Saturday, March 28, 2009

Colorful circles

Almost a year ago, I discovered a portrait artist through a design blog I enjoy. Markus and I had been debating a family portrait, so this one really struck me. We have so many photos up in our house (some might say too many), but a painted portrait would really be something different and special. At the time, we couldn't find a style we liked (most were way too stuffy and formal and blah), so we had moved on from the idea...until I found this artist. Her name is Kristine Baerlin, and she works in New York City, painting portraits in a pop art style she's developed over the years. Her technique and use of color seemed to me perfect for capturing children, so just after the new year, I commissioned baby portraits of the girls. Kristine was awesome about communicating across the distance, working out a color palette with me over email based on photos I'd sent her and info I'd supplied about our home, color preferences, etc. The final product arrived last week, and we are so happy! After debating the best spot for them, we ultimately hung them in Ellie's room (a room we hope the girls will eventually share), and we are all excited to see them every day!

I will try to get a better shot of the individual paintings, but this room shot will have to do for now. When I photograph just one, the colors get distorted, and the blues become particularly electric (and not in a good way). Dear friends and family, we'll be proud to show them if you'd like to come visit...

Death by Partying Neighbors

When we first moved into this neighborhood, we were so pleased with the number of families, the relative peace and tranquility... Ha. It was all quiet for the first four months, but after Christmas, our neighbors got the party bug! Since mid-January, there have been LOTS of late night parties, and to call them "loud" would be an understatement. Friday night, what was clearly a college kid party (an anomaly thus far) commenced up the road. I think I attended quieter frat parties than that one, but whatever. College kids party. I don't know how or why they ended up in this neighborhood (the university is the next town over, and no college kids live here), but they have the right to enjoy themselves. Except at 1:30 in the morning, a large, drunk, mostly undressed guy left the party, stormed down the road until he was on the sidewalk just opposite our house and started screaming in a deep voice, "F*** YOU! YOU WERE MY F***ING BEST MATE! F*** OFF! JUST GET THE F*** AWAY FROM ME! GO THE F*** HOME! YOU F***!" Etc. You get the idea. This intellectual debate continued for over 90 minutes, with various friends of his trying to calm him down (unsuccessfully). I spent most of the time watching out the window to see if he would lose it and start smashing our car (parked just out front) to vent his frustration. It was not a fun night.
Then last night, different neighbors (this time on the road behind our house) had a big loud party. At around 10:30, someone decided it just wasn't loud enough, so they kicked up the volume another 20 notches. It was so loud that the windows were shaking in our extension...where baby Stephanie sleeps. She woke up screaming and terrified. As most of our other neighbors were home, I thought surely we cannot be the only ones who find this more than a tad annoying. I hoped one of them would call the partiers or the police or whomever to induce just a bit more sanity to the volume, but nothing. There has been no interference for any other party, and Markus said it was the same in South Africa. No one calls. No one complains. But they sure seem to seek their revenge when it's their turn to party. At 11:30, I called the police and (given the lack of enthusiasm for foreigners here) politely inquired as to whether there was a local noise ordinance. I was informed that it was just a matter of assessment based on time of day, day of the week, etc. If I wanted to make a complaint, I could request a unit be sent out to my house, where the officers would speak with me about my complaint and try to make an assessment on scene. Now I know why no one calls. The last thing I need is to be told in the middle of the night that I'm too uptight about noise on a Saturday. Forget it.
So, it was quite the sleepless weekend around here, which is extra handy since we "fell back" with Daylight Savings overnight. Ellie was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5:30am (her internal 6:30 alarm clock)!
We live in a beautiful house in a great location, but I tell ya, the neighborhood is losing its charm.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rainbow crayons: how-to

This afternoon, I decided it was time to take control of all the random crayon bits in Ellie's art box. This move was motivated by baby Stephanie, who has discovered the joy of munching on said crayon bits when she finds them. I peeled all the paper off the remaining crayons, broke them up into manageable pieces, and filled an old muffin tin with the bits.

