Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Let's Start This Thing Right - Grade 1

Dear Mrs. H.,

Another year has started. I am thrilled Helen will be in your class. You were amazing with Connor. I'll never forget two things about you. First, you have been teaching for many years now, but you bring an energy to the classroom that is hard to miss. Second, you recognized Connor's every change and changed right along with him. Thank you. I realize I'm sending you another child who cannot read, but I know she'll be rocking this by the end of the year, due in large part to that magic you work on a daily basis.

And thank you in advance for every day you come into my child's classroom and insist that she be her best. Thank you for every time you agree to meet with me (trust me, it won't just be at conference time - but you already know this). And mostly, for every time you absolutely insist that every child in your classroom treat you and every other child in that classroom with respect and kindness, thank you. And thank you also for that day when you look up and notice my child for the individual she is. You're helping me raise one of the two people I love most in the world, one of the two people's who success I care about more than any other, and one of the the two people who carry little parts of my heart and soul with them everywhere they go. Take care of her, please, she is my everything. Our hearts bruise more easily than we might let on.

I'm going to give you enough information about Helen that you won't have to bore her by trying to figure this out in the first month of the school year. Efficiency is the name of the game, friend. I'm not giving you a free pass this year, and I expect you not to give Helen a free pass either. We're all going to have to work hard - this is the year it all begins for Helen. Please use your time thoughtfully, I promise to return the favor.

Helen has never sat at a desk for longer than it takes to complete an art project - and typically, she's on the floor when she's working on her art projects at home. It's just more comfortable down there. Plus, if she sits on the floor, both her desk AND chair can serve as horizontal surfaces on which to stash things. Did I mention Helen loves stuff?

This love of stuff is important. You see, Helen's trying to be an inventor - like Violet in the Lemony Snickets books. Just this past summer she created a lifesaving device that can be used on our rafting trips, a chocolate mint cake that is divine (DO NOT EAT! IT CONTAINS MUD!), headbands that she is marketing to other girls with crazy hair, and she crafted a blanket from potholders. If nothing else, that last item shows you her sense of dedication to a project! She is also learned to knit last week and already has about 2 feet of a scarf completed - a scarf that is so precious she plans to gift it to every member of the house. But I already know once it's completed it'll be used for something else entirely.

I know you will notice this immediately when you meet Helen, but she is tiny. Like - off-the-charts, looks like she can't open a door tiny. And when she's a little intimidated, I swear she can become even tinier and someday, you might look around and wonder where the heck she is. If you are like most people, you will be physically drawn to doing things for her. I know this phenomena well - I've lived it. Just ask my older sister who still resents all the reaching and door opening she did for me. But here's the rub. Resist this temptation to do physical things for her. Let her spend the longest minute of your life as she struggles with that door, and eventually figures out how to get enough leverage to open it. Because if you don't, you are selling her short. And that's not helping anybody. She actually can climb from floor to stool to counter to cabinet to get a glass, climb back down, open that refrigerator door that looks so heavy compared to her, fill up the water glass with the pitcher that is entirely too full for a little girl to handle, and deliver a glass of water to each person sitting at the dinner table. This appears hugely inefficient - which I already alluded to not liking, but you know what? She is really proud of the system she devised - by herself. And she needs to know you have confidence in her to perform basic activities as well. Go spend a minute with that kid at the back of the line teaching him about patience, and let her get that door for you. Please be mindful of the long-term. You may only spend a year with her, but if I'm lucky, I'm going to spend a lot more of them with her. She needs to have the confidence it takes to maneuver through this world.

Helen has a terrible sense of direction. And while she has mostly adapted to this, it can make things seem scarier than you might imagine. She comes by this honestly from me and her maternal grandma. Sorry about that. But here's my advice: do not send her on a mission alone unless you are willing to lose her. She's unlikely to break the perimeter, so you have that going for you, but she's also highly unlikely to get from point A to point B in any sort of reasonable manner. We've lived in our home for five years now and still, she must pause to figure out where the front door is and where the back door is. Did I mention the back of our house is mostly windows - so she can SEE the backyard?

