Monday, July 28, 2014

The Chronicles of Nannia - Episode Three

       With Kiley away for the summer I am afforded the opportunity to get some things done around the house that are difficult to get to when there is a baby around. Painting the inside of the house was something I was loath to do with Kiley here because of the fumes and all. I am getting all of that done. We are doing a lot to the outside of the house as well while we have the chance – painting the deck and a lot of landscaping. The biggest project is having a new roof put on. It is expensive but it is not something you can put off. It's a new roof this year and new windows next year. That should take care of the major expenses for the house for the next thirty years or so. We are trying to get those out of the way in preparation for my husband's retirement in a few years.

       This house has been our home for the past twenty-four years and is the house our two youngest children more or less grew up in. They were eight and ten years old respectively when we moved in and so many of their formative experiences happened while living here that this house is what they think of as their childhood home. Not so for our oldest daughter. She was sixteen when we moved here and when she thinks of childhood she thinks of a different place, our first house, the one we bought thirty-five years ago. My God! It can't possibly have been that long ago. Can it?

       The year is 1979. The song "YMCA" by The Village People peaks at no. 2 on the pop singles charts. Sony introduces the Walkman. Mother Teresa is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor of India. The American Embassy in Iran is seized and ninety hostages are taken as the Ayatollah Komeini declares the U.S. to be "The Great Satan". A major accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania sends a chill through the collective heart of the nation. The space probe Voyager 1 reveals that the planet Jupiter has rings. My first daughter is five years old and I am twenty-three.

       In 1979 we have been living in our present apartment for three years. Our daughter, not yet three when we moved in, is now not yet six. This is beginning to worry me. The apartment is great but I never envisioned raising my children in anything but a single-family home – a house. I want my children to have room, to have a yard to play in not a parking lot, to have a neighborhood that they call their own not a brick building. I am concerned that my daughter is about to start school and we are still living in an apartment.  Added to this we have decided to wait until we buy a house before having more children - and I want more children.  I feel time slipping by. Believe it or not, at the age of twenty-three I am hearing my biological clock ticking.

       This worry I am experiencing is due in large part to the state of the economy. In 1979 things look grim, especially for potential homebuyers. The big problem is inflation. Ever since before I was an adult inflation has been accelerating. Now it is getting truly damaging to the general economy and people's lives. The inflation rate is over %12 (compared to less than %2 today) which means that everything from furniture to clothes to food is noticeably more expensive than it was just a month ago. This makes it hard to save money and the value of whatever money you are able to save is being constantly eroded. In '79 everyone talks about inflation in the same way that everyone talks about unemployment today. It is on everyone's mind.

       This situation impacts potential home buyers in particular because, as is usually the case, the government (in the form of the Federal Reserve) tries to lower inflation by raising interest rates. I am desperate to buy a house for my present and future family but the interest rate on a thirty year fixed rate mortgage is %12.83. This makes the monthly mortgage payment on any house we would consider buying so high that we can't afford it. The only way to offset that cost is with a large down payment which, with the constantly rising cost of living, is getting progressively harder to obtain. I don't see any way out of our predicament and I don't know what to do.

       Then I hear about a new state program that is designed to help first time home-buyers. I forget what it was called but essentially the state raises money through a bond offering then funnels that money through local banks to first time home-buyers who qualify for the program. The mortgages generated carry an interest rate of %8.75. By today's standards %8.75 is huge but compared to the %12.8 going rate at the time it is way cheap. This is just the opportunity we need to solve our problem and may be our last chance to get our foot in the door of home ownership so I jump on it. I make all the necessary contacts and gather all of the necessary information and once I have figured it all out I present the facts to my husband. The proposition is scary because of the amount of money required to make it work but he has learned to trust my judgement in such matters and is as desperate to own a home as I am so he agrees with the plan. I make all the arrangements to get us involved in this (I won't bore you with the multiple problems that had to be overcome) and we start looking for a house to buy.

