The first weekend of “fall”

It’s been at least 90 degrees every day for the past week or so, which is ridiculous since the fall equinox was on Friday. Normally I love spending a good portion of our weekends outdoors, but the weather has been so unpleasant that I went into this weekend feeling a little bit grumpy because nothing sounded like much fun and we didn’t have a plan. I also knew that my 20th high school reunion was on Saturday night, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I was determined to make some family magic happen somehow because I needed to balance out what might be an awkward Saturday night.

Although Kristin was less than enthusiastic about baking in the sun, I dragged everyone to the beach on Saturday morning. Although I have no photos, we had a really wonderful time. We swam, we played in the sand while sitting at the water’s edge, we took the kids to a great playground, and then we headed back home to get ready for the evening. My reunion was actually more fun than I’d anticipated, but Jonah was up really late while we were gone, so we knew that we ought not make Sunday too busy. We did, however, manage to make it to the Fall Fest at the Nature Center (which, again, ninety degrees). We only caught the last hour, but it was a pretty hour and given the weather it was uncrowded. I managed to snap a few beautiful photos of the kids exploring.

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As we left (a little past closing time), I asked a staff member about a couple of terra cotta pots of cherry tomatoes that were sitting on a workbench by the entrance. “Take them,” he said, which thrilled Jude and Vivi because they pick those from the garden at school and the neighbor’s house across the street every chance they get. Then he gave the kids a golf cart ride to the parking lot just because. Jude and Vivi ate tomatoes the whole ride home.

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I don’t know why I get so worried about not squeezing enough quality time and joy into our weekends. I guess the time just goes by so quickly and I see the kids growing faster than I can believe. Somehow though, most weekends at least, it all works out better than I could have imagined.

A snapshot from school

The teachers at the kids’ preschool take a lot of photos throughout the day, and they post them on Shutterfly for parents to view with a login. Last year I clicked through them periodically and asked Jonah who everyone was and what was going on in each one, but there were so many and most were unremarkable, so most of the time I didn’t even bother. This year they’ve started tagging kids in them, however, which is a lot more efficient. Yesterday I got an email that our kids had been tagged in photos, and when I clicked through I found such a wonderful image. It captured everything that I love about our school and made me so happy that we decided to keep them there this year, despite the cost.

Our preschool operates on a modified Montessori model, which we love, but what we love most is the outdoor space. The kids have tremendous freedom to explore and create and get dirty and take reasonable risks. I find the idea of forest preschools and even eccentric playgrounds like this one somewhat inspiring, and while nothing quite that edgy exists around here (to my knowledge) the freedom of the outdoor play at our preschool is largely why we chose it.

Back to the photo; I won’t share it here because it has other kids in it and I don’t have permission, so I’ll do my best to describe it. It was taken in a corner of the play yard where there’s a teepee like structure made of big tree branches, and a pile of old tires and logs sits off to the side. Jonah has his back to the camera, and taped to his back with masking tape encircling his middle is an upside-down Club crackers box. You can see that he’s talking to two boys, pointing to them and perhaps giving directions. They appear to be listening intently, and one is giving Jonah a thumbs-up sign. Both of the other boys also have masking tape wrapped around their middles with cardboard boxes attached to their backs. On the ground in the center of the three boys is a wooden plank, with one end slightly higher than the other. On the low end is a pile of what appears to be action figures of some sort. There’s no teacher in the photo, no one directing or cautioning them in any way. The teacher who shared it captioned the photo with the following:

“We are going to take turns. I am going to go first, then you are going to go, then you are going to go last, then I am going to go again, then you are going to go, and then you again, and yeah, that’s what we’ll do” -Jonah

I couldn’t stop smiling. I replied to the teacher and told her that I was dying to know what was going on, and she told me that they’d made a catapult out of the plank and a log, and were taking turns jumping on the end to launch the rescue heroes into the air. Jonah’s teacher told me later that she had to fish one out of a tree at some point. When I showed the photo to K later and mentioned the boxes taped to their backs, she said without any hesitation, “those are jet packs.” Obviously.

This is exactly the kind of raw, imaginative fun that I want them to have opportunities to engage with. There is so much about their every day that I’ll never know anything about; most of those details are lost, and by the time they come home they don’t volunteer very much when we ask what made them happy that day. It made my day to see this moment captured. It also made me sad when I started to think about Jonah starting public school next fall and all of this magic disappearing. I don’t have a solution yet, but I know that there must be a way for us to supplement what they’re doing in public school with more opportunities for creativity and risk-taking and getting out into nature, because this kind of magic can’t end in kindergarten.

Animal lovers

We found out on Friday that there was going to be a neighborhood picnic this evening just a block and a half from our house. One of the two churches that flank the elementary school hosted it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Families were asked to bring a dessert to pass, so earlier in the afternoon the kids and I picked apples in the backyard, and after their nap I made an apple crisp. Jonah is always eager to help bake treats, and I loved watching him help today because the light in the kitchen was just right and I’m loving his long hair these days.

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We walked over to the picnic and the kids immediately went into a fun-scatter. I ended up separated from Jude and Kristin for awhile, so sadly I have no good photos of Jude with the animals. I did hand him a chicken at one point, but he got a little scared and wasn’t into it. Vivi and Jonah were the animal whisperers, however. I feel like the handlers kept handing critters to V, maybe because she’s tiny and that’s funny and adorable and also because it was clear how much she loved it.

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I love this one (below) because she’s clearly talking to that tortoise.

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And Jonah would have sat with that bunny in his lap all night long. He was in love.

