Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A rough first day

She didn’t cry. She didn’t fuss. Heck, she didn’t even hesitate. In fact, she moved us out of her way so she could get into the school. That’s my 26-month-old, Pickle, who, apparently, had been waiting for this moment all her life.

At least that’s what it seemed to us as she charged into her first day of school, with her first-time-ever pigtails(!!!) and a conviction that began with her announcement that came right after she was dressed but before anyone else was: “Time to go, guys!”

Granted, it’s not school-school; it’s just preschool. And she’s only there two mornings a week. Plus, at that age, it’s more a glorified playdate (with rules) for a few hours in the morning before I get her just in time for nap, so it’s not like it’s a real school. 

But what’s real is the silence in our house. And the ability for me to work in any corner with no little hands pawing at my keyboard, wanting to press a key for “one yast time”. Not to mention this pang that I tried to ignore earlier. My head appreciates the space for all the thinking (and sometimes dreaming) it needs to be doing in the hours my little ones are away, but my heart, well, is not loving it. 

It’s not even a day, and I already miss my summer with the girls. Because, really, What. A. Summer.

Sure, it was hectic for a bit, having to juggle multiple projects and two girls, but with carefully planned summer day camps for four-year-old Little Miss, and a regular sitter twice a week for the two-year-old, we were able to savor the season’s best - trips to the beach, numerous playgrounds and museums around the city, a vacation in the mountains, and countless play dates in the sun - the rest of the time.

In fact, after our trip to the Smokies, I had exactly one week before the girls started school, and thankfully, the weather cooperated, so I took a break from work and crammed in as much sunshine and water on our skin as possible, perhaps hoping it would continue to nourish us throughout the coming winter months (*shudder* I can’t believe I just said the “w” word.)

The last week was summer on crack as we ventured into different parts of the city to experience water in different ways - pool, splash grounds, beach, you name it, we probably did it. By the end of the week - as in the night before school started - I was catatonic. Holy shit we did a lot.

Now, with the first day in the bag, we’re going to have to slowly re-adapt to this new-old rhythm of balancing work, school, and everything else life tosses our way again. Unsurprisingly, both girls had a successful first day.

Little Miss is a veteran preschooler now, but without her BFFs, who had moved on to Kindergarten this year, her mission is to find a new best friend who shares her passion for pink and princesses, which, fingers crossed, seems to be waning as more colors and superheroes start to make appearances in her tiny realm - by her own volition, nonetheless.  
Perhaps she’s on her way to a better, more exciting phase. She did say she’d like to be a princess superhero like Wonder Woman the other day, though - See? There’s hope right?
As for my little Pickle Who Could and Totally Did - wow! I did not see it coming at all. 
We tried to prepare her the weekend before school started, but we didn’t think she absorbed and understood: “We’re going to drop you off at your sister’s school, and you’re going to stay there, okay? And you’re going to have new friends, a new teacher, and it’s going to be so fun!”
“Otay,” she responded, but we didn’t put too much stock in her response. She’s two; it had to be too much for her to process. 
What we didn’t remember was all those times she went into her sister’s school with me during dropoff and pickup, where she would interact with kids her size and enjoy the attention of the teachers who were always so sweet and welcoming to her.

I think she remembered though. Because when I walked in at lunchtime today to my little girl who sat quietly at the pint-sized dining table with her peers, she looked like a preschool pro.

I saw her reach for a regular glass of milk (not plastic, and certainly not a sippy), carefully empty the content into her mouth, and gingerly place it next to her empty plate. Sandwich, pickle, carrots - all gone. And she doesn’t even like carrots and pickles!

When she saw me, she grinned, but she didn’t immediately rush over to me. She listened to her teacher, who instructed her to discard her paper plate, before bounding towards me to give me the biggest, warmest hug - the one that I missed from the morning, when she was too busy letting go to notice my desperate need for one last hug goodbye before leaving my side for the first time.

I fought back tears in the morning, because, really, it was just silly. She’s in preschool just two mornings a week, for heaven’s sake. Get yourself together, woman. And I fought my tears again when I held her on our way home, so, so happy to have my baby in my arms again, even though she would firmly say, “Me not a baby anymore!”

She has uttered that protest many times before. But it wasn’t until her first day in preschool that it finally, painfully hit me: she’s right. She has certainly proven that.

