Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Little House

We got the classic picture book The Little House at the library the other day. For those of you who haven't read it, it's about a little house in the country that sits on a hill covered with daisies. The anthropomorphized house is the main character of the book. The house is a "she," which makes sense to me as I have always thought of inanimate objects as having a gender (spoons are girls, forks are boys, etc.) Way out in the country, the Little House spends her days watching the moon change from a thin moon to a full moon and wondering about what life would be like in the far-away city whose lights she can see in the distance.

You can guess what happens next, right? It's kind of like Up without the balloons. Slowly the city encroaches on the Little House until she's surrounded by oppressive tenement houses and the constant clatter of elevated trains. The Little House can't even see what season it is anymore because everything that surrounds her is covered by cement and steel.

The tiny house looks ridiculous surrounded by all the tall buildings in the big city. One of these things is not like the other…one of these things just doesn't belong. Eventually the Little House is moved back to the country where she belongs and all is right with the world.

I live in a Little House. It is one of the little houses that was original to the neighborhood when it was first developed in the 40s. Over the past 70 years, only four families have lived in this little house, my family being the fourth. I still find notes from the original owners. There's a recipe for sourdough biscuits on the inside of the heavy vintage kitchen cabinet doors. The yellowed recipe says "From the recipe file of Betty Dodge" and has a picture of an old-fashioned oven, curlicues of steam issuing from it.

We don't own this little house. We're just renting it for now. We're moving out soon and our landlords have been sending over builders to look at it. Our little house is on a huge lot in an area of town where the land is very valuable. People don't want little houses anymore. They want big houses with lots of rooms: media rooms, mudrooms, playrooms, gift-wrapping rooms, workout rooms, man caves, mom caves, walk-in closets and soaking tubs. Hey, I wouldn't mind having some of these things myself. Who wouldn't?

Our little house drives me crazy all the time. I am not a tall person, but I am constantly hitting my head on the kitchen cabinets or the sloped attic ceilings in the boys' rooms. The stairs going up to the kids' rooms are so narrow and steep that I can barely carry a laundry basket up and down. I have always worried about Teddy, our youngest, falling down the stairs, but so far I am the only one who has taken the plunge down the black diamond staircase.

As a lover of all things HGTV, I have tried to imagine what the Property Brothers would do to our little house. I'm sure there are amazing things that could be done to make this little house feel more livable by today's standards. But doing them would probably cost a fortune and the house would still be little.

All around us, little old houses are being knocked down and enormous new ones are being built in their place. Teddy and I watched a house up the street being knocked down a few months ago. It was amazing to watch. The front walls had already come down, so we were looking into this house like it was a dollhouse or a theater set. Just when it seemed like a character in a Neil Simon play should come bounding down the stairs declaring he was going to Greenblatt's for a loaf of rye bread, a bulldozer scooped up a chunk of the living room like it was made of Legos. Thinking of the human dramas that had likely been played out in that house made the demolishing hard to watch, but at the same time I couldn't look away.

A few blocks over, the neighborhood swim club is being torn down and rebuilt. This has involved leveling the old victorian house that was on the property. Construction workers on the project were alarmed one day when they saw a little girl peering out of the window of the victorian house they were about to knock down. They went over to talk to her and then she disappeared. People in the neighborhood say the ghost, who is always seen wearing victorian garb, has been a regular around the pool for years. After her death at age fourteen in 1913, her parents moved out of the victorian house and it was later turned into a sanitarium for Washington dignitaries. She has been known to swim with children at the pool and generally hang around the house, that is, until her home was leveled a few months ago.

For some reason that story doesn't creep me out. I think houses are infused with the spirits of the people who inhabited them, so imagining that spirit taking human form isn't that big of a stretch. Like the book, I anthropomorphize my house and think of her as an entity with feelings and needs. I think houses have souls. That's why I leave the biscuit recipe up.

Is it wrong to knock down all these little houses? In a way I feel lucky that I don't have the kind of money it would take to worry about such decisions. I wish we didn't think we needed so much stuff and so many rooms to feel like we are okay human beings. And when I say "we" I really mean "I." The house envy I feel when I walk around someone else's giant new house isn't pretty. It's not pretty but it's so real it practically has a beating heart. I find it ironic that as a society we probably spend far less time in our houses and have fewer children living in them, yet we still can't manage to fit our lives into these relatively small spaces. What does that say about us? What does it say about me?

I think it's probably inevitable that this house will be torn down after we leave it. I'd like to think that when that happens Betty will show up with her biscuits. Mad as hell.

