A Day in the Life (aka One Snapshot of Parenting my 3 Kids)

I love being a mother. Not because I am much better at it than most moms (I’m really not). And not just because my kids are so great (they really are). But because I find so many moments of joy in the middle of each ordinary day of being a mother. And today, I chose to record a day in the life – a snapshot of an ordinary Saturday with my three extraordinary kiddos.

MORNING

1. Served the kids Fruit Loops (blended with Cheerios to lower the sugar content).
2. Let them play computer games for awhile
3. Drove everyone to my 11-yo daughter’s soccer game. Cheered on her and her teammates and passed out fresh slices of cold watermelon.
4. Drove the kids to the library to check out movies (yes, movies)

AFTERNOON

1. Made lunch for everyone (Cheese, avocado, heirloom tomato, red onion, and lettuce sandwiches on fresh baguettes of French bread)
2. Scolded my teenager for being disrespectful. Gave him a warning to stop talking or he’d lose privileges. He did not change his behavior. I took away his weekend computer privileges. I hate when I have to do that. He sulked for an hour and was very mad at me. But he was respectful for the rest of the day.
3. Supervised my 9 year-old and 11 year-old as they baked a few dozen chocolate chip and walnut cookies from scratch. Lots of giggles and fun.
4. Thanked my teen for washing the dishes with a kiss on the cheek and an unexpected Werther’s caramel. Earned a smile.

EVENING

1. Made a cheese pizza for dinner. The teen grated the cheese. (He’s not that into cooking.)
2. Watched a few minutes of a My Little Pony movie with the 11 year-old and 9 year-old. But only a few minutes. Bleah.
3. Went for a quick run while the teen rode his scooter.
4. Assigned the younger kids to sweep floors and clean the bathroom.
5. Taught my daughter to do a proper ballet pirouette. Had fun dancing with her around the living room.
6. Stepped on a Lego while dancing in the living room. It hurt. A lot.
7. Kicked a soccer ball up and down the hallway with the teen.
8. Let the younger kids drag mattresses and blankets into the living room to build a camp-out fort for the night.

9:00 Bedtime (for them)

And now I shall retire to my bed to watch a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (my latest marathon show on Hulu). Good night!

Bloom Where You’re Planted (Even When You’re Stuck Living in the Suburbs)

ugly suburbsThe ugliest place I’ve ever lived was in a suburb in Suisun, California. In the 1980’s, suburbs like mine sprang up from nowhere, filling the once-lovely rolling grasslands with boxy, cookie-cutter new homes. As a teenager, I lived in one of those homes, and hated every moment. I hated the buzzing of lawn mowers on Sunday mornings, hated the smells of fresh-cut grass and swimming pool chemicals, and hated the view from my bedroom window, of look-alike rooftops and trees no taller than me. I missed my childhood home in the Bay Area—the heavy blanket of morning fog, the fragrance of eucalyptus and bay laurel trees, and the view of the San Francisco Bay from our living room balcony. Bay Area Bay Laurels

While most high school girls were busy dreaming of college party towns full of pizza restaurants and hot guys, I spent my last years of adolescence dreaming of escaping the suburbs and fleeing to the mountains. And, at the age of sixteen, that is exactly what I did. My first college was a tiny community college in the mountains, with rustic wooden buildings that looked more like summer camp cabins. Most of the students lived in apartments just off campus, and we literally had to hike through the woods just to go to class. It was totally cool, except when I had night classes, and had to hike through the forest with a flashlight, keeping an eye out for bears and skunks, which roamed the same woods in abundance. Still, that year of living completely surrounded by trees, and snow-capped peaks, and fields full of wildflowers had a kind of healing effect on my spirit.

