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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

outside

Maturity has taught me some essential things about myself. Among the long list is the knowledge that I am a creature who needs to be moving my body, ideally in a challenging fashion, every day.

I also need to be outside. Every day. Unless it is freezing or pouring. Then I am happy to be warm and dry inside.  

The mild winter we had here in Maine didn't mute the arrival of spring in any way for me. Every moment of sunshine, every lawn bursting with green, every open window and every chance to be without a jacket has practically had me jumping up and down. 

But more importantly, it has found me outside as every spring does. Cycling, hiking, running or playing with the kids. 


Maya loves to hike so we have been in the woods or up a mountain every chance we get. I think she will go anywhere if we can take Jax.

I wonder if Jax is allowed at the dentist's office...


Maya, with her bestie Abby, at the top of Chick Hill


We got to hike in the Amherst Woods with the Smith's along a waterfall and it was so beautiful. And no bugs yet! This is the best time to be outside.




Who doesn't love dinner outside?

In other news, the girls successfully completed their competitive gymnastics season. It was amazing to watch them find their own groove, to watch them be brave in a crowded gym of competitors and spectators, to master once unattainable skills and nail them when it mattered and to assess which kind of braids hold up best under pressure.  Super proud of our girls.



One of the best things I have done for myself in the past many months was to take an entire day when the girls were at school and hike Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. It was every kind of good of me and was one of those experiences that made my whole life click back into place. 

I am so very grateful to live in the beautiful state of Maine. 



Monday, April 25, 2016

the monkeys in the trees

This weekend we built a treehouse.




Sandi finished a 12 day work stretch on Friday and said, "Wouldn't it be fun to build a treehouse?"

Spring is the time when Sandi and I get the itch for outside projects. Without our house there are no landscaping projects to be done, no gardens to dig out, no rock walls or patios to construct. So a treehouse it would be.

It was going to be a small dwelling and we were going to use the scraps from Trish and Brock's home construction. But that idea lasted mere minutes and, two trips to Lowe's later, we were erecting the Taj Mahal of treehouses.
























It is REALLY exciting to build a tree house. 



getting ready for tire swing install


making a treehouse sign under close supervision from Jax


Except when it isn't. 


Ella kept saying, "Is it me or is this taking a LONG time?"  I'm not sure where she gets her timeframe but we figure it took us about 9 hours over 2 days, minus the time it took to get materials. That doesn't seem unreasonable when you are a kid and you get a treehouse this awesome. 

Our brother-in-law Brock made a few guest appearances to torment Maya (he loves to tease her call her "cute" and she loves to growl at him and say, "I'm NOT cute!" which is the cutest thing of all) and loan us various tools.


Sandi and I are at our best when we can work on a project together, especially if it's outside where we are both happiest. 


I am often given jobs were my propensity toward error will be of little impact. Sandi had me spacing, leveling and pre-drilling the screw holes to attach the railing. This was a big deal for me to get this job. At one point when I drilled two holes that were clearly not level with each other,  I called down to her from the trees, "So you know how the Native Americans intentionally leave small imperfections in their artwork as an act of humility?" 

There was a small pause followed by her reply: "Oh, great." 


The girls got to use the drill and they were PSYCHED. Who doesn't love to drill screws? It is so satisfying. 



Brock had a bunch of composite railing slats that he had gotten on clearance and wasn't going to use so we scored big time.  Isn't every treehouse made with composite decking?
I never had a treehouse as a kid. It is the coolest thing. I was sitting with my back to one of the trees that comes up through the floor and as the wind blew, I could feel the trunk shift against my back.

treehouse selfie


Happy kids = happy moms.




It was only 46 degrees on the second day and I was in desperate need for hot coffee. I asked the girls if they wanted to have hot chocolate in the treehouse. YES. They were so excited they offered to pack  a picnic for us.  Ummm...sure.  

They came out with every snack cracker in the pantry as well as a tub of frosting and 4 spoons. There were multiple levels of letting go on my part.







All done!






It was truly one of the best family weekends we have had in a very long time. The kids were happy, helpful and appreciative. It felt like we had really settled into our new (temporary) place now that the kids have a place to play outside.



Our friend Ange said: "Treehouse before real house?"  Yup. That's just how we do things.



Friday, April 1, 2016

teachers: superheros in disguise

Teachers work hard. I think we can all agree on that. They essentially have a pack of monkeys that they need to supervise and protect, cajole and engage, keep motivated and on task and behaving like civilized human beings. All while trying to impart an education.

And if you are an elementary school teacher you also have to make sure those monkeys don't pick their nose, that they aren't left out at recess and that they have their shoe laces tied. If you are a high school teacher, you have to make sure no one is smoking behind the utility shed or planting a bomb in the locker room.



