Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My problem with nature is this…

naturetrail
We have now been in Austin for a little over four weeks. I know--I can’t believe it either. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was bitching about another snowfall, another -2 day in Chicago? But here we are, welcoming 80 degrees on a spring day, which is typical for this area, I’ve been told. Warmer temps mean more outdoor excursions for us, and that’s how my girls and I ended up at the park in the middle of the afternoon yesterday.

I had seen this neighborhood park while house-hunting and made a mental note of it to come back with the girls. When we did, they quickly grew tired of the play structures and went on to the other activities there - a fun little gravel pit, a serious-looking exercise area with new stretching and even stepping equipment to get the heart pumping, and finally, much to their delight, a nature trail. Pickle, who can’t read yet, didn’t need the sign to tell her what she was looking at when she pointed at the trailhead and yelled, “Look! A nature trail!”

I enjoyed their reaction, but dreaded the trail myself. And this is the part about me I don’t quite like, especially now that we’re in Austin, where the great outdoors is the place to be. I have a love-hate relationship with nature.

I love the idea of being one with nature, but the thought of it actually terrifies me. I see forest-like greenery and all I can think of are the things that lurk in there. I don’t do well (at all) with things that creep, crawl, slither, squirm, anything really. I’m okay with the cute, furry squirrels and bunnies that were plentiful in my old neighborhood in Chicago, but I don’t think I can handle anything beyond that.

I grew up in the heart of a concrete jungle in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and other than playing in the soccer field in front of my flat in my elementary school years, exploring nature meant strolling down our street lined with a handful of trees to have dinner at the hawker stalls (outdoor food vendor). When we finally moved to a house with a yard, we grew grass. And that was it. I am pretty sure my brown thumbs are inherited because I don’t remember my mom being successful in growing anything either. Or that she even tried.

Even though the tropical rainforest was never too far away, we never camped, we never went on nature hikes, we never went anywhere near anything that looked remotely like nature. To me, nature was the Lake Gardens, a large patch of greenery surrounding a, you guessed it, lake - all part of careful urban planning that was meant for city dwellers like me. I would go there with my friends after school for a change of scenery: Look! Pretty hibiscus along this paved path next to the lake. Yay! Nature!

I lived on or near campus in my four years of college in SmallTown, USA, and when I moved to Chicago, there were pretty neighborhood parks and well-pruned forest preserves to quench my thirst for green. Often, the hundred-year-old trees on our streets and the Lake Michigan beach were plenty for me. For vacation, we only went on popular trails in the Smoky Mountains (and believe me, I had my reservations then too, despite how much I adored being in the mountains) but now that we’re here in Austin, this may be the first time I actually experience anxiety about the outdoors.

Austin is a pretty green city with running trails (because without the shady trees on many trails, running would be near impossible in the scorching summer months), nature trails for a leisurely family hike, and large and small bodies of water all around us (lakes, rivers, creeks) that beg exploration. People seem to spend a lot of time outdoors here because, well, we have decent climate for it most of the year.

And all I can think about is what lurks behind the greenery. When the girls attempted to pick a flower on our trail yesterday, I found myself panicking: “Don’t move any rocks!”

“Why, mommy?” Little Miss asked, and I couldn’t get myself to give them my crazy answer, which was, there might be something under it! It’s sensible, yes, but I would only be transferring my fear to them. I remember absorbing this fear when I listened to my mom, aunt, and grandmother talk about their phobia of a certain animal, which eventually became my own, and I refused to do this to my girls.

I cannot allow my own irrational --sometimes debilitating--  fear cloud their appreciation for nature; they are young little explorers with so much to see and do. I simply can’t limit them because of my own inability to overcome my fears. It just wouldn’t be fair to them.

And so, on this Earth Day, when I saw this Growing Up Green article that encourages us to get in touch with nature, I am determined to do something about my issue. I no longer want to hide behind my, “Oh I’m a city girl” facade, and possibly rob my own family of their enjoyment of what this beautiful world has to offer.

I probably won’t be crocodile hunting anytime soon, nor will I ever be comfortable about camping in the wilderness with just a piece of nylon between me and nature, but I can start small. Instead of cringing at the idea of a yard, like I did when we saw a house that had half an acre of land that included a vegetable garden and a greenhouse, and I thought to myself - what the heck am I going to do with all that?, I would start with a plan to get my hands dirty with the girls -- grow something from the ground.

And maybe I will even finish that nature hike with them that I couldn’t yesterday. One baby step at a time. It’s not much, but it’s something.

