community · DIY · el cheapo · family fun · Kids

Day 176: Putting the Crowd into Crowdsourcing

It’s been hard for K, being at the cottage. As much as she loves going off to her “secret” perch between the woods and the rocky shore, she hasn’t had any swings or her trampoline; and I think we all know that no swings and no trampoline make K go crazy.

We had resolved not to venture into the world outside the cottage until after the long weekend (who needs the crowds?) so today was the earliest we were willing to go out and find some swings for K. Last night saw me googling “playgrounds near me,” which led me to discover something really cool. In a handful of words: there’s an app for that.

The app is called “Playground Buddy,” and it’s free. When I opened it up it immediately found my location on a map, and then up popped the little green symbols — each one indicating a separate playground. As it turned out, there is a playground only six minutes’ drive from our cottage, and it was that one where K spent almost an hour swinging, the usual blissful expression on her face.

Playground Buddy - Helping Families Find Playgrounds

While the kids played I explored the app a bit more. It relies on crowdsourcing to fill in the details of each playground, so I took a bit of time to add a couple of photos and to check off the appropriate amenities for the park where we were. I did a little more scrolling around the map and found that most of the playgrounds lack even basic information, such as their names. Maybe the app is very new, or maybe most of its users are in a completely different part of the world. Either way, I felt good about my little contribution to the effort; so I looked for other playgrounds that I knew well enough to describe (actually, it asks for very little. Any detail you can add is great.)

Later on, I introduced the kids to the concept of crowdsourcing. “It’s really neat,” I said, “by sending in their own observations, people can create a treasure trove of helpful information for others.” I don’t think they needed the explanation as enticement — my phone is enticement enough — but my kids passed the phone around between them, trying to find parks they knew. R filled in details of the park near her former school, N updated the playground stats for the playground at the local public school, and E clicked “yes” or “no” for each amenity at our neighbourhood park as I read them aloud. All in all, we updated the information on seven playgrounds.

I wouldn’t have thought of updating this kind of app as “community service,” but maybe it is, in a way. We take a few minutes out of our day to share information with anyone who wants it. If I tried to list the number of things I learned about for free, on the internet, from material that was posted by ordinary people who just wanted to inform or share, I’d be here all night. Anytime I stop to think about it, I’m blown away by the generosity of spirit I’ve found on the internet; the many tutorials, patterns, instructions, and ideas that people share freely, even when there’s no compensation for their efforts.

Will the Playground Buddy app catch on? I don’t know — I have zero connection to it except as a user — but I hope so. It’s a great resource for tourists with kids and families that have just relocated. And if it really takes off, I may never have to google “playgrounds near me” again.

community · family fun · Fibro Flares · gardening

Day 160: Beachy Keen

I used to say the only thing that would get me out of bed at 6 in the morning was a flight to Barbados. Now I’ll have to add that the prospect of kayaking and swimming at the beach is a pretty compelling incentive too. This morning we were up at 6:00, out at 6:30, and at the beach at 7:00. By the time the rest of the city started showing up, around 9:45, we were headed home.

E tried solo kayaking for the first time this morning. She did pretty well considering that she’s a 5-year-old paddling a boat made for adults, with an oar that is longer than she is tall. She was very proud of her new achievement, announcing to everyone she passed that “This is my first time paddling my own kayak!”

In the meantime, I got to head out by myself for 25 minutes while Mr. December played in the water and on the sand with the girls. Wait, did I say he played? Nope. He took a nap on the sand and the girls buried him in it. I’m not complaining, by the way — in my opinion, anytime you can rest while your kids think you’re actually playing their game, that’s a parenting win.

I didn’t check email until we got home from the beach, when I discovered an e-mail reminder that we’re supposed to be providing baked goods for the Homeless Outreach Van tomorrow. I had forgotten and for some reason it wasn’t in my Google Calendar. I checked the recipes, made a list, and then biked to the store with E on the tandem trailer behind me.

Incidentally, that tandem trailer is a fabulous invention. It’s great on hills — all I have to do is say, “E, I need you!” and she responds by pedalling and yelling, “E POWER!!!” (Does that make it an E-bike?)

