Outside the Comfort Zone? No Thanks.

Yeah...we're not exactly best friends...

This is not my BFF. Not even close.

Last Saturday morning, Lori had the brilliant idea that the entire family should go fishing. At a park district a few miles from our house, grizzled – but not grumpy – old men teach newbies how to reel ‘em in and throw ‘em back.

It sounded great…’til Lori dropped the bombshell that we should divide and conquer. She would entertain Olivia at the playground while I took the boys to the pond.

I almost hit the curb as I muttered a four-letter F word – it was not “FINE” – before plastering a smile on my face as I pulled into the parking lot.

“It’ll be good for you,” she encouraged. “They don’t get to spend a lot of time with you outside.”

You see, I don’t do the outdoors.

I love reading about nature. Look me up any weekend and you’ll find my nose buried in the writings of Mary Oliver, John Muir, and Wendell Berry.

But to actually be in nature?

It takes a certain amount of planning for, psyching up, and then soldiering through to get me to do it.

A playground I can handle because there’s a rubber pad surrounded by concrete and only a smattering of trees in the distance. But a pond has, like, water and amphibians, not to mention fish and bugs. It is the perfect storm for my hyperactive immune system and longstanding neuroses. In fact, my allergist once remarked that she was surprised I ever stepped outside since I reacted to every kind of plant, tree and nut known to man. When a college crush once made the mistake of inviting me to a forest preserve for a seductive picnic, it ended early when I leaped from the picnic blanket, eyes already bloodshot from pollen – and upset the glasses of chardonnay and plates of chocolate-dipped strawberries – because I because I thought an ant was climbing up my leg.

It was a leaf.
She never called me again.

Maybe if I hadn’t almost drowned in a pond when I was a kid, or endured attacks from ginormous mosquitoes during our annual trips to Trinidad, I would have a better relationship with Mother Nature. But unlike Lori, who can spend hours tending to the garden or sleeping in our hammock, my happy time is in the library, surrounded by dead things that inspire ideas, not living things that can bite.

Nevertheless, the day was not about me. It was about raising the kids with a deep appreciation for the wondrous world that surrounds them, even if I couldn’t appreciate it myself.

“’C’mon gang,” I chirped as we made our way through the bushes. I could hear Olivia’s protests at being separated from her usual playtime buddy – moi – but they faded as we drew closer to the pond.

“Alrighty! Let’s get some stuff to put on the thingy – “
“Bait, Nana,” Nick supplied. “And we need a worm.”

“Right! Let’s do this!” Nick and Gabe both shot me a look suggesting I take it down a few notches. I shrugged, then signed us up for a small styrofoam container and 2 fishing poles.

“You have to cut it up into little pieces,” Nick said, as he examined the squirming mass inside the box.
“You going to smash them, Nana,” Gabe inquired.
“Can you just finish so we can get some fish,” Nick pleaded. “Last time with Mommy I caught 10.”
“Yeah,” Gabe added. “And I got 10 too”

“Really?” I tried to imagine casting the reel 10 times considering the hook – sans worm – was now hooked in my dreadlocks.

“Let’s see if we can get 11,” I encouraged, when we finally got our lines into the water.

Then we waited.
And waited.
And freaking waited.

“How long does it usually take, Nick?”

He shrugged, fidgeting a bit in his seat. “It’s faster with Mommy.” He stood up and peered over the railing. “I bet I could just grab one.” He stared to climb over the railing to reach the smaller fish at the pond’s edge.

“Do you do that with Mommy?”
“Then don’t do it with me.”

My tone was harsher than I expected, but I was now hot, irritated, and ready to move on. Gabe decided that it would be a good time to practice gymnastics and started a parallel bars routine right next to his brother.

“Could you guys just – “


That would be Gabe’s head colliding with Nick’s elbow.

I raised my voice to cut through their crying. “SEE! This is what happens when – “

My thoughts were interrupted by the plaintive wail of my daughter, coming down the path in Lori’s football hold.

“We have to switch,” she announced, thrusting Olivia into my arms. “The parents are all crazy over there. And she does not want to do anything except spit on the ground and scowl.”

I soothed Olivia in my arms. “Well, she’s wet for one. And probably noshy since it’s 11…”

“There’s snacks in the car,” she answered sharply.

“Then I guess you’ll find us there,” I snapped in reply. I spun on my heel, leaving her to deal with the now whimpering boys. Sparing a glance over my shoulder, I saw her gather the boys into her arms, kissing each on the forehead, before resetting their rods and settling in. It looked so idyllic when she was doing it…

Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned car, I changed Olivia and dug out the snacks. We munched happily on granola as we head bobbed to Elmo, everything perfect in our hermetically sealed retreat. Twenty minutes later, the side door flew open and two enthusiastic boys bounded into the car.

