Sunday, October 24, 2010

Living Close to Where I Live

Something that has long irked and confused me is the cultural move toward the suburbs. That looming question mark comes from a lifetime of living IN the city limits in a moderately sized one-story house, within about 15 minutes of anything I could possibly need or want. I did live outside of the outer loop for about 9 months of my life right after I got married, and I tried my hardest to convince Ryan that we should find an apartment closer to our families and workplaces before he signed the lease (which he did a few months before we got married... sneaky bugger). He was unconvinced until he saw our monthly toll-way bill and our monthly gas expenses! At that point we were locked into a 1-year lease, though, and committed to look closer in for the next place.

What shocked us was how much more the apartment ended up costing us out on the beltway than an apartment inside of the inner loop! Factoring in the travel expenses for work and visiting our families, we could have lived somewhere pretty ritzy in the city or paid a whole mortgage payment each month from the start! I had to commute daily on the toll-way and the commute took between 20 and 35 minutes each way... longer than I had ever driven to get to work or school in my entire life. It may be hard to believe, but we were spending between $150 and $250 each month on the toll-way and the same amount on gas money as well! EVERY MONTH! It was uncanny how much money we watched leave our account unceremoniously on a monthly basis!

The second crazy side-effect of living way out there (shockingly, still in the "city limits") was that I was wasting 5 hours a week on the freeway. Ryan would spend 2 hours a week commuting (since he works 24-hour shifts). 7 hours of time wasted away from the love of my life a week! Over the course of 9 months on that schedule we spent 10.5 whole 24-hour days on the road. TEN POINT FIVE WHOLE 24-HOUR DAYS ON THE ROAD!!!! Shout it with me!!!! No wait, I have to run to vomit! WHAT THE HECK?!?!

I could have spent those 10.5 days doing any of the following activities: catching up on my DVRed TV because we used to watch TV back then, going on dates with my husband, taking a long vacation to ITALY with the money we could have saved in travel-to-work-expenses, sleeping, learning how to sew, coming up with ways to be thrifty, cleaning our apartment that was always a mess (probably because we never had time to clean it because we spent so much time sitting on our hineys in the car!)... etc... etc... etc...

We started house hunting. The hunt started in the heights... still a 20+ minute commute from where we were both working, and 20-45 minutes away from our families. We quickly got real and started looking in SouthWest Houston, where we work. We found a house that is 7 minutes from my work with no freeway time, and Ryan works about 12 minutes away from our house with no freeway time. My family is about 8 minutes away and Ryan's family is about 25 minutes away. The days of the longest commutes are the days that Ryan works because I have to pick up Dominic from his favorite nanny in the afternoons: his NaNa. So now we spend 1.5 hours a week in the car to and from work and none of that time is spent on the freeway. SO over a 9-month period... for comparison's sake, we spend 2.25 days in the car. LESS THAN A QUARTER OF THE COMMUTE WE USED TO DISDAIN!!!!! Oh, and the money? Well, we don't pay for the toll-way any more, and the gas bill is probably a quarter what we were paying in gas expenses when we drove 4 times as much! So that is about $400 a month that goes toward our mortgage payment (which we will eventually get back in equity when we are ready to move). The time and money savings alone are enough to encourage me to sell my soul!

Then there is the ever-popular rebuttal: "but the houses in the city are old and gross" or "but you can get twice the house if you buy in the suburbs." Twice the house, four times the commute?! What?! Pass. I will definitely agree that it is easier to move into a house that is new, but the trade off seems ridiculous. It definitely took some sweat and tears to get our 65 year-old house up to our standards, but we gained the luxury of 8.25 additional hours every week to work on the house or spend time as a family!! Knowing my taste, we would still need to make a TON of modifications to a "move in ready" house in the burbs in order to meet my standards... and we'd have to make those modifications without that extra 8.25 hours a week!

Additionally, the size of our house works beautifully for us. We can work in the kitchen with Dominic playing in the back yard or take a little nap with Dominic playing in his room. In the mornings we can set him up with some breakfast and run back to our bedroom to get dressed to take him to school without needing a monitor or without undue worry that he might endanger himself while we are down the hall. Our JBL speakers can pump tunes to our whole house without difficulty, and there are no unused nooks that get dusty and need lots of cleaning attention despite their lack of use. BRILLIANT. This is a pretty sweet deal. We have less cleaning to do AND more time with our family?!? File that under "awesome."