I miss that home in the mountains for its nature, just as I miss my home in the hills of the Bay Area for its nature. And where do I live now? Well, for the past two decades, I have been back in the suburbs. Different town, different suburbs, but same feeling of longing and homesickness whenever I look out of the windows at views of look-alike houses and square green lawns. No, I never pictured ending up here – I always imagined living near the seashore, or a redwood forest, or beneath the glittering stars in some vast rural plain. But instead, college and marriage and jobs led me here, where I have often felt like a rose trying to bloom in a concrete desert. rose growing in concrete desert

And you know what? It is not impossible to bloom here. There are ways – so many small ways to grow, even in less-than-ideal circumstances. It just takes some work, chipping away at the concrete barriers to expose the earth the sun and rain. And while in my heart, I will never feel at home here, the way I did amongst the bay laurels and eucalyptus of my first home, I can keep trying to build a sort of oasis here in the concrete desert, and feeding my spirit small bits of nature that it may grow.

Ways to Embrace Nature (Even When You Live in the Suburbs)

  • Grow flowers 
  • Plant a vegetable garden
  • Create an outdoor living room, then eat meals and read books there
  • Find local nature trails to hike
  • Go walking, running, and bicycle riding
  • Learn the names of your local birds, then go birdwatching
  • Participate in local park and creek cleanup days
  • Fly kites
  • Hang bird feeders or squirrel feeders in your yard (or create some other wildlife habitat)
  • Cook outdoors
  • Drive away from the suburbs and go camping or hiking or stargazing
  • Bring nature indoors (plants, flowers, stones)

enjoy an outdoor room

Feel free to contribute. I am always searching for new ideas!

Oh Poo! (aka Pets, Pets, and More Pets)

“Mom, when can we get another dog?” my 13 year-old son asked me yesterday.

pet overload

Pets are cute, but it is important to know one’s limits.

I looked around at the piles of cat fur waiting to be vaccuumed, at the unscooped cat litter boxes, at the hamsters waiting to be fed, and at the Beta fish, who swam in lazy circles around his tank, which needed a change of water.

“Um…never?” I said. Not that I don’t love dogs. Well-trained dogs are great companions, and our family really misses our Golden Retriever, whom we lost a few months ago. But I do not miss the expense of owning a large dog. Or the monthly baths. Or the constant poop scooping in the backyard. Or being yanked down the sidewalk on our walks (because as sweet as she was, we never did train her well on a leash). Pets can be a lovely addition to a household. They are fun to play with, nice to snuggle and pet, and can provide a much healthier and more active lifestyle than sitting around playing World of Warcraft for hours on end. But let’s face it, they also require a great deal of responsibility.

I spent most of my childhood in the hills of the Bay Area, with a yard full of pets. At one point, our family owned ten hens, two rabbits, a duck, a goose, a cat with several kittens, two dogs, and one gorgeous blue parakeet, named Hope, who belonged only to me. Honestly, I have no idea how we managed to care for so many animals. Both of my parents worked full time, and we children were busy with school, Scouts, and sports. But somehow, the animals survived. That is, until our pet wolf, Muppet, killed several chickens and the goose. Oh, and my parents killed the rest of the animals and served them for dinner (which I did not know until recently). Okay, well, not the dogs or cats. Or the parakeet. I don’t think.

I think I had a point here somewhere.

Oh yes, responsibility.

Well, now that the kids are a little older, it is becoming easier to care for pets. We all take turns feeding and grooming our two cats, and scooping litter boxes. The beta fish belongs to my 8 year-old son, who never forgets to feed it twice a day. And the two hamsters are the pride and joy of my 11 year-old daughter, who now has three colorful cages full of hamster toys and plastic tubes. Dewdrop the Dwarf HamsterIn fact, the whole family is pretty enamored by the hamsters, who are tiny and cute and very entertaining, although the Syrian hamster is quite the escape artist. We have had to reinforce his cage in several places with duct tape. I have considered creating a Twitter account just to chronicle the tales of Gumdrop the Runaway Hamster (in 140 characters or less). However, I discovered that Twitter already has a slew of hamsters tweeting from behind bars, including the intellectual and amusing ramblings of Edward the Hamster.

 

Still, as much joy as pets bring our family, I think that it is important to have limits. Despite my own happy childhood petting-zoo memories, will never become the suburban farm family of the neighborhood. The truth is, I really just don’t like cleaning up so much poo.

