Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Home Improvements


The metal railings that surrounded the front porch on the house, and bordered the stairs going to our front door, had rusted through pretty darn well. The stair railings, in particular, were wobbly enough to be dangerous. The railings on the border of the patio actually WERE dangerous, and we worked hard on not letting the kids lean on them, even accidentally. So, something had to be done.

We had already signed contracts to get the retaining walls redone for next spring. We have a lot of retaining wall: both sides of the entire length of the driveway, and bordering the back yard. We also have a wooden retaining wall up in the garden which is going to need attention sooner than later, but that is a discussion for another day. We needed something that was going to hold up, if you excuse the pun, at least until we sell the house in thirty years or so, when we're too old to do the steps.

Pittsburgh is one of the towns that, being comprised mostly of steep hills, has a large chunk of its architecture built directly into the side of hills. Our house is three quarters built into the hillside, which means that everything is vertical. The nice part about that is that the basement is also cool and insulated. Th bad part is, everything requires steps and everything below ground level is damp and needs a dehumidifier running always.

So, lots of retaining walls, lots of moisture, lots of stairs, and therefore, new railings. Since the railings guys get things done faster - and we less weather dependent than the wall guys - they got done. Of course, it was a week and a half after we did the Christmas lights outside, but what are you going to do?

Spring: new walls. Also, a new set of grass in the backyard, judging from the mud pit after the boys have discovered football.



Little Bear went with me tonight to pick up clearance Christmas lights for next year's display. This year's highlights: Yoda in a Santa outfit, and Spider Man sitting on a chimney. He was great to talk with and to walk with - just an engaging fellow. Very patient when we had to wait for fifteen minutes for the people at the register who were trying to buy $100 of items with a $60 gift card.


Tomorrow night is our New Year's party. Should be fun. I'm looking forward to hanging out with our friends. My quarter is at three separate gatherings, which is a bit disappointing; I miss my friends. Cie la vie. I'm singing Thursday night, and I'm off on Friday, so all is not lost.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Our New Metal Family Member

In November, when it was time to get the oil changed again in the minivan, it wound up running up to an $884 tab. The oil change turned into brakes and other stuff. The van, which was a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country, had served us faithfully for a few years. I picked it up in August 2009, soon after Little Bear was born. I bought it to replace the lemon of a Ford Taurus that I was driving around.

The first time I drove the car out was to a Westfield marching band rehearsal - which was one week before the idiot who was directing the band would "fire" me from the marching band for questioning his teaching methods. Because, after all, what the hell did I know? I had only taught for ten years and brought three marching bands to double-digit point increases, whereas he had been out of college for about six weeks. But, I digress. Bottom line is, we got five good years out of that car.

In recent months, it had been starting to accelerate its demise: we had been dumping around $400 into it monthly at the shop (when averaged out). The brake light started coming on regularly about two weeks after that, and when we were told that it would be a $1,200 cost to fix.....

One of the benefits of having a good friend who is a car salesman is that the whole process gets streamlined. He's going to hunt out the bargains, help with the trade-in, and push everything through quickly. We went from taking the car into the shop Friday morning to a new vehicle on Saturday afternoon with no headaches. Would have been done by lunchtime on Friday except for that whole "work" thing for me.

So, our new family member: a 2011 Kia Sedlna, which is a minivan that's about 125% the size of our previous one. It's got lots of cool bells and whistles: DVD player, automatic doors, aux port for iPhones, that sort of thing. The kids like it a lot, even if we haven't gone anywhere far enough to watch a movie.

We like it okay. Gets around the same gas mileage as the T&C. Have to get another key made, which is a bit of a pain in the butt, and turns out that a recall happened on the same day we bought it. So, that was annoying. Out of our control, though.

More fights about who sits in the front and the back for The Boy and Little Bear. Shrug. Gives them something to talk about.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy Channukah!

The first night of Channukah was a Tuesday night, which was a normal chorus rehearsal night. The previous week was a singing performance at a nursing home - holiday stuff - followed by our holiday party, which was a nice $500 swing for me. A deer ran smack into the side of my car, taking with it my rear view mirror and a bunch of dente panels. The frustrating thing? Never saw it, and I was traveling about 20 mph at the time, having just turned onto the road from the driveway of the nursing home. Considering I'm driving a 2006 Pontiac Vibe, I had no actual acceleration power, so the darn thing just crashed into me and ran off.

