My Funny Valentine

Valentine’s Day has a habit of going awry in the Java household. I won’t go into the gory details, but there have been incidents with smoke alarms in our home, restaurants burning down, reservations getting double-booked by the restaurant and then cancelled at the last minute, waiters breaking out in fights over our table, snowstorms, and my personal favorite, a meat-switching/money-skimming scandal that ended up in the local paper.

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home, and though I wasn’t quite “feeling it,” Wednesday night, I decided to embrace her tenant about making an occasion of special days. JavaDad very kindly made a late-night run to the store to get a Valentine-themed table cloth and some pink paper plates and voila — we had a “Valentine’s breakfast” with the kids Thursday morning and they opened their cards from us.

Amazingly, that put me in more of the spirit, and I ran out to the store that morning, before I was due at JavaGirl’s school for her class party, and picked up some last minute Valentine’s decorations for the dining room. JavaDad and I had never made plans for dinner, and we had loosely discussed getting take-out. I decided to spruce up the dining room a little more and make it feel like more of an event. JavaGirl loves to decorate, so I decided I’d pick up the supplies and rope her into the act so we could surprise “the boys” since JavaDad was picking up JavaBoy (and dinner) up on his way home from work.

I fell in love with these brightly colored, fuzzy wool heart garlands at Target and draped one on the chandelier and one on the mirror.

Usually, I have the kids collect sticks and branches from the woods and we decorate it with hearts for a Valentine’s tree. This year we didn’t quite get enough sticks and Ididn’t get around to making the tree, then I found this lovely lit cherry blossom tree at Kirkland’s and decided it would make a wonderful Valentine’s tree and possibly even double as our Easter tree.

I had meant to move the lovely roses JavaDad gave me to the table, but the guys came home earlier than I expected and surprised me — still I have to show them off because JavaDad is not a “flowers” guy. Not bad, eh?

Not the most elegant table I’ve set, but with paper plates, take-out food, our heart-themed tablecloth, and our various Valentine’s Day loot, we had a festive and low-stress event. And what the kids loved is I told them to put on pajamas. I even put on my heart-themed pajamas,  you know, the ones I usually reserve for going out to see the space shuttle.

 

Perhaps next year JavaDad and I will try again to go the more traditional date night route, but our pajama and fuzzy hearts night was just perfect for this year. I hope however you chose to celebrate (or not celebrate) it was equally perfect for you!

———————————-

Disclosure: This post includes an Amazon Associates link — clicking on it and shopping on Amazon.com helps support this site without costing you an extra penny!

 

 

Living a Year in Honor of Susan Niebur #WhyMommy

Susan speaking 2010 BlogHer NYC

I think of Susan daily.

And nightly. With every moon. Not only because she was an astrophysicist, but because the day she died, there was a glorious moon.

There will be many posts about Susan today. This one is less so about Susan herself, and more so about the impact Susan’s life — and death — had on me. Because I can say that both have changed the direction of my life forever. That is one thing we all strive for, isn’t it? To make an impact on someone’s life? I know Susan has impacted hundreds (more likely thousands) of lives, and I hope that she is smiling from above with that knowledge.

I carry with me the pain that I was never as good of a friend to Susan as I wanted to be, though Susan was always gracious to me, to the very, very end. In her final year, I was in a hellish stage of my marriage and my life, something I was not openly sharing with people at the time. I was stretched so thin emotionally that I was barely making it. So while I could text and email with Susan, I just couldn’t drive the distance to see her very often. I was barely able to pull it together to make sure there was a dinner plan for my own family, much less to get meals to Susan. When I could, I would send a contribution for take-out meals to the friends coordinating them. But attempting to provide comic relief through emails, texts and the occassional phone call was all I could manage in terms of “visiting,” and I always felt like that was far too little.

I also felt like I shouldn’t complain about my life to anyone, because what were my problems in comparison to Susan’s? Here she was dying, and yet she was still writing a book, being such a fabulous mother, attending conferences, and still found time to do things like send Christmas cards. Susan was simply awe-inspiring.

Part of my healing process in losing Susan, and in dealing with my guilt over not being able to do more for her, has been to honor Susan by attempting to be “more like Susan.” I have lived very intentionally over this past year, which is not to say that I have lived perfectly, but with more focus and purpose. Losing a friend (and I lost more than one last year) has a way of shaking you up and causing you to question your purpose on Earth, your priorities, and your very existence — all things I had discussed with Susan at various times. This year, all those things were at the very forefront of my mind.