“I caught 5 fish,” Nick beamed. “And Gabe caught 2!”

I smiled, genuinely happy for them. Then Lori leaned into the car and placed a gentle peck on my cheek.

I nodded.
She smiled.

As parents, we find happiness in radically different ways. I find mine when I compare notes with other parents, watching our children climb man-made structures. Lori finds hers when she trades observations with our kids, watching them navigate the natural world.

We’re yin and yang, our children centered between us. We play to our strengths, and support each other in our weaknesses.

That being said, she has a lot of heavy lifting ahead as we set off for a 4-day camping trip this weekend.

Fingers crossed, it’s a walk in the…park?


Life in the Echo Chamber

It’s rare that Lori and I are booked on the same out-of-town project, but that’s exactly what happened last week.  Fortunately, Gabe’s uber-fabulous godmother Aunt S., and her partner volunteered to take care of our brood. Armed with a 4-page schedule and a dry-run of pickups and drop-offs, our dynamic duo reassured us that all would be well.

Which it was…sort of.

Our first clue that something was amiss was the cryptic text we received Wednesday evening:

Difficult day. Shoe issue.  Handled. 


“Shoe issue” like they couldn’t find them?  They don’t fit anymore?  They are very stinky?  Well, Olivia doesn’t wear shoes, but maybe they needed them at school?  Perhaps Gabe’s foot grew a size in 2 days?  Maybe Nick’s summer foot odor finally took over the house?

Since “difficult” could be code for “your kids are a holy terror and I rue the day I agreed to this gig”  I excused myself our tech check to make a quick phone call.

After 4 rings on the house phone, Aunt S. picked up.

“So what happened today?”

And she recounted a conversation that went something like this:

Aunt S: “Nick, can you put your shoes in the mudroom before you watch Wild Kratts.”
Nick: “We don’t do that.”
Aunt S. “Um, yeah, you do.  So I am asking you to please put your shoes where they go.”
Nick: “And I am telling you that we don’t do that in this family.”

On the one hand, I am appalled that he spoke back to his aunt like that.  Really, I am.  But…on the other hand, I applaud his ability to twist my words to his benefit.  “We don’t do that” and “I am telling you” are my go-to phrases.  And his cheekiness not only shows that he does listen to us, but that he actually understands what we say.

I am so proud of my future lawyer/politician.  Now to lay down some discipline.

“Can I talk to Nick for a moment?”

In the background, I heard Gabe randomly yelling  “Happy Birthday” and Olivia squealing with what I hoped was joy.  If they missed us, I couldn’t tell.  But Nick was clearly acting out.

But out of what?

When I say things like “we don’t do that” and “I am telling you” what I really mean is “your behavior is upsetting to my world order.”  Like when Nick grabs a toy from his brother and I respond with: “Nick, I am telling you to ask politely.”  Or when Gabe decides to hide under the table to poop in his pull-up rather than using the Kiddie Kommode in plain view – ah, the joys of potty training – and I react with: “Gabe, we don’t do that in this family.”

Is that what Nick was saying?  Our behavior – specifically, our absence – was upsetting to his world order?  We had prepped the kids – and by prep I mean the day before reminding them that we would be out of town for 3 days and did they not recall that we had mentioned something the week prior, no?  Ah, right then.  Well, we’re still going and we’ll see you on Friday. Mmmkay?  Kisses!

It’s not an excuse for talking back to an adult because, of course, we don’t do that in this family.  But I could understand where it was coming from.  So when Nick did get on the phone, I didn’t launch into a list of things that he had done wrong.  Instead, I tried to validate what he was feeling…then I’d lay down the verbal discipline.

“Hi, Nana.”  Nick sounded so very young on the phone.  His voice 6-year-old voice still carried a slight lisp from his absent front teeth.

“Hey sweetie.   How ya doing?”


“Are you sad that Mommy and Nana aren’t home right now?”

“I miss you.  When are you coming home?”

“We’ll see you Friday.  It will be late, but we will come and check on you when you are sleeping.”


“I bet you’re doing a good job helping Aunt S. with your little brother and sister.”  I knew he was – showing Auntie where we kept Olivia’s extra pacifier and Gabe’s extra snuggies which you think would have made it onto a 4-freakin-page list of instructions.  These kids’ parents must be anal retentive or something…

“Mommy and Nana are very proud of you being such a big boy.  And part of being a big boy is being a good listener.  Aunt S. is taking care of you right now because she loves you.  So it’s really important to listen to her.  Do you think you can do that?”

“OK, Nana.”  His voice had lost its earlier hesitancy and now carried a more confident tone.  “No worries.”

I had to smile.  He had pulled out another one of our stock family phrases.

“No worries, kiddo.  See you Friday.”

Man, I love this kid.


Nick Takes a Bite of the Big Apple

Having a creative director as a mom is a mixed blessing.

