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Archive for the ‘Summer vacation’ Category

Years ago, my kids and I were caught in a freak thunderstorm in Santa Rosa. It was just after school had ended, and we were on our way home after I had picked them up. But in between school and home, I needed to stop at Montgomery Village for some reason. I don’t remember what that reason was. All I know is that this was when the rains decided to drop buckets, and the thunder and lightning were going wild.

The kids and I all huddled under the eaves of one of the stores, laughing as the sky poured down all around us. It was too magnificent of a rain to just get back in the car and leave. Besides, driving in this kind of weather wasn’t fun. So the kids talked me into taking them to one of the bakeries in the shopping center. And I was more than happy to oblige.

I didn’t have a lot of money at this time. I was a single mom, living on one tiny paycheck that I made stretch by not allowing for many extras. But on this day, nothing sounded better than indulging in something sweet until the rains let up. I don’t remember details of my day-to-day life very often. But on this day, I remember that we all got white hot cocoas, and then split a very delicious almond croissant. I can still taste the sweet marzipan of the filling layered within the flaky bread, and how we were all careful to take small bits of it to make it last that much longer.

I mention this now because it’s one of the childhood memories that my kids still talk about to this day. It’s probably been about 5 years, maybe more, since that happened. And it all cost me the price of three cocoas and a pastry.

Vacation season has just begun, and many families are headed off to fun places like Disneyland, Hawaii, camping, or some other place miles away from home. But a lot of families are also staying home because their finances don’t have room for anything extravagant.

Thing is, kids don’t require traveling in their vacation. Sure, it’s nice when it’s possible. But they are not suffering when it’s not. What they do require from you, however, is TIME.

That day in Montgomery Village, it wasn’t the sweet treats that made the day special. It was our time together, sharing something to laugh and be cozy over. It was enjoying the fact that we three were our own group, with private jokes and shared history, a trio that were in each other’s corner while the rest of the world rained down around us.

That’s what being a part of a family is. It’s not what you’re doing, it’s who you’re doing things with. More than a trip to Disneyland or tropical island, your kids are going to remember the moments they spent with you – even if it’s as simple as waiting for the rain to stop over a cup of hot cocoa.

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The Taz and me at his 6th grade promotion

The Taz and me at his 6th grade promotion

In the last few weeks of the school year, our whole family catches summer fever, eager for the day when the last school bell rings and we can enjoy the lazy days of June, July and August. That last day of school is cause for celebration, and we revel in it the whole weekend long.

And then Monday morning hits, and so does reality — because now there’s nothing to do.

Sure, there are camps and vacations to take in between the last day of one grade and the first day of the next. But camps and vacations cost money, and sometimes it’s not possible to load the kids up with paid-for activities to ward off the “I’m bored” blues. So to keep you from going crazy or broke this summer, I’ve put together a list of cheap activities your family can enjoy until school gets back in session.

Go on a backyard camping trip. Spend the day putting together all the things you’d need to go on a camping trip, then set up the tent in the backyard. Bring out the lanterns and sleeping bags, and don’t forget the s’mores! Then spend the evening telling stories underneath a starry sky before turning in for the night.

Pack a picnic. Fill a basket with numerous small bites, from crackers and cheese to grapes and apple cider. Let the kids help choose which kinds of foods would be best to pack up. Then take them on a hike in the hills, to a grassy knoll at the park, or to the beach to enjoy a delicious afternoon of play.

Our new garden of succulents!

Plant a garden. Get the kids interested in spending time outdoors by giving them a small piece of the yard that’s just for them. Help them to plant seeds or seedlings, decorate it with colorful stones and small markers, and encourage them to tend to it daily by watering and keeping it free from weeds.

Stage your own play. Keep the brains of your vacationing kids working by having them think up and then perform a play for family and friends. Dive into the costume box or the back of your closet for imaginative disguises to help them get into character. Encourage them to create programs with the names of the actors and titles of each scene. Then serve popcorn and juice boxes for the neighborhood as they enjoy the performance.