I’d like to say that I was extremely organized about this process and wrote things out and was very Gretchen Rubin-esque in my process, but I wasn’t. It started out as a very reactionary part of the grieving process and then became a little more formal, but here are some of the elements of what my year of living intentionally and in honor of Susan included.

Recognize that Life Is Short

Life is finite. We don’t know how short, even those who have cancer and have been given a time frame don’t know for sure. Susan beat cancer many times. But life is a limited resource. Live life out loud, every day, and to the fullest. Today could be your last or it could be one of a million. Make it count. It’s a small thing, but I did one of my “bucket list” items — ride on a zipline — this year. Watch out world — shark cage diving is next…

But in all seriousness, that means that taking care that our words to each other are kind, and that we don’t squander our days doing things we don’t want to or need to do. Of course few of us want to do laundry, but we need to. But don’t do volunteer work you hate out of obligation. Don’t read books you don’t like unless you have to for homework! In other words, QUESTION EVERYTHING. Maybe you are doing something because you “have always done it this way,” but you don’t really need to? Or even need to do it at all? I became very sick with pneumonia this Christmas and it is amazing how many “traditions” got tossed out the window because I couldn’t sit upright — and how few of these the kids even noticed. Life is short. Do what is meaningful and important. Add in what is fun. Take away the rest.

Establish an “I Don’t Take Any Crap” Policy

Pardon the inelegant phrasing. I don’t know that Susan had such a policy, but I do know that she would establish boundaries when she needed to and I realized I did. This phrase comes from a friend tell me about how if a social or volunteer group gives her too much crap (grief) she quits participating because “it’s not my job so I’m not getting paid to put up with that!” I spent so much of my life being a peacemaker, I would make myself unhappy trying to make everyone else happy. I don’t do that any more. When people are unreasonable, I let them know that I have an “I Don’t Take Any Crap” policy and they basically have the opportunity to get on board or get left behind in the dust. I no longer twist myself in knots wondering why the people who are unkind to me don’t like me. I do a quick internal inventory to see if I’ve done anything to be unkind or inappropriate and unless I have (in which case I try to make amends), I move on. It’s amazing how much happier I am.

Open Up and Be Vulnerable

In this past year, I opened myself up to be a little more vulnerable and let more people in. Susan shared with the world her joys and her heartbreaks. Her hopes and her fears. Susan lived fiercely and out loud. After covering up for a quite some time that my husband and I were struggling in our marriage, I stunned everyone in October by posting a very forthright post on my personal Facebook page that we were going through a trial separation and asking for everyone’s prayers and support (for all four of us) during that time. I received an incredible amount (more than 100) of encouraging responses to that post, as well as private messages, emails and phone calls. I received only two negative responses and I’m sure there were some silent, non-responses that weren’t favorable, but overall the amount of support was frankly, overwhelming. I heard from people I never expected to hear from and couldn’t believe how supportive people were. It was terrifying to post, but it was the only way I knew to rip the Band-Aid off and not have to explain over and over again why I couldn’t do certain things (volunteer for a billion things, etc.) or why certain things were happening (i.e. why my husband’s car was going to be parked in front of a neighbor’s house). The unintended yet wonderful outcome was that it made some women who were going through similar experiences feel like it was okay to talk about it. Which has always been one of my guiding principles — to help people talk about things and feel safe about it.  Susan made me feel like it was okay to be “real” online and in turn, I apparently helped a few others feel like they could talk about what was going on with their families. Thank you, Susan. I must say, there is nothing like baring your soul like that to find out who is really your friend and who is not. (And if you missed the previous post, JavaDad and I are back together, and yes, the Take No Crap policy helped with that!)

Make Time for “Soap Bubbles on a Summer Afternoon”

In the past year, as I have worked on establishing boundaries, I’ve kept this part of Pinterest’s interview with Susan in mind.

Finally, we talk a lot about inspirations on Pinterest and you’re a role model for finding beauty and joy in life no matter what happens – what are your top “little things that count”?

Thank you!

Children’s laughter. Soap bubbles on a summer afternoon.  Reading books together in an easy chair.  Family meals.  Cuddling.  Taking time for a night out with friends — even when there is other work to be done.  Stargazing or watching the clouds pass by. Asking a child a question, and listening — really listening — to her answer.