The first night of Hannukah was a nice night with grandma and grandpa, and the kids got nice pajamas and some toys. They had a nice dinner and spent nice time together, which is the most important bit. In the Jewish calendar, Hannukah is not a particularly important holiday - putting it into perspective, it's somewhere between All Saints Day and Maundy Thursday in importance. However, because Christmas is such a big deal, Hannukah now becomes a big deal in response. Consumerism is very, very American.

We did not have a tree this year. The excuse that I've used is that I didn't want to continually play goalie to The Baby during the month of December. In reality, the tree is stuck in the attic, and my health (having been crappy at best for the last month) wasn't really up to unscrewing the ceiling and taking it down. Plus, there's the whole thing about my wife making a living as a cantorial soloist in our temple, and while I enjoy my Christmas celebration, we haven't quite reconciled the two.

I know that The Boy had some difficulties this year - something that deserves some exploration in a related post, not a news dump. Christmas is a fun holiday, and it's hard for a little kid in his situation not to be a little resentful that we don't do more Christmas stuff. I mean, it's all over town, all over school, all over television.... even Netflix has a section specifically devoted to Christmas specials.

However, we did put up lights outside the house. This was made somewhat more challenging by the fact that the outside railings and pillars in front of the house were replaced at the beginning of the month, so we redid some of th sections of lights, only to have a couple strings burn out in the middle. Cie la vie. The lights are fun, and I enjoy them.

Hannukah came and went, and we did the candles every night and sang the prayers. We went to The Wife's services on Friday night in the middle, and then we went to a congregation Hannukah dinner, which was nice. Not so much a small child event - the boys were kind of out of place - but at least I got to show off the spiffy t-shirt that my mother in law bought for me. It's fairly epic.

Christmas week, I finally got to give The Wife her present. This year, I really tried to surprise her with something she wouldn't expect. They had a photographer from the Tribune at the Rosh Hoshanah services, and they took a beautiful picture of her and the rabbi on the bima. I figured that I would buy a nice print of that picture, frame it, and give it. She wouldn't expect that - not normally something I do - and I'd be good. So, the picture arrives at the house in the mail a week later, and she opens the picture to see what it was. Now, this lady has not opened a piece of mail since we got married.... and that was the first piece. Sigh. So much for that surprise.

So, I go stealth mode again. Groupon had tickets to see the pianist Jim Brickman, who The Wife has loved since high school. I picked up a couple of tickets and recruited a number of people: since I didn't have chorus rehearsal, I got my chorus to add a special "social night" that she was going to attend. We would meet at my office and I'd surprise her with the plans change. I recruited my mother in law to watch the kids that night so that we'd have a show date for the first time in forever.

So, The Wife takes a singing job for Tuesday night.

At least, she had planned a singing engagement until I broke stealth and told her what the present was. Surprise, crushed; but the brownie points still won out. We had a nice dinner at a place called Olive R Twist. The show was great - solo piano, with some singing. I would categorize it as easy listening / new age / smooth jazz sort of music. It's nice. Check him out on YouTube - it's worth it. Not necessarily my first choice in music, but it's a nice way to spend an evening.

Christmas Eve, I let the boys open up their last presents: a set of Roald Dahl books for all of them, a sticker book for The Boy, a hat and toy for The Baby, and a baseball book for Little Bear. The Wife gave me the first of three presents: beautiful meals cooked from scratch, served on our china, with the whole family. That night, we had beef meatloaf, sweet potatoes, and rice pudding. For breakfast, we had pancakes (gluten free) and eggs. For lunch, we had turkey, mashed potatoes, and more rice pudding, with fresh cranberry sauce. They were beautifully cooked and greatly appreciated.

I also picked up a football for the boys - found it on sale for $5, which I couldn't resist. Since it was 60 degrees for a couple of days last week, we played football in the backyard, street, and playground. Modified rules: didn't have to catch the ball, whomever grabbed it first either counted as a complete pass or incomplete pass; four downs and the other guy got the ball; and two handed touch. Mostly, the games were Little Bear vs The Boy, with me as quarterback for both. A few times. the Baby and I took on the other two, which was about even of a match. They're little, and the football is too big.

This weekend, we lazed about the house and did a little straightening and cleaning. We're having a small gathering on New Year's Eve again.

Also not mentioned: the Pittsburgh Chai Lifeline party; our new car; my scope test follow up from november's issues.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

New Jersey Travel

So, the trip this weekend was a rousing success. All were on good behavior and treated each other with gentleness and kindness throughout the whole weekend. The kids were good, too. It was an immensely positive weekend for everybody, and the boys really outdid themselves all weekend with good behavior and excitement.

