Monday, April 22, 2013

Disney Vacation Part 1: Making Ready for the Rodent

A few weeks ago, when my brother called to offer us the timeshare points that his family wouldn't be able to use before the mid-May expiration, Josh and I gratefully fell to examining our options. I'm thankful to my awesome brother and sweet sister-in-law for two reasons -- first, for the generosity of their gift and second, for the deadline. You see, Josh has been championing the idea of a family vacation since last May when, after months of estrangement and exhaustion in our collective pursuit of my Ph.D., four kind and qualified scholars finally signed The Paper. We all needed time away, he said, to reconnect and regroup. I knew that he was right, but somehow a family vacation seemed.....wasteful. Extravagant. Excessive. Love relies, though, on extravagant, excessive acts -- it's always impractical. It was time, he insisted, to wastefully, extravagantly love our kids in the insular environment of away-ness:) And what could be more extravagant and excessive than Disney World? Which is why, after perusing the timeshare list for less than an hour, we honed in on an Orlando resort and began making strides toward our first family vacation in more than a decade. (Last vacation, we drove baby Olivia to the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan for a long weekend of sand, sun, and sleeplessness.) Without the mid-May deadline, I think we would have procrastinated indefinitely; after all, impractical things are difficult to prioritize. But the 11th hour feel of an impending expiration date ushered me into my comfort zone -- my frenetic, relentless, whirlwind of a comfort zone! I swept into the homestretch of this sprint determined to celebrate my kids with a kind of epic specificity that they wouldn't soon forget.

I started my Equipping phase of this adventure armed with a broad net. After all, a LOT of people have taken families to the Magic Kingdom. I didn't want to re-invent the wheel, just grease it up and stick a few playing cards in the spokes. The morning after my brother's phone call, I saw the sunrise through screen-seared eyes in the wake of a night spent surfing the Disney web (which should, by the way, have it's own little suffix -- .dis or something! It's so sprawling!) My list of add-on extravagances began to take shape; I knew by dawn that I wanted us to wear matching shirts, mouse hats, and fanny packs. I am in no way kidding. The matching shirts bore the dual function of kitsch and practicality. If one of our little ones should slip away from us in the inevitable Disney crowd, my face would not necessarily be the one that a helpful stranger or uniformed worker might seek. BUT, if we were all wearing the same distinctively red, mouse-emblazoned top and Taye were to sift (disoriented by exhaustion) between the hundreds of legs entering the Hall of Presidents. And if, say, he wandered onto the Main Street of Disney proper while, back in the lobby of the Hall of Presidents, Josh and I were baptized by that wave of panic and vigilant clarity that wash over the first moments of realizing that neither parent knows where Taye might be, then it would be useful (hypothetically, of course) for the red shirt to act as a kind of signal. First, for the parent, whose frantic eyes can sweep a room for red in fractions of a life-long second and, then, for the preschooler who, bleary-eyed and afraid, can begin to look up and do the same. Finally, if some well-meaning stranger steps in to help, the home-made shirts can leave no doubt about a relationship that will become altogether clear when my Taye finally falls into my arms, sobbing with mingled fear and relief. All is well.

So, I found a site called CheapestTees and ordered our array of sizes (for less than $3 per shirt!) in crimson, green, and pacific blue and had them sent to my wonderful Mother-in-law's house, where Aunt Judy generously (do you see the theme of generosity peppered across this whole experience?) air brushed silhouettes of Mickey, an elephant, and an orca onto the chests. She also personalized five drawstring backpacks that I added to the order (free, after my shipping discount and additional 20% internet coupon!).

I quickly realized that the personalization element of extravagant love could not be extended to the backs of Mouse Ear Hats without hyper-extravagant expenditure. So, I switched gears, not yet ready to sacrifice the iconic souvenir. I found a set of official Disney ear hats on Ebay for around $3 apiece. They had been abandoned in layaway and were therefore new but deeply discounted.....because they already had names embroidered on the backs....other people's names. I bought them. For one entirely too-short week, we answered to the names of Christine, Joey, Sabnna, Evan, Hunter, Kathisson (that's Katherine in pink overstruck with Addison in yellow), and Paolo.

