Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

Our mountain vacation has far exceeded my expectations (though our daughters' behavior hasn't, *sigh*). Colorado has won me over.

Some highlights:

1. Happy, fit, friendly people who seem to bike, walk, run, hike, and boat A LOT. In Boulder, they also go to yoga.
2. Bubbling, burbling, rushing-over-rocks creeks and rivers along every road and bike path.
3. Lakes, mountains, pine trees, blue skies and clouds that change hue over the course of the day.
4. Aspens shimmering in the breeze.
5. Awesome runs: up the canyon by Eben G. Fine Park in Boulder, along Boulder Creek, and around Lake Dillon.
6. Clean mountain air: breathing is like therapy.
7. Wildflowers.
8. Hiking with our daughters on Red Rocks.
9. Fishing: eldest daughter learning to cast off and reel on her own; husband rising at 5 AM to fish each morning; both daughters "catching" their own trout in the Kids' Fishing Derby organized as part of Wedding Festivities; the fish I caught which the guide said "might not make it" swimming quickly away--phew!
10. Family togetherness: fifteen of us on my husband's side of the family sharing adjoined condos, in harmony! Staying up late talking and different combos of personalities catching up and sharing stories.
11. Taking our little two-year-old cousin home from the wedding with us so the bride and groom (my husband's brother) could enjoy the last hours of their reception. Cousin bonding at bedtime.
12. Connecting with friends in Colorado: spending an amazing weekend with my friend Sarah and her family in Boulder; swapping childcare (and giving our kids time with familiar friends) with a neighborhood Mom living in the mountains for the summer; coinciding Colorado vacations with friends who've moved away from us but are here with their kids, too.
13. Line dancing at the wedding--Colorado style.
14. Feeling like this was an A+ vacation, and I can handle returning to work without feeling too sorry for myself...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Up in the Sky and Away We Go

This afternoon we leave for a week-long vacation in Colorado, where we will visit my dear friend from college and her family in Boulder, and then head to the mountains for my brother-in-law's wedding and quality time with his family.

My husband's brother's life has been radically transformed over the past two years. He has a two-year-old son of whom he gained custody after fighting to prove his paternity (who does that? Besides, of course, Anna Nicole Smith's ex?). Tragically, the establishment of paternity was closely followed by the death of his son's mother. Our daughters' little cousin gained a new father and lost his mother in short time. But my brother-in-law is marrying an amazing woman who has loved and supported him and his son on this journey. There will be lots to celebrate this week.

But first, we've got to get a potty-training preschooler and a constipated kindergartener on board an airplane and across the Rockies...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Princess Sparklemist and The SandWitch

(Note: About two years ago, my daughter asked me to make up a story. Together, we invented characters and the first Sparklemist Story was born. Now, whenever we are in the car, she begs for a new Sparklemist tale. The sagas, by request, always have to be scary, so Sparklemist has battled various foes, including pirates, dragons, smelly monsters and terrible storms. This story is my personal fave.)

Once upon a time, Princess Sparklemist and her two friends Rocky* (a giraffe) and Lily (a crocodile) set out for a hike in the desert. It was a beautiful sunny day. The cacti were in bloom and the sand dunes sparkled in the sunshine. It was hot but not too hot, and our explorers brought water and a picnic with them on their adventure.

Right before the trio planned to stop for lunch, they came upon a huge dune. As they walked around it they discovered a hole in the side, which seemed to lead deep, deep down into the sand. Sparklemist, Rocky, and Lily all stood at the edge and peered down into the dark.

All of a sudden, a green lizard popped his head out, startling our friends.

"Hello!" he greeted them. "You are at the entrance to the House of The SandWitch!"

"The SandWitch!" they exclaimed. "Who is she?"

"The SandWitch is a lovely desert dweller," replied the lizard. "She would like to invite you to tea."

Sparklemist looked at Rocky and Lily and shrugged. "What do you think, guys?" Sparklemist was a polite princess who did not like to turn down polite invitations.

"I don't know..." murmured Rocky, peering skeptically down into the dark hole. "How will we get out of there?"

"No problem!" muttered the lizard. "No need to worry about that..." He turned to the mouth of the House of The SandWitch and declared, "Follow me!" The lizard, whose name was Louie, sat on his bum at the edge of the sand tunnel and began sliding down. Rocky went next, followed by Sparklemist and Lily.

It was a long, dark, smooth and sandy ride to the inside of The SandWitch's house. When they reached the bottom, their eyes adjusted to the dim light of the sand cavern, where the SandWitch greeted them lustily.

