When the TV Went on Vacation

Sometimes a TV should be seen and not heard. Or maybe not seen at all. Right now our TV is hiding out behind a tent, taking a little well-deserved vacation.

Roughing it in the living room for a night.

This all started a few nights ago. I came downstairs after putting the kids to bed, meaning to do the dishes, wash diapers, and fold laundry. I was tired, though, and I sat down for “five minutes” in front of the laptop. And an hour and a half later, I peeled my eyes away from the screen and went to bed. No dishes washed or laundry done. I was mad at myself for it and decided it was time for that business to stop.

When I’m tired, I sit down in front of the computer. I let the kids sit down in front of the TV. Meanwhile, the sun is shining outside on our limited summer vacation time, or the moon is up and everyone should be sleeping. Screen time interrupts all of that. The lazy, hazy days of summer fly by at a dizzying pace, and I want to absorb them all.

So, the next morning I told the kids the TV was going on vacation for a week. The laptop was, too. I braced myself for the “No, c’mon, Mom!!”. Surprisingly, it didn’t happen, because as much as they like watching PBS Kids, they felt even more excited knowing Mom wasn’t going to be in another world on the computer. We shut off the TV, put the laptop away in a drawer, and ate breakfast. That was it.

Four kids chopping up rhubarb for a yummy dessert. Even the baby gets to wield a knife.

And then we started living. We played kickball. We made strawberry rhubarb crunch together. We rode bikes around and around the driveway. We watched the chickens peck the ground. Literally.

Before this summer, I never spent any length of time around chickens. I discovered, though, that watching chickens industriously amble around on the hunt for bugs is strangely satisfying. I love when a chicken runs full speed in pursuit of a fluttering moth, or snags a big grasshopper and then scurries away to protect the treasure from other chickens. And who doesn’t appreciate a nasty earwig meeting its end? What good little chickens. Sitting in a comfy chair while watching chickens go about their quiet business provides the same soothing effect as watching a bonfire or a snowfall. Who knew chickens could be mesmerizing?

Turning off the TV also made ample time for creative, inventive play. On Sunday morning, in the lull between getting dressed and heading to church, I overheard the kids in the living room playing charades. Stomping around the room with arms chugging and plenty of sound effects I heard, “What am I?” “A train?” “Yeah, but what kind?” “Passenger?” “Freight train?” “YESSS!!! Ok! You’re turn!” And so, full engrossed, their game continued for another 15 minutes. I’m not sure where they even learned to play charades. Ironically, maybe they saw it on TV.

My ever-so-industrious kids also engaged in plenty of creative activities even when I was not even around. At some point, apparently someone hosted a dance party in the kitchen. On my loaf of bread. When I made toast one day, I pulled out a slice that looked a bit rumpled. I straightened it out a bit and popped it in the toaster. Once toasted, a very clear foot imprint revealed itself, complete with five little toes. A little foot-identification confirmed the foot stamp belonged to a certain very adorable baby girl. I’m not sure, however, who kindly put the slice of bread back in the bag after she stamped it.

Always return stomped bread into the bag, so nobody will ever know.

I bet someone could find all sorts of crafty applications for baby foot prints on slices of bread, but for right now, the toast is just sitting on a plate on top of our microwave. It’s just a little too cute to throw away. Perhaps I should varnish it into a Christmas ornament.

My three-year-old, not to be outdone by his baby sister, spent some TV-free time experimenting in fluid dynamics. His great discovery? A wide orange juice lid, installed horizontally, deep inside a drinking glass, creates a water tight seal and is nearly impossible to remove.

A fun experiment: Shove an orange juice lid in a glass while Mom’s not watching, and create a water tight seal.

Kitchen creations aside, a few days into our TV’s vacation, the quiet in the house became apparent to everyone. My five-year-old son remarked, “It’s been kind of quiet and nice. It’s just peaceful around here.” And it was.

Hanging around in the quiet on a cloudy, rainy night, my five-year-old asked if maybe he could go camping “back by the sheep fence in the trees.” I felt bad that we hadn’t done any camping this summer, not even in the yard. But I didn’t feel bad enough to head out to a cold, rainy night in a tent.

So I did what any parent would do, I told him yes. All he had to do was get the tent out of the attic, haul it outside, carry it through wet knee-high grass, and not get it in any sheep p…resents along the way. And then he needed to do the same with all of his blankets and his pillow.

Considering it for about two seconds, he said, “How about a tent in the living room?”