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We saw a couple of the kids’ preschool friends, and while many of our friends nearby didn’t make it, we made some potential new friends after being introduced by an acquaintance, so that was a lovely bonus.  I really love our neighborhood and events like this are such a nice surprise.

Summer’s last hurrah

We’re three days into the school year and the weather already seems to have shifted completely into fall mode. For a lot of people, September 1st is a time for celebrating permission to break out the fall tchotchkes and begin wearing boots and sweaters, but every time the seasons change it’s as if I’ve forgotten how to get dressed. I always end up floundering as I ask myself what on earth I wore the last time the weather was like this. So far this week I’ve managed to lay out out all of the kids’ outfits before I go to bed, but we’ll see how long I’m able to keep that up. I failed to do any back-to-school shopping for any of them, and so far we’re cobbling things together from their summer wardrobes, but the 50 degree mornings are calling for a bit more already. There is a giant pile of clean, unfolded laundry taking over our living room, and both K and I already feel way too exhausted to deal with it. A day or two ago I suddenly realized that we’ve been in our house for almost a year and there are home projects that we started last October that haven’t moved at all, and I was suddenly overcome with the urge to finish the trim, and paint and reinstall the fireplace doors before we reach that one-year mark. The start of the school year probably shouldn’t feel like such a dramatic change, but for some reason it does.

This week’s early mornings definitely have something to do with how I’m feeling, but so does our jam-packed Labor Day weekend. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew came to town from Charleston, wrapping up a summer of wonderful visits from friends from all over. When we lived in New York we were frequent guests but only very occasional hosts. We just never felt as if we had the space to host a proper get-together, and we had lots of guilt about how unbalanced it felt to take advantage of friends’ homes so often and rarely give back. We always dreamed of having more space to spread out and make friends feel at home on our turf, and this summer we’ve finally been able to do that a bit. We’ve had friends visit from New York, Seattle, Detroit, Oakland, and now Charleston.

My sister is nothing if not a planner, and as a result we managed to squeeze a huge amount of activity into a long weekend. By the time K and I climbed into bed on Monday night Kristin said, “I feel like no one sat down for four days.” We were worn out, but it was an awfully good time.

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My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the end of July, and since my sister and her family were planning to come to town anyway, she suggested that we throw a small surprise celebration. We invited some close family and friends nearby and Kristin and I were thrilled to finally be able to host. The funny part was that just days beforehand, my mom suddenly approached me with the idea of having a BBQ with all of those same people, and wouldn’t it be more convenient to have it at our house rather than theirs? Naturally we agreed to host, and lots of amusing back and forth ensued between my sister and I as we re-planned a BBQ that had already been planned, this time with my mom coordinating the menu and the guest list. The night before, one of our family friends accidentally ruined the surprise, but it worked out for the best because my dad ended up bringing along the actual banner from their wedding (who knows where it was all these years) and taping it up on our garage. It made everything feel more complete, and the evening was lovely.

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On Monday, we squeezed in one more family outing before everyone headed to the airport.

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Last year when they visited we somehow managed to get such a cute photo of all of the cousins together (and believe me, we have some hilarious doozies from attempts in the past) but this was the best we could do this year. I still love it for its imperfection and chaos. When we’re all together it’s never quiet or still, but it’s full of love and lots of happy.

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Backyard apple picking and preparing for fall

I’ve been having a tough time saying goodbye to summer, which isn’t all that different from the way I’ll probably feel as fall turns to winter or as the Christmas season comes to a close. (I can’t say that I ever feel that way in April as months of cold, grey, dreariness finally begin to disappear). The long hours of summer daylight that stretch well into the 9:00 hour, the laissez-faire attitude towards bedtime, running through sprinklers, outdoor movies, catching fireflies, and summer vacation road trips – all add up to a way of life that I look forward to all year long.

Our kids go back to school (preschool, that is) the day after Labor Day, which I realize is later than most of the country so we’re lucky in that regard. But I’ve been doing a lot of hand-wringing over how on earth we’re going to get them back into a normal sleep routine (and what my mornings will be like getting them out of the house each day if they’re crabby and overtired), and just generally feeling sad about the end of a season that I love with kids who are at a really fun age for the enjoyment of that season. I’ve read a couple of wonderful things recently from other nostalgic moms, bloggers I love, who have reminded me not to hang on too tightly to time. Kelle Hampton (who lives in Florida but spends the summer in Michigan with her kids) wrote:

…it isn’t their littleness that makes me happy. It isn’t Michigan or summer or having a kid who still totes stuffed animals on our adventures (although, that’s perfectly lovely and heck yes, I get joy out of it)…It’s ME that makes me happy. It’s loving the season I’m in. It’s realizing that joy and all the simple pleasures of life that inspire me are not confined to specific seasons

With this in mind, I’m trying to get myself excited about all of the joy that I can pack into fall. First stop: apple picking in our backyard.

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We have a lovely apple tree right in the middle of everything in our backyard. It kind of separates the patio from the yard, and provides the perfect kind of shade to sit on the patio on a sunny late afternoon. We have no idea what variety of apple tree it might be (but if you know how we might find out, please share), and we also had no idea whether the apples would taste good once they were ripe (although the deer and squirrels seem to love them). Even so, I was excited to do a little apple picking and make applesauce from scratch.