“I think we’re finished with dogs for the time being,” I told my son. “If you really want another pet, you can always collect a new one on World of Warcraft.” There! No poo. No fur. No cages or tanks to clean. Thank goodness for videogames.

Toy Crazy

Apple Store Playmobil for Grownups I like to think that I am not a materialistic person. Really, I try hard not to place too much value on things. But the truth is, I have one great weakness. Okay, maybe two, if you count books. Oh fine, three, counting my beloved iPad. But my other great weakness is toys. That’s right – you heard me – toys. I am kind of toy crazy. When I was a kid, I loved dolls of every kind. (My daughter, unfortunately, never quite took an interest in dolls, despite my best efforts to spark her enthusiasm).

Like most Americans, I gave my three kids more toys than any human child could possibly need or want. I’m not really sure why we bothered – pressure to conform to the norms of middle class society? Some ridiculous urge to give our kids every bit of the luxury we enjoyed during our own childhoods? Whatever the reason, our children’s toy organizers were often bursting with cheap plastic McToys and battery-operated garbage, until I finally made them throw away or give away all but the most essential, most treasured items. The funny thing is, the toys that remained, for the most part, are the few which I consider to be among the top toys ever invented. If I could rewind the clock and give to my children only the toys which add value to their play, only the toys which spark the curiosity and imagination, these are the toys which I would choose:

1. Playmobil $$$

The wonder toy of open-ended imaginative play, Playmobil has been my favorite toy since my own childhood. No matter your fancy – pirates, astronauts, fairy-tale princesses who battle evil dragons – there is a Playmobil world of characters and accessories at your fingertips, ready to be played into being.  The downside? Thousands of teensy-tiny accessories which fit perfectly into the figures’ hands, but have a terrible tendency to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

2. Lego $$$

Lego probably has just as many open-ended realms of fantasy, but this time, you get to build it. Follow a plan or dream up your own designs. Extremely educational without the obvious academics. Versatile and fun for either gender. The downside? Stepping on Legos in bare feet in the middle of the night is excruciatingly painful.

3. Rokenbok $$$$

I am amazed whenever I meet people who have never even heard of Rokenbok. Then again, it is only available through specialty toy shops. Basically, Rokenbok is like Lego meets Erector Sets crossed with remote control vehicles. Okay, that isn’t quite accurate. You see, you build this construction world with blocks, and then operate these R/C trucks to move “Roks” around, and…oh shoot, I am not explaining this well. Here, just watch the videos. I swear, it is super-awesome. Downside? Super-expensive.

Building Our Rokenbok WorldMy boys (and a neighbor) playing with Rokenbok

4. CitiBlocs $$

Exactly like their more expensive predecessor, Kapla Blocks, CitiBlocs http://www.citiblocs.com/ are narrow, lightweight wooden blocks that can be stacked in various, creative ways to create structures. Simple fun, no batteries required. Downside? The structures break rather easily.

5. Unit Blocks $$$$

Simple, perfectly-cut, smooth blocks of wood that can be transformed into castles for your soldiers, skyscrapers for your Playmobil figures, parking garages for your Hot Wheels vehicles – the sky’s the limit. The downside: Building a decent collection of unit blocks is very costly. I highly recommend collecting them a few blocks at a time over the years, as we did with our children. (The Lakeshore Learning Store sells blocks by the unit).

6. Wooden Railroad Sets $$$

I nearly wrote Thomas Trains, because these wooden railway sets are high in quality and play value, and the fun faces and stories capture the imagination of the youngest train engineers. However, our family is quite fortunate to have also collected a few very high-quality pieces from Brio, which I personally prefer due to their low commercialism and high value. Downside: A play table is practically a requirement.  I built one for our children for a fairly low cost when they were preschoolers. When they were older, we used the table to build Rokenbok sets.