       Initially we go through a real estate broker to find a house but after some time we are dissatisfied with the houses he is showing us. He assures us that he is showing us the best that we can afford but we disagree. We drop the agent and start looking on our own. We quickly find a nice home in a pleasant community that is "For Sale By Owner" – an opportunity for negotiating a deal. The house is a bi-level with three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, hardwood floors and a family room with a fireplace. Yes! We negotiate a deal to buy it for $39,000, which will result in a mortgage payment of about $333 per month. Yikes! That's a lot of money! Things will be tight at first but as our income grows it will become more manageable. We will have our foot in the door and that will reap large benefits in the future.

       After leaping through many legal and financial hoops (we beg, borrow, and steal every penny we can get our hands on) we get the deal done and happily move in and settle down. The following year Ronald Reagan is elected president. He will lower taxes, the Federal Reserve (after much pain to the economy) will finally start to get inflation under control, and the economic boom of the 1980's will bring us prosperity. Over the next ten years the value of the house we just bought will triple, increasing our net worth and creating equity that we will be able to draw on to improve our lives. Even more importantly our daughter has a house to call home. In the next few weeks she will make friends (and enemies) in our new neighborhood that is full of kids. There is a swing set in the backyard and eventually there will be a pool and a deck. The school she will attend is within walking distance. Her future husband is a little boy who lives a few suburban blocks away. We soon acquire a German Shepherd pup that will be our beloved companion and protector for the next twelve years. In another year we will have our second child and two years after that our third. We are homeowners. The future looks bright.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Nest

         I miss Kiley. Taking care of her nine hours a day is hard and sometimes tedious work and I couldn't wait for summer to come and the freedom from all of the responsibility that comes with it. But now I miss her. I still get her one day a week and for now that's enough, but I think about her a lot and my husband and I talk about her a lot. Kiley has become an important part of our lives. Children have a way of doing that – worming their way into our minds and hearts and making a comfy nest for themselves there. I suppose it's a kind of survival mechanism. The helpless, logically enough, need our help and what better way to elicit our help than by making themselves indispensable to our own contentedness. Just as there is such a thing as maternal instinct perhaps there is also such a thing as "infanternal" instinct to take advantage of it. Babies naturally and instinctively take advantage of our natural and instinctive attachment to them to obtain what they need. In fact, if they didn't give back more than they take they could be considered parasitic, like emotional ticks, growing fat on our affection rather than our blood. That may make babies sound duplicitous and scheming but that's okay, they are.

Everyone who knows babies knows that babies are selfish. Perhaps self-centered would be a better term since being selfish requires knowing that others have different desires and needs than your own and choosing yours over theirs. Babies don't know that others have different desires than they do. In fact it is only after a certain level of development is reached that babies come to consider others as being separate from themselves at all. To them, at least initially, we are just another appendage like an arm or a hand and just as they gradually learn to have better control over their arms and hands they also gradually learn to have better control over us. One requires manipulating the proper muscles and the other requires manipulating the proper heartstrings. Both skills come naturally with time and without any conscious thought behind them, it just seems to happen. Fish don't need to be taught how to swim.

Eventually and gradually children grow out of the extremely dependent stage and into the simply dependent stage (my own terms). At that stage, starting at about the age of four, they begin to become aware that others are separate from themselves in the sense that they have different desires, beliefs, and intents about the world. In the psychology racket this is known as "theory of mind" and is an important milestone in childhood development. It allows the child to become socialized to a much greater and more meaningful way as he gradually realizes that others have certain wants, needs, and demands that must be met if a relationship is to be formed. Again, a large part of this "realization" takes place on a subconscious level and, therefore, seems to come naturally. This can be a very satisfying stage for parents. It is at this time that children begin to see their parents as individuals, very amazing individuals, and often transform from demanding though affectionate tyrants to adoring and worshipful dependents. No one will ever love you more than your children when they're four.

In time, of course, the kids grow out of their need for us altogether. They become truly independent and have no further use for the comfy nest that they made in our hearts long ago. When people speak of the empty nest syndrome it's not your empty house that they're talking about. In many cases, however, that transition, known as the "teen years", is so stressful and contentious that the empty nest, when it's finally abandoned, is viewed as a blessing. Maybe teens are programmed, genetically, to become unbearable so that we can let them go without too much heartache. Viewed in that light the rebellious delinquent is actually a godsend and the "good kid", a genetic anomaly, is the one causing the real trouble, abandoning us and breaking our hearts.

