Thursday, May 28, 2009

Activities and vacations and summer camps, oh my!

Anyone out there feeling the tremors of upheaval as summer approaches? Like the whole world runs in a careful balance until June and then, WHAM-O! SUMMER! OK, well, I confess, I'm feeling the tremors coming.

I have a 15-year-old daughter. Every summer since she was 2-years-old, when I resumed working full-time, we've been working out summer plans. Sometimes things are perfect, other times it's been a headache beyond recognition. To cut to the chase, when all is said and done and when the school year begins again in the fall, I am the happiest one of all because it means things fall back into a normal flow of things.

We've done it all. She's traveled to see her grandparents and other family out of state. She's done day camp and overnight camp. There have been one-day programs at the library and the art museum and the science museum. Cooking classes, sports lessons, theater in the park. You name it, we've tried it. I've seen her jubilantly board a bus that carried her away for a 7-day journey without so much as a hint of hesitation. I've also seen her throw a full out, full-body temper tantrum that lasted all morning and the rest of the day because she did NOT want to go to the lake that she begged me for weeks to let her go to with her friends.

The current school year ends in less than three weeks. We are still working out my daughter's summer plans. Granted, at the age she is now, she could sit at home and watch reality shows and Oprah all summer, munching on potato chips and downing Mountain Dew after Mountain Dew. But that wouldn't make me a good mom, see. She has to do things that are productive, character building, and fruitful. (a-HEM.) So on the docket are the following activities: swim team pre-season training, driving school, and fine arts camp. Seems simple enough, right? Just narrow down the choices, pick the options that fit into a schedule, and then make the necessary arrangements. Oh, if only it were so simple. Let's start with swim practice.

Swimming is a sport of heavy commitment and consistent practice. That being said, my daughter hasn't been in the pool for over 6 months. She has about three local options for daily practice during the summer and she could also join the all-city water polo team for their summer season. The glitch? My daughter's father scheduled their family vacation through the first week of the summer. Since this is the first week of practice, it would mean the girl would be behind when she finally did return from vacation and show up for practice. The coaches frown on such a thing. So she's settled for the less rigorous practice at a pool farther from the house that she can start later in the summer.

Then there's driving school. This being my oldest child, I had no idea what a pain it was to get a driver's permit in Michigan. In order to get a driver's license when I was a kid, I went down to the appropriate office the Saturday morning after my 15th birthday, took a written test, and got a permit to drive with an adult for a year. No driver's ed required. But this is not the case in Michigan. The requirements to get a driver's license are convoluted at best, not the least of which is mandatory driver's education. It's not offered through the state or the public school, though; you have to find a private company that does it. AND PAY THEM to do it. Wha...? What's more, the classes are two hours a day, every weekday, for a consecutive two and a half weeks. This essentially means if your kid does anything extra outside of school, it's impossible for them to go through the class during the school year. Needless to say, I've debated many times whether she really needs to learn how to drive at all...

And then there's fine arts, the mother of all expensive summer activity options. Last year, my daughter went to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. She loved it. She adored it. She had no idea how much it cost. Even with a scholarship last year, we spent over $1000 for the 11 days she spent there. I know, that's not a lot when you're talking about overnight fine arts camp, but when you're talking about money, that's a lot of it. She got a couple scholarships again this year, but we were still looking at big bucks out of pocket in order for her go again. And in case you didn't realize it yet, when is she supposed to find time to go to overnight camp when she's also got swim team practice and driver's ed going on? So we switched gears and thought she could participate in a local summer stock group that puts on a musical every summer. Three weeks, six hours a day, two performances at the end. Then I saw the price tag - $750 + membership fees and materials fees. Wow. That's a lot of money just so you can be in a musical. Finally, in the 11th hour, her school orchestra conductor announced last week that the orchestra students are able to go to Interlochen with one of the other city's orchestras in August for a week. They would get to work together, do workshops, and basically prep for the next school year together. $340. Better than the previous two options. They would arrive back in town late on a Monday night, the Monday of the first day of regular season practice for swim team. So it's off the bus from orchestra camp at midnight, go to bed, and up at 6a the next morning for swim practice.

