you celebrating the holidays this year? I hope that your grievances are small, that no blows are raining down on anyone, and that your family is saner than the Costanza's. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Gift Game

I don't know about you, but one thing that drives me nuts about this time of year is the greediness it can foster, especially in little people. I don't blame the kids- the adults around are usually unintentionally fostering it with heaps and heaps of gifts. I think most gift giving is well intentioned, but at some point, all the stuff is just overkill.

I come from a big family of gift givers, and so naturally, we get lots and lots of gifts during the holiday season. When my kids were little, it could at times be overwhelming. I had to learn to spread out the celebrations so all of the relatives didn't bombard them with 12,000,000 presents in one afternoon. It's hard to appreciate what you just opened when you can't even play with it because there are a million other gifts that people are throwing at you.

But, I think one of the most important lessons we can all learn in life is gratitude. I don't just mean being grateful for the stuff we like, but also having manners when we get something we aren't so happy about. I'm always mortified when someone, usually a kid, tosses a present aside without a thank you, or worse, when they say something rude like "I wanted something else."

Along that line, I've been playing what we call the "Gift Game" with my kids for years. I don't really remember where it started- I think I read about the idea in a magazine someplace, but it really does help us all practice being gracious. What we do is, starting a few weeks before a big celebration that involves gifts, we all start packaging up random things to give each other. It can be anything- a rock, a roll of toilet paper, a half used bottle of shampoo. We wrap up the "gift" and when the receiver opens it, they have to not only say thank you, but also come up with two positive, and at least semi- authentic things to say about it. For example, for the rock: "Thanks- this is really strong- it would make a great paperweight." Or, for the toilet paper: "Thanks- This is really useful. I love how soft it is." Sometimes it's a stretch, and often it's hard to do without laughing. We really have to be creative, and it gets us thinking, that is for sure. I think the practice is a good way of helping us all get in the swing of being polite, even if we get a hot pink sequined sweater that we would never in a million years wear. "Wow- it's so sparkley and warm!"

It also gets us thinking about gift giving in general. I love to give gifts myself, but I always have to remind myself to think about who I am giving to. I shouldn't be looking for the gift "I" would want, or that "I" think they should have, but what "they" would like. Giving a basketball to a kid who hates sports is silly, and a waste of resources.

Sometimes, it's hard to know what to give to people who seem to have everything. My kids certainly don't have everything, but they have plenty. How many dolls or Legos does a kid need? I know I have relatives that seem to have so much, it's hard to think of what I could give that they wouldn't just get for themselves. I don't like to add to clutter, and I don't want to just get something that will end up being tossed aside in a month. We do a lot of homemade gifts- crafts and food, but in some cases, I'm big fan of giving experiences rather than stuff. Taking someone out for a night to a concert or show, to a favorite restaurant, or a trip to a really cool museum are all things that might be remembered and appreciated more than more stuff. Even with that though, I have to really think about the show or restaurant that "they" would like, not the one that "I" want to go to. It sometimes can take some work to come up with something we'd both enjoy together. I get the kids involved in the process for relatives, and again, it gets the creative, problem solving juices flowing as we try to come up with solutions. These are the kinds of lessons that aren't in books, but are so important in life.

I can't believe Christmas is only a week away, and we still have much to do- brainstorming, crafting, practicing...Maybe next year, I'll focus on lessons for all of us in not waiting until the last minute. If anyone has any ideas on that, please let me know.

I hope each of you has a blessed holiday season, and that you don't have to work too hard to come up with pleasant things to say about your gifts. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Infectious Disease Vacation

How was our recent family vacation? I don't think I've ever had a vacation quite like it. I mean, other than the infectious diseases and germs from around the world, it was good, but spreading illnesses tend to take a bit away from family fun.

We are generally healthy, and since I like it that way, I tend to be a bit of a germ freak. I'm not so worried about a spotless house or my kids getting dirty in actual dirt, but I do tend to shy away from people who are have any abnormal amount of mucous, even if I love those people. Whether it be a runny nose, cough or sneezing, I don't want any part of the droplets, spray, or residue on everything they touch. Any surfaces that have been touched by the general public really gross me out, and I go to great lengths to avoid touching doors, handles etc. I may not be a good housekeeper, but I'm very big on hand washing.

