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

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?

5 Tips for Getting By Without Your Spouse

Tomorrow, Scott Frickson, whose daughter Jada is a month younger than Ethan and his best friend, will be on the “Part-time Single Parents” show.  His wife, Keilah, and I have served as substitute spouse when our husbands were out-of-town.  She would watch Kyra and Ethan when I had to teach and make dinner for all of us.  I would watch Jada so Keilah could go out for a run.  Sometimes, if both our husbands were travelling at the same time, we would have a sleepover and scrapbook together while our kids slept.

But what do you do if you don’t have someone like Keilah to help you out when your spouse is travelling.  Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. Ask for or accept help from strangers:  When I was pregnant with Kyra and Thomas was on TDY (a government employee travel assignment which stands for Temporary Duty Assignment), I got stuck at the bottom of my driveway.  Snow buried the front-end of my Land Rover, which had 4WD and studded tires.  My cell phone did not receive reception in this part of Eagle River, so I sat in the car for a while, watching fresh powder thickly coating my windshield.  I considered camping out in the car for the evening.

    Then, there was a knock on my driver-side window.  “Want us to plow for ya?” a bearded man bellowed.  Behind him, I could see a plow truck packed with men thicker and taller than this guy.  They looked like they were drinking.  I could imagine my city-bred husband warning me that these guys would rip me off or worse.

    But I was cold and new to Alaska and people here seemed to help each other, so I agreed and watched nervously from behind my ceiling-to-floor windows as these guys cleared out my entire driveway (which I’ve been told could cost nearly $500) and then drove off without even asking for any compensation.

  2. Turn on the music:  Was that the wind rattling the windows or a bear?  Was there a robber sliding off my roof or just the snow? Every creak and groan of my log cabin walls swelling or contracting made me jump until I learned to turn up the radio or hook up my iPod to our home entertainment system.  Of course, Kyra and Ethan make plenty of noise now too.
  3. Adapt your routines:  Usually when the kids or I spot a bug in the house, we jump on top of furniture and yell, “Oh Daddee!  Bug!”  If he’s busy or at work, then we’ll trap the bug under glass jars and ensure that no one trips over it or sets the critter loose before Dad gets home.

    This method doesn’t work so well when Thomas is gone for a week or more, especially as the kids got older.  Last year, Kyra decided she had had enough. A fly kept annoying her by circling her head.  Suddenly, Kyra ran to the trashcan and threw away a wad of paper towel. She skipped over to me and in a tone that sounded like she was simply stating that today was a sunny day, she said, “Mommee, I kill bug.”

    Her attitude was so nonchalant, so matter of fact, that I didn’t believe her. So the next day, when I spotted a fly buzzing on our window sill, I asked her, “If Mommy gets you a napkin, do you think you can kill it?”  She nodded excitedly.

    I watched with disbelief as she hunted this fly down. It gave her a good chase. It had more spunk than normal Alaskan flies, springing out of her way, even dodging behind the fireplace. When she finally anticipated its next move and smooshed it between her tiny fingers, she announced to my delight: “Mommee, don’t worry, I took care of it.”

    A day later, Ethan figured if his sister could kill a fly, he could too.  Now, I have three bugkillers in the family!

  4. Stay connected:  Most of my military friends swear that Skype is the greatest invention for getting through long TDYs.  Not only is it free, but the kids can goof off for an hour with Dad no matter how far away he is.  Thomas enjoys playing around with webcam gimmicks where he pretends to swallow squirrels jumping out of a log or something silly like that.

    The iPhone though is far more instant and reliable.  When Ethan took his first steps or Kyra said her first word, I could videotape or snap some photos with my iPhone and email or text message it to Thomas.  Like I mentioned in “Raising Techno Addicts,” the kids are so savvy with the iPhone that they even know how to call Dad on their own.

  5. Take it easy:  The most important lesson I learned is to relax.  Sleep when the kids sleep.  Forget about the rules and let them sleep in your bed.  Eat out instead of cooking.  Take the kids out for an adventure.

How do you get by without your spouse?