Monday, May 9, 2011

House Hunters Anonymous

Lately I've been watching unseemly amounts of the HGTV show "House Hunters." Both the domestic and international versions. In case you've never watched this show, I'll give you a basic rundown of what happens: A couple needs to buy a house. We'll call the people Sheila and Bill, just to make things easier. Sheila and Bill have a budget of $350,000 and they are looking for a starter house in, let's say, the Chicago suburbs. Bill doesn't want to be too far from the commuter train. Sheila is really concerned about being in a neighborhood with good schools for their son, Paul. Oh, and Sheila really wants granite countertops in the kitchen, a big walk-in closet in the master bedroom and a nice yard for Paul to run around in. She thinks this makes her unique in some way. Sorry, Sheila, but it doesn't. Everyone on "House Hunters" wants these things.

The couple walks through three houses, none of which truly meets their needs. There is the small house that needs updating (no granite countertops) that is under their budget. There's the house that is right at their budget that has most of what they want, but maybe is in the wrong location. Then there is the perfect house, replete with granite countertops, walk-in closets, a swing set for Paul in the backyard, right across the street from Bill's commuter train, but it is of course over budget.

Brandon and I used to watch this show together. We loved making jokes about the couples they feature on these shows, laughing about the obligatory joke the guy always makes about closet size relative to the number of shoes the woman owns. "I don't know where his stuff is going, but this closet will be perfect for me," quips every woman who has ever been on House Hunters.

Brandon prides himself on his ability to predict which house the couple will pick. He has an uncanny ability to guess which item on their wish list the couple will be willing to give up or compromise on. This show has provided much entertainment for us, a couple who has been renting for nine out of the ten years we've been married.

Recently, I have started watching "House Hunters" alone, though. Brandon always seems to be busy at 10 pm. when the show comes on. Without his fun commentary, the show is a little boring. I know it's hard to believe that people walking around empty houses could possibly be boring, but it is. I have taken to watching "House Hunters" while surfing real estate websites on my iPhone, something akin to the dirty feeling you get from eating junk food while watching Oprah talk about how she gained 30 pounds from eating nothing but blue corn tortilla chips all summer.

I'm not sure I can be entirely objective, but I think my house obsession may be entering Oprah blue corn tortilla chip territory.

There I admitted it. That's the first step, right? I am more than a little preoccupied with the idea of buying a house and then living in it for the next, oh, fifty years of my life. You see, since I graduated from college many, many years ago, I have had approximately fourteen different addresses. We have lived in condos, apartments, townhouses, and in single-family houses. We have lived in the suburbs and in a bustling city. Our countertops have ranged from granite to corian, to our current "vintage" countertops that are off-white and flecked with gold. I have had enough countertops to know that granite, while it is nice, does not really make your life better or make you a better cook. I would still like it in my future dream kitchen, though.

I also know that, as with granite countertops, owning a house is something I would like a lot, but won't really impact my life in a way that truly matters. Oh, who am I kidding? It totally will!

It's not just the house that I want. This is not shear materialism rearing its ugly head, or at least I hope it's not. Like with Oprah and her tortilla chips, it's what the thing promises rather than the thing itself that I crave. I doubt Oprah was really hungry for all those tortilla chips. She was hungry for something else: for comfort, for the feeling of well-being and fullness that a salty snack can bring. I am hungry not just for walk-in closets and a soaking tub, but for the security and peace of mind that come with having a house you know you can stay in forever if you want to.

I will spare you all the details, but Brandon's job situation is making another move a very real possibility. I'm not even exactly sure which city his job will lead us to next, making my Trulia.com searches and Charlie's kindergarten registration all the more interesting.

I'm really tired of moving. I'm really tired of living in someone else's house. I want my own house. My own swing set, my own countertops that I can change if they are not to my liking.

I read a book this summer called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House by Meghan Daum. This book is a memoir about one writer's attempt to find happiness through real estate. Daum can barely make it through a semester of college without changing dorm rooms. This constant need to improve upon her surroundings continues when she moves to New York City and becomes obsessed with space or her lack of it. When she can't live in the kind of place she wants in NYC, she decides, pretty randomly, to move to Omaha, Nebraska, where she can buy an old farmhouse for what she used to spend on cabs in New York. Eventually she moves to L.A. and buys a tiny bungalow in a slightly shady neighborhood at the peak of the housing bubble.

The moral of this story is that a house does not guarantee happiness. I know this intellectually, but I still get a thrill at the end of every "House Hunters" episode, when the show revisits the couple after they have been living in their new house for a few months. Their lives may not be perfect, but they definitely seem happier than they were at the beginning of the show.

