Mom’s Art Night Out

There’s a parent’s group that I’m peripherally part of — only peripherally, because I live pretty far from most of the other families in it. But recently they scheduled a Mom’s Art Night Out at Young At Art, a drop-in arts and crafts studio in Salem. This was an adult-only night; we potlucked some finger food and wine, donned aprons, and sat down at easels for a painting lesson.

Just before I left our former neighbor called (her daughter still comes over sometimes to visit when they’re in the neighborhood) and said excitedly that she’d picked up a gingerbread house kit, and would the kids like to make it tonight? So when I walked out the door I was leaving Dave with one extra kid and an evening project that involved frosting. There was a time, back when we had fewer kids, that I would have felt guilty about that. Nowadays I’m better at placing a Somebody-Else’s-Problem field over the top of things and walking away.

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Or in this case driving away, to grab an apron and pour myself some wine. I had initially been a bit disappointed that we’d be led through painting a specific scene, but I decided to look at it as an opportunity to learn something and just have fun with the group. And it was fun — there’s nothing like getting together with other parents of young children and just laughing about the insanity of it all. Having a brush in hand at the same time is a nice bonus.

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After the painting, most of the group headed to an all-night restaurant for a snack, but my Somebody-Else’s-Problem field wasn’t that big. Besides, it was late, and I was sort of curious to see what had happened.

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What had happened was pretty much what I’d expected: half-built gingerbread houses, drips of frosting, and a sticky toddler. The only part that surprised me was that Dave had apparently gotten down my container of sprinkles for the kids to use, which had pretty much decimated that collection. (I was not upset. I had already learned about how kids treat sprinkles, but I think it’s one of those things you just have to experience to believe. Besides, now I can buy more sprinkles!)

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Nostalgia

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“Clearing” features large in my childhood memories. We helped Dad clear deadfalls even when we were fairly young, dragging branches away from the tree as he cut them — the smell of sawdust and exhaust from the chainsaw, the unwieldy way long branches would tip as we raised them so they’d sail deep enough into the woods to be out of our way. As we grew older and stronger, we learned to buck small trees so he could cut them into logs, pushing the log forward by a chainsaw-length and then steadying it between hands and knees so he could cut.

Then there was the task of clearing blackberries around the property. I still have vivid memories of hot sun, of the weight of the corn knife in my hand, the satisfying song as it sliced through smaller stems; then the less satisfying task of crawling in with loppers to cut the canes at their base, and wriggling out through thorns; and then hauling the canes out to the burn pile, the tangled, dragging mass that had somehow to be wrestled up onto the pile.

And that doesn’t even touch on the couple of summers where I was assigned a major clearing job: the year Kevin and I were tasked with taking back the upper corner of the vineyard from scotch broom; the year Peter and I cleared the woods’ path of encroaching alders, and I learned how to set the choke so he could drag them out with the tractor.

I’m sure I grumbled at the time, but I came to somewhat enjoy clearing work — especially deadfalls. It was hard, gritty, sometimes thorny work, but also satisfying.

So when Dave recently trimmed the tree branches encroaching on the back of our property (we don’t own the trees, but they fail to respect that), I felt a certain sense of nostalgia. He had the boys out hauling branches for him, just as my Dad used to do with me; and although they grumbled a bit, they’re old enough now that they can do some solid work. It felt like a continuation.

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I’m not sure they saw it that way. “You know, I used to sort of like clearing branches,” I told them at one point, and received twin stares of incomprehension.

Adventures In Homeschooling: Chemistry

On Monday Dave, not feeling well, decided to stay home. I took advantage of the situation to run a pesky errand — one of those that ought to be done during the week, but would be so much easier without children along.

I walked back into the house to find Dave standing beside the kitchen sink, with a strangely dark puddle hissing and steaming on the floor beside him.

“Do we have any more baking soda?” he asked by way of greeting.

“Uh… I don’t know,” I said, cleverly.

“Could you check? Also you might open some windows. I’m going to take a shower.” He was already stripping off his shirt as he spoke.

“There’s molten aluminum on the floor!” Nathan told me excitedly.

“No, it isn’t molten,” said Dave as he disappeared around the corner.

By now anyone with chemistry experience will have grasped the gist of what happened, so after discovering that we had no more baking soda in the house, I grabbed the baby and made a quick run to the store. Small box for the baking cupboard, big box for the chemical cupboard. (“For a Fresher, Cleaner Home” the box assured me.)

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Once I got back and the acid had been neutralized, we had plenty of time to discuss the details while we worked on cleanup.

