Friday, May 13, 2011

Stretching His Wings

Eight years ago this morning, I became a mother.  I use the word 'became' loosely, because it implies that it just happened, like with the ease of a quick flip of a switch instead of the 12 hours of labor I endured.  The truly wondrous part of this whole process was the fact that Sam always managed to have a large bite of something (peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a dreaded banana, those crunchy Chinese nibbles that smell like dirty socks) in his mouth when a contraction hit me, so he'd breathe right in my face as I dutifully performed my Lamaze breaths.  My grueling effort paid off in spades, though, when this warm, wet, fresh life was laid upon me, as Sam and I both laughed hysterically and sobbed at the same time.  There is nothing on earth that could match that high.

Have you seen this Subaru commercial?

I hear you, Subaru dad.  Nowadays, I have to regularly remind myself that the whole point of having children is to raise them to be independent, confident, successful adults that don't need their mommies--which is of course completely contradictory to how those mommies feel inside.  Sam and I have recently had many Jackson-centered conversations, discussing things like when he should fly alone for the first time (answer: this upcoming Thursday), is he ready to go to sleepaway camp for 3.5 weeks (answer after a few rounds of discussion: yes--he's going to Plantation Farm Camp in June), is he old enough for his grandfather to give him a pocket knife (answer: yes, but only to be used with supervision on certain occasions).

Um, wasn't I just holding his tiny body over my shoulder, smelling his sweet milky breath after a nursing session?  Didn't we just erupt in applause and celebration as he took his first steps at Casey and Martina's house?  I could have sworn I just saw him walk bravely into his kindergarten classroom for the first time.

So more and more I see that being a mother is synonymous with letting go, and I'm doing my best.  And I embrace the times when I can care for him, and show him how special he is, this firstborn of ours.

When Jackson came downstairs this morning for breakfast on this first morning of being 8 years old, he saw this:
Sam had painted him a very sweet card (I just noticed Sam's optical illusion with the K and the S, which even though I know it's purposeful makes my inner spelling bee danger alarm ring).
The card also included one of his presents.  For a kid that has an insatiable appetite for books, this is an awesome present, and I can't wait to share the experience with him.
The Tattered Cover is an lovely independent bookstore just a mile down the road, and I could live there.  Apparently, so could Jackson, from the look on his still puffy-eyed with sleep face when he read it.
When we had asked him if there was anything in particular he was hoping to get for his birthday, he didn't really have anything in mind.  What does a newly 8-year old want?  Well, we stayed mostly practical, and he loved the three t-shirts and couple pairs of pajamas I had bought him, and this Forbidden Island game Sam bought him.  Uncle Matt and Aunt Bodia gave him a headlamp for summer camp, and Uncle Bodi and Aunt Monice gave him the Rat-A-Tat Cat game that the kids had enjoyed playing over Spring Break in California.  Grandpa Ed and Merry gave him a Swiss Army knife and the classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Jackson will fly to Arizona on Thursday to spend a long weekend with his Nana and Papa, which certainly deserves its own post upon his return.  For his birthday party, we'll be taking three of his friends to the Real Pirates Exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, followed by the Born to Be Wild 3D IMAX movie and then some time at the park before enjoying an ice cream cake (that I should be working on instead of writing this).

To Jackson Tate, my oldest boy--I am so proud of the thoughtful boy you are.  When I asked you today what kind of cake you wanted, you asked me if I could make another ice cream cake like last year, but with chocolate ice cream because you think your friends would like that flavor.  When I pressed for your opinion about adding a layer of cookie crunch, or jam, you said as you waved your hands in an explaining fashion like Papa does when he talks, "Mom, I told you that chocolate ice cream is good, and you can do just that or get as complex as you like, but I just don't want to be greedy."  Honey, I want to make you the cake of your dreams for your birthday, so it's impossible to be greedy when it comes to your birthday cake.

You are the quintessential oldest brother.  A few days ago, you taught Alex how to make scrambled eggs (and wrote down step-by-step instructions afterwards as well).  You are exceedingly patient and model my *sometimes* calm, matter-of-fact parent voice when Kenyon is being his brutish self and exerting his impenetrable 3-year old will.  You are visibly distressed when Kenyon is upset, akin to a twin feeling the other's pain.  I watch you on the playground after school with Kenyon and how you hold the wobbly playground structures stable so Kenyon can make his way across like a big kid, even carrying him to the next one on that one part that's too far apart.  You could ignore him and run off with your friends, but instead you create a game where Kenyon can play, too.