Oh, and one more thing. There's a new baby girl due in our family in August. I'm nervous because I don't know when to expect my obstetrician to say, "that baby must come out NOW." (For the whole story, you can check out my personal blog.) I get the bad feeling that my daughter is going to be off in the north of Michigan at Interlochen, playing her heart out on her viola...and miss the day when her sister is born. But I can't bring myself to tell her she just has to stay home and miss out on Interlochen.

It's exhausting. I really don't consider myself one of those parents who over-schedules and spoils my kid. She's done things that she wanted to do, and I've tried to give her as much down time as a kid needs, just to read and play and enjoy herself. Still, it's clear to me that life is getting faster and faster for her as she ages, just as it does for all of us. Next year she wants to have a summer job. And either I'm ferrying her to and from work...or she'll need a driver's license...oh my.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spring in the Midwest

I love it when Spring finally springs in the Midwest. Every year I think it is taking for-ev-er but every year it comes.

The leaves leaf, the grass greens, the noses run, the throats tickle.

Yes, every Spring for me is allergy season. My eyes itch, my nose is like a faucet with a bad washer, I feel like I need to clear my throat constantly.

It seems to be that my baby girl (child #3 for those who don't know me) has inherited my seasonal allergies. Her nose runs constantly when we are outside, yet clears up each night when we have been indoors for a few hours.

I suppose it is the one drawback of having the four seasons...well, besides the bitter cold of winter and the unbearable heat of summer. Oh and the allergies return in the Fall.

Remind me why we love living here again?

Monday, May 18, 2009

10 Steps to a Successful Garage Sale

It's that time of year again: garage sales. Whether city-wide or neighborhood sales or just a lone sale, it's hard to avoid them.

My friends and I have been having a group sale for the past six years. We met in ECFE class when we all had little ones, and we've stuck it out as the kids have grown and more babies have come into the families. We've had anywhere from three to seven families involved over the years, and it's always a lot of fun, an excuse to get together, and a way to empty our homes of unneeded items.

Here's our recipe for a successful garage sale:

1: We hold our sale during the annual city-wide sales. That brings in the most traffic, and allows us to mark it on our calendars months ahead of time.

2: We hold it at the home of whomever lives in town (some of us are in the country) and has a garage. (Perhaps obvious, but necessary!)

3: Everyone has their strong suit. One provides the garage and hosts us. One has sawhorses and plywood for tables. We each round up as many card tables as we can. I store the tablecloths and hangers from year to year.

4: We have a hybrid system of pinned-on paper tags and stickers. The tags are removed and put into a jar, and are simple to count up at the end, making piles of $5. Some prefer stickers; we're an easy-going enough bunch that we make it all work. Each of us has an assigned color that we use from year to year.

5: We start setting up early in the week, and the sale pretty much consumes us. The final setup comes on Friday morning, and we usually end up selling things while we're still setting up.

6: Everyone pitches in and brings food and beverages. Our kids love playing together. We come and go during the sale, depending on other commitments, but we make sure there are two of us on duty at all times.

7: Someone usually volunteers to take things to the thrift store after the sale, so nothing has to come home again unless we want it to.

8: We work together to count up the tags and the money. If things don't come out exactly, we've made a pact to divide the profit or loss evenly.

9: The older kids help with the little ones during critical times.

10: We have fun! It's the only time of year that we're scheduled to get together and really catch up with each other.

This year we had four moms with twelve kids plus some of their friends. We each cleared some clutter out of our homes, and made a little extra cash so we can fill up the empty spaces!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Thought I Could Live A Lot Of Places. Here, Wasn't One Of Them

When I was younger and more na├»ve, when I was attending college in the Northeast and considering how I’d make my way in the world, and when I was much more certain about how things ought to be done, I often said this to my friends:  “I could live a lot of places.  I’d live on either coast, or even in Texas.  I just wouldn’t want to live in the middle.  I mean, why would you?”

You can all pause now, and have a nice, hearty laugh at my expense.

Because although I started my grown-up life in Connecticut, moved out to San Francisco and then on up to Seattle, we all know that since that time I have landed squarely in the middle.  It’s like I was dropped here.  Just plunked down one steamy June day, and left to simmer.

It was temporary, of course.  Four years, maybe five and then we’d get on with it.  We’d head to Boston or Philly or somewhere like that and start our real life.  We’d reunite with old friends and make new ones.  First, we just had to get through a few years “out here.”