R and N are coming home today after being with my in-laws all week. I’m starting to feel like they barely live here anymore, and that’s not a good feeling. I can’t wait to hug them. Mr. December went to pick them up and I busied myself with some manual labour: I cut down an entire patch of hydrangeas (I’ve cut them down before and they keep coming back) and then moved the wood pile that was behind them in order to clear a space for this year’s sukkah. I’m always looking to improve it, and so this year we’re building the sukkah using the wall of our house and the fence. I’m hoping this keeps the whole thing from falling over as it has in the past.

Now that I think about it, today involved a lot of exercise. Kayaking, biking to the store, and transferring an entire wood pile… pretty much my entire day has involved physical exertion. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much?

(I’m taking bets: will I have a fibro flare as a result of my early morning and all the exertion? It’s anybody’s guess — come back tomorrow to find out!)

community · education · Jewy goodness · The COVID files · whine and cheese

Day 144: What’s the Point (of going to shul)?

We are not frequent shul-goers. I wish we were a family that went to synagogue semi-regularly, but wishing something doesn’t make it so, and I guess I haven’t wanted it badly enough to make it happen. Still, in the “before times” I enjoyed services for the singing, the feeling of community, and to some extent, the children’s programming. And I won’t lie, I spent a lot of time in the social hall talking to people I like but don’t see outside of shul.

All that has changed now. Our shul hasn’t had in-person services since early March, but according to the weekly email newsletter they’re starting up again at the end of August. Naturally, there are some strict guidelines in place in the interest of public health. In summary: you have to sign up in advance, stay in your seat 6 feet away from everyone else, bring your own siddur (prayer book), and don’t touch anything. Children’s programs and kiddush luncheon have been axed for now. Oh, and no congregational singing — the leader can sing or chant as required, but the rest of us will have to hum if we want to participate vocally.

My first thought upon reading that email was, What’s the point? Everything I love about shul has been stripped away; what’s left is a bare-bones service that my kids wouldn’t sit still for. And they do have to sit still, because otherwise they might get too close to someone not in our family.

Of course everyone attending the service will be wearing a mask. To be clear, I think this is a good thing. I’m a proponent of masks; In 2003 I was a music therapist in a nursing home during the SARS epidemic. I wore a mask for four hours straight while I sang all the hits of the 1920’s and 30’s. No harm came to me. I’ve been assuming that mask-wearing would be fine for me in 2020 as well — until I went to Lowe’s last week with K. After wearing the mask for forty minutes, my chest was hurting from the effort it took to breathe. The upside was that obviously my mask has a decent seal and is keeping stuff out. The downside? Some of the stuff the mask is keeping out is air that I need to breathe, and my lungs can’t work that hard for that long. I think curbside pickup is going to be my strategy for a long, long time.

Back to the synagogue thing. On one hand, going might be nice — I’d get to see friends at a distance and hear the familiar melodies again. On the other hand, breathing might be a problem for me. On the other other hand, it’s only 90 minutes long, as they’ve cut away all of the preliminary songs, six-sevenths of the Torah reading, and the superfluous-seeming repetition of the silent amidah (for all of my non-Jewish readers, our Saturday morning services usually run at least three hours.) And on the other, other, other hand, it will not be the shul experience I enjoy nor the one I want my children to know and love. If I take them and it’s just depressing and boring, will they go with me again? Or will COVID precautions ruin shul for them forever?

It sounds an awful lot like the debate around returning to school in September. For the record, one of Mr. December’s major reasons for not sending the kids back to school is that he thinks it’s going to be a sucky experience all around. I’m feeling that way about shul right now. I know that some people go specifically to pray and to hear the Torah, and others are in mourning and need a minyan so they can recite the mourners’ kaddish. It’s kind of true that my presence there will help to ensure that there is actually a minyan for the mourners, but realistically it’s not likely to be a problem. So I ask myself, why go to shul? What’s the point?

community · Independence · Kids · parenting

Day 141: Who are the People in your Neighbourhood?

