Monday, December 29, 2014

Presents! Presents for everyone!

Merry Christmas! We are visiting my family in snowy Canada, although it is not as snowy or as cold as I expected. Considering that we dragged an extra suitcase here to accommodate snow suits and related paraphernalia, we better get at least one snow storm.

The Christmas season at my parents' house is full of chocolate, gingerbread, and never-ending desserts. Long nights invite pajama days and blankets by the fire. It's Christmas movies, puzzles, and walks in the darkness gazing at lights. It's at least one person becoming ill, children complaining they are cold, and me booting them out the door anyway. Builds character.
Christmas also means gifts, and a lot of them. Being the only grandchildren has it's benefits, after all. December 25th is a veritable paradise for my kids, leading to their logical conclusion that my mom is Santa Claus. Jon's trick of leaving footprints by the fireplace this year may have muddied that impression, though. Her feet are not that big.

Anyway, it's the annual mountain of gifts that has me writing today. I used to worry that all these presents would undermine our parental attempts to communicate why we have Christmas at all. How could my kids possibly understand and appreciate the gift of our Lord while unwrapping the immediate gift of a doll singing “Let it Go” or a Hexbug that makes mommy shudder a little? But I had an epiphany sometime in the last few years: the number and style of gifts is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if the kids get two gifts or twenty, if they cost $1 or $100, they aren't going to remember any of it. And I don't say this as an argument for not having gifts at all, but rather as a statement freeing me from worry. And maybe, perhaps, you too.

This epiphany came as I thought back to my own Christmases past. I don't remember much about what I received. (Although for some reason I kept a meticulous log and/or pictures of the gifts. This was either a lame attempt at journaling or early preparation for Alzheimer's. I was kind of a strange kid.) But what I do remember is the incredible special-ness of the season. I remember each tradition and the care with which we approached the day. It still isn't Christmas if I don't hear my Dad reading from the book of Matthew, or if we don't sing hymns at the Christmas Eve service. I remember the years we awoke at 4 a.m so we could spend the morning with my dad before his 12 hour shift. I remember wearing pajamas and eating chocolates all day. I remember the excitement of being with family, and the leftover turkey sandwiches. Oh, those turkey sandwiches. To this day I exclusively eat leftover turkey sandwiches for at least three days post-Christmas. It's kind of my thing. And I remember my dad thanking our Lord for his grace in providing us with this opportunity to care for each other.
To be fair, one Christmas does stand out for the presents. It was the year my brother received both Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain, and we still talk about it. We don't reminisce about the castles themselves, of course (although they were pretty awesome), but rather about the joy of seeing a little guy shocked out of his mind.

My point is, if you are a parent – as I was - who is worried that too much plastic crap at the holidays will detract from the deeper meaning, please don't. If you are even thinking about these things, chances are you already have many other non-tangibles to offer your children this holidays season. And once you have that, no amount of gifts will detract from what Christmas is, and why it is special. I'll go out on a limb and say that what might negatively influence your kids is any stress and significance that you yourself have placed on those tokens. Kids have a way of sensing what we feel is important. And if we as parents choose to spend our own time looking towards the true light, our kids will find their gaze turned there as well. Just as the Grinch could not steal Christmas, neither can a few extra boxes under the Christmas tree.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Everything you ever wanted to know about why we're homeschooling....

You are not more surprised to find me teaching my children at home, than I am. In May, this was not on my radar. By August, we had begun.

Our start was rocky, as everyone adjusted to the new world order. My scramble to form a plan and routine, since the decision came quickly, didn't help matters. Some days are still rocky --  one child may find her toes more fascinating than her math, while another seems to enjoy the view from time out -- but I see improvement. Our days are still busy, but not rushed; they are full, but not burdensome.

But why the initial change of heart? There was no single reason, but rather a combination of different things, briefly listed here:
[Disclaimer: These reasons are very specific to our family. They are not meant as blanket statements about the pros and cons of a traditional versus home school. I would not suggest that anyone home school their children unless they feel called to do so.
Also, our decision is unrelated to the quality of education in Maryland, which is solid and filled with  wonderful teachers. In truth, when I found out that Isaac could have had the same kindergarten teacher as Anna, I seriously considered sending him, after all. Still do, some days.]