Although Susan worked hard, she understood the importance of play, as well. Having had the pleasure of working with author and cultural anthropologist Dr. Cynthia J. Smith earlier in my career, I know that there are many, many benefits for ADULTS in “play.” I simply allowed myself to push it too low on my priority list for too long. I remember a day in February about a week after her memorial service when it was unusually warm and sunny and though the kids had a million commitments, I cancelled everything and said, “We’re going to play outside and enjoy this day.” That was in honor of Susan. Because typically I would’ve said, “Oh, what a shame it’s a gorgeous day and we have all these other things to do.”

Many times I’ve caught myself with hands stuck to a keyboard or touch device and realized I need to stop and reconnect with the kids. And I try to focus on the “really listening” to my children — because they have AWESOME answers. These have always been principles of mine, but Susan was always better about keeping these front and center than I was, so I try to channel my “inner Susan” to be a better mother. Susan always had cancer in the time I knew her and basically since her second was born (she was diagnosed not long afterward), so I never asked and I’m not sure if she’d know the answer, if her ability to focus on her kids had to do with knowing that she had cancer and that time was precious or not. But, as we know, none of us really know how much time we have on Earth, so I’m trying to live as if each day with my kids is precious. This year it has been amazing to me to see just how many “forces” I have to fight off that try to get me to change that priority.

Spend Time with Girlfriends

As Susan said in her quote above, we need to make time to see friends. I lost another friend shortly after Susan. My very first friend in Northern Virginia, Julie Ingram Tryon. Yet another friend with whom I traded far too many, “We need to get together soon”s with. Her birthday would’ve been this week. Julie was also an amazing woman and I’m sure she and Susan would’ve got along famously. She was gone mere weeks after I found out she had pancreatic cancer.

It is so easy for us to get “too busy” to see each other. Yes, men need to see their friends too. And we need friends of both genders. But I can tell you that there is something very special about the bond between girlfriends. I could not have gotten through this past year without girlfriends and I know that there are some girlfriends who needed me very much this year. Because I was able to (and more willing) to be more honest with them about what was going on in my life, I was able to (and more willing) to be there for them with what has been going on in their lives. Our friendships have been even deeper and more meaningful. I have been able to say to a friend, “It sounds like you need a friend, my house is a wreck, I have a deadline, but why don’t you come over at least for an hour?” When we are volunteering together for something and working hard, I’ve become the social coordinator, the one who says, “okay, who is up for drinks afterwards?” And at first everyone says, “Oh, I have to go to the grocery story” or “But it’s a school night” and similar things, but eventually, several of us gather and we discover we all really needed it.  We needed to connect, to share our joys and concerns, to do more than the school-pick-up-smile-and-wave. Facebook is great, but real-life friendship is better.

I wish I could see Susan today. I miss her a lot. I want to go up to her and throw my arms around her (oh how many times I had to be careful not to squish her when she was feeling fragile) and say, “Susan, I am a stronger and a happier woman because of you. I am a better mother and wife because of all that you taught me. And because I’m willing to share honestly what’s going on in my life, I have the strength and energy to be a better friend.” I cannot ever presume to speak for her. Please don’t ever interpret anything I say as speaking for Susan. All I can do is to try to apply what I’ve learned from Susan and hope to be the kind of person she would have kept around as a friend had she remained walking around on Earth today. She was a friend, a mentor, and a role model. With a beautiful smile and a wonderful laugh!

I have a long way to go in measuring up to being anything close to Susan, but she’s on my mind and in my heart every day. I consider our friendship ongoing and my faith allows me to believe that one day I will see her again and perhaps she will know that where I fell short as a friend to her in life, I tried to make up for afterward. We shared a passion for STEM and getting kids excited about it, and I think of her every time I volunteer in that area. I try to promote her cause — bringing awareness to Inflammatory Breast Cancer — the breast cancer without a lump, whenever I can. If you loved Susan and all the good that she brought to this world, please consider helping spread the word about this disease and the work of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. If you are able to make a donation, that would be wonderful. Let’s try not to let another wonderful woman be stolen away by that terrible thief, cancer.

Please join bloggers throughout the web in honoring Susan Niebur’s life and contributions with a post, and please add your link below.

Untarnished Memories of a Sterling Friendship: The Final Gift of a Beloved Pet

Sterling the tabby catI wanted a tiny, little kitten. She, of course, had other ideas. As I would learn, she often did. And she often won. Of our two strong-willed Aries personalities, hers was just a tiny bit stronger.

