Sharing Values with Family Stories


sharing-values-with-family-storiesSitting around the Thanksgiving table, letting the food settle before dessert, was prime storytelling time in my family. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey, we’d cram as many chairs as we could around the table. Instead of focusing on the vastly different places family members ended up, we looked to the past. Even outside of holidays, my family often shared stories, of struggles and triumphs, of funny incidents and serious ones.

As an adult, I now see that these stories influenced my values so much more than any amount of lecturing would have. In fact, children who hear family stories about both good and bad times have more resilience in the face of difficult circumstances than those who don’t. Here are a few of my family’s stories and the values they passed on to me.

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A Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families

Text: "Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families, We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photos of a plastic watering can for children, a board book called Hello, National Parks, a rain jacket, and a blue headlamp.
Getting kids outside has a whole host of benefits, from stronger immune systems to the sheer joy of play. While sometimes all that’s needed is a stick and a bit of imagination, having certain gear can help bringing kids outside easier, safer and more fun. Whether you’re in the mountains or your own backyard, this gift guide – which is mainly focused on kids in preschool and elementary school – should provide a few helpful suggestions. (Note – none of these are affiliate or sponsored links, just products and/or companies I personally like.)

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Easter: Candy, Eggs and Grace

Easter_ Candy, Eggs and GraceThis Easter is a little different from usual, as we’ve never had a week-old baby around while celebrating it. Sprout was almost a year old by the time of his first Easter, so he had a bit more comprehension of the world by then.  At this point, Little Bird is strictly interested in eating, sleeping, and pooping. He’s hardly awake enough to register anything else.

But we still have a near three-year-old who is more than aware of the idea of candy, even if the concept of the Christian resurrection is beyond him. Fortunately, both we and the grandparents were more than willing to oblige his interest in sweets. He’s also old enough to do crafts, especially after a successful color-mixing activity during the blizzard, so egg-dyeing was a definite must.

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Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow (or the Obligatory Blizzard 2016 Post)

The Great Blizzard of 2016. Snowzilla. Ragsnowrok. Whatever you called it, the D.C. area got several tons of snow this past weekend. (Chris estimated that he shoveled approximately two tons of snow alone.) Specifically, we received at least 2 and a half feet of snow, putting us at more than double of what Anchorage usually accumulates in the entire month of January.

Snow ruler 1

Our biggest fear was losing power to the house. Both Chris and I are from upstate New York, so we’re used to getting a decent amount of snow. The first year I ever spent Christmas night at his parents’ house was because they invited my parents over for dinner and we physically couldn’t get the car out of the driveway. But we were also here for Snowmageddon in 2010, when we lost heat to our apartment for three days. Thankfully, we could drive up and stay with our friends in Baltimore who had heat. Between being much further from the highway and our friends no longer living there, we would have no such recourse this time around.

By Saturday morning, we were already past 20 inches according to our makeshift snow ruler.


Games, Baking and Other Distractions

We resorted to playing the first of many, many rounds of the Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game. Or as Sprout calls it, the “Neeky nacky quirrel game.” While it’s a cute game and I definitely appreciate that he likes his Christmas gift, any game that a two-year-old is capable of playing gets repetitive very quickly. One of the few saving graces is that he says, “Thank you neeky nacky quirrel” each time he gets an acorn, which is both astonishingly cute and polite. It also helps that he doesn’t actually get that losing is a bad thing yet.

Cheese crackersWe’re usually out-and-about on weekends, so I took advantage of being stuck inside to do one of the five zillion projects with Sprout that I have mentally bookmarked. I’m always encouraging Chris to cook with him, so I pulled out the recipe for Easy Cheesy Crackers I remembered seeing on 100 Days of Real Food. Because I wasn’t going for “easy snack” so much as “indoor activity a toddler will enjoy,” we used cookie cutters to cut the crackers into cute shapes. The angels looked more like gingerbread men and the bears just looked like lumps, but Sprout didn’t really seem to care.

