Screen-time Detox and Other Goals

I’m not big on resolutions because I’ve usually forgotten them long before I reach the end of the year. But I am big on starting new habits at special times (the first of the month, the first of the week, the first of the year, the first of the season) because then it’s easier to say “I’ve been doing it for x weeks/months” and keep plowing onward.

So we’re doing a variety of what I’m calling detoxes to start the New Year. Some as individuals, some as a family. Gabriel and I are doing a Couch-to-5k (and if you haven’t checked out the app, do! It does all the timing for you!). Matt and I are doing a Whole30 (although I think he’s close to accusing me of spousal abuse). I’m doing a very gradual, head-ache avoidance caffeine detox, and man, let me tell you, that is rough for this coffee-drinking girl.

And as a family, we’re doing what is perhaps my favorite detox: a screen-time detox. I’m not banning screen-time for the month because I think the minions would rebel. But I am suggesting other things (mainly books, art, and games) each time someone asks me if they can watch TV or play Xbox. Youtube is also banned for a month because too often the kiddos are watching videos when they’re supposed to be reading.

Anyhow, as part of this effort, Lily found an old “Birds of the US” memory game that I hadn’t thought about it ages and the four of us played it. It’s been a hectic first week back to school/work after a lovely restful holiday and I think we were all pretty tired and cranky when we started playing. Gabriel even tried to quit when he fell behind in the beginning. But by the end, we were all laughing together a lot more than we would have been if we’d spent the time doing our usual, watching Cutthroat Kitchen or Mythbusters, or Agents of SHIELD.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re all anxious for the return of Agents of SHIELD and I’ve been toying with the idea of introducing the kids to the older Star Trek TV shows, so we’re not going media-free by any means. Just trying to be a little more intentional about it and make sure we’re spending the rainy winter days doing something more than staring at a screen. So far, so good.

Are you trying to start any new habits in the New Year? 

Unexpected Loss

Last spring, my daughter came home sad because her friend had been called out of class to learn she’d lost her grandma. I remember that feeling, both as the friend watching someone I cared about getting the bad news and as the child, stepping out in the hallway to hear news that will change her life forever. My trip to the hallway came in sixth grade when my mother’s mother passed away after a long illness. It was sad, but expected. We were prepared, but it still hurt. It was still scary.

Watching others go through loss is the only preparation we get for the loss. If we’re lucky, we start off small with the loss of a pet, or the grief that comes when a friend moves away. Most of us lose a grandparent in grade school. It is sad, but familiar, territory.

But the unexpected losses hit us the hardest. The loss of friends, taken too young. Of family, departing before their time. Nine years ago this month, the loss of my Dad to a freak accident struck me with a pain I thought for several years I might never escape. A few years later, sitting beside my best friend as she said goodbye to her infant son, I realized I had passed through all the expected losses in my life and into the unexpected ones. The ones that shock, that take us to our knees. The loss of a spouse, of a brother, of a child.

Today, my beloved cousins are experiencing this devastating loss. Early this morning, they said goodbye to their father, my Uncle Chuck. We called him Uncle Chuckles when I was a kid and the name fit–he had a smile and a joke for every occasion. My aunt is experiencing the unimaginable loss of a spouse after many decades of happy marriage. A loss that I watched my own mother go through after my father died, and one that I would wish on no one, even as I realize its inevitability.

All of this is on my mind as I write this morning. I’m thousands of miles away, but I still feel like that little girl watching her friend getting called into the hallway to get the devastating news. My heart is tender this morning for my family as they suffer through and for myself, because each loss carries with it the memory of those that came before.

 

 

Moving-Induced Paralysis

AnxietyThis week, we slipped under the six-month mark. We move 20 December and I have a zillion things to do. Really. I have furniture to sell or get rid of, loads of appliances to offload (but not until after I cook Thanksgiving Dinner of course!), a cupboard full of spices and other food items to use up, and basically a whole house to declutter. Oh yeah, and you know, my real life, where I’m writing a book and trying to sell it.

So yeah, I’m paralyzed and anxious and feeling sorta like the guy in the animation. A million things to do and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time trawling Redfin and Zillow for houses (which just makes me more paralyzed because oh my god, sticker shock!). And blogging, apparently. Oh yeah, and watching junk TV (but I’m finally caught up on Scandal!). The nutty thing is that I’m feeling really positive about living in Washington. Just not so good about the moving part.

It’s not like I haven’t done this before. The first time I moved, I was twenty and flew by myself to France with nothing more than a backpack and a suitcase. That felt exhilarating and rebellious and all kinds of things. Yeah, there was some stress in there too and saying goodbye, even if only for six months, was tough. But it was nothing like this.

