Thursday, July 28, 2011

Birthday Bash

My beautiful eight year old!

My oldest boy Jake turned eight a few weeks ago. Because his birthday is smack in the middle of summer vacation, its always a challenge to get my act together to throw him a party that his friends will actually be in town to attend. On top of this is the issue of the party itself. As Jake and his friends get older, the pressure I feel to come up with a fun theme or activity gets higher. Parties in our neck of the woods typically involve outings to go rock climbing, play laser tag, cook a gourmet meal, cavort on bouncy castles on steroids, and the like. (And thats just the boys. Though I only have sons, I know all about your girls and their spa parties, too.) Out yourself as a person of a certain age if you're with me in remembering an 8 year old birthday party that looked something like this: you got slightly dressed up, went to your friend's house with a modest gift in hand, played pin the tail on the donkey (or similar), had cake and watched your friend open his or her presents, and you went home happy. (If you grew up in the suburbs like me and your lucky summer birthday friend had a pool, you were very psyched to go to a pool party, where you swam, ate cake, and went home happy.) Lest I be taken for a killjoy or party pooper, let me just say up front that I'm not criticizing any of the aforementioned activities as birthday parties. My kid loves them all. But I will take a moment to eviscerate the one element all parties we've gone to (and hosted) in the past several years have shared: the goody bag.

The goody bag. Its funny, because pretty much all of parents that I'm friends with are educated, socially responsible, morally upright people, who try to model those traits for their children. Yet with the goody bag, we manage to cancel out every message we've taught them about being a friend to the earth, about healthy eating, about what constitues a "treat", and about entitlement. When we hand around those bags of throw away plastic toys and even crappier candy (all packaged in plastic bags) to our children at the end of a party, we're reinforcing this insane notion that its the correct order of things that they be rewarded with junk after they've just had the privilege of going to a party. Why do we do it?

I've been guilty of perpetuating the goody bag crime myself. I didn't want to be the embarrassing mom who broke with the tradition that my kid's peers all expected. The crazy thing is that I bet a lot of moms feel the same way I do. Everybody does it, so everybody does it. Rather than yank the goody bag notion altogether and all at once, I'm taking the methadone approach to the detox. Last year for Jake's birthday, I handed out books as favors. The boys each got a "Lunch Lady" graphic book, the girls got "Baby Mouse". No one complained. This year we split the difference. Henry and I agreed that celebrating Jake's birthday at home with his brothers and I was enough, so we didn't organize a formal party. We gave him the Harry Potter Lego set he'd been dying for, went out for a game of mini golf, and had a cake that I baked at home. Jake and I also made a pinata together, which we filled with sugarless gum, Mini Legos, pencils, and Smarties (yes, plastic toys and crappy candy). Jake and his brothers each got a brown paper bag to collect their goodies in, and everyone stayed home, happy. I'm claiming progress, not perfection.

What Jake really wanted for his birthday: Lego Hogwarts Castle

Jake and I made a very simple balloon pinata with newspaper strips dipped in water and flour. Here its hanging up to dry on the clothesline.

Jake painting his pinata. He chose his two favorite colors, pink and red.

The final whack that busted out the treats.

Divvying up the loot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dinner With Art

A couple of months ago, Henry and I took the boys out to dinner at a local, kid-friendly diner. We don't eat out too often as a family, in part because I like to cook and eat at home. But the bigger truth is that eating out with three small boys is always a crap shoot in terms of whether or not we'll make it through the meal before someone, or everyone, melts down, or starts screaming, or breaks something, etc, etc. We prefer to keep the madness of mealtimes within the confines of our own home. But at this particular dinner at Dizzy's, the boys were pretty well behaved. We sat down, and the server immediately came to the table, which was covered in a sheet of butcher block paper, and handed the kids some crayons. They began drawing, quietly and with some focus. Henry picked up a crayon and started coloring too. We started a conversation about the pictures, and were generally enjoying ourselves. Though we've been to this restaurant several times, it was on this visit that Henry and I looked at the boys coloring, looked at each other, and shared an a-ha moment. Lots of family restaurants offer paper and crayons, and they do it because experience has showed them that kids respond well to it and enjoy it. The look Henry and I exchanged in that moment read: "Why aren't we doing this at home??"

Well, now we are.
Our first instinct before we implemented this idea was to go online and find one of those beautiful vintage butcher block rollers, which the restaurant uses. But A) Did we really need to spend the money on something like that? (No.) and B) Did we have space for something like that? (No again). Instead I opted to keep the paper roll under the table, so we can tear sheets off when we want them without taking up any additional space in the kitchen.