I entered the Santa Clara, CA pound looking for a kitten. Having relocated from across the country months earlier, I was starting to put down roots. With a relatively stable paycheck in my future and a new apartment, I was ready for the commitment of a pet. Plus as a shy, young twenty-something in Silicon Valley, I was lonely and needed some form of companionship to come home to. Oh sure, the Valley was full of men. Engineer types. Who either didn’t notice the curvaceous blonde in front of them or found what was on their computer screens far more interesting.

Yes, I needed someone to come home to.

On my first trip to the pound, there were no kittens. But a silver tabby with gorgeous green eyes who was several months old reached out through the bars of her cage to bat at me. She meowed loudly, more like a Siamese than an average street cat, beckoning me to pay attention to her.

“Yes, you are a gorgeous kitty!” I murmured to her. “You have beautiful green eyes, just like my Shadow cat.” Shadow was one of my favorite cats growing up — a beautiful Russian Blue who would snuggle up next to me each night.

“Mee-rooowr,” she replied.

Guilt settled in. Growing up, we always had several cats. We seemed to have a beacon over our home that only stray animals could see. Cats and dogs of all shapes and ages would find us, somehow knowing this was the home where animals would be taken care of. Though I had taken in older cats before, I was really hoping to get a tiny kitten.

“You are obviously a sweet kitty. Someone will be here for your soon, I am sure. I’m sorry, but I am looking for a kitten.”

She batted at me again, and looked into my eyes. I scratched under her chin, and walked down the aisle of cages, looking for my future pet.

Though I am grateful for the services they provide, I hate going to shelters. I can’t stand the thought of the stories behind all the animals who end up there. I walked by and looked at all the cats — no kittens today. An employee told me that the kittens are usually snapped up pretty quickly. As I walked back down the long row, the gleaming silver tabby meowed and reached out to me again.

“Goodbye darling. I am sure you will have a home soon,” I said as soothingly as I could.

I don’t even remember the circumstances that brought me back — whether the shelter called me to say kittens had come in or I just went to check, but what I do remember is that I thought about that tabby a lot. I grew up with several tabbies, but I had never seen one who was truly silver rather than gray. Her coat was soft and glossy like a rabbit’s. Her tummy was white with black spots. Eyes of emerald green and instead of the expected gray or black nose, an adorable cinnamon-colored nose. I often associate “tabby” with “common” yet everything about her brought to mind a certain regalness and she certainly let you know she expected to be treated like royalty!

During the adoption process, several things about her paperwork made me laugh. Her original name was CJ, so close to my own, J.J. She, like me, had an April birthday. The reason given for adoption was “one too many kittens.” And when asked what her favorite toy was, her previous owners had written, “Anything not nailed down!!!” (Underlined three times.)

Yes, clearly, this cat and I were made for each other.

I quickly changed her name to Sterling — both for the color of her coat and her fine qualities. I had no idea how fitting that would be, right to the end.

I had been in a car accident just before I adopted Sterling (or shall we just admit, she chose me?) and shortly afterward, I had knee surgery. In addition to keeping me company in my bed and cuddling with me during my painful recovery, she delighted me with her bedeviling activities, one of which included retrieving bloody gauze bandages from garbage cans and running through the apartment with them at lightning speed. My father, who was visiting and taking care of me, did not find this so delightful. But I loved her pure sense of play — exactly why I had originally wanted a kitten — and enjoyed her utter zest for life. Everything was a game to her and when she exhausted herself, she would come back to me and go completely limp and purr loudly.

When I recovered, I ended up moving to Southern California for a while — telecommuting for work — and Sterling took to antics such as pulling off the pins off my bulletin board and sticking her head into my printer and shredding papers as they printed, decidedly not helping with my work-at-home productivity. This was slightly less delightful behavior, and I decided that Sterling need a companion, and thus, a second cat came into our lives. Once again I went in to get a kitten and instead, came home with a cat of a different age — in fact this one was 3 years old. A tortie-tabby, I ended up naming her Patina (get it?), Tina for short. And thus, Sterling ended up becoming Alpha Cat of what I didn’t know was ultimately going to become the growing JavaFamily “herd.” Down the line there would be “hers,” “his” and “ours” cats — growing to a maximum of 8 cats (currently at 5). But Sterling was always the top cat.

