Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Tale of Five Contractors

We've been investigating the possibility of adding on to our house. We had already outgrown the house when we moved into it, by which I mean that in moving here we downsized by about 800 sq. feet. The lot was great. I know I've mentioned that before, but it bears repeating. It also keeps me from going stark raving mad and eating the wallpaper (don't worry - we don't really have wallpaper) in the middle of winter when we're cooped up and I'm wondering what THE HELL possessed us to buy such a small house.

We have your typical kitchen w/dining area, living room set-up, with three smallish bedrooms, and (wait for it...) one bathroom. One. Also we have two daughters. One of whom is now in junior high. Are you doing the math along with me? Do you see the problem?

So initially, when the interest rate was still bobbing along in the high 6's (or something? I don't really keep track of interest rates. Or, frankly, understand them.), Daddy Shortbread started making some halfhearted progress toward putting a second bathroom in the basement family room. Not ideal, but you don't look a second toilet in the mouth. Or something. I may be mixing my metaphors.

Then came the housing crash and resultant falling interest rate, and Daddy Shortbread ventured that this might be the time to start thinking seriously about putting an addition on the house.

We rounded up referrals from friends and called five contractors to come give us estimates. It was an interesting lineup:

Contractor Good Ol' Boy had a reassuring can-do attitude, but a concerning way of brushing aside potential problems with his proposed design (Um, hi, the chimney would run up the middle of the master bedroom?) with a wave of his hand and a non-committal "eh." I like my contractors like I like my doctors: more talky, less wave-asidey. FAIL.

(Apparently I also like seeing how many times I can work the word "like" into a sentence).


Contractor Weightlifter is a builder. He doesn't draw plans. He builds FROM plans. He'd like you to pay $400 to have Random Drafting Dude draw plans before he'll give you an estimate. Um, FAIL.

Contractor Nice Guy is super-communicative. He talks things through at length, giving reasons, suggestions, and ideas, all the while sketching away right in front of you. He had completely novel design ideas for us and brought his entire team of sub-contractors out to meet us. We love him and are anxiously awaiting his estimate. Fingers crossed, probable PASS.

Contractor Brain is fascinating to talk to. He was right up to speed with our ideas on utilizing alternate energy sources, etc., but his initial design idea was, well, wack. We haven't heard back from him since we suggested he go another direction with it. Probable FAIL.

Contractor Neighbor also seems great, but is somewhat late to the party, since we just met with him yesterday. He also brought a great design idea to the table and came with strong recommendations. However, his time-table for getting back to us and when we'd start construction is a lot later than we'd hoped. Still, we're interested to see the estimate he brings us, making his a possible PASS.

I'm trying really, really hard not to fall in love with the idea of the addition(i.e., I probably shouldn't be shopping for flooring yet, but I totally am) before we're sure it's happening. At this point, it all comes down to what out house appraises for/equity/interest rate.

Hey, look how it almost sounds like I know what I'm talking about, when actually I have only the haziest notion of what those terms mean!

Also, you begin to get some idea of how much the contractors must enjoy talking to me. ("Yes, yes, reinforced beam, whatever. When do we discuss the shade of hardwood flooring I want put in?")

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


So I was watering the driveway the other day...

OK, not really, although it certainly looks that way, doesn't it? Actually I was trying to water that teeny, brand-new flower bed in front of the telephone pole, but my hose was a little too short, and the sprinkler that would have shot water more directly was ALL THE WAY AROUND THE BACK OF THE HOUSE. So, basically I watered the driveway, and incidentally the little flower bed got wet, too.

Bug thought a sprinkler in the driveway was a fantastic idea. She looked at me in a speculating manner,

"Can I jump through it?"

"Sure," I said.

"In my clothes?" she asked hopefully. She was wearing a brand-new summer outfit.