Anyway, a few days before we left for our family trip, I learned that my nieces we were going to see both had colds which included a hacking cough. I was bummed for the poor little things, and a tad paranoid too. Particularly as an asthmatic, I try to any extra avoid any added lung issues, but I love those girls, and we only get to see them a couple of times a year, so I figured we'd just up our vitamin C intake and go heavy on the hand sanitizer.

By the time we got into town, my nieces were on the mend, but now my brother was sick. Apparently, it was pretty bad as he was banished from coming over to the little beach condo where my kids and I were staying with my Dad, his wife, and my sister.We decided to delay the slumber party at my brothers house, but had the girls over to play and visit.

The next day, my Boy Child was not feeling so well. He had a headache for a while, and out of the blue made a run for the kitchen sink where he suddenly lost his supper (as well as spoiling the clean dishes lying on the rack.) None of the other sickos in the family had any nausea or vomiting, just mucous, so I initially suspected he ate something funky on the train. While I debated whether the cream cheese on the bagel was bad or not, we bundled up Boy Child, set him up with a bucket, and tried to help him get some rest. The next day was a beautiful day at the beach, and we observed it from the window of our condo since Boy Child was weak from a night full of illness.

There were of course lots of things we would've loved to have gone and done while in sunny southern California, but leaving Mr. Sicky was out of the question, and he wasn't exactly up for running around. Abuelita rented us some movies, and we lounged. Finally, I decided that Boy Child needed fresh ocean air, and while we could see the beach from our balcony, the shade made it too cold for a sick kid to enjoy. So I made some tea to go, bundled him and up and we slowly walked the short distance down to the sand. He laid down and soaked up the warmth of the sun for a bit while I read aloud and watched the waves. Then, it was like a miracle. I think the sun and ocean air really did help because in a short time, he was up and acting like himself, only operating at a slightly slower than usual speed.

He was playing and climbing poles in no time. The illness seemed to leave almost as quickly as it came on, and I was still chalking it up to some kind of food public transportation food poisoning.

We all felt like the sickness was behind us, and we could go one with enjoying our vacation. My brother was feeling better too, so we planned a big family dinner.At some point during the preparations, my sister managed to throw her back out, but it was still a lovely get together with good food and good people.

Late in the night though, my sister got sick. By the wee hours of the morning, my Girl Child was as well. At this point, I knew it wasn't food. Who knows, it was probably something disgusting virus he picked up on some surface at the train station, and spread around. You see? That is exactly why I hate touching things! Anyway, I had been worried about catching the cough from my nieces, but we seemed to manage to catch our own special illness, and bring it to share. I am just so glad that we didn't share it with them, or my new baby nephew.

More plans were canceled, and more movies were rented. Lots more lounging took place. I decided since the sunshine and beach air helped Boy Child so much, that I'd try it on Girl Child. So, we took her for a nap on the sand.

Boy Child was seemingly completely recovered at this point, and digging holes in the sand. Girl Child probably would have found this very amusing if she hadn't been so ill. We were supposed to leave for home that evening, but I postponed it. Girl Child was definitely on the mend, but I didn't want to chance it.

Well, I was very glad that I made that choice because late that night, Boy Child had a relapse. He didn't actually get sick, but he felt like he was going to, and he looked like it too. I had been fighting a bit of a headache myself, but in complete denial that I too could get sick. Well, at some point after midnight, I could deny it no longer- I had to steal the bucket from my kid because I very suddenly needed it myself.

Now this was just lame. First, spending my beach vacation tending for rotating people with chills, shakes and fevers, who also happen to be vomiting, and now I was joining the sick crowd. Super lame. The good thing was that it passed quickly.

I treated myself to the same sunshine and beach air cure, and it really did help. As I regained strength, we took a stroll down the beach, and chatted with Girl Child about the healing ways of nature. She suggested we move here, particularly to a house on the beach like this. Well, at least she has good taste.

That night we were well enough to travel, and felt we had more than over-extended our welcome, having turned the vacation condo into a hospital sick ward and all. We caught a late night train to make our long way home.

It would be pretty easy to focus on the disappointing nature of this trip. Traveling 1400 miles round trip to share the flu is a bit of a bummer, but there were bright sides too. We got to meet my new nephew, and we didn't get him sick. We got to see lots of other family, to enjoy the beach, and to watch about 2 months worth of movies too. We also had fun train rides. Overall, the adventure was worth it. It can't all be fun and games, but we are hoping our next trip is at least without infectious diseases.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Flour, Water, Salt, and Yeast

I love bread, simply love it. I never understood those low carb diets, and in my opinion, a life without fresh, hot bread, is a sad life indeed. Bread is such a simple pleasure too- flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast combine to make something beautiful. But good, fresh baked bread is not cheap, especially not in the quantities we consume it.