Of all the cats, she never, ever got a flea. She never had an injury. And she never got sick. She was a lean cat and when she started to get alarmingly thin and act peculiar, such as only wanting to eat in my office and insisting on only drinking water from red, plastic Solo cups (don’t ask how I figured that out) — I rushed her to the vet in tears. Hundreds of dollars later, even the vet was shaking her head and said, “I was prepared for us to have a diagnosis for you of anything from thyroid to leukemia but I have to tell you, this is the healthiest cat I’ve seen all week. I think she’s just being a stubborn old cat!” So from that point forward, I started to simply adjust to her idiosyncracies, and assumed as long as she was eating and playful, she was fine. She finally decided that she would eat downstairs again, but I added a daily personal dish of canned food to the communal dry food that was available. She gave up on the red, plastic cups, but did seem to prefer having a separate small bowl in addition to using the larger cat water bowl. In other words, I figured she was an old lady, I’d indulge her. She still liked to sit on books as we tried to read them, bat around paper balls, and sit on top of us at the most inconvenient moments. She was Sterling. Just thinner.

I prepared for her death for 18 months, certain that after 16+ years, it was imminent. Every time we needed a pet sitter, I would warn them that if Sterling suddenly passed away, not to get upset, it was just meant to be.

And yet, though we can prepare our minds, we really can’t prepare our hearts, can we?

It was a Sunday morning when I realized Sterling wasn’t eating anything. Because she was thin, she like to sit on warm things like our laptops, so I had prepared a warm spot for her a few weeks earlier on her favorite ottoman, covering a heating pad with fluffy towels so it would be warm and soft, but not get too hot. It was in the family room, one of her favorite places to be as it is the center of activity in our house. Her routine of late had become fairly simple — meow at us to prepare her a breakfast of canned food with her special dish of water in the kitchen, clean herself in the family room, then hop onto her “bed” on the ottoman. If one of us chose to sit on the sofa, then she would come to us instead of the heating pad. But Sunday, she had no interest in breakfast. Not even when I carried her over to it to show it to her. She simply went back to her perch on the ottoman instead. No one else in the family seemed to, but I swore she took on a smell that I called the smell of death.

At that very moment, my heart started breaking.

We had been scrambling to get out the door to go to church.  The children were performing. I sat there, somewhat numb. Praying to God.

“Please God, please don’t make me do this. Don’t make me choose. Please, please God, this is too much. If she needs to go, please take her from us quickly in her sleep.”

I felt horrible guilt. I had known, of course, that it was possible when she started to get thinner that she might have had diabetes or a thyroid condition, but I had also decided that if she did, I was not going to go down the road of forcing pills or shots on her. She was 18 years old. She was happy and active and as long as she was, I was going to let her be.

But suddenly I wondered if I had done her a terrible wrong. Should I have handled things differently? The guilt, the doubt, the pain roiled inside of me, an emotional typhoon I was trying to keep anyone from seeing. After church I had us run a few errands, I am sure in part to delay facing things when I got home.

Sterling was obviously on the decline — not interested in food. Still wanting to be held and loved, but not playful, not interested in anything else.

It is probably important to point out here something I have not yet shared with you. At this point JavaDad and I had been nearly two months into our trial separation — after ten years of marriage we were living under separate roofs, figuring out where to go from here.

JavaDad swung into action — feeding everyone dinner, taking care of the kids’ bath and bedtime routine, and then dealing with me.

We knew it was time. That the next day we would be calling the vet to have Sterling put down. It was what good pet owners do. But it hurt like hell. I went into the “bargaining” part of the Seven Stages of Grief — “But what if there are heroic measures we can take?” And he counseled me, “Is that fair to her, at her age? And for what? Another month of life? What kind of quality of life?”

I cried, like a wounded animal. Gutteral, awful sounds coming from me. And then came the triple-play that happens when my emotions are more than my body can handle. The simultaneous laughing-crying-asthma-attack. I’ve never seen myself in a mirror when it happens, but I am sure it is a frightening sight with the tears streaming, snot flying, loud laughter and wheezing all at the same time. It is not one of my finer qualities as a woman. And yet, it is something  JavaDad has come to understand about me (I won’t say appreciate, I’m not sure he appreciates it — but at least he doesn’t run away.)