A few days ago Social Dendrite left a comment, asking:

How do you meet the local neighborhood friends? I’d really like this for our kids (now 7 and almost 5) but have had a hard time finding anyone. The few families I do know […] never seemed to be around. But I’ve seen loads of similarly aged kids around during the pandemic […] Did you approach the families, or did your kids make the connection somehow themselves? I remember when we moved house when I was about 7 or 8, my parents sent me and my older sister round by ourselves to knock on the door of a neighbor’s house that they knew had kids, to introduce ourselves. But that seems somehow weird in this day and age. Or is it? PS I’m an introvert so find this sort of thing difficult!

Well, I’m glad you asked. We don’t go to the neighbourhood public school, so we had to find friends in other ways. Here’s how it worked for us:

With K’s friend (also named K) I had met her mum when the girls were just babies. It’s easy to strike up a conversation if someone’s got a baby or a pet, so we walked together and chatted. Then she went back to work and we didn’t see each other much. The girls met a few years later at a neighbourhood day camp and became fast friends. We invited the little girl over for a play date in our backyard. The girls bonded instantly. As soon as they were old enough, we allowed them to go freely between the two houses (it was a 100-metre walk in a straight line) and the friendship was out of my hands. It’s been wonderful.

N met his neighbourhood friend through school. It’s not the local public school, but it’s relatively nearby and this boy was in the same specialized program as N — he just happened to live four blocks from us. Thankfully his parents (one of whom we had coincidentally met while waiting for our meeting with the school placement committee) also believe in free-range children, and soon he was ringing on our doorbell in the afternoons to play with N.

R met her neighbourhood bestie on the bus to day camp. I met this girl’s mom while waiting for the bus and we hit it off. The girls liked each other, we live just down the street from them, and that was really all it took for the girls to want to play together.

The story of E’s new friend is probably the one Social Dendrite really wants to hear. We didn’t meet her at camp or at school. I actually had met her mom ten years ago when she moved in. A few weeks back Mr. December and I were out for a walk and I saw her unloading her car. We walked up and I said, “I remember meeting you a long time ago and I just wanted to say hi. I’m Sara, by the way.” From there I asked about her children’s ages, and when she mentioned a five-year-old girl I said, “My youngest daughter is five. She’d love to have a friend on the street. We should introduce them.”

This neighbour responded enthusiastically and was soon telling me that since they don’t go to the neighbourhood school either, her kids don’t know anyone on the street. I promised to come by with E and introduce her later in the week, which we did. I exchanged phone numbers with the mom and texted her the next weekend with an invitation to come play in our backyard. As it turns out, we got along well and she’s easy to talk to. We share the same attitudes about being connected with our neighbours. The girls had a lot of fun and didn’t want to part. It was a promising beginning.

To read these stories you might think it all happened pretty easily. For the record, I’ve approached many of our neighbours over the years with disappointing results. There was the mom whose daughter was the same age as K but far more mature, and when we had playdates K was rather aggressive; I shied away from that friendship after a while. There was the family on the next block with a few boys, one around N’s age. After a couple of backyard visits it became apparent that the boys just weren’t really interested. Then there was the new family to whom we introduced ourselves while delivering a Purim basket. The mom opened the door just a crack and seemed hesitant to take the basket or to converse much. I assumed she was just not a neighbourly sort of person, and I respected that. We later met her very congenial husband and their son, who is just a bit younger than E, but the lack of warmth meant that we didn’t really pursue it.

And finally, there was Molly (not her real name.) I had introduced myself to Molly’s parents when they moved in about seven years ago. When I saw them out in the front yard last year, I re-introduced myself and asked the little girl how old she was.

“Four,” she replied.

“You know what? My daughter E is four, too. She’d love to play sometime if you’re around. Is that okay?” Molly and her mom agreed that it would be fine.

At every opportunity E begged me to go knock on Molly’s door and invite her to play. And we did — quite a few times. Somehow it was never a good time. Molly was too tired from school, she was napping, she was out with her dad — all very valid and real reasons why she couldn’t play. But after the fourth or fifth such encounter, I started to feel awkward. It was always us reaching out, never them. I was starting to wonder if maybe they were just not that into us. So after a while we stopped knocking. If they’re interested, well, they know where we live.

