Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Night Sledding

I got a lovely card from Marji recently for Leap Day, on which she wished that I would get to do something I really want to do for the "extra" day.

It wasn't looking good: I had a meeting at 9 am, and phone interviews for a job search until 5:10 pm. Hit the roads, but it had been snowing - big, fluffy, wet flakes - for hours, and the roads were clogged. Squeaked in to afterschool program at 6:04, and I missed being the last parent by 3 minutes.

But, I made it home safely. The kids were fine. It is Friday night, and I don't have any morning plans aside from hitting my skiis before the snow gets too slushy tomorrow. So we got to the sledding hill at their school by 7 pm, and I started up the hill with kids following and sleds in tow.

We sledded, and the girls made a "house" (not a fort - no high walls - but chairs and tables and low-walled rooms). I practiced headstands for yoga, figuring what better surface to land on that soft, wet snow? (note: I got a lot of practice, because each headstand lasted less than 1 second) The sledding was a bit slow because the snow was deep and heavy-wet, but the temperature was perfect - right at freezing, and until the snow soaked clean through my snowpants I was toasty warm, even with soaking mittens.

I am clearly not normal. I was the only adult out there sledding. Two other parents sat in their running SUV for the whole 1.5 hours we were out, making an appearance only occasionally. The mom was wearing an ankle length fur-lined coat with heels, makeup, no gloves, no hat. She did not sled. Their dad, wearing jeans, a light jacket, no hat, no gloves, no boots, also did not sled. They seemed annoyed, and when their kids had to speak to them, their kids seemed annoyed, too. I have to wonder what they thought of me doing sprawling, graceless headstand attempts. I must have looked more like a college-age auntie than a mom.

We came in at 8:30, half-starved and fully soaked. I'm just now herding the girls to bed, and it is 9:45. Marji, I got your wish, after all. Happy Leap Night!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Not enough recess, too much work

This past week I have gotten slammed at work - late meetings, lots of grading - and I have had little energy left at the end of the days. I'm starting to realize that even when the only children in question are our own kids, we need help getting them outside.

Over the weekend we got our usual times outside. We went sledding on Saturday, I got in my dose of x-country skiing Sunday morning, the kids roller-skated on the parking lot between snow patches, and I soaked up some sunshine in our back yard. All these times were wonderful, and I felt happy doing them.

But I'm starting to find it really frustrating that even in a school in a low-crime neighborhood, with easily 50 acres of land around it, my kids hardly touch the grass (or snow) outside the school on an average day. I would *pay* to have my children get cold and wet for 15 minutes during the school day, but the bummer is that I have to be at work so I can't get there and help it happen. If I were a stay-at-home mom, I'd like to think I'd volunteer to go to school and help get kids outside, but I'm not, and I can't.

You'd think afterschool programs could solve this. In warm, nice weather their afterschool program takes them outside, but somehow snow, around here, implies something horrible about the weather, as if it is oobleck out there or something similarly sinister. But most days, if I want the girls to get outside time right after school, I have to come home and make it happen myself. I pay for it with lost work time, a price that might or might not turn out to be really high, come time for my next contract renewal.

The last time the girls had good, regular recess was in Chicago. The weather was unquestionably worse, and the neighborhood was tougher, requiring both more snow gear for the kids and more vigilance from the adults. Here, it should be easy, but instead it seems that in the suburbs we and our children are less weather resistant, less resilient. I fear that the bill for this luxury will come due over the course of entire lifetimes for our children. I get to walk across a lovely campus 2-4 times a day, and my children are indoors the whole time.

I don't have a village here yet. I've got some wonderful friends, most all of whom I see only after a trip in a car. The girls have excellent teachers, a well supported school, good teams. Emily's wonderful 2nd grade teacher, Sandy Clements, takes the kids on walks around the school sometimes when they don't get outside recess, and compliments Emily on the days she gets to walk home (when I'm leaving work ridiculously early). We are on a low-traffic street, with good neighbors. I must be greedy. But I really just want more adults in our kids' daytime lives to help me get them outside more. I want the school, the afterschool to see what we're all missing in here: the snow, the mud, the rain, and the oobleck, wherever it is.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Equipment and perspective

This morning I dropped the girls off, and then came home and, rather than settling in to work, got on my skiis and headed out across the parking lot, toward the community center field and woods. I came to a thin little woodland I usually ignore - in summer it is almost always too muddy or weedy to pass through, and skiid through on the footsteps of a recent dogwalker.