I suppose, on Earth Day, when the hope is for everyone to pitch in to be kinder to the only planet we can call home, something is better than nothing.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Because it’s gloomy, and I needed some sunshine

I went for a run with a new friend (a new friend! yay!) last Sunday and brought the whole family along so they could play at the playground. But what we didn’t expect to see was this magnificent field of bluebonnets. Apparently, it’s a Texas thing. Our little urban kids ran through them, rolled on them, tried to pluck them (but were warned against it as it’s against state law) and just feasted their eyes on them. What a lovely, lovely surprise.

After an unbearably long and painfully frigid winter in Chicago, this is a welcome change to our scenery. Even if we had to move 1300 miles away for it.

Today, the clouds are hiding the sun and my work is heavy. The house is empty, and it’s so quiet that I can hear my cats breathe. In the next room. I am in need of some sunshine and light. Perhaps even a little smile.

And voila!




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Mission accomplished.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The defining moment

You know that moment in a burgeoning relationship where you know that you’re in it for the long haul? The moment that takes you from good to wow? That tells you, yes, this is it, this is your future, and you can’t imagine being any place else? With My Guy, this was our defining moment: our electric first kiss. And for Austin, this moment happened to me this weekend.  

It all started with this sweet little neighbor lady who mentioned to the girls and me, after allowing us to pet her little pup, “Take them down 360, the bluebonnets are everywhere!” I made a mental note of it.

My Guy was due home from his long work trip to Chicago that day. He was driving 1300 miles in his car, and at that point in the morning, he had already reached Texas. Yes! Except, this being the largest state in the contiguous U.S. also meant he was still nowhere near. To distract ourselves, we walked to a nearby bakery for breakfast and procured some ribbons from another store to create a banner that Little Miss suggested, “to welcome daddy home!” and the girls dedicated the rest of the morning to making it.

When My Guy finally walked in at the end of the afternoon, this was the first thing he saw:


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And then there was a mess of tangled limbs and excitement and a constant flurry of daddy this and daddy that, which they had saved up from this past week. It was a good reunion. Especially when he delivered this to me, a perfect souvenir that we could only get from Chicago. In fact, it’s the only thing, other than our friends, that I had been missing and craving from our old city. Man, he knows me well.



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For dinner, I couldn’t think of a better welcome back to Austin than food trucks, and remembering the lady’s words, I recommended that we took 360 downtown. And I think that’s where it all began. This moment. 

Who knew that 360 was the scenic route? Certainly not us. Our jaws dropped at the picturesque view that took us along hill country and across the Colorado River. We saw expansive views of rolling hills, creeks, and hillsides that were dotted with the colors of wildflowers along both sides of our route, most notably the blue of the famed bluebonnets, but there were also fiery orange-red and yellow and even pink ones, much to the delight of our girls. We couldn’t believe it took us this long to discover this!

We lived right next to this highway, and we always turned left to jump on another highway to get downtown. Who knew that turning right would also get us there? It may be slower, but it’s certainly a hundred times better. This is, of course, no secret to the locals, but being new to the area, we became over-reliant on GPS to take us places. After all, shouldn’t it know better?

Apparently not. It gave us the shortest route from Point A to Point B, but that’s often not the scenic route. In fact, it rarely is.

I wish I had pictures to share but we were zipping past in our car, completely entranced by this new route, that it didn’t even occur to me. Besides, there are plenty of great pictures on the Internet, especially of the bridge we took across the river, like this one. And for the first time, we didn’t even look at our GPS. We knew this route would eventually take us downtown, and we didn’t care how long it would take or where we would end up once we were there. Today, it was all about the journey.

I also realized that funny things happen when you’re on a journey – you get to discover little gems that you never knew existed, or at least didn’t think to look for because you never knew it existed. That’s how we found this place that caught our attention as we drove past it, and we just had to turn back. Everything about it called out to us.


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Midway Food Park. It was a park with a playground and a live band on stage, surrounded by food trucks. In short, heaven.

Because dinner was no longer about trying to enjoy our food while trying to keep the girls entertained. There was plenty of entertainment, and we could savor our food that came from several different trucks – lobster roll, some meaty gourmet sandwich, patatas bravas and fried artichokes – uninterrupted by kids whining for attention. The girls would linger long enough to eat several bites and then its off to another quest.


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But it wasn’t just the food that found its way to my heart. It was everything about that place that said so much about this city. The lovely, temperate spring weather that brought this park to life, the live music that was characteristic of this live music capital of the country, the vibrant green space when most of the country is still trying to recover from the drab grey of winter, and the kind, friendly people. Like this dad who gave rides to random kids in the playground on a little red wagon, and of course Pickle, who’s never shy, climbed right up and made her place among unfamiliar faces, perfectly content to be dragged around by a strange man, which I suppose could be a good and bad thing. But she never left our sight, so today, it was a good thing. Then there was this 13-year-old who was so taken with Pickle and vice versa that they rarely left each other’s side. So smitten was Pickle that she brought me to the girl, who introduced herself as Suzanne, and said, “this is my new fwiend.”