I guess the best advice I can offer is that you have to be unafraid of rejection. Or, if you are, and you live with your co-parent, get them to do it instead (that’s what I did.) And just in case you need them, here are some of my favourite opening lines:

“Hi, I don’t know you yet. I’m Sara.” The “yet” implies that getting acquainted is inevitable. No time like the present!

“Are you our new neighbours? I’m Sara. Ours is the big blue house.” It’s always a good idea to know who lives where, right?

“Your front garden is beautiful — my kids admire it every time we pass!” People love a compliment. Also, I’ve just signalled that I have kids. That’s usually enough for the other person to ask about my kids and tell me about theirs.

So there you have it — my guide to meeting the neighbourhood children. If you’re an introvert, find out what day camp the neighbours’ kids go to and sign yours up for the same one. If you’re okay introducing yourself, go do that. And don’t take rejection personally. Get out there, be friendly, and meet people. Your life will be richer for it, whether or not you find your child’s new best friend.

community · gardening

Day 130: Socks are Contagious

Remember how my chairs are wearing socks? The sock-wearing still hasn’t spread to my children, but it looks like the plum tree got jealous. Folks, may I present to you… Plums in Socks (but no fox.)

I got the idea from our day at the orchard, where they put stockingettes on the fruit to protect them from insects and animals. I really should have done it a month ago but, as they say, the second best time is now. The plums are almost ripe and I’d hate to lose them — it’s a very small crop that’s made it this far.

I’m not sure exactly what happened to our plums. One year we had such a bumper crop that we took baskets of plums around to our neighbours and used leftover plums to make plum brandy; the next year there were no plums whatsoever. Actually, there were, but they disappeared overnight — literally. This was before we had a security camera, so I don’t know whether animals descended on our tree or if some person came along and picked the tree clean. All I know is that we were eagerly anticipating another bountiful harvest, and then we woke up to an empty tree. It was sad.

At the orchard we simply tied the stockingettes onto the fruit. Here at home I’ve tied them around the branch as well. I’m hoping that even if a plum gets knocked off its stem by an animal, it will stay attached to the tree and the animal will give up. Hey, a girl can hope, can’t she?

community · education · family fun · gardening · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 127: Orchard Schooling

It began with a Facebook post: “Does anybody have any leftover white latex paint?”

I did, of course. When we were building the house we tried what seemed like hundreds of different whites before settling on Chantilly Lace. For the last two years their sample-sized pots have been lined up like soldiers awaiting deployment. I couldn’t throw them out — surely they’d come in handy one day, I thought.

“One day” was today.

The Facebook post was from the woman who runs the stewardship group at our local community orchard. Throughout the year a group of volunteers takes care of the fruit trees — feeding, mulching, watering, and doing anything else they can to ensure a successful harvest. The white paint would be diluted and painted onto the trees’ trunks to protect them from insects, animals, and the sun. I immediately offered them my paint and then volunteered my children (and myself) to do the painting.

K has had a lot of difficult, unproductive days in the last week. It’s not that she’s unmotivated; on the contrary, the fact that she can’t get herself to sit down and do her work is very upsetting to her. I’m not sure what’s wrong or how to fix it in the short term. In the long term, I think some executive function coaching might be in order.

This morning, though, K was at her best. She mowed the lawn before breakfast. When we arrived at the orchard she sprang into action, first mixing the paint with water, then moving from one fruit tree to the next to coat their trunks with white paint. She worked without a break for an hour and a half. In that time I heard no complaints or yelling. She asked questions about what we were doing and why, and really listened to the answers. In short, she was a model volunteer.

R and E painted a tree each, and then a pet tortoise arrived at the park with its owner (a friend of the stewardship coordinator) in tow. I didn’t get much more work out of them after that, but they spent an hour learning about tortoises.