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Jonah and I went to Michael’s the other day in search of the perfect apple-picking buckets (I may have gotten an eye roll from Kristin, but she lets me do my thing). While we were there, he couldn’t get enough of the Halloween aisles and begged me to buy “spooky stuff” but since it’s not yet September I told him that we should probably pump the brakes, and that maybe we could pick out some yard decor on a day when the whole family could join the fun. I was pretty jazzed that his Halloween spirit is as big as mine though, so even while I was saying no I was complimenting him on his enthusiasm.

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Jude didn’t show much interest in the picking, but he was happy to munch on the results. He and Vivi passed that apple back and forth, bite after bite.

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We started with just one basket, not knowing exactly how our backyard applesauce might taste, and as I began to core and peel, Jonah pleaded with me to be able to help chop. I hesitated, but ultimately handed him a knife and gave him a tutorial and let him go. He did cut his thumb once, but didn’t give up and went right back to it once he’d been patched up. I’m so proud of his focus and dedication to helping; I think that he was pretty proud of himself too. We talked about what it means to make something from scratch, and for a few moments I felt like I could pretend to be just like Nici from Dig & Co. who never ceases to inspire me with her photos and stories of beautiful homemade things and raising kids in the glorious outdoors.

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When he went to bed tonight, with the applesauce simmering on the stove, he told me that he couldn’t wait to have some for breakfast. I can’t wait to watch him enjoy it.

While I’m somewhat sad to send the kids back to school, Jonah is truly excited about returning and I think that Vivienne and Jude are going to love this year too. The start of this school year feels SO different from last year when we were new to Michigan and hadn’t yet learned what a good fit their new school would be for them. I have a feeling it’s going to be another year of huge leaps for all three of them.

My Pinterest Halloween board is slowly filling up with ideas (let’s be honest, I’ve been thinking about their costumes since March), I’m putting every fall festival that I can find on the calendar, and I’m feeling a little more ready than I was a week or two ago. This weekend should be a perfect toast to the end of summer as my sister and brother-in-law and my niece and nephew come to town, the last of a string of summer visitors from across the country who have brought SO much love and laughter into our house and yard. The kids can’t wait to see their cousins and I can’t wait to see them all together again. If the weather cooperates we might just get a beach day and a BBQ. What could be better?

48 Hours in Indianapolis

It’s almost time to wrap up this summer, and it’s been so full of wonderful things that I’m really not ready. We’re not quite there yet, however, and we squeezed in one last mini-vacation this week.

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Mutsy, the stuffed dog that I’m holding, made it back to Indy this week; this time with Jonah

When I was a kid, maybe around ten or so (I’m guessing based on the photo of my sister and I above), my parents took us to Indiana to visit The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. We stayed at this amazing hotel where they’d turned old train cars into rooms. I actually remember the hotel more vividly than the museum, but my parents have always talked about what a great museum it was. Our kids love children’s museums and we’ve visited them pretty much everywhere we’ve taken the kids.

We arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday evening and had museum tickets for Tuesday, but hadn’t really done much planning for Monday. We knew that it was the eclipse that day and that it would be about 90% in Indianapolis, but we didn’t have glasses and didn’t have a definitive plan. We’d talked about visiting a place called Conner Prairie (weird fact, I kind of love historical make-believe museums – it takes me back to playing pretend as a kid) but I failed to realize that it wasn’t open on Mondays (or Tuesdays or Wednesdays, for that matter). Fortunately we had a backup plan and headed out to the Indianapolis Museum of Art 100 Acres Art & Nature Park. I guess it would be redundant to mention its size, but it’s a huge natural park full of sculptures. The only problem is that it was roughly 90 degrees and humid in the blazing sun. The kids enjoyed climbing on sculptures for a little while, though.

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He’s pointing out the skeleton’s butt, if you can’t tell

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After maybe an hour or so, Jonah had reached his breaking point and was thirsty and wanted to return to the hotel (foolishly we brought no water with us on the walk), but I knew that the eclipse was starting around 1:30 and didn’t really want to head indoors yet. We managed to find a (gorgeous) visitors center with A/C and a drinking fountain, not to mention stylish chairs.

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The kids perked up a bit after cooling off, and we finally decided that maybe it was time to head to lunch and figure out the eclipse thing from somewhere else (we didn’t have glasses anyway, only paper plates with pinholes) but once we walked back towards the car we saw people gathering in the open area for the eclipse, and I just couldn’t leave. Jonah was beside himself; he wanted to leave SO badly, but I had some snack bars in the car and that bought us a little time.

By some miracle, we met a woman named Jennifer who was there alone and was more than happy to share her pair of eclipse glasses with us. She said that she’d gotten them late in the game and felt that she ought to share the good fortune. We hung out with her until the eclipse was at its peak, and then we called it a day. The kids didn’t stay interested throughout, but whenever Jennifer would offer them another peek they would run over eagerly.

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Clearly staring right at the eclipse. Parenting fail.

We left the park and squeezed in a late lunch at a cute place with delicious food that accommodated us five minutes before close, and the frosé allowed me to forget about the beastly heat from earlier. The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a bust, since it was roughly 3:30 and raining and everything we were interested in doing was either closed due to weather or closing at 5:00 anyway. We ended that day feeling sort of lukewarm about Indianapolis as a destination, but we hoped that the museum would make up for it the next day.

We got up early on Tuesday and arrived at the museum before it even opened (K and I high-fived about this, because as anyone who knows us well can verify, we aren’t early to anything). This place is incredible. First, the Dinosphere, which is oddly beautiful and dramatic. The “sky” changes color from deep blue to magenta, clouds pass overhead and storms roll in with pretend lightning and thunder, the moon appears and comets fly across the sky. I didn’t count the number of dinosaurs, but I’d guess there were at least six or seven large ones and a number of other smaller ones. Some of them were even real fossils and not casts (according to signage). There are actual paleontologists at work in a lab on site and K talked to one while he worked on an actual t-rex bone.