Hunt for buried treasure. Go to the Dollar Store to find small trinkets to serve as pirate’s booty. Have the kids stay in the house and hide their eyes while you bury the booty in the backyard. Then let them loose to discover where X marks the spot on the map you’ve carefully drawn. Not keen on the kids digging up your backyard? No problem. Take them to the beach and let them hunt for their treasure in the sand.

Go thrifting. Speaking of buried treasure … This is a fun way to search out eclectic items you just won’t find in a regular retail store. If your kids are the kind who love combing stores for various trinkets (my son is NOT), then they’ll love digging through other people’s tossed aside items to find their diamond in the rough.

Make a puzzle. If you’re anything like me, you have boxes of photos you despair of ever getting organized. Don’t let them go to waste! Get some Mod Podge and help the kids glue the photos to a piece of cardboard. Then carefully cut the mounted photos into puzzle-piece shapes for them so the kids can put them back together. These would also make cute gifts the kids can make for Grandma and Grandpa.

Throw a spontaneous dance party. Put on your favorite dance jams, turn the music way up, and then spend the afternoon bouncing around the living room with the kids. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a terrible dancer. In our house, we actually have contests to see who can dance the worst. I think I win every time.

My stepson’s first several cranes

Learn origami. My teenage stepson has challenged himself to fold 1,000 paper cranes by the end of 2013. The result is a room filled with cranes of various colors and sizes. Teach your child the art of paper folding, and watch as they spend the afternoon creating all sorts of tiny masterpieces.

Teach them to bake. Forget the diet for one afternoon and spend it making cupcakes! Or dig into the recipe books and bake bread from scratch. There’s an art to baking that should be passed down to our kids, and what better time to teach them than the dog days of summer? Of course, it’s best to bake in the morning before the day heats up too much.

What do you like to do in the summertime with your kids?

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This article publishes in the Press Democrat on August 10th.

The kids are visiting their dad this week. As a result, the house is strangely quiet. The TV, which is usually blaring with bright pictures and loud voices from attention seeking sitcoms, has been off for days. And the Internet speed is curiously faster without video games tying up the bandwidth. The living room is free of clutter, and the food in the kitchen is intact for much longer than usual. In fact, our food bill this week was much lower than usual, and it’s been really nice to cook for two rather than five. Our calendar is looking pretty bare this week, and the cash in my wallet is staying put instead of being handed over to kids who need new clothing, a soda from the store, money for half-done chores, or whatever their fancy of the moment happens to be.

I was asked recently if I missed my kids. Without hesitating, I said absolutely not. It was only after I said it that I realized maybe I shouldn’t have been so enthusiastically quick in my response. I love my kids. I love that I have them with me the majority of the time. But after a long summer of bored teenagers taking over the house, I love that they are at their other parent’s house for 7 glorious days.

It’s been a really long summer. My son, Taz, has taken to video game marathons while I’m away at work. Despite the sunshine outside, his comfort level takes place in his darkened bedroom, chatting away with friends on his headset. When he’s not doing that, his butt is planted on the couch watching TV. Dirty dishes are piling up in his room even though he’s been told food doesn’t belong anywhere but in the kitchen. When I come home from work, he’s usually back upstairs in his room, talking loudly into his headset while his friends shout back through the television. Meanwhile, the downstairs TV is still on with whatever kids show he was watching earlier, the living room totally destroyed and the kitchen showing blatant signs of whatever he ate that day through the food on the counter and the garbage on the floor.

But the noise from my son is overruled by the pounding beat coming from upstairs. Frizz, my stepson, has taken to listening to club music at extremely loud levels at all hours of the day. From the moment he wakes up at 2 pm till late in the evening, all that can be heard throughout the house is bump, bump, bump, bump. I’d like to strangle whoever thought it was an excellent idea to buy a teenager a sub woofer for his tiny room. While we are at work, Taz and Frizz compete with each other as they try to hear their own sounds above the others. The other day, Taz’s TV was on full blast, as was Frizz’s pounding music. This was what I got to come home to. The kicker was that Frizz was also wearing earplugs to drown out the noise. Tired of sounding like an ancient broken record about keeping the noise at a level that is respectful towards everyone living there (just writing that out makes me realize what an old fogey I’ve become), I fought the noise in the most mature way I could muster. I figured out just how loudly the downstairs surround sound could play my personal mix of Coldplay music. Apparently pretty loud – at least loud enough to drown out all the other music.