I peppered her face with little kisses on our walk home, glad to have my little sidekick with me again. Perhaps sensing my relief from an easy first day, mixed with the little sadness from a milestone that only means to draw her further and further away from me, Pickle, who's often sensitive to the feelings of those around her, cupped my face tenderly and said, “Me yuv my mommy,” and planted the softest, sweetest kiss on my cheek. One that reached straight to my heart.

Of all the things that surprised me about this kid that day, this was certainly not one of them.

* * *

What was your kid's first day like? What milestone surprised you the most? Which milestone did/do you most dread?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Smokies Vacation

Wow. I can’t believe it’s been more than two weeks since I last posted here. Well, maybe I can. You know what they say about time when you’re having fun…

Let’s see, in the last couple of weeks, there were my birthday (and thanks to My Guy, it was more amazing than ever), the anniversary of the first time I set foot here (19 years! Which is special because this means I would’ve been in the States for as long as I’ve been in Malaysia), and the second of two anniversaries that I celebrate with My Guy every year. This one marks our eighth. And also our best one yet.

There was also a vacation somewhere in there because we wanted, no, needed, something to look forward to after a busy month in July, what with the various large projects we each had that mandated late nights and a mastery in juggling.

To pick a location, I googled, “closest mountains to Chicago” and as soon as we met our deadlines, we packed about 15 bags (because the girls had to have their pillow pets and blankets and sleeping buddies and snacks and entertainment...) that My Guy skillfully fit into the trunk of our SUV from years of playing Tetris, and took a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

So yes, we’ve been busy. And, man, what a trip.

On top of inhaling the beautiful scenery and exploring new and exciting things, we added so many firsts to our experience. Like having me drive on a road trip when My Guy, who loves to drive, did all of it before. We drove through Indiana, rested for a night in Kentucky so we could make a Bourbon stop at a renowned distillery (priorities!). It was also another first for us as we’ve both only recently acquired a taste for whiskey, although I was much slower to come around.

Barrel-aged bourbon. It smelled so good in here.

State Capitol Building of Kentucky in Frankfort.

But we also stopped at a candy factory so the girls could get something out of our quick side trip too, and finally snaked our way up a mountain chalet in Tennessee, with the city of Gatlinburg as our base.

There, we did a lot of this:

First hike.

And this:

Gnarly roots, on our way to Grotto Falls.

And this:

Pickle, at 26 months, managed to walk quite a bit on our hikes, completing the full 1.2-mile trip to Laurel Falls by herself. On the way back, however, she would usually nap in her carrier to recover.

And this:

We hiked a total of three waterfalls – Cataract, Grotto, and Laurel. This was Grotto, the only one in the Smokies that people could walk behind.

And this:

Laurel Falls. Yes, we’re waterfall junkies. But can you blame us?

And this:

Wading through cool mountain streams and collecting rocks.

And this:

One of many selfies.

Photobombed by a four-year-old!

However, even though the Smokies provided the nature we urbanites craved, the girls could only take so much hiking with their little legs. We mixed things up with a trip to this really impressive aquarium (Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, it was called, and yes, it’s by the same Believe It Or Not people, would you believe it?), where we walked in a tunnel as the fish (and sharks! rays! giant sea turtles! eels!) swam around and above us.

Did you know the Sawtooth here is not a shark but a ray?

The kids had a field day at the Penguin Playhouse that also had a see-through tunnel so kids could crawl through it while watching penguins swim around them and end up inside the penguin exhibit to be in the middle of the action!

I loved how interactive it was, as both girls got to touch rays and horseshoe crabs, and as with all-things Ripley, I learned, it was also a little cheesy, with a “mermaid show” that had women dressed like mermaids swimming with the fish and taking pictures with the kids. Four-year-old Little Miss was no less impressed even after she learned they weren’t real. (“Pickle, let’s go see the real mermaids,” “Err...they’re not real…” “Oh yeah, the real ones are in Disney.”)

We also went on an old-fashioned ski-lift that made my heart leap when I saw my feet dangling over the river with nothing but a steel bar across Little Miss and me to keep us from falling to our deaths. I was also afraid of seeing snakes below me, as reported by a reviewer on TripAdvisor.com, which gave me a many sleepless hours, okay, maybe minutes, while I was there. Don’t ask; it’s silly, I know, but a phobia isn’t exactly rational behavior.