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The kids can also take part in a “dino dig” nearby. At the end of the day, Jude and Vivienne declared that the dinosaurs were their favorite part of the whole museum.

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Next came the trains. They have a real steam engine along with lots of model trains, and Jude could barely pull himself away. He climbed into this tunnel below a larger model and followed that little train back and forth, back and forth within the tunnel for probably ten minutes. He was in love.

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Then came the space exhibit, which was made up like the kids were inside a shuttle or the ISS.

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I can’t even handle that tiny person (Vivi) inside a giant (yet child-sized) space suit.

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I don’t even remember what this next exhibit was called, but it was related to National Geographic and featured an Egyptian tomb, a shipwreck, and the Terracotta Warriors. Vivi is measuring a canon at the bottom of the ocean.

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We had lunch in the food court, which was surprisingly good and full of natural light, and everyone was ready for more. We headed to an exhibit on China in which you board an airplane and exit into a world of Chinese shops, restaurants, parks, and even a panda nursery.

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Notice Vivi doing tai chi along with K and the instructor, while Jude carries around a baby panda

Next we went up to the Playscape, an area for kids ages five and under. It didn’t blow me away, but the kids loved it (and I’m not five, so maybe that’s why). There was a machine that moved balls through pneumatic tubes and pathways, and Jonah couldn’t get enough of it (it was his favorite part of the whole museum – he always gravitates to interactive machines and loves to observe how things work). There was also a really nice climber that all of the kids enjoyed, as well as a sand table that I found to be rather serene and that Jonah also loved.

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We briefly checked out the dance exhibit, as well as a science room that was heavily sponsored by Dow and didn’t seem to be quite as broad or interesting as I would have liked (although the kids liked the water table, and Vivi loved driving a pretend tractor across a video of farm land), but we didn’t linger long in either exhibit. We ended with the circus exhibit, which did not disappoint.

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We closed the museum down, and I can’t say that I’ve ever opened and closed a museum (or any attraction, for that matter) before. It was seven hours of fun and we didn’t even make it to everything (but not for lack of trying). The kids were totally engaged throughout, and never melted down or asked to leave, which says a lot about how great this place is.

When we finally returned to the parking ramp and strapped them into their car seats, they were all asleep before we even started the car. We decided to risk an epic meltdown and wake them up to eat dinner in downtown Indy rather than trying to find some crappy chain restaurant in farm country on the drive home. We’re so glad we did. Although they all hated the idea of waking up and going anywhere they all perked up in the restaurant, and despite the swanky, hipster vibe at Nada, the service was awesome and they were great with the kids! Our server even brought three extra donuts at the end of the meal. I feel like the way a restaurant deals with an exhausted family with cranky small children after seven hours at a museum says SO much about an establishment. The food was awesome, and I wish we lived a lot closer.

When we go back to Indy we have Conner Prairie and the riverwalk on our agenda, and we’ll probably do a little more planning next time, but it was absolutely worthwhile and a great way to close out our summer travels.

Catching the sunset on our 11th year

Today is our 11th wedding anniversary (our “real” wedding, which oddly enough is the way that I refer to the one that wasn’t legal, but which involved all of the traditional ceremony/big reception/all-of-the-people elements; we also had a legal wedding years later, but that one just involved some tacky fake ivy draped around an arch on wheels and a trip to the courthouse, followed by falafel). Thanks to my parents watching the kids overnight we had a fun get-away on Thursday, but today we had a low-key morning and decided that we wanted to take the kids to the beach in South Haven for sunset. Lately the kids love the beach, and we haven’t been to South Haven much since moving back despite having spent SO many summer weeks there for years. I’ve always loved catching the sunset over Lake Michigan, but we realized tonight that we’ve never done that with Vivi and Jude, and the last time Jonah did it he wasn’t yet two. It felt special to spend our first Lake Michigan sunset as a family of five on our anniversary, since we also spent our honeymoon out there. It’s kind of where it all started.

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Northern Michigan Vacation

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It’s Sunday night following a week of vacation, so naturally I’m feeling sentimental and sad knowing that it’s back to work for me tomorrow, but it’s also a good time for me to reflect on the past week. Since we spent thirteen years living in New York, nearly all of our vacation time has been spent visiting family. Many of those weeks were also spent in glorious vacation-like ways, but they almost always involved staying with family. This was the first vacation that we’ve planned as a family of five that had nothing to do with visiting anyone, and we had a lot of fun plotting it out in advance.

Although I grew up in Michigan, we didn’t do a great deal of Michigan road-tripping when I was a kid. It may be because my dad’s family only took long road trips to visit family, so he was determined to give us a different sort of vacation experience (which I totally appreciate). We spent many summer weeks on Lake Michigan in South Haven, and I love having that tradition as a part of my childhood, but there are lots of quintessential Michigan vacation spots that I’ve never seen. We decided to do a Northern Michigan trip and hit a few places on my list, and it was wonderful.

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We started out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. A few years back, ABC News voted it the most beautiful place in America, and I’d been wanting to see it ever since. Kristin’s sister had taken her kids not long ago, and warned us that we may as well skip the dune climbing portion since the kids would surely whine and refuse the walk, but advised us to check out a particular lookout point on the drive. We didn’t budget very much time there, but really wished that we had. As soon as we got out of the car and the kids saw the sand, Jude said, “I forgot my diggers.” We had a picnic lunch at the bottom and then all tackled the climb. The kids were absolute champs! Jonah practically ran up, with Vivi close behind. Jude was slow but determined, holding Kristin’s hand along the way. Everyone made it to the first plateau, and I think that the kids would have kept going but Jude’s pace and our schedule led us to call it quits and head back down.