"Yep," I told her, "But you have to change into play clothes." She dashed into the house and reappeared 20 seconds later in likely the first two articles of play clothes she could lay hands on. Thereby explaining the complete lack of matching. What makes being allowed to get wet in your clothes so awesome to a kid? She honestly couldn't have been more excited and kept trying to convince Bear to join her by emphasizing "and Mom said we don't have to wear bathing suits!"

This was this first afternoon Bear had ventured outside since the Holy Hell Pollen Levels we'd had over the weekend. She was not up for cavorting under her enemies, the trees, and opted to hang out on the porch with a book.Bug didn't seem to mind going solo. She was still euphoric over being allowed to get wet in her clothes.

"Hey, Mom! Look at this!" she'd call, and then delightedly wring out her t-shirt onto the driveway for me to see.

"Pretty cool, Bug," I'd tell her. I think I've mentioned it before, but one of my parenting philosophies is that occasionally you need to let the kids think they're getting away with something (even though they're totally not).

For example, one summer the girls tricked me and pushed me fully clothed into their wading pool. Bear was seven, and Bug was four. I could hear them hatching their scheme from six feet away, where I was weeding the garden. They weren't exactly subtle.

I saw them get out of the pool and call me over, "Mommy! There's, butterfly drownding in the pool!" Bear called. Behind her, Bug giggled like a hopped-up chimpanzee, covering her mouth with both hands when Bear hissed, "Shhhh," at her. Oh, they were smoooooth.

And I was hot. And sweaty. And tired of weeding. I took one look at their devilish little faces and feigned instant concern, "Where?"

"Come to the pool! Come to the pool!" Bug danced from foot-to-foot and pointed at the water.

"Look, Mommy! Bend over and look!" Bear shouted, then giggled, kind of blowing her whole concerned-about-the-butterfly facade.

Keeping a carefully straight face, I leaned over the edge of the pool, "I can't see him."

"He's DYING," Bug threw in dramatically, as I bent for a closer look. They crept into position behind me and shoved. I obligingly tumbled in with maximum splashage, and they leapt in on top of me laughing hysterically.

Six years later they still talk about the time when they tricked me and pushed me into the pool. You can get a lot of mileage out of selected rule-breaking.
Eventually, Bug noticed that I was photographing her sprinkler antics.
She immediately whipped out a few of her trademark moves. "Camera shy" is not generally a phrase that people apply to Bug.
Bear had adopted an aloof pose, positioning her book in front of her face when she saw me take out the camera. Still, she couldn't resist peeking to see if I was taking any photos of her. GOTCHA, babycakes. I'm always threatening to call her babycakes in front of her friends. That or sugar buns. I just like to see the face she makes when she's trying to gauge if I'm serious or not.
It's exhausting work, sprinkler-jumping. Finally, Bug took a less aerobic approach to getting wet and just plunked herself down in the driveway. She sat there for quite awhile, happily soaking wet and (gasp) wearing clothes.

Oh yes, we're quite the rule-breaking rebels around these parts.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Our Summer To-Do List

I found the idea years ago in a parenting magazine, and we've written one faithfully every year since. It's usually around the end of April or early May when it seems like it should be getting summerish, but stubbornly continues to be damp, gray, and chilly. The four of us sit in the living room with a fresh piece of posterboard and brainstorm our Summer To-Do List. Just thinking about things like warm lake water, sunshine, and hot sandy beaches is a tonic that carries us through those last dreary weeks of the Maine spring.

Once the nice weather starts, we look to the list for ideas and cross them off as we do them. It's fun to look back at the end of the summer and see how many of our goals we were able to accomplish. I keep all of our lists to watch how the entries change from year-to-year as the kids get older. Slowly, things like "make popsicles" or "have a princess picnic" have been replaced by "go to the movies" or "go down the fast slide at the waterpark."

Here's this year's list:

It's always an eclectic blend of the mundane ("go on a family picnic"), the hopeful ("climb a mountain"), and the slightly weird ("stay up all night") . Bug has set a personal goal of eating 100 popsicles this summer. She's keeping track, too. She also wants to read 50 books and become better at badminton.

