The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.

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Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

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Home

Forehead pressed against the cold window, I waited impatiently for the plane to descend through thick clouds.  My breath held and released only when Turnagain Arm welcomed me “home” with a ripple of its silky waters.

The jagged gray mountain peaks that I loved were already coated with termination dust, hinting at my favorite time of the year.  As the wheels touched ground, I sighed, the kind you release when you’re coming home after a long business trip, even though I was now a visitor with only ten days to teach a class for 49 Writers, wrap up loose ends with various jobs, and put our house in Eagle River on the market.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, home is “a refuge, a sanctuary a place or region to which one naturally belongs or where one feels at ease; a place where something flourishes.”

A few moments with my feet on Alaskan soil and I felt as if I was wrapped in the softest robe, sipping a cup of tea.  Physically, I am extremely comfortable.  My metabolism is such that in places like D.C., even in an air-conditioned environment, Thomas catches me climbing into refrigerators or freezers.  Cold temperatures calm me down so that I am more willing to let things be.  Emotionally, I flourish in nature.  A placid body of water, so still that it reflects the drifting clouds in the sky, inspires poetry, while manicured lawns, office buildings, and traffic jams put me on edge.  Shrink-wrapped in pantyhose, high heels, and a tight suit, I’m not only uncomfortable but I feel judged.

Escaping the rat race of job titles, houses, and cars, is one of the main reasons why my friends swear they will never leave Alaska.  Here, we can smoke salmon in our pajamas on our front lawn.  Or wear Bogs and Carhartts to work. Or crash into a friend’s truck and simply be forgiven with the words, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve done worse things to this piece of shit.”  For many of us, it’s hard to find another place in the world that makes you feel so much at ease.

For all of these reasons, Alaska will always be my “home,” which is why it was difficult for me to accept that eventually I would have to write a “last post” for KTD.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines “home” as “the family or social unit occupying a house.”   No matter how much I might savor a long soak in a hot tub beneath skies lit by the Northern Lights and a full moon, my mind lingered in Vienna, Virginia, worrying about whether Thomas remembered to brush the kids’ teeth or whether anyone made him breakfast.

My phone conversations with my family went like this:

“Hi, it’s Kyra Oh.  Mommee, I didn’t miss the bus today.  Mommee, I love you.  I miss you.  When you come home, I have a surprise for you,” Kyra speaks so fast that I can’t get a word in. “Come home soon, okay? Here, Ethan talk to Mommee.”

“Wait!” I say, but now I can hear my son walking around with Thomas’ iPhone.  “Mommee?  Mommee? Mommee?” his voice reminds me of the pitiful cry of a hungry baby bird waiting for his mom to feed him.

“Ethan?  I love you!” I say, but my iPhone goes silent.  The connection is still running.

“Hello? Ethan?  Thomas? I think Ethan hit the mute button.”  I pace back and forth in frustration.

Finally, a child’s voice comes through, “Are you in Alaska?”  Now, I understand why my relatives can never tell the difference between Kyra and Ethan on the phone.  Their voices are virtually indistinguishable, but as the mother, shouldn’t I be able to tell?

So I try to be quiet and just listen.  Once the words “I’m mad” and “Spiderman” and “Batman” surface, I sigh with relief.  It’s Ethan.

Finally, I decipher a full sentence. “Mommee, why are you not home?” Ethan demands.  Then the connection drops, probably because he hit the “end” button.

The longer I stayed in Alaska, my refuge and sanctuary, without my family, the more I felt uneasy.  Soon, I heard myself saying that I couldn’t wait to go “home.” I scrolled through photos of my kids on my iPhone and counted down the hours to lying in bed with a kid tucked under each arm and a book propped on my belly.

When I did reunite with my family in the D.C. area, I filled their tummies with smoked salmon and blueberry jam made by my Alaskan friends.  The kids insisted that I read Kiska and Kobuk every night as they snuggled with their Kiska and Kobuk huskies.   At the center of our dining table, I filled a vase with dry reed grass I picked from a hike on Glen Alps, where I dozed to their gentle rustle in the wind.

I have a feeling that part of me will always be curled up like my son  in front of Alaska’s door, waiting patient and loyal, cheeks squished, butt propped high and proud.