IMG_7079 We packed everyone back into the car and drove out to the lookout point, which was incredible. Sure, it was only about 450 feet above the lake, but it felt like we were looking at the earth from space. The kids wanted to climb and explore and dig; I think that we could have spent all afternoon there if we hadn’t planned to be elsewhere.

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From there we headed to Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. Our first experience with Great Wolf (which is a chain) was in the Poconos. We were driving back to New York from Michigan a few summers ago, and desperately needed coffee late at night. The only Starbucks we could find happened to be in the lobby of a Great Wolf Lodge. Kristin came back to the car with two coffees and a dazed look on her face, and told me, “You have to go in there. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese on crack.” This is probably my brother-in-law’s idea of a nightmare vacation (they take totally amazing vacations, so I have nothing but respect), but for some reason I really wanted to do this for the kids. Great Wolf is a waterpark hotel, but it goes way beyond that. The indoor water park is incredible, but it also has things like a kids’ spa, a bowling alley, character appearances, story time, dance parties, a cute camp-themed restaurant, and this complicated magic game that runs throughout the entire hotel. Jonah got a wand and played the game, and Jude and Vivi both got stuffed animals that connect to a simpler game for little ones, all thanks to Kristin’s parents who paid for those activities in advance.

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The week before we went on the trip, I was in New York for work and met up with good friends. As I was telling a wise friend about our plans, and how we’d chosen Great Wolf entirely for the kids, she gave me some sage advice. “Try not to make it just for the kids,” she said, “or you may end up disappointed if they don’t react the way you’re hoping. Instead, tell yourselves that you’re doing this because you want to do something new.” Oh the wisdom of mom friends, and how right she was. I knew this going in, and still made some terrible mistakes that I can’t quite let go of many days later.

Jonah wasn’t as interested in the water park as we’d hoped, and if I’m being honest with myself I should have expected that. He did go into the water a couple of times, and liked the lazy river and the toddler area, but he wasn’t interested in much else. On day two I told him that I really wanted to do one of the big waterslides with him. He’s tall enough to do them with an adult, and after giving it some thought he said that he would. We walked up the stairs, and I made sure to show him all of the details as he went so that he’d feel comfortable. We chatted with other families in line, many with kids his size who were also lining up to ride with their parents. They told us about the ride, how fun it was, but when it came time for Jonah and I to climb into a tube he wouldn’t budge. I tried to convince him for a number of minutes before we finally walked back down. This is where I should have told him that it was fine and asked what he wanted to do instead, but I didn’t. I told him that I was disappointed because I’d really wanted to ride with him. I told him that I felt like he was missing out on an opportunity, and we went back to the room. It didn’t take long for the guilt to set in. He took a nap, and by the time Kristin came back to the room with the twins I was in tears and feeling incredibly remorseful.

You see, I can be a control freak about lots of things, but vacations tend to dial things up for me in a really unhealthy way. I’m so determined to make the most of every minute, so aware of how quickly time passes and of the power of regret and disappointment, that I’m always on high alert trying to determine whether I’m using the time wisely, or if there’s some better way to set up conditions for success and happiness and quality time. When I read this piece years ago it really struck a nerve. My approach is totally bonkers and almost counterproductive, and yet I’m not very good at reining it in.

I apologized to Jonah more than once, telling him that he always has permission to change his mind and choose not to do something if it doesn’t feel right or safe or good, and told him that my reaction was based on nothing more than my own selfishness. I promised to try harder, and he forgave me, but I’m still stewing in regret. The next morning I asked him what he wanted to do most before check-out. He said that he wanted to play the “wand game” and Jude and Vivi chose the waterpark, so we split up again and I reminded myself that it’s OK for kids to have different ideas of fun. As we packed up for our next destination the kids watched TV, and on our way out of the hotel we asked them about their favorite moments over the past couple of days. Jonah immediately said that his was watching cartoons in the room, and despite my friend’s wise advice and my decision to honor his perspective, I was fuming again. This time I really only vented to Kristin, but I was disappointed. Why spend all of this money on a vacation when he could stay home and watch TV? A friend pointed out today that despite the value of asking questions like this, and helping kids to reflect on experiences and focus on gratitude and highs and lows, a four-year-old may not be fully capable of answering the way I expect. There’s often a recency bias at play and cartoons were the very last thing he’d done that was enjoyable.

We hit the road and headed to Mackinaw City, where we stayed in a cabin at Mackinaw Mill Creek. The kids have been looking forward to “camping” ever since we told them we had this all planned. And no, staying in a cabin with a bathroom isn’t truly camping, but it’s the first campground experience they’ve ever had and it was unlike anything they’ve ever done. This place was wonderful. Such a lovely contrast with the chaos of a waterpark hotel. We got in towards evening, but still had a good bit of daylight due to the long Michigan summer nights. We biked to the camp store where we bought firewood and matches, and spent some time at one of the playgrounds (there are three or four).

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It was an old playground with equipment I’ve never seen before, but there was something so charming about that. Like what is this spinning thing in the photo below? Does anyone know what that’s called? It was awesome.

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The kids were totally into the loft bed in the cabin, and while none of us slept there they were up there quite a bit. My parents had given my sister and I some lovely old quilts in a house clean out a year or so ago, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to pull them out. My parents seemed thrilled that we were actually going to use them, and my dad encouraged us to, “use them up.”

