Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Electronic Empire

When people (especially people under the age of 18) come into our house, they usually wonder where the television is. If they think they know us, they might assume that we wouldn't have a TV. And I say think they know us, because if they truly knew us, they would know that we are addicted to a number of shows that we wouldn't live without, hippieish lifestyle aside. One of the things that attracted me to our house was the fact that there is a finished basement, which we refer to as the family room, and which is a combination of playroom and living room. I love that we have a living room on the first floor that is quiet (well, quiet is a relative term when you have four kids....but quiet in that we use it for reading, sitting in front of the fire, playing board games and talking...and the kids do play in it as well, and generally not quietly, but you get the idea.)

Our television was a regular old set, you know, not a flat screen, not high definition, not LCD--just the kind we all grew up with and called a TV. (Notice I did not even go into the fact that our family of 6 only owns one TV--this baffles most people!) We had a VCR and a DVD player, and when we moved here in 2006 we switched cable options and got a DVR (something I have loved and can barely remember not having!) We have always had a good stereo, because Matt is an audiophile. But in general, our tastes were pretty simple and we didn't feel very deprived that we seemed to be the only household in America without 5 flat screen TVs in the house, Blu Ray players and surround sound equipment (though in point of fact, Matt does have the stereo hooked through the TV in such a way that we can watch in surround sound whenever we wish. We just use it for movies, normally.)

Our cell phone is a normal one--yes, it has a camera, takes videos, plays games and such but I had the company switch off Internet capability after getting a few unexplained charges...I have no clue how to use the Internet on a phone, and figure I spend more than enough time online without taking it with me as well! And the sharp reader might notice I didn't pluralize "cell phone"--and this is because, yes, we only have ONE! It's simple, really--we don't truly need more than one. Matt's schedule is very predictable. He's in the office, or he's on the way home. He has a phone on his desk. And voice mail if he's away from his desk. Rachel is homeschooled. She does take the phone with her sometimes--if I am home with the other kids and she is going somewhere else. If someone is home--we have the regular phone. And we don't text, either. If I want to talk to someone, I will call them. I don't understand the rationale behind holding a phone and not using it to talk. I think it's a pretty stupid concept. I have email and Facebook for my texting needs. A phone is for speaking into.

On to iPods. We didn't have those, either. Until I joined the gym in January, my workouts were either at home or taking a walk or bike ride. When I worked out at home, I was either using a DVD or tape, or I was playing music on the stereo. When I worked out in the open air, I used my time to think and get some quiet in my not-so-quiet life. Matt doesn't travel a whole lot for his job (plus we go with him whenever possible), and his commute is in a car, where he has music already. Rachel had a discman that she'd gotten several years ago, before iPods were very common. And the younger kids didn't have an interest in sitting still and listening to music, or sticking things in their ears to do so.

However, for Rachel's birthday, she received an MP3 player from her friend, Chloe. And then we kind of got hooked. Rachel's discman had by then developed the annoying habit of skipping if it wasn't immobilized, so I didn't even start using that for my workouts at the gym. Rachel kindly lent me her player when I worked out and she used it the rest of the time. And it was so easy to use, so tiny, no CDs or tapes to lug along with us. We loved it. However, a few things started to bug me. First, just the whole borrowing thing when I wanted to go to the gym. Rachel never refused me, but I started to wonder if I was bugging her by asking for it. Also, she put all the music on it--she has wonderful taste in music because she listens to everything we like! (That's a joke! But seriously, for 13, she is very sophisticated and loves classic rock. She is not a Hannah Montana, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, peer-pressured sort of a girl.) So I had no problem with what was actually on the player--but it wasn't ordered in the way I would do it for working out. I might find a Ramones or a Green Day song that had me working hard and fast--and then James Taylor would come on next, and my pace would slow to a crawl. So I began thinking more and more about my own iPod, and then I saw the ad for the newest version of the iPod Shuffle.

Smaller than an AA battery? Controls on the earbud cord, so you can reach up and click one of 3 positions without slowing down? A voiceover technology that tells you the song and artist without interrupting your song, or runs through the names of your playlists till you pick one? For $79? Sign me up! We ordered it on Saturday and it will be here today or tomorrow. Coincidentally, Rachel's MP3 player bit the dust yesterday as well--4 months after receiving it, which is a shame, but I have to shake my head and note that it wasn't a REAL iPod, so what can you expect, really? Naturally, she had her eye on the one I was getting, but it happened that I'd just been looking at my Discover Rewards account and it just so happened that I had enough reward to get a free iPod Shuffle (the last generation, the one everyone has with the bright colors and the big circular control button on the front) and figured, that would be better than spending another $79. Rachel was happy with that, so hers in on the way as well.

