Thursday, December 9

The Power of Cardboard

(From January 2011 Montana Woman)

I hear older folks say that kids don’t need all those fancy toys they make these days, but it’s easy to forget in the advertising and rush of our modern Christmas season. Now that the decorations are put away and the new toys are sorted into the kids’ rooms, I’m reminded of the simple toys that occupy my children the longest, such as sticks and dirt. But my personal favorite, and the best for use in my living room in winter, is cardboard.

One of the surest ways to brighten the faces of my son and daughter is to ask who would like to go to the appliance store. On grey Montana winter days, when it’s too cold or too wet to go outside, we’ll take a drive to the back of the nearest store that sells washers and dryers and find ourselves the biggest cardboard box we can fit in the back of the minivan. Then using my trusty box cutter stashed in my glovebox for this purpose, I break down the box, slide it in the back of the van over the kids’ heads (my son’s favorite part), and head home to reassemble.

Once home, we set the box back up in its full size and days of fun ensue. The big box transforms into a dragon’s lair, a fighter jet, a pirate ship, a kennel for packs of barking dogs, a cozy playhouse or an ice cream shop all at the whim of my children’s imagination. With the handy box cutter, we add portholes, drive-thru windows and garage doors. With crayons and markers, the kids decorate the insides and outsides to match their imaginary project.

When the box no longer holds up to the pirate attacks, wild hyenas, and ice cream sales – or I can’t stand the box in the living room anymore, whichever comes first – we cut the sides apart to make giant Viking shields, two-handed swords and magic wands. Glitter, paint and markers aid in the transformation. And a month later, when the allure has faded, all that mangled cardboard gets sent off to the recycle bin – it’s the ultimate “green” toy!

For the Sistine chapel of cardboard box play, go to (check out the cardboard kitchen!) where super achiever moms can get intricate directions on cardboard creations … but really, a washing machine box with a hole cut in the side, some crayons and a child are all you need.

Thursday, June 17

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me!”

(From July Montana Woman)

We decided early on in the parenting journey to define and emphasize respect with our children. We saw respectfulness in our friends’ children that made them a pleasure to be around; and we saw disrespect in other children that exhausted and frustrated those around them. For some families, respect means calling adults, “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, or sharing favorite toys. In our family, respect starts with speaking respectfully and seeking forgiveness when we don’t.

These habits start with us, the parents. Dr. Kevin Leman, a prolific author and parenting expert, writes in his latest book, How to Have a New Kid by Friday, that the golden rule of parenting is to “treat your kids as you would want to be treated.” Children learn more from what is caught than taught he says, so, “Model respect by being respectful toward your children.” For example, my husband and I make it a point to use please and thank you when asking our children to do things. We even say, “No thank you,” to correct behavior rather than, “stop that!” In fact, we rarely ever raise our voices; we’ve found it more effective to get very close and talk lower and slower when a child needs correction. And we try not to argue with our children about little things, such as what to wear and what to eat (of the healthy options); but we will go to the mat over respectful, kind voices.

Children can start learning respectful behaviors earlier than we think. Our babies learned simple sign language for please and thank you in their high chairs. Today, I can still use the sign for thank you to give a quiet reminder when needed. When our children were toddlers, respectful voices meant practicing volume control –“use your inside voice”— and saying please and thank you. In addition, tantrums earned our toddlers a time out in their crib for a minute or two with a soft reminder along the lines of, “Uh oh, you may join us after you pull it together.” It did not take long for them to figure out that tantrums were not respectful and not effective for getting what they wanted.

Along with using respectful voices, we’ve trained our children to apologize and ask forgiveness when they hurt each other, just like my husband and I do with each other. They’ve done it so many times that when I tell them to work it out, the perpetrator will say, “I’m sorry for … (then they name the action: hurting you, breaking your toy, etc.), will you forgive me?” The victim will say, “Yes”, and off they go to the next activity. It’s more satisfying to them than the command to just, “Tell your brother you’re sorry!” because it requires the perpetrator to verbally confess what they did wrong and seek restoration of the relationship with forgiveness. In other words, they have to show respect for each other.