The best toys last forever

In addition to these few expensive Super Toys, I would add a few small essentials, such as vehicles, dinosaurs, and a couple of high-quality dolls and doll accessories (if, unlike me, you have a doll enthusiast). These are the toys that lasted. These are the toys that were used the most and loved the most by my children, and by many children around the world and throughout the decades. I know, I know, trendy toys come and go. We have lived through My Little Pony, Bakugan, Squinkies, and then some. But the funny thing is, our children seemed to enjoy wishing for and collecting these trendy toys much more than they actually played with them. There were no tears shed when they were finally lifted away by the garbage truck. But as for the Super-Toys, I don’t think I can ever bring myself to part with them. Once my children grow up and head off to university, the toys will be neatly packed into indestructible plastic tubs and saved for the next generation. Then again, maybe I will convert one of the spare bedrooms into my very own Playmobil world of fantasy.

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It (aka My Dream Job)

Maggie Q as NikitaI have finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. My dream job is to be a spy. It is such an ideal career for someone like me! Just imagine – I could live overseas, speak different languages, wear cool disguises, and spend my time deciphering codes, solving puzzles, and extracting sensitive information all in order to protect our nation’s security. And maybe I’d even get to do occasional amazing things, like skydiving at night, or rappelling down the sides of buildings, or sparring with bad guys who get in my way.

Well, unfortunately, I discovered my dream career a few years too late. Apparently, the CIA does not hire people over the age of 35 to work as Operations Officers. And also, it’s not the kind of job that goes well with parenting three kids.

Sydney Bristow Alias

Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, the best female TV spy ever (in my opinion)

My inner child is crying. “Waaah! I wanted to be Sydney Bristow! So unfair!” The life of espionage is so seductive. And is it any wonder? Film and TV role models of female spies, like Sydney Bristow, Nikita, and yes, even Foxxy Cleopatra are super sexy, intelligent, and independent. Plus, they can kill a man with their bare hands. Plus, they get to use high-tech gadgets like tubes of lipstick that take photos and lift secret files from an enemy’s computer. And they get to do all of this while wearing disguises, like Spy Barbies.

Beyonce as Foxxy Cleopatra

But alas, such a life is not meant for me. I guess it’s just as well. I’m actually scared to death of heights and could never bring myself to jump out of a plane to complete a mission. Guess I will have to face the fact that I am only a typical soccer and gym mom, teacher, and suburb dweller who bakes fresh bread and never does anything out of the ordinary.

Or am I?Spy hiding

The Traveler at Starbucks (aka: Wanderlust Strikes Again)

 The other morning, I stopped by a Starbucks, with the intention of splurging on a good cup of coffee. It was outside of my neighborhood, located near a rail yard, in an area with a high homeless population. And so it was of little surprise to me to see him sitting there — a young guy, maybe in his early twenties, sitting on the ground outside of the Starbucks. Beside him was an oversized backpack, filled with his possessions and coated in grime, much like his worn-out clothes. In his hands, he held a ragged cardboard sign, which read: Traveling. Any Assistance Will Help.

I had so many questions. How long had this guy been traveling? Where had he been? Where was he going next? My curiosity was so great, that I wanted to sit on the ground beside him and listen to his story. But oh! As always, I was much too timid to speak. Instead, I shuffled toward him, eyes trained on the sidewalk, and handed him a crumpled five dollar bill.

“Hey, thanks! That means a lot.” The young man smiled up at me, his eyes brightening. And then he picked up his pack and was on his way, off to see the world. And though I was the one with the money, and I was the one with the car to drive myself to a Starbucks for a fancy cup of coffee or chai, I was filled with a sense of longing and envy for the life of the traveler, for his opportunities to see the world beyond the matching rooftops of the suburbs where I live. What wouldn’t I give to taste such freedom, to strap on a backpack and hike the Pacific Coast Trail, or ride trains through Europe, or explore South America by bus.