But slowly and surely our roots went down and our kids shot up and somehow ten years has gone by and, still, here we are.  We’re no longer newcomers.  We’re not temporarily misplaced East Coasters, although I admit to still feeling that way on occasion.  Here, where we came for a few short years, we now have some very close friends and lots of fun and funny acquaintances.  We have commitments.  We have bible study groups, and book clubs, and I, for one, have my Ladies Who Lunch.  We’re involved with our kids’ schools and our church.  Somewhere along the way, the middle has become as much our home as anywhere else once was.

It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it?

We wonder, now and then, what will happen next, when our boys really grow up and get a life of their own.  Will they stay?  Will we?  But the thing we’ve learned, I think, is that in the end, it isn’t the place that matters.  Friends and fun and laughter and tears and life are anywhere.  They’re everywhere.  You just have to stay long enough to experience and embrace them.


photo credit:  Daniel Voyager

Friday, May 8, 2009

Gardening with Kids: An Easy Guide

Gardening with Kids: An Easy Guide by Julia Kelly (Midwest Mom)

Gardening with your children is an easy thing to do. At our house, we involve our kids in as many aspects of tending our family garden as we can. Gardening together provides us with high-quality time together outdoors and away from the television (a good thing in my book!) It gives me the opportunity to teach them about plant ecology and bugs and the environment. And honestly, my kids are great helpers.

Spring Planting

Spring in the Midwest is for planting. It is the most work-intensive time in the garden, and the dirtiest. But the work you and your kids put in now to plant the garden right will make the late-Spring and Summer a lot more carefree.

If you are planting seeds, keep your children’s needs in mind. Larger seeds are easy for small hands to manipulate. Seeds like beans and peas can be soaked ahead of time in a glass filled with moist paper toweling. Once softened, they will germinate more quickly. Or, you can leave them in the glass and watch them sprout. What a great way to teach your children how a seed works its magic.

Smaller seeds are great for scattering and gently raking into the soil. Lettuce seeds or flowers like Cosmos are easily planted this way. Both make a big impact once they germinate, too.
If you have a flower garden, try letting your children plant sunflowers. Again, the larger seeds are easy for little ones to handle, and they will be amazed at how tall they grow. Your family can sign up with children across the country to participate in the Great Sunflower Project. The Great Sunflower Project encourages families to grow sunflowers at home to help chart the health of the bee population. Our family is participating. Yours can, too.

If you prefer to plant seedlings from your local garden center, focus on varieties that grow well in your area. Let your children help choose what colors of flowers to plant. Talk about what kind of vegetables your family likes to eat or would like to try. Make a list and play “veggie hide-and-seek”, letting your children search the garden tags for the right plants.

Know the dimensions of your garden space and pay attention to the space, light, soil and watering needs of the plants you purchase. If your child is a reader, have him read the planting instructions and measure the size of the hole with a ruler. Be sure to dig an adequately large hole for each plant. Fill the hole with water, and once it has drained completely, place the seedling inside, backfilling to make the base of the plant even with the surrounding soil level. Press the earth gently and water again.

Water Games

Kids love to help with the watering. When the weather gets hot, they can’t get enough of it. But the key to successful gardening is to water correctly. So, my first rule of watering may be: make it fun. But my next rule is: do it right.

Spring rains can sometimes be enough to get the garden going. But when the weather is dry, it is a good idea to keep the garden evenly moist until seedlings emerge. I let my children take turns with the hose. There are three of them, so once everyone has had a turn, our garden is well-watered. Using a hose with a spray-selector works well; I set the nozzle to ‘shower’ or the setting that most closely resembles raindrops, so seeds and seedlings won’t be dislodged or broken.

Once the weather gets warmer, our watering turns to water-play. I like to fill 5-gallon buckets and arm my crew with plastic watering cans. They water each plant individually and watch as the ground eagerly soaks up the water. From time to time, they wind up watering themselves as much as the plants. But it is cooling play that is fun for us all.

We like to water in the early evening, to give our plants a chance to soak in the moisture when the night turns cool. But watering in the morning works just as well. The key is to be consistent.

Measuring Progress

A great way to help your children maintain their enthusiasm for the family garden is to regularly measure its progress.