        So when that perfect teenager brings home another report card with straight "A's" smack him on the back of the head and say:  "Hey! When are you going to wake up? I'm tired of having this conversation. I'm warning you; you'd better get with the program! Your not going to be in this house forever you know. If you think I want to cry my eyes out when you go traipsing off to Harvard, you've got another think coming! Is a little consideration too much trouble? Try thinking of someone other than yourself for a change. Is that too much to ask? I've had it with you! Now, get the hell out of here and go make some trouble for me! And if I see those damn books in your hand one more time, I swear to God…  And you can wipe that respectful look off your face too, mister! Just you wait 'til your father gets home!"

 This post linked to the GRAND Social

Monday, July 14, 2014


        Yep, it's summertime and that means swimming pools of every size and shape are open for business. From the backyard wading pool, to the city sponsored community pool, to the backwoods swimming hole the cool water both clear and murky is beckoning and every kid lucky enough to have access to any type of water will be diving in. Kids love swimming pools, I know I did when I was a kid and so did all of my children. As my kids were growing up, they and I with them, experienced the usual evolution of backyard swimming pools. It's an all too familiar story. You start with something fun for them and easy for you, and gradually work your way up through the usual pool manifestations that are increasingly more fun for them and less easy for you. In the end, depending on how much aggravation you are willing to bear and how much money you are willing to pay for aggravation, you end up with a pool that is never quite big enough for them and way too big for you. Aint it great?

It begins when they are toddlers and the blow-up baby pool occupies a place of honor in the backyard or on the patio. They are a pain to blow up , literally, but otherwise are convenient and safe. You blow them up, fill them up, throw the kids in and they are content for just about as long as a two-year-old can be. Three inches of water is pretty manageable. No need for inner tubes, life-vests, swimmies or any other kind of floatation device, all you need is some floatable toys and you have about as much fun as a three year old can stand. That kind of pool is basically worry free. When you're done for the day just step on the side of the pool until all of the water runs out, let the air out, fold it up and put it away. Unfortunately the blow-up baby pool has a limited useful life span. By the time they are five or six the "baby" part of the baby pool is basically unacceptable to any self-respecting kid and they begin to agitate for the next step in backyard pool evolution. It is then time to trade up and you won't get any peace until the "Three Foot Pool" is taking up too much room in your backyard.

Ah, the "Three Foot Pool". When you get right down to it the primary and most popular feature of the "Three Foot Pool" is the fact that it is only semi-permanent. Its construction is such that it can be put up and taken down with not all that much difficulty. It's no blow-up pool to be sure but it isn't a permanent fixture either. Any pool that relies on the weight of the water to maintain its shape can't really be taken seriously. The thing I remember most about this type of pool is the fact that it was constantly full of grass. Its low profile and flexibility makes it far too easy for kids to get in and out of, which they do too frequently dragging grass and God knows what else back in with them. Also, the fact that people usually don't take them seriously means that they don't take adequate care of them either. They always seem to be dirty. In fact, without a pump or filter or any cleaning device the "Three Foot Pool" actually seems designed to get dirty and by the end of summer they are nothing if not unappetizing. If you stop and think about it, the "Three Foot Pool" is really just a stalling mechanism. With the proper attitude the stubborn parent can use the "Three Foot Pool" to avoid making the commitment to what the kids really want which is the "Four Foot Pool" most commonly known as simply "The Above Ground Pool"

The typical "Above-Ground-Pool" is four feet deep and can come in just about any size from the standard ten foot circular pool to these oval pools that can be truly humongous depending on how much of your yard you want to devote to swimming and how much money you want to spend. These things don't come cheap. They cost thousands of dollars to buy and install and then a continuous flow of money to maintain. And believe me when I say that it is unwise to do the installation your self, even for the smaller versions. The amount of work and necessary technique required makes it well worth paying professionals to do it. You definitely don't want to spend all that money to buy the thing only to botch the installation and have a pool that leans noticeably and unattractively to one side. An "Above-Ground-Pool" is not supposed to have a "deep end". I personally don't mind the "look" of  an "Above-Ground-Pool" and have great memories of the one I had when I was a kid but my husband is not fond of them. In his opinion they are ugly and more work than they are worth. I admit that they have to be done properly. You don't want an eyesore in your backyard for years on end but I have seen some really nice ones with adjoining decks and all tastefully landscaped to the point where you hardly notice that it is above ground. The "Above-Ground-Pool" is more or less a permanent fixture but nothing stays fun forever and there does come a time when the kids outgrow it. When that happens it can be taken down and the bare spot it leaves in your yard can be replanted. Not so with the king of all backyard pools – the "In-Ground-Pool".