But that is not my life. I have children, and work, and obligations. My place, for now, is here in the suburbs. But that does not have to mean a life completely void of adventure. I, too, am an explorer. I experience the world through literature, through films, and through music from different nations and cultures. I get to know the world through art, history, and photography. And I taste the world by experimenting with international recipes. I may not wear a backpack or ride the rails, but like the young man sitting outside of Starbucks that morning, I too am a traveler. And for the next few weeks, here on my blog, I will share my adventures with you.

Can We Go to the Mall Instead? (a.k.a. Raising Snobs)

“Do people actually buy this stuff?”

Yesterday, I learned that I am raising three little snobs. Now don’t take me wrong — my kids are mostly great, and I love them to pieces. But still, they are snobs. You see, after spending hundreds of dollars on school supplies and back-to-school outfits, I thought that maybe I should try to cut costs a little. I still wanted to buy the kids some shoes, and maybe a jacket or two. So I figured, let’s go to the thrift store. Brilliant idea, right? Cheap, gently used hand-me-downs to finish out our shopping list.

I took the kids to a popular nearby thrift store, where I once actually managed to buy a pretty decent winter jacket for one of my kids. The store was crowded with people: families with wailing toddlers, mischievous children racing through the aisles, immigrant women wearing long skirts and babushkas wrapped around their heads, and then some. My own kids, overwhelmed with culture shock, clung tightly to me as we traversed the aisles, examining clothing, shoes, and even mismatched used coffee mugs.

“How about this jacket?” I held up a somewhat stylish green hoodie for my daughter to see.

She gave me a blank look. “It has stains on it.” She was right. After more careful inspection, I also noticed the greasy black stains on the sleeve and bottom of the jacket. Hmm. No wonder it only cost $2.50.

After half an hour of searching, we came up empty-handed. “Let’s try a different thrift store,” I suggested, remembering one across town, where I had once managed to find a decent pair of Gap jeans for $7.

My kids groaned. “Can’t we go to the mall instead?” But minutes later, I was dragging them into yet another thrift store. This one was less crowded, but filled with the same strange odor of dust and laundry starch, and familiar shelves of useless knickknacks, ancient appliances, and broken toys.

“Seriously, who would buy any of this stuff?” my daughter asked, staring in disgust at the world’s ugliest armchair.

“Maybe I could buy this hat for Halloween.”

Okay, seriously…who WOULD buy this stuff?

“This place is so low class,” said my oldest son, shaking his head. “I think the rich people send all their old junk to this store so the lower-class people can buy it.”

I stared at him, open-mouthed. I was half appalled by his snobbish remark, and half amused by the accuracy of his analysis. Do I say something to discourage such classist thinking? Do I reprimand him for sharing his honest opinion?

My daughter delivered the final blow. “This store is so bad, I would rather shop at Walmart.” That did it. I burst out laughing. The truth is, I agreed with my kids. I can’t stand the thrift store. I am happy to drop off our bags and boxes of gently used clothes for those who don’t mind wearing the hand-me-downs of a stranger. But really, I am not one of those people. Does that make me a snob? Maybe. Who knows?

Needless to say, we left the second thrift store empty-handed, then headed to the mall, where there are aisles filled with sequined Bobs, and trendy sushi bars, and air that smells like Cinnabon, Yankee Candle, and brand-new Guess jeans. Just the place for my three little snobs and me.

Sushi for lunch at the mall…huge contrast to our morning at the thrift store

Living Room Dance

What do you do when no one else is watching? Do you eat the entire package of cookies? Pick your nose? Use a wooden spoon as a microphone and belt out Mariah Carey tunes? When no one else is around, we transform into our truest selves — uninhibited, relaxed, and free. Well, World, today I will offer you a sneak peek inside my living room during a time when I was blissfully, peacefully alone. Be warned: it may not be pretty.

The best parts about dancing alone in your own living room is that you don’t need any choreography, and you do not have to know how to dance, because no one is watching. No one will laugh at you. The only danger lies in tripping over furniture, or executing a grand jeté and landing barefoot on a pile of Lego bricks (Do NOT do this…you will experience considerable pain! Take my word for it). So go ahead…enjoy the moment when you have it. Close your curtains, turn up the music, and dance around your living room.