Here's the weird thing about the "Personalized" ear hats. Each kid read the name on the back, put on the hat smiling, and then called himself or herself by that name --- without asking any questions. Isn't that strange? They just rolled with it! Once we loaded into the van and donned our collective iconography, the kids just called themselves by the names on their hats without pursuing the obvious contradiction. No one said, "Why does this hat say Sabnna instead of Olivia? or Why are you calling me Paolo?" I have no explanation for this anomaly.

I enlisted the fanny packs to solve the two-pronged problem of an unwieldy backpack, annoyingly banging other (already irritable) people in crowded lines, invariably forgotten while stashed in the pick-up bin of a ride that doesn't accommodate luggage. I figured that a fanny pack on every hip, equipped with snacks and a clip-on, BPA-free, collapsible water bottle would solve all manner of problems. It did....some....and it created others. My fanny pack, which ROCKED, (can I just tell you how much I already love this sentence? :) came from the 50 cent bin at my favorite thrift store. I bought some fanny pack attachments on the same rack, but ended up sticking to the basics. First of all, my fanny pack is awesome because it has numerous compartments, some of them secret. Secret compartments are one of my two favorite attributes of anything. (Transformability is the other....but one cannot expect too much from a single fanny pack). My kids' fanny packs, on the other hand, came from the dollar spot at Target (as did a number of the Disney themed car activities that filled their personalized drawstring backpacks). While I am a huge proponent of dollar spots, I also realize that some items often sacrifice quality for the sake of profit margin. Two of the five fanny packs had to be ditched on day 1 of the Disney adventure due to faulty zippers. The others were just a bit too big in the waist for the little ones (although we solved that problem fairly quickly by making them into shoulder strap bags). The snack distribution was very helpful. When the kids would begin to complain of being hungry, I just answered with the glorious sing-song refrain, "Look in your fanny pack!" I did, actually, compose a little song, which I taught to my kids, and we all sang (some of them, I'll acknowledge, participated under duress) -- with choreography. It's more of a chant than a song, really. In case you ever have occasion to don matching family fanny packs, I'll share my lyrics. It goes "Get." (Extend right hand, palm facing forward) "Back!" (Left hand joins right, palm facing forward) "Back up off my fanny pack!" (Hands swivel inward, palms down, to frame fanny pack. Then, to the beat, add a rhythmic hip thrust in the direction of said fanny pack while pumping arms up and down). How in the world could anyone object to such a cool song and dance!? Here's Tari proudly displaying her pack!

A little note on the water bottles: Clip on collapsible water bottles seem like a great idea. And they are....for adults wearing backpacks. Little ones have no great place to clip them, and they spill more than they drink. The combined problem of water bottle size and loose fanny packs make for some untoward....ummm....exposure. On day three, we abandoned most of the kid fanny packs (although I still worked mine) in favor of a snack backpack, clipping a water bottle to the front of the pack. That worked beautifully! (Except, as expected, it did bang into a lot of unhappy people -- who may or may not have been unhappy before being clobbered by our backpack -- and it did get left at the stash bin of the carousel at Sea World, though it was easily retrieved before the final Shamu show.)

During the first days of preparation, I found a Craigslist post that promised a large bin of Disney paraphernalia for $25. I had hoped to pre-purchase souvenirs to pack in the kids drawstring car packs and hand out after each day of fun, but even online prices seemed prohibitive. I love a large mystery bin almost as much as I love secret compartments and transformability, so I responded to the Craigslist post. Crickets. For two weeks, a silence punctuated by imaginary cricket sounds. Then, a week to the day before our trip, the poster responded and said the bin was still available, which I jumped all over. We wound up with plush characters and plastic toys galore for all of the kids, and I still have a half-full bin of breakable or batteries-not-included Disney gear headed to our local thrift store!

So the car activity packs looked like this: Four or five Disney themed books (purchased for 50 cents each at the profusely acknowledged thrift store), a few Disney themed work books from the Dollar Tree, a gallon sized ziplock bag packed with snacks and a smaller ziplock bag marked "Trash" to collect wrappers from the snack bag. (This second bag idea seems good, but it didn't work at all. Ultimately, it just CREATED one more piece of trash to be thrown into the giant collective trash back parked between the two front seats -- which DID work). A pencil bag full of Disney themed art supplies and some Disney antibacterial wipes (also courtesy of Dollar Tree). A plush toy and several smaller plastic character toys from the $25 mystery bin. A journal. I did not include a water bottle because, quite frankly, I didn't want them to drink more than was absolutely necessary for survival. The trip was already going to take more than 14 hours. Bathroom stops have stretched 3 hour trips to nearly out the math and you'll find that water bottles might have made Disney utterly impossible. I kept some juice boxes and water bottles in the front seat with me, hoping that the inconvenience would slow them down. It basically worked. We made the trip each way in fairly good time and no one suffered (severe) dehydration in the process. All told, just the FACT of personalized drawstring car activity bags worked like a charm at making each of the kids feel extravagantly loved.