Little Miss joined them for Hide n Seek, and My Guy and I just hung back at our picnic table and watched the lively scene around us – smiling parents with happy kids who harmoniously stretched out in a space that had something for each of them, the bright colors of birthday parties, flying bubbles and bobbing balloons adding texture to the landscape, a healthy line by the lobster roll truck, my feet tapping to the folk music from the stage. This was an evening made for us.

Then I remembered the scenery that accompanied us here and realized that we never reached downtown. We didn’t even know where this was, but we didn’t care. We had all the time in the world to get to where we wanted to go.

At that moment though, we were exactly where we needed to be.



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That night, after the girls were in bed, I was sitting on the couch when one of the banners we made fell, but instead of trying to fix it, I left it that way as it now makes even more sense. After a week of doubts, it’s almost like it knew I needed this.


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It’s most definitely a sign (hah!), because for the first time since we arrived here three weeks ago, it finally feels like home.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Dealing with disappointments

I had to do something really difficult today; I had to decline an offer that Little Miss received from the Selective Enrollment Schools in Chicago. Out of 28 seats, our little girl was selected, based on her test scores, to fill one of them in a highly competitive Classical school – our top choice for her – that’s ranked the second best elementary school in the state! After weeks of touring the schools in Chicago, and hours spent poring over which ones would best match her needs, talking to parents who navigated the complicated school system, and applying and hoping for the best, the congratulatory email arrived in my Inbox…the week we arrived in Austin. I didn’t even know how to react.

Thank you, universe, for this cruel, cruel joke.

I’m incredibly proud of my big girl, but this was just too much. After shaking my fist at the sky and doubting ourselves for relocating, I reminded myself that we chose Austin for its stellar public school system. Here, Little Miss doesn’t have to test into a good school or hope against hope that she will win a seat in the lottery for magnet schools. The only thing we need to do is to move into the neighborhood of our school of choice, and they’re at least more affordable than the neighborhood with decent schools in Chicago. Also, both girls can attend the same school here, rather than having Pickle go through the same process to see if she will be accepted into the same school as her sister, which I was informed was near miraculous.

I have since been pouring my energy into yet another time-consuming school research, and I think I finally honed in on one that would work really well for her. The next natural step is to find a house in that neighborhood. Easy enough.

Except it isn’t. It’s proving more difficult than we had imagined, because it’s a seller’s market here, and the really good houses go even before they hit the market. They have these “Coming Soon” signs before they put up “For Sale” ones so people who drive by get a chance to look at and bid on the house before it even gets recorded in the system. At a school tour today, I met a family who relocated from Atlanta, and they had to put an offer on a pre-MLS house sight unseen, and even then, they had to contend with three other offers! C.r.a.z.y.

So guess what we’ve been doing every other day? Yup, driving around the neighborhood we like, looking for signs. Literally. I even plan my running route there to do just that, but it’s not always fruitful.

Much to my excitement, something great did come along this week. Of course it was the day My Guy left for Chicago when this house came on the market, which meant I had to see it by myself (or rather, with the girls in tow at the time when they should be getting ready for bed, which made things reeeeeally interesting), take a video and pictures for him, and then we talked and talked and talked about putting an offer down. It will be his first home-buying experience – our first together -  and we wanted to be sure. But by the time we were, the sellers had already accepted another offer. GAAAAAH! All this within 24 hours of the house showing up as “new” on the MLS. Just when I was really starting to see us there. Just when I was really loving the idea of being in that house.

It was a huge disappointment to me. HUGE. I was so bummed that when the girls were in bed, I searched the house for some chocolates or whiskey for consolation. BUT THERE WERE NONE! The universe must hate me. Thankfully, a dear friend mentioned over email that she would sometimes just eat chocolate chips straight out of the bag, and I leaped out of my seat. Yes! I have that! And I proceeded to stuff my face with them to help me swallow the bitterness of my disappointment.

I wasn’t thoroughly out of my funk the next day either. I went for a run to “shake it off” but running in 80 degrees and climbing hills on top of that proved more torturous than helpful. How much more hostile could the universe be, I thought. What eventually did it for me was getting my girls from school and tossing our evening routine out the window when I found myself spontaneously announcing, “Who wants ice cream?”

What can’t ice cream cure? 


