Coming to the Dark Side

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At no time do I feel so old as when I attempt to learn something new about technology.

Two years ago, I got my very first texting plan and a phone with an actual keyboard on it. I know, welcome to the 2000s, right? At the time, pretty much everyone on my contacts list had already been texting for ages and were now relying on autocorrect and voice features. Hold on, there, guys, my phone still has buttons on it.

My husband got himself a sweet smartphone, and not long after that, he got himself a tablet for his birthday. He’s way more hip than me. The year previous, I was super excited for my plain old Kindle Touch. Because I like to read books, and that thing still reads like paper. And trust me, it even took some significant convincing and in-person comparison shopping to get me the Touch over the original version.

And last week, my husband had finally had enough of his phone forgetting that it was still a phone (not so “smart” if you ask me, but whatever), and he upgraded to a new one, since it was time to renew our contract anyway. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? Or maybe not. Anyway, we found that the old phone, even though it sometimes didn’t make sounds or randomly entered car-docking mode, which it technically isn’t even supposed to have, would still operate like a tablet using wi-fi even without being connected to the wireless phone network or 3G or whatever the heck they’re calling that everywhere available telecommunications feature nowadays.

So. Even though the idea was to use it on occasion to occupy one or more of the children when necessary, I kind of started playing with it and decided to adopt it for myself. And not just for playing Robot Unicorn Attack, either.

You see, for several months, I’ve been eyeing up and pricing new cameras. Both the fancy DSLR variety and the teeny point-and-shoot types. Because my ancient point-and-shoot is slow and broken and has a battery that can support a few videos and one or two flash photos and promptly dies. And because my DSLR still has a broken flash, doesn’t shoot video at all and is a little bit more limited than I’d like if I ever actually get serious about my photography.

But let’s get honest for a moment. Will I ever get serious about photography? Maybe. But now is definitely not the time. I have two small children and several other related and unrelated activities going on right now. I don’t have time to re-learn what I may have once known about f-stops and exposures. And I really don’t have time to sit on my computer and mess around in Photoshop for hours on end to get that one shot just right. So, for the most part, I’ve been satisfied with what comes right off the camera, but for those times when I’d like to play a little, enter James’ old smart-phone.

It shoots faster than my old point-and-shoot, but not quite as immediate as my DSLR. It takes video. The photo quality is at least better than the p&s if not also the DSLR. There are filter effects and photo editing tools available with a quick touch or swipe of the finger, and it’s tiny enough to sit comfortably and easily within reach in my purse or pocket. Everything I was looking for in one or two new cameras with wi-fi to boot.

The thing is, there’s a reason I’ve been resistant to the smartphone/camera for so long. And it has nothing to do with the technology itself, but everything to do with my own hubris.

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Fifteen Months

Dear Andrew,

You are fifteen months old, and you are so awesome.

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I’ve pretty much given up on you ever saying “Mama” with any frequency or reliability. And honestly, it doesn’t bother me anymore because it’s more like a joke now that we share. You try to say all sorts of new words like, “faster,” and “strawberry,” and you get increasingly excited when your brother tries to teach you new things to say because, hey, he’s talking to you and not yelling at you or snatching his stuff out of your hands. You are learning animal sounds and can bark when I ask you what the dog says. You can repeat a lot of the other animal sounds, too, once I clue you to what they are, but your default is the barking, no matter which animal I ask you about first.

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You also like to sing and dance. Your dance is this tip sideways that sometimes results in you falling all the way over. Even so, you have a big cheese-ball smile on your face and occasionally applaud your own efforts. (This does not only happen while dancing, but any time you try something you didn’t know you could do.) And I love to listen to you talk or sing to yourself. It’s especially entertaining when you don’t realize that anyone is actually paying attention. You will wander around some days singing, “Yo-ah, yo-ah,” because of the song that Michael often requests at bedtime. It’s one of the few songs you recognize and try to imitate, but even if I just hum or “do-do-do” to myself, you’ll often repeat those various sounds, too.

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You will climb or try to climb anything. You can’t resist stairs, and you’re really getting good at going up and down. You can climb onto the couch or the bed without any help at all anymore, and there are fewer and fewer “safe” spots where we can put things that we don’t want to fall into your curious little hands. You want to do anything that anyone bigger than you is doing, and even if you can’t quite make your body replicate the motions exactly, you throw yourself entirely into the activity and often fail with a flourish.