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That night we built a fire and Kristin and Jonah went to pick up a pizza, which we ate at the picnic table outside. When they came back, Kristin told me that in the car totally unprompted Jonah said to her that he loves vacations that I plan, and that he’ll go on any vacation that I plan. When she told me, after all of my mistakes over the past day or two, it made me cry with relief.

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We made s’mores by the fire, which the kids had been waiting for for days, and then we drove out to the dark sky park. All five of us love the night sky; the kids love looking for the moon and Jonah loves telling us what phase it’s in and pointing out constellations in the sky. I was so eager to spend time gazing at the stars with them, but unfortunately it was cloudy and you couldn’t see a thing. Kristin was so sweet about it, packing everyone up and going anyway just in case, but we didn’t stay for more than a few minutes before we headed back out.

We’d planned to take the ferry to Mackinac Island the next day, but the forecast called for rain on and off all day, so we chatted about an alternative. Kristin proposed that we move the island visit to Friday, the day we planned to drive home. We could drive late, she said, if it meant better weather for the island. I was incredibly thankful since Mackinac Island was also high on my wish list and the dark sky park hadn’t worked out. What to do on a rainy Thursday in a totally blah city, though?

We drove across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for breakfast, just because it was fun to say that we’d been there and tell the kids about it. Breakfast was frustratingly long, the kids were restless and hungry waiting 40 minutes for their food, and when it arrived Jude suddenly didn’t seem like himself and wouldn’t eat. We noticed that he seemed warm, and before we finished breakfast he clearly wanted nothing but sleep. We headed back to the cabin where it became clear that he was under the weather. We tried to get all of the kids to nap, but failed and ended up arguing about the day and yelling at Vivi and Jonah for disturbing Jude’s sleep. Fortunately we’d bought a puzzle in Traverse City so Jonah and I did that for a bit, and when there was a brief break in the rain we all went to a playground, but the day still felt like a bit of a bust. We worried that Jude might not feel better by morning and that our plans might have to change.

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At some point Kristin suggested that I could get Jonah and Vivi out of the cabin and away from Jude by walking with them to find the water’s edge. We hadn’t even looked for it, and I was curious. It turned out to be no more than a block away (if that’s a thing when you’re at a campground), and it was gorgeous. A row of pines and a beautiful shoreline and the bridge in the distance. Watching Vivi and Jonah wade into the water and be so present and joyful in the experience was one of my favorite moments of the whole vacation. I told them that this was my favorite moment of the day, and Jonah said something funny like, “That’s good, Mama D. You should be proud of yourself!”

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He waded out to get that rock from a pile, and didn’t even cry or get upset when he fell into the water unexpectedly. Even his hair was wet, it was quite a wipeout.

The next morning, we woke up early to pack everything up and check out of the cabin before heading for the ferry. By some miracle Jude was himself again, and the weather was cloudy but dry. We managed to get on a ferry that went under the Mackinac Bridge (which is unnecessary to get to the island, but certain ferry times take you under just for the experience). We found seats on top to maximize the view, and while it was chilly I think that the kids loved it. As the island came into view we pointed out lighthouses and beautiful old buildings, and I think that we were all excited.

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A neighbor and friend had warned me that the island was just a lot of touristy crap, so I tried to temper my expectations. But my favorite blogger takes her kids annually and seems to be completely in love with the place, so I knew that there was beauty there somewhere. The kids loved seeing all of the horses, and the lack of cars was such a novelty.

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We started with breakfast at a cute little pancake place, before deciding to get off of the main strip (which, while architecturally pretty, really is just tacky t-shirt shops, fudge, and ice cream) and bike all the way around the island. I’m SO glad that we did, especially since I had a moment of hesitation before we left town in which I wondered if bringing our bikes all that way was really worth the hassle. I imagined us carting them around all week long just for one short ride at our final destination. As it turned out we used them a lot over the last three days of the trip and even if we’d only biked the island it still would have been worth it. The back of the island was stunningly beautiful; almost no buildings, just a bike path and eight miles of rocky coastline and crystal clear waters. We stopped at least twice for the kids to play at the water’s edge, which they absolutely loved. As we biked, Jonah said again and again how much he loved Mackinac Island.

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One of our last stops was at the playground of the public school, which couldn’t have a more breathtaking location as playgrounds go.

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After a brief stop at the cute little public library, and the requisite stops for ice cream and fudge, we headed for the ferry back to the mainland. Kristin said that she would splurge to stay on the island on a future visit. On the ferry back I felt somewhat triumphant about the week, having experienced so many moments of beauty despite some frustrations and mistakes. The kids were happy; we made it possible for them to see and do some new things they truly enjoyed, and so much of my joy came from watching them engaged in those experiences. Hopefully I’ve learned some lessons for next time, but this felt good and I truly wish that it could have gone on much longer.

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Parenting and gender norms: part two

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I’ve had a few more thoughts about parenting and gender norms since writing this post. Not terribly long ago, a friend of mine shared a photo of her young son on Facebook, and in it he was wearing a dress and playing with a toy toolbox and a truck. She mentioned something about “raising a feminist boy” and it made me wonder if gender neutrality or gender non-conformity is synonymous with feminism (in this case, anyway). When I asked, she replied:

I think it’s feminist because we’re teaching him that there is no one right way to be a boy and hence no one right way to be a girl. To me, that is very feminist. I suppose it’s also gender neutral, but I personally embrace the term feminist, and it feels more political and more intentional. I think also not denigrating when he chooses things that are more traditionally feminine such as dresses or saying he wants to be a ballet dancer feels feminist to me because we’re not suggesting those things are “bad” by not allowing that choice.

