California Sabbatical, Day 1: Palm Trees!

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“Wait, people are just allowed to have palm trees in their yards?” my eldest daughter marveled on our first day in California’s Bay Area.

The palm trees have been the undisputed highlight of California thus far, the first thing on my daughters’ list when we ask what they like most about our five-month sabbatical from Vermont. They’ve observed that palm trees come in different heights, with various-shaped fronds, and with trunks both shaggy and smooth.

When I start home schooling my two oldest daughters this week, our science studies will commence with a unit on palm trees.

Our journey from Vermont to California began with a drive to Burlington, where we spent the night at the airport Doubletree in order to sleep in until 3:15 AM so that we could catch our 5:30 AM flight to Detroit. By “we,” I mean the six members of our family, and our 15 bags; yes, that’s our version of traveling lightly.

Click here to continue reading about the start of our California adventure in a special edition “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent. 

Well, The Kids Had Fun….

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Every year I fight to downsize Christmas.

Christmastime is when my soul craves meaning, peace, spiritual focus. Yet I always end up feeling like I’m beating back a crushing tide of too much: too much to do, too many gifts, too many social obligations. By December 26, even if it’s been a “good” Christmas — and it usually is — I’m exhausted and faintly disappointed that I got sucked under by too much. Again.

Who’s with me?

Anyway, this year, taking inspiration from some other families, I suggested to my husband that we drastically curtail our gift giving and use the money we’d save to take our family on a mini vacation.

He looked at me for a long minute before saying, “Yeah, because it’s always so relaxing to travel with our kids.”

He had a point, but I was undeterred. Time spent together sharing experiences as a family seemed much more meaningful than gift-wrapped boxes.  I pictured us all laughing together, cuddling together, making lasting memories. Despite knowing better, I succumbed to the rosy glow of my imagination and booked our family for a two-night stay at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, Vermont during a long weekend in January.

We’d stayed at the Highland Lodge twice before, but always in summer. In summer we inhabit a small cabin on the Lodge property and spend our days swimming and boating in nearby Caspian Lake.

The cabins are closed during the winter months, and Caspian Lake becomes a frozen expanse dotted with ice fishing shanties, so this winter visit promised to be a very different experience.

***

On Saturday morning we crammed our minivan chock full with the ridiculous amount of gear required to spend two nights away with four young children. Thanks to our portable DVD player, the 2.5-hour drive to Greensboro was mostly peaceful. It seemed like the perfect time to get away: my husband had been particularly stressed lately, which concerned me because usually I’m the stressed one.

We arrived to find that we were sharing the Highland Lodge’s main building with one elderly couple. All weekend long my husband made references to The Shining, but it wasn’t spooky at all: It was nice not to worry about the girls bothering anybody. Willie and David, the innkeepers, kindly gave us two rooms right next to each other, clear across the Lodge from the other guests.

The girls settled in to their room, with all the bossing and bickering that entails. Then we spent a fun afternoon on the Lodge’s excellent sledding hill. I even slipped away for a short run on some of the Lodge’s gorgeous nordic ski trails. The rosy image from my imagination was becoming reality.

The call from our dog sitter came just before dinner.

***

We’ve attempted a variety of care arrangements for Gracie, our two-year-old, overly-anxious Labradoodle. Our next-door neighbors — owners of her canine friend Brinkley — used to watch her for us, which was ideal. Then they moved. We tried boarding her: The first night at the boarding kennel she jumped an 8-foot fence and ran away. (Luckily we were still in town, so I drove out and lured her back, but she’s forever restricted to a crate and leashed walks at that kennel.)

Her second time at the kennel, Gracie came down with an intestinal virus and “kennel cough,” so her first day back at home I followed her around cleaning up phlegm.

“We’re never boarding her again,” I swore.

The next time we went away, we hired a wonderful dog sitter: the son of a friend, an experienced dog watcher, who would stay at our house and care for Gracie. She’d met him only once before, so when he entered our house, she did her usual thing: barked like crazy. When he finally got her out in the yard, Gracie broke through the electric fence and ran away. She spent an entire night outside in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, before returning the next morning.