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You love to help. You sweep and pull weeds (or other plants). You load the dishwasher at Grandma’s house, you pick up toys and you “sort” laundry. You are happy enough to be part of whatever mundane task we have to get done in a day, except vacuuming. That big old vacuum cleaner scares the pants off of you every time. If it even appears from within the closet, you run off screaming. You cry and need to be held even while I’m trying to suck the crumbs up off the carpet. And you’re not happy until that monster machine is locked back up behind closed doors again. Same goes for the food processor, the bread machine, the magic bullet. You’re even wary of the slow cooker, the rice maker and, most recently, the food dehydrator.

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And speaking of running and screaming, your tantrums are getting more and more dramatic. You don’t deal well with disappointment at all, and denying you of the one thing you need to have happen right now at this moment will lead you to throwing yourself on the ground and writhing around in agony. You put your mouth to the floor (or the grass or the pavement), and you wail. And when that doesn’t work, you return to whoever offended you by denying your most reasonable request and repeat your gesture of desire. Some of the things that have set you off have included: offering you a bite of banana instead of a sip of coffee, not opening the bottle of glitter/glue/water we made to distract you and/or help your brother calm down when he has his own moments of rage so you can drink from it, putting away the scissors before you’ve had your turn and daring to cut your food into smaller pieces than the rest of us have on our plates.

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For the most part, though, you are the happiest and most friendly baby, wait, toddler, that I could imagine being around at this moment. You always wave and say, “Hi,” to our neighbors, and you blow kisses and wave and say your version of “Bye,” when you or anyone else leaves or goes to bed. Your bliss at being alive and discovering all the world has to offer you is contagious and encouraging, especially during my bad days and hard moments. Because guess what? Even if you never, ever say the word, I can see in your eyes that you know your mama well. When you squeeze me tight and rest your head on my shoulder before running off and trying some other daring feat, when you run at me with your mouth closed and saying “mmmmm” in preparation for some big kisses, when you smile and laugh just because you caught my eye, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love me. Completely. You love your family, friends and neighbors without reservation, and there are not enough words in the world to tell you exactly how much this unbridled affection means to us all.

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Love,
The One Who Shall Not Be Named

Messy Art

This summer, I promised my son that he could take a class of his choosing through our local recreation department. Out of all the sports, sciences and other options, imagine my delight when he chose an art class.

The class was described as getting them creative and messy making art projects from “common household objects” that would “make great gifts.” So I was excited to see what the kids would use and what kind of compositional skills might begin to develop.

I get that the class is for young kids, but after three weeks of his attendance, I have to admit that I’m rather disappointed.

The class would be more accurately named, “Painting and Sticking.” So far, M has yet to bring home a project made from a “common household item.” Instead, he receives pre-cut and pre-drawn paper and paper-like materials and is expected to paint the right colors within the proper lines and stick the cut out construction paper together to create an established design.

Honestly, I haven’t seen much creativity encouraged yet at all. Although I did enjoy how my son interpreted the American flag. I understand that there’s not that much you can really do with 45-minutes, but I have to admit that I was expecting a little bit more. More than cartoon characters and sending the kids home having had lollipops or some other sweet and carrying packs of character-adorned stickers and dollar-store trinkets.

Maybe this is just what a kids’ art class involves. Especially one that doesn’t cost much offered through the local rec center. I suppose I’m glad, at least, that M’s having fun, and it’s not a struggle to get him out the door to go to class each week. And he gets to paint and glue things without me having to clean up after him, and that’s an activity I can definitely do without in my day. Even though I wish he was getting better fundamentals, at least he’s being exposed to something artistic and practicing with a few different materials.

Maybe next summer, I’ll have to save up to actually get him into an art class where he’ll learn some real art skills. Of course, maybe next year, he’ll prefer something more physical instead. I’d love for my kids to learn and enjoy art so that we can share those creative moments, but if I’ve got sporty guys, I guess I’ll grow to love those karate matches or soccer games, too.

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I Drew a Tree

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I am not a wilderness girl.