We keep a calendar of our planting dates and count the days until we can expect to harvest. Other families may enjoy keeping a garden journal with measurements, drawings, and photos. What a great project for homeschoolers!

We stop and check our garden a few times a week and mark the way the plants are changing. We encourage the children to find the creatures that live in the garden, from butterflies to grasshoppers to bees (and even, unfortunately for last year’s crop of peas, the occasional bunny. This year we have a better fence.) At the end of the season, the flowers and produce are the best reward we could ask for.

Our home garden is a place for us to teach our kids about life, about caring for something other than themselves, about the value of work and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. It is a natural classroom that brings our family closer together.
I hope you will try planting a garden with your own children, even if you just begin with a plant or two. You just might find, as we have, that you love it.

- Midwest Mom

Julia Kelly (aka Midwest Mom) lives in Central Illinois and is the mother of three, wife of one. As the chief cook and bottle-washer for her brood, she has a thing or two to say about living life with a healthy sense of perspective and a good sense of humor. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Midwest Moms.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pests of all kinds

Spring comes. All of us peek out the windows precariously wondering if the last freeze has really passed. Slowly, but ever so surely, we gain boldness and go out into the foliage, surmising the situation in the garden and lawn. As courage fills our veins, we begin tilling the soil and eagerly awaiting warmer day after warmer day.

And then it comes. The day when you realize that you are not the only kind of creature that comes out with the thaw. As a new home owner for the first time in Ann Arbor, I'm discovering what critters are abounding in my lawn. I thought clearing the snow from the long driveway was a chore -- ha! What I didn't even know...

We've got the signs of a mole in our lawn. We're not sure if he's still in the area. We just know that all the signs are there. Tunnels close to the surface of the lawn, criss-crossing all about and piles of soil that look like small volcano cones. When my husband and I went to Home Depot to ask about this yesterday, every one of the employees who gave us advice started with some horror story about how destructive moles are and how hard they are to get rid of. Great. By the time we left, we had learned it would take about $100 worth of grub killer for the entire lawn and another $20 in various poisons to start dealing with the problem. All that in the hopes that he would die deep, deep under our lawn, along with his offspring and kin and we wouldn't have to resort to more medieval methods of eliminating him.

Then I find out that other rodents can use the tunnels. Things like gophers and voles and rats. Lovely. We live next to protected woodlands. Just a couple weeks ago I watched a large cat (or a domestic cat-bobcat crossbreed?) stalk, catch, and kill some fairly large furry rodent in my back porch flower beds. This wasn't a mouse or a hamster; this was grown squirrel sized, but something other than a squirrel. I'm thinking that there's a good chance that something's using those tunnels even if the mole is gone.

As if this weren't enough to deal with, I discovered something worse. Something that made me realize, those rodents may come in the house. (Not the mole, of course, because he's not a rodent, but other rodents may come in.) My 15-year-old daughter is attracting pests to her bedroom. Not intentionally, of course. But she's doing it, nonetheless. She's got this habit of wanting to eat in her room, and it's usually something containing sugar. through the years we've gone through various stages of curbing this behavior: we went from finding open candy and food in her bed and closet and waste bin...to finding piles of candy wrappers in the closet and under the bed...to finding piles of candy wrappers under her pillow once her bed is made...to finding piles of candy wrappers in her waste bin. But on Saturday afternoon, after she had left the house for an overnight visit with her father, my husband and I found her lunch bag from Friday under her bed and about 10 billion zillion ants pigging out on her untouched peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had lovingly made the morning before. I think these ants had abandoned their normal behavior of carrying food back to the colony and just decided to go crazy gorging themselves. Some of them were already passed out from overeating.

How shall we deal with the situation? What would YOU do? I grew up in Florida, so I learned my lesson very early on in life that you shouldn't never, ever, ever leave food (or crumbs, or wrappers, or any possible hint that something containing carbohydrates) in your bedroom. If you did, get ready to have an army or ants march across your face when you're asleep in your bed at night. Or a couple of 3" roaches. But my daughter has had the luxury of not dealing directly with consequences like these since we live in a place where the pests are scarce for most of the year. Until now.

Do you think showing her the mole tunnels might scare her? How about when she sees the first real live rodent...in her bedroom?