 

The Upside of Stubborn

For the past year or so, Ethan refuses to sleep in his bed.  He would rather curl up like a puppy in front of our bedroom door: baby cheeks squished against his pudgy arms, butt propped high and proud. The boy is stubborn, but respectful.  He never enters our room.  He just waits, patiently, sometimes in his bed or on the staircase for all of us to settle into sleep.

His method is not perfect.  One time, during a Netflix movie several hours after we had tucked him into his own bed, Thomas spotted a black bear in our yard.  As soon as Thomas yelled “bear,” we heard little feet thunder down our stairs and his excited and not-sleepy-at-all voice, “Where? Where? I want to see it?”

Other times, when he is extremely tired, he’ll pass out on the staircase.

My friends tell me I’m lucky.  “Aww, he’s so adorable.  What a polite boy.”

Yes, I know what you’re thinking; this “polite boy” has me wrapped around his finger. When I wake in the middle of the night, I actually crack open my door hoping to see my bundle of love.  I tell Thomas that we will miss his devotion when one day, he might come home from school, run into his room, and slam the door shut (which might be in three years, since Kyra just started doing this).

However, I am worried that I’m cultivating a stubborn chord in my son.  See Who’s the Alpha Now? Our day, for instance, consists of one negotiation after another.

“Can I have juice?” he asks.

“Only after you drink a glass of milk.  You know the rules, Ethan.”

This exchange (which can also be about cookies, chips, or candy) can go on all day where he would rather starve or sit in timeout than lose his battle.  In order to get him to do what I want, I have to give him choices and make him believe that he’s in charge.  And even then, if he doesn’t hear a choice he wants, he’s clever enough to offer his own.

Most frustrating of all, if he detects the slightest educational motivation at play, he pretends to fall asleep.  Superheroes are the only angle with which I have some leverage.  Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker is willing to tell me a color, letter, or number on his toy, but never for very long.  However, I’m not keen on encouraging Superhero play since I caught Ethan nudging a spider with his toe. “Look Mommee.  Spider bite me.  I Spiderman, now?”

Meanwhile, Kyra thrives on academic challenges.  Lately, she would rather practice writing sentences than watch a movie with the family.  At a restaurant, on her own initiation, she entertains herself with iPhone educational apps or workbooks throughout our meal.  Thomas and I actually encourage her to “put it away,” because we don’t want people to think that we are “Tiger Parents.”

My friends tell me not to worry.  They say I’m only seeing the negative aspects of a stubborn child.  The positives of a stubborn personality are leadership, confidence, toughness, an ability to focus which boosts learning.  As it turns out, I’ve already implemented some of these recommendations on how to handle stubborn kids:

  • Identify the problem and seek a solution by involving your kid (Parents zone).
  • Try sneaky or judo parenting strategies like playing the “helper card” or “yes game,” offering options, establishing a connection, keeping your cool, picking your battles, and making it fun (CNN).
  • Help your child learn that choices have consequences (Ask Dr. Sears).

How do you handle your stubborn child?

The Kid/Mom/iPhone Love/Hate Triangle

My girlfriend, Mary, complains that in the middle of the night, she often finds her four-year-old son, Noah, tucked in bed with a tub of ice cream in one hand and her iTouch in the other.  “Oh, how adorable,” we both say.  I beg her for a photo of that scene and we laugh about how clever our kids are these days.

But after fireweed popped up in my yard, I started to worry whether this cleverness was going to kick me in the butt once school started.  This summer, my kids lost interest in the hundreds of educational and game apps my husband and I loaded up for them on our iPhones.

At first, I was impressed that Kyra would rather write sentences with the notepad app on my iPhone than play Angry Birds.  Her notes sprouted loving things like, “My Mommy is the best” or cryptic messages like “Ethan lost.”  Maybe, I even encouraged it.

At dinner, she often tried creative writing.  Here’s a poem she wrote on her own when I was dining with a group of writers.

New Moose is getting in bed.
New Moose is going to school.
New Moose is doing a job.

“See, I’m writing,” Kyra would say, “Like you.”  And my friends noted how smart my child was and that I must be so proud.

Even, Ethan, who just turned three, wowed me with photos or videos that he figured out how to capture with my old iPhone.  It was interesting to see what caught his eye and how he saw the world from his height.  One time, we lost his favorite toy and we were able to scroll through his photos to see when he had it last.