Finally, Dr. Leman, writes, “training a beagle and training a child have a lot of similarities. You have to tell them to do the same thing over and over until it sticks.” His comment is obviously a simplification, but in my experience, it rings true. This doesn’t mean training with shock collars, but it does mean giving simple directions for expected behavior … over and over and (deep breath) over.

Now, my children don’t always come when they’re called, say thank you when served or clean up after themselves, and neither do I! But I expect them, and myself, to try most of the time. My husband and I model respectful behavior to our children, prioritize a handful of respectful habits, and practice, practice, practice. Hopefully, we won’t have to spell out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the future because our kids’ attitudes will already reflect the meaning of the word.

Wednesday, April 21

The Things I Make My Kids Do

Today, I made my kids do something I remember thinking I would NOT make my kids do when I grew up.

We rode bikes home from school. I do remember loving to ride my bike, and I remember riding my bike to and from school as I got older. We lived across town from my school so it seemed like a long ways to me. In reality it was about 3 miles; the same distance we live from our school now.

But to get to our "neighborhood school" today, we have to parallel a major highway, navigate through the great American shopping center (Costco, Home Depot, Walmart and Target), cross a river on a busy arterial bridge, cut through two neighborhoods and skirt around a gated dirt road that looks like the product of an easement argument.

This is the part I remember telling myself I wouldn't make my kids do someday: walking and biking when it wasn't cool (maybe it was just junior high) and taking unconventional routes to do it.

To get home with the kids today, we navigated all of the above including a mud path behind the new Walmart landscaping and a weedy field between the shopping center and the community college. And the kids loved it, especially the part behind Home Depot where we stopped for a snack. We got to watch a truck driver unhitch a trailer and add another set of semitruck wheels (Brian says this is a dolly) so the truck could pull two trailers. I used to think driving a truck looked sedentary - no more! You try pulling four giant wheels attached to a huge steel hitch around a parking lot - with just your one human body.

So hopefully the kids will keep thinking mom's bike routes are an adventure for a few more years ... or until junior high at least.

Monday, April 12

Misery Loves Company

I decided, the other night while skinning (skiing uphill on climbing skins) up Big Mountain, that I just want someone to acknowledge that it's really hard.

As I watched Brian's back get smaller ahead of me, three other men passed me. One, in the neighborhood of 60 and on snowshoes (much slower than skis unless I'm on the skis in question) passed me and asked how it was going. I said, with a smile ... really! ... that it never gets any easier. He responded by asking how many times I had climbed. As if I'm going to tell him just so he, who I'm guessing isn't juggling small children and is probably retired, can tell me I should do it more. As if I didn't know that! Thankfully, for once, I had the presence of mind to say, "Obviously, not enough." And off he climbed disappearing ahead with the others.

So I had some time to think. And I concluded that I don't like climbing and I just want others to acknowledge that it's hard. And I don't want to be expected to be cheerful and perky about something hard. But therein lies my problem. Most people who do this do actually enjoy it, so evidently, they don't mind that it's really not that much fun!

Tuesday, March 30

The Friend I Thought Was An Enemy: Routine

(from the April Montana Woman)

The first few pages of my family heirloom 1961 Betty Crocker cookbook include tips on household management such as: “Have a weekly plan for scheduling such tasks as washing, ironing, baking, shopping, cleaning the refrigerator or washing floors. One task done each day provides a sense of accomplishment and keeps work from piling up.” And, “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family’s too!”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I thought the first time I read those tips, thinking they were just an amusing glimpse of the ‘olden days.’ Now, after 14 years of marriage, working from home and the office, moving several times and having two children, I see the practical truth in them. Planning what needs to be done, accomplishing a few life chores, and doing a little something for myself every day, keeps me and my family sane.