This feels like I am going to run out of time, but that all the balls that need to be set in motion are completely out of my control. Like I’m an anchor in a relay, watching her teammates get farther and farther behind and not being able to do anything but sit there screaming, reaching for that baton, and knowing that even super-human speed won’t be enough. Wow, where did that running simile come from? Can I use that in my fiction?

OK, my sense of humor is at least somewhat intact, so I’m probably going to survive this. But I’ll probably need to grumble about it again between now and 20 December…

Talking to Kids About Sex

SMirC-embarassedEvery parent I know dreads having “the talk” with their child. It’s tough to decide when to have the talk, what to say, and how to broach such an important subject in a way that won’t be embarrassing or uncomfortable. But talking to kids about sex needs to happen, and probably sooner than you think.

Before this was even on my radar, a friend of my son’s (who had very informative older brothers) told him about the mechanics of sex. He was seven and I was horrified when an adult made a joke about sex in front of him and he replied “I know what that means.” As much as I wanted to freak out, I remained calm enough to talk with him about what he’d learned so that I could figure out what to do next. For better or for worse, the little boy’s brothers had given him a fairly anatomically-correct description of sex, which he’d helpfully passed on to my son and his first grade classmates.

So that’s my first tip: If you want to be the first one to talk to your children about sex, you’re probably going to need to start talking about this earlier than you thought.

My second tip: Do your homework. And make sure you know what your own views are on this topic as you read up. After that first surprising conversation with my son, my best friend directed me to Planned Parenthood’s website, which is full of excellent age-appropriate resources for talking about sex and sexuality with preschoolers, elementary schoolers, and teenagers about sex.

The most comprehensive article I found on talking with kids about sex is this one from US News and World Report. For a slightly less dry first-hand account, this one written by a doctor sharing her own ongoing conversation about sexuality with her daughter, provides a helpful perspective. The University of Washington also did an excellent Ask the Experts on this topic this summer, interviewing two experts in human sexuality. The interview contains not only good tips, but some great books that parents can use to facilitate these difficult conversations.

Third tip: Bring a book or two to “the talk.” Not only does it give you and your child a focal point (especially helpful if one or both of you is embarrassed), but it also gives the child a text they can walk away with and mull over in privacy. These types of issues are hard to take in for the first time and especially if your child needs some time to process, it may take an hour, a few days, or even a few weeks for your child to come up with the questions he or she wants to ask on this topic. It took my son several months to admit to me that his friend had told him about sex, and the conversations that revelation started continue today (he’s now ten, and on the verge of beginning sex education at school).

Narrated by the proverbial bird and bee, this popular series starts with a book for preschoolers called It’s Not the Stork and continues on to It’s So Amazing and It’s Perfectly Normal for older children.

I wish I had discovered this series when my children were preschool aged so that my son would have had a little more preparation for his enlightening conversation with his classmate. The same author wrote Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From, which is the book I ultimately selected to fill in the gaps in my son’s knowledge and to present to his younger sister when the time came this fall for her to have the talk as well.

There’s some great fiction on this topic too. Judy Blume’s classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret isn’t the only choice any more. Stephanie Greene‘s Sophie Hartley and the Facts of Life also handles this issue in a more contemporary setting.

We’re just getting in to puberty discussions with our children now (*gulp*), so a follow-up post will be in order when the time comes. What resources did you use when talking with your kids about sex? Have an embarrassingly-hilarious story of your own to share? The more we talk about this as parents, the easier it will be to talk to our kids.

Repatriating Expats

Seattle world fair stamp
Expat life is full of Big Questions. When do you go? When do the kids & I follow? Where will we live? How do we enroll the kids in school? Who is going to pay for/schedule/plan which pieces of this craziness? Am I going to go nuts in the process?

From these questions, you can probably tell that another move is on our horizon. Next month, we’re moving to the Redmond, Washington (Greater Seattle) area so that my husband can continue his job with Microsoft. Despite being asked regularly if we’re excited to “go home,” this is new territory for us. Sure, we’re American, and we are lucky enough to have both friends and (for the first time in the kids’ lives!) family in the area. But I’ve never even been to Redmond. Or Bellevue. Or Sammamish. Which, according to our very helpful realtor, are the best housing options if we want to avoid giving Matt a hellish commute in a traffic-laden urban area.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not ready to leave Finland after four years. Did I mention how dark and dreary it is at this time of year, a time of year that I have now experienced FIVE times? But saying goodbye to friends is hard for the children and for us. In typical expat fashion, Matt needs to be in the US now to do his job, so that means much of the next six weeks of insanity will be navigated as a solo parent. Whee!

The kids don’t really remember living in the US before, so most of their memories come from this past summer. Considering that I packed in as many activities (summer camp! theme parks! mountain climbing! boat rides! beach time!) and as much cousin/grandma time as I could, they’ve got a fairly positive attitude about the move. Oh, and I might have promised them kittens too, just to keep them out of therapy sweeten the deal.