"Ahhhhhhhhh, yes, you've come for tea, have you?" rasped The SandWitch, whose sand-colored hair was matted and knotty and whose skin was white from lack of sun. She wore loose clothes made of rough brown fabric like burlap and her calloused feet were bare.

Sparklemist stepped forward, introducing herself and her friends. "Thank you so much for inviting us. Your house is very interesting!"

Louie had taken his place on a sand shelf on one side of the cavern, and as Rocky and Lily looked around, they noticed that two more lizards, these ones brown and warty, were blocking the way out.

"Yes...well, let us have tea. And then we'll have lunch!" The SandWitch rubbed her hands together. Louie came down from his perch to grab a kettle off a small fire in the corner. Sparklemist, Rocky, and Lily all drank tea made of cactus flower petals and talked about their hike in the desert.

When they finished their sweet drinks, Sparklemist offered to share the lunch they had brought with Louie, the SandWitch, and the two rather scary lizards by the exit.

Louie and The SandWitch looked at each other. Louie cleared his throat.

"You see, well, ahem...actually, you are the lunch," he mumbled.

Rocky put a hoof behind his ear. "Huh? What did you say?"

"Ummm...well...The SandWitch will be eating YOU for lunch." He turned his head toward The SandWitch, who nodded and grinned.

"Yes, that's right! And you certainly look delicious! Especially her." The SandWitch gestured toward Sparklemist. "Though I have never had giraffe, come to think of it..."

Sparklemist was aghast. "Eat us! For lunch? You invite us to tea and then you eat us for lunch? Why, that's the rudest thing I have ever heard of!" Sparklemist put her (trembling) hands on her hips. The lizards behind her inched closer.

"Darling, that's what I do," answered the SandWitch resolutely. "I invite visitors to tea, and then I eat them for lunch. Prepare the pot, Louie."

Sparklemist, Rocky, and Lily looked at one another and back at the two guard lizards in horror. But Sparklemist quickly pulled herself together and began problem solving.

"Ms. SandWitch, aren't there other things you like to eat for lunch? Haven't you ever tried a sandwich?"

The SandWitch whirled around on her bare heel. "A SandWitch? Why, I would never eat another SandWitch!"

"Well, maybe you just had the wrong kind, like a yucky sandwich? Sometimes my mom makes those...Have you ever tried peanut butter and..." Sparklemist was interrupted by her angry hostess.

"Young lady, you think I am rude, and you are suggesting I eat SandWitches? My goodness. I would never! There are so few of us left in the desert I can't imagine eating..."

Sparklemist began digging through their backpack. "Here! Look! This is Rocky's favorite kind of sandwich...salami and havarti! And Lily, well, she just loves peanut butter and banana! As for me..." Sparklemist triumphantly held aloft a girled cheese.

"Eh? What's that you've got there, girl?" Suddenly our SandWitch was curious and twitching her nose. The lizards, too, were moving closer, and this time not so menacingly.

"They're sandwiches--and not like you are a SandWitch, silly!" exclaimed Lily, as she took a satisfying bite from her peanut butter and banana. "Here, have some!" Lily passed the sandwich around, and soon, Sparklemist was divvying up the remaining picnic.

The SandWitch, having sampled some of each type of sandwich, sniffed and admitted, "Well. Those are certainly scrumptious little lunch options. And their name is certainly nice sounding..."
Sparklemist looked straight into the SandWitch's eyes. "You see, Ms. SandWitch, doesn't it feel better to invite people to lunch and share with them, instead of eating them? I'm sure Louie could help you make some sandwiches to go with your tea...and perhaps we could come back and bring some...

"Meatball subs!" offered Rocky.

"Roast beef and gorgonzola!" shouted Lily.

"Cool lettuce wraps with flies and spiders!" cheered the lizards from the doorway of the cave.

"Sure!" smiled Sparklemist. "Now, we've really got to be going. My mother will be very worried if we don't get home soon. Thank you so much for bringing us to your house, Ms. SandWitch. Nice to meet you, Louie, and, err...lizards. I hope we visit you again soon!"

The SandWitch was already busy making up new kinds of sandwiches to share with future visitors. She happily waved to our friends as Louie showed them how to get out of the sand cave by pulling themselves up a rope anchored at the opening of The SandWitch's House.

Before long, Sparklemist, Rocky, and Lily emerged into the sunlight, squinting and relieved that they had made new friends and avoided becoming The SandWitch's lunch.