Teachers work more hours by far than the specific hours kids are at school. They work in the morning, at night, on the weekends or all three, to give the job what it needs. To give our kids what they need. That is if they are the dedicated teachers we all want for our kids.

I know many teachers who don't just give up their personal time, but they also sacrifice their money and their time with their families. Talk to any devoted teachers who have kids at home and they will tell you the conflict caused by their professional obligation and their parental ones. Ask them how much of their own money they spend for the non-budgeted supplies for a really cool project. Ask them how many boxes of granola bars and Clorox wipes they have purchased from their own grocery budget to make sure their students are healthy and well-fed. Ask them how many hours of their Sunday they spend grading term papers, compiling report cards or lesson planning.

We ask so much more of teachers than we used to. A few decades ago, when I was a student, teachers were expected to follow general curriculum guidelines but were allowed to utilize their own talents and creativity to do so. There was room in the school day for spontaneous experiential learning or to tailor instruction based on the students' interests and needs.  In short, there was room for teachers to teach.

The teachers of yesterday had one of the most powerful weapons at their disposal: autonomy.

Learning is like a living, breathing organism.  It demands sunlight and fresh air.  Learning cannot be put in a binder with step-by-step guidelines without withering and dying. It cannot be decided by a panel in Washington and handed down the ranks in any meaningful way. We cannot tell our teachers how to teach and expect them to teach well. Our educators are educated are they not? Why would we tell them what to do and how to think about every aspect of their craft?

The more we standardize teaching in hopes to standardize students, the less the organism of learning can thrive.


Countless teachers I know are still phenomenal, despite the external contraints continually placed on them in today's educational landscape. They find pockets of autonomy wherever they can. They do what is required of them to meet the standards as efficiently as possible in order to preserve time for kids to talk during circle time about the things that are important to them, to ask off-topic questions demanded by their budding curiosity, to have an impromptu discussion of a world event even if it has nothing to do with a learning target.

My children have been lucky enough to have teachers who were able to be an intermediary between the imposed learning benchmarks and the students' actual rate of learning.  These teachers acted as a buffer, absorbing the pressure themselves (at an enormous personal cost I would imagine) so it wouldn't be felt by their students. My children have also had teachers that did not, or could not, do this and those teachers were in a constant state of low-grade stress and strain. Neither scenario is ideal and neither is healthy for students or teachers.



Not only are teachers today disempowered to actually teach, kids today are different than they were a decade or two ago.  I recently heard an education administrator say that it used to be that when they were placing kids in classes and assigning them to teachers, they used to have 2-3 kids per class who needed specialized care or accommodations. Now each class has 10-15 kids that fit that description. Kids' who have emotional and behavioral considerations that impact their educational needs are now the majority.

Sort of like how when I was growing up I had never heard of a peanut allergy and now you can't throw a rock without hitting a kid with a tree nut allergy and an Epi Pen.

Kids who need a level of care for their person, who might have a mood disorder or a learning disability for instance, have deeper needs to be filled from their teachers in order to access the education that is offered. If a child with anxiety spends her day worried, learning is not possible. A child like this might need help settling, strategizing, or skill-building. This child, like any child who is chronically dealing with matters of the heart, might also just need a little extra love and care.

But is it fair to ask our teachers to not just educate our children but to love them?

Teachers are, like the rest of us, human beings. Is it reasonable to expect them to teach our kids according to the intensely rigorous standards while still making it engaging and fun, buffer the stress of standardized test performance, help them navigate the social platforms, make sure they ate their lunch and aren't cheating on their math test, and LOVE them?

Let's get real. It isn't remotely reasonable to have it be part of anyone's job description that they love someone else.  Yet we all want that for our children from their teachers, don't we? We want them to love our children and we want our children to love them and we also want to love the teachers so we can feel good about putting our children in their care. We want this big lovefest. We do.


Perhaps what is more reasonable is that we have teachers that care. And the vast majority of them, I believe, care profoundly. That is why teaching is a calling, an art. I don't think we have to even ask our teachers to care. It would be like asking the sun to shine. They can't help but care.

The more compelling question to ask is: what things can we eliminate from a teachers' plates so they can return to their natural state of emotional investment? If kids need more support now than ever before, how can we support our teachers to give it? How can we ask less of our teachers so that they can actually do more of what matters?


First off we would need to do a major U-turn. We would need to stop asking teachers to chronically do more with less. Right now we expect teachers to produce students who excel (some districts even pay teachers based on student performance) yet we shackle them with mandates that insult their intelligence and abilities. We expect them have the time to attend hours of meetings to adopt individualized plans for kids whose educational needs fall outside the box and then to build these accommodations into the rigid school schedules. We expect them to stimulate young minds, to build character and guide students through a year of their life, yet we are slowly taking away all the tools and creativity they need to do so.  We expect them to care for our children when they are so overworked and burdened that it may be legitimately harder and harder for them to do.