Daddy and I get frustrated sometimes when you are too doting with Kenyon when it's time to be a little tougher and not give in, although we know there are worse problems to have between brothers.  I've also heard from school that someone gets frustrated with you in the cafeteria because you and Alex hug each other as you cross paths and it gets disruptive.  Again, there are worse problems to have.  You tell me you remember the moment when you were riding your bike down at the far end of our street and you suddenly felt like you should have a second brother, right before Daddy and I decided to have another child.  I'm so happy that your brothers have you in their lives.

I'm so excited to go to Australia with you because you are my best seafood partner, and your positive adventurous spirit will make every experience we have as a family more rich because of it.  I love you, big kid.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Mice and Men

We've got some big things in the works 'round these parts.  And yes, I know that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry (to quote an author I can't stand).  For now, those mice and men are making things look pretty solid so I'm...well, I'm so excited I can barely stand it.

I've been itching to travel for years now, but both time and money have been lean. I'm not quite sure how; everyone knows the 'law school debt and three children' financial plan is a quick path to riches!  As the kids have grown, though, it is becoming increasingly important to me to instill in them some perspective; you know, that they will survive just fine if they don't own a XBox/Wii/PS2/(insert the latest and greatest blahblahblah here).  On the coldest days around here we make big pots of beef stew for the homeless and head downtown, with Jackson on ladling duty and Alex and Kenyon on spoon duty.  The stark contrast between our cozy home with the fire going and stocked fridge and our shivering hands doling out soup makes the brief two miles' distance seem worlds apart, and I know the kids get vivid lessons in appreciation on these days (as do I).

A few years ago, I started looking into teaching abroad opportunities for Sam.  My parents' friends and two of my favorite people in the world, Kathy and Dorsey, taught in Germany and Japan through the Department of Defense, so we got an application in there but I wasn't about to hold my breath waiting for there to be a worldwide shortage of art teachers.  Although Sam is technically qualified to teach high school science (he amassed a ton of science courses while on his initial path towards being a scientific illustrator), he freely admits that he would be doing any student body a serious disservice if he ever attempted such instruction.  

With that limitation, I looked into the Fulbright Teacher Exchange program.  Different countries participate each year, and that seemed like it could be promising, except for the fact that I had no idea how competitive it was, and there were often fluency qualifications.  I took a look at the application and wondered if Sam's ability to say "I can't speak Chinese very well" in Chinese could be considered fluency in a broad sense.

Then, the heavens parted and angels sang as I clicked on the webpage for the Colorado International Teacher Exchange League (CITEL), home of the Australian/New Zealand Educator Exchange program.  Now, if I could choose somewhere in the world to live and inject a little dose of perspective into our children, I'd choose Thailand.  Or Cambodia.  Or Nepal.  But Australia would at least be an opportunity to see new things, and for all of us to experience some important cultural differences (such as the fact that schools keep the teacher's lounge stocked with beer).

We thought we were fairly open to exchange prospects, but we found that there were some things we didn't want to compromise on:
  • I wanted to be close to the ocean.  And not just close, but c l o s e. 
  • I am fairly anti-suburb...I know, I need to work on bias, and I'm sure there are lovely suburbs.  But I do prefer the amenities (and rough-around-the-edges grit) that come with a more urban lifestyle.  So I didn't want to end up in Suzy Suburbanville, Australia.
  • We wanted to be in New South Wales or Queensland, which would position us well for traveling and exploring on a reasonable budget. 
Now all we had to do was find an art teacher down there to exchange easy task.  Elementary schools in Australia by and large do not employ art teachers; for whatever reason, music is favored over art.  Sam currently teaches elementary art, but is qualified to teach up through 12th grade.  I am not exaggerating when I write that I emailed every. single. school. up and down the coast of New South Wales and Queensland with an email about our family, explaining the exchange program, and encouraging art teachers to apply.  I also posted our plea on online teacher forums.

I woke up one morning to an email from an Australian teacher who had found our posting on an online forum--she and her family had already applied for an exchange and had been offered one in Canada, but their first choice was Colorado.  She had seen my posting and was hopeful that we could make something work between our two families.

But what about my requirements, you may be thinking...well, this family (that not only seems so, so nice, but they also have two young children similar in age to my three) live in Wollongong, the ninth largest city in Australia.  Check.  It's an hour south of Sydney in New South Wales.  Check.  They live in a condo with an enormous balcony (that I plan on spending all my time on) just 5 minutes' walk(!) to two beaches.  Check, bigtime. 

photo credit:
The rest is history, and if those mice and men keep going, we will depart for a year-long adventure in December.  I'll keep you posted on the details as the Adventures of Annie and Her Boys Goes Down Under...