Our time in the orchard reinforced so many of my beliefs about homeschooling. The biggest one is that school focuses on such a narrow band of disciplines and skills that K doesn’t get to exercise her strengths very often. This morning she had to observe the trees closely (to see if there was any seeping sap or other indicators of disease); communicate problems and questions; listen attentively; and do a thorough job of the task she was assigned. Moreover, the work she was doing had a clear purpose and utility, and it was appreciated by other people.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Purposeful, real work with others in the community can turn a frustrated, sometimes combative kid into a cooperative and industrious one. School doesn’t allow enough time for that sort of thing (heck, they don’t even trust the kids to retrieve their own coats.) Homeschooling, on the other hand, is chock full of opportunities for children to discover their strengths and use them to become valued members of the community.

community · education · Keepin' it real · Kids · mental health · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 111: Boundaries

Well, I just got read the riot act by a friend of mine. I was lamenting how difficult it was for me to say “no” to things like playdates; she pointed out that I don’t owe anybody a reason for not wanting to make plans. “No” is, apparently, a sufficient answer.

Mind. Blown.

I grew up with the notion that when you’re invited to do something, you say yes unless there’s a direct conflict. And when you have to say no, you explain why you can’t do it so the other person doesn’t feel bad. Mr. December was the first person I knew who would actually say, upon being invited to something, “No.” And when asked why not: “I don’t want to.”

That was news to me. I could just skip events because I didn’t want to go? Wow.

So back to my friend and her words of wisdom. She said, “Sara, you and I are forty years old. We are too old to be letting people deplete our energy when they’re not even particularly close to us!” Well, when she put it that way, it sounded absurd. Why on earth would I say “yes” to something for someone I rarely (if ever) see or speak to, and then be too tired to read my kids a book at bedtime? How messed up is that? And how messed up is it that I couldn’t really see that for thirty-nine years of my life?

As Ontario gradually opens back up and people are allowed to gather in small groups again, I’ve felt my anxiety level rising. I’ve been very happy in this little cocoon, with my closest family, on our own schedule. Saying “no” to other people is always a bit stressful for me, as if I feel responsible for their feelings if I say no to whatever they’re asking me to do. I’ve found myself wishing more often than not that I could just live this life for a few more years.

The truth is that I should be able to craft the life I want for me and my kids. Mr. December and I had a conversation on Friday (standing in the freezing waters of Lake Ontario) about how we’d like to do something brave or outrageously different, like homeschooling for the year and travelling with the kids. Or something far simpler, like putting a six-month moratorium on evening or weekend extracurricular activities, in order to preserve time for a work period in the morning and family time in the evenings.

Sometimes fear creeps in: If our kids take a year off extracurriculars (dance, choir, etc) will they be very behind most kids their age when they go back? Will they be missing out on gaining skills and mastery in those areas?

Maybe. But maybe they’ll be just where they need to be — at home with us, playing outdoors with their best buddies, spending time with their grandparents, and learning the importance of family, community, and being able to set your own boundaries.

bikes planes and automobiles · community · DIY · education · Independence · Kids · parenting

Day 110: The Curriculum of Life

Today we set up another assembly line, for baking this time. Two people measured ingredients and passed them to the next two, who worked the mixer and then passed the batter to the last two, who spread the batter out to fill the pans. All together we made one hundred brownies and sixty-five strawberry oat bars; tomorrow we’ll deliver them to Ve’ahavta, who will distribute them from their street outreach van.

Mr. December and I are leaning more and more towards homeschooling this coming year. I know we need to do more than just math and English, so I’ve been reading books and researching curricula. I’m pretty sure that baking for the homeless qualifies as community service and Home Ec (do they call it domestic science now? I have no idea…) I think shop class will also be pretty easy for me to cover: last week I taught K how to change the windshield wiper blades on our van. She enjoyed that so much that I ended up showing her what’s under the hood of the car, where the car’s fuse boxes are, and how to open the gas tank.