Now, scheduling a routine is my friend. Routine is my compromise between forcing my children and me into a strict schedule or being dominated by the tyranny of the urgent, dealing with whomever or whatever is crying loudest at the time. Routine gives me the structure to face the never-ending cycle of making clean things dirty and dirty things clean again. Our family routine helps the kids know what to expect and helps the parents accomplish the chores of life.

As Kathy Peel says in her book, The Family Manager Saves the Day, “Hundreds of tasks are required to keep a family going, and many of them can be fitted into routines that make everyone’s life easier. Once you decide how, when, and by whom something should be done, you eliminate questions and arguing—and you stop wasting time on the trivial. … Routines help replace time-stealers with time itself – the most precious commodity. They free us to stick to our priorities, doing what we truly feel is important and essential, and they give family members security because everyone knows what to expect.”

Routines help me with everything from paying bills and serving meals, to training and disciplining children, to deciding what we’ll do for fun this weekend. One of my most useful routines, planning a weekly dinner menu, saves me because I can’t think when I’m hungry. And here is the trick to the menu: you don’t actually have to plan seven dinners! Mondays at our house is enchilada night. Friday is pizza night. Sunday is grilled cheese. And now I only have to come up with four more dinners … that I pick off the list I have scribbled in the front of my recipe box for when I need inspiration.

Routines help me schedule day to day and month to month. On a weekly basis, my routine includes laundry and planning on Monday, a trip to the library for story time on Tuesday and church night on Wednesday. My weekly schedule gives structure, but nothing says that it can’t be changed to take advantage of events that happen sporadically.

There are slushy spring days when I think I cannot possibly hang up one more pair of wet snow pants, build one more train track in our cramped living room, or make one more healthy dinner! And then the sun will come out. Then riding bikes to the nearest playground to bask in the sun becomes better than any routine I had planned for the day, especially if it includes picking up hamburgers for dinner on the way.

The beautiful part of routine is that I have time to take advantage of “unplanned” sunny days because my chores are generally under control. Who would have thought that a Betty Crocker cookbook from 50 years ago would have such helpful advice for today?

Thursday, March 25

Turn and Pivot

While reading Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, I found a familiar moment mentioned in several essays. It's the dead spot in the conversation after meeting someone and asking each other what we "do."

"I'm home with my kids," I say. "Oh that's nice/great/important," they say. And then ... there is nothing else to say. Turn and pivot.

One writer/mom, Page Evans, found herself at a Washington, D.C., party. "'I'm basically a stay-at-home mom,' she tells a fifty-something man next to her.
'Oh, well, that's such an important job. Kids grow up so fast, don't they?'
'Yeah, they do,' she says.
And that's the end of it. Turn and pivot.
But wait. Wait! Don't you want to know what I think about what's going on in the world? I want to scream out. I've spent the past seven years trying to improve my mind, to prove that I'm more than "just a mom." I see more plays, read more op-eds, take classes, visit museums. ... Driving car pool and discussing favorite food groups is not all I'm about. Yes, I'll gladly discuss those things, but I don't want to be defined by them."

Another writer/mom, Catherine Clifford, writes, "I don't understand why taking care of one's own children is considered hopelessly tedious or brain-deadening. I know well how quickly a new cocktail-party acquaintence needs a fresh drink when he finds out I'm a stay-at-home mother. I find it odd that I'd generate far more interest if I said I raised dogs or horses or chinchillas, but saying, in effect, 'I raise human beings,' is a huge yawn.
It might, in fact, be that boring if child care were simply a series of pink-collar tasks -- bathe, dress, feed, repeat. But observing and participating in a little Homo sapien's development is fascinating to me. Furthermore, being a mother isn't just a 'job' any more than being a wife or daughter is; it's a relationship."

Tuesday, March 23

Story Time Makes Me Cry

Every Tuesday, Ethan and I go to the library for kids' story time. And every week, they sing their welcome song ...

"We're all here for story time, story time, story time, so let's get ready."

And every week, it makes me cry.