Bear would like to have a summer sleepover with her friends, paint pottery, and go on a shopping spree. Their additions to the list this summer are really showing the differences in their ages. I remember when one of Bear's list items (five years ago?) was "put my face in the water while I'm swimming." Ironically, she's still not real enthusiastic about that, unless she has a swim mask.
Some things make the list every year, like Lake George. That's one of our favorite swimming lakes, complete with a sand beach. It wouldn't be summer if we didn't go there. Also Popham Beach, our favorite ocean beach.

Each year sees some new additions, like Vinalhaven this year. It's an island off the coast of Maine with some cool hiking trails that we plan to check it out this summer. The girls have become better (read: less whiny and foot-draggy) hiking and biking companions in the past couple of years. Daddy Shortbread and I are hopeful that we can con them into some longer excursions this year. We just have to work on Bug not expending 90% of her energy in the first 15% of the outing and then crabbing about how tired she is for the ensuing 85%.

(Sad side note: I actually had to stop typing and think for a minute about what you add to 15 to get 100. True. Sigh).
We've already accomplished some list items. Last week Daddy Shortbread painted a four-square court on the driveway for the girls. It was the very first item to be crossed off this year.

A more driveway-fastidious friend came by the other day, looked at the court and asked me quietly, "How on earth will you get that up at the end of the summer?"

"We're not?" I told her. I'm guessing she would also be appalled by the "bridge" (old countertop) my kids "built across" (heaved into) the creek. It's not like it's visible from the road or anything, and neither is the four-square court, so I'm cool with it.

With a yard the size of ours (2.something-or-other acres), you give up pretty quickly trying to control it all. I rule my gardens with an iron fist, but I'm cool with the kids playing however they want in the rest. They ride bikes across the front lawn, dig down by the creek, create bug graveyards by the playhouse, and build fairy houses out of sticks and seashells back by the old spruce. I did take exception to the time they attempted to set up a Toad Refuge in the playhouse, but that had more to do with pity for for poor toads (they were looking a little wild-eyed by the time I came across them) that it did for the playhouse.
Here's another list item that's partially completed. The girls and I saw a cool idea in a gardening magazine to make a pond-in-a-pot. We've filled it with water, which needs to sit for a couple of weeks to allow the minerals to dissolve? evaporate? something? This week we'll buy some water-plants at the garden center to stick in it. Once the nighttime temperatures are a little higher, we'll add goldfish. Supposedly, frogs and other wildlife will find it on their own. Either it will be a tiny aquatic Eden, or we've just constructed a mosquito breeding center three feet from our patio. I'll let you know. What are you doing this summer?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

House Arrest

While most of me is thrilled by the sights of leafy, blossoming spring outside the window, there is also a part that is silently cursing. Because along with the beauty of my lilac bushes, peonies, and catmint are the neighborhood army of maples, oaks, and birches silently raining down pollen on my poor, allergic Bear. We've had a fairly mild allergy season so far, with dry breezy days interspersed with rainy ones that effectively damp down the pollen.

Until this weekend.

We haven't had rain in a week. The oak pollen is measuring in the Very High (also known as the Holy Crap) range. Bear, despite being on prescription allergy meds, eye-drops, and nasal spray, is a mess.

We had planned a family bike ride yesterday along an ocean path, thinking it would be fine as long as we weren't in a wooded area. One look at Bear yesterday morning, and we switched the bike ride for a trip to the mall. Her eyes were swollen completely shut and itchy like they'd been infested with fire ants. It was going to be an indoor day.

It turned into a great day. We browsed through Target, picked up some summer clothes for the girls at the mall, ate lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant, and moseyed home via the LL Bean flagship store. It was such a great day, that I kind of forgot why we'd switched our plans in the first place.

So when we dropped by our friends' house on our way into town, and the girls piled out of the van to show off their new water-filled glitter balls (these are the kinds of things they choose to spend their money on - sigh...), I didn't give it a second thought. Bear spent maybe ten minutes on their driveway, bouncing her ball. Maximum. When she started sneezing on the way home, I thought ohhh, shit. Allergies. Right.