Helen cannot stand being unable to do something, and like most kids, she'll feign not being interested. But as soon as she figures it out? She will follow along full tilt. As long as she knows you're not going to give up on her, she won't give up on herself, either.

Look, I know the days can be long. Days with a particularly stubborn little girl can be even longer. Just keep moving. Your smile and calm will get you and Helen through this year.

Call me if you get stuck or think things could be going better. I promise I will be able to figure out what's going on in less than an hour. And if you don't need me, that's fine, too. I'll be the mom in the back of the room putting together Friday folders and sharpening pencils. I loved spending time in your classroom three years ago. I'm going to love it even more this year, I think.


Monday, August 25, 2014

It Takes a Village

As the school year approaches, I've been thinking about how it's going to take a village to get through it. For the first time since Helen was born, my family will not have full-time, live-in childcare. It was time for a change, and with Helen and Connor both in full-day school (which ends at a shockingly late time - 3:45!) it seemed like full-time care just wasn't needed. (Yes, I already know that I will eat these words, and hire someone within a few weeks!)

The book 2 A.M. At the Cat's Pajamas highlights this theme. A nine year old's mother is dead before the book begins, and her father has sunk into depression. So the neighborhood ladies get her through the day chronicled in the book. Now, I'm grateful that I'm unlikely to need the kind of aid that these women provide throughout the day, but I may need occasional help picking a child or two up at school, caring for a child or two while I rush home from a meeting, or helping ferry Connor and Helen to school if Ed and I both have to be to work before school starts.

And then, of course, there's the after-school practices. Finally, Connor is at the age where it seems fine to drop Connor off if Helen needs me elsewhere (though a shocking number of parents sit through each practice and game). I'm happy to be there for other children on the team as well, while another parent runs an errand, takes a call, cooks dinner, or tends to something else. Most of the team has been playing together for at least three years at this point.

The book, though covering only a brief period, clips right along at a fast pace - which I'm sure the school year will do as well. Or at least I hope it does. I can't take another year like last year, which has truly left me numb towards school.


This post was inspired by 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, a novel about hope, love, and music in snow covered streets of Philadelphia. Join From Left to Write on August 28 we discuss 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Parenting Fail

A few years ago, Connor accompanied me to sit in the Player's Wives' Suite of the Baltimore Orioles. Among the offerings in that suite were endless cookies.

A fan was born.

So now, we have the very embarrassing situation of sitting in sweet seats at the Nationals-Orioles game and one member of our group roots for the wrong team.

Helen has suggested we try and buy Connor off with some cookies at Nats' stadium. This seems like a battle that can't be won.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

When It All Began: Running

I think a lot about beginnings. How did a friendship start? Where was I when I made a decision? What did choosing one path over another mean?

Every year, I have a fitness goal for myself. In 2013 - that goal was to run 5 consecutive sub 10-minute miles. I accomplished the goal at a St. Patrick's Day 8K. Immediately following that race, I knew I was going to become a runner. I went to a local running store, tried on a ridiculous number of shoes, and walked away with these babies.

Since then, I've switched to a more minimalist style shoe (which I adore), but I rotate between wearing my old (very padded) kicks and my minimalist kicks, depending on how long I'm running, how recently I've run, and how fast I hope to run. These shoes are that old friend that sits in the closet with so many stories of how everything went right, that I smile whenever I see them.

But after more miles than I ever should've attempted to run on these shoes, I have to finally admit, they do more harm than good. The last 20 miles I have run on them have resulted in lower leg pain that affects my gait enough a friend thought I was seriously injured. The pain goes away quickly, and doesn't return until I try running with these shoes again.

They'll always hold some great memories for me - most of all, they will always be those shoes I wore when it all began. I'm going to miss them.


Monday, August 4, 2014


Helen started violin lessons a few weeks ago. As it turns out, learning the violin is a huge exercise in patience - for both the parent and the student. Helen's teacher uses a modified Suzuki approach. For practical purposes, this means Helen must have a "practice parent" and that parent must attend each lesson, take notes, and then work with Helen throughout the week. In our home, that duty falls to me. It's so outside Ed's skill set that we didn't even discuss it.