(1) Traditional schooling takes a huge chunk of time. Ironically, we considered this the main benefit not so long ago. Imagine how much could be accomplished on a day without children! I could get a job, get in a decent workout at the gym, or even dust all those hard-to-reach baseboards. I anticipated my own world opening wider, but at the same couldn't shake the feeling that our kids' worlds were about to get smaller. There are many non-academic pursuits we wanted to incorporate, including bible study and physical activity. Adding in homework, downtime, eating, and sleeping, we anticipated more busyness and less quality time as a family.
On a broader scale, it was increasingly difficult to plan family visits. As I'm sure you're aware, air travel is very expensive and horrible, so when someone is flying somewhere to see somebody we want to maximize our time with them.

(2) Physical activity. As in, not nearly enough. Anna's school offered only one outdoor recess per day, and none at all if the weather was cold or wet. As a result, half the year there was no outdoor recess. As for physical education, one per week seemed insufficient -- particularly given the lack of recess.
I'm not saying we do laps around the neighborhood now, but even on poor weather days we incorporate plenty of bouncing, tumbling, jumping, and wiggling. We also feel freer to sign up for soccer, gymnastics, etc., because our days are less rushed.

(3) Social activity. There are two aspects to this. First, I didn't feel there was enough social interaction or friendships developing at school for my extroverted daughter, perhaps due to lack of free time during recess. Second, as a family we were not building a community through her school. No doubt, my introverted nature contributed to this lack. In contrast, the home school group we attend is composed of kids from all ages, and it's small enough that I know the parents and they know us. And again, we feel freer to be part of extra-curricular social groups (e.g., scouts, Awana) without feeling over-scheduled.

(4) Even if home schooling is a bust, I won't regret the time spent together. This point was made by my dear friend Christina, whose children are also home schooled. Her words tipped the balance for us this summer.

(5) Character. Every child is so different, making it tricky to figure out what your particular one might need as they grow. At this point, ours needed more time their family. Anna in particular reminds me of a green bean seedling, growing strong and straight at first, but risks becoming too tall too fast if planted outside before it's ready.

(6) I felt called. When you feel called you pray, discuss, read scripture, and follow through if everything points that direction. It did, so we followed through. This is really the crux of the matter. Despite the reasons listed, there is much that is illogical about our decision to home school. To wit, the financial cost. We certainly could have used the money from my employment: nicer house, better vehicles, airline tickets to see family etc. But I felt called. And now I have that deep sense of joy and peace that only comes when you follow the call. Yes, our decision was swift, but no less thought out or accurate or prayed over, for that.

Friday, July 18, 2014


(1) Began looking at houses yesterday (9) and will look at more (4) today. Second runs on Sunday. Decision by Tuesday? Offer Wednesday/Thursday? Move in mid-September!
(2) House hunting is horrible. I've seen things I've liked, but I'm no good when it comes to balancing tradeoffs. There are no perfect homes - with whose flaws can I live?
(3) In my continuing saga to make everything as complicated as possible, we have decided to home school. (More on this later.)
(4)  Personally, I would like to begin H.S. in August, so that the kids don't need to attend public school at all. We'd be changing school districts anyway. Jon is not convinced of this decision - he feels they should start out in school so that I get free child care while packing. It is today's mission to gather enough information to persuade him.
(5) Weather wise, it feels like a Canadian summer lately. So nice. Certainly not pool weather, though.
(6) When viewing properties, my head continues to be turned by bright, shiny things (faucets! new appliances! shiny floor!). This is unwise, so I'm utilizing a 40 point checklist to write down information about more substantial things. One problem: my handwriting is horrible.

So, lots of changes/decisions/etc. etc. etc.
Overwhelmed, but on-task. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two posts in two days. You'd almost think I had free time.

Happy Canada Day! It is bright, sunny, and incredibly muggy today. I see a swimming pool in our immediate future.

This is going to be a "catch up" post. There's been a lot percolating around here, but nothing has really happened. Jon is still waiting for his job paperwork to click through the bureaucratic gears, and so we are still waiting to buy a home. We've actually tried to get a loan pre-approval without the final job offer, but this has not been successful. The uncertainty of the job timing coupled with our upcoming lease deadline, means house hunting could happen very quickly month, or not at all until mid-winter. I am quite done with renting. Beyond the financial loss, we're all just ready to emotionally and physically invest in a home. And plant fruit trees. I really want to plant fruit trees. And then live there long enough to eat some actual fruit. 
The big choice is whether we get a single-family house that needs work, or a nicer town home. What do you think?