Once we got home, she was in full-blown Allergy Apocalypse Mode: sneezing, wheezing, itchy-eyed, and miserable. And this after ten minutes of exposure. I can't begin to imagine how much worse it would have been if we'd actually tried the bike ride. We probably would have wound up at the emergency room.

Today? Complete house arrest. And because she's a kid, and has the memory of a gnat, she's irritated at being kept indoors on a beautiful day. I'm irritated because I'm the mom, the one who's supposed to make things all better for her, and I can't do a single thing to make this better for her.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

In Which I Realize That Bear Is Learning About More Than Just the 3 R's While She's At School

Scene: last night, Bear and I are on the couch watching American Idol. At one point, Ryan Seacrest makes a joke about a former contestant's very obvious boob job and the audience roars with laughter.

Me:, he means that she ...uh...well, there's this surgery-

Bear (cutting me off): Implants, Mom. I get it.

Me: Ah. Well, then.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Last Month of School is Trying to Kill Me

...or at the very least, it's trying to turn me into the world's worst blogger. With four weeks to go in the school year, we've been navigating an absolute rodeo of projects, banquets, and concerts that are all conspiring to turn bedtime into a joke and render my children sleep-deprived and emotionally unstable.

We started this week with Country Night, sponsored by Bug's Stretch class. Each child had spent weeks doing a research project on a country of their choice. On Country Night, the kids all dress up as a person from their country and bring a representative food from that country. Bug chose El Salvador (which had the immense benefit of being easier to cook for than Bear's last year choice of Tanzinia. When you Google "Tanzanian recipes", you get results like "Bush Meat Stew"). For El Salvador, Bug and I made homemade tortillas, black beans and rice, and pastel de tres leches, also known as Three Milk Cake or Basically An Excuse To Eat an Entire Plateful of Condensed Milk and Whipping Cream.

This is Bug as an El Salvadoran girl (and I'd like to give a little shout-out to Old Navy for having vaguely Latin American clothing in their spring line). We had a minor breakdown when I insisted that she tuck in the blouse. Bug, who has very specific ideas about fashion, felt that would look silly. I countered that the blouse, which hangs halfway to her knees, would look silly untucked. There were tears, a semi-slammed door, then she re-emerged calmly five minutes later with the blouse tucked in. I suspect that she looked in the mirror and saw that I was right, but she said nothing about it, just asked politely if I was ready to braid her hair. I was. She was very proud of her finished project, which included a twelve page typed report. She even did all of the optional research categories (plus one extra "in case she got one wrong"). She's a little bookworm after my own heart. I always loved writing research papers, which is not something I recommend bringing up a cocktail parties. You'll get a lot of weird looks, then notice people kind of edging away from you. Sometimes they try to take away your keys.
We had a minor incident when the children all filed onto the stage and sat on risers to await their turn at the microphone. Bug was in the front row. Through increasingly frantic hand-gestures, I tried to communicate to her to put her legs together while she shook her head in confusion and mouthed WHAT? and HUH? back to me. Finally, her father managed to convey the message to her, and I was able to sit back and enjoy the presentation without worrying about her flashing her undies to the audience.

Bug sailed through her turn at the mic, sharing her Interesting Facts in a loud, clear voice.
Last night was the Junior High Band and Chorus Concert.