Nevertheless, the dog sitter was undeterred, and so were we. NO problem! I thought, This time we just won’t let her roam the yard. 

When I answered my cell phone at the Highland Lodge, the dog sitter said: “It’s worse than last time.”

This time, when he’d arrived, Gracie had been so nervous that she’d run around the first floor, peeing. Then she’d bolted up the stairs, jumped the child safety gate, and run down the upstairs hallway, pooping. She’d poop, step in the poop, then try to climb the walls.

When our dog sitter managed — miraculously — to get Gracie outside on the tie-out, she yanked her head through her collar and ran away.

That’s what we had to deal with, hours into our vacation.

We made arrangements: We called in the grandparents. Gracie returned later that night, my parents arrived to let her in the house, and they spent hours scrubbing her bodily fluids off our floors and walls.  How do people manage when there aren’t grandparents nearby?

***

Our daughters were up before dawn the next morning, ready for hot chocolate. If that sounds cozy, consider: one daughter doesn’t like hot chocolate, one won’t drink it with marshmallows, one will only drink it with marshmallows, and the baby wants to sit on my lap and pour her hot chocolate all over me.

We survived breakfast, and the rest of the day included more sledding, cross country skiing, and a walk on the frozen lake.

That evening, daughters successfully tucked into bed, my husband and I settled in the downstairs library to read and munch popcorn. All was peaceful, until I heard what sounded like pounding from upstairs. I mentioned it to my husband, who went to investigate.

“Uh, there’s sort of a situation,” he said when he returned. “Georgia’s in our bedroom, and she’s locked the door.”

Remember: We had two bedrooms right next to each other, and we were virtually the only people staying at this lodge in a tiny town in northeastern Vermont. So, did we lock our doors? No! My husband stashed the keys up on our closet shelf. That’s where they were when Georgia, our three-year-old, entered our room and locked the door behind her.

Georgia is prone to drama; when I arrived upstairs she was yelling and pounding on the door.

I put on my best “Calm Mommy” act. “It’s okay, Georgia,” I said soothingly. “All you have to do is turn the knob. Can you turn the knob?”

“NO!” she sobbed. “I can’t!”

“It’s just like in the Alfie book,” I reasoned [the classic Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes, in which Alfie locks himself in his house and the whole neighborhood talks him through unlocking the door.] I had her pull a box of diapers over to the door and stand on it, the better to turn the knob.

“I can’t!” she kept crying from atop the diaper box.

Finally, my husband took the easy route: he called the innkeepers to find where they kept the extra keys. Georgia was released, and to this day maintains that she never locked the door.

“It was my unicorn’s fault,” she insists.

***

Vacation was almost over; in a few short hours, we’d drag our exhausted selves back to whatever horrific scene awaited us at home.

“I’m so sorry!” I moaned to my husband. “This trip was my idea, and I feel like I’m causing you more stress than if we’d stayed home! And the dog was my idea, too! And I had all these kids! All I do is stress you out!”

“Don’t be silly,” he reassured me. “The kids are having a great time.”

It’s true: Our daughters didn’t want to leave. And we returned to a house that — thanks to my parents’ ministrations — was cleaner than we’d left it. (The dog was very happy to see us.)

LESSONS LEARNED:

-Always maintain control of the hotel room keys.

-Contact the vet about anti-anxiety medication for Gracie.

-Keep grandparents close by.

-When “vacationing” with young children, the expectation should be no higher than that the kids have fun. That’s good enough.

 

Jumping the Fence

Photo by Campbell Gong
Photo by Campbell Gong

Our dog, Gracie, recently turned two years old. Age is not mellowing her. I often think of her as our fifth daughter, because, like the other Gong girls, she’s full of energy and a little tightly wound. Parenting Gracie is a lot like parenting our other daughters, as well; it’s trial and error, making appropriate adjustments for whatever irritating habit she’s developed in a given week.

Also, we love her a lot.

One of the ways that we allow Gracie to be herself and burn off her energy, while also maintaining boundaries to keep her safe, is by using an electric dog fence around our property. Because we live in the woods, this isn’t a fancy-schmancy suburban dog fence underneath our manicured lawn. We have no manicured lawn, so the dog fence is a wire that sits aboveground and runs around the perimeter of our yard (and our neighbor’s yard, since Gracie is best friends with their golden retriever).