Pros of single-family:
bigger yard (fruit trees! garden! trampoline!)
possibly more square footage
less concern about neighbors (although right now, we're the loud neighbors)
lower HOA fees

Pros of town home
more kids in the immediate vicinity (due to higher density)
newer, therefore less up front time/effort/money needed for repairs, renovations
bigger windows
very minimal yard maintenance

It's a tough call.

Anna will be sorry to leave our neighborhood. She's made friends and loves to play outside and ride her bike with the pack. There's a variety of ages in the local pack, and I think it's great that she can go outside and play with a variety of kids. Having said that, I do harbor some reticence. Overall they're good kids and some are quite sweet. But they tend to be less supervised and given more freedoms, compared to what we think is appropriate for our own kids. Of course, it is good to have variety in our friends, and I'm so proud of my extroverted daughter for being able to get along with everyone and that everyone likes her. The (potential) issue is that this has become her primary peer group, simply as a function of proximity. Already she is becoming influenced more than she is influencing (her top "must haves" suddenly include an ipod, laptop, and ipad). It may not be a big deal now, but will become a larger issue as she grows. Anna seems too willing to give up control for the sake of social inclusion.

Isaac, on the other hand, is too willing to give up social inclusion for the sake of control. As much as he wants to tag along with his sister, he is reticent to take part in the local pack when there are too many kids. Part of this is his introverted nature, but at the same time he doesn't want to lose control of the situation. The practical result is that he tags along with his sister for a bit until things get too crazy for his liking (which doesn't take much), and then whines and cries that Anna isn't playing with him. The benefit is that he's relatively cautious, and won't follow the crowd just because it's a crowd.

Another interesting difference between the kids is that while Anna is more friend-polygamous, Isaac engages in friend serial-monogamy. Is this gender? intro/extroversion leanings? different stages in the capacity to engage in friendship? I dunno, but it's pretty fascinating to watch.

Other happenings:

Isaac is officially a two-wheel biker. I credit the balance bike for this seamless transition. Anna has also improved a lot, and I'd like to find a nearby bike path that we can enjoy together.
After I tune up my own bike, that is. The chain grew a nice layer of rust within 24 hours of moving here, and I haven't fixed it yet. Lazy lazy.

My parents made not one, but TWO visits in the past few months. During one visit we forayed to D.C. for two days. Highlights: excellent food, rolling down the hill in front of the Capitol, seeing the city lit up at night, a near escape from the human crush at the Natural History Museum, watching the kids' interpretive dance in the Lincoln Memorial.
Another time we returned to Amish Country, and the amazing model trains at the Choo Choo Barn. It's very calming out there, although avoiding the buggies on the road can be harrowing.
Jon and I also took a night and visited St. Michael's on the eastern shore, to celebrate my birthday. We biked and kayaked and tasted wine and watched the sunset over the bay. We also spoke in complete sentences and had uninterrupted conversations. I read a book, and slept through the night. Meanwhile, my folks took the kids to Chuck 'E Cheese, in the ultimate example of grandparental sacrifice.

In May, the kids and I piggy-backed onto a conference that Jon was attending in Florida and enjoyed some time on the beach. Anna favored the ocean, while Isaac was more of a pool boy. (Again, that control thing.) We all got sunburned, but this did not diminish our enthusiasm. We explored Sanibel Island and collected shells and ate ice cream. Jon's folks met us there, and we all stayed in a condo in Naples for a couple of nights. It was fantastic to get away and to see more grandparents. I've never considered myself much of a beach person, but this was fantastic. As totems, we left behind Jon's poster tube and our health care cards. Or maybe we just lost those.

The kids finished up school, ending on strong notes and well prepared for next year. One was ecstatic to be done; the other said she was ecstatic but spent the afternoon of her last day sobbing into my lap. Transitions are hard.

More recently, we camped in a rollicking thunderstorm, beginning with a fierce wind that nearly BURNED DOWN THE CAMPGROUND according to Anna, and ended with Isaac passing out (rear end in the air) amidst the chaos of our soaked tent around 11 p.m. In the interim, Jon spent hours bailing out our tent, Anna cried that she wanted to go home and sobbed more when we discussed going home, and Isaac threw around the bedding. But did we give up? Almost. It was close. But we persevered and things sort of dried out. There were night swims, day swims, a boat rental, scootering, and a fish peed on someone. We also had a scavenger hunt, collecting unicorn horns, fairy clothes, a gnome hat, witches wands, the roving eye, ancient writing, and an enchanted troll. Isaac was more interested in fire than water, and my attempts to teach him how to chop wood nearly resulted in the loss of a lower limb. We took a break after that.