Ah, the "In-Ground-Pool", everyone's favorite pool, the "real" pool, the "lucky girl's" pool. Who wouldn't want one? It's elegant, it's beautiful, it shouts luxury and good living and is often as much a social statement as a place to swim. It is also truly expensive costing not thousands of dollars but tens of thousands and is permanent with a capital P. Once it is in it aint coming out without tremendous effort and expense. It is also very versatile. You can do a lot with an "In-Ground-Pool", It's big, wide and deep and usually comes with a diving board. You can get under water lights with it for swimming at night, which is great. If you can afford it this is the pool you want. It is head and shoulders above the "Above-Ground-Pool" but like the "Above-Ground-Pool" it has one major drawback, the same drawback of every body of water  - people can drown in them, especially kids.

I know I often sound like the voice of doom but keeping our children safe is the first and most important job of motherhood. So I have to tell you the one thing, the only thing, I don't like about pools is the danger they can present (that and June Bugs floating around). Little kids and deep water don't mix. That's why most places have ordinances governing the fencing in of backyard pools. It's only common sense to keep small children away from danger; therefore a family pool has to be managed appropriately. Access for the little ones has to be restricted and parents have to be ever vigilant in keeping the child and the pool separated whenever the pool isn't being used with appropriate supervision. This can be difficult since the pool will always be a source of fascination for small children. The best and strongest gate becomes useless the moment it is left open. That is why it is imperative to teach children to swim as early as possible.

Teaching children to swim can be a painful or pleasant process depending on the method employed and quite possibly the age of the child (the younger they are the easier they learn). I think the biggest mistake parents make when teaching a child to swim is approaching it as a "lesson". Lessons aren't fun. Swimming lessons are often stressful to the child because lessons bring with them the stigma of a learning process that is to regimented and therefore contains the possibility of success or failure. Nobody likes pressure, especially kids. To be in a formal swimming class is like being in any other kind of school. You have a bunch of kids all lined up by the pool and all given the same instruction. Some will pick it up quicker than others, which starts the pressure building. Add to that the scariness of learning to swim and you have all the makings of an unpleasant experience; one that is merely endured rather than enjoyed.

On the other hand if you just have fun with your kid while she is in the pool the swimming part will come naturally. A little subtle coaching along the way and she will be doggy paddling in no time. It seems the younger they are when they are introduced to the water the more readily they take to swimming. We have all seen the incredible pictures of babies swimming under water (it's adorable but also kind of creepy). They seem to do it naturally up to a certain age; toss them in the water and they hold their breath instinctively. They swim around underwater or flip over onto their backs and float with what seems like no effort at all. But you can't do that with a three-year-old. Somewhere along the line they seem to lose that natural ability. Rafts, inner tubes, swimmies, life vests or any floatation device helps during the transition between non-swimmer and swimmer. You have to be careful of diving of course, and too much horsing around usually results in injuries.

One last important point. You have to remember to not let yourself get too distracted when your kids are in the water. Keep your eyes open because, as they say, "drowning doesn't look like drowning". Most of us have this picture in our minds of what a drowning person looks like. It's usually something along the lines of what we see on TV or in the movies – someone in the water flailing about and waving their arms calling for help. In real life it doesn't happen that way. Drowning is usually a quiet thing. There's no splashing, yelling, or waving of arms. Someone who is drowning is in a truly desperate situation. They can't keep their head above water (if they could they wouldn't be drowning). Normally all of their strength, effort, and concentration are devoted to getting their head above water just long enough to get that next gulp of air before they submerge again. Eventually they run out of strength and can't get that gulp of air. There have been incidents of children drowning with their mothers standing right next to them in the water and having a casual conversation, unaware of what is quietly transpiring just inches away. We have to keep our eyes and minds on the kids. Happy swimming.