One thing I love about different modes of transportation is that I always see the world differently. When I started biking to work this summer and fall, I noticed details I'd never seen - a dam right below my commuting bridge, weeds along the roadside, steepness of various hills - and I began to feel that biking helped me know Pittsburgh better than I had before. Being on skiis this week has given me a new view of our area. Suddenly the power line right of way at the end of our street was a destination worth exploring, because it offered some grassy, gentle slopes just right for me to extend my paltry skiing nerves and skills. This little woodland became accessible, thanks to snow and skiis, and even it is too little to be any sort of wonderland, I felt like exploring it expanded my sense of our territory a bit. I got to know Chicago by running the Lakeshore Trail with Ser, and my experience of the city was forever changed because I now knew, for many, many places, that I could run there, and roughly how long it would take.

I'd love to have skiis for the girls to explore, but realistically, they can't possibly be worth the expense. I'd gotten my own set used at a spring clearance sale from a little ski shop a few miles from our home in Ithaca; they have been absolutely wonderful, and yet if there had been any risk of me outgrowing them the purchase would have been wasted. I am currently craving a really good bike trailer or trail-a-bike, so we can tackle the Pittsburgh to DC trail with the girls as a family vacation, but I resist, thinking how short the time will be before Hazel is biking on her own and the equipment would be obsolete.

For what ultimately became 4 years, Ser and I solved the problem of double-vs-single stroller purchases by taking advantage of her sons' staggered ages with my daughters. When she had her first child, I had my second, and so she bought a double stroller for me to use, and I gave her my old single. By the time she had her second child, my first could bike alongside me running, so she got her stroller back and I got mine back, and we continued running together until our family moved away. Just as I realized that I no longer needed a running stroller, her eldest outgrew the patience to ride, and she now has both strollers, and I get the pleasure of a spacious shed for the family bikes.

I clearly need to find a child-equipment cooperative, where I can find skiis and trail-a-bikes and bike trailers, and where I can feel good about taking my own purchases when my daughters outgrow them. In the meanwhile, I have to sneak in skiing time alone, and plot ahead to when bike season starts again for me, and the girls.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What to do outside in winter, part 2: a perfect day...

Today was a snow day, and finally it was well-deserved. Five inches on the ground, starting the day at 16 degrees and ending at 32. The girls are out in the snow for the 3rd time today, building a snow fort with a neighbor we all like a lot (7-8 pm). Earlier, we went sledding at their elementary school (5-6 pm), and when we first got home from my last class of the day(2-3 pm), I got out my x-country skiis and got my first skiing in since 2001, when we left upstate NY. While at my work, we got in 2 good runs down Chapel Slope, despite the fact that the girls had brought no snow gear to work with them...

I don't know if you can "make up" outdoor time, but I feel a lot better. Mostly, I feel really pleasantly exhausted. Now if the snow will just stick around for a few days, now that the roads are mostly clear and the snowfort is made and the sled runs are all slick...

Time for cookies and a hot bath.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What to do outside in winter?

This is what my husband did with Emily on Saturday. It was 40 degrees out, perfect for skiing for beginners who might fall often. I don't think there was much communing with nature, but there was certainly a lot of skill and strength involved, plus just plain guts. All useful outdoor skills.

On Sunday, it was windy, with the temperature dropping about 30 degrees from dawn until nightfall. Highly unpleasant. Our outdoor trips involved dashing for the car.

This morning, I looked out the window and could tell the temperature because the birds at our feeders looked fluffy. It was, in fact, 6 degrees. This looks like a nice plump mourning dove, but it is "our" flicker, the largest regular visitor to our suet. The female cardinal, who refused to be still long enough for a portrait, looked so fluffy that Hazel thought she must be pregnant. I looked at her and put on my long underwear.

I'd like to think we'd bundle up and go out anyway, but call me a wimp. We stayed inside and watched the feeder. I hope there is school tomorrow!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Seen in our lawn this week...

Here's the one I know: common mullein. I love the texture. This is in my vegetable garden, and I am considering letting it stay.

The fairy islands of moss, growing in the woods in the back of our yard.

And this is also growing in our garden, but I don't know what it is. I'm not sure whether to let it grow or not. If it is just sow thistle, it is out of here, but I didn't think sow thistle was biennial?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The good, the bugs, and the ugly

This morning was my turn to help "host" a garden club meeting. Although hosting has all kinds of wonderful implications, none of them were true for me this morning. I hadn't cooked or ordered food, decorated, helped set up, or booked the speaker. But I got lucky, thanks to my colleagues in garden club, who invited Jessica Walliser.