Honestly, it was what I expected: there was no impetus for them to misbehave at any point in the weekend. The weekend's activities were set up to be interesting and exciting: we don't do a Christmas tree at home, so it's exciting for them to decorate one. They were seeing relatives that they don't get to see often, and we were visiting with friends that we see rarely. Still, they are little boys, and I was by myself as a parent for 72 hours.

On Thursday, we loaded the car and left right after work, around 4:30. We stopped at the first rest stop because of little bladders, then stopped at the second rest stop to eat. We stopped at the third rest stop because of little bladders. So, this is 3 rest stops before 6:30. The Baby fell asleep about fifteen minutes after the third rest stop, and the other two fell asleep about an hour later. The Boy briefly woke when I stopped for gas in Harrisburg, but they slept until we arrived at Grandpa's house at about 11PM. 350 miles in six and a half hours is really, really good time - no weather or traffic related stops.

Friday morning, we had a nice breakfast at a bagel shop, where I introduced my oldest boy to the fact that bagels in New Jersey are the best in the world. The kids played in the yard for a couple of hours (including whacking each other with sticks, which explains the scratch on Little Bear's forehead, I discover after the fact), then we went to the Christmas Ice Caverns. That's a beautiful animatronic Christmas display, and the boys went through a couple of times to see all the stuff. Friday afternoon, we watched a little of television, played more, and had a pizza dinner with my brother's family. We all slept well that night.

Saturday morning, we had an easy breakfast and played around the house until it was time to see Uncle B. We had second breakfast with him, then he came back to hang out for a little while. It's awesome to see him, and the kids get along well with him. After he left, I went to pick up my Aunt F while the boys played with my father and niece, and I got back to find a nice, full house. We had a wonderful (early) Christmas dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes and vegetables and a couple of different pies and cookies and brownies. While the rest of the family was cleaning the dishes, the boys and I stayed out of the way, and The Baby fell asleep.

He stayed asleep on my lap until after the presents were done and the house was emptied. The older boys did a great job of keeping control during presents time; The Boy even helped me distribute them! That's always been my job, but he might take over. We'll see what Hannukah brings. The boys got a nice haul: fire trucks (which was a HUGE hit for The Baby, as he has been carrying his truck around with him since Saturday night), some stuffed things, some Spot It games, some stuff from me & The Wife (including a blu ray set of all the Christopher Reeves Superman movies for Little Bear, which is a highlight for me)., and some assorted sundries which - as usual - wound up being favorites, particularly little light-up rings that project colored lights. They played with those until they broke.

Eventually, the boys went back to bed, and I packed to get ready to go. The next morning, Grandpa, my brother & his family, and we had breakfast at the pancake house, then we left for Scotch Plains. We had lunch and played with D&L and their boys, an almost-4 and a newborn. It was pretty darn awesome, although kind of ironic: their new house is about 200 yards, as the bird flies, from our old house in Scotch Plains. We did stop at the comic book store, which was a highlight.

The trip home was as easy as the trip out: already being in Scotch Plains cut 30 miles from the trip. We had a potty break in western Jersey, then a stop at the Dunkin Donuts near the Cabela's along 78 (exit 29). The Baby slept for the hour before Harrisburg, and we stopped there. I was nodding at the wheel, so I gave the three boys iPhone, iPad, and old iPhone, and I closed my eyes for a fifteen minute catnap. Then, we had a snack and potty break in the Harrisburg JCC, then played in their playground for a half hour or so. All three boys fell asleep about a half hour out of Harrisburg and slept until we got home.

Things that need further discussion: Christmas & Christmas trees in a mixed faith household when one spouse makes their primary living in worship; how much better pizza and bagels are in northern New Jersey; and the benefits of planning travel time around little boys' nap times.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Packing List

Boys Clothes:

Underwear & socks, two per day per older boy, four per day for the younger boy.
Pants, shirts: two per day per boy, extra pair of pants for the youngest, reasonably nice outfit for "Christmas" dinner on Saturday.
Comfortable walking shoes.
Sweatshirt,jacket, hat, gloves for playing outside (as little boys like to do).
No stroller - The Baby is a bit too big, I think - but I'll pack the back carrier just in case I need it.