Because I wasn’t sure what time we’d see the vet, in the morning I had to explain this to the children. As this was the first pet they remember losing, it was frankly, one of the worst conversations to have with them. (This, however, was a week before the Sandy Hook shootings, which turned out to be THE worst conversation.) My kids aren’t the kind of kids you can “gloss over” anything with. Especially JavaGirl. Her ability to grill someone should put her high on the CIA’s watch list for future recruits. With her unique blend of intense belief in Christianity and need for very factual explanations for everything, she wanted me to explain in great detail what would happen both to Sterling’s soul and body during the euthanasia process and afterward when she was cremated. Trying to keep myself together while being the mother I needed to be for them during this time was excruciating.

I called the vet’s office. I had steeled myself to be calm and factual. I was for the first four words. Fortunately they are pros, and they found a time slot for me with our preferred vet late that afternoon.

The children came home and sat with Sterling, taking pictures of her with their Nintendo 3DSes, which I found to be an interesting coping technique.

It was a gorgeous day and I took Sterling outside to feel the warm sunshine, but she made it clear that she did not want to be on the front step or anywhere outside. Though that morning she started to lose the use of one of her hind legs, she started to run inside. It made it clear to me that this was the end.

I held her for those final hours. She purred and nuzzled me, and I petted her and told her how much I loved her. I reminded her of how she had chosen me, and that we had been through a lot in 18 years, and I loved her through every bit of it.

JavaDad came home early from work to go to the vet with me — he didn’t think I’d manage to make it home on my own. Given where we were relationship-wise, the gesture was gigantic on his part.

After the vet’s office, the grief was unbearable. I couldn’t look at the dishes used to feed her. I couldn’t even look at the kitchen counter where I had prepared her food. JavaDad came over that day and the next to prepare lunches and dinners for the kids. He did something he hadn’t done in a long time — he hugged me. Later that night we flipped through photos and laughed about things Sterling (and the other cats) had done over the years. Laughing together was also something we hadn’t done much of lately.

In a short time things we had been working on for a long time were being worked out. At the risk of sounding (more) like a crazy cat lady, it was as if Sterling’s very last act of devotion — after her passing — was to push JavaDad and I together and force us to set things aside and reform into a family again. The grief of losing a beloved pet transformed into the joy of reconciling a marriage I wasn’t sure was going to make it. The same day I picked up Sterling’s ashes from the vet is the same day JavaDad moved back home.

I am so glad Sterling got her way.

Big Apple Circus “Legendarium” Combines Old-Time Charm With Modern Acts

 

Big Apple Circus contortionist Elayne Kramer

Big Apple Circus contortionist Elayne Kramer.

There are some things in life every child should have an opportunity to experience, and a good, old-fashioned circus is one of them. Big Apple Circus, especially with this year’s “Legendarium” theme fits the bill. This small, one-ring circus, emphasizes a close connection with the audience and is actually under a “big top” tent rather than in a stadium. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good three-ring circus as well, but there are many advantages to the intimate nature of a smaller circus experience.

As much as I am a technology geek, I fear that our generation of children is forgetting about how to be an audience. I’ve seen kids bringing handheld games and smart phones with games to movie theaters to stave off boredom during the movie! And with the special effects of live performances becoming more sophisticated than they were in the movies we watched as kids, it is easy to see how they can become jaded with simpler fare.

Horses rear for trainer Jenny Vidbel at the Big Apple Circus.

Horses rear for trainer Jenny Vidbel at the Big Apple Circus.

With a smaller circus, the focus is on live performers (human as well as some animals) who often involve the audience. Clowns run around the raised perimeter of the ring, interacting with audience members on the front row. Performers come down the aisles. Horses run fast and furious, at one point kicking up dirt right onto my son’s hair and shirt. When we clap, the performers actually see us, and seeing their smiles make the children clap harder. Yes, my family got to sit in the front row, a perk of being part of the reviewing media, but even the furthest away seat (16 rows back) was only 50 feet from the ring! This is the perfect venue to train young children to appreciate the purity of a simple circus and to retrain the over-exposed in the wonder of a trapeze act — after all, they will get a close-up view of the logistics behind the ropes and pullies involved!

Ringmaster John Kennedy Kane keeps the show moving with stories of circus "Legendarium."

Ringmaster John Kennedy Kane keeps the show moving with stories of circus “Legendarium.”

Simple doesn’t mean boring, however. This year’s theme, Legendarium, takes the audience back in history and reminds us of the roots behind some of the acts that are still popular now. For example, Ringmaster John Kennedy Kane explains that circus rings are 42 feet because that is exactly the dimension a horse needs to reach a full gallop. And gallop they do, under the direction of trainer Jenny Vidbel. We experience the antics of old-fashioned clowns (Acrobuffs) who wear masks rather than makeup and traditional trapeze artists and a gorgeous contortionist act by Elayne Kramer with a fantastic finish.