Place the muffin tin in an oven preheated to 250F and observe closely until crayons melt. Our crayons were a collection of various brands, so the melting times varied (you see the biggest ones hardly melted at all). As soon as most are melted, turn off the oven. DON'T MOVE THE MUFFIN TIN. If you do, the colors will mix and the whole lot will turn into an icky browny yuck (which could still be used but isn't nearly as fun). Once the oven and the muffin tin are cool, remove the tin and press lightly on the underside of each muffin cup to release the molded crayons. At first, Ellie wasn't sure what to make of them since they are clearly not meant to be that way...but once she started coloring with them, she was a total convert! I used to make these when I babysat back in high school, and I have yet to meet a kid who doesn't love them. Give them a go!

No one said this was easy

Yesterday was a rough day in the life of Raising-a-3-year-old. There was hitting (a behavior picked up from school that is a post in itself). There were tantrums. Lord, were there tantrums. When we were leaving ballet class, I had just put the car in Drive after backing out of our parking space when Ellie emitted a scream of such volume and peril that the only plausible explanation could be that a bee had flown into the car and was stinging her in the eyeball. The suddenness combined with the horrible scream itself needless to say scared the poo out of me. All in an instantaneous rush of adrenaline, I swerved the car, slammed on the brakes, threw it into Park, whipped around in my seat only to see nothing unusual and had to scream to be heard, "WHAT IS HAPPENING??!!!! WHY ARE YOU SCREAMING??!!!" which Ellie replies cool-as-a-cucumber, "I want a snack." By this point, of course, ALL the moms and kids from ballet class are staring HARD at me for being THAT mom who freaks out and yells at her kids, and for extra points, happens to be an out-of-control driver. You have got to be freaking kidding me.
I really didn't recover from that moment until about 11pm. It was more than slightly distressing.
When Markus came home and offered to take them to the playground, I told him I couldn't go out while they were gone because I might not come back. I wrote an email to a very understanding, supportive and blessedly humorous friend that simply said, "If Ellie has another tantrum today, I might actually quit this job and move somewhere they will never find me. Ever."

And then this morning, I felt guilty for having been so frustrated with her yesterday for so many hours. Kids live in the present. She doesn't register the fact that she used up her week's worth of crazy by midday Wednesday. She does something and learns from my reaction. I am human (a human who sometimes has had more than enough), but I'm not really supposed to be. Argh. This point was driven home for me all the more by the fact of the hitting she's learning at school. There is one kid in her class whom I have witnessed being quite aggressive. Even her baby brother (20+ months) is aggressive with other kids when they come for pick-up in the afternoons. He has hit baby Stephanie more than once, and today he even hit, pushed and scratched Ellie! What drove home the parenting point for me is the fact that their mom does nothing. When he hit and pushed Ellie today, the mom just shrugged and said, "Hmm, he keeps doing that." Then she told him to give Ellie a hug, at which point he went in for the scratch on her face. It took me telling the mom that I would need to take my kids away to actually make her pick him up and move him away. I am stunned by her lack of behavior management. Then again, I tend to react towards the other end of the spectrum to such behavior, which isn't so great either.

Every day is a learning experience. Some days I get a better grade than others.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

She's gotta boogie

The other night, I cut well into Markus-Jennifer time to make our little movie and update the blog, thinking I'd be more likely to get it done then than during the day. So true! That night, Ellie woke up about 100 billion trillion times with (prepare yourself for the horror) THE SNIFFLES. That girl cannot abide a boogie in her nose, and heaven forbid she blow it out! Oh no! So much better to sniffle and snort for hours and intersperse that with tantrum-y wailing all night long. I have long wanted a Simon sign in my kitchen that says, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy"...though I often think the word "Mama" needs to be replaced with "Ellie" for the sake of accuracy. Ah well. That was a no-sleep night for us. Thank goodness baby Stephanie sleeps far away from the commotion, so she actually got a normal night. I had to keep Ellie home from school yesterday so she could rest a bit. Thankfully, she's fully recovered now. Apparently there's a bug going around her class, so it seems we got the most minor of doses. I'm grateful for that!