In the midst of all this is my daughter DQ, who is suddenly very much in puppy love with a boy who lives near us, and wants to spend every waking moment with him. Take a hormonal 14-year old girl, add in a 14-year old hormonal boy, factor in the summer break right before entering high school when both have a lot of free time on their hands, and mix it all together. The sum of this equation supersedes any stress that videogame marathons and subwoofer competitions can induce by about a million.

So when it came time to drive my kids several hours away to stay with their father for 7 whole days, I couldn’t throw their stuff in my car fast enough.

In the time they have been gone, I have enjoyed a few lazy days by the pool with a magazine in my lap and a cold drink within arm’s reach. I have gone to bed early every night, and woken up refreshingly early every morning. Mr. W and I have even enjoyed a couple nights out on the town.

In a few days, my kid-free staycation will be over. By then, I will be ready to take back the reins. But until then, I think I will enjoy this brief interlude from motherhood while it lasts.

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The latest rage in books, 50 Shades of Gray (or is it ‘Grey’?), was typed out using a Blackberry. While this post will be slightly less blush-worthy, I am not in front of my computer. So this post will be completely typed out using my iPhone. 

Today was the Taz’ last day of school. The milestone of finishing 5th grade was huge, since this has been a pretty tough year. I’ve come to cringe when I open my email, half expecting a ‘love note’ from his teacher once again detailing another way my kid has screwed up. He was getting in trouble for everything, from bouncing a ball in line to doing a 360 before throwing a ball. The latest incident was when the kids were all given splash balls to fill with water and throw at each other on a hot day. According to the teacher, the activity was meant to be ‘fun and engaging’. So the teacher couldn’t understand when Taz and his friends got out of hand in their pummeling activity. 

Let’s see. Splash balls + rowdy boys. And the equation is supposed to equal ‘fun and engaging’? It was almost like they were setting the boys up for failure. 

This was the bow on a particularly hard year. And yet, last night I actually burst into tears as I realized today would be our very last day in attending a school district we’d all grown up into. 

All week long I’ve been on edge. I thought I was just stressed out and possibly heading into my hormonal time. Could be all three, which meant Mr. W was basically screwed. I nitpicked him for days, and he graciously let it slide off. But it eventually got to be too much, and he asked what was up. I rattled off the looming baseball schedule, the many deadlines at work, my lack of time for personal projects, the stress from planning a wedding, my social life going down the tubes, and the litany of money requirements right now – just to name a few. It was so rich, you could almost hear the violins. And then school came up, and I mentioned this was the last day ever for the Bennett Valley district.

And then the tears. 

There are so many factors that go along with why this is so bittersweet. First there’s the friends we’ve made over the years. Sure, we only live 20 minutes away. But when it’s hard enough to get together while we’re conveniently in the same district, I can only imagine how it will be when we’re immersed in Petaluma schools. I’m afraid for Taz and how he’ll make friends at his new school. Will he be miserable? Will this shatter his already fragile self image? How about his new baseball league, how will that go? 

But most of all, it’s the end of an era. Our whole life was in Santa Rosa. It’s where we were all born, where we grew up, where we went to school. When DQ switched over, I wasn’t as affected since Taz was still there. I had my little commute buddy every morning and afternoon. This was time I had to visit with him, and when we’d get uninterrupted talk time. Now we won’t have that specific time. And this is the very last part of leaving behind our family-of-three life in Santa Rosa. 

It’s just a little sad, as silly as it seems. 

Of course, it’s not like it’s all bad or anything. Taz’ new school is a bike ride away. Now he’ll have a chance to make friends in our neighborhood. We’re leaving behind a school of ridiculous rules. And I no longer need to leave early to get him to and from school. The wedding is getting closer and closer, and I can’t wait to be married to Mr. W! And I really do love living in Petaluma so much, even more than Santa Rosa.

As I dropped Taz off at school this morning, I passed by the friendly crossing guard who waves at everyone each morning. 