And there are modern acts as well. Zhang Fan’s slack wire act is a personal favorite of mine, in fact, it was at the Big Apple Circus a few years ago that I first saw the slack wire before the art became popularized by its appearance Madonna’s Super Bowl performance. Another don’t miss opportunity is to see a Roue Cyr Wheel acrobatic performance (a roue cyr wheel is a large wheel that is often used for an acrobat to spin inside of or have spin around him or her) by the creator himself, Daniel Cyr.

If the enjoyment of this two-hour, one-ring circus were not reason enough to attend, consider the fact that the circus itself is a vehicle for community change.

The Big Apple Circus is a performing arts not-for-profit with five outreach programs:

  • Circus After School: A 12-week program for at-risk kids that teaches them life skills including team work and confidence while putting together a show.
  • Clown Care: They say laughter is the best medicine, and this program takes that into account, with 80 professional artists doing “clown rounds” with doctors. These “clown doctors” are trained in specific hygienic practices and protocols and in special issues related to interacting with hospitalized children and collaborate with doctors and staff to design a program that fits the needs of each hospital.
  • Circus for All: Every time I get to attend an event, I think “I wish every child could see this.”  Through grants and contributions from individuals and institutions the Big Apple Circus works to  fund free and discounted tickets for children facing economic hardship, physical disabilities, and other challenges.
  • Circus of the Senses: What is a circus like if you cannot see or hear it? The Big Apple Circus found ways to make attending the circus an inclusive experience for those who are visually and hearing impaired with wireless headsets, a play-by-play description of the action in the ring by Circus Founder and Co-Founder Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, American Sign Language interpreters strategically positioned in spotlights to sign throughout the performances, distributing descriptive large-print or Braille descriptive programs in advance, and sensory tours of the circus.
  • Vaudeville Caravan: Circus performances are truly for all ages. An offshoot of Clown Care, this program brings performers to nursing care facilities and combats the loneliness and isolation many elderly face today.

As an animal lover, I appreciated knowing what their animal care policy is.

The Big Apple Circus is in the Dulles Area through October 8 with tickets ranging in price from $25 – $75 (and remember, the furthest row is 16 rows back). Check out their site for prices and availability of seats.

———–

Disclosure: The PR company for The Big Apple Circus provided me with four tickets so my family could attend the show for review purposes. As a long-time paying customer of the show, this did not influence my opinion nor color my review. My kids also received foam clown noses. 

 

S’mores Represent Everything Great About Camping #CampBondFire #smores

Mention going camping and JavaGirl will inevitably ask, “Will there be s’mores?” The two are inextricably intertwined in her mind and I fear the day when she encounters a camping trip without that marvelous, gooey treat. The disappointment is sure to involve tears brimming in her big, brown eyes while trying to put on a brave face — a look so pitiful that it breaks the heart of any grown man within a 50-foot radius.

Her association is not unique. I, too, can’t imagine a campfire without s’mores. In fact, I love all campfire cooking. S’mores were essentially the gateway to teaching me all about the joys of harnessing the raw power of fire to produce cooked food out in the wilderness.

Don’t get me wrong. I covet my air conditioning and California King pillowtop bed as much as the next girl, but I appreciate how empowering camping feels and I am dismayed at how often I see families shy away from it. Both JavaKids are in scouts and when their organizations have family camping trips, I’m astonished and disheartened by the number of  families who choose to come for the day and not stay overnight. We switched JavaGirl from one troop to another and one deciding factor was an insistence of one of the organizer that camping trips be catered. What?!

Most of my camping growing up was done as a Girl Scout, with my church youth group, or at summer camps. Through these experiences I learned:

  •  everything from how to pitch a tent to how to make an emergency lean-to;
  • not to be afraid of spiders (okay, sometimes I still am, but not as much);
  • that I can cope with scorpions, leeches and ticks (not that I want to, but I can);
  • a little bit of rain isn’t going to kill me;
  • going to the bathroom in the woods is also not going to kill me (even if the cow who snuck up on me and mooed almost gave me a heart attack);
  • I am capable of paddling a canoe for 20 miles;
  • I can build a fire;
  • I can use a pocketknife without ending up in the ER;
  • you can wrap just about anything in tin foil or put it on a stick and it will taste terrific when cooked on a campfire;
  • and most importantly — you don’t need electronic gadgets to have a good time and nothing is as beautiful as a starry sky on a cloudless night when you are far away from city lights.