Monday, March 23, 2009

School carnival

Two Fridays ago, Ellie's school had a carnival. It's a small school so the carnival was small too, but it was pretty fun. There was a big bouncy castle, a fun surfboard set-up that was similar to a bucking bronco ride (surf until it throws you off into the bouncy-castle-like perimeter), a velcro-ninja wall, bouncy sumo, a band, a baby animal farm, a clown...oh, the clown. Yes, the clown. Why oh why did there have to be a clown? The trauma. If you heard piteous 3-year-old wailing on Friday the 13th, it was probably Ellie's reaction to that darned clown. He was nowhere near her, but his existence was enough to do it. Well, if there's anything that can possibly undo serious clown trauma, it would be the baby animals. A traveling farm set up a pen with a calf, several small lambs and goats, chickens, ducks, bunnies, and (randomly) a huge brown dog with fur like a sheep. Ellie was none too crazy about the huge brown dog, but she loved the rest and baby Stephanie loved it all! Please excuse the cheesy music in the little movie I made. My song of choice refused to play. I have no idea why.

For some reason, the movie upload is so pixelated that it looks like we are in a witness protection program. The girls' expressions are the reason for the sharing, so I will try to fix this problem soon.


Last night as he was getting ready for work, Markus asked me if I knew where his cycling shorts were. Huh? Oh yeah, I usually wash them over the weekend! Instead, I still haven't folded the laundry I washed last Friday. Whoops. Caught slacking! I'm on it.
I notice I let the blog go by the wayside too. This seems to happen quite a lot lately. We're just caught up in all the little moments here! Baby Stephanie has become so busy and engaging, and Ellie never stopped. They keep us both going going going until they go to bed at night, and by then, I'm well out of blog-mode. The good news is it's all good. Both girls are happy, healthy and well. The weather is slowly turning towards autumn, and we've had some lovely cool mornings and evenings of late. We've been getting outside and enjoying every minute! The downside is the coolness is reminding us of how cold it gets in this old house in the winter; we're trying to fight the dread...and trying to plan a short summery holiday to escape the depths of it sometime in July.

I have lots of photos yet to share, and I've uploaded many onto flickr. You can see them shifting around on the sidebar. Clicking on that will take you to the whole bunch. I'll also do some catch-up posting. We have had many fun outings that came and went so quickly that I forgot to share at the time. The nice thing about the internet is you can always come back and check in to see what's new. I've been caught slacking, so no excuses.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Air-drying the nappy* rainbow

*"nappy" is British-English for "diaper"

Now that baby Stephanie is just over a year old, we're making the switch to cloth diapers. Why? Well, I'll tell ya.
When we were pregnant with Ellie four years ago, we debated the whole cloth v disposable thing, and we couldn't come up with a solid choice. Landfill waste v extra laundry detergent and energy comes out about the same environmentally, considering the disposables we have been using are at least partially biodegradable. Markus was still inclined to try cloth, so we ordered a big trial pack of four different brands in the newborn size. Of course, Hurricane Katrina had other plans. By the time we were allowed back into New Orleans to get our things, Ellie was too big to try them out so we just stuck with disposables for her.
When baby Stephanie was born, we gave them a go, but I didn't like a single one. Each of the four brands was flawed. They cinched, they leaked, they were generally icky and we didn't like them. Disposables won!
But recently I saw a cute flash of fuzzy turquoise on a baby bum while we were out and about, and I asked her mum about her diaper. I told her our cloth saga, but she had nothing but rave reviews of the brand she was using. Never a leak, never a problem, and they are so cute and soft that we had to try them. I ordered two and put them to the test. Not only do they lack the flaws we experienced before, but also baby Stephanie seems to prefer them! An extra bonus for us is that she knows how to remove the disposables on her own, and I've been dreading the day I would find her naked and covered in poo in her crib. The cloth nappies snap shut and present more of a challenge. When we ran the numbers, we realized that even if we just use a full set of cloth nappies for the next six months (assuming she might outgrow this size by then), we will still be saving more than 2 months worth of purchasing disposables. Hopefully, the size will fit even longer than 6 months, in which case we save even more. So, we gave it a go and the fluffy package arrived yesterday. I'm not sure if these are available outside Australia, but I am a huge fan of the itti bitti d'lish AIO! So cute, so soft, and (most importantly) soooooo effective. And who could resist the rainbow of colors? We got one of each (minus the black), and now baby Stephanie officially has the cutest baby bum around, covered or not.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Treasuring the little moments