When we let Gracie outside, we put a special collar on her. If she gets too close to the fence boundary, the collar beeps a warning. She’s learned that, if she goes through the fence, the collar will give her a brief but strong electric shock. (It’s uncomfortable but not cruel; I can tell you as someone who’s accidentally shocked myself with her collar).

Here’s the thing: Sometimes Gracie breaks through the fence. This is when she’s feeling particularly strong-willed about something, for instance; her dog friend next door breaks through the fence, or our family goes out for a walk without her, or she sees a squirrel, or just wants an adventure. So, she screws up her courage, gets a running start, yelps when she gets the shock, and then she’s free and clear!

Or so she thinks.

Because when Gracie jumps the fence, she may be free, but she’s not safe. There are cars and trucks out there that drive too quickly. There are (really and truly) bears and coyotes around these woods. There are hunters with guns. She has no experience taking care of herself, finding her own food. It’s not good for her to be outside the fence; that’s why we installed the fence to begin with.

But, here’s the funny thing: Often, when I’m actually trying to take Gracie out of our yard — on a walk, or to meet our daughter’s school bus — she refuses to come. She’s afraid she’ll get shocked. Even though she’s not wearing her collar, even though I’m leading her on a leash. She’ll dig in her heels, and I have to tug on the leash while attempting to reason with her: “It’s okay, Gracie. See, your collar isn’t on? No shock, okay?” Sometimes I have to pick her up — all 54 pounds of her — and carry her down the driveway.

We went through this just the other day, and it occurred to me: Oh my gosh, Gracie is JUST LIKE ME! 

I, like Gracie, have a screwed-up idea of what freedom is. I think we all do; my daughters certainly do. We assume that if something’s safe, then it isn’t really free. So we’ll gather up our courage, get a running start, and risk pain and punishment — an electric shock, a time out, a broken relationship — for the “freedom” to go play in traffic.

For the “freedom” to mingle with bears and coyotes and hunters.

For the “freedom” to be the boss of me!

On the other hand, whenever I’m being prompted to do something that I really should do, something that would be fun or soul-expanding — I tend to dig in my heels and fight against it. I’m afraid. Afraid of imagined harm that could befall me, the shock that might zap me.

I have the freedom to do these things, but I don’t trust that freedom. I don’t think I’ll be safe.

Examples of this kind of misguided inertia include: Picking up the phone to invite my child’s friend over to play (I know, I know — it’s completely irrational to be afraid that another parent will refuse to allow their child to play with mine…but it’s true). Writing a book, or even just submitting my writing to new outlets. Leaving my children in order to do something “selfish” like spend an afternoon alone or a night with friends.

The trick is knowing the difference between the safe and the stupid kinds of freedom. For Gracie, it seems simple: When somebody is leading you on a leash, do it; if nobody’s walking you down the driveway, stay in the yard. But when you’re the one wearing the collar, it’s a lot harder to discern whether you’re leading yourself or being led.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this conundrum. But I do suspect — and I might catch some flack for this — that we are smarter than dogs. Most of us, if we take a minute to reflect, can distinguish between playing in traffic and going for a stroll. And most of us, if we’re still and patient, can hear the warning beeps as we approach the safety fence — or feel a gentle tug at the end of the leash.

When we feel that tug, we should go. Because, unlike Gracie, it’s unlikely that someone else will pick us up and carry us over that fence.

 

Burrs Make For A Sticky Weekend

Georgia's post-burr look.
Georgia’s post-burr look.

The second weekend of January — after a December ice storm, several snows, and freezing temperatures had covered the ground with a thick layer of solid ice — the temperature shot up into the 40s and 50s. That mild weekend, our family traded the Brrrrr of winter for another kind of burr.

Click here to continue reading about our various burr run-ins at The Addison Independent.