So I don’t know yet how I’m going to teach them history. So what? At least my kids will be able to cook and bake, perform basic car maintenance, and contribute to their communities. Maybe real life is the best curriculum we could use.

bikes planes and automobiles · community · education · family fun · Kids · what's cookin'

Day 104: Contentment

As I type this, I’m sitting on our back porch being caressed by evening breezes. The sounds of my children playing (long past bedtime, but isn’t this what summer is for?) and the birds calling from tree to tree are a backdrop to a live online concert of camp tunes. The clouds look like cotton candy. Right now, everything is all right.

This morning we made one hundred and seventy-six sandwiches for the Ve’ahavta street outreach van. Mr. December made the kids (one at a time) be the supervisor, and coached them to figure out a method, maintain quality control, and keep the assembly line moving at a steady rate. The three older kids also got to practice their handwriting by making labels for each of the 176 sandwich bags, and they got to see how multiplication is the simplest way to count large quantities of items.

We talked about assembly lines and how they revolutionized manufacturing. The kids knew that Henry Ford was famous for making assembly lines very profitable (apparently they learned that from the musical Ragtime.) We chatted a bit about children’s work in times past.

“You know,” K observed, “E is the best person to bring us the bread and carry away the sandwiches. It’s easy work and it lets her keep moving.”

“That’s why throughout history little kids often did those kinds of jobs. It freed up older children and adults for the skilled tasks,” Mr. December responded. “If you had been born a couple of hundred years ago, you might have had jobs too.”

We decided to bike the sandwiches over to Ve’ahavta’s office, which is about five kilometres from our house. That was five kilometres, uphill, on a bakfiets (which weighs 100 pounds) carrying E and all of the sandwiches. Within fifteen minutes my legs were shaking, but — and this is one of my favourite things about biking for exercise — we had to get those sandwiches to their destination, so I persevered.

We biked to my parents’ house for a swim, and then found reasons to hang around a bit longer. I’d forgotten how nice it is to just be in their house with no particular agenda.

And now it’s long past the kids’s bedtime, and I must put E to bed. The sun is down, the leaves are rustling, and a few diehard birds are still chirping to each other. It’s peaceful. Everything is all right.

community · gardening · waxing philosophical

Day 62: Bees, I’m so sorry.

It was a beautiful day today. The sun was shining, the temperature was warm(ish), and when I woke up and went outside I was greeted by my garden: Sweet purple flowers, blue forget-me-nots and beautiful yellow blooms everywhere. It was gorgeous.

And I’ve gone and killed it. Now it’s flat, boring, mostly lifeless.

Some people would say I’m being pretty melodramatic about mowing the lawn. To them I say: I hate lawns.

I know right now some of you are shaking your heads and declaring me a heathen. Hear me out: a perfect, green, velvety lawn is a sign of affluence — which is the whole reason lawns were invented. They were a statement that the homeowner (lord of the estate, whatever) owned so much land that he could afford to plant one with a purely ornamental crop that has no practical or economic value whatsoever.

Still, I’d have labelled lawns as pretty innocuous if it weren’t for the fact that we’re seeing declining bee populations; no wonder, since there’s less and less for bees to eat. Know what bees and other pollinators love and rely on in the spring? Dandelions. Suddenly, monoculture lawns (as in, a lawn made up of only one specie of plant) look a lot worse from an environmental perspective… and that’s before we’ve even considered the air pollution, noise, and excessive amounts of water that are involved in maintaining that perfect green carpet.

I know it’s better for the earth and for the pollinators to leave the dandelions alone. I know it, and I still mowed my lawn.

The fact is that I have neighbours whom I like, and I’d like for them to like me. They’re the sort of people who will actually go outside and pluck the dandelions from their lawns one at a time (which to my mind is a colossal waste of time, but whatever.) When they look at my lawn, all they see are millions of dandelion seeds waiting to take flight right onto their lawns. They see me making their life more difficult… and they hate looking at my “ugly” lawn, sprinkled here and there (and everywhere) with flowers. So in the interest of being a good neighbour, I mowed them down (the flowers, not the neighbours.)

I feel like I need to apologize to the earth and the bees. I’m sorry — I tried my best and then caved to peer pressure. Maybe when it all grows back I’ll try something else, like a lawn sign. Ah, lawn signs — instant credibility.

41rbli