And while we were iPod shopping, Matt ordered a Blu Ray player. And on Saturday, after a few months of research, we went to Best Buy and bought a big flat screen TV...the one Matt wants and the one he says is the best for our needs. It fits perfectly in our entertainment shelves in the family room, and it is great to see everything so big and clear. We watched a documentary about African animals on it, and it felt like we were really on the Serengheti watching the herd migrations. And Matt assures me that the picture is only going to improve, because he has some cables on the way that do something--can you tell I am not the electronics person around here??--and because the Blu Ray player will upgrade all the movies, and because he is going to (as soon as the Blu Ray and cables arrive) change our cable box to a High Def cable box. I personally can't imagine seing much difference in the picture, but hey. I'm willing to try!

So now we have what Matt calls the Electronic Empire. Now all I have to do is learn how to work the stuff! Wish me luck....


Daily Quote

Even if you do succeed most people wouldn't notice anyway.

--John Malkovich

Friday, April 10, 2009

Favorite Spring Things

Spring is teasing us this year. We have had several days of beautiful weather, but we have also had a lot of showers and gray skies, cooler than I would like it to be. Not that this is unusual for Long Island, but because we had such an extreme winter, I think spring is even more anticipated than it usually is. Today is a great example. The weather forecast is for a 60% chance of rain, with a high of 57*. It is already warmer than that (our thermometer says 58 or so, but tends to be off as much as 5*; I have been meaning to buy another but the ones at Target are all ugly and digital and I would prefer an old-fashioned one that looks nice) and the skies have ranged from bright blue skies to a forbidding gray. While I am happy it isn't actually raining, I dislike days like this because you can't make plans. It's supposed to rain, but it isn't. But you worry that by the time you decide to do something outside, it will, so you don't do anything, and then if it doesn't rain you wish you'd just gone ahead.

The kids are playing in the yard, simply happy that they are out without coats (though they are wearing sleeves and pants) and I am taking advantage of the quiet. I'd like to get out later and sort out the garage, which becomes a horrible tangle of junk over the winter season, when nobody wants to spend any time neatening it up. I thought I would do a list of my favorite things about spring:

* flowers. This one is a given for everybody. From the crocuses pushing up no matter how cold it is, to the daffodils and forsythia, there is nothing better than seeing flowers emerge like magic after a long winter.

* grass and trees. Closely related to flowers, but worth their own list item. Seeing the lawns change from brown and dull to bright green, dotted with buttercups or even the dreaded dandelion is something we look forward to--and seeing the buds make the trees lime green, and then eventually uncurling into leaves, is so wonderful and welcome after the bare winter trees.

* our magnolia and dogwood trees. Yes, they are flowers and trees at once, so they sort of fall into the above two categories. But our gorgeous pink magnolia in front of the house was one of the things that I first loved about this property, and I look forward to the few weeks every year when those lovely, huge pink flowers are open. It makes everything seem possible. Even if the kids made the unsavory discovery that the flowers smell like bacon....who ever would have thought such a gorgeous flower would have such an odd smell for a flower? As for the dogwood trees, we have 3 of those, all white. I grew up with a pink dogwood in the front yard, so dogwood blooms make me think of being a child and all the fun I had playing in and around that tree. The fact that it was pink and our magnolia is pink is probably one of the reasons I fell for this house!

* opening the windows. People who live in a climate with four distinct seasons have a huge appreciation for the first day the windows can be opened comfortably. And for the first night we can sleep with them open as well. There's nothing like smelling the air and feeling the breeze, airing out the winter's worth of heated air. My cats jostle for position in their favorite windows (never mind that of course we have lots more than 3 windows--they want the one they want and the others can jump in a lake!) and the kids just seem to happy to feel the air; it's different than going outside. And even closing them once the house has cooled off too much is a pleasure--the fresh air can still be smelled and felt, somehow.