Recently, I wrote a post about mindfulness inspired by Stephanie Nielson of NieNie Dialogues. I continue to be grateful to her for opening my eyes and my heart to the countless moments of beauty that fill my days. Tonight, Markus came home quite late from work, and the afternoon/evening routine was sheer madness. Baby Stephanie didn't nap much today, so she was tired and clingy. Ellie didn't have any one-on-one time with Mama or Papa, so she was cranky and wild. Every time I set baby Stephanie down so I could do some work (like attempt to empty the dishwasher or start dinner), Ellie pounced her, took her toys, or otherwise harassed her so that I couldn't not watch their every move. Trying to prepare even a simple dinner of steamed veggies and pasta took ages. I was irritated with Ellie for torturing her sister and more irritated with myself for not having something planned that would engage her while I worked (yet when was I supposed to do that?!). Then I found myself in a beautiful moment. Ellie had commandeered two of Stephanie's favorite books and was contentedly reading them to herself aloud, and Stephanie was fully and happily engaged with a wooden spoon and a pot into which I'd poured a bit of water and some peas. The kitchen was a disaster area, the dishwasher was still full, and dinner was only half-done...but suddenly it just didn't matter. The routine was different and no one liked that, but the girls were content and peaceful, each happy with her own favorite activity. When Markus did make it home and I told him how the afternoon and evening went, I realized that pausing to enjoy that beautiful moment had diffused all the rest of the mayhem. I wasn't bothered or stressed at all; instead, I felt blessed. Life with little ones is rarely straightforward and easy, but it is beautiful and good.
Thanks again to Stephanie, for helping me to see.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bubble living

Life in WA...
The sun shines every day.
The beaches are beautiful.
The river is shady and inviting.
The playgrounds are plentiful.
The political debate rages on about the sanity and moral soundness of Daylight Savings Time.
The list goes on, but the result is this: we live in a bubble.
Every day is the same, and I'm not just talking about the weather. People here do not like change. The most popular make and model of car here has been the most popular make and model of car for the past 30 years! The car seat design for newborns looks like something my mom wouldn't have opted to put my little brother in over 25 years ago, and the seats for toddlers aren't much better. The safest brands from the US and Europe are "possibly not up to Australian standards" and are thus unavailable on the market here. I know that's a small example, but really it distresses me each time I see a baby in one of those things.
Living in the Western Suburbs of Perth only increases the bubble by at least a factor of 10. The housing market is nearly impossible to break into. My Aussie friend tells me the average income of an Australian family is AU$58K. Houses in the Western Suburbs start just above AU$1 million. You do the math and guess the income average in this area. As is often the case with high income areas, the population is fairly homogeneous. Call it Stepford, call it the Twilight Zone...for now, we call it home.
Despite all the weirdness, I don't mind it. The fact remains that this is a great place for young families, and we are in that category. It could hardly be better for our girls! Ellie runs around in the garden with no clothes on most days. Stephanie scoots around anywhere and everywhere, meeting doggies and making friends. We eat breakfast outside nearly every morning. As long as we avoid direct sun, the weather is almost always perfect for playing outside. Although the summer is hot, I can count on both hands the number of days we actually used the A/C all day and all night, because the heat is dry and the old house with its high ceilings is nice and cool.
WA is isolated, geographically, politically, culturally...isolated. You can get to small island nations faster than you can get to Sydney from here. Isolation is bound to create a bubble effect. Sometimes I marvel at the thickness of the bubble (like the day I read the outraged and incredulous article in the newspaper about how shocking it was that President Obama made his first international priority the Middle East and not Australia), but most days I opt to take it at face value and enjoy it.
I will admit, however, that the local suburbs newspapers are a guilty pleasure of mine. We get two free issues a week, and I look forward to it each and every time! The issues people have here are amazing. I am so happy that there is a place where the biggest concern people have in their lives is the notion that a hotel might be built with more than 4 stories or there was a barking dog outside the grocery store that made some patrons nervous or...let's just pull an example from today's delivery, shall we? It's too good. It's about the evidence of foxes in the area, which seems a joy and relief to local animal lovers who have been concerned about foxy absence. The writer was so pleased to see that foxes were in the area, rummaging through trash, and eating scraps that she had to share a close-up picture of a Pink Lady apple sticker in fox poo, which the newspaper printed in full color. Yippee! This is breaking news, people!
We live in a bubble.
And what a lovely bubble it is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Composting questions