One Evening in Late September

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Our family rarely goes out to eat these days. It’s not so much a matter of expense (although that’s certainly a factor with six mouths to feed); the expense of eating out is counterbalanced by the benefit of having a break from cooking. My economist husband would put it in terms of “opportunity cost:” a few extra dollars may be worth it if it saves you the time, energy and stress of preparing a meal.

No, we eat at home because taking four young children to a restaurant sounds something like this: “Okay, we’re leaving in TWO minutes! Get on your shoes, everyone. Get on your shoes! Where are your shoes?!? Into the car! C’mon, we’re leaving! Into the car!!! NO, you can’t have your sister’s car seat if she wants to sit in it! NO, you can’t have a snack, because we’re going to dinner! Sit DOWN!”

And that’s all before we’ve left the driveway. In terms of opportunity cost, by the time the evening is over I may as well have cooked a banquet.

But one Friday night in late September, our family went out for dinner at Sama’s Café in Middlebury. Click here to continue reading this latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Puppy Love

It feels like this blog has been awfully DEEP lately, so here’s something a little lighter.

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It’s been quite a while — about six months, to be exact — since I mentioned Gracie as anything other than an aside. Remember Gracie? Gracie is the labradoodle puppy who joined our family back in October. She was supposed to be our fourth child, because we were “done having children.” (Cue bitter laughter).

Well, Gracie is still with us, and next month she’ll be one year old. I usually distrust anything that comes across as too perfect, which is why I try very hard to be honest about how flawed I am and how imperfect our family is. But I have to say: Gracie is the perfect dog for our family. Her most marked imperfections are:

1. She’s very independent. I can’t say that we’ve had the typical dog owner experience, because I barely have to take care of Gracie. Our yard and our neighbors’ yard are both surrounded by one electric dog fence, which was installed for the neighbors’ golden retriever, Brinkley. Gracie and Brinkley are BEST FRIENDS– soul mates. Our girls say they’re “married,” and that’s probably true on a spiritual level. As soon as Gracie was old enough to train to the fence, she and Brinkley started spending their days as free-range dogs. Gracie asks to go outside every morning after breakfast, plays with Brinkley for much of the day (weather permitting), and re-enters our house to collapse into sleep every night. Aside from a minimal amount of feeding and grooming, my responsibilities involve opening and closing the door. I never need to walk Gracie unless I want a walk. Do we sometimes wish she hung out with our family a little more? Sure, but that’s more than balanced by the knowledge that she has a very happy life.

2. She has anxiety issues. As she’s grown older, Gracie has become increasingly aware that she’s responsible for a family, especially for three little girls. She takes this responsibility seriously — she’s a little hard on herself, if you ask me. So, despite her fluffy locks and her constantly wagging tail, she’s become a bit of a guard dog. She barks…and barks…and BARKS at anyone who dares to walk past our house (on the street, 20 yards from our front door). Good when it alerts me that someone’s nearby; bad when she scares the girls’ friends. When the girls play outside, Gracie and Brinkley will treat them like sheep, surrounding them in a v-formation to make sure that they stay within bounds. Good when Georgia takes off into the woods the minute my back is turned; bad when they topple Georgia over with their combined weight. And once, Gracie even latched onto the pants of a strange delivery man and attempted to tug him away from the house. That’s all bad, and has resulted in us enlisting the temporary services of a trainer/dog whisperer — which feels a little silly, but in the end is cheaper than a lawsuit.

3. She almost always throws up in the car. We’re working on this one, but for now it’s very hard to take her anywhere. The WORST was when she was sitting between the two oldest girls in the backseat and tossed her dog food all over Fiona.

So there you have it: an itemized list of Gracie’s imperfections. Now, here’s why she’s the perfect dog for our family (click on each thumbnail to enlarge the photo):

Unless you walk past our house or attempt to deliver our mail, you won’t meet a sweeter, more patient dog. We all adore our Gracie, and can’t imagine our family without her.

Surprise!

And then there were  four: Three girls and their dog.

When Georgia was born, we were positive that she was our last child. Three seemed like a good place to stop: large without being TOO crazy. There was a certain logic to three:

-The logic of space: We still had an extra seat in the minivan, and an extra place at our table — you know, for Elijah or whomever else happened to drop in.