Despite the bribery carefully-managed expectations, the kids are still nervous. Gabriel asked me about first impressions on the way to school yesterday, spurring a long conversation about how first impressions when you start a new school are totally different than first impressions that you make at a one-time event like a job interview or performance. Yes, my heart squeezed big time as we had that conversation. My mellow little man may not be saying much, but he’s definitely processing.

Even as I madly declutter, organize, stalk real-estate web sites, book a 10-hour time difference house-hunting trip, and research schools, we’ll spend as much of the next six weeks as we can just hanging with friends and making just a few more memories before we go. In the meantime, if it’s a little quiet around here, you’ll know why.

Spooky Middle-Grade Books for Halloween

My eight year old is on a spooky book kick just in time for Halloween, so I thought I’d continue my children’s book recommendations with a Halloween-inspired list of middle-grade books. I have to be honest that scary isn’t really my thing. I was never a die-hard Goosebumps fan, and I’m the girl who peed her pants screamed her head off the one time her high school boyfriend convinced her to watch Halloween. But regardless of my own preferences, these books are almost sure to be a hit with the middle grade (8-12 year old) crowd.

Coraline & The Graveyard Book

OK, I don’t typically like spooky, but I make exceptions for Neil Gaiman. Coraline, the story of a little girl who moves into a spooky house and uncovers a rather diabolical ghost who wants to trap her in an alternate world, is spine-tinglingly creepy. For more sensitive readers, Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is equally good and while still involving ghosts, monsters, and bad guys, seemed a little milder to me. Still, these two are more for the upper middle grade (10+) age group.

Cinderskella & Little Dead Riding Hood

I just recently discovered Amie Borst’s amazing dark reimagined fairy tales. And my daughter can’t get enough of them. If the creepy-factor of tween girls who are trying to live a “normal” life under very abnormal circumstances (Cinderskella turns into a skeleton by night and Scarlet from Little Dead Riding Hood is a vampire), these books are co-written by Borst’s middle-school aged daughter. I would read them for that alone, but they’re also hilariously dark and gripping stories.

Bunnicula, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, & Howliday Inn

Some classics are more timeless than others. These suspense-laden tales about a vampire bunny and his other furry pals still get a giggle from my kids just like they did from my brother and I thirty years ago. Oh, and in case you missed it, there are SEVEN books now instead of just three.

Goosebumps

I may not have appreciated R.L. Stine when I was 10, but I sure do now. A prolific and abundantly spooky writer, Stine knows not only how to create a scary scene, but to connect with what middle grade readers will find interesting. With a good mix of male and female protagonists, Goosebumps has something for everyone.

Living with a Writer (or, why I feel sorry for my husband)

Lying in bed the other night, my husband and I were chatting about our day and decompressing a bit before bedtime. Our conversation lulled for a moment and something (a dust mote floating through the air, the scent of smoke coming in through the window from our neighbor’s fire, it doesn’t take much) sent my mind from the relative calm of our pre-bedtime routine straight back into the insomnia-inducing danger zone of revising my book.

He asked what I was thinking about, and I had to sheepishly admit that I was thinking, yet again, about my story. He groaned, teased me a bit, and we were both able to drift off to sleep. But it got me thinking.

I’ve blogged before about life as the wife of an INTP, but now I’d like to send some appreciation over to that INTP, who is now suffering through the sometimes-agony of being married to a writer. Not that I haven’t always been a writer, because I have, but for the past year, it’s gone from a hobby or future dream to a full-time job, and one that’s consuming all of my time and most of my mental energy as well. Read more

Embracing Comfort Food

photo of home-made chicken fingers
My kids’ new favorite meal: Home-made chicken fingers

I’m a foodie. I love food and, on more than a special-occasion basis, I like fancy food. While my kids are good eaters, sometimes they get tired of my chutneys and sauces and garnishes and just want plain old comfort food.

Between my insane aggressive writing schedule and the kids’ after school activities, we need quick (<30 minutes to prepare) meals 3-4 nights a week. And I can't make every. single. meal. in the slow-cooker, no matter how much I might like to. Enter exhibit A: healthy, home-made (even gluten-free!) chicken fingers. My kids' new favorite meal. Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, sliced into 1-inch wide strips
2 egg whites, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
2/3 c fine-ground cornmeal (I’ve heard crushed cornflakes work too!)
herbs & spices

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 225C (450F).
  2. Pour the cornmeal into a wide shallow bowl and season heavily with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and whatever spices go with the rest of your meal. Try taco seasoning, italian herbs, cumin, smoked paprika (not all at once!), or whatever your kids like. Mix thoroughly. You want to be able to see spices in the cornmeal mix. If you can’t, you haven’t added enough!
  3. Dip chicken strips in egg white.
  4. Dredge them in the cornmeal mixture, making sure every bit of the chicken is evenly coated.
  5. Arrange on a baking tray so that the chicken strips don’t touch.
  6. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until chicken is cooked to the internal temperature you prefer.
  7. Cook veggies & starches while chicken bakes. In the picture above, I made a veggie pilaf with quick-cooking brown rice, and kale salad.
  8. Serve with ranch, ketchup, or whatever sauce your munchkins love.