Of course, I don't actually know anything about the violin (except that I wish Helen was playing cello!), so it very much feels like a blind leading the blind sort of situation. I have been tempted to get a violin sized for me, because I figure if I'm tasked with teaching Helen, I might as well get the satisfaction of playing the instrument myself. But that's probably extremely bad form. This is Helen's instrument, not mine.

As everyone knows, the violin sounds just absolutely terrible when someone learns to play it. Well, at least that's what I am guessing. You see, four weeks in, Helen has still not been able to actually put bow to strings. It sort of feels like an endurance contest, to see how long Helen and I can last before she actually gets to play the thing. It's not clear whether this delay is actually to build all the skills needed to hold the bow and violin properly (as the teacher purports), or if the teacher is dreading those first few notes, and is delaying their playing as long as possible.

In any case, Helen has the tiniest violin ever, and it is super stinkin' cute. We were told last week, that this week, she might get to play a note.

We are both really excited for this big step!

When I took this photo at the instrument store, Helen was super embarrassed to be the kid with the mom with the camera. I think we can all be confident this will not be the last time she is embarrassed by me and my camera.

Stay tuned...I hope the violin does, too!


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hot Nails! for Helen

Helen is totally a girl's girl. She insists on wearing dresses and skirts most days, she'll often add a necklace to her outfit, and the idea of painting her nails is truly thrilling.

Unfortunately for Helen, she has me for a mom. And since the pottery phase of my life, when I was in the studio 2-3 times per week, my nails have been very short and not painted. When I was working on pottery, this was by necessity. Now? It's just convenient.

However, our au pair is the opposite of this. She actually won a contest on Facebook that awarded her every single color of nail polish from some company. She has A LOT of nail polish, and she almost always has toes and fingers painted. This definitely intrigues Helen.

Enter - Hot Designs, and their awesome nail polish pens. One side is polish, the other side is a pen. I received a sample of the polish/pens. And...if you are my au pair with a penchant for nail polish, you can do things like this with the polish and pens. My daughter loves the designs.Check out more on their facebook page.

Hot Designs is giving fans the chance to win the ultimate beach package including a $250 Target gift card by entering at GetHotLooks.com/contest. Just submit a selfie of your summer style using the hashtag #WinHotLooks and at-tag @GetHotLooks on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, or @Get_Hot_Looks on Instagram.

So...go enter the contest. Win some bucks and enjoy your fabulous nails. You can compare them to my completely colorless nails. Yours will be prettier, I guarantee. But...maybe when I'm at the beach in a few weeks I'll give them a try myself. I'm thinking it'll make for some fun bonding time with the three nieces of mine that will be with me.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Screaming in the Car

I haven't been in the car with a screaming child for a long time. Not that I'm a stranger to it - neither Helen nor Connor liked the car when they were little, and they were willing to let me know it.

But for the past several years, I don't tense up at car rides. And it's fair to say that although I remember the trauma of those rides, I don't really remember what it was like to navigate a car through the noise.

On Sunday, we made a last minute decision to head to an outdoor concert. The concert ended at 7:30. Helen had a ball, skipping back and forth through the amphitheater, smiling and high fiving me as she passed. Connor enjoyed it as well, but in more of laid-back manner, propped on my lap.

Helen wanted to walk to a nearby stream, and Ed and I decided that would be fine. It's summer, right? What does she need to get up in the morning for? Well, those things are true, but that doesn't mean she doesn't get tired at night. I don't think either of us realized how close she was to the edge.

To save time, I had brought a little treat for the kids so that we could get them to bed once we got home, rather than serving them their traditional night-time treat. Helen didn't want to eat the M&Ms I offered her at first, because she wanted to wait until she could have them from a little tube she has that came with M&Ms. And so I tucked the packet of M&Ms back in my purse and she opted for a lollipop instead. Only I thought we were delaying the M&Ms until another day. She thought she was getting them when we got home and they could be put in her little tube.

Somehow, this came up on our walk to the car.

Helen was mad. And by the time we got the car, she had started to work herself up. And after a few minutes, she got quite a scream going.