Although Bear had been lounging around reading in the living room since dinner, my announcement that we had to leave sent her into a flurry of reed-finding, music-gathering, instrument-testing commotion, proving once more that Bear Standard Time is in no way connected to the real world. I snapped photos of her whirlwind, mostly to irritate her, while I asked casual questions like, "So I guess you couldn't have done any of this, like, twenty minutes ago? Or even ten? Hey, what about two minutes ago? No?" She pretty much ignored me.
Bug offered a few "helpful" comments of her own while Bear zipped around looking for her concert music. Bear literally growled at her, at which point Bug shut up for her own safety.
I think Bear looked pretty darn cute in her concert black-and-white, even if she had outgrown her black shoes and had to throw on gray and purple polka-dotted ones at the last minute.
She's looking so grown-up that it's literally killing me. She measured 5' 5 1/2" at her doctor's visit last week and wears a size 9 1/2 shoe. Recently it occurred to me that in about three years, she'll be starting to learn to drive. Then I hyperventilated a little tiny bit. Can you tell that she's barely tolerating me taking her picture? This smile says Can we just go already? Because, yeah, I'm the time-waster...not Mademoiselle Maybe I Should Actually Make Sure I Have All the Parts of My Instrument Two Seconds Before the Concert. She did a fantastic job playing at the concert, sitting with perfect posture and playing with complete composure. Music has really become her thing this year, and I love seeing the confidence and enthusiasm it has given her. It was worth listening to some very off-key brass players just to see her shine.
I'm so proud of both of them. And I'm so glad this school year is almost over, so we can all decompress.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Spring: Pro and Con

The twenty or so blackfly and mosquito bites currently competing for space on my right ankle. And that's just ONE ANKLE. You can imagine what my legs as a whole look like. (Hint: not pretty). Suffice it to say, there will be no public shorts or skirt wearing for awhile.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Sun, The Sand, and The Silly

Bug has always been a free-range child. As a baby she violently eschewed the standard confinements of crib, stroller, and grocery cart. There were a lot of back-arching, screaming protests in her first two years of life. And I spent a lot of time bouncing a crabby anti-highchair baby in restaurant lobbies, while the rest of the family finished their dinners. It was a party. After several attempts, we gave up trying to eat out until she was two and a half.

After three hours of driving around Cape Cod, when we pulled into a beach parking lot, it took her about .07 seconds to shed her seatbelt and shoes and make a beeline for the ocean.

This one (the calm one who was content to sit in a restaurant highchair and gum Cheerios while I ate) was not too far behind. I guess riding around in a car all morning listening to your mother coo and exclaim over precious seaside houses and charming rock gardens bursting with daffodils will do that to a kid.

They positioned themselves a quarter inch from the waterline. "See, Mom? We're not getting wet!" Bug hollered to me. I gave her the thumbs-up and waited...
Three seconds later, she did this:
I'll bet this beach is packed in the summer, but on a cool April afternoon we had it all to ourselves. Just water and open sand as far as the eye could see...lovely.
The girls struck off down the shore, examining shells and laughing with the sheer giddiness of being out of the car.
Bear challenged Bug to a race, and they were off.
Notice how Bug has hiked up her skirt to run. To keep it out of the water? Because all of that jumping into the surf certainly didn't get it wet already or anything.
The friendly foot-race turned into a wild whooping game of chase.
Which ended with Bug tackling Bear in an enormous hug. I need to look at this picture the next time they have one of those days where they bicker endlessly about how Bear is breathing too loudly or Bug keeps hogging the sofa. Right here: proof that deep down, they love each other.
I include this last photo only because I thought it looked so quintessentially Cape Coddy (seagull! water! lighthouse!), and it took me roughly sixty-eight shots to get that damn bird even close to in focus with my telephoto lens. Also, the wind was blowing like crazy, and I got sand in my hair. So, here. Enjoy. I suffered for it. And it's nowhere near as cool as I thought it would be when I was taking it.

Things I Find Hilarious In the Middle of the Night

It was warm and stuffy in our bedroom the other night. I was having trouble sleeping, when it suddenly occurred to me that it felt like Botswana in our bedroom. I have no idea what I meant (Africa is hot?), but I found it so apt and hysterically funny that I had to wake Daddy Shortbread up to tell him. He was unimpressed (there was grumbling and a huffy roll-over) and the next morning had no memory being awakened, which is why I'm still married.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day

Dear Bear and Bug,

I am so lucky to be your mom. You are the two most awesome people I've ever met, and it's been such a privilege to watch you grow and see your personalities emerge.
I've loved seeing your relationship with each other blossom from Toddler & Pesky Toy-Stealing Baby to Friends & Partner in Crime. Friends who occasionally slam doors and holler things like, "Will you please stop BUGGING me!" But that's all part of the deal with sisters. More often, I see you play elaborate imaginative games all day long, only popping into the house to ask for necessities like Popsicles, magnifying glasses, or baskets (what did you need that for anyway? never mind - I probably don't want to know).
Thanks for not judging when I make mistakes. Like flipping the piping hot monkey-bread onto a crystal platter that shattered all over the breakfast table. I love that we're able to laugh about things like that.
I'm so proud of the people you're becoming. You are kind, smart, funny, creative, interesting girls. I couldn't ask for more.
I love being your mother.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cape Cod

I think that there are places that speak to your soul. There are a handful of places I've been in my life where I have felt acutely alive and lucky to be exactly where I was at that precise moment. Some of my favorite places? Manhattan, certain parts of San Franciso, the misty rolling hills outside of Pittsburgh, the Gulf Coast of Florida, and Maine.

Then there are the places I've never been but have always felt a pull toward. I have vowed to visit each of them someday: Italy, the Cotswolds region of England, the Florida Keys, and Cape Cod.

So when our rambles through Massachusetts on Spring Break took us within half an hour of Cape Cod, there was no question. I HAD to see it. We spent the afternoon driving random zigzags across the Cape. In one little town we stopped to eat in a little pub where the clam chowder tasted like it had been made by God himself. It was awesome, and I declined to share it.Have you ever pictured a place so clearly that you almost feel like you know it? Like you've already been there? That's how Cape Cod was for me. I've read countless novels and memoirs set in Cape Cod, seen movies shot there, and gazed hungrily at Cape Cod-themed photo spreads in gardening magazines. Which, as we all know, are all completely realistic and truthful.

So I was somewhat embarrassed to find myself shocked, SHOCKED, to see real-life things like grocery stores, gas stations, and malls where I expected to find a quaint fairyland of gray clapboard homes, pristine beaches, and quirky little seaside towns. Holy crap, real people actually live there! It had embarrassingly never occurred to me.

I mentally adjusted and moved on.

We happened across this mostly deserted salt marsh estuary. We saw a nesting pair of osprey as we were crossing the sand to this cool boardwalk that extends waaay out over the water.

Bug had to walk it like a catwalk. Of course she did.
And I do mean WAAAAAY out over the water. Bug, Bear, and Daddy Shortbread are only about halfway out the boardwalk in this picture.
There were deep, clear channels of water running through the marsh grass. The girls were both captivated watching the scores of little fish swimming along the channels.
Daddy Shortbread said (in kind of a pissy tone, if I'm being perfectly truthful) that the whole place felt like a minimalist painting to him. If by minimalist, you mean a landscape stripped completely down to sea and sky, then yeah. But to me, that's what makes it so serene and peaceful (once you get away from the gas stations and malls). I could lean on the railing and stare at the water for hours. Preferably with a nice iced coffee in my hand.
The girls felt the same way I did. There's something special about the first time you see the ocean after a long winter. They hung over the railing and took deep lungfuls of the salt air.
On our way back to the van, the girls had to stop to "wash" their feet in a little cove. Because, supposedly they were filthy? You know, from the messy, messy wooden boardwalk? With all that water, I half wanted to wade, too (if it hadn't been 60 degrees that day), so I let them have at it. It doesn't hurt to occasionally let your kids think they're getting away with something. Even if they're totally not.
I pointed out to Daddy Shortbread several lovely, water's edge vacation homes that would have made the perfect Mother's Day gift for me. He stingily refused to buy them for me even when I played the Labor and Delivery card. Next time I plan to try the Remember When You Snapped Bear's Neck In a Bib and Felt Really Bad? card. He still cringes when I bring that one up, so it might have more negotiating weight.
What are your favorite places?