Lately, however, updating or syncing our iPhones with our computers often fails probably due to the hundreds of photos and videos Ethan’s racked up and I haven’t had time to delete.

Then one day, Kyra managed to hide all my main apps like phone, text messaging, email, iPod, and browser into random folders that she created and labeled with proper names like “Games” or “Kyra” or “Ethan.”

Fortunately, she did not delete them, but that could easily happen next.  I realize that I should deprive them of iPhone privileges all together or purchase a Leapster or some kind of toy that offers similar technologies.  So far, I haven’t and I’m wondering why.

With school starting, I know I’m going to have weak moments when I’m driving the kids home from school and their they are tired and hyper and screaming and then I’ll I hand them my iPhones (yes, my old one and new one) to get a few moments of peace.

Or maybe, unable to find a babysitter, I take them along with me to some work meeting and have to depend on that iPhone to keep them entertained.

Plus, I’m embarrassed to admit that the geeky side of me wants to know how rapidly they can pick up on technologies.  Already, my daughter knows how to manipulate the avatars in the apps faster than I do.  She consistently finishes games that I have trouble mastering.  And I love that she tries to spell and write sentences and construct stories.  Isn’t that advancing her learning capabilities?

Finally, I actually do appreciate that she has the time to organize my apps when I never seem to get around to that task.

What’s your excuse for letting your kids play with your gadgets?

Rock Climbing to the Rescue – Part 1

I am happy to report that I survived Kyra’s sixth birthday.  For months now, it overshadowed other celebrations, like our wedding anniversary and my birthday, as we brainstormed ideas for the first party we’ve ever planned together.

She had had a whole school year of attending birthday parties for her classmates, so when May rolled around, she didn’t want her party to be at the same location as the others.  After days of research, I realized why parents did birthdays at Bouncin’ Bears or Blaine’s Art or Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Exasperated, I moved onto ordering a cake, hoping that some idea might be inspired by her theme.  When a cake designer asked her what she wanted, she tapped her chin with her forefinger as if she had pondered this important question at length, “How about Optimus Prime fighting Hulk, no wait.  Optimus fighting Wolverine and then I fly in on a dragon like Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon!”

When Thomas and I told her she could only choose one theme, she negotiated hard, “Okay, what about Lightning McQueen?”

“No,” we both snapped.  Thomas hoped she would’ve outgrown Lightning McQueen and developed an interest in Princess stuff by now.  I was tired of throwing one more party for my kids on this theme.

Kyra giggled.  “Can Optimus Prime transform into a truck and drive to visit Hiccup and Night Fury?  And Hiccup will say, ‘My goodness, you are here!  Let’s fight dragons.’”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  Thomas raised his eyebrows.

Ethan added, “And then, Buzz Lightyear came to save the day.”

One morning before the kids were up, an idea sparked.  At the Arctic Oasis Community Center, Kyra and Ethan often free climb a 30 foot horizontal boulder wall and drool over the teens scaling the 24 foot rock climbing wall.

I always tell them they are too little to climb, but after a conversation with Siri Moss, who opened Alaska Rock Gym in 1995 with three local climbers (her husband Charlie Sassara, J. Jay Brooks, Bruce Adams), I was delighted to discover that they have full body harnesses and climbing shoes that fit Ethan!

She said, “The belief that indoor climbing is a sport for everyone has been our over-riding philosophy from the very beginning.” Not only do they accommodate climbers who want their toddlers to start early, but they offer after-school, home school, and summer programs for kids and teens ages six to seventeen.

Carrie Barcom, Assistant Manager at Alaska Rock Gym, told me her kids started climbing here at age three and five.  Her husband, Mike, coaches the junior competition team. According to Siri, their kids grew up on the walls here and are now highly skilled climbers.  This past weekend, Carrie’s daughter placed ninth at the Sport Climbing Series National Championships. “Climbing has become a way of life for the Barcom family, and the gym provided the venue for it all to happen.”

What a great way I thought to get my kids away from screen time! Instead of their avatars climbing mountains on my iPhone while they grow fat on my couch, I imagined them developing into physically fit and strong individuals like Carrie and Siri climbing in Europe, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, South America, Thailand, Mexico.