In terms of taste, they came out okay. In retrospect, I would have used regular flour instead of whole wheat. I’m pretty sure the 100 Days of Real Food author uses whole wheat in the recipe because it’s healthier, but the finished product had an unpleasant graininess. Also, completely disregard the suggestion on her page that this recipe in any way resembles Goldfish crackers. These are closer to savory cheese cookies, not the crunchy, puffy, addictive crackers. They’re fine on their own terms – especially if we made them with regular flour – but there’s no way any child will mistake these for Goldfish.

I can’t say everything we did was highly educational. I showed Sprout the video of Tien Tien sliding in the snow. It immediately became a source of obsession and a lot of whining to watch it again (and again and again).

I was able to indulge in this suburban housewife-ness because Chris took on all of the shoveling. Hauling huge amounts of snow isn’t exactly recommended for women who are more than six months pregnant, especially when restrictions kept me from picking up my own son until a month ago. While I felt bad for him, I was not exactly sad about my restrictions for once.


Out and Not-So-About

But as the snow kept falling, I got more antsy than Sprout. There’s a very good reason I’m not the stay-at-home parent, and even if I was, we’d never be at home. I needed to get out of the house, even if there wasn’t an actual path off of our property. Despite Sprout’s lack of enthusiasm, I eventually talked him into letting me put on his snowpants and new boots.

Lump of snow

A not-snowman.

Unfortunately, the moment we stepped on the front porch, the wind whipped in our faces, feeling exactly like the 12 degrees F the weather reported. Sprout refused to move a step beyond the front door. He squatted for a few minutes while I tried to squash snow together into something snowman-shaped. Hearing his plaintive whimpers, I pulled him inside after less than 10 minutes, leaving a not-very-big lump of snow on the porch.

The snow stopped that night, but the next day was just as isolating.


Snow at door

Hello, snow. So much snow.

I wanted to get outside, but Sprout’s experience the day before had soured him on being outside. “Don’t you want to play in the snow?” I asked. “Naaah,” he replied.

Better snowmanWith a sigh and a feeling that somehow this wasn’t my child, I snuck outside while Chris was taking a break from shoveling. Sprout’s been obsessed with the book The Snowman since he received it on Christmas Eve, so I made building one my mission even though the texture of the snow was completely wrong for it. Through the power of my own mitten-covered hands, I transformed the powdery substance into something moldable and eventually snowman-like.

Sprout acquiesced to venturing out in the afternoon, mainly because I promised him hot chocolate afterwards. Upon his request, I added my hat and a green scarf to the snowman to make him look even more like the book.

With some coaxing, we made our way down the street about a block, holding hands and dodging the bizarrely fast plow before turning around.

Trees and snow


Job? What is this job you speak of?

The next two days were more of the same, except that I took a couple hours each day to do work for my job. (The federal government was closed, so I wasn’t required to do anything, but I had a lot to catch up on.) This morning, I faced the exquisite balance of talking to a co-worker on the phone while trying to entertain a two-year-old, which was a special kind of challenge. (Chris was still shoveling.)

I’ll be working all day tomorrow, albeit telework. I’m bringing the computer to Starbucks though – there’s no way I can spent another day in this house.

Highs and Lows of Christmas Vacation

Our Christmas this year involved two whole weeks with extended family. With annual leave I had to use by the end of the year, Chris, Sprout and I visited upstate New York from the weekend before Christmas to the one following New Years. My parents and Chris’s parents live within five minutes of each other, making it easy to visit both in a single trip. They also know each other quite well, so they enjoy doing things together. But while we had a wonderful time, not everything went holiday perfect.

High: Having lots of time to participate in holiday activities around the region. From riding on the Polar Express to visiting the train display at a local museum, we got out of the house quite a bit.
Low: The fact that my dad was stuck on the couch most of the trip. Three weeks ago, he stepped forward while playing Pickleball (aka old folks tennis) and felt a pop in his ankle. A visit to the doctor revealed that he had partially tore his ACL, a devastating injury even if you aren’t a professional athlete. To recover, he had to be completely off his feet for two weeks and then have another two months in a stabilizing boot. So he was totally out-of-commission for most of our trip. While my dad is a quiet person, he nonetheless has a calming, light-hearted presence that was sorely missed on our outings. Even when things don’t go as planned, a well-timed, ridiculous comment from him can make me laugh. Plus, I hated that Sprout couldn’t spend that quality time with his grandfather. The one upside was that Sprout was remarkably understanding of the situation. He loved snuggling up on the couch to read books with his Pop and was great about not touching his ankle.