Jessica is the co-host of The Organic Gardener, a Sunday morning radio show. I was once interviewed for this show, but who knows how I came off because that was the morning of the time change (spring forward) and I missed it, despite setting my alarm for it. In other words, I'd wanted to hear her for a long time, but hadn't gotten the chance.

She talked about all kinds of insects, all the good guys in the garden. It took me back to my favorite days of entomology class in grad school (you think I'm being sarcastic, but I actually did love that class). The best fact I learned was that dandelions, clover, and other small-flowered weeds are actually a nectar and pollen source for early beneficial insects, the kinds that impose gruesome deaths on all the garden pests.

Well, no wonder I've never seen a pest in our garden (besides the fact that I don't look too closely)! We have dandelions, bluets, creeping veronica, mints, and especially clover - in spades, so to speak. I actually seed the clover, which I have to special order from our neighborhood garden store. I have all kinds of reasons I love all these little plants - one is that they are free (and I'm thrifty, to put it kindly), and two is that I don't mind when my daughters pick them. In fact, I love when they pick them, as long as they don't make me carry the wilted bouquet around for the next hour. And even better, most of the weeds put on fresh flowers the very next morning.

Jessica has a book coming out on beneficial insects next spring; if her talk is any guide, it will be a good one. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today my dad turns 72, and I've been around for half of his life (a bit more, if you count time in utero, which perhaps should count double in my case, but that's another story).

I know lots of people praise their dads for all kinds of things, and I doubt there is a single category of praise my dad hasn't earned in his time daddying. Last year's card (also written at the last minute, like this one) listed 71 of my happy dad-related memories for him, and it was not the least struggle to come up with them. In fact, in many of the cases the memories were routine events which I experienced many times in my childhood, but for the purpose of the card these memories got one line each.

This birthday I want to remember the ways my dad took me outside. One of my earliest memories is of walking through the arboretum woods near our house, back when those woods were just semi-wild land belonging to the university nearby. Sometimes we took the path to a playground on the other side, sometimes we walked to the corn field which is now flower beds and meadow.

Later, we jogged together through the woods, in matching blue jogging suits. The path had become a "parcourse", with stops along the way for various stationary exercises. I remember laughing with great glee at dad doing jumping jacks - I have no idea what was so ridiculous about the concept - and him grinning wryly back, knowing I was making fun of him and accepting it simply as one of many ways I could have fun in his presence. Later, when I rode the horse my parents got for me, he pretended to be a bad guy, and then let me chase him - me on horseback, and him on foot. He managed somehow to maintain his role as comforting, safe, Dad, while at the same time being completely willing to make a fool of himself in play with me.

In our yard, we raked leaves together - or rather, he raked big piles of leaves and I jumped on them. He is the only adult I've ever known who seemed to fully and happily accept that leaf piles were to jump on. My mom tolerated it grimly, my grandmother spanked me for it, but my dad acted as if the whole reason for raking was for me to enjoy the results. This fall, when my husband raked leaves for our daughters and their cousins, then stacked straw bales next to them, I thought happily of Dad.

Dad isn't a botanist, or a gardener. His knowledge of plants comes from experiences as a Boy Scout in Kingsport, Tennessee and from a single field botany course taken at Middle Tennessee State. When I took botany in college, he gave me his own Gray's Manual of Botany, complete with his margin notes, and when I got married his gift to us was a Peterson's Bird Guide. When I was small, he admired violets and clover with me, and when we hiked together as adults we have admired ironweed, goldenrod, and trillium. He knows just enough about plants to show loving and genuine admiration for my own, fairly meager, plant identification skills. My gifts to him, in thanks, have included his favorite cardinal flowers and a wild petunia native to Kentucky, both of which have thrived in their places with him.

Dad doesn't walk far these days, and a trip to the arboretum with him is a rare and wonderful treat sometimes when I visit. He doesn't do jumping jacks for my daughters, though if he did I'm sure they would laugh, and he would grin wryly for them while he did them, just as he did for me.

What Dad does do these days is get down on to his granddaughters' level. He plays with them, with dolls, with blocks, with marbles, just as he did with me. No game is too silly, or girly, or too inconvenient for him. With me, he was able to take me outside and get sweaty and dirty, to throw and catch and admire the flowers (no matter how small); now he is more indoors, but he is still fully willing to be part of the mess of childhood.

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday!