Meaningful Holidays

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This is the first of a series of entries I’ll be writing this month about celebrating the holidays with your family, whether that family was born, chosen, or a little of both.

There’s tremendous pressure on everyone during this time of year, and the essence of the various December holidays gets lost in a jumble of lists, receipts, and a steady parade of obligations. Is it even possible to push back against the forces crying, “Spend! Compete! Consume! Please Everyone!”? I’ll admit that I get caught up in that stuff, too; we are social creatures and following societal standards is normal, but it can also be a hindrance because it can be tough to swim against the tides of peer influence.

Over the next week or two, I’m going to post some ideas to get you thinking about some simple ideas for feeling connected to our families, friends, and communities in meaningful ways, with an eye toward cutting out the B.S. (can I say that on a family-friendly blog? I hope so).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on some of these topics and I hope to learn from you readers as well. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover, please chime in and I’ll see what sort of conversations I can start. More soon . . .

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The Simplicity of Snow

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It’s cold and snowy here in Northern Illinois, and my kids and I couldn’t be happier. Well, everyone but the youngest, who’s on day two of an ear-infection-induced fever (he’s on antibiotics, just has stubborn ears, rather like the rest of him).110669070_a48537f62d

Snow means hours of outdoor play for my kids, and often for me too (when my pasty behind isn’t stuck in my office chair goofing around on Twitter rushing toward a deadline or blogging about fun things to do here). Even though it’s bitterly cold outside, my kids don’t care, partly because they have decent snow gear (snow pants, parkas, hats, mittens, and boots) and partly because a healthy snowfall transforms our property into one giant white sandbox (sans any visible signs of the neighbors’ cats poop).

We’re fortunate to have a slightly hilly driveway. Well, “fortunate” in the “kids’ play” sense, not in the “try driving a minivan up that icy hill in February” sense. So when it snows, the boys grab their saucer sleds (yes, they still make ‘em!) and start wearing grooves into the driveway. We also have a toboggan-style sled so all three can glide down together, shrieking with part healthy fear and part unadulterated joy.

Snow forts are a rare treat when enough good packing snow falls to create one. Last winter the boys made an igloo that ended up more like a turret, but they loved it anyway. I didn’t have one of those plastic igloo brick makers, but a metal loaf pan made a great substitute in a pinch.

Snow angels are another fun way to enjoy a snowy day; we like drawing funny faces on ours.

For younger kids who might be more tentative or have sensory issues, let them bring some snow inside or onto an enclosed porch. Here’s what I did for my then-three-year-old last winter:

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He was content just sitting on our front porch like this, which felt safer for him than laying down in the snow or being pelted with brotherly snowballs. Another great thing about snow is that it’s usually pretty clean so I can let my kids play with my wire whisk and ice cream scoop without worrying too much about them.

Of course, everybody loves a good, old-fashioned snowball fight. (Except the first kid to get nailed in the face by one).

Since we have a long back yard, my oldest boy will drag a sled all around to make trails the boys can follow. Today, my four-year-old formulated big plans before heading outside. “I want to wide in da sled,” he said. “Jackson will pull me.” Yeah, those youngest kids know how to work it, don’t they?

Of course there’s always winter hiking, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, not to mention downhill skiing, snowboarding and even dogsledding! But what I’m talking about now are things kids and families can do right outside their back doors.

Outdoor winter fun is limited to your imagination – it’s always amazing to see what my kids come up with, too; yesterday they molded Star Wars spaceships out of snow.

After Christmas, I’ll write about our experiences with Snowboarding 101, since it looks like Santa will be placing two beginner-level (read: plastic) snowboards under the tree (the four-year-old will get a cool new sled so he doesn’t feel left out).110669069_8373ba1460

For those of you in colder regions, how do you and your kids enjoy the snow? What do you warm weather readers do for winter fun that’s different from summertime?

Share your favorite wintry things to do in the comments section.

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A Sad Update

I recently blogged about the plight of a colleague, Lori Hall Steele, a fellow freelancer who faced losing her home during a bout with a serious illness. I’m very sad to report that Lori passed away yesterday, leaving behind her mother, a young son and many people who know there’s a little less light left in the world with her passing. Here’s a link to her obituary, which also serves as a touching tribute to her life, devotion to family, and her talent as a writer.

I wanted to publicly thank those of you who read my earlier entry and donated to Lori’s cause. Updates on the fundraising efforts on her behalf will be posted at the Lori Hall Steele fundraising blog. I apologize but I don’t have any information as to whether they are still seeking donations or other forms of assistance, but if I hear anything new, I’ll post an update. Thank you once again for your kindness and generosity.

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Staycations – All You Ever Wanted?

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Sure, the term “staycation” is kind of annoying, but I’m going to argue in favor of the idea of a “stay-at-home-vacation,” if not its shorthand term-du-jour. Call it something else if you’d like, but there are benefits to “traveling” close to home during these tough economic times.

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Create your own getaway by exploring your own back yard

For one – this should get your attention – if you play it right, you’ll save money. While I realize it’s just as easy to drop a ton of cash in your own back yard, right now people are holding on to that cash–which is probably a wise move. If you think about it, money spent on air fare or car rentals could easily fund a fabulous local getaway. Send half of that money to your savings account or use it to pay off debt, and you get to enjoy yourself while also benefiting your family’s bottom line. (Maybe we should call it a “smartcation” instead).

Second, local independent businesses need our support now more than ever. After all, nobody is bailing them out; they must swim within a far lower-risk business model or sink, as many are doing.

Third, not shelling out money to an all-inclusive resort (something my family isn’t really into anyway) removes the creativity and spontaneity from travel. While it’s perfectly fine to do so in some instances–or all the time, if it’s your thing–we like to think of ourselves as explorers in our family and we love customizing our vacations. Finding new things in our area becomes a unique challenge, not something that makes us feel deprived.

Fourth, Traveling close to home – whether in your own neighborhood, town, or in nearby major cities – requires you to think like tourists and view well-traveled destinations and attractions in a new light. Taking a staycation is a great opportunity introduce your kids to museums, parks, and restaurants you might otherwise take for granted. Contact your area’s convention and visitors bureau to see what they suggest; you might find a few untapped surprises in your midst.

Next month, my husband and I were going to spend a long weekend at a swanky spa resort, but after we did the math, we realized that we could vacation at home (with a mandate to not work or do anything but necessary chores) without the kids and go exploring for less than half the cost. I’ll write more about what we decide to do when we’re done planning our staycation.

Are you traveling more or less this year, and is the economy affecting how you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you hate the word “staycation,” suggest a better word and if I like it, I’ll adopt it here from now on!

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Cold Weather Bicycling

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With temperatures dropping, I’m finding my weekly bike rides are getting a bit more challenging, but only slightly so, simply because I have to guess at how to dress depending upon the weather. To give you an idea of how tricky this can be, it was in the low ’70s here in northern Illinois on Halloween and for a few days afterward, then suddenly it dipped below freezing at the end of the next week, when I looked out my office window to see wet snow falling straight downward. I went for a ride one day last week wearing long underwear as one of my layers and felt – and probably looked – a lot like The Heat Miser as I rode.

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When I lived in Chicago in the ’90s, I used to ride my Specialized hybrid mountain bike from my North Side apartment to downtown and back every weekday, even in January. Often I’d be the only one riding along the lakefront, watching as waves crashed along the icy shoreline.

I love gear as much as the next outdoorsy nerd, but in this case, I just keep things simple using layering. If it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear lightweight long underwear under whatever winter weight leggings or sweats happen to be clean at the time (who, me, procrastinate on laundry?), a fleece sweatshirt topped off with a thin windbreaker. When it’s really cold, I wear a thin winter hat under my helmet, a neck gaiter to warm the air without having to fuss with a scarf, and windproof gloves. I bring water no matter the temp, since bicycling works up a sweat no matter what the thermometer says.

The only two things so far that will keep me indoors are rain (no fenders on my hybrid mountain bike) and ice. I’m considering trying a ride in the snow, but after breaking my leg slipping on my own icy driveway a few years ago, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to moving swiftly over the snow.

Do I bring the family bicycling? Not in cold weather. My nine-year-old might be hardy enough for a cold weather ride or two, but I know my younger kids would never enjoy it, even bundled in our Burley bike trailer with the plastic windshield. If I do take the oldest boy riding, I’ll have him share his thoughts on it, good, bad, and ugly (gotta love kid honesty). I think knowing your limits and your kids’ preferences is key here, and I think as my younger boys grow older, they might actually dig riding with their crazy mom on cold November days.

To read more on prepping for cold weather cycling, check out IceBike and the Winter Bicycling section of Bicycling Life. Don’t fear the 1990s web design; there’s some great info in there. Finally, for a quick but entertaining read, check out this essay by writer Ethan Gilsdorf, who cycles around Boston year-round.

Do you engage in any off-season activities like cold weather bicycling? Why? If not, what’s holding you back? What’s your favorite cold weather outdoor activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions – leave a comment and tell me what works for you.

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You Can Also Bring the Family . . .

To vote! I brought my two younger boys this morning (where our neighbors at the polling place spoiled the boys with bakery doughnuts so I could concentrate) and my husband is off with our oldest son this evening.

We really wanted to stress the importance of voting and it’s led to many interesting conversations about how government works. It’s also been interesting hearing what the kids have absorbed already – I got a Hillary Clinton question this morning from one of the boys. Of course, my kindergartener has already felt the sting of his first election loss. It seems his peers felt Clifford the Big Red Dog would make a better leader than his choice, Duck for President. He still proudly wore his “I voted” sticker and understood that it still mattered that he voted.
I read today that while many are talking about this being an historic election, we should keep in mind that every election is historic. Brilliant thought, that.

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Photo Friday: Halloween in Woodstock, Illinois

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For the Photo Friday shindig over at Delicious Baby.com.

Every year on Halloween, the boys and I head over with friends to the Woodstock Square, located a few blocks from our home. There’s a Halloween costume contest and all the merchants on the Square hand out candy to trick or treaters. Also, as pictured here, there’s often great ghoulish fun at our Opera House on the Square. It’s a great time, though every year as our town’s population increases, it seems to get a little more crowded and chaotic. My guys are so excited about this year; I’m really savoring their enthusiasm about Halloween while I can, because I know soon enough they’ll outgrow it.

At night, we get tons of trick or treaters at our house. My oldest is going to hide on our enclosed front porch dressed as a ghost to scare visitors. My favorite part of the night is making kids who show up without costumes do tricks for their treats. It’s all good-natured, and I end up giving kids who do a treat extra candy.

What’s your favorite part about Halloween? What are your kids going to be? And, most important, how early is too early to start dipping into the candy stash?

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Take an Autumn Hike

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Not everyone has a distinct change of seasons like us lucky Midwesterners. But if you live in a region on our side of the globe where the leaves change color as the days grow shorter, don’t miss an opportunity to take in some fresh air, sunshine, and eye candy with an autumn hike.

What’s different about hiking in fall vs. other seasons? I’d say the gear you need is about the same as spring, with perhaps a lower chance of getting rained on. Taking my decidedly Midwestern bias into account, here are some tips for how to prepare for your next autumn hike:

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–Bring Water (& maybe also snacks). Even with the temps dipping, you should bring water along while hiking (unless you’re taking a short stroll or walk as opposed to a longer, more challenging hike). Why? As I’ve written before, dehydration is a serious concern on the trail for both kids and grown-ups alike. In hot weather, it leaves you vulnerable to heat stroke, and in cooler temps, hypothermia. One of my rules for hiking is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” and in this case, why open the door to a more serious health risk when carrying water is a simple preventative measure? If you’ll be hiking for a long(ish) period of time, bring a snack or even pack a picnic in your backpacks–just be sure to pack out all of your trash (check the area where you’re hiking for rules & regulations; in ecologically sensitive areas, that apple core might do more harm than good). We love Nature Valley Granola Bars, mini bagels, and apples for hiking snacks–all keep well. They even make individual packs of peanut butter that add a little protein to your trailside snackage.

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–Dress in Layers. Don’t roll your eyes! I know every guide to hiking mentions this, but some things bear repeating. Spring and fall pretty much require that we dress in layers on the trail to keep from overheating or developing hypothermia. I remember hiking a forest preserve trail near my parents’ suburban Chicago home in September; we wore shorts and t-shirts and left our jackets in the car. The hike started out in the sunny 70s and dropped into the windy 40s by the time we were done an hour later. Had we brought even windbreakers, we wouldn’t have suffered as much as we did; thankfully the hike was short and we didn’t develop hypothermia.

What exactly does “dress in layers” mean? This is a tricky time of year, where neither shorts nor long underwear really fit the bill. Here’s a basic guide to dressing in layers from REI.com’s Expert Advice section. For autumn, you’ll probably want warmer layers like a fleece vest, and a windbreaker of some sort because this time of year can get gusty. I always pack rain ponchos for the family, too.

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–Exercise Your Leave No Trace Ethic. Kids watch everything we do, and if we wander off-trail (potentially trampling delicate foliage) or casually discard that granola bar wrapper, we’re giving our kids tacit approval to do the same. The expression, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a good one; just be sure those footprints remain on trail.

Really, these tips are simply good common sense prep for just about any hike, with some additional mind paid to quick shifts in weather and temps. So what are you waiting for? Pack up the kids and head out for some fresh air and sunshine! Don’t forget to come back and share stories and photos of your latest fall hiking adventures–post links in the comments section.

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Seasonal Traditions

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I have a confession: I grew up hating fall, because in true Calvin & Hobbes form, it meant the return to school (yuck!). Also, it got dark too early and that meant less time playing outdoors, and I was an outdoorsy kind of kid. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had watched enough seasons come and go that I learned to appreciate autumn. I feel really lucky to live somewhere with four distinct seasons; there’s something to love about each one (though I could do without our summer humidity and mosquitoes!).

The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.
The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.

Since becoming a mom, I’ve grown to appreciate seasonal shifts even more, since we’ve built family traditions around them, from trips to sledding hills to spring hikes to maple syrup festivals to visits to the local pumpkin patch in search of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins and to take our annual “kids squinting into the harsh autumn sun” photo.

Here’s one of our early attempts, taken in 2002, when my middle son was just a tiny longshoreman:

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Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look
Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look

Things settled down a bit after the arrival of our third son, which coincided nicely with the arrival of our only frame-worthy pumpkin patch photo so far.

That’s the great thing about family photos; you never know what you’re going to get, and often the silly or accidental results make the best memories.

Some years, the weather doesn’t cooperate:

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Or maybe your kid stubbornly prefers pumpkins of a different shade:

I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!
I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!

Or perhaps there’s slim pickins in your neck of the woods:

That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy
That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy

No matter what the weather or your kids’ temperaments bring, there’s always something fun or funny to capture as your family heads out to enjoy seasonal fun. In fact, this year I ordered school photos of my offbeat middle child making a purposefully silly face. Why? Because every time he looked at the proof, he’d giggle to himself for minutes at a time. How could I not order a print that would fill the house with that much laughter?

Speaking of laughter, here’s this year’s outtake from the pumpkin patch photo session:

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And here are the two I’d consider “framers,” despite a certain recalcitrant middle son’s tendency to snarl when I press the shutter release

I can never decide which to choose–the one that makes me smile, or laugh. What do you think? I think they’re all framers.

Do you have a hard time capturing those “perfect” family memories? How does your family enjoy celebrating autumn? Share your thoughts, opinions, and links to photos in the comments section.

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