I really like that answer, and it made me think. In the week or so before this exchange, Jonah asked me if boys could wear dresses. I told him that they could, and he asked, “Can I have a construction vehicle dress?” I told him that was kind of a tall order but that I’d see what I could do. I’d never even seen a construction vehicle dress, and I do all of the kids’ shopping.

When any of the kids do something somewhat gender-non-conforming of their own accord, I’m often both thrilled that they haven’t been trapped in a social construct yet, but also a tiny bit concerned that we could be doing them a disservice by not telling them the truth about America. It reminds me a little bit of a conversation that happened at work between two colleagues, both men of color, about the best way to prepare young people of color for the world. One of them felt that to teach young people of color how to behave in a way that will grant them acceptance by a white supremacist society (as opposed to affirming their authentic selves and culture) is an act of racism, while the other colleague felt that not doing so, not teaching them how to “play the game” and stay alive in the country that they live in right now, is an act of violence. It’s not nearly that extreme, of course, whether I allow our young boys to wear dresses, but for some people in some places gender non-conformity can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

I’m impressed when others don’t react with as much rigidity as I might expect. We took the kids shoe shopping awhile back and as we walked in, Jonah spotted some glittery sneakers on a sale table out front. They were in the girls’ section and weren’t his size. When it came time for him to be fitted and find some shoes, I asked the woman helping us if they had anything glittery in his size. She said, “I’m sure we do. They might be pink.” I told her that wasn’t a concern, and she went off into the back room to find him some options. She returned before long with five or six pairs of glittery girls’ shoes, even going so far as to bring some silver mary janes. We didn’t end up buying any, since the ones he loved were light-up sneakers and Kristin hates light-up shoes of all sorts (she thinks they’re tacky and distracting and I can’t disagree completely). But the fact that the salesperson didn’t bat an eye at our request, and that she enthusiastically brought him so many options was so heartwarming somehow. It gave me hope for America.

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Jude in Vivi’s bathing suit, which he emptied her entire dresser to find

Longer ago, before the construction vehicle dress request, we told the kids that we were all going to be attending a wedding reception (it’s this Saturday, actually). All of them were excited, and Jonah said something off hand about getting a fancy dress for the occasion. I was surprised, because despite all of this philosophizing I’m doing, I don’t think that Jonah identifies as anything other than a boy, full stop. He’s never implied otherwise. What I know to be true, however, is that his only experience with weddings and wedding receptions is seeing his moms wear dresses to attend them. Here’s another example of that: I took him shopping last night to buy an outfit for this weekend’s reception, and he initially told me that he didn’t want to get an outfit because he doesn’t like white. I had to explain that guests at a wedding can actually wear any color they want, and that yes brides often wear white but not always, and they usually wear dresses but not always. He seemed relieved, and ultimately picked out a cool button up shirt with space designs on it and some bright colored shorts.

So much of what they believe about the world is because of what we show them and tell them, and when we tell them what we want them to believe about gender not being restrictive, we aren’t telling them the whole story. Jonah is starting to pick up on it, as all of them would have eventually. One night in the bathtub he said to me, “Mama D? I think that maybe there are girl colors and boy colors just a little bit.” I could tell that he added that diminutive out of concern for my feelings. I asked him why he thought that, and he told me that it was because every girl at his school loves pink and purple. Hoping to poke holes in that theory, I started naming off girls one by one, but I don’t think we ever found one who doesn’t love those classic colors. I tried to explain why that might be, the way toys and clothes are marketed, but I didn’t have a well-thought-out answer in the moment. It made me realize that I need to start getting into the nuances of why we believe what we believe, and why others might disagree, and the effect that has on people. We don’t encourage colorblindness, so I suppose we ought to move beyond the idea that gender isn’t a thing.

One of the things that occurred to me during that Facebook exchange with my friend weeks ago was how much the oppression and degradation of women also oppresses men and boys. I hadn’t given that a ton of thought before. All of our wondering about whether or not it’s OK for Jonah to want a dress or glittery sneakers wouldn’t even be a thing if traditionally feminine choices and qualities weren’t so looked down upon. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself whether most people would worry at all over a little girl who preferred pants and trucks and the color red, over dresses and dolls and the color pink. I know people who actively celebrate those kinds of preferences, they almost push them. Being a girl who likes “boy” things is completely OK, but boys who like “girl things? Not so much.

What I discovered following the construction vehicle dress request, was that it’s actually relatively easy to find cool, progressive, somewhat gender-norm-bucking clothes for girls these days, but it’s nearly impossible to find something for a boy. You just have to buy it from the girls’ section, and even then a dress with construction vehicles on it is not easy to come by. If you’ve never searched the web for a dress for a boy, and tried to decide for yourself what the least “girly” dress style might be for a boy, you can’t even imagine what mental acrobatics it requires. By this point I’d decided that I was fine buying him the dress, it was a matter of finding one. I found one on Etsy that was specifically marketed as a “unisex play dress” but while I loved the concept and the politics of it all, I thought that the cut of the dress was actually sort of ugly. I finally found one I liked on some random site I’d never heard of, purple with yellow construction vehicles of all kinds. I was excited about it and showed it to Jonah with Vivi sitting nearby. Immediately she said, “I want a truck dress!”. As I showed him the options, he realized that they also sold shirts and pants in the same pattern, and he told me he’d rather have a tank top and leggings. “Are you sure?” I asked him, “You can have a dress if you want one.” I was worried that maybe he’d picked up on our hesitation somewhere. He told me he was sure.