I think learning to bake is a wonderful life lesson, and it's one I've been learning along with my kids. I first tried making bread from scratch during my Ma Ingalls phase. My own mother, a woman who I do not believe has turned on an oven in 15 years or more, gave me a cool old cook book of breads. While I cannot imagine her baking at all- she's been more of a microwave kind of gal as far as I remember in my lifetime- she says she at one time did bake things.

Sunbeam 5891 2-Pound Programmable BreadmakerWe all found that kneading dough is fun for little ones and and beating and punching it can be semi therapeutic, but it's also a pretty big production. I don't often feel like taking the time, or dealing with the mess these days. My plate is just too full. So, I was sticking to "quick breads" without yeast.

Then, my sweet family got me a bread maker a while ago. It is really easy, but I just never got into the way the loaves bake in those things. It just doesn't taste or look quite right in the end. Finally, one of my genius friends turned me on to a fabulous idea. Use the bread maker to do the kneading (on the dough only cycle) and then shape it by hand and bake it in the oven. Now, we're cooking! We all LOVE the simplicity and the results- it's like magic.

We make braids and wreaths and occasionally plain loafs. They look beautiful enough for gift giving, and are so easy and affordable. My kids can almost do the whole thing from start to finish on their own, which is a pretty empowering thing for a kid, I think.

Of course, I can't help myself, I'm a homeschooling mom, I went on to find these lessons on the science of bread making. The fact that yeast is actually a fungus could almost put a damper on my enjoyment of hot fluffy bread, but I am trying to categorize that info into one of those parts of my mind that holds knowledge I don't want to think about, lest it spoil my meal. There's a fun experiment with yeast, a gluten animation and links to lots of bread science and bread history, so it's not just yummy and fun, you can actually call it homeschooling. Today, the kids are learning about gluten allergy, as one of their aunts has a severe one which limits her diet extremely. We're also giving thanks that we are able to eat bread, cake, cereal and all those other tasty things.

We've already learned that baking bread is as much a science as it is an art. With most of our cooking, we don't typically follow recipes exactly- we improvise and wing it. Sometimes, I want to make something healthier- using applesauce instead of oil in cakes for example or cutting the sugar in half- and sometimes I just don't have the right ingredients and the store is too far away to reasonably justify making a trip for one thing. I experiment a lot in the kitchen, and for the most part, it works out pretty well. With bread making, it seems the ratios of yeast, salt and sugar are not as open to messing with, or the results are dense, flat, or oddly textured. Luckily, we have chickens who are happy to help us with our extreme kitchen errors, so it's not a total waste. For the most part, we do make everything with at least half whole wheat flour, no matter what kind of flour the recipe calls for, and while it's probably heartier than it might be with refined flour, it's usually still really good, and no one complains.

We'll probably be baking even more as the holidays get nearer, and some gifts will probably come out of our oven this year too. Cinnamon rolls are next on our list of things to try. Do you have any wonderful bread recipes you'd like to share? What are you baking this winter?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hitting the Rails

I must say, the train is a fabulous way to travel with kids. We boarded the San Joaquin in old Sacramento a little before 6:00 AM. Now, there is not much that I do before 6:00 AM ever, other than possibly drink coffee, but we wanted to get to our destination in the other side of California by dinner time, so we woke to an obnoxious hotel alarm at 5:00, took super quick wake up showers, got dressed, and headed to the nearby station. It was so early that the free continental breakfast at the hotel wasn't even open yet, not that I was very hungry, but I could have used a little coffee. I'm a French press user myself, and am pretty inept with hotel coffee makers, so I didn't make my own freeze dried cup in the room. I'm pretty sure it was bad coffee anyway.

In any case, we found close by long term parking and in our groggy state managed to figure out the machine that makes you pre-pay for your parking. We entered the station, found the other machine where I could print our tickets using the bar code Amtrak emailed me when I made my reservation. Easy peasy - even on limited function, early morning, non caffeinated brain cells. Within minutes we were boarding the train, and were very happy with the seating options. The conductors actually yelled "All Aboard" just before we took off.