So it's been a very busy spring and early summer. We have many more things planned: mystery adventure days, various VBS events, and lots of swimming. In the background lurks many questions and the specter of packing up and moving on. Until something is certain, I will enjoy the moments with my lovely children.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Okay then. Forty it is.

This is the month I began consulting an older age bracket when calculating my target heart rate on the elliptical. Or I would, if the heart rate monitor worked or was accurate. It's the principle of the thing, really.
My brother asked how I felt about entering this new decade, and I was speechless for awhile. And then I was annoyed at myself since I had been pondering that question and still wasn't sure. Bro, here's my answer. In more detail than you expected:

1) I expected to have a better handle on my hair.
2) My knees have not yet given out - a welcome surprise.
3) I don't feel worthy of this decade. Forty seemed like such a mature age. But now I'm forty, and I'm on to the rest of you.
4) This may be the decade I stop disliking cheese. But I'm not promising anything.
5) I do promise to continue disliking avocado.
6) I have more wrinkles and more gray hair. This does not bother me (much).
7) I hope I don't have to wait too many years to make deep and lasting friendships in MD.
8) Sleeping on a thin mattress while camping now introduces creaks and groans in new and surprising body areas. 
9) I would like to figure out who I am to be at this time, in this place. I thought I would know by forty.
10) By now I expected to consistently and correctly line up the buttons and button holes on a shirt the first time. More practice needed.
11) My personal chronological age is less important than the age of my children. And that is the crux. This will be a big year, not because of the zero in my age, but because my youngest will enter kindergarten. This is what will change the fabric of our days and lives, and what I look towards with both sadness and pride.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

And then it was April

Years from now, when I look back at the last few months, I wonder what I will see. 2014 has already had its fair share of ups and downs, and I admit I've been focused on the downs. Herein is a summary of the good, the bad, and the surprising.

I will begin with the number one fun thing: snow days.
There were a bunch this season and I didn't mind them in the slightest. They offered a reprieve from the busyness, and a chance to revel in mountains of snow. I even broke out the snowshoes one day. Bliss!
Jon's office was closed on a few occasions, which added to the sense of holiday. The only difficult aspect was reestablishing routine on the non-snow days, but no matter. We had a "real" winter which will add to our enjoyment of the spring. A few buds are beginning to poke out, and the crocuses and daffodils are up.

Other positives: Anna's reading is starting to take off. In fact, on March 8th she decided that she could read. I didn't notice much change in her ability, but rather her attitude. Reading is still not her favorite activity, but I'm not pushing it. This is something she's going to have to figure out, and hopefully learn to love, on her own. Nothing crushes enthusiasm faster than being told you have to do something.
Meanwhile, Isaac is learning sight words, and is trying to sound out words on his own. His preschool is more academically challenging than Anna's ever was, and the results show. Nevertheless, I can't believe he'll be in kindergarten next year. He seems so small and young. Age-wise, size-wise, and academic-wise I predict he'll be in the middle of the pack, but since he'll always be younger than Anna I think I will always feel he's "young."

Negatives: As described a couple of months ago, Jon's academic job applications were not fruitful. Not that we heard anything back from the vast majority of schools. Such lack of communication, while status quo, is still extremely annoying. Good-bye academia. In many ways, you are a black hole anyway.
Of course, this still left us with the black hole containing our future. Jon's contract is three years long, and then what? Attempt to continue this work as a contractor? Search for industry jobs? Perhaps explore the parallel universe of engineering faculty positions (they tend to appreciate actual work experience)?
After praying, and fretting, and wondering we developed a plan about three weeks ago: Jon would selectively look at engineering faculty positions in the summer/fall, and then industry jobs around January. Target markets: North Carolina, Denver, New Mexico, Calgary, Salt Lake City.

I liked this plan. It provided some hope to my Maryland-weary heart. People, I just do not like it here. It's not particularly pretty, it's not particularly interesting, it's very expensive, far from family and friends, and the humidity kills me in the summer. Furthermore, it continues to be very hard to make connections with people. On the whole we continue to feel like foreigners in a foreign land.