“Have a great vacation!” he called to me in his thick accent. I rolled my window down and grinned as I wished him a wonderful summer. “I swear I could kiss you,” he laughed. And the statement was so ridiculous and out of the blue, but the perfect goodbye from the whole Bennett Valley experience, that I put my hand to my lips and blew him a kiss goodbye.  

Goodbye Bennett Valley. It’s been real. 

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At 10 years old, he had been on many sleepovers without me there to keep watch over him. And he just got back from a week with his dad and never even called me once while he was gone. So it wasn’t like he didn’t know how to be away from me. But still, camp was different. It’s easier for a kid to get lost in the shuffle, being surrounded by so many other campers. I didn’t worry about whether he would mind the rules. It was pretty much guaranteed the pool would be his bathtub, and gunk would have to be chiseled off his teeth when I picked him up at the end of the week. I didn’t even stress about whether he would eat enough, as my boy is not one to skip a meal. But I did worry if he would make friends, or talk to anyone during the day. While the Taz has many friends at school, the awkward age he’s at now makes it difficult to leave his self-consciousness and meet someone new.

With so many kids around, it’s easy to find a friend. But it’s also easy to not say a word throughout the day, and spend time sitting all alone at meals.

I visited camp mid-week to help out and, yes, because I knew I’d miss the kids too much not to. Both of them were happy to see me, even my teen, DQ. But it was the Taz whose face lit up when he caught sight of me after three days away. Just moments before, his face held no emotion as he walked without energy towards the dining area for lunch. But when I called his name, he immediately lit up at the sound of something familiar, searching to find my face. And his energy returned as he ran up the steps to greet me.

He promised me he had made a bunch of friends. He named them off one by one when I asked, and I was pleased to know he was doing so well. But when I glanced over to him as I ate, I was dismayed to find that he was sitting alone. He sat near me after lunch to show me the letters he received from home, and I encouraged him to go play with some boys at the basketball court.

“I don’t know them,” he said shyly. “And they probably won’t play with me.”

This wasn’t like the Taz at home. Before we had even moved in with Mr. W, he had made good friends with the kids down the street. At school he seemed to have plenty of friends. But here? His confidence was gone and he was all alone. While he still went off on his own while I was there at camp, I saw he was happiest when he knew I was around. We played ping pong together, and then I watched him jump off the diving board at the pool.

And at least a dozen times, he asked if he could just come home with me when it was time to go.

I refused, of course. He only had two days left, and this was good for him. It was good for me too. I needed to not run to his side every time I felt he was uncomfortable. I really wanted to introduce him to some kids, find a way they could all play together, and create some friendships for him so I could leave knowing he was having a good time. But that wasn’t my job, it was his. And so I stayed out of it.

It was late in the afternoon when the radio in the dining hall was turned on as loud as the teens could make it without blasting us out of the forest. Without direction, kids made their way to the tables and stomped their feet in time with the beat. The music surrounded all of us. A group of girls led a line dance on several of the tables, dancing country to the hip-hop groove. On another table, a group of kids jumped and laughed. And in the back, my son was in the center of a bunch of kids, showing off his dance moves effortlessly. Dancing was something he loved to do, and would do without abandon. And darned if my kid isn’t a brilliant dancer! Yet, he was neither center of attention or totally ignored. Instead, he was one of the crowd, a part of this movement and energy that invited more and more to join in. And soon almost the whole camp was there, dancing away in a spontaneous dance party until it really was time to turn the music off and get ready for dinner.

“Can I come home with you?” the Taz asked me one more time that evening. It was mere minutes before campfire was over. The camp was going to go on a night hike. I was going to drive back down the hill and go home. I smiled at him and shook my head no.

“You’ll be fine,” I told him, kissing his head as I got ready to leave.

And I knew that he would. He might not be having the same experience as I did. He might be stuck a bit in his awkwardness. There would be times when he would be alone, and that would feel uncomfortable. Heck, it’s uncomfortable for all of us – from being a self-conscious tween to an insecure adult. But there would also be times when everyone banded together and he would feel like he belonged.

And who was I to take that away from him?