Now there’s an idea! I couldn’t deny that one. Filed away in my memory bank are many happy times building forts with my cousins for sleepovers in my grandma’s living room. As a veteran living room camper, I knew that the building of the tent and preparing beds would be far more exciting than the actual camping part. A tent, after all, is a tent: first it’s too hot, then it’s too cold. The one consistent is that it’s always uncomfortable. But I certainly would not deny my children the experience of all that adventurous living. No siree. We hooked together the poles, applied a little duct tape help as needed, and they had a fine camp out ready in our living room. All courtesy of the TV going on vacation.

That night, three kids excitedly headed to bed in a tent-filled living room. Giggles, excitement, a little nervousness, and an over-active three-year-old kept them all awake still at 10:30. Sometime around 2:00 AM, all that excitement and ensuing exhaustion led to a wet sleeping bag. Then around 3:00 AM, we had another wet pile of blankets. Who knew that less TV = more laundry? I swapped out wet for dry, tucked in the kids again, and they spent the rest of the night in camping bliss.

The next morning, triumphant in their camping experience, my daughter proudly deemed the living room tent sleepers now had the official title of Junior Campers. Every important feat deserves an equally important title.

Many thanks to our TV and laptop for taking much-needed breaks last week. Turns out we don’t need you two nearly as much as we thought.


Life on the Mississippi: Boating, Babies, Burns and Beaches

Several times a summer, we take family getaway cruises on the Riviera. No, not on one of those dreary cruise ships. On my brother’s private yacht. It’s absolutely divine, dah-ling.

Yes, it’s a long-standing family ritual to head to the Riviera. The Mississippi Riviera, that is. We always go to the (ahem) highly exclusive Port of Bass Camp in Minnesota City, MN.    Not just anyone is allowed to launch there, of course. No, you first need to pay your $7 and wait your turn for the camo-painted fishing boat to launch ahead of you. And sometimes that takes an extra few minutes because a guy can only do things so fast if he already has a High Life in his hand. This is life on the Mississippi.

Nope, no cruise ships around here. But there are plenty of party barges and a few house boats that have seen better days.  It’s more like a three hour tour, a threeee hour toooour…. (are you humming the Gilligan’s Island theme song yet?)

And did I say yacht earlier? Well, perhaps technically it’s just called a boat. But my brother’s Larson does feel like luxury because it always starts, has nice paint, no cracks in the seats, lots of power, and was made well after I was born.

boating on the Mississippi

The misty soft focus, created by a careful smear of sunscreen over the lens, truly conveys the romance of boating.

In the boat world, it is practically new, just over ten years old, and rides smoothly and loads up easily. Most notably, the boat is a three-decade upgrade in style and comfort from our old 70’s tri-hull that used to spank its riders across waves and throw people’s backs out trying to load it onto a trailer. Ah, I fondly recall those days.

These days, on several Saturdays a summer, my brother tows his boat down to the Mississippi and my family converges on Bass Camp, our preferred place to launch. As we drive in to Bass Camp, just past the purple martin houses, my kids sometimes say, “Remember that big dead fish?” because two or three years ago (a lifetime in their world) a big dead smelly something-or-other fish found it’s final resting place on the shore next to the dock.

In the scariest nightmare ever a few days later, my then two-year-old son woke up crying and whimpered, “It’s sniffing me! The big fish. It’s sniffing me.” It’s ironic that he’d dream a smelly fish was trying to sniff him. He usually smells pretty clean.

Dead fish or no dead fish, we tromp down the scorching hot wood planks of the dock. The sun beats down as we load up my brother’s boat with towels, toys, and thirst quenchers. Once in the boat, we all fling our flip flops in a small mountain under the dash on the passenger side. No need for shoes on the river. With little tikes properly buckled into life jackets, we ease out of the dock area and slowly troll out of the no-wake zone at Bass Camp.

Once we hit the main channel, it’s throttle down time. As the motor revs up, stress immediately cuts in half. Sweat on hot heads evaporates into the water-cooled breeze. Mini vans and jobs get temporarily abandoned on the shore, replaced with deep blue water in a tree-covered valley. Little kids up front reach out hands to catch the spray as they bounce along with wind-blown grins. The feeling of easy livin’ blows all around in the breeze.

Water droplets and sand, the good life on the Mississippi River.

Once we arrive on our favorite sand bar on the Wisconsin side of the river, life settles into the Mississippi Routine. Unload the stuff, unroll the blankets, unleash the sunscreen. Liberally lather the sunscreen on the entire fair-skinned, freckle-covered crew, while debating proper application techniques and sunscreen brands. “That kind is highly toxic and causes cancer.” “Yeah, but it smells good and it’s so much easier to use.” Renew sunscreen discussion in two hours when it’s time to reslime the crew.