The circle of toddlers and preschoolers all cup their little hands around their ears to turn them up high and twist little hands in front of their mouths to turn them down low. And I get weepy standing in the back of the circle of watching moms. Especially if my son looks over his shoulder to check that I'm still there. I stand in the back so the others don't see me wiping the tears away. There is just something about the sweet voices all following the librarian's hand motions that just gets me. I think it's one of those moments that I just want to stamp on my mind and heart to treasure when my kids are not so sweet or not so near, like when they're teenager who don't want me around or when they're all grown up with their own families.

Thursday, March 18

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Well, happy St. Patrick's day one day late. I make a big deal of St. Patrick's day for several reasons. One is that I've been to Ireland so it's a chance to get out the pictures and tell my kids about it. We get books from the library about St. Patrick and Ireland. We cook green treats like cookies or cakes. We cut out shamrocks. And we pretend fun things about leprechauns - for the last couple of years the wee ones have gotten to the children's breakfast cereal and turned their milk green when we weren't looking!

And, every year, I tell them St. Patrick's explanation of the trinity. According to legend, St. Patrick held up an Irish shamrock and said this is a picture of the trinity. Each petal represents one part of God - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - all separate but connected. Who knows if St. Patrick actually did it, but it's one of the clearest explanations of three in one that I've heard. So either my kids will get it, or they'll wonder why they think of shamrocks whenever their Sunday school teachers mention the trinity!

Wednesday, February 24


In defense of my hunting husband (who provides all our red meat) and on behalf of all my friends who cringe when they see email from me during hunting season (what dead animal will be pictured next?), I had to tell the world that I draw the line at eating roadkill.

I just finished Mika Brzezinski's book, All Things at Once, a memoir that I picked up to read about balancing work and motherhood. Turns out I had more in common with Mika's mother than Mika (MSNBC host of Morning Joe - had to look that up as I don't get cable). Mika's dad was Jimmy Carter's national security advisor so the family moved to the Washington, D.C., area where her mother tried to balance her individualism and art with a political husband and three teenage children.

Her mom's art medium was wood sculpture so she must have been pretty handy with sharp instruments. One day before an upcoming DC dinner party, her mom was driving to pick up Mika at school when she came across a dead deer on the side of the road. "Naturally, she got out to check if the carcass was still warm. It was. So she started hacking it up right there...Some guy in a truck pulled over and helped her, and they ended up splitting the deer, and she brought her half home in the trunk of her car, thinking about how she might prepare it for her guests. To her, this was normal... Mom was a wonderful, resourceful, and courageous cook, and she especially like to cook venison, so she counted herself lucky to have stumbled across this great find. It was like winning some wild-game lottery... When (the guests) sat down to dinner, they took turns marveling at the venison... They wondered aloud who the caterer was, and where my mother got her venison. Mrs. (Pamela) Harriman was just bringing her fork to her mouth when my mother blurted out her response. 'Oh,' she said, 'I found it on Old Dominion Road. It had been hit by a car just moments before I pulled up! Isn't it wonderful?' ... She went on with her story, as mouths dropped all around the table. 'I couldn't believe my good luck,' she continued. 'I gutted the thing right there, and skinned it, and brought the best part home for my guests.' ... What happened next was like a spit take scene from an old Honeymooners episode. Pamela Harriman--midbite, midsentence--spit her mouthful on her plate and turned ashen white. This proud, grand, refined woman, who had been married to Winston Churchill's son, who had dined at the finest restaurants and banquets and receptions all over the world, who would go on to become the U.S. ambassador to France, was simply aghast. And my mother, God bless her, couldn't understand the commotion. The story made the gossip section of the newspaper. Something about the Brzezinskis serving roadkill."

No way would I do that for a deer, but an antelope or an elk, well, I guess I better say, "never say never." But I'll wait until after dinner to reveal my sources!

Did you know ...

Did you know that you can get music on the internet?! Wow, that's what everyone has been talking about! I'm not a big music person, as in I can listen to the same CD for about six months without really noticing, but setting up radio stations on is way fun. Brian and I had to laugh at ourselves pulling up all our favorite old songs on until way too late the other night. Guess we really had been living in the dark, or rather, the silent ages.