"Whew," sighed Sparklemist, "It's fun to share, but...I'm HUNGRY!" She rubbed her tummy and began marching homeward. "C'mon, you guys! Let's go get some...burritos!"

*Rocky has since been renamed "Michelle"

Friday, July 18, 2008

Secret Elf Project: DAY 2

Today we launched our second installment of the Secret Elf Project. Mission preparation spanned a week, however.

First, Daughter created six cards with drawings of flowers and a smiley, long-eyelashed elf (I guess), signed, "FROM YOUR SECRET ELF" (with a backward S).

Next I bought terra cotta flower pots, kids' tempera paint, two six-packs of flowers, and some potting soil.

Then, both daughters painted the pots, inside AND out.

Finally, this morning, we planted the flowers (and then First Daughter watered them using a cracked bucket and a tiny Disney princess teacup).

During Second Daughter's naptime, our Secret Elf scampered up and down the block to deliver her gifts. It was exciting to surreptitiously drop off the goods (and we weren't caught by anyone during delivery this time), but it was more thrilling to periodically check our neighbors' stoops to see if they had discovered their surprise.

Out of six homes, four probably knew immediately it was my daughter behind the Secret Elf. But two families might just be wondering who left flowers on their doorsteps...Happy Friday!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Listing (All the Things I Should Be Doing Besides Making Lists)

I've been wanting to send a former student a care package to let her know I'm thinking about her while she's working on herself in recovery. On a date downtown with my husband Saturday night, he gave me ten minutes to peruse Urban Outfitter, one of his least favorite stores. In there, I found not only another former student working, but the perfect book for my target: Listography: Your Life in Lists.

In 1996-7, when I lived in Africa, more than anything else I had Time. Because I had so much of it, I used Time in creative ways: baking bread from scratch, making tortillas and then tortilla chips from scratch, walking, painting, listening to music, reading, and writing. In Kenya they sell newsprint notebooks in different sizes and I couldn't help buying a variety of them. On the spine of the smallest one, I wrote "The Book of Lists," and began starting lists of all sorts of random things.

Here is a list of my lists (in the order they can be found in my little book):

1. Life Goals
2. Things I Really Should Do Someday So I Don't Disappoint Myself
3. Things to Buy Someday
4. Things I Miss
5. Things I Used to Hate That Now I Like
6. Yucky Things
7. Favorite Authors
8. Favorite Poets
9. Favorite Artists
10. Annoying Things
11. Music I Grew Up With
12. Favorite Singers/Voices
13. Favorite Groups
14. Favorite Movies
15. Fun Times
16. Regrets/Stupid Times
17. Proud Moments
18. Favorite Colors
19. Projects
20. Countries I've Been To
21. All-Time Favorite People
22. Guys I've Kissed
23. Funny Things I've Owned
24. Phases I've Gone Through
25. TV Shows I Have Loved
26. Cool People I Have Met (By Accident)
27. Bad Habits
28. Great Books
29. Rave Runs
30. Admired
31. Admirers
32. Folks I Esteem
33. Children's Books (I Loved)
34. Things I Hope I Won't Ever Subscribe To
35. Good Smells
36. Places to Go Someday

My lists are more than ten years old (though I have added on to them periodically), and it's interesting to see how my single, living-abroad (far from family and friends) life affected what I enumerated. For example, the Things to Buy Someday List is dominated by practical items like camping gear, and My Life Goals List includes a number of things I have accomplished, including Have a Great Dog, Really Learn to Sail, Own a House, and Have an Amazing Lifetime Companion.

I'll post some lists here periodically, or just list some more lists I'd like to make, like:

1. Things I Avoid Spending Money On, and
2. Things (It Occurs to Me) That I Do In a Uniquely-Me Way

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Holy Pringles, You Led Me into Temptation

A couple of weeks ago our four-year old came home from preschool with a mini canister of Pringles, unopened but decorated on the outside with joyful "I love Jesus" cutouts.

An optional "pull-out" program at her Christian preschool is Chapel Time, which is kind of like Sunday School except it's on Tuesdays. Two very sweet older ladies run it and there is nothing that brings them more bliss than the sound of prekindergarteners reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Why would non-churchgoing types like us willingly sign up our daughter for Chapel Time? There are several answers to that query; perhaps for me the most important one is that as a child I went to Bible School, to Confirmation Class, and to Youth Group, and all that religious indoctrination gave me accessible faith, knowledge of the Judeo-Christian mythology, and lots of memorable experiences. And it didn't keep me from being a critical thinker and decider when it came to the role of religion in my life later on down the line.