For the next 2-5 hours, avoid all of the following: drowning, sunburn, dehydration, horseflies, gnats, poison ivy along the treeline, flying carp while tubing, zebra mussel cuts on feet, sand consumption, losing cell phone or keys in sand or water, extreme wedgies from tubing wipeouts, suspicious squishy mud underfoot in water, and grinding up the boat prop on unseen wing dams or logs.

However, do take part in all of the finer points of the Mississippi. Turn kids loose with implements of sand destruction and watch as ponds, moats and little rivers appear on the shoreline, and mountains of sand appear on beach blankets. Every afternoon on the river should include at least one baby of sand-eating age.

Hair coated in sand, sunscreen, and peanut butter, a cup of bonus sand lurking at the bottom of the swimming suit: standard issue for a baby’s day at the river.

And of course, head to the water for swimming, splashing and the unspoken place to…well…pee. (Can I say that in the paper?) Actually, that part is spoken, my niece proudly announces her actions to give everyone else around fair warning of any unexpected warm spots in the water. It’s the same sort of phenomenon that also happens while floating in tubes down a river: even though people might be on a river for hours, nobody ever needs to stop and use the bathroom. Hmm…

Water play on the Mississippi also means tubing behind the boat. Integral parts of the tubing experience include whipping around the corners, hanging on for dear life until forearms are raw and hands can’t grip anymore, epic crashes, bodies skipping across the river like nice, smooth rocks, free high-pressure sinus cavity cleansing, and involuntary swimming suit realignment. And sometimes, tubing means slow, scenic rides for the little kids.

mississippi river

15 first cousins, including our four kids, hanging out together for a day on the Mississippi.

All of that activity also means eating is essential. The basic river diet includes sandwiches (with a strong emphasis on “sand” for little kids), munching on a few salty chips, some juicy grapes, and washing it all down with icy cold drinks from the cooler. Cookies are also a necessity. Note that babies at the river will only consume food liberally coated in sand. Sand Doritos are a perennial favorite.

A day at the Mississippi also includes wildlife. Eagles, turtles, geese, clams, fish and river rats are common sights at the river. River rats are a prevalent native species, and quite easy to spot. You can recognize this native wildlife by their uber-tanned skin and relaxed smiles. They are often found riding in boats built for speed with excellent sound systems, with red-painted boats usually thumping the loudest music. Jimmy Buffet songs are a common mating call. While slightly untamed, river rats are a friendly wildlife. Like any native species, I’m quite certain they are meant to be there.

And when the sun sinks in the sky, the sounds of motors dissipate and the quiet of a massive river prevails. Sparkling water laps at the sand bar and fading sun illuminates beach-goers in a golden warm glow. Shaking sand off the beach blankets and swishing babies in the river to empty out their loads of swimming suit sand, we pack up the boat.

Heading off into the sunset on the boat ride back to Bass Camp and our waiting vehicles, our surroundings are summery blue skies above, water below, and a lush tree-covered valley all around.

The sinking sun glitters on the water, and the moist spray smells fresh in the breeze. Sun-soaked bodies feel hungry and tired, but life is good. That is life on the Mississippi.

And finally, after a day filled with earth, water, and wind, the most suitable nightcap is little fire. That, and a few s’mores.

Our Summer Sand Pail List

In the course of unpacking some boxes, I came across a “Bucket List” that I’d made in high school, back before Bucket Lists were called Bucket Lists.  The movie by that name hadn’t come out yet, so my list was just “Things I’d Like to Do” (with the implication “before I die,” but at 17, who wants to write “die” on an inspiration list).  Anyway, of the 45 things I thought of that day, I’m happy that I can now put a little “x” next to 16 of those things.  I’ve gone skydiving, but I haven’t been to Australia.  Yet.  Seeing that old list makes me think that it’s time for me to update my Bucket List with some new life goals.

In the short term, though, summer is on my mind.  Judging by the weather, it’s definitely time for summer vacation to start.  And strangely enough, it’s not my kids that are itching for summer vacation, it’s me. I’m sick of putting the kids to bed when there’s still plenty of daylight.  The responsible parent in me says “get the kids in bed, they’ve got school tomorrow and need some good sleep,” and the irresponsible kid in me says, “but I don’t want them to go to bed yet.  We’re having too much fun playing outside.”