Screen Time Fight Play-by-Play

Round One — Kyra patiently circles Mommee.  “Can I play computer?”  she asks.  “Can I watch TV?  Can I play Wii? Can I play with Mommee phone?” Freezing rain pounds on the windows reminding the fighters that there will be no respite from school, errands, or outdoor play.  Mommee and Kyra collide with combos.  Finally, Mommee tries, “How about we practice piano instead?” Kyra resets and says, “Okay.”

Pings and pangs echo through the house.  Referee Ethan leaps in and hits a note here and there.  Mommee works for the takedown.  Just as Mommee has Kyra in a seated position, Kyra points to her piano book and says, “But Mommee, it says ‘Listen to the CD and point to each clef as it is named.’”  The last time we played a CD was maybe ten years ago?  Mommee ponders her next move.  “There is no CD player in the house,” Mommee tells Kyra.

“But Mommee, can’t we play it on the computer?” Kyra scoops up and dumps Mommee, who’s quickly back up.

Mommee runs her fingers up and down the front of the desktop, “Oh no, I don’t think this computer comes with a player?”  Ethan is becoming restless.  He wants action.  Mommee pushes on the front panel and nothing opens.  (Note: This is a new computer as seen in Raising Techno Addicts and Mommee has never operated it before.)

“There’s no way we can play this CD,” Mommee says.  The ref is about to award it to Mommee, when Kyra knocks Mommee off balance.  Her little finger stretches in for the kill and she presses on a precise point on the panel where the DVD Drive tray pops out.  “Yes, there is,” she says triumphantly.

We are one hour in. Kyra has several songs from the CD memorized and she asks Mommee to play some of the songs on the piano with her.  Ethan quits.  Mommee defeats Kyra or maybe, it’s a draw?

Round Two —While cutting celery for a stew, Mommee hears giggling wafting out of the playroom.  The kids were supposed to be upstairs playing trains.  Mommee is stunned with a quick right hook.  How did they crack the password Thomas had set on their computer?

Kyra and Ethan do not hear Mommee closing the distance.  Kyra asks Ethan, “Okay, which fish is blue? This one?”  Ethan points at the computer screen and says, “Yes.”   Kyra says, “Good boy.”  The seal on the computer rubs his tummy and says, “Delicious!”  Ethan repeats, “Dee Li Cious!”

Mommee looks for an opening to drag Kyra to the mat, but gets distracted.  The computer announces that the kids successfully completed a game with the learning goal of “Geometry: Level One.”  Before Mommee can react, Curious George appears in a park beside a lake.  The kids drop in rocks or pine cones or twigs and learn how weight and size changes the amount of water in the lake.

Mommee paws a few punches and circles.  “Did you ask Mommee if you can play the computer?”

The kids giggle.  “But Mommee, its PBS!”  Kyra jabs back.  It was one of the sites we bookmarked for her.

She clicks on the “Info” link which displays: PBS KIDS PLAY!, an educational subscription service that provides kids with skill-building games.

Mommee surfs around the site until she finds a Progress Chart displaying six different skill sets:  Creativity, Healthy Development, Language, Literacy, Math, Science, and Social Studies.  Under Social Studies, Mommee clicks on “Rules and Fairness” and the Berenstain Brother and Sister Bear smile on either side of a “Chore List.” Each bear has a bucket attached to a scale and Kyra has to figure out how many hard and easy chores to place in each fairly. “Hanging up clothes.  Ethan can do that,” Kyra says.  “Take out trash.  Wash the car. Those are mine.  Wash dishes…uh, where’s MaMa Bear?  I want to give you a chore.”

Thomas pokes his head into the playroom, while Mommee shucks off a takedown and turns it into one of her own. “Oh, honey.  We didn’t hear you come home?”

“See, Daddee?  It’s good for kids. It’s edumacational.”  Kyra lands a massive left upper cut.

“I don’t know how Kyra found a free trial of these learning games, but you gotta check this out.  It’s so cool!”

Thomas shakes his head and announces Kyra defeats Mommee via TKO.

Tell me some clever things your kids have done to win screen time?