I am, however, a self-admitted hippie. I try to be green. I started composting, although it totally skeeves me out when I open up the bin and the fruit flies come swarming out, and I have yet to harvest any of it for actual use in helping things to grow. I do weird things like use cloth diapers and cloth menstrual pads, make my own deodorant and protect my kitchen from ants using black pepper. I helped M plant a few things in the garden on the side of our house thinking that maybe if it goes well, we’ll eat some fresh spinach or cucumbers later this summer.

My husband has family and the family has property in Upper Michigan. When we have discussed our retirement plans in the past, and he’d expressed interest in moving up there someday. And because I’ve become even more of a hippie than I even used to be, I had begun to seriously consider it. Wide open spaces. Beautiful views. Family history. Connection to our roots. Small towns where everyone knows you.

Then last weekend, we went there.

And even though I thought I was prepared–I packed long pants, long sleeves, lace-up shoes and plenty of socks and extra clothing for me and for the boys–I was woefully under-prepared, emotionally. Because along with the wide open spaces and beautiful views are the mosquitoes and the ticks. And something about tromping through mud and grass and animal poop just got to me. So much so that I pretty much used my 1-year-old as an excuse to stay in the van and take in the sights from behind our tinted windows.

The thing is, I really want to give my kids a love of the outdoors. I don’t want my hang-ups to paralyze them when it comes to exploring their world. My husband and father-in-law have such joyful memories of their experiences up north, I want to give my kids some of that same joy. Now that I’m back in my comfortable air-conditioned and relatively bug-free home, I wish I had been more adventurous, myself. I wish I’d walked around, dug out my camera and taken some shots of my beautiful family among the lush greenness and luminous lake views.

I didn’t want to be such a wet blanket, honestly. I wanted to go out and get muddy and bug-bitten and come home tired and dirty with happy memories. And I did bring home some good memories of quality family time spent at the hotel pool, at a couple of local restaurants and the home of a dear aunt and uncle. I drew a tree and got a lot of reading done. I really did try not to complain or freak out too much. And part of me thinks that maybe, had we spent more than just two days there, maybe I would’ve gotten over whatever it was that was blocking me and actually embraced the wilderness… at least a little bit more than I did.

But let’s be honest. If you really want me happy in the wild, take me to the beach.

Fourteen Months

Dear Andrew,

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You are fourteen months old. You are talking so much these days. Sometimes we can even hear actual words. You point to things and say, “see,” with this upswing on the end that’s just adorable. And you make me laugh so hard when you say, “see,” as you’re grinning at me with your hand on your boy stuff. Yes. I see. Now put your pants on, kid.

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You are always happy to see people. You wave and say, “hi.” You call everyone who lives with you, “Daddy.” Including me. The one whose name you used to know. The one whose name you used to use until you realized how hilarious it was to pop off the boob and grin up at me with your big smiling eyes and say, “Da-eee!”

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You are getting better and better at climbing, and you will practice on stairs and chairs and tables and anything else you can at any opportunity. We have to watch you closely because you are so adventurous. You will keep going and going and going. And heaven help anyone who gets in your way. You will yell and squirm in such a way it really is scary trying to hold onto you without letting you slip away. You love to try new things, and I can see that you are determined to master whatever it is you put your mind to. You will move mountains one day, son. And I’m so excited to see what feat you will master next, even if it does make my heart stop a little bit watching your early attempts.

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You love to play ball. Especially, dare I admit to the Internet, fetch. You and M will make endless runs down the hallway after some ball or another (you really enjoy the ones that light up when they bounce), laughing and squealing as you chase the balls and each other. You both bring he balls back, eager to go again. You also enjoy tossing the ball yourself, which you do with your left hand, I’ve noticed, and you like it when someone rolls or bounces the ball to you. As soon as you see the bigger ball come out, you sit down on the floor with your feet apart, ready to catch, and so happy to play and practice.

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Another game that cracks me up every time, which you learned from your brother, of course, is to pretend you’re a puppy and crawl and pant and bark down the hallway, around the house or even outside. Your bark is just a little, “ah!” sound, and it’s just so cute. You’ve been walking so long, and nothing can slow you down that when you first got back down on all fours again, I didn’t quite know what was happening. Then you started “barking” at your brother, and I just laughed and laughed.