Monday, July 7, 2014

It's Summer Time

        "Summer time, time, time - child the livin's easy". Janice Joplin was right when she sang those words. It's summer time and the living is easy. The days are long and the nights are warm and with school out the amount of responsibilities for everyone, kids and parents alike are reduced. With summer comes a whole range of activities for both adults and kids but especially for the kids. Outdoor activities that have been precluded by winter weather now become available – sports, games, nature - all are there for the partaking. Summer is synonymous with freedom, most especially for kids. Freedom, however, is a relative term and its definition often depends on needs, desires, circumstances, and the times in which we live.

        When we are children we believe that grown-ups enjoy an amount of freedom that we can only imagine and in many respects that is true. Grown-ups are not only capable of doing so much more than children, they are allowed to do so much more. Grown-ups are the rule makers, the permission givers, the buzz killers with the power of veto over everything. Surely when we become grown-ups we can make the rules for ourselves. We can decide what we can and cannot do. We can throw off the chains of childhood and become the masters of our own fate. Again, in many respects that's true. But when the magical transition finally comes to pass and we metamorphose from larva to adult we find that our shiny, new wings are bound by a new kind of chain. We are constrained by a new rule maker, a new permission giver; ruled by a new master. Responsibility has become our new parent and it is far more rigid and far less affectionate than our old ones.
        There are things other than authority that restrain freedom and this is especially true for children. Today's children are less free than their parents were as children and far less free than their grandparents were. We have all heard it before and said it before - the world of today is a more dangerous place than in generations past. This contention may be debated but I believe it to be apparent and the limitations this puts on our children's freedom cannot be overstated.
        When I was a child, fifty years ago, the world "outside" was where freedom was. Outside, especially during the summer, was where we lived. Indoor activities were for rainy days and rainy days quickly became boring. Who of my generation doesn't remember staring out the window on a rainy day wishing the sun would come out and shine freedom on the world? And who doesn't remember their parent's insistence that the kids "go outside and play"? They didn't want us inside the house and most of the time we didn't want to be there, an unusual correlation of desire between child and parent.

        Inside the house was the domain of the grown- ups. There the rules were strictly enforced and under the all-seeing eyes of parents the boundaries of freedom were clearly drawn. But outside, in the wide world, we kids set our own boundaries and lived by our own rules, rules formed to a large degree by the teachings of our parents no doubt, but then adjusted and modified to the world of children which has different foundations and far different dynamics than the world of adults. There the lessons learned on our mothers' knees, lessons about courage, kindness, fairness, right, wrong and so many other concepts essential to living were tested and adapted in real life situations. Situations whose consequences, seen in the light of a child's perspective, were no less profound for being "childish" than the consequences of later, adult actions. It was in this children's world of the "outside", away from the authority and guidance of adults, where our true characters were tested and our true selves formed. That kind of freedom is a precious gift but it is a gift that is slipping away.

        Today our children are too often denied that gift. The dangers of the world outside have grown over the decades to the point that in many places, perhaps even most, it is unwise to allow our children to roam too far afield unsupervised and unprotected. But it is not the outside world that has changed. The change is on the inside, the inside of us. We have created this situation and the trend is acceleratng. We have allowed our society to devolve into the parody of civilized community it is today in the name of personal freedom. What a joke! Our world is less free and less civilized as a result. When I was a child the world was a safer, and yes, more civilized place. Oh, I know there are those who deny this and say it isn't true but anyone who is honest knows that it is true. There were once norms of conduct that were rigidly enforced by the community and people looked out for their neighbors and especially their neighbor's children. (Remember - It takes a village to raise a child.) This made each neighborhood a safe haven in which the children could thrive. We spent all day out and about and our parents didn't have to worry about us. They didn't even know where we were. They didn't have to. My husband is fond of recalling how at eight, nine and ten years of age he and his group of friends would roam literally miles from home, through the neighborhoods and nearby woods reveling in the life of childhood adventure such independence creates. The only boundaries being those created by the limited distance their little boy's legs could carry them and the only rule being "you'd better be home for dinner". They were free and they were safe.