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The weather might have been awful for my run, but it was beautiful for dining, exploring, and ice-creaming. The glorious blue skies and breezy, sunny day encouraged us to linger outdoors with our (healthy!) Mediterranean dinner. After which, they bee-lined for the (not-so-healthy but oh-so-delicious) ice cream. The adjacent park shaded by gorgeous live oak trees beckoned us to stay awhile, and we did, allowing nature and ice cream do their thing with me.  With sugar-fueled kids near bedtime, they expended energy by further exploring the area, aptly named the Arboretum. Intrigued by paths that went into a lush greenbelt, we decided to follow it and found this little pond, tucked away in its own little world.




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The girls were thrilled with their discovery. There were a lot of squealing and “come here, look at this!” and “Whoa!” and just a general high that comes with happy kids doing happy kid things. With me in the middle, how could I not be pulled in by the brightness of their joy? It was exactly what I needed to extinguish the darkness that threatened me.

Granted, lest you think I have perfect children (hah!), they still managed to whine and protest  (“I don’t want dinner first, I want ice cream now!” and “I don’t want to go home and go to bed!”) and I did get frustrated at some point, but I suppose parenting two kids on my own in this still-strange city while My Guy’s away for work, that’s about as good as it was going to get. Actually, looking at the all-girls week we’ve had, I think we did pretty well together.

 

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I’m learning my way around (without the GPS!), our routine both grounds me and gives me space to work and to breathe, and the girls, well, they have been great and they have been a pain, which kind of cancels out each other, if you ask me. With My Guy 1,200 miles away for five days, I figured, to survive this, I need to be less ambitious, like giving fewer baths and feeding them dinner in front of the TV on a couple of occasions to avoid cleaning their mess at the dining table. (Hey, don’t judge.) And whaddya know? It worked.

When they’re with me, they’re my constant source of amusement, like when Pickle woke in the late evening to pee, then went back in her room and out of the blue announced in her sleep-tainted voice, “Mommy, when I grow up, I want to drink coffee,” before snuggling back in bed for the rest of her slumber. When they’re in school, I know they’re learning and growing and accepting and giving.

It is working out well for us here. Despite painfully declining the school offer. Despite the pang of a setback in our home search. Standing at the Arboretum lookout, in awe of the sight before me, and hearing the sheer delight in my girls’ voice, I had to trust that we made the right decision to come here. We will find a house that we love. The girls will flourish. Our family will be happy here. Even if it’s not readily apparent, I have to believe that whatever we do, whatever we end up with, it will be – it has to be – better than what we had before.



ArboretumCow

Monday, April 7, 2014

It’s not all roses here (there are bluebonnets too)

BeigeApartment

Our apartment is very beige. In fact, it’s the beigest (oh hey, look at that, it’s actually a word!) place I’ve ever been in. It’s like the interior designer thought, Hmm…what’s the most neutral and least offensive palate that would appease everyone? I know, beige! So let’s paint the wall beige, make the counters beige, the fireplace beige, the carpet, couch, bed linens, decor…you get the picture. It’s a lot of beige. With brown accents. Really?!

This apartment is also half the size of our previous place in Chicago. And because we chose a furnished apartment while our things went into storage in the house-hunting process, I am also realizing “furnished” means aesthetically, it looks like a (very beige) home, but utility wise, it’s not quite there. I mean, the only pan that comes with this place is eight inches wide, and when I bought some greens (“yu choy”) from the Chinese grocery store to stir fry for dinner, I had to cook it in three batches. That’s how useless an eight-inch pan is for a family of four.

With our kitchen things buried deep in the crevices of our storage, I rather imagine there won’t be any real baking or serious cooking in our near future.  But hey, we can make some killer omelets. One at a time. Yaaaaaaaaaaay…

And the roads here in Austin—or maybe Texas in general—what is up with the 14-lane highways, the six lanes (three to turn, three to go straight) on a frontage road, and the mega-high highways everywhere we go?

I’m not quite sure if it’s a complaint yet. I like that it cuts our travel time considerably, because now, nothing is more than 20 minutes from us, unlike Chitown, when seeing a dear friend across town meant at least a 45-minute commute in our car, and they’re not even in the suburbs.

But express travel also means we’re constantly going on and off a major highway here, which feels so impersonal to me. It’s as if the destination is more important than the journey itself, but guys, it’s really pretty here. The hills. The greenery. The winding streets. Why aren’t we taking our time through them?


photo 1 (52)The view from my street. See what I mean?


But perhaps that’s just the tourist in me talking. I suppose once I cross over to the more resident side of things, the cussing, honking city driver in me will probably appreciate the highways when I realize everyone on these side streets Are. Taking. Forever.