* outside play time. What mom can't relate to this one? After a winter of being mostly penned in, it is simply wonderful for the kids to go outside. Ben plays outside almost every day, but when it's cold he of course doesn't stay out long enough to shake all his boy-energy out. And Julia and Emma (especially Emma) don't enjoy playing in the cold, so if the weather is bad they might not play outside for 2 or 3 days at a stretch. Which is simply too long!

* schoolwork on the patio. Here's one of those moments when the kids realize how lucky they are to homeschool. Who can't remember being at a desk on a gorgeous spring day, gazing out the window and wishing it was 3 o'clock? Well, my kids can take their things to the back patio table and enjoy the day while they get their work done. Brains seem to function better, too.

* playing hooky. Related to above--sometimes a spring day is just too nice to do any schoolwork at all. We have the whole week, after all, we can just work extra hard another day, or add one or two things to every day if we don't feel like working hard! Sometimes going to the park, the beach, or somewhere for a hike is way more important than school!

* first meal on the patio. And it doesn't have to be cooked outside. Sometimes we decide to bring our breakfast or lunch outside to eat. Or if it's a really warm day and still warm at dinnertime, we set the outside table. This also means we need cushions for the chairs--our chairs are wrought iron so they stay cold unless it's summer weather, but we enjoy being able to eat any meal al fresco. And there are usually fewer bugs than in the summer, too.

* Putting away the flannel sheets. I love flannel sheets, and I love fires in the fireplace. But washing those sheets and sweeping out the ashes for the last time are great feelings. Packing them away in the attic and knowing we won't sleep on them again till October or even November is just great.

* Changing the winter clothes over. So actually, I hate this job! And I am the one who does it for the entire family except Matt. (Though Rachel is handling her own clothes now, I just have to get them out of the attic and then sort through the ones she won't wear again to decide if I should keep them for her sisters or if I'm sick of them and want to give them away...and then pack them back into the attic!) But I will say that when it's done, we once again have clean, organized drawers and closets, and seeing all those summery clothes makes me happy.

* General clean-up projects. Another one that I don't actually enjoy, but that I love the results of. Straightening up the garage, raking up winter debris in the garden and under shrubs, planting flowers, touching up paint, cleaning up the patios and taking out the hammock swing...spruces things up and makes us enjoy outside more.

* Going to the playground. After a winter of not pushing kids in swings, not listening to "watch me, Mama!" come out of someone's mouth forty times an hour, and not packing snacks and drinks and sunscreen and sand toys before we leave--I get to missing the playground. So the first few times we go are like magic. After that, I bring a book if we aren't going with friends I can talk to.

* Photos. In the winter, it gets tiresome taking photos. Who wants another picture of kids in the house, no matter how cute they are? When the weather gets nice, there are infinite possibilities for photography.

* Ice pops. Sounds silly, but we have fun making popsicles with different juices, fruit and yogurts. They are a great snack when the kids are running around for hours.

* Freshly mown grass. Who doesn't love that smell?

* The beach. Living as close to the beach as we do, we can go there in the spring, even when it's too cold to swim. There are nice playgrounds on our beaches, the kids love the sand and the shells, and they wade, too. If I had to drive a distance to the beach I'd never go unless we could spend the entire day.

* Birds and animals. After a winter of boring wrens and sparrows, with some woodpeckers, jays and cardinals sprinkled in for color, it's nice to hear the birds singing and see a greater variety at the feeders. This year we were treated to a squirrel building his nest in the tree right outside the dining room window--we got to see him strip bark from branches and find bits of fluff and leaves to carry back to his den. I just wish we didn't see so many animals hit in the road--deer, raccoons, possum, woodchucks, rabbits and even foxes--and that our lovely outdoor cat, Lila, would stop catching mice, voles and birds for us--all I can think of is poor motherless babies waiting in a nest for them to come back.

It appears I could go on in this vein for some time, but I am going to sign off now. Happy spring!


Daily Quote

A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.

--H. L. Mencken

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quilting, or Trying To

It's that time of the school year again. The one where the lesson plan has run out, and where Julia and Ben have about finished the year's work (Rachel doesn't have this problem, being older--she has much more work and so doesn't finish early any more...) and yet it is too early to say hello to summer vacation. So my plans become a bit more haphazard, and I have to get creative. One of the subjects I ran out of plan on was art. We had been doing fabric arts for the past quarter--finger knitting and embroidery, mostly. Julia, however, really enjoys sewing, and she made a couple of tiny stuffed animals for projects. So that got me thinking about sewing, and that led me to quilting.