This was actually incredibly painful for me, because I knew if I could just hold her I could help her calm down. But she was in the way-back seats of the car, and I was in the front. She cried for about 30 seconds and then I turned around and told her that we would be home and I would hold her soon. She cried for another 30 seconds and I turned around again and told her it was very difficult for Ed to drive with her screaming, so while I was happy to let her have a good scream when she got home, she needed to take a deep breath and be quieter in the car.

She did. And in this process, she got a piece of hair in her mouth, which is really quite funny - and led to a conversation on hairballs and other gross things Connor, Helen, and I could think about. We got inside our house and I pulled out a child size chair, sat on it, asked Helen to sit on my lap - and calmly explained "Helen, I can see you are very angry. You are angry at me. You are angry because you thought I was going to give you the M&Ms when we got home, and I thought you were opting to have them another night. I am happy to put them in the tube, and you may have them tomorrow."

Helen was totally on board with all of this.

And then I told her, as she sat in my lap "we have time for you to either sit in my lap and have a good scream - as long as you need to in order to get all that negative energy out, or we can read more in our book "These Happy Golden Years". It's your choice, but we really don't have time for both."

Helen sat for a moment, took a breath, and said she'd like to read instead of scream. She also said "but can I have just one M&M?".

"No, Helen, the M&Ms are for tomorrow." Because I happen to know a little bit about Helen, and that is that she thinks if it's OK to have one M&M, it's OK to have the whole tube.

Ed smiled. He would've caved and given her the M&M. Helen laughed. She knew the answer was no before she verbalized the question.

I am, of course, grateful she made the choice to read. We ended up having a lovely bedtime that is worth remembering.

But wow...I can't believe how bad screaming in the car can be. Not remembering it in all its gory detail was a gift my mind had given me. Now, I only hope I can wipe the memory out quickly!

I've been meaning to post this picture for a while, Helen. You are the master of disguise these days.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Books and Art: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I'm not certain I ever read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a child. I have vivid recollections of the movie, man were those oompa loompas weird, but I don't remember actually reading the book. So quite possibly, my recent read-through with Connor was my first ever.

And it was delightful.

Most delightful for me were the vivid descriptions of the Bucket family, the town, the store Charlie purchased the candy bar with the winning ticket, and of course, the factory. While reading it, I kept thinking that this book calls for artwork.

Why? Because last week at Artful Conversations, Connor and I learned about a painting that was inspired by the story Rip Van Winkle. And naturally, as I sat thinking about that painting, I thought about how many other paintings might really come alive for Helen and Connor if they knew the story behind them.

So a project based on Roald Dahl's seemingly timeless book seemed like a perfect project to take on.

Unfortunately, I had to speed through the book this evening to post in time for the my online book club, so Connor hasn't heard the end and Helen hasn't heard any of the book. But I can remedy both of those things in the next few days.

Artwork to follow.


This post was inspired by the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate, Penguin Young Readers Group, in partnership with Dylan’s Candy Bar, the world-famous candy emporium, and First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides books for children from low-income families, is launching a year-long international celebration.

I Think I'd Like That, Too

On Sunday, Connor and I went to the National Gallery of Art to participate in their Artful Conversations class. This is the first year Connor can attend the class (ages 8 - 11), and is the follow-on class to Stories in Art, which Connor and Helen have participated in for several years, thanks to my friend Helen asking us to join her there.

Neither Helen nor Connor are huge fans of art museums, unless they are destroying them. But they do love these programs, and I love attending with them. Stories in Art is very popular, and the first two sessions of the day fill up basically upon the museum's opening. Artful Conversations is less popular, and I thought that if we showed up right before it started, we'd be able to get in. I was wrong. We arrived at noon, having not eaten lunch, and were told the noon groups were full. We could come back for the 2:00 program.

I told Connor we could find a place to eat lunch and then walk around the museum a bit, or we could head home for lunch and come back at 2:00. He opted to go home.

As we were exiting the museum, he explained "I think three hours of being in an art museum would just be too much for me, Mom. What do you think?"

Me: "Well, Connor, I would actually very much enjoy walking around for two hours and then sitting her for another hour for your program, but it's fine to go home."

Connor: "Maybe we should go look at a few paintings together, then. I think I would like that."

Me: "I would, too."