Another reason is that I think our philosophy on child rearing is that we're not going to be Opt Out parents. What I mean by that is we feel pretty comfortable exposing our children to an array of experiences and beliefs, with debriefs and discussion along the way. I remember being saddened as a 7th grade humanities teacher by the parent who opted her son out of participating in the unit on Islam on the basis that her husband was off fighting those "ragheads" whose culture we would be studying.

On the other hand, I recall the controversial "abstinence" assembly we held at the high school and the parent who shared that while she took issue with abstinence as a primary approach to sex education, she would encourage her son to attend the assembly because he needed to be able to listen and think critically to information and opinions from a variety of sources.

There's a difference to me between forthrightly declaring to children about any doctrine or belief, "That's a bunch of B.S.," and challenging them by asking, "Have you considered...?"

I guess I trust that my kids can and will grow up to make choices and adopt views that make sense to them, particularly if they know about and have experienced a wide world of ideas.

So Chapel Time is part of our daughter's Tuesday experience at preschool. And it certainly has raised issues in our household, what with her declaration of God as Our King and the question she asked the other day about whether or not I Praise God.

But when she came home with the Pringles, I was especially curious about the relationship between Potato Chips and Jesus, and about why a Pringles can was the medium for expression of faith that particular week. My daughter did not shed much light on the matter herself, except to say, "Potato chips are not Healthy Food, Mom, so they can be a special treat for me later on."

The can sat on the counter for days, praising Jesus and seemingly forgotten.

One night when the kids were in bed and my husband was asleep on the couch, I peeked inside the can. The foil seal had been peeled back! And a few Pringles were missing. My husband must have offered our daughter some chips as a snack at some point. I was impressed that most of the chips, however, remained in the can.

I took a few. Ahh, Pringles. That salty, familiar melting in the mouth unique to the brand, reconstituted potato products that are Pringles. They reminded me of long car rides and sailing trips, when my parents packed them as special treats. They never lasted long, of course.

Nor did the Pringles on the counter, as I made several guilty return trips to the can. I knew I was taking a rare treat out of the mouth of one of my babes. It was not unlike when my parents would eat our Halloween candy, late at night under the cover of darkness, I thought. Only these were Jesus Pringles, for heaven's sake. I should be ashamed.

And I was. I finished off the can--having reached the point of no return--and virtually hid the evidence by throwing away the empty container. I prepared to confess my sin the next morning.
But the Pringles went unmentioned. At some point a week ago or so, I remembered that she hadn't remembered, and I was somewhat amazed and a tiny bit grateful.

I should have known better.

On the way to school on Tuesday, alone with me in the car, she cocked her head and asked, "Mom, what happened to my chips from school?"

So I spilled my guts. I gave her the details of how it all (all the Pringles) went down (my gullet): how I was tempted, how I knew it was wrong to eat them without her permission, and how I had no excuse except that they were yummy--a poor justification for the (salty!) selfish act. And how I was very, very sorry.

Sweetly, without pause, she let me off the hook. And I promised to replace them.

P.S. We signed her up for Church Day Camp on Saturday. I vow to restrain myself if she comes home with a God-Fearing Candy Bar.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Secret Elf Project: DAY 1

One year when I taught Creative Writing, I assigned my students a "Secret Angel" project to complete over the winter break. Their challenge was to do something nice for a neighbor, anonymously, and document it somehow: a photo of their homemade gift or good deed, or an affidavit from a credible witness.

After the holidays, students shared their ideas and experiences, which included washing neighbors' cars, baking fresh bread, and writing and leaving sweet notes. The good feelings that resulted encouraged some students to continue committing "random acts of kindness."

My eldest daughter is almost five now, the perfect age to participate in a Secret Good Deed Enterprise. As my month-long July vacation neared, I suggested to her that we could spread some cheer this summer by leaving little surprises for our neighbors under the guise of "Secret Elf."

Immediately enthusiastic, she wasted no time coming up with ideas and telling people about our plan, including some neighbors.

Saturday morning we launched our Project, baking cherry muffins for two neighboring families. My daughter wrote the accompanying notes, which read (backward letters translated): "Muffins for (you). From Secret Elf."

She and her dad crept out of the house with the bounty, dropping off the first package across the street at the home of her good friend, a fellow four-year old. They rang the doorbell and bolted, Doorbell-Ditch style.