Quilting is something I have wanted to do for years. I love the idea of choosing fabrics and making them into a pattern. I love the idea of having a handmade quilt on the bed. I love the idea of it so much that I have tried a couple of times to learn how to quilt, but it has always ended in me throwing up my hands. I am simply not a patient person. I don't like fussy little tasks (such as measuring and precisely cutting tiny squares of fabric) and I am quite simply awful at following written directions on patterns. I learned the basics of crochet this winter, but I had to do it by watching You Tube videos again and again so I could get the hang of what I was being taught. The directions are so much gibberish in my mind; they simply don't make sense to me. Throw in having three children in the space of four and a half years--and the idea of quilting was shelved for a long time!

Then I was reading one of the blogs that I enjoy, and the author, who could sew anything you asked for in about four minutes, had posted photos of some patchwork quilts she had recently finished. They were stunningly beautiful, just really nicer than anything you could ever buy in a store, and it got me thinking again. For years I have had it in mind that I would love to use old baby clothes to make a memory quilt--imagine seeing the patterns of the clothes your kids have loved and that you loved seeing them wear, all together on a beautiful handmade quilt. I have been enamoured of this idea for a long time but have never quite done it. This was helped along by the fact that I have given away our baby clothes, so there are many, many special items that would have gone into this quilt that I will never see again, which makes me sad. I did, however, have a few things, including the dress Emma wore on her 1st birthday, a few shirts that all three of my girls wore, and a pair of capri pants Julia and Emma both loved. (Emma was decidedly unhappy seeing me cut these clothes up, even as I reassured her that they no longer fit, and wouldn't it be lovely to have them be part of a quilt? Because, after all, then she can see them every day, which she wouldn't if we gave them away or kept them stored in the attic....that soothed her somewhat, enough to watch me cut them up!)

So yesterday I took the items of clothing I wanted to use and spent a couple of hours patiently (!) cutting them up into 5x5 squares. Julia helped by ironing each square nice and smooth....she combined this activity with a game where she, Ben and Emma were working for a terrible boss who only paid them $10 a month, they were poor as mice but they worked with heart, etc. etc. etc. (I think I should be insulted here, but I was too busy cutting!) When we were finished we had 60 squares, a feat I thought was wonderful-- until I calculated that we would need approximately 420 squares to make a quilt that would fit our queen sized bed! Despair almost took over at the thought of cutting out so many more squares, but I am reassuring myself with the thought that we can sew the ones we have now into rows and THEN find more fabric to cut. By the time we are done with that amount of sewing, it should be time to change over to spring clothes. When I do that, I can find items that Emma and Ben (I want to be sure to have something of his in the quilt! How I long for those sweet baby rompers and onesies he used to have...) won't be able to wear again, and items of Rachel's and Julia's that I don't feel the need to pass on to younger girls.

Patchwork is definitely the way to go because all we have to do is sew squares. Julia can easily sew together squares with me, as can Rachel. Tis will make the work go faster so that my impatience is kept to a minimum. Right now we are working in a palette of pinks, purples, and chambray blue, mostly. Other rows may end up being brighter, but I intend it to be fairly light overall. Depending on how many items of clothing I find during the wardrobe switchover, I might cheat and reduce the number of squares we'll need by buying a nice coordinating fabric (which I would also use as the backing) and use it to make "stripes" between the squares. This would also tie it together into a cohesive whole, I feel.

The part that worries me most is the actual quilting. I feel reasonably certain that the girls and I can sew a top pretty well. I'm not really sure how to machine quilt, and I'm not really very interested in hand quilting! I will probably ask my sister-in-law, Donna, for advice because she has made quilts before, and completely by hand too. I wish she lived closer so that I could beg for her help in person, but unfortunately we are 3+ hours apart and only get to see one another a few times a year. If anyone had good advice for machine quilting, let it rip! (I don't have a fancy sewing machine, and furthermore, I am not talented with it. So it really has to be the simplest, easiest advice. Or, if you think hand quilting would somehow be easier, let me know that, too!)

All in all, if the project comes out at all well, I think that it is definitely worthy of art for the rest of the year. And I would definitely enjoy using a quilt of my babies' clothes. Sigh.


Daily Quote

So this is America. They must be out of their minds.

--Ringo Starr