Monday, February 22


Whew, connected again to the outside world! The day after I send out an email announcing my blog, my computer gets a virus and dies. But now I'm typing away on a shiny new laptop. The printer is still in a box and I have programs to load, but I'm loving the sound (old speakers never worked on hand-me-down desktop) and the
HD screen (my old monitor, from the local community college give-away pile, was an antique)!

Friday, February 5


Did you know that if you accidentally return a personal DVD to Netflix in the little white sleeve you will NOT get it back? Turns out they will give you $9.99 in credit for the loss of you DVD which is awfully nice considering I have no idea what DVD I returned. So if their system doesn't catch it, someone out there is going to be expecting an Al Pacino cop thriller and may be getting Thomas the Train instead!

The scary part to me is that I thought I checked the DVD to make sure I was returning the right thing. Just like I thought I made scones correctly the other day and after cooking them and taking the first bite determined I forgot the butter. Or three weeks ago when I carefully paid two bills on line and then forgot to enter it in my check register and only just now caught as I balanced my checkbook (thank you Quicken). And I'm not currently nursing a baby or working outside the home! Kudos to all you women who work hard at home and the office and still remember to pay your bills on time, send birthday cards, return library books, bring all the right gear to ski lessons and pick up your children at school! Way to go!

Wednesday, February 3

Beautiful Things

And another quote from Anthony Doerr's memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

"The Natural History, the umbrella pines, Borromini's Sant'Ivo, the question of starlings, and the questions of fatherhood—my interest in them all rotates around one question: If we creatures are on earth only to extend the survival of our species, if nature only concerns itself with reproduction, if we are suppose to raise our kids to breeding age and then whither and slide toward death, then why does the world bother to be so astoundingly, intricately, breathtakingly beautiful?"

I thought of this yesterday while skiing on a track at the local golf course through a lightly falling snow. I could only see the snowflakes when they were little flecks of white against dark evergreens. Looking up to the white sky they were invisible and looking down against the white snow they disappeared again. Only by looking straight out towards the trees that flanked the greens did the spiraling flakes appear. Next summer these flakes will turn the fairway and the surrounding mountains green and lush. So if it's just water storage, why does it arrive in tiny floating sculptures, each a unique creation never again copied? Because there is a God who shares His creativity with us and allows us to join Him in creating words and art and children and beauty.

O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. from Psalm 104

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11

Sunday, January 31


Did you know that it takes 107,000 frequent flyer miles to fly from Montana to London? I am 77,000 miles short. Do you know why I know this? Because it's Sunday afternoon ... in January ... in Montana. And there are four people in my house rattling around in about 300 square feet. So I am looking up how far I can get on my meager miles.

When my husband and I are feeling sorry for ourselves, we think we might as well live in a one-room shack in a third-world country with kids and chickens underfoot. Except we're nothing like that for a million reasons, not the least of which is that there are way more toys than chickens spread across that 300 square feet. I wonder if the kids will still want to play at our feet when we live in more than 900 s.f. (really), in which case, why bother heating and maintaining 1000 more square feet? Or will they actually play in the family room while my husband and I read the paper two whole rooms away in the living room or even in, be still my beating heart, a dining room?

Friday, January 29

New Parents in a Foreign Land

From Anthony Doerr's memoir Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

"Maybe being a new parent is like moving to a foreign country. There is the Before and the After, an Old Life and a New Life. Sometimes we wonder who we were before. Sometimes we wonder who we are now. Sometimes our feet get tired. Sometimes we find ourselves reaching for guidebooks.

We are humbled over and over—humility hangs over our heads like a sledgehammer. Oh, your novel got a nice review? That's great. You can read it after you scrub the feces out of your child's pajamas. Oh, you think you've been here long enough to barter at the street markets? Guess what, you just spent 8 lira on three plastic clothes hangers.