-The logic of stuff: We had girls’ clothing and toys that had now been used three times — a pretty good run for the money, which also called to mind the horrible alternative: what if we risked another child, and it was a BOY?!? We’d have to start all over again.

-Erick’s logic: Erick noted that many of the families we most admire have three children, and “they must have a good reason for that.” (Of course, we later learned that for some of these families, child #3 was an accident, and others sorely regretted not adding another child before it was too late, but that’s another story).

Also, the cinnamon buns that we sometimes like to eat for breakfast are sold in packages of five.

Then, around Georgia’s first birthday, I started having feelings of longing. I knew these feelings well; in the past, they’d resulted in two things: Campbell, and Georgia.

I wanted a fourth child.

I promised Erick that I wouldn’t raise the subject until he was done with his first year of teaching. So, on the last day of classes I was waiting outside his office door, with my sales pitch carefully prepared. It went a little something like this:

-If we don’t give Georgia a buddy of her own, how will she function within the sisterly relationship of Fiona and Campbell, who’ve proclaimed themselves, “MORE than best friends!”????

-We have three wonderful daughters, whom we adore. Why not add one more????

-Another child would add more love to our family. Isn’t more love ALWAYS a good thing????

Erick kindly refrained from pointing out the loophole in what I thought was a logical “more is always better” argument. Because more ISN’T always better. If that were really true, we’d live in an overpopulated world of obese, promiscuous, hoarding venture capitalists. (Hmmmm….)

ANYWAY, the point is that Erick didn’t share my longing for a fourth child. For the very first time in our 10-year marriage, this put us on opposite sides of a Major Life Decision. (That statement is less a testament to the strength of our marriage than a tribute to Erick’s amazing agreeableness).

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Yep: WE GOT A DOG!

Here’s how it happened:

Also around Georgia’s first birthday, I started experiencing headaches, body aches, and exhaustion. These symptoms lasted throughout the summer. Whatever it was remains a mystery, but while the doctors ran me through a series of tests to determine the root cause, there was no question of pregnancy. First I was on antibiotics, then I had to have an MRI, then I had to have another MRI, and until we knew what was going on, we weren’t sure a pregnancy would be safe.

All of which made me frustrated and sad. But it also gave me time to think. I looked at our life and realized that three kids is a LOT of kids! In fact, most doctors would probably assume that the cause of my symptoms was: my children. I looked around for proof that we should add another child to the mix, and the proof just wasn’t there. Instead, I was snapping at my kids, counting the days until preschool started, and bribing my four-year-old to have “quiet rest time” by handing her my iPod. Don’t get me wrong: I love our three kids, I can handle three kids. I just couldn’t see how having a fourth child would do our family any favors.

Then I noticed something else: Brinkley, our neighbor’s dog who’d adopted us as his second-string family. I when I was doing yardwork, Brinkley would often come over to keep me company; he’d romp around, then sit at my feet and stare lovingly at me. I really liked that. I also noticed how our girls loved Brinkley: he was a prominent figure in their conversations, and every time they spotted him outside they would RUN to play with him, which kept them entertained for hours.

But he wasn’t our dog.

So, one day I said to Erick, “How about, instead of a fourth kid, we get a dog?”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but here’s a tip for anyone who wants a dog, but whose partner isn’t into the idea: First, say that you’d like to have a baby. (For added drama, moon around for a few days, sighing over baby pictures and tiny baby clothes). Then, say, “How about, instead of a baby, we get a dog?” And watch the relief fill their eyes. It’s a great bargaining strategy.

So, we got a dog, which made much more sense than having another baby. Yes, I KNOW that dogs are a lot of work, but when it’s a choice between a dog and a baby, the dog is a tropical vacation; an adorable, adoring creature whom we won’t have to send to college, and who does add more love to our family — without ever screaming, “Mommy, you’re being MEAN!”

You can read more about our dog, the amazing Gracie, here.

On the very day that we put down the deposit on Gracie, we found out that I was pregnant. Further proof that, whatever else you might say about God, he’s got a spot-on sense of comic timing.

That’s right, folks: Kiddo FOUR, due in early June.

Youngest child no longer….