Dad and Daughter were concerned that the other targets, our neighbors to the left, were not home. So they came back for some foil to cover the muffins as they waited on the front porch for their beneficiaries. But the neighbors heard the Secret Elf ruckus and came to the door, at home after all. My daughter declared that the muffins were theirs from the Secret Elf. Our kind neighbors were sufficiently charmed and grateful, and my daughter jubilant.

But the best part of Secret Elf Project Day 1 awaited us when we returned from lunch out with friends: On the front porch rocking chair was a poster-size card with our daughter's name, and a drawing of her carrying muffins (above).

Inside, the couple next door had written, "Since you know who the Secret Elf is, will you please tell her thanks for us? This morning we were sitting in our jammies and drinking our coffee. We had forgotten to get something for breakfast at the store. Then we smelled this wonderful baking smell floating through our windows! It made us so hungry! Then you came to the rescue with elf muffins! Please tell the elf thank you for us. Your neighbors..."

Daughter has asked me to read the card to her about ten times.

My favorite part is that the sound of tantrums is not the only thing floating through our neighbors' windows.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Swifty, the (pooping) Swimming Pig

I haven't braved the County Fair for years, my various excuses including the traffic, the heat, and the fact that it usually moves on to another locale just as my summer gets started.

But for some reason this year, The Fair beckoned. And I decided it would be the adventure I embarked on with my girls on my first day off with them (yesterday). I gathered up two of their cousins and another five-year-old neighborhood friend, loaded up the minivan with carseats and snacks, and we were off.

The only guidance we were given by Previous Fairgoers this season was Head to the Right for Kids' Stuff, Don't Miss the Pig Races, and Avoid the Koolickles.


Heading Right was Right On. In the livestock barn we found pigs snuggling each other, cows ready for petting, and lots of goats and sheep wearing shirts.

We washed the farm off our hands and had some time to kill before the Pig Races started. Two roped-off astroturf areas at either end of the track gave kids preferred seating, so my crew hunkered down while I nodded my head to entertaining country songs (Toby Keith's "I Wanna Talk About Me" was a highlight) and mused on the County Fair Lifestyle, as represented by the Swifty Swines deluxe trailer, from which were to emerge all manner of hogs and humans.

My two-year-old daughter was mostly "I scary" about the Pig Races, but when I talked her into taking just a peek at four hell-bent piglets careening around the track for an Oreo cookie, she too cracked up. There were three heats, each with a theme: sports stars (piglets named Trevor Hogman), celebrities (Brad Pig and Britney Spare Ribs), and politicians (Hilary RodHAM Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenhogger).

The highlight was Swifty the Swimming Pig, who would dive (so we were told) into a trough of water and swim the length. Swifty, a little Pot-Bellied Piglet, didn't look too game (what with the trying to escape and the squealing and stuff), but his handler coaxed him into swimming across twice--by putting him in the water and making paddling his only survival option.

On the third go-round, Swifty stopped to take care of business, and then, WOW! leaped unexpectedly to the midpoint of the trough's length, and swam to the other end, quite triumphantly. We were appropriately astounded and impressed (as well as wishing for an instant replay).

So when Mr. Swifty Swine Productions offered up Pooping Pig Keychains as souvenirs for $1 a pop, I recognized this as a cheap, entertaining, and unexpected Fair Memento from Auntie Fer: Kids, take this dollar here. Give it to the man. Get yourself a Yow! Disarmingly-Gross-in-a-Pretty-Much-Clean-Way New Toy. Your parents will totally dig it.

We wasted no time popping those pigs out of their plastic wrappings, exclaiming over their squeeze potential, and attaching them to belts and buttonholes for safekeeping.

(FYI: the gastro-intestinal tract of the Pooping Pig of Keychain Souvenir does not appear to be anatomically--or proportionally--correct. By a long shot.)

After that, we rode some rides in Kiddieland (that name makes me PUCKER), ate some ice cream cones, watched people ride elephants (is this really conservation outreach? Made me a little uncomfortable), and won ourselves some fish in tanks (let's be honest here: I paid to bring those fish home On Purpose, though my nephew DID throw a ball into one of the Impossible Fish Bowls, winning us an Additional Fish. Go, T!).

And, we got to glimpse the Monster Trucks/Motocross Extravaganza from the parking lot on the way out, since those crazy MoFos were catching some serious air.

All in all, I am happy about my 2008 Fair Foray. My only regret? I missed the Deep-Fried Blue-Cheese Burgers.

Maybe next year. Or, the year after...