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As part of our bedtime ritual, M likes to be “introduced” to someone as whatever character he is identifying as at the moment. So he or I or Daddy will step out to the living room with that information and announce, “Presenting…the most dangerous super dragon in the city!” or whatever it happens to be that day, and M will come down the hallway, often wearing a large fleece blanket around his neck as a cape, or wings or Jedi cloak or whatever, and he’ll play his part as he makes his way out to his adoring audience. You have come to know your part in this nightly performance, and you will wait on my lap for him to come out. Then you’ll get down eagerly and wiggle your way into the blanket as M tries to pull it away and you chase him around the room. I love bedtime for those giggles.

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However, earlier this month, your dad and I were discussing how impressed we were that falling asleep on your own was coming more easily to you, and we dared to look forward to a night where you might sleep longer, be able to settle yourself without us in the room with you and things like that. And then you entered a new phase, the exact opposite of the direction we’d thought and hoped you were heading. You’ve been having trouble settling down to sleep with Daddy. You’ve been impossible to put down into your crib unless you are dead out cold asleep. And it wears me out. To be needed. Like this. So much. Every night.

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But I’ll tell you a secret. Your sweet sleepy face and the way you cling to me in the dark is why I got into this motherhood thing in the first place. Even when my back aches, and I don’t feel sleepy enough to lie down beside you for the night, I remember how it seems like not more than five minutes ago you were born. I remember how fast you go during the day. How independent you already are, able to amuse yourself for a time without me. Testing your boundaries and abilities every minute of the day. You go go go. You climb. You run. And at the end of each day, you snuggle in. You have your place. And even at fourteen months old, you still fit snugly in my arms. You are welcome there. You are my baby, still, and no matter what kind of day we’ve had, I know what I mean in those moments before you fall asleep. I am your haven. I am your nest. I am your comfort. And you still need me a lot. For now. And I love it.

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I love you,
Mommy

Two Wheels

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I am so proud of my firstborn. He got a new bike from his grandpa a few months ago, one that actually fits him well enough for him to pedal comfortably, and he has worked really hard to ride it.

He started off on a Strider, and we probably didn’t take him out on it as much as we should have. We were living in our condo at the time, and he often wasn’t interested in riding, or when he was, there was often a reason we couldn’t take the bike out. We got out occasionally, though, and since his second birthday, he practiced. He got faster. He got better at picking up his feet and balancing. And balancing and going faster.

It was at a fourth-of-July get together when he was almost four that he got handed down a pedal bike from a friend. He rode it down the hill and started to try to figure out the pedaling. Because his older friend was riding around on his newer, bigger bike, M wanted to participate, too. And he did well that first time. I was really impressed. And very grateful that they let us take the little old bike home to practice some more.

The pedal bike sat around more than the Strider. Probably because I got pregnant and didn’t feel like doing much running after the speedy biker he was becoming. Again, he got out on the bike occasionally, but often preferred the Strider when the pedals confounded or frustrated him.

When we moved, his grandpa bought him a refurbished little Schwinn. It’s not so little to him, though, and the deal was that he’d get the bigger bike when he could finally master the pedaling on the little one. So for a few months, he’s been working really hard. And he has mastered the little bike, though now it is so small for him that he looks almost as silly on that one as I look on his “big” bike.

Last week, I finally got him a new helmet that actually fits his big-boy head, and we made an agreement that any time he wanted to go out and ride his little bike, he would at least sit on the big one and ride it if he wanted to try it. This became a compromise after he fell off the big one during one of his early attempts.

This week, he rides up and down the alley, gets going by himself and can turn the corner and go around the front of the house on the sidewalk. He sometimes stumbles a little bit pushing off to get started and after skidding to a stop, but he’s really getting the hang of it and I’m so thrilled for him.

I remember the exhilaration of riding my bike around the neighborhood. There’s that measure of freedom that comes with your first set of wheels. I’m not ready to let him cross the streets just yet, but our block has some space to pick up speed, a slight incline that’s great for getting your muscles warm pedaling up and the wind in your face barreling down. It makes me want to get a bike of my own again. To enjoy that with my boy. With my boys.

Because we lowered the seat and handlebars on the Strider again. And the little one’s head almost fits in the old small helmet. And he hopped right on, and he tries to push it with his feet. I bend down hold onto the handle bars with him, help him balance there. And he smiles really big and you can tell he’s just waiting to take off after his big brother. To fly away, too.

Bang Bang

Let’s talk about guns.