Kids' backpacks:

Coloring book and crayons
Two or three reading books
Action figure or two (or a handful of Sesame Street friends for The Baby)
Random toy or costume
Activity books for the older kids - mazes, dot-to-dots, word searches, that sort of thing

Grown-up stuff:

Box of presents & extra activity books for the trip home
iPad, old iPhone, new iPhone, power cords x 3
Maybe bring an Apple TV or a connector to the regular TV?
The Boy's medicine, children's Tylenol (just in case), band aids, antibiotic cream for cuts and scrapes


Box of cereal and almond milk (too complicated to convey what we eat to people who don't know)
Bars - granola, cereal, et al, both for the trip and for snacking
Fruit for the trip out (figuring my father will load us for the trip back)
Dinner Thursday night - likely turkey wraps, cucumbers, carrots, maybe some yogurts

So, we're leaving tomorrow after school, right around 4. I figure we'll stop for dinner around 6 - or when two kids wake up if they all fall asleep quickly - for a half hour or so, to let them stretch out a move a bit. Probably a stop near Harrisburg after that, then the next stop at the Dunkin Donuts near the Cabela's along route 78, then two more hours to my father's house.

Friday, we're "scheduled" for breakfast at a bagel place near home, then home to decorate his Christmas tree. Lunch at CostCo, then hang out for the rest of the day. Saturday, we're seeing Uncle B in the morning, then dinner with my father and brother's family for presents. Sunday, I'm seeing my friend D in the morning, then leaving right from his place in Scotch Plains / Fanwood. I figure we'll stop in Harrisburg in the mid-afternoon, then home around 7 or 8 or so. I'm not working on Monday - going to work around the house instead - but the kids do have school.

If anyone else in the northern New Jersey area is around and would like to see the kids, text me. Friday night is looking pretty good, although we might nip over to the Turtleback Zoo to see the light display.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Discipline & Setting Expectations

So, Sunday night, The Wife and I had a very long, deep discussion about The Boy. The topic of the conversation is probably best summed up by our parenting philosophy: "How can we manage his day-to-day life to put him in the best situation to succeed?" This general, overall philosophy is how we manage crowd control and discipline with the boys: if we are doing our jobs correctly as the grown-up, then we should be able to put our kids in situations that reward them for making good choices, as opposed to punishing the bad choices. Fear of failure and consequences is not the greatest motivator, particularly for someone who inherited awesome stubbornness from both of his parents.

He's been very difficult for The Wife to handle lately. Nothing so awful like physical altercations or abusive situations or things like that: just mouthing off, resisting requests, selective hearing. Typical kid stuff, but not especially usual for our family situation. He's taken off and sprinted away from us a couple of times: once in the JCC (he turned left and ran towards the car instead of joining us turning right and heading for the Eat 'n' Park for lunch) and once from me in K-Mart (where I didn't find him for about 10 minutes, when he finally found me).

So, how do we set expectations for him, to prevent these things from happening? I made the point that neither one of us had specifically stated that he needed to stay close to us. While he is 7 and should be able to follow us without immediate prompting, he's also not a mature 7. We kept him back and started kindergarten a year late for a reason, after all. The Boy is heavily script-based, and if he goes off-script, all heck can break loose. We generally don't have to tell Little Bear (at 5) to stick close to us, but in thinking about it, I frequently call for his hand whenever we leave a general area. I don't WANT to have to continually remind him of something that simple on a repeated basis, but I need to parent the kid I have rather than the ideal kid I imagine.

(Freudian slip - I first typed "I don't WANT to have to continually remind me of something." That's probably more meaningful that one would think.)

Here's what was really nice about the conversation: we were able to have a nice, rational discussion in which we did not necessarily agree with each other's points. However, because our general philosophy was the same, we were able to negotiate a compromise in terms of a plan that might actually work. After all, if one of us had the definitive plan, then that person wouldn't be having issues.

I'm not complaining about The Boy's behavior, believe me. He's a fairly easy kid, all things considered. He's specific and direct, and he likes things set up according to plan. He gets off-track if the plan gets off-track, but that's part of growing up. G-d knows that it took me until my mid-thirties to develop the ability to bounce back quickly. In school, he's an ideal student for his grade level - his personality perfectly matches the expectations of his teachers. So, we don't have much to complain about - however, it's important to keep abreast of things before them become real issues.

This weekend, when I have the kids by myself at my father's house, is going to be a big test. They're going to be around adults with which they're not normally around, and in a permissive environment. There's no REASON to misbehave because everybody around them wants to give them EVERYthing. We'll see what happens.


I do wonder how much other parents talk about their kids - whether they have regular "steer the ship" discussions (like we try to), or whether they wait until there's an issue and try to diagnose and fix things. I'm fairly certain that my parents were of the latter opinion - which worked fine for three of the four of us, mostly because our issues didn't affect schoolwork much.