I wonder if I will still like watching "House Hunters" once we finally find a permanent home? Something tells me, the show won't appeal to me anymore. Oh well, then it's onto the home improvement shows, right?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Not to brag, but I did a guest post on Mammalingo today. The word I invented is "facebrag." Click on over to Melissa Sher's awesome website to see the definition.

Are you a bragface? If not, surely you know someone who is. Please share your facebragging experiences in the comments. I'm dying to hear. Now it's back to basking in the glow of the perfectness that is my life. (sigh)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big Boy Bed Redux

I can't believe I am already having to write about my two-year-old, Teddy, needing a big boy bed. It feels like I was just posting about him being born and singing the praises of the Miracle Blanket. It feels like I was also just posting about my 5.5-year old, Charlie, needing a big boy bed, but that was over two years ago.

Right now I'm about two seconds away from swaddling Teddy up in a Miracle Blanket and tucking the whole package into his big boy bed sheets. This transition to big-boydom has not been what one would call "smooth."

Teddy started climbing out of his crib a few weeks ago. For a week or so, we weren't sure what to do. He didn't always climb out during every nap or bed time, so we left the crib up and crossed our fingers every time we put him down. I considered getting a crib tent, but when I went to Babies 'r Us, it turned out they didn't sell crib tents anymore. I could've ordered one online, but then I would've had to wait several days for it to arrive and it seemed like after that many days of freedom, it would be cruel zipping Teddy up into a crib tent every night. Plus it just seemed a little wrong to use a crib tent for a 2.25-year old. If this had happened six months ago, I totally would've gone for the crib tent. But two and up seems like big boy bed territory.

Last week, Teddy started climbing out of his crib constantly, so I just decided to take it down. Now he's sleeping on a mattress on the floor while he awaits the twin bed we ordered for him. Incidentally we ordered matching twin beds for Charlie and Teddy (they share a room) on Overstock.com for half what they would've cost most places. Plus, the shipping was free. Plus, they can be turned into bunk beds should we ever trust Teddy to be alone in a room with a ladder.

Hang on, I have to go put Teddy back in his bed. He's "napping."

So, now Teddy has total freedom to roam around his room. He is using this freedom to pull books off the shelf and not nap. He is really living it up. It has only been about four days since we got rid of the crib, and none of those days has been alike in terms of sleep. Most days he hasn't napped, but he has gotten a lot of reading done. Yesterday he napped and then was up bugging Charlie until almost eleven o'clock at night. I really don't think he's ready to give up his nap yet because before all this big boy bed nonsense, he was a champion napper and equally awesome at going to bed. Right now, it seems as though he's not successful at going to sleep in his big boy bed unless he is absolutely delirious from lack of sleep. If he's not super exhausted, then the books on the shelf call his name.

Does anyone have a formula for how long it will take to get him back to being the fabulous napper I know he is deep down inside? How long until the allure of getting out of bed wears off? With my other two, I still was able to use the crib for naps until they basically didn't need a nap anymore, so this is kind of new territory for me.

Any other big kid bed training tips you can share? In a way, this feels kind of like potty training in that we are going to have to go through a few weeks of torture before he gets it. Is that true?

I thought of Teddy and his big boy bed when I heard this story on NPR yesterday. It's about how important it is to teach children self-control. Interesting stuff. Basically, a child's self-control is a big predictor of success later in life. It's much simpler to teach a preschooler self-control than it is a teenager or an adult. Maybe this big boy bed drama is an opportunity to teach Teddy a thing or two about self-control.

Last night Charlie came downstairs at around ten o'clock and told us that he had figured out why Teddy kept getting out of bed. "It's because his bed doesn't have walls on it anymore," Charlie said standing there in his snowman p.j.s. Charlie, ever the logician, was right. We need to teach Teddy to act as though there are walls even though the walls are gone. This would seem completely impossible, except that our other two children miraculously sleep in their big kid beds even though no one has chained them to their fitted sheets. There is hope for Teddy. I think.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Homemade Valentines

I used to google ideas for valentines and then try to make my kids do the craft exactly as prescribed. See here for proof that I used to do this. Then, I got fed up and just started buying valentines at Target. I didn't want to go through the battle of making my kids do valentines. It was just too painful for both of us. Oh, the control issues. That's another post.

This year, I decided to get back on the homemade valentine horse. I checked my inner Martha Stewart at the door, and decided not to have any kind of agenda for the valentines. Now, even the two-year old is making valentines on his own without me micromanaging things. As usual he benefits from me screwing everything up the first time with the other two kids. Below are some pictures of what we did. Don't feel like this is what you need to do for your valentines. Hopefully these pictures will inspire you to make your valentine masterpieces, and soon you too will be finding glitter in your children's nether regions.

red and pink cards and matching envelopes
colored paper
Heart stickers
rubber stamps
old valentines
labels or table of friends' names

The obligatory glitter plate. You know the drill: Glue, shake the glitter, shake card over glitter plate

Charlie's school sent home these labels for him to cut and paste his friends' names. Brilliant! You could also write the names on heart stickers or labels and have your child stick them on.