This awkwardness, it will pass. He’ll survive it. After all, it’s just a part of growing up. And in all this, I think I’m growing up too.

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The path to campfire

The Taz stared out at me from the back of the bus, his hand frozen in mid-wave, and his eyes pleading with me to stop the bus. I never did, and just waved until he was finally out of sight.

Only moments before, he had been hugging me ferociously, making the moment last as long as he could until the bus driver told him he needed to get on. He pulled away and I could see tears in his eyes that he was only half heartedly trying to keep under wraps. He was on his way to camp, his first year without me. I had decided to take a year off of being an adult chaperone, and was seriously second guessing my decision as I said goodbye to my second child. Not for his sake, mind you, but for mine. I was jealous that they were about to go to one of my favorite places on earth without me. And besides, the experience of being away from me was good for both of them. My faithfully independent DQ was already at camp, enjoying her first year on the teen staff, and had done a terrible job hiding her glee that I wouldn’t be there. But the Taz was a different story, and this was not his favorite idea. However, I knew it would do the Taz some good to gather his camp identity without his mom there.

And, fine. I really was worried how the Taz would do if I wasn’t there.

It was only two years ago that I made the Taz graduate from sleeping in Girls’ Camp with me and move his bunk over to the boys’ side. He was vehemently against it. If it were up to him, I do believe that the Taz would have been perfectly ok sleeping next to me until he was 15. But at 8 years old, I couldn’t risk this becoming a permanent arrangement. So I helped him set up his bunk near one of the male chaperones I knew, and let him know I’d see him every day when he wasn’t sleeping. And when evening came, I kissed him goodnight, made him promise to brush his teeth, and then watched as he disappeared into the camp I was not allowed to enter.

Seeing him disappear wistfully behind the fence of the Boys’ Camp was much like letting him enter the public Men’s Bathroom all on his own for the first time. I don’t care how old the kid is, you still feel like a bad mom that very first time you let them enter a room full of strangers without you there to protect them.

But this was not a camp of strangers. Many of the boys on that side of camp were kids I had seen grow from my son’s age to the teenagers they had become. And they were all great kids. But still, this was my youngest, a boy who was unashamed by his need to have me close. And while I was taking the steps to give him a touch of independence, the experience was hard on both of us.  And he spent the whole week wishing he could be with me instead of in some strange camp all on his own.

But he survived.  And the next year, there wasn’t even a question where he would be bunking.

And now, in his 10th year of life, we were experiencing another hard, yet necesary, step towards independence. I was wearing sunglasses when he hugged me tight, so he couldn’t see the tears in my eyes when I realized he was fighting his own from spilling down his cheeks. ‘Don’t let him see you cry,’ I willed myself, knowing it would do him no favors. I also silently begged him not to cry either.

‘Dude, no one’s going to want to be friends with a crybaby.’

But I didn’t say it out loud. Instead, I cheerfully told him he would be fine, and that I loved him. He slumped onto the bus and made his way towards the back. And he pulled his window down so he could peek over the top of the window while waving goodbye. But he was forced to sit down when the bus driver ordered that everyone be seated so they could be on their way. And as the bus pulled away, he turned to look out the back and watch me as they departed. I kept reminding myself this was good for him. It was. He needed time away from me. He would be fine….

And the bus disappeared around the corner.

And in that moment, I gave a silent prayer that he would be ok without me there. Simultaneously, I wondered what the heck I was going to do with myself while both of my kids were gone, knowing all my identity was wrapped up in being their mom. And I realized that the Taz and me, we weren’t that much different.

So I added myself to that prayer of independence, that I would be ok too.

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Kids are gearing up for the end of the year, eagerly anticipating the start of summer vacation. And if you’re like me, you’ve been racking your brain for what to give the people who have meant the most to your child throughout the school year. First on the list is their teacher. But on that same list are their daycare providers, bus driver, crossing guard, sports coach, librarian….

What do you give the people that have been shaping your child’s life all school year long?

1. A simple thank you note. The best way to say thank you is to, well, say thank you. A handwritten card by your child (and maybe a little note from you as well) can go a long way in letting your child’s teacher know they’re appreciated.