I think the philosophy of "put your kids in the best situation to make good choices" philosophy is not new. Parents have done that for thousands and thousands of years. I haven't READ that much about it that wasn't written recently, so I'm thinking that stating the philosophy is something relatively new. I hope it's something that catches on. I kind of like disciplining my children without beating them or making them afraid of me.

Monday, December 1, 2014


Thanksgiving Weekend was, fortunately, considerably less interesting than the preceding week or so.

Tuesday night, at chorus rehearsal, the ladies decided to have a shortened evening and send everybody home around 8:30 or so, which was greatly appreciated. Amazing how 48 hours over 3 days in the hospital - combined with, basically, not eating for 5-6 days - can knock you flat on your back. My asthma cough started up that night, adding steroids to the maintenance cocktail that I'm already taking. My body basically decided to add that, because f*** you, that's why.

For the record, I'm very happy that November is over, so we can turn the page and move on.

Thursday, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws' house. We had two other families - and another guest or two - come for the meal, which was wonderful. Little Bear loves one of the little girls that came - I mean, actually, seriously, full-body head-over-heels in love with her. I'm cool with that, as the little girl in question is a really cool chick - the sort of person that I like to befriend. I also got a nice baby fix, alternating between holding her younger sisters (twins, 6-8-ish months old) for the meal.

I forgot how quickly babies' hands move when there are sweet potatoes to squish and splatter.

Their parents offered numerous times to take her - but it isn't as if 1) I get to hold little, tiny, squishy babies often enough, and 2) I've eaten more meals with one hand than I'd consider, and that includes with my older boys. Besides, it isn't likely that I'm going to make another little baby any time soon, so - unless my sisters-in-law get started - I don't know when I'm going to get to play with babies.

Dinner went off without issue, the only blemishes on the day was forgetting the green beans and a misunderstanding involving a 3-year old and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In other words, we were good. It was a real, honest pleasure to share the holidays with our friends and family like that. The kids were on their best behavior, and the grownups were fairly decent, as well.


I worked on Friday and Saturday. Grandma and Grandpa took the boys for most of the day on Friday, going to see the latest kids' movie. That let me have lunch with my wife on Friday, which was the first meal that she and I shared (by ourselves) in a month or so. That was a really, really nice treat. Friday night, we watched the latest episode of The Flash, which is the show that the boys and I watch together. It was the best episode since the pilot, with real suspense, real consequences, and some wonderful character development: I think all of us hid our eyes at some point during the show, which was cool. I'm glad to share that experience with my kids.

Friday night, the boys and I had a nice Shabbat dinner while The Wife was singing, and events lead us to this picture in the middle of the blessing of the wine & bread:

I'm not really sure what happened before, but I will note that our "wine" for the night - the only juice we had in the house - was prune juice, and they were each fighting to get more. No, I do not know why The Boy lost his shirt. The Baby was preparing to say the bread blessing.

We went shopping to Home Depot and the comic book store for Black Friday and came home with new garbage cans. I took advantage of clean, new cans to take Oscar the Grouch pictures. If I was motivated, I would photoshop the kids to have green faces, but I'm



Saturday was a beautiful day, and we spent a couple of hours at the Blue Slide Park. I did my best to chase around things 2 & 3, while The Wife and The Boy went for a nice, long walk along the dog trail in the park. We found a friend at the park - which was neat, because Little Bear told me (in no uncertain terms): "One of my friends is GOING to be at the park today, Daddy." We hadn't made plans, so luck favored us.

Saturday night, we watched the movie "Robots," starring Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor, among others. It's a wonderfully unappreciated, silly adventure story. The boys enjoyed it.


Sunday was another wonderful day, and we spent much of it putting up the Christmas lights outside of the house. The boys did a fairly decent job helping out - helping me straighten strings of lights and put them where they were supposed to go. One notable exception was The Boy and Little Bear playing skip rope with a new string of icicle lights (which promptly broke); that was annoying. Other than that, they helped me set up the inflatable guys, pound in the support stakes, and wrap the lights around the railings.

I love doing outside lights. My only disappointment is that my part of the block gets absolutely no traffic, so noone will actually see what I've done, but that's okay.

We took a break in the middle of decorating to go to the JCC to run around for a little while, then we came home and finished. The boys spent some time at Grandma's house in the afternoon while I rested, then we had a nice, leisurely end-of-afternoon and evening dinner and play session around the house.

We're dealing with some attitude issues with The Boy, but this post has gone long enough. I need to think about how to post about those.