Charlie's valentines. Note, the recycled dump truck valentine. Great way to use old valentines!

Teddy's Valentines. He's two and he did these beauties by himself. He dipped a rubber stamp in some glue and shook some glitter on the glue. Easy!

Emma's valentines. She loves to write personal notes in hers. One of my favorites is to her friend Josh: "You are smart and that is a gift." And then she drew a picture of Josh's brain inside of Josh's head. Romantic!

I hope these ideas help take some of the pain out of homemade valentines. We have really enjoyed making these this year. I think most importantly the kids got a lot out of thinking creatively about what they love about their friends. These may not make it on the cover of a magazine, but who cares? That's not the point. Happy Valentine's day, everyone!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Battle Hymn of a Rabbit Mother

The other day Emma and I were driving to gymnastics, our new Saturday ritual. I decided to schedule this activity on Saturdays instead of a weekday so as not to have to haul two extra kids to the gymnastics place once a week. I love this arrangement. It allows for Emma and me to have some one-on-one time together (a hard thing to come by in our family of five), and I can sit and really focus on watching her gymnastics class/read a book/zone out rather than corralling two younger children for an hour.

We were stopped at a red light on the way to gymnastics when Emma asked me apropos of nothing, "Mommy, what's a tiger mother?"

I laughed and tried my best to explain what a tiger mother was without totally freaking her out. I told her I was born in the year of the rabbit and was therefore not a tiger mother.

For those of you who don't know about the book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it's a memoir of sorts about one mother's experience with raising kids the "Chinese way." Here's an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal piece by Chua detailing what Chinese children are not allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

The gym where Emma takes gymnastics is like a three-ring circus. There's Emma's "level 2" class, which is learning how to do cartwheels, how to walk backwards on the balance beam. Meanwhile the girls on the gymnastics team are practicing their floor routines, flipping their bodies powerfully across the big blue square in the middle of the gym. Another class practices the vault, another the uneven bars. You can see the evolution of how a donkey kick leads to a handstand, which leads to a handspring, which leads to a standing front flip. It's rare to see such a vivid example of how hard work and practice (and a touch of talent) can pay off.

Watching the class, I'm reminded of what the Tiger Mother said in her article: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up."

In the car on the way to gymnastics Emma told me she doesn't want to continue to level 3 gymnastics. She thinks it's too hard and she's not "good" at it. She has said similar things about soccer and ballet and we didn't continue with those activities. Since Chua's article was fresh in my mind, I reacted more like a tiger and less like a rabbit. I told her that she was going to stick with gymnastics, that she hadn't given it enough time to be good at it. That things that are worth having sometimes take hard work and practice. "Things are always hardest at the beginning," I said, channeling Chua.

Chua has gotten lots of flack for her book and Wall Street Journal piece. I completely agree with her critics who find her parenting "strategies" borderline abusive. She calls her girls "garbage" and "lazy" if they disrespect her or do not get straight A-pluses in school. She threatens to give away her little girl's dollhouse piece by piece if she doesn't perfect her piano piece. She's extremely hardcore.

It's a shame, though, that these sensational details get most of the press when a lot of what Chua is saying about the "Western" parenting style is valid. We do quit too easily. We place so much stock in our children's self-esteem that we treat them like these privileged, fragile little deities. We worship their accomplishments to such a degree that they are growing up with nothing to shoot for, nothing to work for. If they aren't enjoying themselves, then we scurry to make things more entertaining, more palatable for them. I know not all "Western" parents are guilty of this, but a lot of us are, me most certainly included.

Is there a happy medium? Some sweet spot somewhere between calling your child garbage if she brings home an A- and praising the crap out of her all the time? I'm still working this out in my head. I'm starting by not letting Emma give up on gymnastics so quickly. I'm also starting to work with my kids on their math skills more at home. We've always focused on reading together because I am a reader and it's just something I enjoy doing with them. I have never placed much emphasis on math, though, and I'm trying to change this. I am not calling them lazy or garbage while we work on our addition and subtraction, rest assured. We are making it fun, and they are actually enjoying themselves, although that is not the point. The point is getting better at math. If it happens to be fun, then that's just a bonus. I am incrementally trying to raise the bar a little bit, to give my kids something higher to shoot for.