High: Cutting down the Christmas tree. One of Chris’s family’s long-standing traditions is to cut down their own Christmas tree at Bob’s Trees. As we didn’t get a tree for our house this year, I wanted to bring Sprout there to carry on the experience. Because my dad was out of commission, Chris’s parents were kind enough to come with us. We tromped out to the woods, the ground barely coated in snow. My parents had picked out and marked the tree weeks before, so we didn’t need to walk to kingdom-come to find a decent one. After chopping down the tree, we walked back to the car singing Christmas carols, child and adulReindeert alike garbling most of the lyrics. In the farm’s indoor snack bar, we sipped hot chocolate, gazed at their Christmas tree and checked out their igloo made of recycled plastic bottles. Back outside, we said hello and waved to their two reindeer, who looked bored and sleepy. That night, Sprout declared that seeing the reindeer was his favorite part of the day.
Low: I left some key details out of the above description. While everyone else was cutting down the tree, I had to go to the bathroom. By the time I caught up, they were dragging it to the car. About halfway back, Sprout declared he wanted to carry the tree. He then immediately rejected every branch we offered for him, instead screaming like he was possessed and flailing all of his limbs. Any attempt to connect with or console him was met with further flailage. We finally picked him up, deposited him in his car seat, and restrained him enough to snap him in. Thankfully, changing the scenery and situation gave him enough space to calm down.

Christmas tree 2015High: Decorating the tree. My parents have a wonderful collection of Christmas orn
aments, each of which have personal meaning. Pulling them out and recalling how or why we got them always brings back a slew of memories, from the Baby’s First Christmas ornament from the winter before I was born (my grandmother got it on sale) to a crab ornament from Ocean City this year. Because my mom used to call my dad Pooh Bear, we have a large collection of Winnie the Pooh ornaments that Sprout adored.

Low: Scrambling to ensure Sprout couldn’t touch the delicate ornaments and repeating “Don’t pull ornaments off the tree” a million times.

High: Having Sprout be incredibly well-behaved at the surprisingly long Christmas Eve Mass at Chris’s parents’ church. He actually said “the big church!” was his favorite part of Christmas Eve that night.
Low: It was a long service, topped by a heavy dose of Catholic guilt in the priest’s homily.

High: The joy of Christmas morning. Our family is pretty non-materialistic, but Christmas is the one time of year we buy each other things. Chris loves the “cornucopia” of piles of presents spilling out from under the tree and both sets of grandparents go a little over the top. Sprout was also much more aware of the idea of getting presents this year than last year and reacted with a new enthusiasm. At the same time, he doesn’t have overblown expectations, so he actually appreciated everything and didn’t show disappointment the way older kids sometimes do.
Low: There were so many presents that Sprout actually got a bit bored about opening them by the time we got to my in-laws’ house. Instead, we opened the rest of ours while he played with some of his new toys. I also ended up with a ridiculous number of hand towels as presents. That’s what I get for mentioning that we needed more of them.

High: Playing with all of our presents. The presents we bought Sprout enabled lots of new experiences: we played Sprout’s first game together (the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game), put on a show with his new puppet theater, and watched him “ride” his new stick horse around the house. The adults even got to enjoy our presents – we listened to the soundtrack to Hamilton, the rap musical about the Founding Fathers, and played games we gave each other, including Love Letter and Tokaido.
Low: Fitting all of the presents in the car was like a version of Tetris inside Tetris where you crammed smaller shapes into bigger ones and then all of the big ones into a giant box that’s a really weird shape. Priuses aren’t meant to carry this much stuff.

High: So much wonderful food. Both my mom and mother-in-law make way too much delicious food for holidays, leaving us with days after days of left-overs. My mother-in-law also decorates with candy; her living room houses several bowls of dark chocolate and M&Ms throughout December.
Low: The fact that I kept eating all of said food way past the point where I should have stopped.