The train cars had roomy seats, and we scored a set of 4 that faced each other with a big table in between- perfect for snacking, games, and hanging out. We spread out and settled in right away.

Out came the snacks, and we watched the sun rise while we waited for the cafe car to open so I could get my caffeine fix. When it did open, I was pleasantly surprised  on a number of levels. First, the coffee was actually decent, and the prices weren't bad either. It wasn't gourmet organic eats, but it certainly was better than I expected, and we made several snack runs.

 One of the best parts about train travel was that I could relax so much more than I could have behind the wheel of the car. We played games, read, ate, laughed, napped, and explored every car. My kids hoped for a nice lady selling sweets from a cart a la Hogwarts Express, but we made do with tea, bagels and cinnamon rolls from the cafe car.

The train bounces all over the place so everyone walking down the aisles is wobbling and running into seats like they've been drinking, and we had sea legs for a bit when we got off, but boy, it is wonderful not to have to sit buckled in the entire time. The connecting spaces between train cars seems slightly on the dangerous side- as if you could get your foot caught and chopped off, but no one did, so all was well.

My kids are are at such an awesome age for travel. They can explore a little without me, they aren't all crying and wanking and dropping food- it really is a pleasure. Girl Child took dozens of pictures, wrote in her journal and mapped out all of our transfers on the brochure keeping track of how far along we were. Did I mention you could even plug in a laptop and work or watch movies? Awesome, awesome, awesome way to travel.

Another little tid-bit on train travel- you see parts of America that you wouldn't necessarily see from your car- like the homeless shanties under bridges- not just an occasional cardboard shack and shopping cart, but rusted metal shelters with clotheslines and kids toys. The view would change rapidly from orchards and vineyards to what looked like a third world country. It's not the most pleasant thing, but I do consider seeing poverty to be an overall good thing, especially for kids, and to see that it exists on a big level right here in our own state. Puts a different spin on not getting the video game you want.

Aside from shanties, we saw a whole lotta garbage.
Whew- these places made me feel a whole heck of a lot better about my Dear Husbands collection of good stuff.

Thankfully, the farmlands and fall colors were also a big part of the landscape too.

At the end of the line for our train, we hopped an Amtrak bus to Los Angeles. The bus wasn't nearly as nice as the train, especially since we took the only 3 seats together, which were located near the stinky restroom, but it was only abut an hour and a half. The driver was a character who did an interesting jiggling of his dreads while giving a sassy safety lecture.

Our stop in LA was Union Station- which was kind of fancy schmancy with the old time art deco scene, including big, wide leather seats and cool murals. Of course, it had a coating of modern grub, but the architecture gave a sense of a time when travel was elegant.

Girl Child managed to set down and walk off without one of the bags she was carrying- the one that had all of our personal items in it. When I noticed she was a bag shy, we backtracked in a panic. Fortunately, some Amtrak staff who had seen our unattended bag also saw our freaked out faces, and realized we were the bags owners. Thank goodness for honest people- they were leaving a message on my cell as we ran up- they had found the number off the luggage tag. Once we had all our bags in hand, we rested in the big lounge chairs for a few minutes before hopping a commuter train for our last leg of the trip.

We were so happy to see the beautiful Pacific Ocean before the sunset, and to see Abuelito at the train station to meet us when we arrived.

Travel is always full of new things to see and learn, and we had a great time looking around and learning on this journey. I think the train trip took a tad longer than if I had driven, and the 3 tickets costs a tiny bit more than my gas would have, but the ability to avoid traffic, move around, and kick back, and put my feet up leisurely style made it well worth it. Plus, no airline pat downs or x-rays.

Hitting the rails on a trip across California was a lovely reintroduction to traveling by the tracks for us. We'll definitely travel via railroad again, maybe someday in the future we'll take a multi day trip with sleeper car, or maybe a bullet train in some exotic land. Have you taken any trips you'd recommend by train? I'd love to hear ideas and suggestions to add to my long list of "maybe someday..."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Please excuse my technical difficulties

While on our Thanksgiving holiday, we had a few mishaps...well, actually we had a whole bunch of mini disasters. It started with germs from around the world that were living in the family members who had gathered to share some happy celebrations together.