But before I got ahead of myself, I had to pitch the idea to Kyra.  I showed her several photos from Alaska Rock Gym’s web site and was about to lead with dragons scaling mountains and such, but before I even finished my sentence, she started to jump up and down and clap her hands.  “I love you Mommee.”

Ethan climbed onto my lap. Puffing his Superman “S” out on his chest, he pointed firmly at the photos of kids climbing and said, “I want to do this.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, glad that I had anticipated this problem and Alaska Rock Gym had offered a solution.

With this settled, all I had to do was figure out the darn theme.  Kyra was so thrilled with the rock climbing idea that she conceded to choosing one theme.  But after a week of taking Kyra and Ethan to at least ten party suppliers in town, we realized that Kyra might be the only kid in town interested in dragons.

So, we came home and I dug out a dragon stamp that I had bought years ago and engaged the kids in an art project.  While Thomas watched in amusement, I stamped the dragon onto a party favor bag.  Kyra sprinkled silver powder onto the stamped image.  Then, Ethan embossed the image with a heat gun.

With sweat trickling down the sides of my head, I said to Kyra, “Let this be a lesson to never give up on an idea.”

How did a kid’s birthday party become so complicated?  As our recent show American Kids pointed out, this may be the result of targeted marketing?  Tell me some obstacles you had to overcome in planning yours.

 

Peaks, Glaciers, & Kids – Part I

Tiptoeing out of my warm room, I slip onto the porch and brave a few daredevil mosquitos at 4:30 a.m., hoping that the other guests at Kennicott Glacier Lodge would still be in bed.

A large raven zips by, followed by a curious violet-green swallow.  In a nearby spruce, a veery trills a ripple sound. The first explorer to discover this area must’ve held his breath like me, enjoying a private moment with this view.   Now the largest national park in the United States, six times the size of Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias contains nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America and the nation’s largest system of glaciers, superlatives that seem inappropriate for exploration with young kids.

For Memorial Day weekend, even at this hour, I am pleasantly surprised that I can’t hear a whisper of human activity.  Apparently, this is a good time of the year for locals to enjoy McCarthy-Kennecott before the tourist season.  There is a relaxed attitude at play, where it is easy to erase from the scene the restored mine buildings painted in red with crisp white trimmings, the “No Parking” sign, the half-buried giant metal wheels that once crushed copper ore, even the windows that I peer through occasionally to check on my snoring family.

Kennicott Glacier sweeps down from 16, 390 foot Mt. Blackburn to carve this U-shaped valley.  Rocks and debris from the surrounding army of peaks and valley walls coat the jagged ice in shades of blacks, grays, and browns.

Barely visible against the white clouds in the north, Stairway Icefalls, a massive frozen cascade feeds Root Glacier.  St. Elias Alpine Guides co-owner, Gaia Marrs, suggested that it might be fun for Kyra and Ethan to hike with crampons on this glacier later today.

I am a firm believer that having kids should not change your life.  However, pacing the porch this morning, I worry that I am a bad mother for equipping my five-year-old and two-year-old, who crash into each other and do face plants every few steps, with crampons.

Yesterday, I didn’t see any other kids staying at the lodge.  I got the feeling from chatting with locals that parents with kids around the age of mine usually don’t vacation here.  It could be due to the eight hour drive from Anchorage with the last sixty miles rumored to be a 3 hour ordeal negotiating a graveled McCarthy Road sprinkled with washboard, potholes, and railroad spikes. A neighbor of mine who has a six-year-old and four-year-old twins thought that you still had to cross the Kennecott River by hand-operated cable tram.

So far, I am happy to report that our adventure to McCarthy-Kennecott offers a mother with young kids:

  • Rest.  In 1997, a footbridge replaced the hand-operated cable tram allowing more visitors to access Kennecott and McCarthy.  However, most visitors stay put, since there are limited shuttles that run between Kennecott and McCarthy and it costs about $5 per person, one way.Last night, relaxing on lounge chairs just outside the lodge while my kids played nearby on a plastic adventure playset, I realized that nearly every day we are driving back and forth between Eagle River and Anchorage for school, swim, or ballet lessons.  We never really pause to enjoy our surroundings.  And even when we do, there’s always the rev of engines rushing by.On our porch in Eagle River, I often ask my kids to close their eyes and tell me what they hear.  Before they mention the river or a bird or squirrel, they answer “car” or “airplane.” Here, the birds and insects drown out everything but the soothing roar of National Creek and Kennicott River.
  • Enrichment.  Out of more than 200 games on our iPhones, my kids spent most of McCarthy Road snapping photos of each other.“Smile,” Kyra ordered.“Say Cheese!” Ethan said.