High: Incredible amounts of time with our family. Chris and I are both very close to our families and of course, our parents love spending time with their only grandchild. Sprout also loves spending time with them – he runs to their front doors and greets them with huge hugs. Quality time was at an all-time high, especially with baking. He helped Chris’s mom make apple pie and sugar cookies, rolling out the dough, placing the apples in the pie, and cutting out the cookies. He and my mom made a gingerbread house, which he was particularly keen on after the tenth or twentieth time they read the Gingerbread Man and Jan Brett’s Gingerbread Baby. While he loved rolling out the dough, he was surprisingly uninterested in decorating the house itself. While my mom was encouraging him to stick Frosted Mini-Wheats on the roof as shingles, he was much more interested in eating Reeces Pieces instead. Gingerbread houseOther unintended consquences of said quality time was him learning the Beans, Beans The Musical Fruit song from my mom. Thanks, Mom.
Low: I’m a bit of an introvert at heart, so constantly being around people was kind of exhausting. Shuttling Sprout between the two houses and managing all of the necessary logistics (bedding for naps, cups/utensils for meals, etc.) further exacerbated that issue. I was so preoccupied with fulfilling everyone else’s plans that I completely forgot about a lunch with a former boss that I hadn’t seen in years. In addition, all of the attention made Sprout a little spoiled in the short term. Between mid-day cookie snacks and infinite affection, he reacted much more poorly than usual to the times he needed to do something that he didn’t want to. “Nope!” was his favorite phrase for the last few days of the trip.

High: Dancing together at my in-laws house. As mentioned previously, my mother-in-law has a large collection of singing Christmas decorations. Sprout’s favorite ones this year were a set of Disney characters that play different instruments. He’d say, “Mommy and Daddy (or Grandma and Grandad or Aunt Melissa and Uncle Steve) dance to Mickey,” then drag us over to the table and then press one of the characters. We’d then join hands and trot around in a circle, like a weird version of square dancing. At the end, he’d yell “freeze!” and we’d stand still with jazz hands or something equally absurd. It was the sort of thing you’d only do with a child, but be so glad that you were. His smile was enough to keep me dancing for a long time.
Low: We did end up listening to the Disney characters at least 50 times.

High: Having lunch with a number of our high school friends. Chris and I were high school sweethearts and are still close to a number of our friends from that time. Fortunately, we were able to get a number of them together, including one we haven’t seen in nearly a decade and has almost no online presence! True to character, he announced an absolutely outrageous plan – setting the world record for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in the smallest sailboat ever. Even our friends with less over-the-top ambitions had much of their lives to share that just aren’t the same discussed over social media. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we stood outside the restaurant for a half-hour after they closed. It was one of those times you reconnect with people in a way that has instant intimacy. We still trust each other with the deepest parts of our lives, no matter how physically far apart we are.
Low: The only disappointing thing was that we eventually had to leave. Also, we couldn’t bring Sprout along because it was in the middle of his nap. (Considering our friends’ propensity for swearing and Sprout’s mimicry, that probably wasn’t all bad.)

High: Being able to sleep in because I didn’t have to go to work.
Low: There was nothing bad about this at all. I did stay up too late, but that was fun in its own way.

High: We got snow a few days after Christmas! It actually accumulated on the ground and everything. Not a White Christmas, but close.
Low: It was sleeting that morning, making it way too slushy to play in. We also forgot that Sprout’s snow boots from last winter don’t fit anymore and there was no way he could go tromp around in the snow in sneakers.

High: Seeing a weirdly elaborate holiday light display put on by a local business. My father-in-law said it attracts so much attention that there have been a number of accidents from people slowing down too much or pulling onto the shoulder. To avoid that fate, we pulled into their driveway and walked around. Seriously, this thing rivals ZooLights for the sheer amount of lights. This photo is just a fraction of the display.Lights display
Low: Man, it was really cold out.

I hope you and your families had a great holiday, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just New Years Day!

The Best of 2015

Besides the fact that it’s the end of the year, this is my 200th post! So it’s a good time to look backwards.

This was a challenging year for me. I dealt with some difficult personal issues that I didn’t write about yet, but plan to in the New Year. There was also a lot of national tragedies, including those dealing with police racism, gun violence, and climate change. Plus, it’s just exhausting raising a two-year-old.