It seemed that Dave had gotten out the hydrochloric acid (yes, ours is the sort of household that just keeps that around) for a little cleanup job, and had decided to give the boys a chemistry demonstration. Aluminum and hydrochloric acid will react and give off hydrogen gas; done correctly, in a bottle, one can capture the gas in a balloon. This not only is a cool demonstration of a chemical reaction between solid and liquid producing a gas, but you end up with a balloon filled with a highly flammable gas that you can then explode. Win-win!

The trouble, Dave explained as we wiped baking soda and aluminum off the floor, was that he hadn’t spent enough time on preparation. After all, it isn’t as though he hasn’t done this sort of thing before — but he wasn’t careful with the amounts, and added way too much, so that neither component was limiting. He also hadn’t made sure to have the baking soda at hand. And worst of all, when he realized how quickly the reaction was going and the plastic bottle was heating up, he went to remove the balloon, but in doing so tilted the bottle. Hot liquid ran into the balloon, which subsequently exploded. It was only a minute later that I walked in.

Dave got a couple of very minor burns, probably from hot flakes of aluminum landing on his hands. The baby was well away of course, and the boys (Dave informed me) exhibited really excellent self-preservation skills and scattered as soon as they realized something was not right.

And I would just like to sum up by pointing out that we live in a really cool house. And also that we should always keep large amounts of baking soda on hand.

Ten Years

Dave and I have not always been on the ball about celebrating our anniversary, especially since having kids, but the ten-year anniversary didn’t seem like one to be skipped out on. We debated for a while; meals out are nice, but childcare is always a sticking point, and anyway we’ve had more fun when we’ve done things a little less traditional. So this year we put thought into something that would be fun for the whole family. We decided to go for a hike and a picnic out in the Columbia River Gorge.

Initially we chose the Bridal Veil waterfall hike because it seemed like a nice short hike that we thought the kids could do. And they did — in record time. Sometimes I think we underestimate the energy that those young legs possess.

The day was still young when we finished both the hike and our picnic. (We went a little crazy on the picnic, eschewing sandwiches for oven-fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, cheese, nectarines, and snickerdoodles for dessert. Oh, it was so worth it.)

Fortunately the Gorge is one of the most beautiful places on earth (in my completely unbiased opinion), and there are a wealth of hikes and attractions within just a few miles of each other. We headed down the road a bit, chose a likely-looking spot to pull off, and found ourselves right next to an old tunnel. This was part of the original highway along the Columbia Gorge, which was apparently very impressive for its time. The tunnel had been restored, and was the perfect structure to interest two small boys.

After that we explored the creek below for a while, and then headed out on a longer hike that eventually took us past three more waterfalls. Our favorite was the one that shot out from the edge of a rocky cliff, allowing the path to actually curve behind the waterfall. The boys thought that was pretty exciting.

This was certainly a longer hike, and there were occasional moments of complaint from our little troopers (“My legs are tired!” Ryan complained whenever he got bored), but we took it slow. Overall they made remarkably little protest about all the walking. Nathan in particular seems to light up when he gets out in the woods. When we finished the hike and found yet another waterfall with a pool, they both had enough energy to go wading.

It is true, though, that they both fell asleep within minutes after we got back into the car.

Ten years. I have to love where that time has taken us.

The Tree

Last summer I managed to kill our living Christmas tree. Not that I was trying to kill it, mind you; but ornamental plants in my world have to expect a certain amount of neglect, and apparently I neglected it a little more than usual this year. Or maybe, after living with me for almost nine years, it had simply lost heart.

In any case, I consistently failed to replace it in the months between summer and Christmas, and thus in early December we were out scouting for a Christmas tree for the first time since we were married. I was torn; on the one hand I really like the idea of a living Christmas tree, and was hoping to find another one; on the other, I’d decided that if I was going to put the work in to keep the thing alive (and hopefully I would), I wanted to be picky about what I got. Ever since the extremely memorable 12-ft Noble fir that my parents got one year, I’ve been particular to Nobles. But for some reason potted Nobles seemed to be scarce. Or at least, my rather scattered attempts at searching for one failed miserably.

That idea thwarted, I completely failed to compromise, and instead picked out a six-foot cut Noble fir. Because hey, a big tree would be really fun for the kids, right? And little kids are the best part of Christmas.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure they cared what size or type of tree we got. But they did care — a lot — about getting out the Christmas lights. We could skip the tree altogether and just string lights up around the ceiling, and I suspect that Nathan would be just as happy. At the moment that idea is highly tempting… but I know it’s only because I’ve said “Please be gentle with the Christmas tree” and “Don’t pull on the lights” so often.