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So Vivi got her truck dress, and Jonah got a matching shirt and pants, and I need to strengthen my kid-accessible explanation of feminism and sexism and why it’s important to think for yourself.

Enjoying weekend day trips: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Silver Beach

We’ve squeezed a lot of fun into the last week or so, including some things I didn’t photograph well or at all, so they didn’t get any air time. Last week Monday we were lucky enough to crash a Brendan James private house show. He and his band play tiny shows at people’s homes between their venue shows while on tour, and there happened to be one about 30 minutes from here. Despite never having met the homeowners or anyone else at the show (well, except for Brendan), we were allowed to attend and ended up with front-row outdoor couch seats, which was amazing. It was definitely one of the best live music experiences I’ve had.

The next night was the 4th of July, and while I feel kind of “meh” about the celebration of genocide and slavery that underpin the origins of the country, I love fireworks in a big way. I even love neighborhood fireworks, even on random summer nights, and yes, even when my kids are sleeping. I love them because when I was a kid, “big” fireworks weren’t legal in Michigan (that has since changed and grouchy people hate it), but every year my dad would go to a particular liquor store over in the neighborhood where his office used to be, and he would buy illegal fireworks from Indiana that they secretly sold in the back room. Sure, we spent some 4th of July nights in South Haven watching the official fireworks over Lake Michigan, but most of my 4th memories are of amateur fireworks shows put on by my dad in the elementary school parking lot across from our house. This year I wanted to take the kids to the lake (because it really is fun to be there with tons of people and glow necklaces and all of that energy, and to see the show over the lake) but ultimately we decided that it was going to be a hassle, and we were talked into heading to a church parking lot where the country club fireworks are visible across the road. It was actually a lot of fun, and my dad even came through with a few rockets and roman candles of his own. Every kid there was crowded around him, and our kids seemed to love it.

This weekend we ended up taking a couple of unplanned day trips that turned out to be absolutely lovely. On Saturday we checked out the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. We’d been told that they have a really nice children’s garden, but it absolutely exceeded my expectations. The boys loved the Great Lakes water tables with boats, Vivi would have played in a little fountain all day, and they went wild in an amazing treehouse structure that made me think of Swiss Family Robinson (although I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually read or seen that, so that association may be misguided).

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There was a lovely old barn in the farm garden, and naturally Vivienne wanted to climb the ladder up to a beam. There weren’t a lot of people around and we didn’t see a sign that told us explicitly not to climb it (although I’m guessing that wasn’t their aim), so we let her go. She’s always been such a climber, so nimble and fearless, and she scrambled right to the top.

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A family came through and seemed surprised to see such a tiny person up there. We mentioned how fearless she is, and they said something along the lines of, “Watch out when she’s a teenager!” We’ve heard that before, but this time when the family walked away Kristin pointed out that no one would ever say that about a little boy at the top of a ladder. I love how brave she is. So brave, in fact, that when we asked Jonah if he wanted to climb, he asked Vivi if she would rub her head against his so that he could have some of her bravery (they did it, but I didn’t get a photo – it was adorable though). He only made it up one or two rungs before he was too afraid, but Vivi did it three or four times, slapping the beam at the top each time to make her success known.

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On Sunday the day was actually off to a rough start; we have a tendency to keep the kids out late in pursuit of these adventures, and then we act surprised the next day when their behavior is out of control. Kristin took the twins to see some live music at a park while I went grocery shopping with Jonah who hadn’t exactly earned the field trip. In the late afternoon however, when I was feeling grouchy and sad about the way the day was unfolding, K convinced me to pack everyone up and drive to St. Joseph (about an hour away) to the beach and the splash pad. It completely turned the day around for me.

I expected the kids to be super into the splash pad since they’d loved the fountain the previous day, but they were a little tentative. Only Vivienne really got into it, although she tried hard to physically move Jude towards the water.

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See the photo above? Every so often, the vertical spouts shut off and all of the kids (and some adults) run into the center of the fountain to wait for giant water cannons to shoot into the middle. That’s what’s happening in the photo above. There’s so much water that you can hardly see the big group of people standing in the center. The first time it happened, Vivi and Jude and Jonah just stood back and watched, but the second time Vivi ran to the center to join everyone. Except that I don’t think she really knew what was going to happen, and as soon as the water rained down on her she began to sob hysterically, but didn’t know how to get out. Kristin the hero ran into the downpour fully clothed and carried her out.

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Believe it or not she wanted to keep playing for a few minutes after that, but before long we headed to the beach for some playground time.

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We aren’t big beach people really, because none of us love getting a lot of sun (hence the 6:00 p.m. trip to the beach), but we went in Charleston in April and we went to Lake Michigan last summer when my sister and the kids were in town, but this is really the first time I’ve seen the kids enjoy the beach in this way. Jude would have thrown handfuls of wet sand into the lake all night long. Vivi loved wading into the water again and again, and Jonah just seemed to take it all in, alternately playing in the sand, dipping his toes into the water, and climbing the lifeguard stand.

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Jude actually fell from that lifeguard stand after making it up another rung or two, which was pretty scary, but luckily he was OK. We all headed towards the bluff for pizza and made it a very late but beautiful evening. Jonah asked if next time we could go to “the beach with the pink house” (North Beach in South Haven) so I’m sure that’s coming up for a future weekend.