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


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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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Train Travels Past

My kids and I were invited to visit some far away family this fall, and decided for a number of reasons to take the trip on a train. Rather than drive over 10 hours along a less than exciting stretch of highway that I've already driven about 12 bazillion times, and in a car that is quite a few years older than my children, I thought it would be fun and relaxing to take the train. We haven't been on a train journey in about 8 years. As we're excitedly planning our upcoming trip, I've been remembering that last one, and recalled writing something about the journey for an obscure mama zine back then. So, I dug through old files on my laptop, and found the piece. It's funny how selective the memory is, as I really had not remembered some of the less than fun details of my last train adventure when I enthusiastically purchased tickets for my upcoming one. That's probably for the best, as it likely would have dampened my excitement, and maybe even made me re-think another train adventure. As it is, my kids are delighted that we will be taking a journey on the rails in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to it myself. But, for the sake of memory and old times, I'm posting this little blast from the past about our long ago trip here. It made me giggle, and I hope you'll enjoy it too....

Train Travels circa 2002

I'm not sure what I was thinking when I had the idea to take my two kids little kids on a long distance train trip all by myself. Maybe I thought it would be fun and adventurous, or at least no problem for a terrific, hands-on mama like myself. Sure, twenty two hours each way on a train with two kids under five years old as the only adult in charge... it'll be great!

Of course there were plenty of other people around, it was public transportation after all. But we knew none of these other people, and quite frankly, many of them were scary. Even the nice ones had no responsibility for my kids. It was all me, all the time on this trip. Now, I'm an at-home-mom, and my kids don't go to school or daycare, so being their primary caregiver is not unusual in itself. But that painfully long stretch of time, far from home and things they know, with very little sleep and no one to relieve me, it was like a mothering marathon.

With kids that little, I couldn't exactly leave them and have a moment to myself. When one had
to use the restroom, we all had to pack up and go. My newly toilet trained two year old loudly announced at least the five times an hour "I go poo-poo potty!" And every time, we all got up, gathered our things and hurried through the cars and down to the restroom. I quickly cleaned off the splattered seat for him while warning “Don't touch anything!” After sitting for a minute he said in a surprised voice (the same way he had the last four times we had made this exact journey in the last hour alone) "No poo-poo come out."

Now, he probably wasn't trying to torture me. It was probably the tiny, cramped, smelly, metallic bathroom, along with the loud noises and the fact that we were bouncing all over that was inhibiting his regularity. But at the time, I didn't care. Maybe I wanted to care, but I was really, really tired, and I just couldn't take it any more. My nostrils flared as I tried relaxing breathing to calm myself, but I was sick of this pointless bathroom journey five times with no results. In my exasperation I hissed something along the lines of "Would you just freaking go poop already! Just go poop! For the love of God, just please poop NOW!"

Now, I really do try to be a loving and kind, attachment style mother, but it doesn't exactly come naturally to me, and in this case, I was failing miserably. My voice unfortunately was not nurturing or motherly at all. When it became obvious that nothing was coming out this trip either, we pulled up his pants and opened the door to head back to our seats. That's when I realized that I was being watched. The doors to those bathrooms aren't all that thick, and I suppose the lady right outside the door might have heard my little momentary loss of sanity. That was probably why she was giving me such a reproachful stare. She didn't even have to say it out loud- the “bad mom” message was loud and clear.

It was like a light coming on for me, this obvious epiphany of mine that I was under the scrutiny of all my fellow passengers. I began to get paranoid that they were all judging me and my mothering, and no matter what, I was going to come up lacking. A few fellow passengers actually did seem to enjoy my kids, talking to and smiling through the seats at them. But when my kids started whining or melting down, the good Samaritans quickly escaped, and who can blame them? I was again, alone in charge, and wondering what I had been thinking.

The lack of control involved in traveling by public transportation is something that my little ones' just didn't understand. They figured I would be in charge as usual. When they wanted me to stop the train so we could go outside for a little bit, I explained that they couldn't stop the train just for us, because all the other passengers had a schedule. First, they looked at me uncomprehendingly, and then their faces morphed into shock, dismay and indignation as they tried to digest the fact that everything was not in fact, all about us. We tried to at least get out at the longer stops for a few minutes of fresh diesel and tobacco smoke filled air. Often, we walked the aisles to burn off their excess energy spreading the joyful noise of children through all the cars on the train. Some passengers were a little less than enthusiastic about this. At this point, I gave up caring about whether or not I was being judged because I probably couldn't win with these people. I'd be too permissive if I let my kids make a peep, and too too mean if I didn't.

While traveling through acres of farmlands at 90 miles an hour, my little boy, the false poop alarm kid, insisted "I get out! I drive that tractor!" Again, my explanation brought on the look of sadness and outrage that they wouldn't bring our train to a screeching halt so he could wade across a wheat field and drive a strangers tractor. The injustice of it all.

So, I did what any other mother would do. I tried to distract them with food. We headed to the cafe car, with it's slim pickings of overpriced and over- processed food. My four year old insisted on carrying the $5 slice of greasy artificial cheese pizza back to our seat herself. Then, she dropped it cheese side down on the floor that had been passed over by 50,000 shoes and looked like it hadn't been cleaned it her lifetime. I hadn't even had a bite, but I managed to only growl rather than freak out.