Our kitchen table is a pretty humble piece of furniture. Henry bought it off the street from someone for $40. I keep it covered with a William Morris oilcloth I picked up in England a few years ago, because its pretty and easy to clean. But now before dinner the tablecloth comes off, and the paper goes on. I installed the roll of paper with some cheap curtain hanging hardware I picked up at Ikea. Any kind will do; the brackets only need to be long enough to accommodate for the width of the roll of paper, and the rod inside is removable so the paper roll can be easily replaced. Its a bigger version of a paper towel holder, really. Here's a photo of the table with the cloth on it, and another showing the roll from under the table. I circled the brackets which are kind of hard to see.

And here's the table before dinner:

Dinnertime is still a big challenge for Henry and I in terms of our ideal not matching up with our reality. We make a concerted effort to gather at the table with the kids several nights a week because we want to reap the benefits of a shared time together where everyone can connect and talk about the day that was. And we want it to be peaceful and to go smoothly. But the truth is we spend much of the meal asking the kids to sit down, commanding them to eat, admonishing them for their language or not minding their manners. We chase Michael with forkfuls of food and insist that Charlie eat his fish. Since we've been drawing at the table, though, we've been having a little more fun. No diversion keeps young kids occupied for long, and we are trying to recalibrate our expectations accordingly. They still whine, or sing too loudly, or spit out bites. But we've noticed that they're staying around the table a little more. Charlie in particular, my boisterous three year old, loves drawing at dinner so much that he rotates seats throughout the course of the meal when he runs out of paper in the space in front of him. So even though we still have to feed him, he's so invested in staying at the table that our job has gotten a lot easier. And rather than talk about his day at school, we talk about the dinosaur he's drawing. Or rather, he draws a shape and asks us "What is it?" Then he modifies or embellishes the shape based on our answer and asks the question again. Its a little like taking a rorschach test at supper.

Here's Michael drawing while he waits for me to finish making dinner. Once the food is on the table though, he's usually outta there, running in and out of the kitchen between bites of food. But for now at least, he's never very far away.

Here's a song we love to listen to any time we're in the kitchen, performed by our local kid rocker, Dan Zanes.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teepee Time

Sometimes when I can't fall asleep at night, I lie in bed and count my blessings. The list is waaaaay too long for me to itemize here, but somewhere up in the top tier of material godsends would be the fact that our family has the incredible good fortune to have a home in the country where we can go and totally unplug. No cable, no internet, only occasional and spotty cell service, though we try to put the phones away while we're up there. Lots of trees and woods to run around in, lots of wildlife. Its never unusual to see the following: a porcupine at the foot of the lawn rooting around for supper, the little boxer turtle (who pees all over us when we gently pick him up to have a closer look, leaving the kids in hysterics), a few bunny rabbits, a blue heron on the pond, a family of wild turkeys along the tree line out back, some guinea fowl (they belong to our neighbor, but roam pretty freely), lots of deer. Once a few years ago my husband Henry saw a moose with her calf, but that was a singular sighting.

Henry grew up on a farm in England, and outside, in the country, he is in his true element. Though he has always been an engaged and loving dad, his parenting totally shines when he and the boys are in this place together. He has spent countless hours alone with them building dams in the stream, exploring and walking through the woods to discover secret forts, building a treehouse, climbing and jumping off rocks, and generally allowing them to just be little boys, outside, free from the perils of the playground and the harness of their mother's constant worry that they might, god forbid, skin a knee.

Last week we were up at the house and Henry decided to cut down a birch tree whose branches were in danger of damaging some power lines. It was a fairly small tree, but once he decided to take it down, he rounded up the boys and declared that they would be building a teepee. He got chainsaw out, and began slicing off the trees many pole sized branches. Charlie and Jake helped strip them down, Jake and I dragged them up to a flat spot in the lawn, and together we all helped pull the thing up into the air until, lo and behold, we had something that looked an awful lot like a teepee. A big one. The boys were thrilled, and I took pause to appreciate my amazing husband, and marvel again at his knack for being able to spontaneously provide our sons with these Lost Boy moments, where a ho hum day can unfold into an unexpected adventure, and the impossible becomes real.

Unfortunately, there weren't any buffalos around for us to skin, so for now our teepee remains uncovered. But next time we're there we'll cobble together some canvas and fabric and paint animals on the cover and close it up properly. In the meantime, we have been busy making and crafting in other ways, but the languid pace of summertime has slowed down my inclination to document it all. I hope to get more of down here soon, but hopefully you're too busy playing outside to bother reading about it anyway.

Charlie stripping the branches off of the poles.

Jake dragging the stripped poles up to a flat part of the lawn. (It's hilly up here!)

Here are a few of the poles in waiting. We used a total of eight for our teepee. They were each about 15 feet long.

Once we had all of our poles ready, we put them into a fan shape and got ready to tie them together at the top.

Tying the poles.

Though it appears in this photo, taken by Jake, that I'm not doing much, I'm actually in between taking individual poles and fanning them out into a circular formation while Henry holds the center up.

But I readily admit that Henry's job required much more strength than mine did! Here he gives a final heave upward.

Adjusting poles into a final formation.

And TA DA!!

Here's the song I was humming along to in my head while we were building.