Maybe this is related to the American sense of independence, but we seem to have a cultural attachment to having loads of personal space. There isn't any time to spend with the family because the time is spent on the road, and then when the family gets home the goal is to get to the most secluded personal spot in the house to spend time decompressing and watching a personal TV with my own TV shows or time updating my facebook status and checking in on people that live across the country (even though I haven't seen the people down the hall all day). I am SO GUILTY of this. It is so simple to hop onto the electronics and isolate myself from my husband and my son. It is also simple to admit that we have WAY more fun when we choose to do something as a family: step out to the back yard to listen to the High School band playing in the distance, turn on Pandora and listen to the funk station, go for a walk through the neighborhood, drive a couple miles to a fun family activity, etc.

Oh, and that is without even mentioning the benefits of living really close to everything we like! With the zoo only 15 minutes away from the house, we can pop over with our zoo membership (that costs less than one month of driving on the toll-way) and spend 30 minutes bumming around. Maybe we'll see a few animals while we're there or maybe not, but we definitely won't be sticking around in a bunch of crowds. This is TOTALLY guilt-free and hassle-free, zoo-tripping! Since it is so close to our home we can easily pop over to the zoo and change our mind about staying without any worry that we've wasted a trip or wasted money on the visit. We also enjoy loads of parks, museums, and nature areas within the city that do not strain our budget and that keep us entertained without having to make a big production out of a trip. It is easy to just say "hop in the car, we're going to the art museum," and head out. No diaper bag, no problem... it is only 15 minutes away... huzzah!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Change is in the Air!

I posted a while back about my observations of the film "Eddison's Day," and the daily activities of a child who was just barely older than my own. There were MANY suggestions for how to make a home more appealing to a toddler, and our house was falling short in MOST of the areas I offered suggestions. The biggest goal of a toddler's house has to be safe independence, and accessibility is a HUGE componentof that goal.

Over the weekend I was hit by a nesting urge (never before experienced... my first child entered the world with the tack-board from disgusting carpet remaining along the perimeter of his room and still does not have a room color that is satisfactory for the space of a little boy). Dominic went down for his nap and Ryan and I got to work in the kitchen.

We had a bistro table at the far corner that barely fit Ryan and I and left Dominic floating in the middle in a high-chair... not my image of a family meal, but the flavor of family meal we've been having for a year or so! The table and chairs relocated to the third bedroom as a make-shift wrapping and sewing table next to the day bed. To add function to the nook in our kitchen, we brought in a low shelf that was salvaged from St. Catherine's when Katherine got new posh natural wood shelves. The shelf sits right under the window. The top shelf has a space for a small water source (I want to get a glass or ceramic water crock with a simple spigot) and a space for Dominic's drinking glasses, bowls, plates, and silverware. I am still trying to figure out my feelings about the dishes with characters/animals/etc. on them. It seems like Dominic is pretty distracted by the little cartoony super hero plates... he removed his toast from his plate this morning and tickled the little figure for the greater part of his breakfast. Hrumph... I put a lot of effort into that dry toast!

The second shelf has a little apron, his sketch-pad and crayons, and some sets of classified cards with pictures of amphibians, fish, and reptiles. The bottom shelf has the hand wipes (for coming in from picking up yucky stuff outside), a couple sweaters to choose from, and a hat for going outside. I am going to be adding a window washing setup, some kind of polishing, and possibly a bird-feeding activity. Any suggestions for how to do window washing with a toddler? I will also be hanging a picture above the shelf and creating a window treatment or mistreatment f
or the small window.
The next step for that nook is to bring in a wooden hutch from the garage onto that blue wall (the pictures have relocated since the photo was taken long ago) to display our white everyday dishes and store some of our larger serving pieces and appliances that do not have a home right now. That will also give us a little bit more counter space under the shelving to do kitchen stuff or just make a mess. With the dishes out of the overhead cabinets, we'll move all of the food pantry items to the overhead cabinets and convert the pantry into the cleaning and laundry closet, thus freeing up the space next to the washer as well... Maybe a low table or the kitchen tower will go there! Does anyone have experience with making snacks accessible for toddlers? How does one go about that? I was thinking of making one of the drawers in the hutch Dominic's snack drawer with pre-portioned snacks that he can get when he is hungry (goldfish crackers, pretzels, raisins...); before I do something crazy like that, I will have to have some pretty solid feedback from an expert, though!

The photo is dated, so picture the tree gone and the giant picture in that blank back wall space. For more accessibility, we've also put a shelf under the interior window where the tree is in the picture (you know, that window from our living room to our dining room... our house has so much CHARACTER!). We still need to work out exactly what the function of that shelf is (and paint it a more attractive color than almond). Since the guitars are all hanging in the living room, I am leaning toward a music and art shelf. We could bring some of Dominic's rhythm instruments out from his room, set up another coloring work, put out the shape-scapes sculpture puzzles, put art books and art cards (postcards from museums and photos from my stay in Italy), and set out some poetry books. We will also keep some other toys on the shelf for general play in the living room and possibly a diaper changing setup for when the new baby arrives?