In fact, I think the whole vacation worked to that end! Hopefully, I'll have a chance to write a little about how that played out across our adventure, but, for the moment, suffice it to say that we all piled out of our messy van, splashing Disney excess and laundry across the front room of our house and collapsing into bed with smiles on our faces. All of us. Even Paolo.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Listen to ME!

The Listen to Your Mother show directors asked me a few questions about motherhood to provide a little context for the approaching show. Here are a few of my answers along with the headshot that my husband took. He is the only person alive who can find and record my natural smile. I'll explain why that's Oprah's fault in another post. Why did you audition for Listen To Your Mother? My best friend sent a link to the audition that came through a school announcement, urging me to submit something. That’s the reason I applied in pragmatic terms; I love my friend, and I thought it sounded doable. More to the point, though, I think I applied because my failures are so glaringly visible (messy home, short tempers, fighting kids, etc.) and the parts of my life that shine never get noticed (wound dressing, couch cuddling, the dramatic interpretation of children’s classics, etc.). I wanted to shine. What does your day-to-day life look like? I’m trying to think of the elements of every day that are consistent, since our schedule at home whiplashes from frantic to freewheeling. Here are some constants. My youngest always wakes me with a whispered request to play the iPad for an hour before everyone else gets up. I send him off to a quiet room, while I drag myself to the coffee maker and start pulling together breakfast. What follows is either a mad dash to find enough reasonably matched shoes to cover all of our mismatched socks so that we can make it to a homeschool co-op on time OR an hour of reading to my four-year-olds while the big kids grudgingly tackle math. Then, the little guys watch Bill Nye (or something), while I sneak in a shower, and we head out for an afternoon adventure or hunker down with projects and a family book. The above elements are either peppered with music and laughter or crying and screaming, variables that color everything in between. What is the best mothering advice you’ve ever received? “Nobody’s walking around high school with her umbilical cord still attached.” That was my pediatrician’s response to my concern over three-week-old Olivia’s scabby stump, a response that eventually morphed into my mothering mantra. It turns out my diligent efforts to care for her first ever wound by bathing it daily in alcohol had actually prolonged its adhesion. I had pickled it. When our doctor announced her prognosis, I gained a perspective that I’ve resurrected again and again, reminding myself to step back, worry less, and stop interfering. When potty training hit, and poop was predictably everywhere it shouldn’t be and never where it should, I muttered, “Nobody walks around high school pooping her pants.” And when my two-year-old seemed light years away from spontaneously weaning, I chanted, “Nobody walks around high school sucking on her mama’s…” You get the idea. Stuff usually works out, and meddling just makes it take longer. What is the best mothering advice you’ve ever given? Play to your strengths. Too many of us beat ourselves up for not being someone else. I collapse under the weight of dishes and laundry precisely BECAUSE other mothers keep house so painlessly and organically. Crafts make me want to puke. I can’t stand watching my kids work a puzzle; it stresses me out! As long as I keep my eyes firmly focused on the gifts I lack, I run around failing at those things that make me great. And I am great! Great at reading aloud to my kids. Great at telling stories. Great at imagining and embarking on adventures. Great at laughing with my kids. Great at dining room dancing. I could go on and on! And so could every mother on the planet. Every mother is singularly magnificent, and so is every child. I believe that God chose me for my children (on purpose!) BECAUSE of who I am, not IN SPITE of who I am. When I try to become my friends, I fail at being exactly the mother that I was created to be. What is the greatest impact motherhood has had on your life so far? Nothing humbles like motherhood. Not even middle school. My strongest weaknesses peer back at me through the magnifying mirror of my kids’ faces. My deepest fears coalesce around their vulnerabilities. My heart, a fickle little organ I spent so many years training to be tough, stretches and snaps almost every time I stop hurrying long enough to stare at them. I am sunk! I’ve lived a few epic adventures, but only motherhood has taught me to cling, white-knuckled, to God’s grace, and only my kids have made me perfectly certain that nothing’s more powerful than LOVE. What songs are on your favorite Netflix cue? My Netflix queue looks like a theme-based unit study. It’s very homeschool-cool, situated around subject-specific biographies and documentaries. My kids will gripe to their therapists about Mama’s version of “movie night.” We do, at least, serve popcorn! Be sure to purchase tickets soon, if you're planning to attend. I'm told they're going fast!