My favorite posts reflect these frustrations, especially reflections on how social justice issues intersect with being a parent. I also commented on less serious social issues, including Santa Claus and Halloween stories.

Here are some of my favorite philosophical posts this year:

At the same time, Sprout was old enough for us to take on a number of adventures that we weren’t able to previously, including concerts, camping, and Sesame Place. We found a lot of joy in the small moments in life together. Here are some of my favorite family field trips this year:

On the other hand, my most popular posts covered some quirky pop culture subjects, including my favorite band, the political implications of children’s literature, and kiddie music.

I hope that you enjoyed reading my posts this year! I look forward to writing about our family’s adventures, challenges and reflections in the New Year.

A Single Bell: The Saratoga and North Creek Railway’s Polar Express

There’s just something about little kids and trains. When you put Santa in the mix, it’s a guarantee for Christmas magic. So it was a lovely gift for our in-laws to give Sprout a ride on the Polar Express run by the Saratoga and North Creek Railway as his big Christmas present.

The Polar Express is an actual train ride modeled on the famous book that was made into a movie. Both are about a little boy waiting on Christmas Eve to hear Santa’s sleigh despite his friend telling him it isn’t real. A magical train picks him up, along with a number of other children, and brings them to the North Pole. When the boy is picked to receive the first gift of Christmas, he requests a bell off of Santa’s sleigh. On Christmas morning, he discovers it makes beautiful music, but his parents think it’s broken. As time goes on, his friends and sister lose the ability to hear it, but his belief in the magic of Christmas allows him to always hear it.

While I had read the book ages ago, my father-in-law adores the movie. With a local train company offering a “Polar Express” package, he wanted to bring Sprout on the real-life version.

We boarded the train at night in our pajamas, just like the children in the story. I chose pajama pants and a sweater, but my in-laws decided to go all-out in full-body one-piece fleece jammies. Instead of the train picking us up at our house, we had to drive out to the station, pay $5 for parking, and trudge through the parking lot in the rain.

Not the most magical, but they did a lovely job once you actually got in the station. A huge Christmas tree took up most of the entranceway, flanked by a Polar Express themed gift shop and murals.

Polar Express Christmas tree

The train further built upon the plot and themes of the story, decorated in its holiday best. Pine garland wrapped around the overhead luggage storage, bright presents stored there instead of suitcases. Once the train started, “chefs” and waitstaff pranced down the aisles, skipping and kicking up their feet. As they didn’t do anything “waiterly” except pass out styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and sugar cookies, their main job was to be hilariously enthusiastic, which they did quite well. Sprout slurped down his hot chocolate, which was little kid friendly lukewarm. In addition to distributing goodies – just like in the book – the waitstaff also sang Christmas carols and showed children the pages of the book as the narration played over the loudspeaker. The conductor even made his rounds and stamped our “golden ticket.”

After a very slow 30 minute ride, the train arrived at the North Pole itself. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidental, but the cell service was so poor that there was no way to figure out its location. It did preserve the magic a bit! As we approached, we gazed out the window at a “village” bright with multi-colored lights staffed by “elves” dressed in red and green. The combination of the dark and the train slowing down created the illusion of it seeming quite large. As we approached, Sprout stared out the window, transfixed by the fantastical sight.

North Pole Polar Express

Unlike in the book, no one got out of the train. Considering it took 20 minutes to get everyone on the train in the first place and the weather was crummy, it was very much for the best.

Instead, the elves and Santa came to us! They boarded the train, elves in the lead. Although I asked the elves to take a photo with Sprout, I didn’t expect one of them to pick him up. Considering his earlier skepticism about sitting on Santa’s lap, I winced, but he didn’t cry. But in the one decent photo we have, he doesn’t look super-thrilled. Then Santa made his way down the train car, stopping at each family to take photos and bestow a single (not real) silver bell to each child. As he entered, Sprout cried, “Santa!” While he was excited to get the bell, there was also no way in heck he was allowing Santa to pick him up.