The little ones were full of sniffles and coughs, and there was an icepick style headache in at least one adult. Still, we were determined to have a stinking happy family celebration. A few days before, out of the blue, my Boy Child threw up. The next day, he was better so we assumed it was something he ate. So, we went on with our big day before Thanksgiving dinner plans- or what I referred to as "Round 1." A turkey was stuffed and roasted, yams were smothered in sugar, pies were bought, and in the midst of all the cooking and preparations, my sister threw her back out. The poor thing had her shoulder hiked up to her ear, and was hunched over, walking around like a 90 year old. She tried to retire to the other room, but we drug out her out, propped her on the couch, and forced her to participate in our fun. I think she was glad for the least at first.

Sometime late in the night though, after everyone had gone to bed, whatever sickness had my Boy Child so ill the day before attacked her with a vengeance. I am guessing that vomiting when your back is tweaked must be a doubly miserable experience. I wondered if her pain medication made her sick, until in the wee hours of the morning, my Girl Child got sick too. That's when we knew we would be cancelling Round 2 of Thanksgiving which was to involve a whole bunch more family. We weren't going to be those horrible relatives that show up and infect them with our plague- especially since a pregnant mama with triplets brewing was going to be there.

For the dear relatives who were hosting us at the beach condo, it was too late to avoid bringing them our illness though. We were already there, camped out in beds all over the living room with buckets near by just in case. At one point, I had to steal the bucket from my Boy Child for my own emergency event. I was 700 miles from home, without even a car- it wasn't like I could just load the kids back on the train with a barf bag.

So, we had to wait it out. The sickness rotated through my kids, knowcking each one down for a day or two before moving on to the next. It really put a damper on excursions or more visits. I had brought my laptop along to get some work and writing done, but by day two, the battery charger had decided it no longer was going to charge. I promptly ran out of power, and between being there for sick kids and stores being closed for a day, I was just out of luck as far as using my computer. So, I fell behind on work, a college project, and my poor neglected blog.

Luckily, we were right on the beach, so whenever someone wasn't nauseaus, or was between chills and fevers, we'd walk along the beach and lay on the sand. On one of these relaxing lounge times, Girl Child somehow managed to knock my camera face down into a pile of sand which covered the lens completely. First, it wouldn't open. I am pretty sure my head spun around and flames shot out my flared nostrils while my scolding voice sounded like Voldemort. Luckily for Girl Child, the camera lens cover did finally open, and it took pictures again, but now, it won't close. It looks like a sleepy eyed thing winking at me, but at least it takes photos. Of course, I haven't been able to upload any to my laptop because it's still dead while I wait for my new power cord to arrive. I am typing this late at night on the family desktop that I rarely, rarely ever use. It's amazing how much I miss the ability to work in the coziness of my own bed.

In any case, we are finally home. I guess if a vacation has to include include vomiting, at least we had beautiful views and good company, but generally, I'd rather skip the illness altogether- or at least experience it in the comfort of my own home. Hopefully, I'll be back up and running soon, with photos and stories to tell and my trusty little laptop to whip them out on. Until then, enjoy the season....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rough Start

The week leading up to our exciting train trip was a hectic one. Prior to knowing we'd be hitting the rails, I had already over-scheduled myself for work activities and there was no way out of doing them myself. That meant way too many hours away from home in the days I needed to get ready for a trip, as well as a scattered mind as I tried to focus in too many directions. The charter school also happened to need their semester samples for every subject  that week, and normally, I would like to make them exciting, wonderful examples of the amazing things my children do. But, I felt entirely too frazzled to attempt gathering and copying anything, so I just had the kids whip out some boring worksheets to drop off. I know there are families who rely entirely on worksheets for both learning and samples, so the school probably won't mind. But, since they are not a staple of what we do, or how we learn, I wasn't that excited about the representation. Still, I had a crazy week at work, and a big, fun trip planned so I put my focus there.