Oh, Yes! We Did Disney!

As of 1:20a.m. this morning, the surprise vacation is officially over. And what a vacation it was! I look forward to sharing the highlights here in the coming days. Until then, enjoy your family! We are enjoying ours!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

HomeSchool Cool

I have posted ad nauseum about our oscillation from homeschool to public school and back to homeschool, covering the attendant pitfalls of HSW (HomeSchool Weird)ness. I have not, though, justly balanced the weird factor with the particular brand of wonderful that can only be designated HomeSchool Cool (HSC!), a category of awesomeness that we, as a family, trip into from time to time. Consider, for example, an afternoon misadventure at a local park, a local park with no available restrooms. Taye, of course, had a full bladder immediately upon noticing the lack of facilities, so I ushered him to the back of our minivan where, with all the discretion a four-year-old can muster, he dropped trow and began to take care of business. After he had finished, he pointed proudly to the puddle now trickling toward the parking lot's low point and announced, "I made BRAZIL!!!! Look, Mom, I pottied Brazil!" That, my friends, is HSC! Choosing THE BEST audiobook as your contribution to the Latin, Science, and Logic Club Christmas Gift Exchange -- definitely HSC. Mastering the steps at our annual, tri-county, homeschool square dance --- HSC! Lest you conflate HSC with HSW (a common misconception), please remember that HSW eventually boils down to the slippery slope of parental intensity that I still scramble to avoid -- a twitchy, self-important, ego-driven focus on performance instead of process -- a drive to measure up that entirely eclipses the joy of education. (Again, while this imbalance clearly pervades public school as well, the close quarters of family/school life make HSW a pitfall that can shake loose some anchor points of our most crucial relationships -- waters I am not proud to have tested). HSC, on the other hand, unabashedly celebrates the peculiarities of personality and a passion for learning that sometimes get muffled by the fast-flowing current of mainstream culture. And if HSC were a range of mountains, then my Olivia enjoyed her moment on Everest's peak this past weekend. Have you ever seen videos of tween girls in line for Bieber tickets, all giddy and blurry, moving too fast even for digital shutter speeds? Lock in on that image. Now, replace Justin Bieber with Dr. Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press, and superimpose my daughter's face on the effervescent preteen girl. Voila! My daughter's 15 minutes in the HSC spotlight. For the past two years, we have been using Classical Academic Press's Latin curricula, starting last year with Song School Latin and leaping forward to Latin For Children in the Fall of 2012. In order to get the most out of the program (and take some of the pronunciation pressure off of their grossly inadequate mother-teacher), we purchased the whole LFC package with video clips included. And twice a month we meet with a handful of other friends who join us in watching the videos and reviewing vocabulary. This all sounds rather benign and unrelated to our brush with fame unless you know that Dr. Perrin appears in every video segment, first as grammar instructor and often in goofy segments as comic relief (I'll be honest, the comic part is definitely a relief! The grammar drills are tough on this middle-aged mind!). When Olivia learned that Dr. Perrin -- in the flesh -- would be at this year's homeschool convention, she agreed to join me for a day out together, provided I would take her picture with Perrin should they happen to meet. And they did. And I did. Honestly, I'm not sure who felt more HSC last Friday, my daughter or Dr. Perrin. He was flexing his Latin declensions for a couple of maternal admirers when Olivia and I politely imposed upon him for an autograph and photo op. Perrin graciously wrote a couple of sentences in my daughter's book and posed for the above picture, but not without a little bit of classical swagger! I'm not sure what other venue carves out such a high-profile niche for someone with a Ph.D. in what? Latin, maybe? or Classical Studies? I doubt the tween crowd regularly swoons. So my daughter gets to spend a week as Queen of the Co-op (HSC at its finest) and Dr. Perrin gets an anecdote for his dinner table -- a magister honored by his loyal discipula. What could be more HomeSchool Cool than that!?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Listen to Your Mother!

And I get to be a part of it! I'm honored to be sharing my story at the Indianapolis Listen to Your Mother show on May 2nd!