At the summit, we saw the city below and the mountains around us, which made the somewhat scary ride almost worth it. I’m also not a roller-coaster type, so yeah, going three miles an hour suspended on cables wasn’t exactly thrilling to me. In fact, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t afraid of heights before I was convinced that I could make it back down again, which we obviously did, safely. (And no snakes, yay!!!)

As if the ski lift wasn’t exciting enough, we saw two bears on separate occasions - one was rummaging through a neighbor’s garbage in the morning while we watched it from afar, nestled safely in our car. (See below.)

The other was a cub that caused a traffic jam on our way back from Cades Cove as it dined on leaves on top of a rather tall tree, oblivious to the ruckus it caused below. But that wasn’t even the highlight of our visit to the Cove.

Famous for its wildlife, people drove or biked Cades Cove’s 11-mile loop in the mountains to catch a glimpse of these animals in their natural habitat, but we also rode on a carriage through the woods (another first!), and ran through a mountain meadow, something I’ve been wanting to do since I’ve learned the word “meadow” in nursery rhymes before even entering kindergarten, over thirty years ago! Who knew? Firsts and bucket lists, all in one trip.

These excursions were a great diversion to our day-to-day here in Chicago. It’s the breath of fresh air we needed - literally, since the mountain air did feel better in my lungs - but because we never know how our kids would handle change, their reactions alone could make or break a vacation. Luckily for us, it was the former, as they both traveled well, with the occasional minor hiccups, thanks to their incredible coping skills.

On our first night away, in a hotel room with two full-sized beds in Kentucky at nearly 10pm, we were all preparing to shut down for the night after a long day of preparations for traveling and the drive itself, when I suggested, “Hey, Pickle, you get to sleep in a big bed with your sister tonight!” To which she simply responded, “No...I want to seep in my keeb (sleep in my crib).” It surprised us, as she was already sleeping in her sister’s twin-sized bed at naptime at home, but we didn’t push the issue.

She slept in the Pack ‘n Play we brought that night, and all the nights that followed, which I suspected gave her the comfort and security she needed for being in an unfamiliar place. At the chalet, the only time she had a difficult time settling in was the third and last night their schedule was in an upheaval, where they had a really late nap and were kept up two hours past their regular bedtime.

That evening, she cried inconsolably to sleep, and did it again at midnight, so I decided to lay next to her, which was something I hadn’t done since she was eight months old. Since then, she had always slept well by herself in her crib, and lately, her sister’s twin bed.

When I lay down beside her, she nuzzled up to me and fell asleep in 20 seconds, with her warm little hand on the side of my neck, which eventually found its way to my cheek. Unsurprisingly, my presence calmed her, and she slept quietly the rest of the night. It took me awhile to fall asleep, so enamored I was by this little girl who happily breathed in the air I breathed out. I held her hand in mine and my heart fluttered when the tip of my finger found the dimples in the dark. She’s still my baby…
In the morning, her smile was the first thing I saw, which was certainly one of the best things to wake up to.

In the eight days we were together, apart from the rough night with Pickle, the only meltdown that happened came at the end of our trip, on our 9.5-hour drive home, which became a nearly 12-hour affair with seven stops that included gas, bathroom, meal, and tire-the-kids-at-a-playground-in-Lexington-Kentucky breaks.

We were supposed to have another stopover in Kentucky, but as much as we enjoyed our time away from home, we couldn’t delay it another night. My Guy needed a break so he could dive back into work on Monday. And we were homesick.

So we braved that long drive home with the girls, who have never been on a drive that’s longer than five hours. Another first. Actually, that would make two: First long-ass drive. First time we’ve ever truncated a vacation.

Like I said, so many firsts.

But I suppose that’s typical of any vacation. Being away means learning to adapt to the new and foreign, and making deliberate choices outside of the old and familiar. Or hearing things you never thought you’d hear from your two-year-old: “I can see the sun shining. Also, I can see the mountains from my keeb!”

These mountains. This view. From her windows and the balcony of our chalet.


Or how about this spectacular sunrise?