As parents, we hear so much about self-esteem. We are bombarded with media reports with interviews of “experts” telling us what we should be doing to build up our kids’ self-esteem, what tears it down. What causes bullies, what is media doing to this generation’s self-esteem? Are we eating dinner together enough as a family? Are they watching the right shows, the wrong shows? In the right sports? Are we praising them correctly?

And then we refuse to spend a night outdoors with them? And teach them some basic life skills? Really?

It may not seem like much, but give a kid a stick and a marshmallow and watch his face. Why is he so delighted? Do you think it is really just the sugary snack? I mean, yes, I think s’mores are a slice of heaven — the honey-crunchy goodness of the graham cracker and just-right softly melted chocolate with the ooey-gooey marshmallow. Pure bliss! But what your kid is thinking is, “My mom just handed me something pointy! And she is letting me step next to a FIRE! And wow, I can transform this marshmallow! COOL!” Watch how your kid experiments with the different ways to cook the marshmallow — holding it close to the fire, further away from the fire, actually setting it on fire. Call it science if you want to (and indeed, it is!) But part of it is also esteem-building. A sense of control. No, the cavemen didn’t have s’mores, but imagine how they felt, experimenting with fire.

When I’m in charge of the s’mores supplies (and I usually am, because I don’t want to disappoint JavaGirl!) I like to mix things up a bit and prepare a s’mores buffet. For the last camping trip, I brought chocolate marshmallows, jumbo marshmallows as well as the standard ones. I provided chocolate graham crackers and the usual honey ones. Because kids often dive into s’mores like locusts on a fresh crop, I like to prepare plates with the crackers already broken into half (s’mores sized — although now you can also buy some already in squares), the marshmallows in bowls, and the chocolates already portioned in bowls. A trick I’ve learned is that you can also use the snack-sized Hershey’s chocolate bars rather than breaking the large ones — I go with whatever is the best price at the time.

We have amassed a collection of telescoping campfire forks over the years. It began with our wedding registry when I saw some for the first time at Crate & Barrel and just had to have them. People thought we were crazy and they were one of our most remarked-upon registry items (but we received them!) Since then, we’ve managed to acquire more and now bring extras with us to every camping event. For some reason, this “civilized” way of making s’mores appeals to the non-campers and we’ve noticed that the adults are willing to jump in on the s’mores making if handed a telescoping fork.

When everyone is nestled into their seats, munching on their s’mores, I try to engage them in conversation about other campfire foods. Banana boats, hobo hamburgers, hobo omlettes. Recently I’ve acquired some pie irons and am itching to make some mountain pies. My kids started with s’mores, but have now learned to cook other foods as well.  It was the food that lured JavaGirl into being willing to try camping even though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in a tent overnight. And now she’s a tent-sleeping, frog-catching, s’mores-cooking camper, just like her brother. Looking forward to the day when she’ll get her own pocketknife so she can try her hand at whittling like he does. It is my hope that by getting other families to see that campfire cooking is fun, they will then be willing to give up a night of air-conditioning to try out sleeping in a tent and discover what else camping has to offer. Frankly, s’mores are the universal lures of campfire cooking — not everyone likes hot dogs!

Yes, we can make s’mores on forks or in foil packets on the grill. We have an indoor s’mores maker with a sterno pot. Now you can even make them in the microwave. But there’s something to be said about instilling the love of the old-fashioned way – around a campfire with your friends, just before retiring to your tent filled with the memories of a day spent outdoors and the confidence that can only be gained by doing things yourself and knowing that if you ever really did have to rely only on yourself, you could.

—————–

Disclosure: National S’mores Day was Friday, August 10. But who needs a special day to enjoy this awesome treat? My kids’ first experience with s’mores was not on a camping trip, though I highly reccommend that if you can!  Find a time this summer or fall to spend some time outdoors with your family around a campfire roasting some marshmallows. I had the pleasure of riding the Hershey’s #CampBondfire sponsored bus home from BlogHer ’12, which inspired this post.  Hershey’s and Walmart  provided me with a ride home from BlogHer, two scrumptious s’mores kits, and some “welcome home” goodies from Walmart.