Every few days there are moments of excruciating beauty. We are simultaneously more happy and more worn out than we have ever been in our lives. We communicate by grinning and pointing and waving food in the air. We don't sleep as well as we used to. Our expectations (today I might take a shower; the #75 bus might actually show up) are routinely dashed. Just when we think we have the system (two naps a day; Shauna finds a rosticceria with chickens on spits that is open on Sundays), the system collapses. Just when we think we know our way around, we get lost. Just when we think we know what's coming next, everything changes."

Isn't that a beautiful description of parenthood? I haven't lived a foreign country but when I came home with a new baby I might as well have been sent to Mars! No amount of 21st century preparation (read the books, take the classes, search the web) provided any guidance on how to really live with a tiny being that didn't gain weight or sleep or speak up about how to fix it. I remember the biggest difference between baby #1 and baby #2 was that I knew we would all probably survive those early months of baby #2 - the first time around I absolutely did not know how it would all work out. And now, sometimes, I feel like an expert - at least with my two children - until the system collapses and everything changes ... again.

Thursday, January 28

Secrets to Succeeding at Skiing with Kids

Before my husband and I had children, we went skiing. We went from lying in bed to standing on skis in an hour flat– plus or minus driving time. We got up, got gear, got parked and got skiing with, in retrospect, laughable ease.

Then we had kids.

Now our ski season begins in September, on that first cold morning when someone needs a hat. Then someone else needs mittens. Then begins an annual inventory of all things wintery, of coats and snow pants, neckgaters and goggles, helmets and skis, boots of all kinds – snow boots, downhill ski boots, cross country ski boots, ice skates, snowshoes – and sleds.

So here are some secrets to snowy fun that I've learned somewhere between the minivan and the mountains.

Secret #1: Follow the child's lead. If your child is more interested in eating snow than sliding down it, maybe that should be the big achievement of the day. So relax, count snowflakes, throw snowballs, and try not to think of the time, money and effort it took to get there.

Secret #2: You set the tone, for better or worse. That's why it's okay to throw snowballs, especially at dad. While searching for ski gear in the fall, practice saying, "Isn't this an adventure?" Or, "Whoa dude, that was a really cool wreck!" And, "Let's see how long we can stand on one ski while waiting in this lift line."

Secret #3: Sleds, or how to actually get a Sherpa's worth of gear to the chairlift. Before children, I didn't give a moment's thought to walking a quarter mile across a parking lot and stomping up stairs to the ticket office. Then I had to get a five and a three-year-old from the car to the lift … by myself. How? A sled. A cheap sled … because you're going to leave it in a snowbank by the chairlift until the end of the day.

But first, pile skis into sled, pile duffle bag/backpack on top of that, and pile children on top of that. Pull sled across parking lot. Stop for a snack. Finish expedition through parking area. Reach the lodge steps. Unload children. Balance four little skis in one hand and take smallest child in other. Shepherd bigger child in front of you and tackle the stairs. Drag empty sled behind you with your teeth. Put it all down to purchase tickets. Pick it all back up to continue to staging area. Stash sled. Then go throw snowballs and follow rabbit tracks in the snow.

Secret #4: Glove gators. I saw these little fleece gizmos in a gear store and ran right home to make my own. It's a tube of fleece with a thumbhole that goes over mittens and jackets sleeves to cover that crack of skin in between. They keep snow out and mittens on.

Secret #5: Quit before the crying. Do not continue until children (or parents) are crying. Always quit at the halfway point of the energy so that there is still some left to return home on. It's sort of like flying to the moon and not saving some fuel for the trip home. If you pass the point of no return and are still on the slopes with a kid in a total meltdown, you'll wish you were on the moon where there are no witnesses.

Secret #6: And finally, as with any outdoor activity with children, the more the merrier. Other kids and/or grandparents promote more playfulness and just enough competition to help everyone go a little faster and a little further. Lots of prep work, especially the night before, also increases the merriness for everyone. Though there are times I wish for the simplicity of skiing before kids, I treasure the sight of my two kids gliding down the bunny hill holding hands and laughing together. Someday, hopefully, they will be hauling their own little ones up the hill to ski with me!