Our third bedroom also experienced a facelift recently as a result of the new shelves in Katherine's classroom at St. Catherine's. I already mentioned the table and chairs that have made a makeshift wrapping table and sewing spot (although I will have to re-acquire my mom's sewing machine for that to REALLY be possible). I also have a lot of fabric that I've accumulated over the past year or two... the IKEA "as is" department is the BEST place for cheap and cool fabrics; there are always mis-matched and incomplete sofa covers and duvets priced at under a few bucks to come out to a real steal per yard! I'm probably going to have to steal some boxes from the living room or find some cheap baskets at goodwill to store all of the fabric scraps on the shelves. I'll also be able to bring in some of my boxed books from the garage. I think we will also set up the little play mat in this room for when the next little Smith makes his debut. I am sure the other two shelves will quickly fill with diaper supplies, blankets, and newborn toys. I am thinking that this will become more of a reading and craft room. This one also needs a paint job and a proper window treatment, rug, and day-bedding (keep me posted if you see anything awesome at a garage sale or thrift shop).

So hopefully those changes will be completely activated in the next couple days. I'm realizing as I post that the next post should probably be an update on the progress we've made on our house, although there are way more cracks in the walls now because we had the foundation repaired last year around this time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Budding Artists

"How do you encourage a creative, artistic spirit in your baby, toddler or young child?"

This question is posed by the Cotton Babies staff as part of a contest to win a whole set of their new "artist series" of bumgenius cloth diapers, and as a Montessori mama with a passion for the arts, I couldn't resist the question. In fact, I'm totally tickled that the question is one that I probably would have considered posting about anyway!

Encouraging a creative spirit in your child is as simple as creating a beautiful space for your child from the earliest stages of infancy. Maria Montessori often mentioned that we need to offer "the best for the smallest among us." I could not agree more with this sentiment, and this begins even in the first hours and days of life. While the popular mama culture is all about the crib and flashy/cartoony nursery "themes," the parent that hopes for a child with an appreciation for true beauty and an interest in the beauty of nature will forego these conventions of popular parenting culture. Beginning with a floor bed (as simple as a low mattress on the floor) gives your child freedom of vision into his world, unobscured by the lines of the crib bars. A developer of the Montessori infancy philosophy, Dr. Silvana Montanaro, comments in her book Understanding the Human Being: The Importance of the First Three Years of Life, that the perceptions of the child that are taken in through the bars of the crib will have to be wholly reformed later in life.

Vision is a fundamental element of an artistic spirit - to see and love the beauty around you. In the newborn's unobscured visual field on a play mat, parents can place a beautiful mobile constructed of simple geometric solids (spheres, cubes, plane geometric figures), starting with a black and white design, moving into a mobile that represents an element of color theory (the rainbow, primary colors, the gradation of a single color from light to dark). These very early introductions to color and form will leave a lasting impression in the absorbent mind of the newborn. In addition to mobiles, parents should hang carefully selected works of art at child level. While your eyebrows may initially raise at the idea of hanging a Monet print at ankle height, we have to consider as parents what we want our child to perceive as beauty. Certainly I would never design my home with all plastic decorations, or with neon flashing lights, or with loud garish noises playing at the touch of buttons covering every surface.

Despite our sensibilities as adults to beautiful colors, art, and music, the children's toy and decoration industry is dominated by jarring and garish colors, patterns, and music. We would never dream of designing our bedrooms as adults with Michael Scott's face plastered across every chair, blanket, pillowcase, curtain, and hanging picture, yet there is little hesitation to create for our daughter's a Barbie dream-land room or a Hot-Wheels mega-scape of a room for our sons. This criticism comes from the woman with a bright red couch, black and white striped rug, and bold modern art and guitars on her living room walls, and in no way am I saying that a child's room needs to be designed in all neutrals or without any toys in sight. I certainly have a love of boldness, but any designer will agree that in using bold or unexpected colors or forms it is imperative to be even more discerning about selection, groupings, and layout and extremely sensitive to moderation. So back to the ankle-height Monet: I read in a publication about early childhood art exposure, that a young adult discovered a photograph of himself in his nursery, and noticed on the wall a framed Indian batik print (or perhaps a moorish geometric design? I cannot remember exactly the style of the art). When he saw the art in the photo, he blurted out how much he has always loved that particular style of art, but that he never knew why because he didn't recall ever studying it or seeing it while growing up. That fleeting art print from his infant nursery left a lasting impression of beauty in his subconscious. I was also amazed early on in observing my son that he would concentrate for up to 20 minutes at a time looking at a black and white photograph of an animal, or he would study the patterns on a decorative cushion or furniture intently for prolonged periods of time (as a very young infant!). I always thought that concentration was something for students in law school, but it amazed me to discover that children can develop concentration from a shockingly young age. If there is a particular space that you spend extended periods of time with your child - maybe a chair where you always nurse, or a play-mat in the corner of your sewing room - this is an ideal space to enrich with a beautiful photograph or throw blanket. Give the child something beautiful to occupy her attention.