And this whole Lone Star State thing? Wow. I know Texas used to be its own nation once upon a time, but residents here seem to have that etched in their collective memory. And their bones. I’ve never seen so much state pride, evident in a gazillion variations of the Lone Star or the shape of the state in street signs, houses, yards, cars, buildings, tee-shirts, onesies, you name it. It’s almost funny to me, except I also admire it a little. When you find yourself in the middle of a culture that’s so confident, so sure of itself, it’s hard not to feel like you want to belong, which stirs up some odd emotions. Didn’t I, not too long ago, just think that I could never live in Texas? I mean, come on, could y’all really picture me in cowboy boots?

As I try to assess my feelings about this place, we’ve experienced our first hailstorm, which I was told was common in this region, we’ve had nearly 90-degree days in early spring (no, I’m not bragging, my frozen Chicago friends; it’s just not something I’m used to, and if it’s nearly 90 and toasty now, summer is absolutely going to fry us!), and we’re slooooooowly meeting new people but our network here is still somewhat non-existent.

Granted, it’s only been two weeks, but we’re people people. I may be an introvert who doesn’t socialize much, but I like the option of having a friend with whom I can go out for drinks if my week feels long. Without that, even the second largest state in the country feels a little claustrophobic.

So yeah, it’s not all peaches and roses (or the ubiquitous and lovely springtime favorite, bluebonnets, here) in Austin. We’re wading through culture shock, although shock is a strong word—culture surprises?—and  we’re coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t a vacation.

It’s different here, yes, but we’re doing just fine. It helps that we love exploring, we love being together, and we love that we are here.

The fact that our apartment is minimal in space and stuff is actually working well because we have a greater appreciation for what we do have. I am actually liking the minimalist living. The smaller square footage doesn’t bother the girls—they never really played in the lower level of our old two-level apartment anyway because they liked being around us, and now that we only have this one floor, they make do. We make do.

They play their pretend games on their own as long as I’m in their periphery, and without the access to their truckload of toys, they learn to enjoy the handful that we did bring here. They’ve also developed a passion for coloring, allowing me to organize, cook or even work on my computer, while they happily coexist with a “My Little Pony” or “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” coloring book each and a bag of crayons between them. 


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It’s a strange new world out here. In a good way.

As for the beige and brown, we brought our more brightly colored throws from storage to brighten the place; I added pretty pink and purple flowers to decorate, and unwilling to go another day with a drab brown comforter in our room, I splurged on a white and grey one, as well as a bright teal blanket to go with it. Ahhh… Color… Life!

The girls, on the other hand, need no brightening. They wake up cheery every morning, ready to take on the world. It’s amazing how well they’re adjusting, with barely a hint of homesickness, and when they do talk about our old friends and city, it’s only in fond recollection. They just started their new preschool three days a week at the Asian-American Cultural Center, and they’ve so far had eggrolls, yoga, and Kung Fu. Little Miss is also practicing her numbers—in Chinese. I joke that they’ll soon be more Asian than I am, but I fervently hope they keep at it. The school is certainly doing a better job than I am in teaching them about their own culture, and thankfully, they look forward to it everyday. 

 

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With the girls in school, I am back to my regular part-time work schedule at home, with the balcony as my office. My Guy’s work, a coworking space that he rents so he can connect with local entrepreneurs and free agents like him, is about five minutes from our house. More often than not, I get to see him in the middle of the day when he comes home for lunch. It’s a far cry from our situation in Chicago when he had to travel over an hour one way just to get to his client, and he had to do that three to five miserable times a week. Now, I would text him and let him know the girls are done with naptime, and he’d show up within minutes to hang out with us for the rest of the evening.

It’s pretty sweet.

Yes, there are a lot of changes around us, and they’re mostly good. Like when we walked into a car dealership one day and walked out with a new Subaru Forester. I blame the margaritas we had for dinner, but it’s a Motor Trend 2014 SUV of the Year, and we are car people who like our car peppy, so when this came with a turbo-charged engine, we couldn’t resist. The girls screamed gleefully at the sunroof as we pulled out of the dealership, and when we merged into traffic, I thought, holy shit, what the hell did we just do? As if we didn’t have enough change in our lives.


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But this car is so fun to drive, I simply had to let it go.

I’m hoping that finally arriving at a routine with the preschool and workspace would settle things down for us. Except My Guy will be in Chicago for five days this week while I manage things on my own with the girls. So much for being settled. In fact, I’m panicking a bit, looking for the nearest exit.

It’s going to be interesting for sure. But then again, things have been interesting the moment we decided to leave Chicago, so why stop now?

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