My car also decided to start requiring anywhere from 3 to 6 attempts to start the engine. This wasn't reassuring as I prepped to drive a few hundred miles solo with my kids. Dear Husband spent his day off installing a new starter and air filter, and cussing a bit about it, and a few hundred dollars later, the car starts right up.
Our plan was to take off one afternoon immediately after I got off work, and drive to a friends house 3 hours away. We would stay the night with her, and catch a very early train the next morning. It was a rainy, windy, nasty day, and it only got worse as I drove. It was pitch black in no time, and the rain was coming down in sheets. Semi trucks swerved into our lane, the car began to hydroplane, and I had horrid visibility. We decided to stop for dinner and wait for a break in the rain. The short walk from the parking lot to the door was like taking a fully clothed cold shower. Did I mention I was wearing a wool coat? In any case, we splurged on a very unhealthy dinner, and I introduced my kids to the art of dipping french fries into a chocolate shake. With full bellies, we were optimistic as we returned to our car. But, before we even made it back on to the freeway, it was pouring down rain again.
I held the steering wheel in a death grip while the wind whipped. My jaw and shoulders were clenched, and my face was about 3 inches from the windshield, but I still couldn't see squat. So, I pulled over again. We considered waiting out the storm in a rest stop, but sketchy characters got us moving again. After several starts, and stops I realized that the weather was not going to improve. I also realized that something in car smelled really, really bad. Then I realized that stinky something was me- or was my coat anyway. Something about the soaking brought out an odor that reminded me a lot of pet urine.Not pleasant, and not something I wanted to take on a 700 mile trip.
At this point, I couldn't take the stress of the drive anymore, and decided to just get a hotel. We were less than an hour from our destination, but each minute was aging me several years. While I was pretty disappointed that we were not going to make it to my friends house, I didn't want us all to die in the effort. It took some effort to navigate unfamiliar city streets in zero visibility, but my Girl Child co-pilot did an amazing job of helping direct and spot. Eventually I found a decent place to hand over my credit card in exchange for dry lodging.
We snuggled up to find something to watch on the 200 channels we don't have at home, glad to be warm and dry. We went to sleep sometime after 11:00 PM, ready for the 5:00 AM alarm to wake us to catch the train. It was a rough start, but we are hopeful people, and won't let a bit of foul weather dampen our spirits or our trip. Let the adventure continue....

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lousy "B"

I don't usually think of myself as a competitive person. I don't even like competition, and don't usually sign up for it, much preferring low key and fun to seriousness. If I can avoid situations where I or my children are being graded, evaluated or judged by outside sources, then by all means, I do.

I know evaluations are abundant in life, but in some cases I end up caring less about the material that's being evaluated than I care about the grade I get on the test- and that, in my opinion, defeats the point of true "education." I like to think I'm at a place in life where I am beyond caring what others say because I know if I am doing my best or not.

But, sometimes I find myself in a situation where assessment is not an option. For example, I've been taking some community college classes, and while I philosophically don't put a lot of value in fill in the blank tests and grades, I sure do light up when I get an "A."

The thing is, everyone who is truly interested in a subject is going to take something slightly different from it, and what I find most fascinating and important about a subject may or may not be what my instructor chose to ask about.

When a person is cramming boring notes from the study guide into their brain instead of contemplating and exploring the meaning behind the material, they can be pretty sure they are not learning it for life, and will most likely forget it after the test because they never really cared.

It seems to me that multiple choice tests can only gauge whether or not the taker has memorized certain information. They don't really reflect true learning, lasting impact or overall comprehension. In fact, sometimes a person can do all right on a multiple choice test by simply eliminating the obviously wrong answers and taking a guess. Essay questions demand more independent thought, but people can certainly rambled their way through them as well.

In any case, what I'm trying to instill in my kids is a love of learning for the sake of learning, not jumping through a hoop to please someone else. It's hard though because grades and tests are a reality that we all come up against at some time or another. I may tell myself the grade isn't the point, the knowledge is, but I sure find myself frustrated if I get anything less than an "A" myself.

My family members have all teased me about my not so subtle habit of pointing out my good grades, and comparing them to the class average. So, last week when I took a test in my communication class and got a lousy "B," I found myself very frustrated and annoyed. I'll admit that most of the questions that I missed were based on technical lingo that I will never use in life, and that while studying, I focused on the understanding of communication dynamics more than the scholarly names.

So while I do feel like I learned a lot, I missed a few factoids the professor chose to test us on. I still did pretty well, but for some reason, a strong "B" didn't feel good enough.

Seeing the snooty look upon her mothers' face, Girl Child asked "Isn't a "B" still really good?" and that's when I realized that I was not really walking the talk, and was leaning towards both bad sport and bad example. It's not a "lousy B," it's a perfectly good "B."

The point is that I am learning a lot of interesting things in the class that I will use in life, so I shouldn't worry that I missed a couple of answers on things I would never use.

I did my best, and that is good enough (and in my defense, the teacher was really tricky with some of the questions.) So, instead of talking about my grades with my family, I've started talking about the interesting theories and discussions- shifting the focus back to sharing what I am learning about rather than how I am being evaluated.