This is our first summer living in our new place in Minnesota, and that opens a whole new world of fun possibilities.  There is a freshness and excitement that comes with living in a new place and having new things to discover.  And even though I grew up in St. Charles, our new house 15 miles away is just far enough to be a new territory for me to explore.  With all these possibilities swirling around in my mind, I decided to take the suggestion I found in some magazine, and create a “Sand Pail List,” the summer equivalent of the Bucket List.  None of the things on my list are particularly earth-shattering or profoundly life-changing, but they all add up to living the kind of life that I want for myself and for our family.  It’s easy to forget the big picture in the sea of diapers to change and cereal bowls to wash, so this is my start on making sure we fully take advantage of the joys of summer.

12 Things to Do in the Summer of 2012 

1.  Less Screens–My smart phone is my vice.  I way too frequently grab it, and suddenly 20 minutes disappears, and then I’m mad at myself.  I gave up facebook for Lent, and I want to do something similar with my smart phone in general for the summer.  Our television also might go on vacation for at least part of the summer.

2. Lots O’ Gardening–This year marks our first time planting our very own family garden, and we’re all so excited to play in the dirt and see what we can grow and eat from our own  piece of land.

3. More Books–In the mess of moving, I got sidetracked from reading nap and bedtime stories, and I plan to go back to that.  Reading to our kids is one of my very favorite things, and I plan to make regular trips to see Grandma at the library to keep a fresh supply of books around.  We’ve got two emerging readers in our house, and it thrills me to see them learning new words.

4.  Streamlined for Summer–I want “less is more” for summer.  We’re still living in moving clutter, and I want all the extra clothes, toys, and stuff put away so we have more room and time to breathe, play, and create.  The last thing I want to do is hang out inside the house cleaning when there are so many fun projects outside to tackle.

5.  BBQs and Bonfires–Yes, lots of these.  Gazing into flames is a satisfying caveman television, and wood smoke smells like good times.

Our curly-haired boy gazes into the bonfire well past his usual bedtime. Item #5 on our Sand Pail List: Check.

6.  “Mom Cave”–We have a sun room upstairs currently filled with moving boxes.  At some point, the grand master scheme is to make it into a laundry/guest/sewing room, my “Mom Cave.”  We need room for friends and family to come and stay, and I finally have a spot where my sewing machine can live relatively undisturbed.  It’s been over a year since I’ve sewn a thing, and I want to teach my kids how to sew, just like my mom did for me.

7.  Playing Farm–Growing up, I loved living in the country, but my contribution to help on the farm was pretty much zero (my siblings will confirm this).  But now on our own place, playing farm sounds fun.  We’ve got the neighbor’s sheep munching away weeds in our pasture, and we’ve got plans for chickens and who knows what else once we get more settled.  We really just need more hours in the day to execute all our schemes and dreams with our new land.

8.  Porch Swing–My life will be complete once we have a big ol’ porch swing for our porch.  I’ve fantasized about porch swings my whole life.

9.  Date Nights–As far as I can remember, we last went out for a date night over a year ago.  Our last date night included a two-week old baby along for our anniversary dinner and movie, but I think this summer we just might actually get a babysitter for all of them and go out, all by ourselves.  I can hardly wait to eat my food while it’s still warm.

10. Kayaking–For whatever reason, kayaking is on my mind.  I’ve gone canoeing, but I’ve never been in a kayak, and it’s high time that I took that plunge.  I want to feel like a waterbug gliding through the water, and now that we live pretty close to the Root River, I think this summer is the time.

11. Run Baby Run–Somehow, between moving out and moving in and driving cross country time and time again, I just haven’t had time to go running lately.  Before kids, I ran a few times a week, then it went to maybe once a week, but lately it’s been more like once every month.  This summer I want to get back to running once or twice a week, and do a few local races.  Running for me is a colossal stress reliever and now with four kids, it’s one of the few times that I ever have complete solitude.  That is priceless.

12. Learning by Doing–If the school year is the time for desks, papers, and pencils, summer is the time for hands-on learning by doing.  I want my kids to garden, build stuff out of wood, get confident enough on their bikes that I get nervous, start learning to swim, and be active, busy little creatures figuring things out for themselves.

Another item on the summer list: share cold treats with friends. Enjoying Hawaiian shaved ice in Lanesboro, MN on Memorial Day weekend.

If at the end of the summer I see lots of dirty feet, scabby knees, no propane left in the BBQ, permanently dead grass under the fire pit, fines racked up at the library from stacks of books getting checked out, piles of grass to sweep off the floor at night, and counter tops buried in garden bounty, I will definitely call Summer 2012 a success.

Written May 28, 2012.

© 2012