Hi all! It's about time we started composting, but I'm not sure where to start and what system to use. The two systems I've looked into most are worm composting (vermicomposting) and bokashi. I do not want (and probably am not allowed to have) an open air system. I know worm composting gives me lovely soil/fertilizer and bokashi gives me stuff to mix into the soil (rather than fab-looking soil itself). What else? I'm looking for help and feedback. What experience do you have with composting? What system to you like? How easy is that system for beginners? What are the benefits of that system? Please help! We've got to get started with this, and I want the start to be good enough that we keep it going from this point onwards. Thank you!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sunny report

This morning, I met with Ellie's teacher for a two week progress report on how Ellie is settling in to school. She could not have had more glowing things to say! Although Markus reminds me that flowery language is to be expected with Nigerians (Ellie's lovely teacher is Nigerian), the underlying message could not be missed: Ellie is doing beautifully! She has taken to the Montessori classroom like a duck to water, as we knew she would! She never gets tired of learning new things, is so determined that she keeps trying even when things don't go her way, has an astounding vocabulary, and generally knocks her teachers' socks off. We are not at all surprised to get such a great report, but of course we are so proud to hear what a joy she is to have in the class!

Already at home, we've observed some changes in her behavior that definitely come from her time at school. She has assumed full independence for getting dressed in the morning: going into her room on her own, choosing her clothes out of the drawers, putting away her pjs, and getting dressed as independently as possible. She offers to share food as she brings it to the table. The other day, she carried a bowl of blueberries to the table, but she walked around and offered some to baby Stephanie and to Papa before setting it down and getting into her seat. In the past two days, she has started emptying the dishwasher, particularly the utensils. Outside the home, her sociability has increased dramatically. When we are out and about, it has been her norm to shy away from strangers, even other children. Since she started school, she asks other children their names, how they are doing, etc. When we parted from friends after ballet class yesterday, she waved good-bye and shouted, "Have a good week! We'll see you next time!"

The best was yesterday afternoon when I picked her up from school. I always arrive a bit early, when the kids are out on the playground. She always sees me coming and runs over to give me a huge warm hug. Kids cannot be dismissed early, so she typically waits with me and baby Stephanie, snuggling both of us over and over in raptures that we came back. Yesterday afternoon, she came running as soon as she saw us walking through the gate, as usual. She threw herself at my legs, wrapping me in a huge hug and giving me a wonderful loving smile. I told her I was going to sit down and wait for the bell, and she said she would be over there playing with her friends under the tree...and off she went!

This is only week 3, but we know this school is the right choice and the best place for her. We are so proud of our smart, strong, growing girl, and we can hardly wait to see what she will do next!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pondering my insignificance

The Indian Ocean is beautiful.
Ellie's school is located across a (very busy) road from the beach, so I see the ocean every day when I drop her off and pick her up. Although the wind usually kicks up in the afternoons, the mornings are almost always calm and the sea is gorgeous and inviting. Last Friday as we made our way back to the car, we looked down to the water and observed dolphins swimming along fairly close to the shore. There was even a mother-calf pair. Watching them swim was such a peaceful, beautiful way to start the day!