Everything becomes AN EXPERIENCE!

So when Lori suggested that she and Nick go to New York for spring break, I went into overdrive. Not only would I design “fully-immersive and integrated pre-event activities”, I would create an “original and compelling narrative” that would allow off-site participants (me!) to share the experience.  We were supposed to travel as a family last August, but Olivia’s arrival (hurray!) kiboshed that plan.

First, Nick had to know where New York was in relation to Chicago.

No problem.  I’ll just put up this children’s US map…and this children’s world map…and these postcards…and this twine…


Second, Nick had to see what New York looked like.  Since we’re huge book lovers – vintage preferred – we started reading Miroslav Sasek’s This is New York.  And wouldn’t you know it – Sasek wrote a whole series of “This is” destination books that I can use to plan our trips here and abroad (dream BIG…keep dreaming BIG).

Finally, Nick had to feel New York., and what better way than thru music? A city-themed playlist loaded onto his iPad would do the trick, but I had to preview all of the songs first.  New York seems to have inspired a lot of singers, but golly-gee-willickers, they sure like their swear words and moody lyrics.

1. New York, New York – On the Town, Original Cast

2. NYC – Annie, Original Cast

3. Manhattan – Ella Fitzgerald

4. Give My Regards to Broadway – James Cagney

5.  On Broadway – George Benson

6. Rhapsody in Blue – Leonard Bernstein

7. New York, New York – Frank Sinatra

8. New York on Sunday – Bobby Darin

10. Here in New York City – Postcards from Buster*

*kiddie pop is not my fav genre, but I had to throw Nick an aural bone. The Chuck-E-Cheese CD that comes with every casino-homage-masquerading-as-birthday party is one of his favorites.  Grrr….

Bonus – capturing the youtube videos using KeepVid since he’s a visual learner.

One of the things that we’re always telling Nick is that he has to know when to stop – seems to be a popular with kindergarten parents.  So I didn’t start making NY-themed meals or decorating his room with NY-theme paraphernalia, even though I was tempted.  At some point, I had to let go.

He had to have his own experience, rather than experience my own.

Safe travels, kiddo.


Take the “L” Train


Weekends are big adventure days for us.  And by adventure, I mean leaving our yard.

Sometimes, we go to a friend’s house 2 blocks away…in our car.  Sometimes, we go to the store 6 blocks away…in our car.  And sometimes we even go out to the burbs…in our car.

Last weekend, we decided to step outside our comfort zone by taking the 3 kids on the L and going downtown.  With a 3-to-2 parent-child ratio, this really should not have been difficult. Besides, we had seen plenty of single parents riding public transportation with 3, 4, and even 6 kids in tow.

By 9:05am we had picked a destination – Macy’s Brasilian-themed Flower Show.   It was easily accessible from the train, and had clean bathrooms and a food court on-site.

At 11:05am we finally left the house for the Howard stop, doubling back only once to grab a hat for Olivia.  Clearly, we need to get our system down.  After all, I have visions of traveling internationally with this crew.

We may start with Canada.

The ride downtown was filled with non-stop train-related commentary:

“Gabe!  Do you see the birdie on the tree…hon, you have to stop clinging to me like a drowning cat.”

“Nick!  There’s another train coming!  How cool is that!  Um, sweetie, please don’t put your mouth on the window.”

“Olivia….peak-a-boo…peak-a-boo…peak-a-whoops.  Too much excitement.  Where’s that burpie rag?”

Our first stop, even after plying the kids with high-protein snacks right before the 35-minute train ride, was the food court where Nick insisted on cooked sushi and Gabe insisted on smearing his broccoli on the edge of the table.  Is noon too early to start drinking on Sunday?

No worries, though, because Brasil awaited us on the 9th floor, which we would eventually reach after 5 packed elevators left without us.  Nick initially breezed through the exhibit, but on his way out struck up a conversation with a guide who gave us a private tour.

(Nick lives in The Bubble.  I want to go to there.)

By this point, Gabe and Olivia were out cold, which could have bought us more time downtown.  But judging from Nick’s shortening attention span, we only had another 30 minutes to get back on the train before all hell broke loose.  The ROI on this adventure was rapidly diminishing – 2 hours of prep time for 2 hours downtown?

That just ain’t right.

We hightailed it out of Macy’s, and made it back to the L after carrying Gabe’s stroller down 2 flights of stairs.

Me: I think that elevator is out of order.

Lori: It can’t be. That’s against the ADA.

Me: You realize this is the red line, right?

We muscled our way to seats that would let Nick catch a few zzzz’s before making the walk home, which turned out to be long, cold and riddled with tantrums.


I look forward to the day when we can leave the house in 30 minutes, spend an entire day downtown, and return with smiles on our faces.

We’ll get there, eventually, one train ride at a time.