And then we wandered into the gallery on our left, which happened to house several of Monet's painting. Connor instantly remembered they were painted in France, reminded me he had tried to recreate one of them, and then we guessed about what time of day each was painted.

It was a nice half hour - and then we went home, had lunch, and returned for the program.

Thanks for the lovely afternoon, Connor. It's a keeper in my book.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Oh Crab! Petsitting, Resurrection, and Weight Loss

Two years ago, Grandpa Dick gave Connor three hermit crabs for his birthday. There was a teeny-tiny crab that had a shell painted black with a batman logo, a medium sized one painted like a ladybug (Helen picked this one out - it may have been hers), and a larger one painted with Angry Birds on it. He was also given a couple of extra shells in case the hermit crabs grew and needed a new shell. We were very hopeful crab owners. So hopeful, that after about a week, I got an old aquarium out of our basement and dumped a bunch of sand in it. Having the crab live on the rocks that came with it just seemed like a bad idea - plus it sort of freaked me out when I would hear them walking around at night.

Angry Bird, as he was known, died a few months later. He was in the care of a friend, and his friend felt awful. I, however, wasn't too sad. One down...two to go.

Batman died about six months ago, I think, though I'm not exactly sure when.

Ladybug marches on. And these past few weeks with her have been quite exciting.

First, we went on vacation. We left the crab with Connor's friend (not the one who had to deal with the death of Angry Bird, we chose a different victim this time). Connor's friend was super excited to have the crab for two weeks, and we feared he nearly loved that crab right to its death. When Ladybug was returned, she was not looking good. I dropped her in a water dish, thinking maybe she was just a little dry, but when I saw her - I was confident she was dead.

The mom, of course, felt awful. I admit to feeling not awful (except I felt bad that she felt bad). I was free of another pet. It was the end of the weird pet chapter of our lives. Nobody actually cares for the crab except me. I do get a kick out of it when I walk into the room and she drops her shell, as if she's not there. Sneaky... This is the only interaction anyone in our home has with the crab. Ever.

After a few hours of letting Ladybug soak herself, I was ready to pronounce her dead and perform whatever last rites seemed appropriate. Only when I retrieved her from the bowl, she reached out her teeny-tiny claw and gave one last hurrah of a wave. Surprised, I put her back on the sand, covered her house with a blanket (it seemed the respectful thing to do), and told everybody that they were to ignore the crab (as if they need this instruction) to hopefully give a chance for the resurrection to take hold.

And behold! She didn't move much for a few days, but occasionally she moved, and I said a silent cheer for her.

After a few days of this - she simply walked outside her shell. I am obviously not a hermit crab expert, but this did not seem good. She spent most of her time sitting in the water dish, which I feared I would find her floating in some morning. I did not photograph this because I assumed she was getting ready to die, and that just doesn't seem like a good thing to photograph.

And then one morning, she did what none of our crabs did over the past two years (or however long they were with us), she switched shells. Holy cow is this exciting. And, if you think I'm kidding here, it is because you must have a normal pet that actually interacts with you. We were thrilled. Seriously.

Just like that, Ladybug became Baseball.

And that makes sense, as you can see below, because Baseball is bigger than Ladybug. I figured she (actually, the kids now refer to the crab as "he") would live for at least a for more weeks in his new digs. A photograph did not exactly seem urgent.

Only that baseball shell? It is not housing the crab formerly known as Ladybug. Where, you might wonder, has Ladybug / Baseball gone?

To become Batman reincarnated.

At first, I tried to reason with Ladybug / Baseball / Batman. I told him/her that there was no need to pretend like she was of the age that corsets were required. I told her it was OK to wear the bigger shell - it looked good! Everyone liked it on her.

But Batman was all - I've squeezed myself into this thing, I intend to live here a while. And just to make her point that she fit just fine, she dropped a claw. As in, there is a crab claw sitting on the sand right now, that is no longer attached to the crab body.

I have to hand it to Ladybug / Baseball / Batman - that's a lot of sacrifice to wear that cute shell. Having lost some weight last year, I do admire the way she has literally sunk her whole self into her weight loss goals. I have run many miles, but I have never even considered just chopping a leg off.