In any case, after the intense excitement of putting lights around the tree, the kids were able to muster some enthusiasm for ornaments as well. I brought out a variety — most (theoretically) unbreakable, but a few delicate ones as well, just as a test. After all, I didn’t know: how old do kids need to be before they can resist the exquisite pleasure of crushing fragile glass ornaments?

Answer: older than two. Maybe four as well; I rather suspect Nathan of more subtlety than Ryan, but no more self-control. The breakage didn’t start at once, but after the first (accidental, I believe) destruction, suddenly glass fragments began appearing on the carpet at an alarming rate. Our tree has begun to take on a three-tiered structure. On the top layer, the lights are still fairly evenly distributed, but it has quickly become clogged with ornaments as they were collected from the floor and raised above the reach of small hands. Under that is a dark layer, and the lowest tiers of the tree have become thick with lights that have been pulled down, twig by twig.

At first I tried to rearrange things occasionally, maintaining the tree as a decoration in the household. Eventually, though, I accepted the progression as inevitable entropy. The tree no longer shines quite so brightly (except at the bottom), but I’ve decided that you can’t be too picky about these things.

I don’t for a moment believe that I’ll skip doing a tree next year. That idea might be slightly tempting now, but come next December I guarantee that all caution will be dead, buried, and forgotten. Still, I am trying to embed a mental note to scale down next year. Maybe (I find myself thinking when I hear Nathan driving a truck into the tree’s lower branches — again)… maybe I’ll go for just a little tree next year. A foot and a half is plenty of tree for little kids, right?

Or maybe (as I hear his truck hit again)… maybe just a branch nailed to the wall.

Halloween

This year, for the first time ever, our kids had actual Halloween costumes. I have no pictures to prove this, but I can explain.

A few weeks ago, after having prepped the kids by reading them various Halloween picture books, I asked Nathan if he’d like to dress up for Halloween. He told me that he’d like to be a pirate. (He was introduced to the concept of pirates via a playgroup birthday party, and I’m not sure he has much of an understanding of piracy beyond eye patches. In particular we’ve glossed over the rather blood-thirsty aspects of their history. But so what?) Ryan immediately declared that he wanted to be a pirate too. I was delighted; a pirate costume was one that I thought could reasonably be put together at a thrift store.

And sure enough, black pants and white shirts were fairly easy to obtain, as well as some inexpensive plastic swords. But things like coats, hats, or boots? To be honest, everything I saw was either stupid or expensive or both.

So we went to Plan B — the plan where I would sew the remainder of their costumes. In my original imagination, there were black cloaks lined with a silky fabric of another color; the same silky fabric in a flowing sash; an additional head scarf that neither would probably wear; and, just for good measure, matching lined bags to take trick-or-treating.

What I ended up completing, with approximately an hour to spare, were two plain black three-quarter circle cloaks and a couple teal sashes. But that’s okay. The boys were still very cute, dressed up in their matching finery. Nathan interpreted his cloak as detective’s garb (he’s watched a lot of Madeline) and refused to carry a sword, opting instead for his magnifying glass. Whatever — we are pretty loose here.

We headed off that evening (the Saturday before Halloween) to a trunk-or-treat. It did not occur to me until too late to bring the camera.

In case you’ve never heard of trunk-or-treating, it’s exactly like trick-or-treating only it happens in a parking lot, with people handing out candy from the backs of their cars. In our case, we’d been invited by a friend in our playgroup to attend one put on by her church. There was a corresponding Halloween party going on inside, with costume competitions and cupcake walks. Our boys stayed firmly in our laps during these festivities. Even when Nathan’s friend Quinn won a cupcake, Nathan himself could not be persuaded to participate.

Then it was time for the trunk-or-treating. We headed out with the rest of the kids, holding back just a little to avoid the main rush. Dave took Ryan, who followed obediently along with Quinn and, while hesitant at first, quickly got the hang of this trick-or-treating thing. By the third car he was helpfully pointing into his bag to indicate where the candy should go. And when he got to pick what kind he wanted — oh, that was exciting indeed.

I know this only by hearsay. Nathan and I were back at the first car, which he refused to approach.

Now, I have this thing about trick-or-treating. I’m happy to take our kids out, happy even to walk up to the door with them if they need that. But I won’t do the trick-or-treating for them. I understand that Nathan is shy about crowds, and I knew, based on what I’d seen from him before, that the trick-or-treating would be a bit nerve-wracking for him. One of the reasons we’d done the trunk-or-treat was because it seemed like a gentler introduction to the sport, and Nathan could follow his friend Quinn along, and I just generally thought it more likely that he’d be willing to participate.