We are asking for more and more and more so surely we are matching all of these requests with fair compensation, right?

In Maine, new teachers enter the pay scale around $30,000 with the state average being around $42,000 (including both new teachers and 20 year veteran teachers). A recent statistic reveals that 2 of every 5 people that go into teaching leave within the first 5 years due to both the pay and the demanding responsibilities of a teacher. 

Our school district is currently under tense negotiations with the teachers over their contracts. The sticking point, naturally, is their pay. Apparently our district's annual teaching salaries are somewhere around $10,000 less per year than nearby districts. Nothing says "thank you for working your ass off" like making people fight for compensation.

In the past few weeks there have been a cluster of brave teachers picketing at the exit of my daughters' schools to rally support from the parents over the contract negotiations.  "Honk if you want equal pay."  Of course, I want equal pay. I beep. I lay on my horn for them.

We don't want our teachers taught by robots. We don't want their learning to be out of can with a two year shelf life. We want the living, breathing organism of learning. Our kids spend more hours a day with their teachers than they do with their parents. We want these teachers to have the autonomy they need to do the job we ask of them, to have enough room to breathe and think for themselves so they are able to give our children the foundation of their education: care.

It is as though we are letting the government slowly strip the meaning away from teaching and the spirit away from teachers themselves. In an attempt to beef up the educational system through standardization, we are actually diluting it, making it weak and anemic. How far down this road will we go before we have no good teachers left because they have taken their beautiful talents to some other corner of the map where they can be utilized?

We don't have to be the timid people in the tale of the "Emperor's New Clothes" who don't have the guts to call bullshit when it is right before us.  The system is broken and it is time we called it for what it is. It is time for change.

Each teacher a child has is a building block in the infrastructure of that child. For good and for bad. Are we in this together, taking thoughtful care and advocating for the teachers that are shaping our most precious commodities?

Dear Teachers-  You are incredible. Your commitment and sacrifices are seen and so many of us appreciate them. I tried to do what you do last year when I homeschooled my daughter and it was beyond challenging and that was just with one kid, not the entire pack of monkeys. You have a gift, a calling that outshines every mandate they put on you. To me, you are superheros, wearing invisible capes that I'm certain are embroidered with grammatically correct and properly spelled logos. Thank you for your hard work, for you guidance, for you teaching, for your caring, and for the clean noses and tied laces of our children.  Thank you. Do we say it enough?

THANK YOU.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

where the *&$% have we been?

It has been an excusably long time since I have written a blog post. I don't exactly have a good reason except to say that, while I like to think of this as an authentic space, I try not to use it as my own personal therapy office. 

Also, I have actually been writing. I have nearly 100 pages written in my book. I have crossed over to the point where I feel the need to write, like the story and the characters are taking on a life of their own. It is indescribably exciting and entirely intimidating to me. 

The theme of the winter has been gymnastics competition and skiing. This means a lot of early mornings and later nights, car rides, a great deal of hair braiding, the packing of clothes, gear, snacks and a piles of hand wash only clothes. No weekend has been unspoken for and we constantly say to each other: sure we can pull it off, but will it still be fun? 

We are not the kind of parents that care about our children's scores (to the point where they will what they scored on their floor routine and we have to shrug and apologize for not having paid more attention). We are more wowed that they have the guts to get up in a massive gym full of watching eyes and display the skills they have worked tirelessly to master. When I watch our girls traverse the narrow balance beam, watch them waver and lose their balance only to find it, correct and resume, I have all I can do not to shout my triumph. 

I don't need my kids to do all the cool flips or to win first place. I want them to find their strength, to wobble and then find their center, to fall off that tricky beam, get back up and finish their routines with pride, to use their strong arms to swing around the bar. I want them to work hard and see their own improvement, to cheer for their teammates, to respect the adults that coach them, to have fun.  (I also really want them to invite me down on the floor while the scores are being calculated to do the Cotton-Eyed Joe with them but we can't have everything.) 


 The girls are so lucky to have their family come and watch them compete.




In February we spent our vacation at NEVI Fest again this year  (The New England Blind and Visually Impaired Ski Festival) at Sugarloaf with Noah, who skis double black diamonds blind, and his amazing parents.

Noah, with his amazing parents (Buzz and Suzanne). I feel like that could be, should be, the title of a book.


 We were so deeply impacted by our experience at NEVI Fest last year that we were so excited to return and be a part of such an amazing event.  The main goal of the festival is to help blind skiers be able to ski and Maine Adaptive volunteers help them with whatever adaptation they need to do so. Close your eyes and think of skiing blind down a mountain and you will have a sense of how inspiring this week is.  Close your eyes and imagine just trying to get to the bathroom in an unknown place. These participants, their bravery and determination, are incredible.