2. Make a Scrapbook. This is fantastic for a coach or a teacher. Each child takes a page with their photo on it, and then writes a favorite memory of the year or season on it.

3. Your time. At the end of the year, teachers, librarians, and daycare providers are busy taking down the room so that it’s ready to be prepped for the next year. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of work. And an offer to help out might be much appreciated.

4. A gift card. It sounds impersonal, but it’s the perfect way for the person you’re thanking to be able to get what they need or want. A nice dinner out, a day at the spa, coffee… And for teachers who are most likely using their own money in the classroom, a gift card to the local bookstore or school supply shop will be highly appreciated.

5. Gift basket of school supplies. Along with the mention above, teachers can never have too much help in stocking up their classroom. Pens, dry erase supplies, Kleenex, paper, scissors, tape refills, paper clips, staples…. The list goes on and on. This would be a fantastic gift from just your child, or even a whole classroom.

6. Photos. If you’ve been taking pictures all year long, burn them onto a CD and give them to your teacher or coach. You can also print them out and make a photo album or collage. You can include them on a digital frame. Or you can create a book from them using the programs with Snapfish, Shutterfly, or other programs that allows you to bind them in a hardcover book. You can even create a calendar for the following year so that when your teacher has a new class, she’ll also have memories to share of her old class.

7. Growing a thank you. A potted plant can last long past the summertime. And it doesn’t just have to be flowers. It can be a start for a tomato plant, some fresh herbs, or even some seeds so that your child’s teacher or bus driver can plant their own garden. Even a gift card to the local Seed Bank can be a wonderful gift.

8. Movie Night In. Tie a ribbon around a package of microwave popcorn, a box of candy, and a gift card to the movie store. To make it extra fun, put it all in a pail with a couple glass bottles of soda. Who wouldn’t enjoy an excuse to stay in?

9. Recipe Book. Have each child in the class write out their favorite recipe on an index card and then tie it with a ribbon to a new apron. Or photo copy each recipe and bind it together in a book.

10. And don’t forget to have your child include their address in the thank you card with a few extra stamps. They may just receive a summertime pen pal from their teacher, crossing guard, bus driver, daycare provider, librarian, coach, or anyone else who has made a huge difference in their life this school year. And through the years, teachers don’t forget their students. Proof – I just heard from my 1st grade teacher who hasn’t seen me in over 20 years!

Of course, while those we are thanking would never tell you this, there are a few gifts that you should avoid giving if you can.

Coffee cups. I guarantee each teacher receives several each year. Multiply that now by every year the teacher is in the classroom. That’s a lot of coffee cups.

Ornaments. Unless you know your teacher is an avid collector of all things Christmas, there comes a point when their tree just can’t take anymore.

Gifts that are TOO personal. Skip the Victoria’s Secret gift certificate or the fishnet stockings. I’m not saying teachers don’t need lingerie too, but it probably shouldn’t come from their student.

Anything that says “World’s Best Teacher” on it (or anything else teacher related). They might just be the world’s best teacher. They don’t need 20 plaques that say it all over their home or classroom that were given to them by numerous students. Same goes for Chicken Soup for a Teacher’s Soul. I know the stories are tear-jerking. I also know that each teacher has probably been gifted this more than once.

Religious gifts. Saying thank you while saving their soul might not feel like much of a thank you, especially if they don’t share your faith. Just saying.

Baked goods. Some might appreciate it, but most just end up in the teacher’s lounge. Just like us, teachers are watching their waist lines too. And let’s face it, even if you are the best baker in the county there are plenty of others who are not. After years of braving mediocre homemade goodies, the teacher may just decide they can’t chance it even on your prize winning banana bread.

Scented gifts. Candles, lotions, body soaps… They might smell lovely to you, but they also might induce an allergic reaction in your teacher. Not only that, some of the lesser expensive scented gifts smell AWFUL. Best to skip it in favor of a gift card to your favorite bath shop.

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Are you a teacher, daycare provider, librarian, coach, principal, teacher’s aide, bus driver…? What was the best end of year/season gift you have ever received? And are you brave enough to share the worst (I’ll totally accept anonymous comments if you’ll dish!)?

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