And, even though I am philosophically not competitive, I am still happy to know my "B" is better than many other people in the class got- and I think I can still pull off an "A" for my semester grade- but in an effort to make it seem like my grade doesn't bother me one way or another, I just won't mention that part to my kids.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Hi folks,

I am doing a research project on the parent / child dynamic for a communication
class, and I've created a short and anonymous survey to help in my collection of
If you have a few minutes to answer some questions about family communication, I
would very much appreciate it. If you have not done a survey monkey before, they
are very easy.

Click here to take survey

Thanks in advance!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Just Like Ma Ingalls

I've gone through several stages in my life where I've felt an awful lot like Ma Ingalls. I loved enjoying the Little House books with my kids when they were younger. At the time, we were going through what I refer to as our "self sufficiency phase" and living off the grid in the mountains of northern California, and the books were a perfect fit.

Basically, "off the grid" means we had no power from an electric company, and therefore, we had very little in the way of electricity. We had a ridiculously small propane refrigerator, (with not even enough freezer space for a carton of ice cream) and a wood stove to keep warm. Every few days, I would fire up our ancient generator to wash a load of laundry, and I tried very hard to time this during Sesame Street so I could have a few minutes on the computer while I had power and my children were occupied. Eventually, we bought a tiny solar panel that gave us a few house lights when it wasn't foggy, but it usually was foggy, so it wasn't often we had those lights. Mostly, we read at night by oil lamp, and went to bed early in the winter.

Farmer Boy (Little House)I realized back then that I am no Ma Ingalls. She was far more patient and hardy than I am, or at least her daughter Laura never mentions Ma complaining or freaking out about the hardships of trying to live off the land. I did both on a semi regular basis so I guess she was made of stronger stuff than I am. But, I'm glad we did try out that life. I know my kids gained valuable lessons in those few years, and so did I. I still love living in the country, but truth be told, I really like having a dishwasher.

Anyway, I realized recently that my Boy Child was so young, he barely remembers the Little House series, and he will probably soon be too old to be interested in reading them with me. So, before the time is past, I borrowed Farmer Boy and we curled up together to read. I could see him relating to the character of Almanzo and his life with his animals, just as I'd hoped. The BB gun came out, and he spent hours target shooting at cans. He wanted to make old fashioned ice cream, candles and a yoke for his goats (who I suspect would not appreciate  it.) We haven't made the ice cream yet, and I think we'll pass on the goat yoke, but we did roll some bees wax candles. Ma used lard from a freshly butchered pig, but again, I'm no Ma. We also checked out the Little House Cookbook, and made some extremely tasty home-made lemonade. We attempted butter making, but learned that no amount of shaking turns 1% milk into creamy butter. Boy child even took the book off to read on the wood pile by himself a few times, and was so engrossed, he didn't even notice the chicken reading over his shoulder. He came away every time inspired for more good old fashioned fun.

One cool project that we got my dear husband (aka "Pa" for this post) involved in was making lanterns. I am not so handy with tools, so when my big ideas require heavy or sharp metal objects, I usually tell the kids to go ask their father in a really excited and smiley way, and most of the time, they are able to enlist his help.  For our lanterns, we used a couple of metal cans that were headed to the recycling center. They drew dots in the shape of their chosen design- a star for Boy Child and a peace sign for Girl Child- and placed them over a wooden dowel. It required some hands on holding from Pa while they smashed holes in the can with a hammer and nail. Another benefit of not being handy with tools is that my fingers were not at risk at any time during this project. Pa was not so lucky.

We were really happy with the results. I like it when craft projects end up being useful and not just more dust collectibles in an already cluttered "little house." We put in a couple of (store bought) tea candles and had a nice candle lit supper. I think these will look lovely on the porch for a winters evening celebration as well.

We also watched a couple of episodes of the TV show, which Girl Child was a little disappointed in since they really varied pretty strongly from the books. The whole experience of reliving the Little House books made me so glad for the simple country childhood my kids have had the chance to live. It also made me extremely grateful to live in the time that I do where a trip to town for supplies is 20 minutes in my station wagon rather than all day in a horse drawn one, and the fact that my supplies can include butter and ice cream that are ready to eat without hours of work on my part. So maybe I'm not just like Ma Ingalls, but I think we've found a really nice balance of old and new that includes a good amount of nature and technology. It all adds up to a pretty good life here in our little house.