At the closing banquet the keynote speaker, Randy Pierce, spoke beautifully about the difference between sight and vision. Lots of people have vision without sight and lots of people have sight without vision, he says. How very true. He is the first blind hiker to summit all 48 New Hampshire peaks over 4,000 feet. He has run the Boston Marathon and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.  Check him out here.
Noah and his guide.






Hot cocoa at Bullwinkles, the ski in, ski out restaurant we all love.


Maya couldn't wait to get home and play Connect Four (one of her favorite games) "blind" like she had seen Noah do. Half of the chips are modified with aluminum foil in order to "feel" the game. I'm not sure why Maya had to look like she was robbing a bank in order to play, but knowing her, it just added to the fun. 



 Sometimes skiing is really fun for Maya. Sometimes it is a power struggle. She has been reluctant to ski with Maine Adaptive (the guides use assistive technology to overcome her hearing loss and teach her to ski) yet she always ends up having fun and listening to them in ways she won't listen to us.  As a result, she can now execute clean parallel turns. No more snowplow for her. Unless she gets angry at us. Then she points her skis in a standard snowplow which is akin to giving us the finger.

Photo juxtaposition: (on the left) she and her guide highlighting all the trails they skied and basking in the glory of success versus (on the right) laying on my lap in the lodge.


Maya with her guide, Eric. These people are amazing, I tell you.

Four days of skiing at NEVI Fest equaled victory for both girls. Ella skied every advanced trail she was allowed on, including the elusive double black diamond Gondi Line (Sandi took her. My feeling about those trails is that I really have no business on them and I am just very relieved to see my girls when they come down still on two legs.). Maya tackled a challenging intermediate slope, Sluice, with the help of the very patient and encouraging Alissa, a Maine Adaptive guide I liken to a Sugarloaf superhero. She has an uncanny way of showing up when things are falling apart on the side of the mountain (for both the child and her two mothers) and coaxing Maya's determination and grit back out of her.  We are pretty sure Alissa wears a cape under her ski jacket. 

Ski glory, of course, doesn't come without at least a few double ejections. 


Also, this happened. Note the bottom of the sign: "Warning! Serious injuries or death possible. 
You assume all risks."
 Ella took Sandi and I down this terrain trail and I can tell you it had all the same emotional components of riding a roller coaster. I want to do this. I shouldn't do this. What if I die? I'm doing this. Oh dear god, I'm going to die. But I will die having fun! What if I don't die but just get maimed and lose limbs? This is beyond thrilling! I have never felt so alive! And so terrified! When will it end? I hope it is almost over! I hope it never ends! It's over...I did it. I'm alive. All my body parts are intact! I want to do it again...sort of.  

I am of the belief that I need to be terrified of something and do it every now and then in order to have a fulfilling life. I just would like to keep all my knee ligaments. And my brain, too. 

In truth, our family is sort of in love with Sugarloaf. 



Perhaps my most exciting news is that we are drafting plans for our new house. Anyone who knows us can imagine how this is going. Sandi is using her brilliant math mind to draw things to scale on graph paper and calculating square footage in her head while I sit next to her compulsively pinning ideas on Pinterest to ensure that our house falls outside our budget.  (Who doesn't need a hidden door that looks like a bookcase? Or a book nook that you can only get to by ladder?)

Because we are not stupid, we know we have lots of research to do as we make the 50,000 decisions that go into building a house. Because we are actually smart, we know how to make it fun. Our friends Kate and Paul, who have a lot of experience designing the insides of houses, invited us to visit their house (and peek in their cupboards and ask them personal questions like, "Do you actually use your front porch?" and "Where do you store all your towels?"). It was a such a treat to hang out with them and pick their brains.

Maya knew we were on MDI and kept saying, "I want to go to the beach!" to which I kept replying, "We aren't going to the beach. We are here to visit and it is March!" Then Paul and Kate said they wanted to take us on a walk so we could see how beautiful the nearby ocean was and, whaddayankow...BAM, Maya is on a beach. That girl is the captain of her own destiny. Parenting her is often an exercise of just getting out of the way.



Paul and Kate and their adorable child. 


 The girls are growing so much right now. It is somewhere between really cool and a total betray of my deluded parent/child contract.


 Alas, Ella is not too old for Sandi to pick her up. (However, she is close approaching my height and so I don't attempt this.)




On a hike with their surrogate sister from upstairs, Jax.

And, lastly, Maya has a new favorite face. Just to keep you in the loop. 


If any of you out there have any house building advice, I am open to all of it. Unless you want to say "Don't do it." We have thought long and hard about this decision and we have bought our tickets for the train. But I would love to hear about any things you would love to have known before you built or things you would do differently if you did it again. There are so many things to choose and decide on and many of them I don't even know I should be thinking about. 

Happy almost spring to all of you!