It was an amazing vacation for so many reasons - the vistas, the nature, the serenity, the novelty, and the girls who did so very well despite everything that seemed alien to them.

My favorite part of the vacation - any vacation - is the learning. Of new places and its culture and history, of how much my children are capable of when they’re pushed outside their boundaries, of life outside the comforts of home, of our capacity to accept and grow with what we’ve absorbed in our travels. Of the fierce loyalty we have for our own hometown.

When we came home to the skyline of Chicago against the pink-orange sky of dusk, I was ready again for all that I love about my own home, in the city of my heart. We cut short our vacation just so we could take the Sunday to rest but instead, no more than 24 hours after being in the mountains, we’re back on the beach, in the water, after a jaunt to a neighborhood arts festival and a visit to our favorite breakfast place that wasn’t just another “pancake house”.

Fairy princess in progress.

They walked right in with their street clothes.

It’s like we couldn’t wait to get back to our lives again.

That, too, I suppose, is the mark of a good vacation. The best, really.

* * *

What was your favorite or most memorable vacation? Why?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Far away places

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Little Miss, who had her soup-stained stage debut at a Christmas concert at age two, had another debut today. This time, it was for theater camp, singing and dancing in a short-short adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” (with a ninja!).

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In the two weeks at camp, she talked about what they did each day to prepare for the performance, as they had a hand in creating their paper bag costumes, props, invitations, and programs. A sentence hadn’t even ended before she started another - that was how excited she was about theater camp.

photo 5 (11)Celebrating our starlet with dosai (Indian pancake), per her request.

Watching her animatedly describe her immersion into theater reminded me of my own experience in school, when I started participating in plays in primary school, and later wrote and directed them in high school.

I remember winning an intra-school drama competition, which was probably my biggest achievement in my high-school career. I wasn’t an athlete, I didn’t play any musical instruments, and I wasn’t a class monitor or a prefect. I was just this girl who loved to be on stage, singing, acting, organizing concerts, even being an emcee in them.

I’d love to share this passion with my own girls, but, of course, they either will or they won’t. There’s no guarantee. Just like the reader in me delights in Little Miss’ interest in books, but I know that the moment I make that a scheduled activity, it will become a chore to her. And so I continue to work quiet time into our day, also to surreptitiously encourage reading, during Pickle’s nap, because that’s when Little Miss reads on her own, by choice. And my heart melts. Every. Time. 

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I do envy her these new worlds she gets to explore every time she opens a book. One day, she’s in Gotham, and the next, she’s in Wonderland. I long for that escape, and having had deadlines every week this summer, I’ve not had the chance to indulge in one of my favorite things in the world.

But things are slowing down. The projects are coming to an end. And I picked up a new book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, this week. Last night, after the girls were in bed, I climbed in my own with this book (OK, the Kindle, technically) in my hand, and I never left.

It was magical. Both the book, and the experience, as I’ve not been able to dedicate an entire evening to inhaling chapter after chapter as I used to. The kitchen needed some tidying, but that could wait. Had to wait. I had another world to explore.

The end of my projects and Little Miss’ theater camp also mean more time at home together. We have planned a family vacation that starts at the end of next week, but we will all be home with nothing more than a whim to begin our day, every day, until preschool starts again in three weeks.

I am looking forward to the unplanned, unstructured days. With a busy freelance schedule, play and theater camp, swimming lessons, and regular sitters during the day helped create a kind of routine that moved us along in a way that worked for everyone. We each had our space, and we each had our needs and deadlines met in different ways.

I was a little concerned when we started the season that it would all be just too much. That I wouldn’t be able to handle all the juggling. That something would eventually have to give. Something did. The dishes. But that was about it.

Somehow, we made it through the toughest part, and we are going into the wilderness of summer, where the sun decides on how we will play, and the rain tells us when to get creative with our time.

And finally. Finally. I will be reading again. I will no longer look at Little Miss and the book in her hand longingly, hoping for that moment for myself. It will be The Month of Magical Reading.

Oh, the joy!

In fact, I cannot wait to climb back into bed this evening, my book (fine! Kindle!) in hand, for another delicious romp in the fantasy world of Mr. Gaiman’s incredible imagination. To get lost once more in a land far, far away.

Delirious to be away from this life, but happier still to come back to all that I have, waiting for me.


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