Happy Birthday, Brother…

I knew I was off as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. When I sat down to write today’s words, nothing came out. I felt tired and lackluster. I hid my nose in a book for a while, hoping I’d feel better. I didn’t. I jumped in the car to pick up the kids and mid-way through the short drive, my heart felt like it was expanding, in that uncomfortable way that forces hot tears out. I hate crying. Get a grip, I told myself, you’re driving.

Sometimes the words you want to write are not the words you need to write. Today I need to say a few words about my brother, Jeff, who died in July. Because it’s his birthday today. He’s been on my mind ever since I looked at the calendar this morning and realized it was the 17th, but reminders have been everywhere today: Facebook, a nice SPAM-mail reminding me to wish him a happy day, messages from family members.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with a brother who is 16 years older than you are. He was driving before I was born. So my first memories of him are as an adult, with a young family of his own. We never lived under the same roof, we’re not even of the same generation in some ways.

His sweet children are closer in age to me, and have been on my mind today, too. Jayson, who spent so much time with us growing up that I think more people assumed he was my brother than realized he was my nephew. Jaymi, who grew into this amazing, fashionable, gorgeous mama-bear seemingly over night. Megan, who was the first baby I got to watch through every step from birth to beautiful adulthood. And Justin, who is impossibly taller than I am (by a lot) now, an amazing athlete, and on the verge of adulthood himself.

Jeff was quick with a smile or a joke and more than a little inclined to break the rules, which just increased the cool factor in my young eyes. I’ve mulled over many favorite memories today, but the one that stands out is of him, shirtless, sunglass-clad, one hand on the wheel of his ski boat. We screamed over the water in that boat, summer after summer, the wind making my eyes tear and taking my breath away, the sun blazing off the surface of the lake.

When he slowed down on the particular day I remember, his wife, Karen, was already snugging fingerless gloves onto her hands in preparation for what came next. Someone tossed the tube into the water and Karen jumped in after it. She climbed on and we all cheered. He gunned it and she rocketed forward the second the slack left the line holding the tube to the back of the boat. Laughing like a maniac, he circled again and again, tighter and tighter, until the tube tipped sideways and Karen, still hanging on, cartwheeled across the water with the tube, until it finally shot her across the surface of the water in a heap. She came up sputtering with a few sharp words about his crazy driving, but laughing as well. He took it easier on the littler ones when we were in the tube, but more than one cousin lost swim trunks in that lake, and I ate more than my share of water on those wild rides.

There are other memories less bliss-filled than this one, as there always are over the long trajectory of any family’s life. But this is the one I want for his birthday today: one with sunshine on the water and joy in all our hearts.

A moment of perfect happiness

At a certain point this summer, after months of expat uncertainty, some very, very difficult goodbyes, and the death of my oldest brother, I started to wonder if I’d hardened myself as some sort of defense mechanism against all the grief and chaos. I’m the type of person who cries through all the Budweiser and Olympic commercials, who never fails to alarm my children by blubbing during kid movies like Maleficent, and who can be moved to tears by a beautiful flower, guitar riff, or piece of writing. And yet, when faced with the harsh, gut-wrenching stuff that adult life sends my way, sometimes I find it hard to cry.

Maybe all those saved up tears were just waiting for an excuse to spill out, or maybe I’d just held them in as long as I could, but tonight, watching Hook on the couch with my family, they streamed freely pretty much throughout the entire movie. We retreated upstairs for a whole-family cuddle afterwards and I felt my heart swell with love and gratitude for my family just as it ached with the losses we have experienced.

Caught up in this sublime moment, I hugged my squirmy children and said, “Shhh! Let’s just feel this moment of perfect happiness together.” They stilled for just a moment, so that I could hear all four of us breathing together and I really thought my heart might burst with the poignancy of the feeling. As if he could sense it, my almost ten-year-old, my sweet, sweet, boy, reached his hand across my chest, as if to draw me closer in the already tight embrace four people experience when crammed together into a double bed.

And then he stuck his finger right up his sister’s nose in a fit of giggles. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he cried, as my daughter screamed “Gross!” in indignant rage and leapt from the bed. At another time in life, I might have thought FML and stormed off, myself indignant that my perfect moment was spoiled by such goofiness. But not tonight. Tonight, I know it was just exactly what I needed.