Though I've only hinted at it so far, the toys and materials we fill our child's world with leave a huge impression on the child's mentality about the world around him. The child who is offered ceramic dishes will have a sense of care and delicacy about the world, as opposed to the child who only uses spill-proof plastic dishes. The child who only plays with toys that serve to entertain will have a sense of needing entertainment from the world around him, whereas a child who plays with imaginative toys (blocks, puzzles, art supplies, etc) will approach the world with a sense of initiative and creativity. Returning to the concept of vision as a foundational element of developing creativity, if the child's visual field is cluttered (for instance, by a heap of toys in a bin or basket, or by a playroom lined wall-to-wall with toys), the impressions she takes in will be cluttered. The child with a limitless number of toys available or a pattern and decoration on every inch of nursery space will have a difficult time seeing the things around him: the visual "noise" of the space will distract him from focusing on any individual element, and create in his mind a framework of a chaotic world. Alternatively, offering a limited selection of toys neatly and individually displayed on shelves and a small number of carefully selected decorations, the child is given the opportunity to form an orderly and beautiful mental framework for the external world. This is not to say that a child should look at the same three pictures exclusively throughout her childhood, but rather that the parent's job is one of vigilance and constant attention to the child's interest. As such, the parent works to enrich the environment of the child by rotating artwork as interest wanes, or swapping out toys as the child demonstrates readiness for a new skill. As a chronically untidy person, I can say with confidence that keeping it simple in this way has made it astoundingly easy to maintain a clean room for my son who is 21 months old. When we first embarked on the parenting journey, I was certain that this would be my greatest challenge and greatest shortcoming as a parent... I can hardly keep my own clothes off of the bedroom floor, much less the astonishing amount of gear that comes with a baby! Surprisingly, this system of rotating toys and art makes the task of keeping Dominic's room clean one of the easiest tasks in our household! The "place for everything and everything in its place" mentality has helped us to keep Dominic's space beautiful (even though the rest of the house can get quite messy! I am no domestic goddess!!), and I am confident in Montessori's understanding that the child absorbs his surroundings and applies his impressions from early childhood (birth-6 years) to his experience throughout the rest of his life. He is a surprisingly orderly child and even helps us in maintaining the order in his space (puts his clothes away, returns his toys to their shelves, etc.).

In our family musical creativity is also hugely important, as my husband is a guitarist and we both LOVE music. I noticed pretty early on that "children's music" tends to be far from what I would consider appealing or beautiful. I tried out some CDs that take "real music" and recreate it in a "nursery appropriate" way, but found myself disappointed that all of the instrumental intricacy of the music was lost in the translation (even if it was AC/DC or Bob Marley). The music was turned into a series of electronic beepy sounds... as though it was being played on one of those fisher-price pianos or on a xylophone that was not quite in tune. Disappointed, we opted to just play the "real music," and I have to admit that while Dominic enjoys the classical music stations on our Pandora radio, he really gets a surge out of funk music and the beat of some of the more technical techno and metal is visible in his tiny body when it comes on those radio stations. We definitely want him to have an appreciation for the "classics," but it is so satisfying to see his taste emerging as we listen to our favorites at random on our internet radio. Already he can hear and identify some musical instruments, and his sense of rhythm sometimes amazes me as he spontaneously bursts into dance when we hear music over the loudspeakers at the zoo or in a restaurant. We also offer him an assortment of percussion instruments and let him strum Ryan's guitars when he seems interested. It has been challenging, but we are very cautious to remove batteries from any toys that play "music" that is not musically accurate or beautiful; even if "the Muffin Man" is a childhood staple, it is difficult for me to agree that he is learning anything about the beauty of music from a toy that squawks the "song" in a robotic voice to the sound of jingly beeps (eww.).

Developing a creative spirit is most dependent on the environment the child is absorbing on a daily basis. Looking at beautiful art, listening to beautiful music, experiencing rich and independent play with creative toys all deeply influence the child's interest in creating and his "eye" for beauty. I am sure it is clear that I have a pretty strong opinion on the matter, and I can attribute the strength of my opinion to the value I have in art and creativity. Without the arts we would live in a dull world, and I am hopeful that I might win a set of these cute "artist series" diapers to brighten the dull white cloth diaper wardrobe of my little budding artist/musician.