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There’s a lot to say about guns. Gun control is one of those hot topics all over the news these days. People are afraid someone’s going to take their guns. Most of us in the country support some form of gun control, background checks, limits on magazine size, automatic weapons, etc.

But forget all that for a minute. Let’s talk about kids and toys that shoot (or pretend to shoot). My first kid didn’t know a thing about guns until he was maybe three. My second kid has been handling toy weapons since he could get himself into position to grab his brother’s things, maybe about four months old. Once the first kid started shooting me with his fingers at three years old, I realized there was not going to be a way to keep him from encountering, exploring and desiring guns and other weapons (see: lightsabers). Discussing this new fascination at the time with my husband, I concluded that I should just get used to it because that’s what boys do. Heck, even I played with squirt guns in my day.

But times have changed since I was a kid. And guns can be kind of a big deal, even when they’re fat green alien dart guns that are obviously toys. Some toy boxes do not include toy guns no matter how interested the child is to own some of their very own. And I understand that. There is so much violence in the world, why rush to introduce it to our children?

But will delaying the knowledge of guns and other weapons really protect our kids from the violence in the world? Won’t a weapons ban make weapons even more attractive, since they are forbidden? Or will my kid grow up to become a school shooter just because he pretends to be a samurai, a soldier or Boba Fett? Who can say?

We are a predominantly non-violent household. We don’t allow hitting or physical fighting. Though we do encourage rough-housing and wrestling and play fighting as long as personal boundaries and limits are respected. We have a trunk full of toy guns and lightsabers and swords and other such things. And as a parent, as much as I would like to avoid the violence, I think that play allows my kids to explore these dangerous realities of the world in a safe way, in a safe place.

My husband had toy guns growing up. He is not a violent person. He doesn’t own a gun at the moment, although he plans to go hunting with his dad this fall, which may inspire him to save up for his own rifle someday. We live with a subscriber to Guns & Ammo, and even though my five-year-old has asked to look through the magazine on occasion when we first moved in, recently, he barely notices when it comes in the mail.

There are guns in our home because my father-in-law is a hunter. They are locked away out of sight, unloaded, and separated from the ammunition. My husband was taught from an early age that guns are dangerous and useful. He was taught how to handle guns and how to respect the power of such a weapon. When our sons are old enough, they will most likely be taught the same things, after years of playing with the toys.

And after thinking about it for some time, I understand wanting to shield your child from the violence of the world. To keep the mere existence of such a powerful weapon under wraps for as long as humanly possible. Because when the bad guys have guns, real guns that can paralyze or kill you with a single twitch of a finger, the world can seem downright terrifying. And even many adults have a hard time coming to terms with this.

On the other hand, I think everyone processes things differently, children included. For as long as there have been kids, there has been pretend play that included wars, fighting, killing kinds of games. I think it helps them learn to handle power, victory, defeat. It’s not just about guns. It’s about strategy. It’s about cooperation. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers. Light Side against Dark Side. Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Sometimes, a kid has to play the villain to understand his own inherent goodness. And that’s why I let my kids have guns. Because guns are just a small fraction of the toys we have around our house. We have balls and blocks and Legos and musical instruments and books, which they love just as much and often more than the weapons.

As a parent, I don’t see it as my job to shield my children from the realities of the wide world. Because if I do that, then I leave them vulnerable to those same realities by throwing them into the world without a reference point. While some kids will play guns and others will not, some at two or maybe not until ten or never. It’s my job to teach right from wrong. To help them be the good guys out there, whether they choose to own guns or not, that they know how to be responsible and conscious citizens of the world.

My kid is more than just his choice of prop. He is sweet and friendly. He is empathetic and constructive. I know, because I know him, and because of the way I am trying to bring him up, the values in our household, that the chances are really slim to none of him growing into the kind of aggression that would make the news. I am teaching my boys to be kind. To be helpers. And whether they have any interest in playing with or ultimately owning and using guns, crossbows or swords doesn’t change their hearts.

I respect my fellow parents’ wishes to keep my kids’ guns away from their kids as long as possible, though. I definitely identify with the struggle, and I believe it’s a good conversation to have. I appreciate that we can all be thoughtful and civilized about it.

So what do you think about kids and toy weapons? Do you let your children play with toy guns? Do you ban all weapons? Or just guns? What about sticks and rocks outside? What happens when they become swords, bombs and rifles? Do you stop it? Or do you just let them play? I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.