At least the train had a “kid car” featuring two benches, some puzzles with missing pieces, a couple filthy, germ covered balls and toys and a TV with cartoons blaring. Basically, it was place where they could be loud and crazy, and I could avoid the harsh glares of the parent patrol out there. Old Loony Tunes cartoons were on constant replay and there was no controller, no way to turn it off, down, anything. Bugs Bunny and his pals were just on constantly for what seemed like forever. I grew up watching those cartoons, but until I watched them with my son, I never noticed just how often Yosemite Sam fires his gun. It's approximately once every two seconds. My little boy was mesmerized. It was like a magnet between the screen and his eyes. Then, for the next two hours he walked around pointing his finger, gun style, at everyone and everything making “Pow, Bam” type noises and saying "I shoot that duck. I shoot that dog. I shoot that bald man." etc. while laughing hysterically. No one but he thought it it was funny, and it certainly didn't help my approval ratings with my judgmental fellow passengers.

A few more hours into the trip, my daughter, Miss “I can do it myself”, spilled a huge bag containing most of our snacks for the long ride all over the floor of the train. My mean mother voice re surged. I don't remember exactly what I said. It was probably mean and horrible and that's why I've blocked it out of my mind. Meanwhile, my normally easy going child seemed to spiral into some sort of weird regression. She suddenly turned high needs on me, clinging to my leg when I walked. This made the twelve more unproductive trips to the bathroom even more difficult. She started using baby talk, which she hadn't even used as a baby. I couldn't understand what the heck she was talking about, but whatever it was, it was urgent and she was whining about it. Unfortunately with my lack of skills, I think I started acting like a baby and whining too. The more immature she acted, the more immature I acted. No wonder those people were judging me. I was being a terrible example. I wanted to shout out to them all “We're not usually like this. My kids aren't wankers, and I'm not mean! We're really cool and fun. Honest, I swear!”

Fortunately, the horrible stage passed, and we all lived through it. Our saving grace was when we finally slept a little. We woke up refreshed and smiling like actors on a sleeping pill commercial. We played some games, read a few stories, and ate some food without spilling it. Now people were smiling at us with no disapproving looks. I was a good mom after all. We eventually made it to our destination, and actually had a nice trip.

One thing I gained out of the whole adventure is an appreciation for my life at home. It was a taste of single motherhood for me, and a humbling look at myself. I came out of it with a whole new respect for all the parents without partners in the world. I knew my husband was a good dad, who is involved and all that, but I still handle most of the child and home care issues. In the trenches of the day to day life with kids, I tend to notice more what he does not do, than what he does. Just coming home every night and playing with the kids gives me a break, however small, for a moment to myself when I know they are safe and happy and with someone who loves them. Without that break, I would quite possibly lose my mind. This experience really helped me be appreciative for my friends who help me all the time by swapping kid care, and my own mother who raised two kids pretty much on her own. It also made me oh so glad to get off that train and back home. It might be humble, but there's no place like it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sweet Science

With all the holidays around this time of year, I am sure we aren't the only family that ends up having way too much candy laying around our house. Most years, we have barely recovered from the Halloween sugar fest when the Christmas goodies start arriving. To keep my kids from overdosing on their trick or treat loot this year, I've been consuming large quantities myself. While I do have a sweet tooth, and since I'm trying to save my kids from eating the junk, like a good mother should, and it really is for the good of my family, nevertheless, just a few days into this sugar frenzy, and I'm feeling it. I'm sluggish, my pants feel too tight and all of a sudden, I'm craving twice as much sweetener in my coffee. I can see I have a problem here.

The pile of wrappers in the trash is just plain embarrassing, but I do find myself taking out the trash more often, even if it is only to hide what we've been eating. My kids have still been consuming way more sweet stuff than usual despite the dent I put in their stash, and I've seen the difference in them too. There's been more bickering and more crankiness, and way more overall spastic actions. Of course bouncing, jumping, and general energetic fun is just part of childhood, but these days, my kids are overdrive.

We had already thrown away all the candy of mysterious origins and given away a ton of good stuff as well. But we still have a pile. Fortunately, I came across a website with candy experiments. It has all sorts of fun ways to learn about science, and get rid of excess candy at the same time. So, in the name of science, and of saving my family from the horrid results of a bad diet full of sugar, chemicals and food dyes, we decided to try some experiments. My kids were feeling sick of sweets themselves, and readily agreed to donate some candy to science so we could experiment with it.

We started with soaking an M&M in water to see how it dissolves. I am a little grossed out at the way the letter "m" floated to the top, and remained totally intact...for days.
Apparently, the letters are made from "edible ink" that doesn't dissolve in water, but I'm wondering, just what does this "edible ink" dissolve in? We're hoping it dissolves in stomach acids or my entire family is going to have a large number of "m"s floating inside of us after all of the M&Ms I've consumed in the last week.

In another experiment, we learned that you really might want to supervise candy being melted in the microwave, as flashing, popping, and small, contained explosions may occur, and will be followed by terrible, smelling smoke, and possibly the sound of smoke alarms.

We also plan on trying some of the other candy experiments like the density rainbow, and the acid tests. I'm curious if the chocolate bloom experiment is more successful with cheaper chocolate with hydrogenated oils, or with good quality dark chocolate (although I don't know if I'm willing to sacrifice good chocolate for this.) My boy child also wants to try to see what happens if we light everlasting gobstoppers on fire. Will they melt or burn? It looks like we'll have a weekend full of fun candy science experiments ahead of us, and maybe our diet will be somewhat closer to normal next week. Maybe when our next big batch of candy arrives at Christmas, we'll throw a candy experiments party. Maybe I'll even just do it right away instead of gorging myself and feeling sick for a week first. For now, I'm off to clean up the microwave....