        Today children are not afforded that same freedom we had and they are the worse off for it. They need to be on their own. They need to be away from the protection and shelter of adults so they can test themselves and learn to cope and adapt to new situations, to be independent and self-sufficient. When they can't experience that freedom outside the home is it any wonder that they seek it in other realms, in the imaginary worlds of video games and the Internet that we all complain about, places where the adults can't follow? Unfortunately, these imaginary worlds are a poor substitute for the freedom of real life because there are no consequences to imaginary actions. There are no life lessons to be learned when violence does not cause real pain, when aggression does not affect the aggressor, when actions don't have real ramifications, when what goes around doesn't come back around. How long can we let this continue? How long do we allow the "social revolutionaries" to destroy our freedom and that of our children?  How long before anything resembling real childhood is gone? "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose". Was Janice Joplin right when she sang those words too? How long before the only kind of freedom our children have left is that kind?


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Holiday Road

          This past week was my last week with Kiley until the fall. Kiley's mother is a teacher. That means she has summers off which means I have summers off. I like that. I intend to take Kiley one day a week through the summer just so I won't get rusty and so she won't forget me. This is important to maintain continuity and keep her acclimated to me. The last thing I need is to have to break her in again at the end of August. Let her stay used to me, my demands and routines and things will be a lot easier on both of us.

        I have been looking forward to summer, as I'm sure you can imagine. I'm going to do all of the things that I haven't had time to do while I played nanny. I'm going to get the garden back in shape, I'm going to catch up on my sleep, and I'm going to spend a week at the beach (something I have done almost every year since I was a child). I love the beach - the sun, the sand, the sea. The mere smell of sunscreen alone can calm my nerves and brighten my mood. Vacations are important that way. They create wonderful memories and allow tranquility to seep into the soul. Of course not all vacations are equal. In fact some vacations are not vacations at all. Some vacations are ordeals, exercises in stamina and endurance, annoyance and frustration, exasperation and dissatisfaction. You mothers with small children, you know what I'm talking about – "The Vacation From Hell".

When you are a mother, especially one with small children, the chances of experiencing a true vacation are remote. Assuming, that is, that you define a vacation as I do – a time when you get to relax, get away from the normal routine, and do the things that you want to do. Unfortunately, doing what you want to do while simultaneously seeing to the needs of your demanding brood, which includes your husband, is extremely hard if not damn near impossible to do. How can I do what I want to do when "they" need me to help them do what they want to do? Sure it's fun and rewarding to help your children, which includes your husband, do fun and rewarding things but I get to do that all year long. A vacation is for doing what you don't normally do. Being mommy, wife, housekeeper, dishwasher, cook, chauffeur, hostess and referee is not a vacation just because you can see the ocean. In fact, the fact that you can see the ocean probably means that you have more work to do than when you are at home. Cooking for your family plus guests, applying sunscreen to kids who don't want it on, making sure your loved ones don't drown, burn, get lost, lose their bikini tops, lose their bikini bottoms, track sand into the house, drink sunscreen, get too close to the grill, snag each other with fish hooks, eat the bait, all the while simultaneously making sure that everyone has a great time is not exactly "adventures in paradise". The salt see air, pleasant though it may be, is not worth falling into bed exhausted a 9pm every night.

Don't get me wrong. I love spending time with my family, especially now that the kids are grown and raising their own. I miss them. When we all get together for a week at the beach this summer it will be something I have been longing for since this time last year. But just once I would like to experience the fantasy I always had when I was a harried mother, the dream vacation that every woman deserves. I want to lie on the beach, no scratch that, I want to fall asleep on the beach, dive into the surf whenever I happen to wake up, go for long or short walks alone, wear a bikini so small that the kids would be scandalized (and have the booty to match it), eat out every night, have too much to drink whenever I damn well please and not worry about anyone but myself for one whole week. Is that too much to ask? I think that I, along with every other mother worth her salt, have earned it. If there is any reward for the righteous then heaven will be a deserted beach with warm water, bright sun, and white sand stretching off into infinity with no one in sight, or even in existence, except the accommodating cabana boy who materializes - tall, tanned and drink in hand - whenever I snap my fingers. Take me now lord.