The only critique I have of the trip was the presence of one character who isn’t even in the book. As the book is just over 30 pages, they obviously had to add quite a bit to the movie to pad it out to a reasonable length. One of those additions was a hobo, who in the “real life” version yelled a lot and simply didn’t make a lot of sense. He was vaguely scary, confusing if you hadn’t seen the movie, and generally didn’t fit in with the whole aesthetic.

Overall, the Saratoga and North Creek’s Polar Express was a lovely concept come to life. The full-sized train was a delight and was the first time Sprout had been on a non-subway train. I can’t say it will be a holiday tradition – this may be the last Christmas for us in upstate New York – but I can see why it could become one for many families.

What I Gave Up for Christmas

I already have one of my main New Years’ Resolutions – to simplify. I am quite sick of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and for a variety of reasons, life will become even busier in the next year. While it isn’t even January yet, I’ve already started applying this philosophy to my life, starting with Christmas. I love Christmas traditions, but I’ve decided that these just aren’t worth the effort – at least not this year.

Merry Christmas!

1) Baking cookies for my co-workers. I like giving my co-workers gifts for the holidays, but between federal ethics requirements and my own cheapness, baked goods are the best bet. However, with only two weekends that we’re actually in town, both filled with other holiday activities, finding the time to do this just wasn’t happening. Ideally, baking cookies is a lovely activity to do with your child, but I’m not giving away anything a two-year-old has helped bake. And cramming it into the three hours between Sprout goes to bed and I do just sounds rushed and unpleasant. While I know my boss likes snickerdoodles, he’ll just need to make them himself this year.

2) Sending out Christmas cards. I always feel like a crappy friend when I start getting Christmas cards and haven’t sent any out myself. I was going to do a photo collage this year, but after both CVS and Walgreens totally screwed up our orders last year, even that seemed like too much work. As we’ll be home for two weeks with grandparents eager to babysit, maybe I’ll send out New Years cards. Or maybe not.

3) Being obsessive about buying local/ethically. I am a huge proponent and fan of buying ethically, especially toys and gifts. But as the mother of a young child who doesn’t have unlimited time or energy to flit around in local boutiques (many of whom don’t want a two-year-old pawing their stuff anyway), I just did the best I could. I tried looking in our local Barnes and Noble and at Powell’s Books online for the specific books I wanted, but neither of them had them. So Amazon it was for those items, as much as I hate their lack of corporate responsibility. I reassured myself that 1) at least I tried, 2) individual actions aren’t the end-all and be-all, and 3) by buying thoughtful gifts, there will be less waste altogether.

4) Not buying all of the gifts myself. I still was the one to pick out the large majority of the gifts, but I actually sent Chris out to purchase at least a couple of them. After all, he’s the one home during the week! It’s a pain to drag a toddler around a store, but it’s still less impossible than me doing it during my work day.

5) Not seeing Santa at the mall. Sprout got to see Santa twice – once at the mall with Chris’s parents without us and at Sesame Place with my parents – which is really enough. Instead, we waved to him as we passed by; he even waved back. It’s all about teaching the kid small pleasures.

6) Elaborate decorations. I’ve never been an elaborate decorator, but I’ve always wished I could be. (Albeit never like my mom, who actually made all of the Christmas ornaments for the entire tree one year.) This year, I stuck some of Sprout’s Christmas books on the coffee table, put Elmo in a mini Santa suit (which is actually for a wine bottle!), and pulled out our wooden nativity. It’s got some holiday cheer and some religious aspect. That’s enough for me.

7) An intolerance for singing stuffed animals. I generally forbid singing toys in my household for their lack of educational value and high level of personal annoyance. But my mother-in-law adores singing animatronics and gifted Sprout a Christmas tree that croons “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” last Christmas. Both of them absolutely love the ridiculous thing. So out it came with the rest of the decorations, along with a piece of my sanity. Sprout’s enthusiasm thankfully dwindled after the first 30 times or so playing it in a row.

8) Feeling guilty for these things. I’m still working on this – as you can see from all of my justifications above – but this is probably the most important one of all. There’s far too much guilt and shame in my life for not living up to my own unrealistic expectations. Like everything else in life, the holidays are exactly what you choose to make them. I’m at least trying to choose peace, hope and joy.