Ever since I've started taking Ellie to school, the ocean has been calling me to swim. The water in front of her school is shallow and clear, and it runs along the Cottesloe reef. I've often seen snorkelers paddling along, looking at the sea grass and reef outcrops, and I have wanted to join them.
The trouble is I am deeply afraid of swimming in the ocean (or any body of water in which I cannot see well). I feel so exposed, so small, so not-the-top-of-the-food-chain. Ever since I was nine when we moved to Florida and I heard of a shark attack on a girl my age who was wading up to her knees collecting seashells, I have been afraid to swim in the ocean. More specifically, I am deathly afraid of sharks.
And this area does have sharks. There have been so many sightings this year (and a death) that several official ocean swim races have been cancelled.

But the sea has been calling to me. Every day it calls, and I know I will feel foolish when we leave this place if I do not answer the call from time to time, despite my fear. So this weekend, I took the plunge. Markus stayed home with Ellie while Stephanie napped, and I grabbed my snorkel gear and headed for that crystal clear shallow water.
When I came home again, dripping, elated and energized, Markus commented that I hadn't been gone very long. Maybe not, I told him, but I definitely got in some serious aerobic exercise: I was hyperventilating into my snorkel the entire time.
He laughed at me and then headed out for his turn in the water.
Upon his return, he gave me a very serious look and informed me that perhaps my hyperventilation was justified. Apparently, from the relative safety of the kayak, he observed a "quite large fin" that was "very triangular" and "definitely not a dolphin" moving along the Cottesloe reef near the area I chose to swim. Markus went on to assure me that it was pretty far out from the shore, so I would probably be just fine where I swim. Ha.

The sea is calling to me.
But from now on, it can leave a voicemail.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Calling cards

Stephanie was here:

Ellie was here:

Friday, March 06, 2009

Speaking of mindfulness

Via a Friend to knit with, I discovered Green Week at shining egg. Being asked to notice green was all it took. Suddenly, green is everywhere! As I type, I spy it on the blogger button bar for hyperlinks. I spy it on the handles of Ellie's scissors on my desk, the outside cover of the toy library binder I am currently neglecting, the plastic Barrel of Monkeys on the floor. I love how the thought of a color brought a simple awareness to my daily living. Without intending to participate, I became fully involved in Green Week. I'll be looking forward to the next color.


You might notice a new button on my sidebar: I Read NieNie.
NieNie Dialogues is written by a beautiful young woman named Stephanie Nielson. She is a daughter/sister/friend/wife/mother of four very young kids/expressive human being with strong faith who recently survived a near fatal small plane crash with her husband. He suffered burns over 30% of his body; she has 80%. She was a blogger before the crash, but I didn't know her blog then. Bad news travels fast online, and many of the other blogs I do read posted notice of her crash and links to donate to help their family. In the weeks after I first learned of her blog, I visited a few times here and there, but since Stephanie herself has resumed posting, I check in nearly every day. I am profoundly moved by her entries, her honesty and openness not only about (some of) the pain she currently experiences but moreso the tremendous effort she makes to focus on the joy in her life, the love in her marriage, and the countless happy memories of simple moments that any one of us experiences daily and takes for granted, as she probably did before. When I read her blog, I don't feel sorry for her. She seems to have an amazing support network of loving family and friends who care for her, her husband and their children. Rather, when I read her blog, she opens up a new level of mindfulness for me, reminding me to be present in the beautiful, joyful moments life offers up every day, the tiny things that could go unnoticed or even be a nuisance in some ways but are blessings in others. When I have a bad day, I don't think "my woes are nothing compared with hers"; rather, I am reminded to notice all the moments of joy that were hidden from my sight at the end of the day by my exhaustion or echoes of the tantrums. She has given me a gift of mindfulness. I read her blog and I wish I could be her friend, could help her smile, could offer support...but the closest I can get as a complete stranger is linking to her blog, so that's what I've done.