Try as I might to be a tiger mom, I will always be a rabbit. I am a softy, too sensitive for my own good. It's my nature to swaddle my kids with kind, encouraging words, protect them from anything uncomfortable or difficult. I want their lives to be easy and fun. But I now see that there is an unintentional consequence to this kind of mothering. If they are never forced to work for their achievements, how will they ever develop self-discipline, stamina or a work ethic? If life is presented to them as easy and fun-centered, how disappointed and ill-equipped will they be when they find out that life is not like this at all?

When I told Emma she was not quitting gymnastics so easily, she didn't question me. She almost seemed relieved to have this particular issue off the table. It must be exhausting being a "Western" kid sometimes--so much depends upon your happiness. It must be a relief to discover you're not the center of the universe, unless of course you discover it too late.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new

After all of the December acquiring we did, we are now doing our ritual January purging. And by "we," I mean "I."

I am really schizophrenic when it comes to getting rid of things. I hold onto things that are really not worth holding onto. For a while, I save everything: every preschool art project, every card anyone ever sends me, every Chick-fil-a toy. Eventually I get completely fed up with the clutter, and then I am ruthless about getting rid of things. At this particular moment, I'm going through a purging phase. I've been going through old toys and tossing them in bags and posting the contents of those bags on freecycle. Someone from freecycle wants them and is supposed to come take them away tonight. Yay! I love that our beloved toys will have a life beyond our house. I hate the idea of them not getting played with. Maybe I've watched too much Toy Story.

We dismantled our guestroom bed that only gets used two times a year, figuring that real estate in our small house could be put to better use. We're keeping the mattress in the basement in case we ever have another guestroom in a future house, but we decided to get rid of the box spring and the lopsided metal frame it rested on. Incidentally, to make the metal frame un-lopsided, Brandon and I stuck a really cheesy paperback book underneath one of the legs to prop it up. Classy, I know. This book basically has a hole in it because it had been holding an entire bed up for many years. When it came time to toss the book in the recycling bin, I almost couldn't bear to do it because this was the book Brandon and I had read side-by-side on the plane to our honeymoon destination in Tangolunda Bay, Mexico. We read that whole book tandem-style, each one waiting patiently for the other one to finish so we could turn the page. It was a courtroom thriller. I can't remember much about the story other than that. It's in our recycling bin right now. That book has served us well, but it's time had come. See, I'm totally ruthless. But what am I going to do with a cheesy courtroom thriller with a hole in it now that it is no longer propping up a bed?

So, I need to somehow dispose of a box spring mattress. People on freecycle are giving away cheese that's past its sell-by date, so maybe someone will want my box spring and broken frame. Did I mention I have our living room furniture on craigslist? Brandon is a little concerned about that one. I guess I can't blame him. We have a lot of furniture crammed into our tiny living room. We tried moving two of the chairs into different rooms, but they won't fit through the narrow doors or up our tiny, treacherous staircase. Have I mentioned before how this house was built for exceptionally small people? Well, I'm no anthropologist, but the tiny doorways, low bathroom counters and shorty ceilings indicate that the people who lived here and raised six kids here were very short. I am always bumping my head on things and I am 5'5".

I mentioned freecycle earlier like everyone knows what it is. Have you tried this freecycle? As with most things, I'm a little late to the party on this one, but it's pretty amazing. You post things that you want to get rid of (for free) and then if someone wants your stuff, they email you and come and take it away. I like getting the freecycle emails. Here are the items being given away in my neighborhood freecycle group at this very moment:

  • 3 old fashioned keys
  • wooden box with salmon on it
  • Pewter porringer (um, what?)
  • Pentax film camera
  • messenger bag
  • Bra w/prothesis
  • Gold snake choker
  • Electric laminator
  • Sewing machine with broken needle
  • Standing Japanese shoji screen
I could go on, but you get the idea. I think this list is amazing. I may use it as a writing exercise at some point where you have to write a story using all these items. Put all these items on a farm in Canada and you have an Alice Munro story.

Well, speaking of writing, I have a rare block of time where a kid doesn't need something. Teddy is sleeping, Charlie is at a friend's house and Emma's at school. I am hoping to get a little fiction writing accomplished with this lovely hour or so. Feel free to steal my freecycle story starter idea if you're blocked and need a little writing exercise to free you up. If you have other great writing exercises, I'd love to hear them.

Also, I've been thinking about the books I've read this past year and trying to pick my favorite. So far, the front-runner is Room by Emma Donahue. Has anyone else read Room? I'd love to hear your favorite book of 2010. If you leave a comment you'll automatically be entered to win a free box spring mattress!