Nothing doing. Nathan wanted me to walk up to the car, get the candy, and bring it back to him. I insisted that he at least walk up with me. We sat and discussed this for quite a while, as a stream of kids ebbed and flowed past us.

Finally a lady from a car near us, taking pity on him, came up to Nathan and dropped a packet of M&M’s into his bag. Nathan fished it out. A big shy smile spread over his face, the simple delight of a child who’s just been handed a handful of chocolate candy.

He asked me to open it for him. I pointed out that I could do that — or, I suggested, we could get some more candy from some of the many waiting trunks. I watched as he pondered that idea.

We managed two more trunks on the momentum of the M&M’s, and then he was done again. At that point Dave and Ryan were coming around, having finished the loop. Dave took Nathan in hand and coaxed a few more trunks out of him while Ryan dug through his bag and handed things to me to open for him.

Soon after that the boys were pretty done with things, and we thanked out friends and headed back home, sharing out candy on the way. I figured that Nathan had a couple of days to mull over the idea of trick-or-treating. When he saw trick-or-treaters coming to our door on Halloween night and receiving candy, maybe he’d get the bug and be ready for another go. Dave pointed out that he does better in less crowded arenas. We’d just have to see.

But on Halloween we didn’t even get as far as dressing up. Both boys proved completely uninterested in their costumes, and showed no inclination to head out for trick-or-treating. Why should they? There was a big bowl of candy right in our own house. But even more than that, it turned out that what Nathan really, really liked about Halloween was handing the candy out.

Historically this is Dave’s job. (Another of my quirks about Halloween is that I dislike being the person answering the door.) But halfway through the evening Dave ended up over at the computer watching TV. Nathan hung around near the door, peering out of the window, sometimes taking the bowl of candy outside to sit on the front step and watch for approaching kids. It made me wish there were more trick-or-treaters. All his shyness had vanished — he was incredibly excited each time someone headed for our door, and often saved them the trouble of knocking by rushing out to meet them. “Hello!” he would say joyfully, as he held out the bowl for them to choose their treat. Honestly I’ve rarely seen him so happy. It made me want to volunteer with him somewhere where we could hand out lunches to the hungry.

So who knows? Our Halloween traditions might be a little different than what I grew up with. Or by next year trick-or-treating might be a breeze. We’ll just have to play it by ear.

Breaking And Entering

You know that feeling you have when, after leaving your sewing room to put a few things on your desk, you return to find the door closed and locked? (Nope, no key to that door!)

And then that feeling you have when, after hearing the little voice greet you from inside, and asking them to please unlock the door, and asking again many times, and instructing the little voice on how to unlock the door, you hear the little voice begin to panic?

And that’s when you know that this is not going to be one of those easy, laid-back evenings.

The last time I had this feeling, Nathan had locked himself in our bathroom. The bathroom has two doors, but he couldn’t figure out how to unlock either of them. However, in that case it turned out that the doorknobs had been installed with screws available to the outside of the room. Note: this is a serious security flaw, and a major parental bonus. Taking off a doorknob was slightly tedious but not difficult, and then we had a little lesson on how the locks worked. Then we taped over the locks with packing tape. End of problem.

The sewing room doorknob, though, had no such convenient security flaw. Nor had Ryan been around to have the lock lesson, back in our previous experience. On the plus side, Dave was home.

Dave assessed the situation and pointed out that a new doorknob would be cheaper than an emergency locksmith call, and the process of breaking out the doorknob might be just as fast as getting the locksmith there anyway. He started with a hacksaw, but eventually brought out a hammer, a screwdriver, and two pairs of pliers. Much loud noise ensued.

Ryan started out slightly panicked, was calmed a bit by the sight of my fingers under the door and a cookie slid through the conveniently large gap, escalated to crying (is there anything more pitiful than a small child’s voice crying “Want out!” from the other side of a door?), and then gradually calmed down as he remembered that he was in the forbidden sewing room, quite possibly the single room in the house most packed full of interesting things. His unhappy noises became less and less frequent, and the sounds of minor crashes and things spilling ramped up accordingly. At one point Dave looked at me and said, deadpan, “He’s just distracting himself from the trauma of the situation.” This was after a particularly impressive and mysterious series of crashes, punctuated by delighted laughter.

And of course in the end Dave triumphed over the doorknob. He got his hero pedestal shined up a bit, Ryan got a nice warm bath (“nice warm bath” is a favorite phrase of his lately), and Nathan and I got to pick up the colored pencils, play beans, pens, boxes, and other assorted paraphernalia on the floor of the sewing room.