    Kids taking photos of each other with iPhone

    And when Ethan fell asleep, Kyra stared at the landscape speeding by and then quietly typed away on the Notes app.  When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “Mommee, I’m writing about our trip.  How do you spell Copper River?”

  • Reflection.At Chitna before we started the McCarthy Road, we lost cellular service.  With no computer, television, phones, or Internet access in Kennecott, I could finally hear my own thoughts.  The kids didn’t bombard me with questions or demand that I play with them.  Nature occupied them with unlimited stimulation and, best of all, absorbed their squabbling.   They spent hours hopping after a Junco or battling each other with sticks or throwing rocks into the river.Being disconnected from the rest of the world also forces me to turn inward.  Without emails to check or phone calls to make, memories of my summer working at Glacier National Park return, reminding me that I had once thought rangers and expedition guides had tempered the best quality of life.  Most importantly, I found time to check-in with the wild part of myself that had to take a backseat when I became a mom and gave it some room to breathe.

A Mother who had Time to Play

This will be my sixth year as a mother, and still Mother’s Day has never felt like my day.  Since 1994, the year my mother died of liver cancer, I have dreaded a holiday that used to be my favorite.

Weeks before Mother’s Day, my brother and I would start planning an elaborate multi-media handmade card, which always had to be bigger and better than the year before.  We wrote poems, stitched quilts, painted watercolors, crafted origami…all hosed with plenty of glitter.

Mom made things extra difficult for us because she couldn’t wait until Mother’s Day to see what we were up to.  She enjoyed sneaking up on us and trying to get a peek.  And if she succeeded, then I would insist on starting a new project, even if it was the night before Mother’s Day.

When my dad begged us to stop this ridiculous game, both my mother and I simply said, “We can’t help it.”

Mother’s Day was not only an artistic challenge with a splash of espionage but the one day my mother let me pamper her, while she made the other 364 days of the year an exciting adventure.   On a weekday, she might pick us up from school and drive us straight to a movie theatre where we watched two or three films in a row and feasted on buttered popcorn and hotdogs for dinner.  On summer break, while Dad dozed in the passenger seat, she might drive super-duper-fast on bumpy dirt roads.

She held herself to a standard painted on a wood plaque in our kitchen:

I hope my children will look back on today
And see a mother who had time to play.
There will be years for cleaning and cooking
But children grow up while we’re not looking.

She also had a way of showing up when I was in distress, as if an invisible Bat-Signal alerted her whenever I needed rescuing.  When I was in college and my brother was battling cancer, I remember once waiting for the elevator to arrive and tears welling up in my eyes because a mean boss had just chewed me out.  Just when I was about to give up on the elevator, the doors had opened slowly and my mother and brother stepped out, wiped away my tears, and told me to quit instantly.

I think what makes Mother’s Day tough on me now is the magnifying lens I hold over my own parenting.  I wonder how my kids will see me.

I worry that they see a mom that cries all the time.  Even my two-year-old has started to ask, “Mommee, are you sad?”  He would rush over and kiss me on the nose and ask, “Feel better?”

I worry that they see a workaholic.  My five-year-old said to me the other day, “Mommee, you go work on computer and we will watch T.V., okay?”

I worry that they might prefer an hour with the iPhone over an hour with me?

Sure, there are days when I take them on adventures like dog mushing and snowboarding, but are they enough to counterbalance the days I rely on technology to educate them?

And then I feel even worse that I recognize these faults and haven’t had time to do anything about it.

I wonder when Mother’s Day will stop reminding me of all the ways I have failed to be the mother I had.  When I look through all those handmade Mother’s Day cards she had saved, I noticed how many times I raved about how this was my “most favorite” day.  Maybe, I won’t start enjoying Mother’s Day until my children write me a card with that sentiment.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they will ever feel this way until I achieve mom’s standard of being the kind of mother who had time to play, a challenge made more difficult by technologies like iPhone apps, iPads, Kinect, and the Wii.

How do you compete with these technologies to be a mother who had time to play?