Back to a positive: This last challenge may be mitigated by our new church. It's relatively young, which means that it is not filled with generations of families, and thus has some skill at integrating newcomers. Furthermore, the preaching and theology seems solid. You would think finding a church that meets those criteria wouldn't be hard to find but, it was an arduous search. I am relieved it is over, and hopeful that we may begin to build a solid community.

The question of community is critical since our future took a surprising turn about two weeks ago. As Jon was leaving work one evening, he received word that he had 24 hours to decide whether he wanted to apply for a permanent position. The process of being approved for a permanent position is generally a long and painstaking process. But none of that applied in this case. Occasionally, such bolts of lightning do emerge from the Mt. Olympus that is the upper echelons of management, but not often. This situation, along with a few other details and a fair amount of prayer, led Jon to apply for the position. We are now awaiting the slow wheels of bureaucracy to process the paperwork and finalize the appointment. A "hurry up and wait" situation.

My feeling, when Jon first told me the news, was one of relief that all questions were now answered, followed closely by annoyance that I felt relief, and then grief that my hope of moving back west was not to be. I still can't believe that this is it. And yes, I am well aware that other left turns may be awaiting us in the future - turns leading back west. Such turns may be awaiting you, too. But we tend not to plan on them, because we need to live where we are at. Therein lies my struggle. Perhaps others could continue to live in one place while hoping to move elsewhere, but I cannot hold two realities in my head - my emotional struggles in the past 1.5 years testify to that. I need to be here, now. So, I am once again grieving the loss of the life that I had and wanted to have again, and trying to process the implications of what being here means. Jon and I have talked about those implications a bit, but concrete details are lacking. The wheels of bureaucracy are indeed slow, so while everything has changed, nothing has yet changed.
I don't doubt our choice to stay. And over the next few weeks and months I'm sure I'll be able to see more clearly the positives and benefits of our situation. But not yet. Right now I'm allowing myself to be sad, and that's okay.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Snowman Cometh

After receiving almost 2 feet of snow in less than a week, I feel confident in saying we have a lot of snow. One of our numerous piles is taller than Isaac. Or it was - things are melting quickly now, and I can already see a few inches of grass along the sidewalks. With all the snow came the usual snow days and delayed openings, which is to say we are still waiting for a full week of school. Not that I mind having Anna and Isaac (and occasionally, Jon) home. Jon jokes that it's a sign I should be homeschooling. Until he sees me "help" Anna with her homework, and then thinks maybe not.

Despite all the white stuff, the roads were surprisingly clear when we left to visit Jon's sister and her family this weekend. Much had melted, and I guess people were still digging themselves out in most areas. After debating whether or not to travel at all, we managed to shave 45 minutes off our long drive. Hurrah! We had a refreshing weekend with family, and it was a pleasure to see the kids together. This chaos of cousins made the most of their time, so much so that I barely saw my children. A good break for everyone, I think. Anna does girly things with our niece, Minecraft with her oldest cousin, media with the other, and mayhem with everyone. Isaac specializes in mayhem, peppered with a bit of media. Volumes and treats were up, sleeping and order were down, fun was had by all. Except the cats, possibly.

Meanwhile, Jon and I benefited from real, adult conversation. And by "real" I mean lacking in superficial small talk. We commiserated on the west-to-east conversion, the plethora of snow days, and the challenges of moving in general. It was nice to talk with people that have similar experiences, and simply to talk with other adults.

It was also a good opportunity to talk out our current church situation, and get some different perspectives. In brief, after a lot of prayer and deliberation, we have elected to seek out a new church. The one we've attended since arriving has great teaching and Christian education, but it has been hard to get to know people. Such difficulties aren't unique to this church, of course. Any such institution lacking an explicit mechanism for incorporating new members will present integration challenges. The simple fact, pointed out by many who give thought to such matters, is that individuals have a finite number of meaningful social connections that they can maintain. When one has lived in an area for awhile it's likely that those connections are filled. Some churches are good at connecting people who are new to an area or a community, while some are better at supporting the people they already have. A church that fits the latter profile won't grow, but maybe that's okay. A single church can't be everything to everyone.

And so, we are searching for a church home. My hope is that we haven't completely exchanged good teaching/education for community, but after investigating and visiting a few churches it may be that we have. I hope we can find a congregation in the vicinity that balances these things. I think that would go a long way to helping me feel settled here.